Epistemic Status: Extensive ‘research.’ About card games more than general principles. Those here for the rationality likely want to skip this.
As previously noted, the game Eternal (that is my referral link), created by Magic professionals including lead designer Patrick Chapin, is modern Magic: The Gathering, with some simplifications and tweaks, on a phone, with a Hearthstone interface and economy.
Having played Eternal for several months, I feel qualified to offer a full review. After a brief overview of the game’s rules, I’ll cover Eternal’s limited and constructed formats, its economy, its grind and its special events.
This review assumes basic familiarity with Magic: The Gathering.
The following are all the rules changes between Magic and Eternal.
1. Lots of things have new names, and some are slightly tweaked.
Basic lands, lands and mana are now sigils, power and power. Artifacts and enchantments both are now relics. Creatures are units. Auras you play on your own guys are weapons, auras you play on their guys are curses.
Magic has five colors: White, Blue, Black, Red and Green. Eternal has five ‘factions’ that map to them: Time, Primal, Shadow, Fire and Justice. A few abilities are swapped between Time and Justice, but otherwise the colors mean the same things they do in Magic.
Tapped is now exhausted, and cards are darkened out rather than turned sideways.
Trample becomes overwhelm. Flash becomes ambush and can redirect attacks from personal weapons. Deathtouch becomes deadly. First strike is now quickdraw and only works when attacking. I’m probably missing a few others.
Hexproof is now aegis. Aegis only works once, countering the first effect that targets or effects a creature. The big upgrade is that ageis can prevent destroy effects and non-combat damage, so it’s a shield against everything but combat/fight damage, and effectively forces you to kill the creature twice.
Drawing a card includes drawing from the graveyard (now called the void), and discarding includes milling effects.
2. Mana requirements are now threshold effects
What has changed is that instead of spending colored mana, one has influence with the factions. If I have two fire influence, I can cast as many fire spells as I like that require only one or two fire influence, rather than needing red mana for each one. This is a huge time saver and lets players focus on more interesting problems. It also lets cards be created that care about your influence, without forcing you to spend mana on them.
This greatly speeds up games. In Eternal, either you either have the color/influence you need or you don’t, it’s easy to tell the difference and you don’t have to think about which lands you’ve tapped, or study which lands your opponent tapped. There are no lands that cost you life to use, or trade-offs between mana count and access to color. Lands don’t have additional abilities, and lands can’t be destroyed.
It is a relief not to worry about such things, and it helps fit the game onto a phone, but it does make the game less rich in interesting choices. Magic’s best feature is that everything could be up for grabs, and you can never be sure which things will matter. Eternal takes that uncertainty and that vector of action away. In Magic, color problems are common. Some decks have very good color, but many don’t, because they’re balancing various needs and dangers. In Eternal such issues are much simpler, and don’t create new interesting situations. The duallands available in Eternal are quite good, so playing two colors is almost free and playing three mostly just costs you a few tapped lands.
Was this a worthwhile change? Absolutely, yes. The fun per hour quotient for most people is higher this way, as the impact on game speed is huge. It would be hard to make a new game and justify forcing people to manage their mana the way Magic does. Still, it makes me sad, and I don’t think Magic should look into switching. I was watching some Magic matches while writing this, and players managing their lands and mana was a huge portion of the fun that was happening. It’s interesting the extent to which making mana ‘easy’ makes Eternal a unique game.
It also allows for cool cards like Sand Warrior (costs 0 for a 3/3, but requires three white mana).
3. Planeswalkers are out, Relic Weapons are in
Relic weapons are a variation on Hearthstone’s weapons. When you play them, you gain armor, which as in Hearthstone are hit points that take damage before your life total does. Your avatar can now attack once during your turn, separately from your creatures attacking. If they have creatures you must hit one of them, if not you can attack the opponent. If you lose your armor or relic weapon, you also lose the other.
Relic weapons are a reasonable mechanic. I like them, but I don’t think they are worth the complexity cost.
4. The term attack is general, rather than specific
If you have the ability killer, which lets your creature ‘attack’ another creature, this counts as an attack.
5. Spells that lose their targets don’t fizzle
This is super infuriating the first time it happens, and still feels wrong, but isn’t a big deal.
6. You only get a few openings to cast instants
This avoids the Magic Online problem where one has to set ‘stops’ in the phases where you want a chance to do things, since Magic gives you eleventy billion opportunities each turn all of which will sometimes be useful. This forces you to then choose between missing chances and clicking the ‘OK’ button multiple times every turn. Eternal fixes this issue by giving you only a three chances other than your own main phase – responding to a spell, during the attack and end of opponents’ turn.
The exception to that are counterspells. If you have a counter, you can use it any time a spell is being cast.
I think the entire stack resolves at once fifth edition style once both players pass, but I’m not sure cause it never comes up. Eternal doesn’t currently generate detailed responses to responses and counter wars. It certainly could do so, with a different set of cards.
You can’t do things in response to the opponent playing a unit, or putting a weapon on a unit, or when the opponent moves to their attack step. This makes fragile things better, since they can’t be disrupted, which is great. It also encourages players to do things on their own turns rather than instinctively doing everything at the last minute, which is probably for the best. Unfortunately, it also resolves a bunch of interesting tension and opportunities for creative play.
It also makes it even more annoying when you have a Torch (e.g. Lightning Bolt, e.g. spell you could cast whenever) and suddenly the game is pausing every time anyone sneezes. Would you like to bolt something now? How about now? Can we pause the game to remind the opponent that we have a torch, in case he’s forgotten? It would be nice to have an option or button to say ‘use common sense to not ask me every damn time about this.’
I am more sad about this change than the others, but I grudgingly see the need for it. Ideally we could do a less draconian version.
7. Cards remember
In Magic, cards that leave play forget everything that happened to them. In Eternal, if you make a card bigger permanently, it remembers. If you reduce its casting cost, it remembers. If you give it extra abilities, it remembers. If you bring the card back from the graveyard (they call it ‘the void’) it will retain those changes.
This is very cool. It allows you to construct monstrosities, and encourages decks to have ways to make choices on which of their cards to get back, protect or duplicate.
It also allows for cool mechanics that modify cards in your deck. Central to the game is warcry. Warcry gives +1/+1 to the top creature or weapon in your deck, resulting in unexpected things happening on the battlefield. The main deck I’ve been playing plays tons of warcry, then uses other cards to reuse the best creatures this produces.
Another cool idea is revenge and destiny. If you draw a creature with destiny, you play it right away and draw another card. If a creature with revenge dies, it loses revenge, gains destiny and gets shuffled into your top 10 cards, so it will come back soon, and remember everything.
Cards remembering is amazingly great. It opens up lots of cool space, and rewards people for doing fun things instead of punishing them. It’s one of the big advantages of playing a digital card game that can track everything.
8. Players start at 25 life instead of 20
This matters less often than you would think, as most games the winning player doesn’t go to five or less life. It makes aggression harder to pull off, especially the classic attacking for two, which some things now beat.
9. Mulligan once, to seven cards with two to four lands/power. Your deck must be between one third and two thirds power.
This is pretty great, since it vastly reduces the number of games where one player doesn’t get to play. There are also interesting implications for deck design. Many decks play fewer lands than you could in Magic, since they have an insurance policy. The other effect is that cards that give you more mana without being lands raise your effective mana count by a lot. Seek Power is a 1-cost colorless spell that searches your library for a basic land (a sigil). If you draw one, it counts towards the non-land part of your hand, not the land part, so it makes being stuck on two power much less likely, while making five or six power hands possible.
These differences add up, but it’s still essentially base-level Magic. Declaring attackers and blockers follows Magic rules (except that defender assigns damage rather than ordering blockers, because ordering is dumb and would slow games down) and damage heals at end of turn, which are necessary to retaining what makes Magic special.,
Eternal is at its best when it uses its digital nature and rules changes to do things Magic can’t do. This is as one would expect. Magic has had 25 years to mine its design space. There’s only so much low hanging fruit, and most of it has been picked. The fruit is more plentiful in the new design space opened up by being a digital-only game and by the other rules changes. If a card in Eternal could be printed in Magic, it’s probably fine but not interesting. If it couldn’t be in Magic, it’s likely to feel fresh and new.
The best new mechanic that could exist in Magic is bond. Bond allows you to exhaust a unit you control to reduce the cost of another unit that shares a unit type with it (e.g. dinosaur or yeti) by the exhausted units’ power. This is a neat tribal payoff, and when combined with power boosting effects can allow large chains of creatures to hit the table all at once. That’s something I’ve had a lot of fun with, and it also plays well in limited. They also use the ally mechanic, where if you control a different unit of the right creature type, a card gains a permanent bonus. This too plays well.
Tribal is the loudest theme, with your options including grendalins (mechanical goblins, basically), yeti, oni, valkyrie, dinosaurs, gunslingers, paladins and unseen.
As in other games, as cards get more rare they get a combination of higher impact and more complex. Many of the basic staple cards are common and uncommon, and I’ve had more of an issue of not having rares than not having legendary cards, since I hate creating rares I’m destined to open later anyway. That is about the game I happen to be playing, though, rather than the general structure. Both of the decks I’ve played extensively with on the ladder have a key legendary you mostly have to have (Enduring Sentinel and Vicious Highwayman), but are otherwise quite affordable and wouldn’t obviously benefit from additional other legendary cards.
That brings us to the economy.
Economy: Card Creation
As mentioned earlier, Eternal has no trading. Instead, you break down cards you have extras of or simply don’t want to get shiftstone, and then use shiftstone to make the cards you want most, like how dust works in Hearthstone. It’s a proven system, with known advantages and disadvantages. I’ll quote from what I said before, which has only been reinforced by more experience:
Compare this to the Hearthstone model. If you want a card, you’ll need to create it. That’s not something players can do often unless they’re spending a lot of money. Dust supplies are highly limited! So when using dust, players aim to create the most powerful and versatile ‘good stuff’ cards they can, or the cards for tested tournament-level strategies. Now the best of the rarest cards are seen everywhere, and the other legendary cards are effectively even more expensive, and mostly unavailable. Creativity and variety are discouraged.
Even worse is the fear of wasting what little dust you have. If you create a card and later open it in a pack, and now have more copies than you can play, you’ve wasted most of that dust. That’s a huge feel-bad moment when you open the card you’ve created, replacing what would have been a feel-great moment when you get the exact card you want, and a fear every time you bust open a pack. Thus the temptation to hoard resources and not spend them, or feel bad about using them, even when you know what you want.
While building your collection, you’re gaining the ability to play, but you’re not building something of value. In theory, I could sell my account, but few will do that, it’s tied to other things, and I doubt it would fetch much cash anyway. When one is done with Hearthstone or Eternal, the cards sit around unused and unloved, forever, and no value is regained. Early adapters don’t get rewarded much.
Eternal has good deck variety, and I think it would be much stronger still if it had a trading economy, and weird rare and legendary cards were cheaper than the more popular cards rather than more expensive.
Eternal also offers adventures, which is the best way to spend your resources by far. There are three available, and they all give you four copies each of a lot of very useful cards. I recommend saving all your gold (non-premium currency) for this purpose until you’ve bought all three of them.
As it stands, if you want one budget deck that can take you to master level (similar to Hearthstone’s legend), you can get a reasonable build with a month or so of play without needing to destroy the rest of your collection to do it.
The punishment comes when you want the full four copies of legendary cards. With 75 card decks, it’s a bummer to spend so much on each copy. It feels like a huge commitment, locking you into your plan, yet one without that much payoff. I would have liked to see smaller decks with a 3-copy limit, so that opening the perfect card, or creating a new card, would be more impactful.
Economy: Free Play
Each day, you get a new quest and a first win bonus. The quests offer light encouragement to explore various colors/factions and game modes, but mostly complete themselves if you’re playing. The first win forces you to play a little constructed each day against humans. The quests typically give two silver chests which each give an uncommon and 250 gold.
You have several options to grind out more gold and packs.
The first option is to play constructed. If you play ranked games, every three wins gets you two bronze chests and one silver chest, which means about 350 gold, with a 10% chance of an upgrade and a pack. If you play unranked you only get four bronze chests worth 200 gold, so unranked should be reserved for trying out new ideas, and often the wait to get a game is long.
A second option is to play the Gauntlet. You’ll face a variety of AI opponents, and your prize will be based on the number of wins you get before you lose once. If you win all seven games you win three silver chests for 750 gold. In addition, if the Gauntlet isn’t at Master level yet, you get a bonus (around two packs) and the Gauntlet levels up. If you lose a game, prizes are much less generous. You get 50 gold for two wins, 150 gold for five wins, and 350 gold for six wins.
Gauntlet is an amazing advancement. The AI is fine. It predictably falls for the same tricks in the same places, always assumes you have nothing and never bluffs. It’s like playing a series of (occasionally unfair) puzzles. But it’s miles ahead of what I’ve seen in Magic or other released games. Beating it mostly means playing real decks in real ways.
One could even say it’s too good, because the payoff for Gauntlet is higher than the payoff for constructed.
For that to be true, you have to run the whole gauntlet a large percentage of the time, but that is eminently doable with a deck of good stuff and a sense of how the AI ticks. At that point, you’re playing games several times faster, since the AI never stops to think, you can think a lot less and games always start right away. And you’ll always lose almost half your constructed games, since you’ll rise to the level where that happens. So the hourly rate on gauntlet is much higher than that for constructed.
Players will end up doing whatever has the highest payout, even when it isn’t the most fun. So there’s the danger that the existence of gauntlet, while wonderful, will trick players into doing gauntlet runs instead of interacting with humans. Metaphor for the internet and all that.
All of that gives you gold. What to do with it once you’ve unlocked all the adventures?
Draft, of course!
There are periodic events to soak up your remaining gold. I’ve played in two of those, both of which were both more fun and more profit than joining regular drafts. But that only goes so far. At some point it’s time to draft the booster.
Drafting feels like the big game. It’s judgment day. You’ve saved your pennies for a chance to compete in the arena (two out of three games use that term!) and now are the games that count. Wins and losses matter. Win and you get to keep drafting and opening packs. Lose and it’s back to the constructed grind.
You keep the cards you draft, plus the 100 shiftstone bonus from opening the packs, so drafting is vastly more efficient than opening packs. The problem is that to turn a profit in gold terms, you’ll need to go 7-2, and you don’t (unlike Hearthstone Arena) get a chance to win more after that, so you never earn more than a minor gold profit.
Seven wins is pretty great. You net 1000 gold, get 400 shiftstone and 3 packs and also keep your deck. But that won’t keep you in drafts unless you can do that the majority of the time. That might be possible, but it seems damn hard.
Eternal draft’s biggest themes are multi-color and tribal. That means that many of the best cards are hard to use, and those are exactly the ones most available. The packs are also both top-heavy and shallow; the best cards are very good, plus you need to play 27 of your 48 picks, and there aren’t that many more playable cards running around than that. So positioning, and taking advantage of tribes and color combinations that are open, or simply making good use of whatever is available, is the key to success. Trying to keep to the straight and narrow despite lousy cards won’t work. You’ll need to speculate and improvise, often playing three colors.
Color balance leaves much to be desired. Dire Wolf has been tinkering with some cards to restore that balance, but for now blue and white are very weak. I can’t win with them, and I don’t lose to them often either. You still need to go where the great cards are, and splashing either color is totally fine, but being based in either has meant disaster.
When Eternal drafts go off the rails, they go far off the rails. Your tribal cards, they do nothing, your picks gone like sand. You’re left without much power, making it very hard to win games. It also seems like matching doesn’t hold out for opponents with similar records all that hard. I have a decent number of seven win drafts, a bunch of zero to three win drafts, and less in between than you would think.
It’s a fun draft format. I’d draft more if I could, but with so much gold hijacked by adventures and events, the gold is lacking. You also have the option to play something called The Forge, which gives you a Hearthstone Arena-style draft which you play against AI opponents. It’s fun, but once you ‘level up’ the Forge to master level it gets pretty hard, so it’s effectively expensive to play it. Better to draft against humans once you’ve used Forge to get a handle on what limited play is like.
Which leaves us with… the constructed grind.
It is crazy the grinding people will do to reach the top of the ladder. Hearthstone motivates this via tournaments with grand prizes, but it is known that if you give people a chance to prove their superiority in numerical fashion, many of them will do so however long it takes even with no other prize whatsoever. So people do.
There is a sweet prize each month for hitting master – you get a ‘premium’ legendary. That means it’s shiny, and more importantly that can destroy it to get enough sandstone to make a legendary you actually want. Not bad.
The Eternal Grind in constructed consists of bronze, silver, gold and diamond, each of which has three sub-levels, and then the master level, which is similar to Hearthstone’s legend. Win and you gain points. Lose and you lose points, but can’t go below zero at your current rank. Reach 100 points and you level up, resetting back to 0 points. So you’ll need to go 0 to 100 twelve times if you’re starting from scratch. Early on wins are worth more than losses, but by diamond wins and losses each are worth 15, so you need to win 7 games more than you’ve lost since some starting point in order to rank up. If you’re not winning more than half your games, that will likely take a long time.
Then you hit master, and the real grind begins. If you choose to accept it.
I did not accept it. I can win somewhat more than half my games there with my current deck, and I play a few games now and then, but the top of the ladder? That’s a crazy, completely insane time sink. It’s an auction to see who can accumulate the most net wins. I’m never going to win that auction. Give me a tournament, and we’ll talk.
Constructed starts out with a whole bunch of theme decks. The starting collection they give you is very generous; by combining all the theme decks, you get a variety of options that play reasonably well. If you want to, you can destroy most of that collection to get yourself a fully competitive aggressive deck, but that will set you way back in trying to do anything else, and you can get there anyway without too much trouble. So I’d encourage you not to dust everything in sight, unless it is purely your dream to climb the ladder. The very start is also the best time to put in a little cash; you can start out with some drafts so you have enough material for a better constructed deck, and the rewards can remain meaningful.
At the top end, constructed gives you a lot of options. As you move up the ladder, you’ll mostly face the basic strategies:
- Control, also known as Pile of Removal
Wrath of God is now in green as Harsh Rule, and costs 3GG (three colorless and two green) in Magic terms or 5+JJ (for five plus two Justice) in Eternal terms. Channel the Tempest costs 5UUU to draw three cards then do damage to a target equal to your hand size. Combine these with a variety of removal spells and card drawing, and you have the tools for pure control decks that aim to play more removal than you can play units. A variety of color combinations are used, but the best builds are generally blue/green/black. You’ll need a plan to handle these decks. You can either go under them by being fast, over them by having creatures that are strong against removal, use a card advantage engine that beats theirs, or fight the control war better.
There are some variants built around weapons. These likely are played because they win against other removal decks, but they otherwise seem much less effective than playing removal spells. Too many extra things can go wrong.
2. Pure Aggression
Red/Green and Red/Black both offer decent fast aggressive shells. Red/Green has some great early creatures, then decides how big it wants to go, and has a flying-based variation. Red/Black splits into gunslinger builds, token/sacrifice builds and my warcry-centered build, all of which are competitive. Green/White and Green/Black offer slower but more powerful offerings along the same lines, both of which make extensive use of weapons on hard-to-remove creatures.
Somehow ‘bigger stuff than you’ has become ‘midrange’ even though it’s not really in the middle unless you think of pure combos as the top. The terminology has carried over to Eternal. Green/Black with a splash is the most ‘natural’ place to put midrange, as it gets to use Inspector Makko, which is 3GB (5+JS) for a 5/5 flyer that has never-ending revenge: Every time it dies it goes back in your top 10 cards, and returns right to the battlefield for free as a cantrip when you draw it. They recently printed an answer to this called In Cold Blood, which for 2BB not only kills a green creature but gets all the copies of it safely out of the game. The card isn’t played that much that I can tell, but the fear of the card has taken away all the Makko decks or forced them to de-emphasize him.
Major variations on the Makko theme are to play heavy revenge, or to play Rise to the Challenge (which lets you search for a creature or weapon for 2GR, and give it +2/+0) to curve into the best legendary big men, or to play as a mostly-control build.
There are a bunch of Blue/Green builds, with or without red, that use a lot of flying and aegis, and generally use a bunch of powerful good-stuff style flyers.
There’s a few builds that center around cards that reward you for playing 5+ power creatures, especially Friendly Wisp which is a 1/1 flyer for 1W that draws you 2 cards the first time you play a 5+ power creature. You can go blue since that gets you a 5/5 3-drop (if they target it, it turns into a 1/1), and I’ve seen some new ones that go black. I like going red since you get a 2RR 5/4 flying dragon that way that comes from an adventure, but most of the White/Red midrange decks don’t seem to use Wisps for whatever reason.
There’s a Crystaline Chalice deck that’s not bad; it lets you pay 2 and tap a low-power creature to draw a card and give the creature +2/+2, so if it’s left unchecked it will take over the game and beat removal strategies.
There’s a Black/White lifegain deck that seems second tier but quite fun to play, and a lot of options for what to put into it.
There’s an over-the-top-with-mana White/Green deck called “Big Combrei” that has all the legendaries and drops huge bomb after huge bomb, that I’d love to try out some time.
So there you have your classic Magic metagame, and quite a healthy one. It even changes every week or two! This happens because there’s a source for decks, called Eternal Warcry, where a player called ManuS and occasionally others post solid builds, and then everyone copies the build for a while. It’s crude, but it’s a good system. You get new toys every week or two, and plenty of room to experiment on top of that.
I’d love to see more creative spell-based combo-style decks, but they’re hard to integrate with a phone interface.
They’re also willing to nerf cards that are seeing too much play, and to improve cards they want to see play but aren’t proving good enough. I love this, and wish they’d do even more of it.
Eternal has achieved what it set out to do: It’s put the core game play of Magic onto a phone, offering real asynchronous drafts, a diverse metagame and lots of cool decision to make, with regular events and AI opponents to round things out via Gauntlet and Forge. The game looks, feels and sounds great and smooth. The rules changes push mana into the background most of the time and let you focus on other things. Games are quick, and you spend all your time playing and deck building and drafting, getting many more plays and decisions per hour than you would playing Magic.
Eternal will not, and should not, replace Magic. If it did, I would be quite sad, and it would be part of a general trend of things that take time and effort being crowded out by smoother experiences that aren’t as deep. What it can, and should, do is provide an amazing gaming experience for those times when all you have is your phone, which one hopes will then draw players into the original Magic. Alas, Magic is hard to play – it requires a lot of effort on many fronts. So in the meantime, while I’m commuting to and from work, there’s Eternal.