Here are 5 card games all Magic players should try at least once, as recommended by a fellow avid Magic player!
Sometimes Magic: The Gathering players need a mental break. For some of us, we take a break from competitive play to have a casual multiplayer game of Commander (EDH). Some take a break from EDH to draft. Some take a break from drafting to try out a new Standard brew… And the wheel keeps on spinning.
However, sometimes we just want to try something new. Not so much a cleansing of the pallet, but something to play around with that challenges us in new ways but allows us to utilise our unique skills acquired as Magic players, and perhaps even hone them in ways we never anticipated.
The focus of this article is card games all Magic: The Gathering players should try at least once, but I will primarily highlight cards that are considered less mainstream. Obviously, the best supplementary card game for every Magic player to master is Poker. Force of Will, Pokémon TCG, Kaijudo, Vanguard, and Hearthstone rank pretty high on that list as well (no offense to anyone whose favourite card game was not just mentioned – I just listed the first few games that came to mind).
Speaking of which, if I do not mention a lesser known card game that you’d like to see on the list, I have considered an update to the article in the near future with an Honourable Mention section, so pop those suggestions in the comments below!
1. Mage Wars Arena
If you want a card game that plays out like a crossover of Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons, you should try out Mage Wars Arena by Arcane Wonders. The battle is visually represented on a battlefield grid similar to the popular D&D grid, and players choose spells out of a spellbook like a D&D Wizard.
Players: 2-6. The Mage Wars Arena core set includes two spellbook binders where each player stores their cards for a given game. Many expansions include additional binders to support multiplayer games.
Similarity to MTG: Mage Wars is, at its heart, a card game. Each player takes the role of a wizard, casting spells, paying mana costs, and adapting to the intricacies of the battle. Players must keep track of additional resources in the form of abilities each summoned creature possesses.
The mechanics of creature actions is more akin to D&D. A creature can either take a quick action, preceded by a movement action, or a full action (similar to the full-round action of D&D) that foregoes the movement action in favour of a more powerful attack.
Skills reinforced: Besides the obvious parallels between Mage Wars and MTG, there is an added element to the deck construction process with which miniature wargame players and Magic Duel Commander (or French EDH) players are already familiar. Decks are confined to a specific amount of spell points, and each card comes with its own cost. The points are tallied before the game starts to make sure each player only has 120 points in their spellbook.
Cost to play: The Mage Wars Arena core set can be purchased for around $45. The core set includes beastmaster, priestess, warlock, and wizard cards, along with two spellbook binders.
Expansions: Each expansion adds 1-2 additional classes, such as forcemaster, necromancer, and paladin. Most expansions include additional spellbook binders.
Arcane Wonders has also published Mage Wars Academy, a slightly different Mage Wars game focused on fast-paced gameplay and strategy. The battlefield grid of Mage Wars Arena is completely done away with in favour of a layout more akin to Magic: The Gathering.
2. HEX: Shards of Fate
I wouldn’t personally view HEX: Shards of Fate, usually referred to as HEX TCG, as an “alternative” to MTGO, but there are some obvious similarities between HEX, the MMOTCG developed by Cryptozoic Entertainment, and Magic: The Gathering. In fact, HEX feels so much like a “copy” of MTG, Wizards of the Coast and Cryptozoic came to a settlement in 2015 following a 16 month intellectual property legal battle.
HEX has grown in the years since its release to, in many ways, a game wholly unique from Magic. The core mechanics are certainly there, but the actual gameplay, archetypes, competitive progression, and secondary market are vastly different. Similar to other online-only card games like Hearthstone and Plants vs. Zombies Heroes (below), many mechanics of the game draw upon the flexibility and randomness that a computer game is capable of supporting.
Players: 1-2, with PvE story/arena modes and multiplayer casual, competitive, and limited formats.
Similarity to MTG: Right off the bat, you’ll notice that the phases of the turn in HEX are strikingly similar to those of Magic:
- Prep Phase
- First Main Phase
- Beginning of Combat
- Declare Attacks + Priority
- Declare Blockers + Priority
- Combat damage + Priority (including Swiftstrike damage + Priority if applicable)
- Second Main Phase
- End Phase
- Discard down to 7 cards
There are also four card types:
- Shards (resources)
- Quick Actions (playable whenever a player has priority, like an instant in MTG)
- Basic Actions (encompasses Artifacts and Constant effects, similar to enchantments in MTG)
One notable difference between HEX and MTG are champions – similar to heroes in Hearthstone – which have powers associated with different shard colours that can drastically affect the shape of a game. These powers are “unlocked” by playing shards, which is a fascinating answer to the mana flooding problem many Magic players encounter. Each shard grants the champion a “charge”, and each champion requires and expends a specific amount of charges to activate their power.
Many deck archetypes are built around a champion, such as if a champion creates a 1/1 with flying every few turns, buffs your troops, draws extra cards, or just deals direct damage to your opponent.
Skills reinforced: For new Magic players, HEX is one of many great tools to learn the game. For more experienced players, HEX pushes your limits. From slightly different game mechanics to vastly different archetypes to those in MTG, HEX forces players to rethink what they know and come up with creative solutions.
Cost to play: HEX: Shards of Fate follows the Free-to Play-model. There is a secondary market setup akin to the Auction House of most MMORPGs, and you can also purchase in-game cards from one of several websites. It is fairly easy to build a decent budget deck for PvE, play a few rounds of Frost Arena, and build a PvP-legal budget deck from your earnings.
Expansions: There are currently seven sets in HEX:
- Shards of Fate
- Shattered Destiny
- Armies of Myth
- Primal Dawn
- Scars of War
Just like most TCGs, new mechanics are introduced in every set that add to the game in fresh and interesting ways.
3. Plants vs. Zombies Heroes
I never thought I’d be playing a card game based on Plants vs. Zombies, but, well… here we are. It’s a lot of fun, to boot.
I remember joking with my wife a few years back about what a Plants vs. Zombies card game would look like. It exists now, and it’s everything you’d hope for it to be if you’re a Plants vs. Zombies veteran.
Just like Hearthstone and HEX, Plants vs. Zombies Heroes by Electronic Arts features dueling hero characters with unique powers. While each hero class in Hearthstone has access to a unique set of cards but there is a large pool of minions that every hero has access to, PvZ Heroes limits each hero to two “class” groups. For example, Green Shadow (plant) combines the Smarty and Mega-Grow classes, Solar Flare (plant; looks suspiciously like Chandra Nalaar) combines the Kabloom and Solar classes, and Electric Boogaloo (zombie; my personal favourite) combines the Beastly and Crazy (dancing zombies!) classes.
Players: 1-2, with PvE story mode and casual/ranked multiplayer modes.
Similarity to MTG: PvZ Heroes plays a lot like a combination of MTG, Hearthstone, and you guessed it, Plants vs. Zombies. Similar to Magic: The Gathering, certain cards are playable in response to certain events (more similar to removal and combat tricks in MTG than “secret” cards in Hearthstone). Like Hearthstone, damage is not removed from Fighter cards when each turn ends. This leads to a mix of aggression and attrition based on the ways in which each game develops.
Also similar to Hearthstone, the each hero receives one resource (sunlight for plants, brains for zombies) per turn to spend on card costs, and all resources spent in the previous turn are replenished. Essentially, both players automatically make their land drops each turn and don’t have to worry about being mana starved or mana flooded.
Skills reinforced: Some aspects of PvZ Heroes are somewhat unique and add an interesting twist for more experienced TCG players. First, attacking and blocking is predetermined by which lane each Fighter is placed in. If a plant and zombie occupy the same lane during the combat phase, they attack each other. If a Fighter is uncontested in its lane, it attacks the opposing hero instead.
There are five total lanes, which usually consist of one Heights lane, one Aquatic lane, and three Ground lanes. Damage is dealt in left-right order, starting with the Heights lane and ending with the Aquatic lane. Entire game plans can be based solely around the order in which damage is dealt, and a game can be won or lost based on the placement of a single Fighter.
There are four phases to each turn, and both players have actions during the turn culminating in a shared damage phase. First, during the Zombies Play phase, Zombie Fighters are summoned. During the Plants Play phase, Plant Fighters, Plant Tricks, and Plant Environments (“Enchantments” that only apply to one lane) are played. Finally, before the Fight! phase, the Zombie Tricks phase gives the Zombie Hero a chance to respond with its own Zombie Tricks and Environments. This ability to interact with the game state before combat hedges against the huge advantage the Plant Hero gets by being able to make decisions based on the Fighters summoned during the Zombies Play phase.
Finally, the Super-Block Meter encourages players to use their life totals as a resource. This is a skill many Magic: The Gathering players struggle to master, but it’s central to the mechanics of PvZ Heroes. Each time a player takes damage, a random number of blocks between 1-3 fill up on the Super-Block Meter. When all 8 blocks are full, the attack that filled the last block has no effect, and the hero gains access to one of its signature powers which may either be played immediately (in the middle of combat) for free, or placed in the player’s hand for later use. This can happen up to 3 times per game, each time expending a shield icon underneath the hero’s meter. Once you’ve run out of shields, things can get a little… dodgy.
Plants vs. Zombies Heroes forces players to plan ahead as early as the first turn of the game. There are many contingencies of what can happen in a game, and a single decision can have long-lasting ramifications.
Cost to play: PvZ Heroes uses the Free-to-Play model with in-game purchases. There is no secondary market, so players must open booster packs (which are pretty easy to earn if you don’t want to spend any money) and deconstruct/build cards in order to complete their decks.
Expansions: The Galactic Gardens update, otherwise known as Set 2, was released on 8th June 2017, adding 100 new cards and introducing Environment cards and some new Fighter abilities.
Dominion, published by Rio Grande Games, started the new board game genre known as “deck-building games”. The concept behind it and other games inspired by this new genre is deck construction occurs over the course of the game. Players are simultaneously building their decks and gearing up for victory.
Players are not eliminated from the game as they are in most multiplayer games. Instead, all players remain an active part of the game until it ends, then each player counts up the victory points in their deck (which are dead cards drawn alongside action cards and resources until the end of the game) to determine the winner.
Players: 2 to 4, though 5 players is not unreasonable; the game just ends too quickly. The Intrigue expansion increases the limit to 6 players.
Similarity to MTG: Resources in the form of treasure cards are required to purchase cards. There is some interaction between players in the form of “raid” cards that disrupt other players’ plans, which players can effectively counter by revealing the Moat card from their hand. Revealing Moat, or obeying the instructions of a raid card, is the limit of what players can do on another player’s turn.
Skills reinforced: There are different archetypes that can be constructed in Dominion ranging from ramp to disruption to combo. In any given game, only 10 action cards are available for players to purchase and build from (in addition to treasure cards and victory points). Adapting to the metagame on the fly is a vital skill, as is the ability to assess the 10 cards available and figure out the best cards and therefore the most effective archetypes.
An important lesson learned in Dominion is choosing the best cards and archetypes based on what’s available. All players have access to the same card pool, so there are some stark similarities to the Constructed formats of TCGs. There are objectively good cards in each pool, and sometimes a card’s usefulness drastically changes based on the other cards available.
The investment involved in purchasing the best cards in Dominion is significantly lower than in a trading card game – in some MTG formats a good deck costs as much as a house, while Dominion only requires that you spend a few resource cards each turn – so it’s a much easier lesson for players to grasp in this setting. If a player wants to win the game, they often have to forgo “pet” cards and focus on building the most powerful deck available.
This doesn’t mean there won’t be fringe archetypes that prey on the most popular decks, but as every Dominion player knows, while Village may be an annoying card to play against, it’s completely broken and wins games very quickly. For aspiring competitive Magic players, this is often a hard lesson to learn: either beat them, or join them.
Cost to play: The base game of Dominion usually runs just over $30. This includes over a dozen copies of each of 25 action cards, 3 resource cards, and 4 victory cards (5 if you include Curses given out by the Witch raid card).
Expansions: Multiple expansions of Dominion are released each year. Each expansion adds more possible action cards, resources, and victory points. Some players may only want the base game and 1-2 expansions, while others may want to collect every supplement.
5. Star Realms
Inspired by the “deck-building game” genre, Star Realms (published by White Wizard Games) takes an approach a little more akin to Magic: The Gathering for determining the victor. Most cards contribute to a player’s damage pool, which is used to destroy space stations and deal direct damage to players.
The game ends when only one player is left standing, and is usually determined by which player “went off” first. In fact, many games are close enough that they the winner was only a turn away from being eliminated.
Players may only purchase cards from the trade row, which are five cards dealt from the top of the randomised trade deck. Once a card leaves the trade row, it is immediately replaced from the trade deck. Around 2/3 of the cards available are spaceships, which only last for one turn and are put into the discard pile, with a smattering of space stations that stick around until killed.
As with Dominion and other deck builders, the discard pile is shuffled and becomes the new deck whenever the deck is depleted. One twist that these games introduce into the mix is the ability to completely remove certain cards from your deck entirely. Since the small starting deck only serves to help purchase more powerful cards, eventually you want to remove those starting cards from the deck so you no longer draw them. In Star Realms, this right is reserved exclusively by the red faction, the “Machine Cult.”
Oh yeah, there’s four factions. We’ll get to that in a second.
Players: 2 players per base set or standalone expansion. Each time you purchase the base set or an expansion that can be played on its own (or mixed in with the base set), you get enough starting cards to support two more players.
Similarity to MTG: Similar to Magic’s five mana colours, Star Realms has four distinct factions with their own mechanics and game plans. A player is not bound to stick to a certain faction, but is rewarded for deck consistency in the form of “ally” abilities. Basically, each card has an ability that happens immediately when the card is played, and most also have an ally ability that only happens if another card of the same faction is present.
As with all deck builders, resources are required to purchase cards. There is an extra multiplayer element added with damage and space stations, as players are forced to play politics akin to EDH multiplayer when deciding how to dole out damage and whether to deal with stations in play. Eventually all stations must be dealt with, as most can carry an entire game much like a planeswalker or strong commander can if left unchecked.
Skills reinforced: At its heart, Star Realms is a drafting game. The cards available to purchase are constantly changing. Just as an experienced Magic drafter can see the draft unfolding based on what cards are (and aren’t) available in each pack, as a game of Star Realms plays out, strategies must be adapted based on what cards are available, what stations are in play, and even how close a player is to being eliminated.
It can be difficult to reap the rewards of focusing on a faction, especially early on, but as the game nears its later stages, ally abilities become vital to a player’s success. However, many players make the mistake of committing to one or two specific factions to their detriment, much like a draft player in Magic sticking with a colour combination that is clearly being “cut off”. In fact, some of the strongest decks possible in Star Realms utilise all four factions to some degree.
Cost to play: The base game for Star Realms can be purchased for around $14-15. This includes an 80 card trade deck and enough starting cards to support two players. The base game can be purchased multiple times to support more players. Star Realms is also available as a free smart phone app and on Steam. The app and Steam versions are great for teaching how to play the game, and the expansions are also available for purchase if you want to experience them on your phone or computer.
Expansions: Most expansions for Star Realms are intended to add a few dozen cards to the base game and spice things up. There are hero cards, new stations, and even Event cards that change the entire course of the game. In addition, I highly recommend the Colony Wars set for anyone wanting to support additional players without just buying the base game a second time. Colony Wars is intended as either a standalone game, or a supplement that can be shuffled in with Star Realms for some really interesting and explosive gameplay.
Star Realms just finished a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign, raising over $1,000,000 and reaching all its promo card stretch goals for the upcoming Star Realms Frontiers expansion.
I hope you enjoyed my recommendations and have as much fun as I have with each of these great games. Have you tried one of these games, and if so, what is your favourite story from a game you played? As stated above, if I left out a card game you’d like to see featured, leave a comment with your description and it might be added into the article at a later date! I’d love to see what games you all recommend.
Thanks for reading,