Mechanics: Card Games


For quite a long period, between the ages of 17 & 19, I would go to a friend’s house every Wednesday night. This was Dungeons & Dragons night. Like every group of lonely, sweaty teenagers in this situation, we ate pizza, pretended to be elves & thought we were funny. We made a name for our little club that I would prefer never to repeat.

Every week, for about an hour before we would start our usual attempts at “roleplay”, we played smaller games. Munchkin was a particular favourite of mine. However, most of the time we would end up playing Magic the Gathering.

Now, I find myself in a similar but entirely distinct situation. It’s nearly 4am. My partner is fast asleep. I have my tablet & no intention of sitting downstairs. Perhaps as pathetic fallacy, it’s extremely humid: I’m sweating. I play Hearthstone, with the sound off.


I want to make it irrevocably clear that this will not be a particularly insightful or accessible post. There will be no jokes, very little theory & the prose will suck. For some reason, I have the urge compare Magic Hearthstone. Moreover, I’m mostly going to be talking about very minute details.

On the surface of it, the games are very similar. Each player possess an avatar, with a certain amount of health. Each player has a mana pool, which allows them to play cards. Each game has a variety of monster cards & spell cards. Even the turn system is similar: monster’s cannot attack on their 1st turn; players draw 1 card at the start of each turn, irrespective of their hand; each player may only gain 1 mana per turn. If we’re honest, even the logos don’t look too dissimilar.


I guess.

However, as with its logo, Magic is just that little bit shitter. The reasons for this aren’t because Hearthstone is simply “more modern” or because it exists on a digital platform (so does Magic but don’t go there). I (almost masochistically) miss the stench of stale cheese & vinegar at the end of a Wednesday night. No, the reason Hearthstone is better has to do with some very small mechanical differences. I’m not going to cover them all, just 1.

The way in which mana is played in Hearthstone differs from Magic quite significantly:

  1. In Magic mana is gained by playing cards. Only 1 mana card may be played per turn. In Hearthstone mana accrues over time & automatically – both players gain 1 point per turn.
  2. In Magic there are multiple types of mana – earth, fire, etc – which allow the player to play different elements of card. In Hearthstone players have only 1 mana pool, which acts universally the same.
  3. In Magic there is no limit set upon the amount of mana a player may possess. In Hearthstone players are limited at 10 mana. If a player goes over this limit (by playing a card granting extra manner in the early game), the surplus will be traded for a card automatically.
  4. In Hearthstone the play who goes 2nd is granted “The Coin” – a card which grants them +1 mana for a single turn.

There are some advantages to the style of mana play offered by Magic, that is true. The game does, in very specific circumstances, offer more tactical depth at the level of resource management. Certain cards & creatures allow players to attack each other’s mana pools &, in certain cases, steal them. However, I want to reiterate: this is very contextual.

A more common scenario by far in Magic goes a little bit like this: I have no earth mana to play anything in my hand. I have no mana. Fuck.

& results in an endgame like this: I have 30 mana & literally nothing I can play. I have used all of my spells & I have all my surviving creatures on the board. This is Rock’em Sock’em Robots now. Fuck.

Hearthstone‘s more measured approach has a purpose. It ensures that play is kept at an even pace, engaging both players until a victory is secured. What is lost in contextual tactical gameplay is more than gained in giving the game in its entirety a sense of meaning, weight & urgency. Every action in Hearthstone must be weighted against the knowledge that the opposing player could respond with an equal reaction. The game is about tactics in every moment, whereas Magic players are far more reliant on luck.

Not to deny this can happen.
Not to deny this can happen.

In addition to this, the simple addition of “The Coin” provides a level of tactical depth to turn order. Whilst the player who moves 1st has the obvious advantage of being able to strike 1st, “The Coin” allows the 2nd player to reverse turn order at any point in the game. This can allow for a huge amount of versatility.

There are a great number of other reasons I could point out that make Hearthstone more mechanically robust than Magic. The point I want to draw out from this is already possible, however. Even small differences in mechanics can change games entirely. Seemingly insignificant details can make the difference between a game that works with a mechanical immediacy & 1 that only functions upon occasion.

We called ourselves the “Knightz of Knerd”, alright?


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