Previously: Eternal, and Hearthstone Economy versus Magic Economy, The Eternal Grind, My Referral Link to download Eternal if you want to play.
Epistemic Status: Played a lot of games. Wrote a lot of words. Those not interested in Magic, Eternal or game design may want to skip this one.
Eternal remains modern Magic, with some simplifications, on a phone, with a Hearthstone interface economy.
That remains super high praise. Everyone involved should be very happy with what they have accomplished, and I’m excited to see them move into tournament play.
Despite that, I did still bounce off the game in the end. I enjoyed it during my morning and evening commutes for several months, quite possibly played it another month or two when I wasn’t enjoying it all that much, then realized I had grown tired slash bored of it and stopped playing, mostly all at once.
This is a summary of my experiences, followed by a more detailed analysis of what went both right and wrong. Where Eternal changes vocabulary (e.g. it renames the colors) I will mostly use Magic’s words for things and Magic’s mana symbols, as I expect this to confuse exactly zero people.
What Happened: Overview
For several months, as I commuted to and from work, I would play Eternal on my phone. Once the new player experience was out of the way, I would use that window to complete my daily quests, get my win of the day. At first, I’d spend a lot of the time after that in the Gauntlet, since that was the most efficient way to get gold and my card pool remained weak. As my card pool improved, and I grew bored of Gauntlet, I’d move on to grinding for masters rank.
When events didn’t eat up all my gold, I’d do the occasional draft. Draft was fun, especially when I was able to put together streaks and keep the drafting going. What was less fun was grinding for over a week to get the coins to do one draft, having it go poorly, and having little or nothing to show for it.
I would occasionally check out Eternal Warcry to see what decks people would be playing that week.
Early on I used a mono-white Timekeeper deck centering around mana acceleration and the mechanic rewarding you for creatures with five or more power. Once I had better creatures than Timekeeper I moved to Red/White to get me a four mana 5/4 flying dragon and some removal in Purify, which was good enough to reliably defeat the Gauntlet and to get me to Master the first time. I didn’t see a similar deck for a long time. There are now a lot of White/Red decks, but they’re a very different build.
I then moved to a mostly standard Red/Green aggression deck, which also got me to Master. When Hailstorm was printed and started doing three damage to all creatures in play every other game, I moved to a Red/Black warcry-themed good-stuff aggressive deck that I enjoyed quite a bit, giving me a lot of play and long term power, getting me to Master the final two times. I never saw an opponent do anything that close to it, which was a key reason I liked it.
Along the way, I experimented with a few other decks, but most of the strategies that appealed to me would have required burning a lot of shiftstone, and I kept putting that off to make my spending more efficient, to the point where I stopped playing before I spent the shiftstone.
I still have most of my shiftstone, along with over sixty unopened packs. That was made easy by the weakness of the latest set, The Fall of Argenport, which didn’t contain a single card I wanted to add to any of my decks except the trader cycle. I considered making a white trader deck, but never got around to it. If I do make another deck, that will likely be it.
I played one league for the maximum number of matches, a second league for only a small number because my card pool sucked, and then stopped entering.
I played a few weekend events. The first one let us play with decks constructed by the Magic pros on the Eternal team. You entered, got one of the decks at random, and played a fixed number of matches. Those decks were fun as hell, although Patrick Sullivan pushed the power level on his enough that when I played it I felt like I couldn’t lose. There are a lot of sweet spots for decks full of fun effects that are balanced against each other, at a variety of power levels. I wish such events were explored more, and I played until I’d used most of the decks and was handed a repeat, even though I couldn’t improve my standing in the event and each entry still cost me a lot of gold.
Later events were a mixed bag. Draft events were fun, the singleton event was fun, but many events were essentially just more constructed play or otherwise not interesting, and the event payout structure was often a combination of front-loaded to the very top and wide to the bottom such that unless you were on an almost perfect run, you’d get a good return for entering once, but trying to move up the leaderboard was a worse deal than doing more regular drafts.
At no point did I spend any money, nor was I ever tempted to do so. As I noted before, spending money would have destroyed the incentive models in game for me, and I wasn’t interested in what would have replaced them.
Eternal has been referred to as ‘Titan Magic.’ The mulligan rule minimizes the number of games that decks don’t function well, mana bases mostly just work, the general power level of cards is high and most good things to do are of the ‘good stuff’ variety. There is typically a mix of aggressive decks, control decks and various mid-range strategies.
If you don’t care about the details of what decks are played and/or are good, you will want to skip the decks sections until where it says [resume].
Also keep in mind this is a snapshot of my experiences. Things likely have evolved since then, and I also likely missed a lot of developments, decks and cool things along the way.
Here are all the strategies that would not feel surprising to see:
Control decks would usually but not always play blue for card drawing and card selection. For 1UU you can draw two cards, for 1U you can draw two and put one on the bottom, for 5UUU Channel the Tempest can draw three, do damage equal to the size of your new hand and (if nothing bad is happening to you) effectively end the game. Blue also gives you Hailstorm, which for 1UU does three damage to all creatures, which is great at cleaning up the early board.
The next question is whether or not to play green. Green gets you the only true pure sweepers, in particular Harsh Rule, which destroys all creatures for 3GG, and it gives you a 1G spell that kills creatures with four or more power. It also gives you access to some expensive gold cards if combined with red or black.
When you combine green with red, you get Rise to the Challenge for 2RG to find any creature or weapon you want and give it +2/+0, and some very strong six and seven drop flyers to take over the game once you’ve stabilized. You also get access to some of the best large weapons. Red also gets you Lightning Bolt, now called Torch, to do 3 damage for one mana. You also get Whirling Duo, which is 1RG for a 3/3 with haste and lifelink, to help shore up the early game without overloading on removal.
If you go the black route, you get lots of choices for black removal, especially Slay which is unconditional removal for 1BG. Some decks still like to run Inspector Makko, a 5/5 flyer which costs 1BBGG and comes back several turns later whenever it dies. For a while it was super popular, then they printed some answers for it, then it died out, but it feels like no one plays the answers and Makko is still not being played much. That’s probably an error.
White options also exist. Until recently, mostly they involved playing creatures that bog down the board rather than playing true control, so to me they’re a different category. Looking at the most recent tournament results now, there’s a White/Blue/Green control deck that did quite well, mostly utilizing white for some of its removal spells instead of the black ones.
That leaves your reasonable choices as:
- Blue/Black/Green pure control that plays tons of removal and card drawing and kills you with Channel the Tempest or other incidental damage, or with Inspector Makko.
- Blue/Black that gives up Harsh Rule to get better mana, and is plays Champion of Cunning and other solid Blue/Black creatures as its kill.
- Blue/Red/Green builds that are using early removal and sweepers to build up mana to high end creatures and weapons, and typically kills with large flyers.
- Red/Green/Black builds that give up card draw and center on using Rise to the Challenge and generally gaining advantage from its powerful high end.
- One of the three color combinations above, but with a lot of relic weapons and no or almost no creatures, which presumably beats other control decks.
That’s a healthy mix of color combinations and variations.
What isn’t as healthy is the variation in cards. There’s a list of ‘good control cards’ and the decks are playing mix and match. You’ll face the sweepers on three and five, the same hammer at four, the same three finishers at five, six and especially seven, the same efficient removal spells and so on.
The counterpoint is that Magic rarely has a wider variety of efficient spells than that in a Standard format. I don’t have to look at any articles or lists to know most of the spells in a control deck in the new Standard. Good cards are good, people will play them. Giving people lots of cards that are very close in power level that serve the same purpose means giving people the option of infinite redundancy, and the best cards probably still win out.
I don’t think the primary problem here was card design or development. The problems were partly economic, and partly the gigantic number of games played with similar decks. Which was partly lack of meaningful rotation, partly economic, but also largely about the speed at which games are played.
There’s also an actual design problem, where the game is built around efficiently doing powerful stuff that’s hard to answer, and almost everyone is doing similar creature-based stuff, so if you want to answer all that powerful stuff you need flexible, efficient, universal answers and ways to find them, and card advantage enough to overcome the parts where people play cards that can’t be answered all that efficiently, and enough people are being straightforward enough along the same lines that there aren’t many good approaches.
Early Magic had a bunch of strategies that didn’t play creatures, or didn’t play many creatures and didn’t especially care if you killed all of them if that meant you had lots of extra kill spells stuck in your hand. Modern Magic, along with Eternal, still has some decks that punish you for having a bunch of removal and answers instead of active things to do, but even there some removal eventually usually comes in handy. The downside is more of a ‘I didn’t have anything to do and the game went long which was really bad’ than a ‘my cards were blank.’
There’s also that other dynamic, where games going long is often very, very bad for one of the two players, so the efficiency of operations determines the outcome. Which is a good thing to do sometimes but kind of a bummer to do most of the time.
On the ladder, there’s also the issue that control decks take several times longer to play the average game than creature decks, and are more expensive to make, so they’re played less than the equilibrium amount, which means people are less prepared for them than it would take to balance the win percentages, and control decks (presumably) are well over 50% win rate on the ladder.
The foundation of most any format is its aggressive decks. Eternal offers a few choices, but if you want to go ‘pure’ aggression, there’s a clear best choice based on what I’ve faced.
Red/Blue aggro uses a variety of 2/1 creatures for 1 mana, a few other efficient guys that cost two and three, plus a bunch of removal slash burn, and that’s it. It hits fast, it hits hard, and it has two creatures that can act as one-time mana sinks in an emergency. Other than those two guys, the deck has zero backup plan. It tries to kill you, and that’s it. If all you care about is making Master rank quickly and cheaply, this has to be the deck to play.
Red/Green used to be good back when I was playing it, as it has lots of efficient creatures with cool abilities that synergize well, with strong support spells. You basically threw every top-tier Red/Green card that costs one to three mana together, added a few high end weapons (+5/+5, vigilance and trample for 1RRGG) and you were good to go. In exchange for playing all these high-utility creatures, you accepted that Torch killed all of them, which then meant that Hailstorm also kills all of them, but instead of killing one of them for one mana, it kills your whole board for three mana. That, and the rise of decks that play bigger stuff, mean that Red/Green isn’t good enough any more.
Red/Black was popular when I first started playing, then fell out of favor. I forget what the old versions were like. Mine is what I call a warcry deck, which was quite good for a while, but doesn’t seem to win that many games these days when I pull it out for a quick diversion. I am not sure what changed, as there don’t seem to be particularly hateful things out there. I could just be on a bad run.
White/Green decks started appearing in more aggressive builds a few months into my playing experience. Those decks were slower but had more staying power than other aggressive builds. I built them to try them out, and wasn’t convinced they were actually any good, but they did curve up high enough to not play into the sea of removal quite as badly, and that counts for a lot.
White/Red was another late edition, usually focusing on tokens (mostly 1/1 Grendalins) and pumping them up. The deck never seems impressive looking at the pieces, but must be troublesome for decks using pinpoint removal, and can often do quite a lot of damage if it has the right mix of stuff.
There’s also a very strong spell-based aggressive deck based on prowess-style creatures from The Fall of Argenport. I’ve been told three of the cards in that deck needed to be nerfed and it remains quite good. Early on I saw bad versions (or players with bad draws) that were easy to beat, and assumed the deck was bad, but that clearly did not take.
White/Black lifegain always seems like it is second tier. It’s definitely a threat, but if you kill the right things it doesn’t do very much. Left to its own devices it will moderately reliably accelerate to a victory, but often still do little or nothing. There’s also another White/Black deck that just plays a bunch of good stuff.
Blue/Black offers a few solid creatures that can be combined with good removal, in a deck that could also be considered a control deck.
Blue/Black also offers a reanimation strategy, using infiltrate creatures and Haunting Scream to accumulate advantage. Sometimes these decks play red and lean heavily into the engine, which seemed better sitting on the other side.
White/Green classically offers a build players call ‘Big Combrei.’ It relies on a lot of good men that promote ramping up mana and that reward you for doing so, while having a respectable early game. I would have very much enjoyed playing this deck, but it has an extremely large number of legendary cards.
Blue/Green offers a number of solid creatures, with a 2/3 for 1U that can make a 4/4 flyer one time for six mana, a 5/5 flyer for UUGG, and a 3/4 flyer for 1UG that prevents players from playing weapons. That forms the core of a skies deck that does a reasonable job of finding ways to win games, with or without the new Argenport mechanics.
Red/Green lets you use a variety of mana acceleration cards and discard mechanics to quickly get out heavy hitters Rizahn, Greatbow Master and Icaria, the Liberator, which overruns a lot of decks.
A few players do now do White/Red along the lines of my early deck, building up to Heart of the Vault. I never thought enough of Heart to consider crafting it, but others clearly disagree. More often, the decks that care about 5+ power guys will go White/Blue, as at three mana you get a 5/5 in False Prince and people care a lot about that. Blue doesn’t do much else for you, but then neither did red beyond the four-drop dragon. Other players skip the second color and just go with white to avoid mana problems. I think that’s a mistake, as splashing a color is very cheap in Eternal given how the mana bases work.
A Thousand Corridors, All Different
(If you skipped the deck descriptions, you can [resume] here.)
And so on. This list is getting long. Which is great!
There are three huge problems.
The most basic is that most of these builds rely heavily on multiple legendary cards. If you want to build on the cheap, you have a few options, but even then you’re likely taking one or two decks and sticking with them for months. This prevents players who aren’t heavily invested from realizing the gains from all this variety. There might be thirty decks one could reasonably play, but you’re stuck playing two of them and those two likely overlap a bunch. My first six legendary crafts were four Enduring Sentinel and two Worldbreaker Behemoth. Fine choices, but that very much restricted where I could go, and I had a stark choice to either go further down that road or abandon it.
In the end, that meant I spent almost all my time playing with three decks: White/Red Big Dude, Red/Green Aggro and Red/Black Warcry. With only those perspectives to play from, the enemy decks start to bleed into each other, as you only notice what makes them unique against you. Different players choose different cards from the ‘list of good stuff’ and mix and match them, and you adapt.
The other problem is that while there are many builds, few of these decks do fundamentally unique things. Everyone either plays a bunch of guys and attacks, kills all the guys and either draws cards or pulls out heavy hitters, or tries to abuse a linear mechanic. Rarely did I stop and have to think about what the opponent was up to, or what mattered in a game against this new strategy.
If you play a relic, which represent both non-equipment artifacts and non-aura enchantments in Magic, the icon will appear on the screen as a little circle next to your character. If you play a second one, that icon will have a ‘2’ on top of it. Usually that will be a second copy of the same card. The game doesn’t want players to focus on non-creature effects other than relic weapons. That goes beyond not letting players attack your hand or mana or deck in a worthwhile way. Players can effectively do very, very little that isn’t drawing cards, playing lands and casting or killing creatures.
The other big problem was that things still haven’t rotated and most players on the ladder copy decks. With so much grinding and so many games, even a very well-balanced and diverse field all looks the same eventually. Even when the decks aren’t the same, the same cards pop out over and over again.
A Thousand Corridors, All the Same
On reflection, I think two other crucial decisions had a big impact as well: The more generous mulligan rule and the seventy-five card deck size.
The generous mulligan rule means that while occasionally a player will stall on two lands and lose, most games both players get safely to four mana, have a number of spells to cast, and are mostly allowed to play their game. This takes away from the mix of games those where one player is struggling with severe mana issues, reducing diversity of experience.
A concern for Eternal is that given most decks are taking a ‘good stuff’ approach of one form or another, land stalls are mostly fatal, so including those games would be boring and worse than in Magic. That may well be true, but only emphasizes the problems.
The seventy-five card deck size seems at first like it would pull us in the opposite direction. Each card is less likely to come up each game. That helps, but it also forces players to use more of the generically good cards to round their deck out, and makes it much harder to use a few quirky cards as the basis for a deck, since you can’t find them as reliably.
The bigger drawback here was making the climb to build a collection feel super steep. Not only do I need four copies of this legendary card, each of which takes weeks worth of games to afford, each copy is only one of seventy-five cards. That’s noticeably different from sixty, and miles away from Hearthstone where you have one copy of each legendary card, two of each other card, and the deck is thirty cards. Hearthstone’s decks are not as small as they look, since they don’t include lands, but it does make it feel like every card decision you make counts for a lot. In Eternal I did not feel that way.
My current view is that sixty is an upper bound on ideal deck size for decks that are supposed to run ‘smoothly’, as opposed to funky formats like Elder Dragon Highlander with one of each card and a 100 card minimum, or 5-color with its 250 card minimum. Both those formats use decades of Magic to give players access to lots of different variations on all the things they might want, and embrace that often what you draw will be weird. When we’re in the realm where decks mostly want to work as intended, I like sixty card decks just fine. If anything, I’d like to experiment with taking the minimum down to fifty but bringing back card restrictions or other tweaks.
The play arc of free-to-play Eternal is to spend most of your time grinding on the constructed ladder for very low stakes, punctured by drafts and weekend events where the stakes are comparatively much higher. Those who wish can also play in the monthly leagues.
Limited, both draft and sealed, was very much feast or famine. If a draft goes badly, it frequently train wrecks and leaves you scrounging for semi-playable cards without any upside, and you hope your opponents struggle and let you squeeze out two or three wins. If the draft goes well, getting the full seven wins was not uncommon. I assume that you would frequently get paired against opponents with different records.
Some of this is due to the bad cards being quite bad. More than being quite bad, they don’t offer anything relevant. Even when they’re not so bad, they don’t add up to much. Thus, many games turned into looking at your guys, looking at their guys, and noticing that their guys were much, much bigger than your guys. Yes, you could try to stall for a while, but there was no hope. This was especially frustrating when playing against dinosaur decks, where they would often have several guys in play bigger than anything you saw the whole draft, and there was nothing to do but sit there and wait for the end, just in case you got a miracle run of flyers or something similar.
A lot of these issues were due to the tribal nature of draft. A lot of the late picks worth playing depend on a critical mass of the relevant tribe – grendalins, gunslingers, yeti, dinosaurs and a few others. Grendalins in particular offer some big payoffs that can take over games, and which can be available very late in the draft, which makes it feel like a lottery. If a draft was going badly, I’d feel obligated to gamble on such cards and hope they worked out. That made the feast or famine nature even more pronounced.
Yeti are often the only reason blue is any good at all, dinosaurs the only value in white, but you can’t count on either of them. After a while, I decided drafting white or blue was mostly a trap.
Multicolor cards also increased deck strength variance a lot. Sometimes you’d get passed a ton of great cards you could play. Other times, you’d get nothing.
Grinding for a week to get the ability to draft, and getting absolutely nothing to work with, is an absolute kick in the nuts.
The four-pack implementation of draft is interesting. With two packs going each direction, and at least a good faith attempt (as I understand it) to allow players to send and receive signals, once you are a few picks into the draft what you get passed back from the left becomes higher value than what you’re being passed from the right. If you’re cut off, that means you can cut off the next guy even more dramatically, so it’s highly unclear what you’re even that happy or unhappy about. If something is open in pack one, but you can’t fully cut it off, you’re in quite the bind and have no good options.
My conclusion was that the fourth pack is an error. You actively want the two directions to be unbalanced, so that if you get a read on your situation you can usefully take advantage of it. With four packs, level-one strategy says to mostly ignore the signal you’re getting to focus on the one you’re sending, but if everyone does that, this will get you into that much more trouble.
The problem is that one cannot simply cut the fourth pack, as that would often leave players without playable decks barring cutting deck sizes to 35. I would say that until we can improve the usefulness of the worse cards, that is what Eternal should do. Eternal is moving towards using curated packs designed for limited, which I got a chance to use in a few events. Those events were much better, as the themes had better support and there was much less worry about not getting enough playable cards.
Because there is no trading and crafting cards is expensive, there is a strong incentive to pause your draft to take constructed rares, even if the card is clearly useless to you in the draft. This was annoying, but did provide a way to have a shot at the cards most needed. The alternative is to not have players keep the cards drafted, and use phantom packs. I remain torn whether this trade-off, between getting permanent returns and trying to get enough wins to sustain drafting, was good tension or bad tension.
I was disappointed by leagues. You are asked to play fifty games with your league deck. That is a lot. If your deck is not especially good, it is a ton. Getting extra packs along the way was a nice touch, but didn’t seem to substantially change the options available. The first games were fun, but by the end of the one league I took seriously, it felt like a chore. Then the next month, the deck I opened was poor, and I only played a handful of games. After that, I stopped entering. The gold cost to enter was high, and even if you did well, the prizes you got were not substantially better than the rewards for playing fifty ranked games.
After I stopped commuting to work, the pull of Eternal weakened quite a lot, as I didn’t have as much phone time, and my gaming time now had other options. Even before that, I was getting frustrated with playing the same games over and over, and was wondering if I had lost the fun some time before. Another problem was that wait times started increasing. When games take several minutes to find, the flow of playing is much worse, and at lower levels I was at after I no longer was grinding much, it seems much harder to find opponents.
The final nail in the coffin was Magic Arena. Arena offers a smooth, easy and free way to play Magic, and Magic is just a better game than Eternal. I’ve been very much enjoying playing an Izzet deck with the full eight Drakes. It’s fun to play, gives you a lot of choices, and seems very strong against many of the decks in constructed events. It’s very hard to beat Teferi decks, which is partly my card access issues as I’ve refused to pay, and partly because the deck doesn’t otherwise want good control mirror cards and gives opponents ten creatures to kill.
I’ll likely play the occasional game or two of Eternal when the mood strikes me, but I’d be surprised if I ever did more than that. I’m happy with the first two or three months of play, and likely played for about a month longer than was worthwhile for me. I’d still call that a win.
I hope the game continues to do well.