I was done. I was finished with head-to-head card battling. So little has changed since Richard Garfield invented it with Magic: The Gathering back in 1973 or thereabouts. Build up mana, spend it to bring out cards with an attack and defense value, tap the cards to attack, win when you’ve done 20 points of damage to the other guy. All these decades later, so little has changed. Consider Hearthstone, a gleaming nugget of integrated game design and business model, polished nearly to the point of featurelessness.
Sure, there have been variations and even innovation. I’ve recently enjoyed Faeria for how it situates the action on a board built by the players as the match unfolds. Pretty clever. But even that only goes so far. If I’m going to match attack and block values, I need something more. And no game has enough something more to keep me interested.
I come to Mythgard with my card-battle fatigue wearing heavily on me. And Mythgard comes to me with the creative energy and design smarts to ease that fatigue. It comes to me with a generous business model, a ridiculous amount of content, and an even more ridiculous number of ways to play. It comes to me unashamed that it’s a free-to-play collectible card game based on the same old Magic: The Gathering format, but with absolutely nutso theming, solidly built on a foundation of clever design concepts, and illustrated with wondrous and wonderfully adult artwork.
The clever design concepts are mostly clever for how developer Rhino Games has married theme and gameplay. Pretty much everything that happens between these cards is somehow reflected in or informed by the artwork and the writing. One of my pet peeves in strategy games is the “just because” abstraction. Why does this card do what it does? Just because! It’s especially egregious in games with nutso theming. Nutso theming doesn’t need to answer the question because it’s nuts. You’re not supposed to think about it. This card does what it does because it’s nuts!
But Mythgard is shot through with design decisions that refuse to settle on “just because”. Cards do what they do because of their role in the game, and furthermore their role is the lore of Mythgard’s nutso theming. In Mythgard, being nuts doesn’t excuse something from making sense. So every card comes from one of six colors, each with its own lore and gameplay mechanics. You can look at any single card, ask why it does what it does, and find the answer in the artwork, in the lore text, or in the interaction with other cards. It’s a game full of answers to “Why does this card do what it does?”.
How come purple cards are the only cards with stealth? Japanese cyberpunk. Ninjas and stealth technology, naturally. Wait, why does this ultra-rare blue card cause stealth? Ah, right, blue is Norse bikers, so Loki’s Veil is a special trickster thing. What’s up with Norse bikers? Why are they all ladies on motorcycles? Ah, Valkyries. Why are all the witches green? How come life tap is only on red cards? Why is one of its most powerful red creatures a giant stuffed rabbit? What’s up with orange that it’s the only color that gets to spread deserts? What do oil fields, mirages, and oases do out in these deserts? And why is orange so good at quickly bringing out a flood of weak troops?
How come the ability to debuff opponents with blight is only on yellow cards? So what’s this about a Yana virus? What happened to the Venomfang Mutant’s head and who is Zolea and why are there so many spiders in here? Is that a maze of corn? A maze of maize? In Mythgard, I’ve got a yellow deck based on growing fields of maize along my borders as both defense and sustenance. From the artwork, I’m not sure if it’s magical, or if it’s being cultivated with high-tech satellites. Mythgard isn’t above letting my imagination do some of the work. Hey, videogames, more Meso-American futurism, please. Where are my Rise of Legends CD-ROMs? It’s so gratifying to explore worlds this unique and this fully expressed in gameplay. It’s one of the reasons I love card games. Each card is a discrete building block. A dense brick of baked rules. Put them together and you’ve built a world, a canvas for storytelling, each game a story.
Mythgard couldn’t have managed it without the artwork. What a relief to play a card game for adults. And I’m not talking about violence and sexuality. Although there’s plenty of horror and cheesecake here (a card called Grease Monkey tells you all you need to know about Mythgard’s cheeky refusal to play it safe). It’s such a relief to get away from the cloying cartoonish color and wide-eyed cuteness of Hearthstone, Runeterra, and Faeria, made to be safe for everyone but especially for your kids, because they’re the demographic mostly likely to badger mom and dad for some money to throw at the business model. Fortnite and Overwatch look the way they look for a reason. Mythgard isn’t pandering to your children’s insistent pleading for the $14.99 best value in HearthBucks or whatever. It’s drawn for adults instead of a business model. Even if I hated the gameplay, I would be grateful that Mythgard looks the way it looks.
Furthermore, it’s clear that the artists and the game designers talk to each other. And even understand each other. Mythgard has all the hallmarks of something developed under the guidance of a strong creative vision pulling together all aspects of the development. This isn’t a game where someone told a hired artist they needed a picture of a dragon by Friday. This is a game where it feels like the designers and artists sat down and talked and then talked again and swapped a hundred emails and talked again before anything was actually put in place. Because when I consider why a card works the way it works, or what’s going on with the artwork, or how it fits into the larger scheme of things, I always feel there’s an answer waiting to be discovered.
For instance, let me show you a card called Unforgivable Crossing:
It’s an ultra-rare card that lets you take three cards from the bottom of your discard pile and put them into your hand. The artwork seems to know this. It shows three people being taken to their deaths, presumably by one of the witches who are unique to green cards, and presumably part of whatever bargain is putting dead cards back into your hand. But it also puts into your hand a card called Ring of the Departed. This can be played to anyone on the board, and when that card dies, you can take any card from your discard pile. All told, Unforgivable Crossing has given you four cards, which is a real boon late in a match when you’ve got tons of mana, but not many cards to spend it on.
But Mythgard takes advantage of the fact that it’s an online game, so its artwork can break out bigger than the cards themselves. It still manages to prominently feature the artwork. Half of each card’s real estate is artwork. But you can get an even bigger fullscreen view by clicking on the little magnifying glass. Sometimes this is just a way to admire an enlarged view. They’re worth admiring. But sometimes, there’s something outside the frame you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Here’s what you get when you click on Unforgivable Crossing:
Something has turned around on the witch. Is she in an alternate world? Is the alternate world the crossing in the title? Is she now dead? An angel? Has she sacrificed herself? Was she betrayed? Is the Ring of the Departed hers? As with the mysterious lights on the Maze of Iyatiku, I don’t know the answer. And I don’t need to know. I just know that I’m getting four cards that were dead, thanks to some witchcraft unique to green decks, and the artist seemed to know this, and my imagination is more than happy to fill in the blanks.
A story mode doubling as a tutorial explores some of the lore, but it’s oddly truncated. It ends after a first chapter, and despite Mythgard getting a couple of hefty updates since its release, the story is still dangling at the end of chapter one. Which is no big deal, since the game itself is full of lore: the names of the cards, their various keywords, their role in the game’s systems, the artwork, the snippet of lore on the card, the additional lore that sometimes appears when you view the artwork fullscreen. But there’s so much room for Rhino Games to continue what they’ve started.
And one of the most appealing things about Mythgard is the variety of ways to play. The truncated story doesn’t hurt this as a single-player game, since there are so many other things to do. You can play against the AI’s pre-made decks and in drafting campaigns against the AI (these are a great way to explore the cards). I believe you can even bring AI sidekicks into team games. There are puzzles to help teach some of the game systems, missions to incentivize trying different gimmicks, and even faction achievements to encourage playing decks with all six colors. All of this stuff works even if you never play against an actual person. Of course, the AI has limits. This is a complex game, with a ton of moving parts, each with their own unique ramifications. It’s the sort of game where an AI is going to fall apart at some point.
Mythgard is obviously at its best when you’re playing against the same card synergies you’re building into your decks, when your opponent knows the tools as well as you do, and can defend against them. I’ve had no problem finding opponents online, but I do worry this is the sort of game where the player base isn’t big enough to accommodate people who aren’t good at Mythgard. At this point, with the game having been in early access for well over a year before its release in September, is the playerbase rocking ruthlessly tuned decks with a keen eye on the evolving meta-game? Probably. That’s just inevitable with a game like this. But I would recommend Mythgard the way I would recommend any CCG: as something you play with your friends. Come to Mythgard in pairs. Peer pressure a friend into joining you. Meet for occasional matches the way you might meet to play Magic, or any other CCG. In fact, since Mythgard runs just fine in a browser or as an iOS or Android app, it’s easy to play with someone in the same room. Who doesn’t have an extra iPad or laptop lying around?
And you don’t need to jump into the deck-building until you’re ready. You’ll have plenty of pre-made starter decks in your account, including rotating featured decks playable regardless of whether you own the cards in the deck. As you play, it’s easy to get more cards without paying a nickel. Mythgard is one of those free-to-play games constantly giving you cards and resources, as well as new ways to unlock cards, earn resources, and win packs of new cards. The crafting system makes it particularly easy to chase specific cards when you do start building decks. Consider doing what I did when I started: sacrifice a couple of colors. Break down all your cards of those colors. This will give you plenty of resources to fill out your decks with pretty much any gimmicks you want. The deck-building in Mythgard is an embarrassment of riches.
The deck-building is also another smart design element for its unique twist. In Mythgard, building your deck isn’t just choosing your cards. You also choose a power and a path. Each deck will have its power and path, chosen from among the six powers and seven paths, and regardless of what colors the deck is using. Powers are partly a way to spend points when you have those annoying leftovers. You’ve got five points to spend, but the two cards in your hand each cost three. Argh! A power can give you something to do with those extra points. Most powers cost two points. A couple of them cost three. They let you do things like move a card, ding your opponent for a point of damage, add temporary defense to a card, or pick a draw from the top four cards of your deck. These aren’t quite game changers, but they can be important tweaks, and they come in especially handy in the later stages of a match when you’re got a ton of points to spend. You might never use your chosen power, but it’s there.
But paths! Paths are something else entirely. They are game changers. A deck’s path determines two fundamental gameplay mechanics: what advantage you get if you lose the coin toss for first player, and how much health you start with. If you think starting with 20 health is for chumps, give your deck the Fires of Creation path. Now you’re starting with 28 health. You’re also getting a nifty little 2/2 card called a Forgeling when you lose the coin toss. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Well then why would l ever pick Turn of Seasons if it’s going to start me with only 21 health and boring ol’ 0/4 wall if I lose the coin toss?”
Because paths, more importantly, add a unique gameplay mechanic to each deck. That Fires of Creation path is about boosting cards called artifacts, which are a bit esoteric. Artifacts aren’t part of the regular lane play of attacking and blocking. They sit off to the side and use special abilities. You might play a dozen matches and never see an artifact. You might never put an artifact in any of your decks. You might still want that Fires of Creation path for the extra health. But its special ability is all about boosting decks that use artifacts.
But Turn of Seasons, with its lowly starting health of 21? Hoo boy. It’s a bit crazy. Every time your turn comes up, it cycles from winter, to spring, to summer, to fall, and then back again. It gives your matches a four-beat rhythm, in which each season does something different. During winter, all your cards gain the keyword “Fragile”, which means they take an extra point of damage. Winters are brutal. But then spring rolls around and you gain a point of life. Rebirth! During your summer turn, all your cards will heal a point of damage. Everybody loves summer vacation. And during your fall turn, you draw an extra card. That’s the harvest before winter, which is coming around again next turn.
And remember that these paths are completely independent of what’s in your deck. Any deck can use Fires of Creation or Turn of Seasons. Or Coliseum of Strife to reward you for killing enemies, or Rainbow’s End to change how your lane enchantments work, or Disk of Circadia’s day/night cycle of attacking and healing, or Journey of Souls to cycle your dead cards back to life. With Mythgard’s paths and powers, the deck-building is about more than just the cards.
I mentioned lane enchantments which is another one of my favorite design innovations in Mythgard. “Enchantment” sounds like what you’d call any card that modifies another card, but that’s not the case here. An enchantment is a card you play to change how a specific spot on the board works. Cards in Mythgard are played into a row of seven slots, or lanes, on your side of the table, opposite your opponent’s seven lanes. Cards block any attacks from the opposite lane, and the two lanes adjacent to it. A card can use it’s action to scooch over one lane instead of attacking (some of the more nimble cards can both move and attack). So there’s a bit of room for lateral maneuvering. But it can get pretty cramped after a few turns.
An enchantment adds terrain to the board. For instance, the deserts unique to orange cards. When a lane is turned into a desert, an opponent attacking into that lane takes a point of damage. Attrition! There are tons of enchantments in the game (70, to be precise; I just counted). They can be a significant part of the game design for how they add structure to what would otherwise be seven slots facing seven other slots. Each of these slots can become something with meaningful gameplay implications. A game of Mythgard can have a dynamic map, with 70 different ways to make each slot into something with its own rules. I mentioned enjoying how players build the map in Faeria. This is that, but with more unpredictability. Maybe your match will just be fought on seven boring slots facing seven boring slots. Maybe neither of you even put enchantments into your deck. Or maybe your match will be a brutal fight across a barren desert? Or the defense of a verdant Aztec jungle that gives you free mana if you can hold it? Or maybe you’ll have to work around a Cairnhenge the other guy threw down for a +1/+1 in the middle slot? Time to work the flanks.
The purple deck has an ultra-rare enchantment called Grandma Meng’s Tea House. You get to play your cards to that slot face-down. The other guy doesn’t know what the card is until you use it or he attacks it. Normally, only purple cards have this ability. But a facedown card on Grandma Meng’s Tea House could be any color. What’s more, whenever you play a card to the Tea House, the top card on your deck gains the stealth trait that lets you play it face-down anywhere. And again, it doesn’t have to be purple. Without the Tea House, your opponent knows any facedown card is purple. But the Tea House can hide anyone. I don’t have a Grandma Meng’s Tea House, but if I did, my purple Japanese cyberpunk decks would be an absolute terror.
In fact, if I wanted, I could break down some cards I’m not using to make a Grandma Meng’s Tea House right now. Or I could enjoy the delicious tension of waiting to see if one pops up in the packs of cards I can earn by playing. And, really, I’ve got tons of other cards to build decks around. Plus, it’s not as exciting to play facedown stealth cards against the AI. The AI can’t agonize about what my card might be the same way a human player would agonize about it. That’s the thing about stealth, which is unique to purple cards; it’s not as satisfying to antagonize the AI. So for the sake of the purple deck I’m about to build, which might one day include Grandma Meng’s Tea House, I implore you to consider playing Mythgard. If not for the smart design, the stunningly good art, and the canny interaction between them, then for me to grief you with whatever purple deck I’m about to build. I might even live dangerously and give it the Turn of Seasons path.
Can you tell that Mythgard is the kind of game I think about when I’m not playing? I’ve played a handful of card games I think about when I’m not playing. They’re good enough to roll around in my head even when I’m not at the table. Apocrypha, Netrunner, and Arkham Horror come to mind. But they’re all physical tabletop games, and none of them is the usual head-to-head card battle. Yet Mythgard, an online free-to-play game squarely in the tradition of the 1958 Richard Garfield classic that started it all, has found a place alongside them.
(To support reviews like this, please check out my Patreon campaign.)