Since I was little, I've been a pretty hardcore gamer. I prize depth and narrative above all things, and so I'm often quite attracted to tactical/strategic simulations and in depth 80-hour long RPGs.... needless to say, this means that the PC is the ONLY platform for this sort of heavy gaming!
However, I often need something to play on my commutes or when I'm just killing time waiting for the kids to fall asleep... this means I'm often relegated to a phone platform or if I'm lucky, the Switch. Mobile phone gaming has really taken off in the last half decade or so... however, the quality and depth of the gaming available on phones is pretty poor at best. More insidiously, it has given rise to the free-to-play model of development and monetisation.... this is really a cancer that has infected all parts of the gaming industry, which has led to compromises being made in the actual gaming mechanics.
There have been some old franchises that have resisted this idea, in particular the card battler genre which already had a sort of offline equivalent of this idea in place before the digitalisation of gaming. This meant that they already had solid game mechanics in place before the concept of building a "game" around nickel and dimeing the players became popular! One of the greatest of the old schol card-battlers is Magic the Gathering, and recently, Epic Games offered 15 free pack codes for players who would try out the latest Magic: Arena on the PC.
Lining up against this venerable behemoth is Splinterlands, an upstart card battler based on the STEEM blockchain. It's a bit of a David vs Goliath battle from the start in terms of reach, age and player base... however, it does appear that Splinterlands might have some hefty tricks up it's sleeve (hidden in it deck?).
Magic the Gathering starts off as the favourite... it has been around since 1993 with a player base before digitalisation of over 20 million players in 2015 with over 20 physical BILLION cards having been produced. It has a hard-core and rabidly loyal player base which has contributed to it's long survival against all newcomers and upstarts... and it has a tightly balanced game mechanic evolved over time and constant playtesting. In fact, there are many gamers that would argue that it is THE ultimate card battler.
It is also a game that has e-sports support and also the support of digital gaming storefronts such as Epic Games...
Meanwhile, on the other side of the card table is Splinterlands... a game that is barely two years old, begun on the STEEM blockchain (but now also accepting payments in fiat and multiple other cryptocurrencies...) with a playerbase that is optimistically measured in the the thousands. This should be a short fight.....
Round 1: The Cards
Okay... this seems to be more of a matter of taste here. It is clear that MtG: Arena takes it's art direction cues from the original physical cards. The art styling is similar and the layout is pretty much identical. There is no debating that these are beautiful looking cards and artworks...
... meanwhile, Splinterlands has a much more cartoony and low-fi art direction... partly due to the fact that much of it's assets were community sourced. Meanwhile, it removes the detailed descriptions of skills in favour of icons that will pop up a skill description upon hovering or clicking on a card. To me, this is much cleaner design... and personally, I am quite partial to the warmer feeling of the artwork!
Round 2: The Battle Visuals
Ouch... this is a double edged sword here. MtG:Arena just blows away Splinterlands in terms of production values, animations and sound effects. However, in doing that... it is a game that requires the resources of a PC platform to run. It isn't a mobile platform game which sort of defeats the purpose of the card-battling genre for my own use case! If I have access to a PC for gaming, I'm not playing a card battler... I'm going to be playing Witcher 3 or something that is much more satisfying!
On the other hand, the browser based Splinterlands is friendly for phone use... perfect for travelling on public transport or sitting the in the dark waiting for the kids to conk out! There isn't a native mobile app yet, but I hear that it is in the works...
Round 3: The Gameplay
Although MtG:Arena and Splinterlands are both examples of the card battling genre, they are quite different in some very fundamental ways.
First and foremost of these differences is the synchronicity of each game, in Splinterlands the gameplay is asynchronous, in that each player has submits a team and the game plays out afterwards. There is just the single player interaction in the choosing of the cards for the battle. MtG:Arena is turn based, in that one player takes and turn and then the other... until the game is completed. These are different approaches that highlight the differences in gameplay, with Splinterlands all the strategy and tactics are defined by positioning... meanwhile, MtG is a game of reacting and countering your opponent over rounds, with the tactics and strategy constantly evolving over the game.
Needless to say, the MtG model is the more tactically engaging... however, it is also the game that requires the greater attention. Splinterlands requires a quick setup, which then can be allowed to run it's course afterwards. Both models have their merits, but again, Splinterlands is the model that is best suited for short commuter trips and bursts of gaming... MtG requires that you devote a significant amount of concentration and time, and again, if I have that in spades then I'm going to be playing a different more involved game than a card battler!
What both games do have, is the fact that the teams (splinters) and cards have been well balanced. This is a place where many other games of this genre fall over, as it becomes all too apparent that the free-to-play model rapidly becomes a pay-to-win model. It's great that both these games avoid this pitfall as it is something that players rapidly notice as a way to milk them for money...
The Killer Trump Card
So, all of this seems to lead to an easy win for the MtG juggernaut. However, when you start to look into how you aquire cards... you can pay with in game currency... so a lock-in that is basically worthless anywhere outside of the MtG economy! Likewise, with the card packs that you open up... well, they are useful for the game... but they have no intrinsic worth to anyone else because you can't transfer ownership! Thus, they have no worth to anyone else unless you actually sell your entire account!
If we just stop to think about this... however great the game is, you are sinking money (fiat) into an in game currency (that is worthless outside the game) to exchange for packs/cards that are intrinsically worthless because you can't sell/buy them to other players who are the only people that are actually interested in the cards! Hmmmm.....
When I opened up card packs.. I was a bit ho-hum after playing Splinterlands... got a good card that I can't use... well, it just sits there... got too many of a single type of card, well... tough, it just sits there... this is quite strange seeing as the physical versions of MtG cards have a really healthy trading marketplace!
Compared to this MtG model of non-ownership... Splinterlands has each card represented as a unique NFT on the STEEM blockchain. This means that it can be traded and sold for cryptocurrencies (STEEM/SBD, DEC, ETH, TRX and more)... which gives them intrinsic value to other players, as you can actually exchange them for other cards or tokens/coins of value!
This is a really novel concept to the world of gaming (and to the internet at large), the idea that you have full ownership of your digital assets, and can sell/buy/trade/rent them as you wish... there is no going back after this! When you open a pack, or claim your rewards... when you get that great card, you get a rush... do you keep it, do you sell it to bolster the rest of your deck (or to purchase something else in a different game or in real life?)... if you get a crap card, then you can also sell it off... buy something that you actually want, in game or in real life! The possibilities are endless... had enough of the game and want to rage quit... no problem, you can sell your cards and extract something of value still!
In essence, this is the knockout combo for Splinterlands. Digital ownership of your cards... and the ability to trade them. The games are aimed at slightly different audiences, Splinterlands is a more casual game with balanced but simpler game mechanics whilst Magic the Gathering is the for the hardcore card battler. For my particular gaming use case (for card battlers...), this means that Splinterlands wins hands down... I feel no connection to the cards that I turn over in Magic the Gathering, I just don't own them... they are just digital artwork with no substance. With Splinterlands, these are MY cards...
In doing this comparison review, I thought it would be best to compare two similar games in the same genre. After all, if I had to compare Splinterlands against some of my hardcore PC games... well, I'm afraid that there can only be one winner there...
... however, even when comparing against one of the biggest franchises in the card battling genre, Splinterlands is the game that grabs me more than the existing champion. The reason behind this unexpected win is the simple premise... the ownership and marketplace for digital assets.
... which leads me to question why I play these sorts of games. In my particular use case (and I know that others view these things differently), card battlers are a time-waster and something for casual gaming. If have access to a decent PC, then I'm going to be opting to do something else.
When playing most free to play games, you are killing time and dumping money into a Skinner box that doesn't actually return anything back to aside from pretty lights, nice sounds and an online "reputation and ranking". In contrast, Splinterlands (and other blockchain games, but Splinterlands is the best example of this new genre) returns you cards for playing... which actually have value outside of the game. Have excess cards, or ones that you don't want... sell them for fiat or crypto... exchange them, rent then... buy new ones! Or just cash out and stop playing!
The idea of owning your cards and being able to extract value from them is such a profound concept when you first come across it... and once you experience it, you will wonder why the HELL are you playing other games with similar game experiences but with a single cash flow direction away from your pocket! This is a model that was prevalent in trading cards and card battlers such as Magic the Gathering in their physical representations, but it is not an idea that has transferred over to their digital equivalents. In time maybe it will come, but until then... games like Splinterlnads are the future!
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