Looking for a Hearthstone alternative? Give Eternal a shot

Alongside other heavy-hitters like World of Warcraft and Overwatch, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft enjoyed its own time in the spotlight during last weekend’s BlizzCon 2019 convention. Hearthstone players have plenty to look forward to over the coming months, including the new Descent of Dragons expansion which launches in December complete with a brand new Autobattler-esque mode called Hearthstone Battlegrounds.

However, despite a formal apology from Blizzard president J. Allen Brack during BlizzCon’s opening ceremony, many former fans remain upset over Blizzard’s banning of Hearthstone pro Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai for political comments he made during a livestreamed tournament. Some fans have even decided to boycott all Blizzard games which, while admirable, means they’re now likely looking for an alternative digital card game to play in lieu of Hearthstone. If you’re one such player, I’m here to make the case for a game you’ve probably only heard of in passing, if at all: Dire Wolf Digital’s Eternal.

Spellcraft and Six-Shooters

I only found out about Eternal through an in-game advertisement in an entirely separate Dire Wolf Digital game, Raiders of the North Sea, and it was mostly my enjoyment of the latter which inspired me to try the former. Of course, aside from the fact that they’re both digital renditions of what is typically a tabletop venture, Raiders and Eternal really couldn’t be more different.

Whereas Raiders is a more traditional-feeling board game that’s best played in a large group, Eternal mimics the more intimate 1v1 format popularized in other CCGs (collectible card games) like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering. Much like in other CCGs, Eternal players collect cards and use them to construct custom decks which they then use to try and best other players’ decks. The cards players collect are spread across a number of different color variants, card types, and keywords, allowing for deck strategies which range from simple and straightforward to mind-bendingly complex, and every shade of gray in-between.

Unlike Raiders, Eternal is also a F2P game (again, similar to Hearthstone), but you shouldn’t let that F2P label scare you off. The game has been around since 2016, and since its initial launch on PC it has been ported over to several other platforms including iOS and Android mobile devices, Xbox One, and, most recently, Nintendo Switch. I’ll delve more deeply into Eternal’s unique strengths later on, but right off the bat you should know that progress made in the game is synced across all platforms, giving it just as much portability and accessibility as Hearthstone.  

Even if Eternal’s competitive card battling format and F2P monetization model give you pause, the game’s unique lore alone makes it worth at least checking out. Eternal utilizes a unique ‘Weird West’ setting which combines elements of the American Wild West mythos with more traditional European fantasy/steampunk tropes. In Eternal’s world, bounty hunters wielding revolvers and sporting cowboy hats can clash with armor-clad valkyries wielding swords and magic. Here there be dragons, but also vampires, minotaurs, battle tanks, desert nomads, flash grenades, and even dinosaurs.

A Happy Medium

One could summarize Eternal by saying that it functions as a happy medium between Hearthstone’s overt focus on streamlining and Magic: The Gathering’s intimidating levels of complexity. Of course, while they’d technically be right, they’d also be grossly oversimplifying the sheer amount of value Eternal offers to even casual players who may not be willing to make an immediate financial investment.

Since Eternal has been around for roughly three years now, Dire Wolf Digital has had plenty of time to implement quality-of-life features like the aforementioned cross-platform support as well as in-depth tutorials which bring new players up to speed on the game’s story while also showing them the ropes. If you’re already familiar with CCG’s like Hearthstone and/or Magic, you’ll likely pick up on Eternal’s format pretty quickly, and even if Eternal is your very first CCG, you’ll discover an experience whose pick up-and-play accessibility is surpassed only by the sheer number of different ways you can play it.

Yes, there are the usual competitive PvP modes like Casual and Ranked play, but that’s just the start. Eternal players who don’t mind facing off against other human competitors can also participate in Drafts where they build a deck from scratch on the spot and see how many matches they can win with that deck. There are also monthly sealed deck leagues where players make and modify decks using a selection of cards from the newest set. Lastly, there’s a unique ‘Expedition’ mode where only decks utilizing cards from certain sets are allowed (offering a more normalized and consistent competitive arena).

The one thing I enjoy most about Eternal, though, is that you never have to touch any of the above PvP modes if you don’t want to. Eternal also offers players a surprisingly robust number of PvE options where they pit themselves against AI-controlled decks. First, there are the structured story campaigns which must first be purchased using in-game gold or roughly $10 worth of premium currency. Each story campaign takes players through a series of unique scenarios, allowing them to unlock a full set of campaign-specific cards in the process.

Aside from the paid story campaigns there’s also the ‘Gauntlet’ mode in which players pick a deck and then battle against a series of seven increasingly difficult AI opponents. Each Gauntlet win improves the final reward a player receives (rewards can include gold, individual cards, and even card packs), and the seventh battle takes the form of a special “boss fight” with a unique condition or modifier.

For a small gold fee, players can also try their hand at the ‘Forge’ mode which essentially functions the same as Draft (i.e. players construct a brand new deck on the spot using pre-selected cards), only their opponents are all AI-controlled. There’s even a robust series of ‘Puzzle’ encounters which test a player’s creative thinking skills while also showing them the finer points of how specific game mechanics or keywords might be used. Every completed Puzzle awards a small bit of gold, making them doubly worth doing for players who like to be rewarded for their clever stratagems.

Learning Curve

The downside of Eternal’s established nature is that it can be a bit intimidating for brand new players to take in all of the additional features and card sets Dire Wolf Digital has added to the game over the past three years. Players who are coming from Hearthstone might even have it worse than total CCG newbies, though, since Eternal’s deck-building and resource mechanics are more akin to Magic: The Gathering’s.

When an Eternal player constructs a new deck, they must first pick which of the five ‘Factions’ they’ll draw their cards from. The Factions system is clearly inspired by Magic’s color-coded lands system (Plains, Swamp, Forest, etc.), with each faction having a color all its own (the Justice faction is green whereas the Shadow faction is purple, for example). Starter decks only use one Faction color, but most typical decks use a minimum of two, and some more complex decks even use three or four.

To play a card, a player must first gain the requisite amount of Power by playing Power cards of that card’s Faction color. Some cards also require varying levels of “Influence” with a given Faction, i.e. playing a specific number of Power cards associated with that Faction (a creature, for example, might have a total Power cost of 4 but also requires at least two Fire Influence and two Justice Influence to play).

An average deck in Eternal is made up of 75 cards, and of those 75 at least one third must be Power cards (the specific number of Power cards can shift depending on how many Faction colors the deck is made up of, but the bare minimum needed is one third). Power cards must be drawn and played like any other card, and this can be a hard change to get used to for Hearthstone players who are accustomed to a guaranteed pool of mana crystals which grows every turn.

Given my traditionally poor luck, there were many times where I’d begin an Eternal match with an opening hand that contained next to no Power cards, forcing me to cross my fingers and hope I drew enough additional Power cards before my opponent overwhelmed me. Other times, my opening hand would contain too many Power cards and I’d keep drawing nothing but additional Power, meaning I could play virtually nothing else. I learned the hard way that fine-tuning just the right amount of Power cards for your deck is a delicate art form, and even then sometimes pure bad luck can stall out your chances of victory right from the start.

The difficulty of finding the right number of Power cards is admittedly compounded by the large size of the average Eternal deck, to the point where I think it’s the game’s biggest detractor. It’s hard enough for a player to construct a viable deck that’s over twice the number of cards in the average Hearthstone deck, and having to constantly fret over just how many Power cards you need can be both frustrating and tedious.

Thankfully, there’s a large number of pre-made decks that can be purchased using in-game gold, some of which are even approved for Eternal’s Expedition mode. These pre-made decks probably won’t carry you very far in the competitive PvP scene, but they can at least expand your total card collection and give you ideas for how to construct more original deck strategies.

A Worthy Alternative

Eternal may not have the name recognition or production value afforded to some of its other CCG brethren, but it has still managed to carve out its own niche, one that’s equally inviting to fans of both PvP and PvE play. Enjoying the full gamut of Eternal’s various gameplay offerings does require some monetary investment, but as I explained above, there’s plenty you can experience (and keep experiencing over the long term) entirely for free. In fact, I’ve been playing Eternal for going on four months now and I honestly feel a bit guilty over how much enjoyment I’ve gotten out of those four months despite not having spent a cent on the game.

I’ll likely spend real money on Eternal at some point, if for no other reason than because I want to support Dire Wolf Digital and the solid work they’re doing with games like Eternal and Raiders of the North Sea. There’s no denying that other CCG’s like Hearthstone and The Elder Scrolls: Legends have been getting better about expanding their content offerings and implementing more consistent rewards for casual players. However, if you’d rather look beyond what the big publishers offer, or you just want a F2P CCG that’s ready to prove how worthy it is of your investment (be it in time or money), Eternal is absolutely worth checking out.