Magic: The Gathering has a lot to answer for. A pioneering collectible card game, it both paved the way for hordes of imitations, and rudely scuppered most of their chances by being far too good in the first place. But Ubisoft have clearly decided to eschew the path of straight imitation for one that strives for a little more individual invention.
They managed it with Assassin's Creed: Recollections and now, in what seems to be an attempt to pimp the Might & Magic franchise out into as many genres as possible, Duel of Champions is on its way.
The main objective will be instantly familiar to genre fans: the aim of the game is to whittle your opponent's health from 20 down to 0 through a combination of maruading Creatures, dazzling Spells, and benefit-bestowing Fortunes - all of which are represented in card form.
Might & Magic: Duel of Champions sees a return to the more traditional turn-based approach to such games, after the somewhat divisive real-time mechanics featured in AC:R, but there are a few rather key differences to note when placed alongside the mighty Magic: The Gathering. After selecting your starter deck from one of three factions - Haven, Necropolis, or Inferno (the Stronghold barbarians will be unlocked further into the game) - you're greeted by a tutorial that eases you into the game.
The first thing you might notice is that the board is laid out far more like a battlefield than you'd perhaps expect. Indeed, the card placements are structured rather like the two ranks featured in early Heroes of Might & Magic games. Most interestingly, unlike it's other card-based competitors, Duel of Champions sticks your hero on the board as your representative, with your chosen hero's relative strengths and weaknesses determining starting stats. Heroes can't attack directly, but players will get a turn each round to choose whether to draw another card, or boost their stats (there are three categories: Might, Magic, and Destiny). Though resources increase by one each turn, building up those stats to better prepare for the deployment of big-hitters is essential. Knowing your own deck back to front is key.
The layout of the battlefield also provides a far greater emphasis on defensive considerations. You can't attack a player directly until you've broken through their creature ranks, and creatures can only defend against attacks coming from the row directly opposite. Melee units can only be placed on the front lines, with ranged units at the back, and flying units marauding at will. With only a limited number of units in play at any one time, placement is absolutely key. The prevalence of cheap Haven marksmen in the beta has done more to teach me this lesson than the tutorial ever did.
One other thing you'll note is the speed of it all; the game clips along at a significantly faster rate than many other CCGs. As mentioned previously, resources increase automatically every round, and the phase play of card games like Magic: The Gathering is jettisoned in favour of a more freeform approach for players on their turns.
Not that Ubisoft's effort is lacking when it comes to mixing things up and taxing your strategic minds. Event cards are distributed across the decks of both players, and become available at the same time for both participants too. Some will affect just one player, others will affect both, there are Events that will cause both players to draw cards, raise the stats of creatures on the next turn, give health, and deal damage. Better yet, the Event cards change each week to keep things fresh.
Ubisoft had locked off the campaign for the beta, so we didn't get to see any of that as yet, but we did try our hand at the Practice and Duels modes, not to mention the Online Tournament mode, which seems ripe for some serious competitions and e-sport contests. We also got to get a glimpse at how Ubisoft are hoping to monetise this freemium offering. Gold and seals will be used to purchase booster packs for your deck, and you'll be able to purchase those with real money should youwish, but at the moment it doesn't seem horrifically unbalanced like some freemium offerings. In fact, it looks as if you'll be able to get everything you want by simply playing the game. It was difficult to get a particularly long-term sense of just how much grinding will be required to access the rarest and most powerful cards, and also how well balanced those cards are, but it seems for the moment that Ubisoft are headed in the right direction.
One final, rather impressive aspect to the game that Ubisoft displayed at the preview event in Paris a couple of weeks back, was the fact that this is all client-based. Duel of Champions will be releasing on PC and iPad, and not only will you be able to transfer save files across, but you'll also be able to play against opponents in real-time cross-platform style.
Community Developer Emile Gauthier and artist David Sourwine said that they were using chess as an inspiration for this particular card game - accessible, yet offering up layers of complex strategic depth if one wished. It's a worthy ambition, and one that seems at first play to have been realised fairly well. They've incorporated plenty of elements to try and stand out from the pack, and the Might & Magic name does more than just provide a franchise boost - elements from Heroes in particular seem woven into the fabric of this game. As for the longevity and the balancing, well we'll just have to wait until later this year to see on those, but there's plenty to be optimistic about at the moment.