Seven years ago, grand worldwide events were taking place - like Gangnam Style hitting two billion views on YouTube and Luis Suárez biting yet another footballer in the World Cup - but there was even more. The world of digital tabletop games was shaken to its core by the release of Blizzard’s collectible card battler Hearthstone.
Best digital card games
Whilst card games had existed in the digital medium for a long time, dating back to the Yu-Gi-Oh! RPGs on the original PlayStation, Magic: The Gathering Online’s release in 2002 and mini-games such as Triple Triad in Final Fantasy 8, this was the first time that a real standalone hit had garnered proper worldwide recognition and success. There’s a massive portion of the video game industry and a newly-regenerated trading card game market off-screen that owes part of its existence to Hearthstone’s success.
But with new mediums comes innovation and competition. New games appear, taking the bones of their predecessors and twisting and turning them into new creations with innovative new ideas that can make the original games they were based on seem even a little dull in comparison. So let’s look at some of the absolute best digital card games out there, in our opinion, that aren’t Hearthstone.
1. Magic: The Gathering Arena
The latest attempt to bring the original collectible card game to the digital plane
Whilst Hearthstone’s success spawned a lot of innovation, it also spawned a lot of clones. Seeing a new opportunity to milk some money from their respective franchises, games companies throughout the world rushed to make their own version of the CCG hit and try to snap up their share of the pack money. There’s a countless number of digital card games out there that aren't Hearthstone, including but not limited to Spellweaver, Animation Throwdown: The Quest For Cards, Forced: Showdown, Shadowverse, SolForge, Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links, Plants vs. Zombies Heroes, The Elder Scrolls: Legends, Faeria, Krosmaga, Nova Blitz, Artifact, Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, Eternal, Teppen, Judge Dredd: Crime Files, Kards, Domain The Trading Card Game, Duel Masters PLAY'S, Legends of Runeterra…
They’ve all made their attempts at toppling the giant, but none have come closer than the ancestor of the physical CCG, Magic: The Gathering Arena. Built from the rules and card pool of the lucrative trading card game designed by Richard Garfield, Arena is a like-for-like digital version of the game we all know, albeit wrapped in fancy graphics and voice acting with animated card effects, single-player campaigns and oodles and oodles of content.
It took Wizards of the Coast a few attempts to get a really solid digital version of its flagship card game into the public’s hands, but Arena is an incredibly well-polished and user-friendly way to play Magic: The Gathering - to the point where if you want to learn how to play MTG you’re better off just downloading Arena rather than grabbing a physical starter kit.
It makes sense that Arena would be the number one contender for Hearthstone’s digital card game throne. With decades of history in the game’s fabric before it even hit the internet, Magic already had an enormous fanbase and plenty of experience in monetising itself. With no price of entry and a massive community playing all the time, MTG is constantly flooded with new updates, including cards, new ways to play and all sorts of events to take part in. If Hearthstone isn’t your jam, why not take a seat with one of the old masters?
2. Slay the Spire
Deckbuild your way through a dungeon-crawl
What is the Spire? How long has it stood for and how long will it continue to stand? What will you find when you venture inside? These are the quandaries that assail you when playing Slay the Spire, an adventure and roleplaying digital card game set in the titular mysterious vertically-inclined structure. Your goal is to make your way through the building’s various rooms in a gauntlet that will test your mind, spirit and possibly even body.
Slay the Spire combines elements of living card games, such as Arkham Horror: The Card Game and Marvel Champions, with the kind of RPG and roguelike mechanics you’d find in video games to create a rapid-fire experience where you get better with every failure you run into. The aforementioned Spire is one hell of a dangerous place filled with cut-throat thieves, talented sorcerers, toxic slimes and other, even stranger foes - all of whom stand between you and the secrets that lie at its peak.
Each level of the Spire contains a series of branching paths intersected by various rooms. These rooms could contain fortuitous encounters, such as treasures or allies, or they could house less advantageous occupants - such as a gang of cultists who happen to be ready to tear you limb from limb with all manner of terrible weapons.
Luckily for you, there are four formidable heroes to choose from in Slay the Spire, each one providing an entirely unique player experience. From the beginner-friendly Ironclad to the robotic Defect, each class offers its own diverse approach to the digital card game that you’ll do well to get your head around if you’re going to make any progress. The fundamentals of the game are all fairly straightforward - use energy to play cards that can attack, shield or perform special skills - but learning how to utilise each class is the real meat and bones of Slay the Spire. And it’s certainly not going to happen overnight, because Slay the Spire is a game that’s intended to be lost.
You’ll begin each playthrough with a deck of basic cards, which might get you through the first few rooms of the first act - but you’re going to need a lot more firepower if you want to get any further than that. Defeating certain enemies can earn you new cards and sometimes even the opportunity to improve or outright transform your existing cards. You can also find treasures and discover events that might help - or possibly hinder - your deck. There’s even a merchant you can visit - which may or may not be a band of identical people launching their own pop-up shops - who’s willing to sell you new cards or destroy the old ones you don’t want.
Despite these opportunities for strengthening your deck, there will still be enemies in the Spire who will turn you inside-out. One playthrough is unlikely to provide the strength you’ll need to survive all the dangers Slay the Spire will throw your way, which is why death is inevitable. Then again, death is arguably just another step on the path to victory. Whenever your character falls in battle, they’ll unlock new cards to use in future runs - meaning that you’re working with a better arsenal with each new playthrough.
What’s more is that you will - hopefully - learn from your past mistakes the more you play. The knowledge you’ve acquired from previous attempts will undoubtedly help you to overcome those obstacles that bested you last time. Soon enough, you’ll be firing out powerful combos, cutting down enemies with ease and making the best of your energy supply in every turn.
Slay the Spire is a video game about momentum. Things are slow to start, but before you know it your runs will be getting longer and longer. Eventually you’ll be making it to the very top of the Spire - maybe even multiple times with each of the playable characters. Which is a perfectly viable way to approach the game, considering that the maps, standard enemies and encounters for each act are randomly generated - meaning that no playthrough ever feels quite the same.
So prepare your walking boots and summon more than a good ounce of courage, because you’re about the Slay the Spire.
Build the board and your strategy in this hex-based twist on digital card games
Modern digital card games have often tried to recreate Hearthstone’s formula with one or two interesting changes to set themselves apart from the pack. Some games introduce multiple lanes, or commanders as units, drawing from more than one deck or even building your deck as you play through each round. One thing that’s sorely under-utilised is something that’s been a staple of turn-based video games for decades: grid-based, tactical movement.
Most card games have the units that you bring to the battlefield exist in an abstract line, not really doing much of anything apart from attacking and defending. When card games are combined with a physical space, suddenly it’s not just the cards that you play but when and where you place, how they move and attack, and how their position on the battlefield affects your overall strategy that comes into consideration.
Faeria has a lot of the visual DNA of Blizzard’s monolithic card game but as soon as you jump into a game you’ll notice something strange about the field in front of you. A big mess of hexagons places itself between you and your opponent, and the strange thing is that there’s nothing filling them. That’s because in Faeria you’re not only placing your creatures on a hex-based board, you’re also building the board yourself as you play. Each turn you’ll expand your territory with different tiles and cards, either making your way to attack your opponent or trying to take control of the magical wells that are dotted around the map. These wells are an important resource - if you play cleverly, you can starve your opponent of the points they need to defend themselves before going in for the kill.
Faeria is one of the most inventive player-vs-player card games out there and showcases a lot of smart ideas for introducing new players to its format, including the Codex system. In Faeria, deck construction is a lot more guided and user-friendly than building a deck in a game like MTG, but with all the depth and flexibility players have come to expect from the genre. It balances the upper end of the spectrum where super competitive users will be making their wild creations with giving a nice platform to newbies to experiment peacefully without being left with just a starter deck and the shirt on their back.
4. Fights in Tight Spaces
Action-movie brawls played out card-by-card
Slay the Spire combined the massively popular genre of deckbuilding tabletop games with the just-as-popular genre of roguelike video games and resulted in a huge breakout success. It was only a matter of time before it started to inspire some other developers to try out the formula.
Enter Fights in Tight Spaces, a game that takes the core card mechanics, classes and branching paths of Slay the Spire and wraps them with a James Bond-esque bow. Our protagonist Agent 11 is a modern martial artist in a tailored black-and-white suit who can choose from a variety of different fighting styles with each run. He can focus on aggressive all-out attacks, defensive counter combos, a balanced mix of both or whatever the situation calls for. Just like Slay the Spire you’ll start with a standard deck of cards that will improve as you go through each room - or tight space - of your journey towards beating down the boss of a criminal organisation.
The thing that sets the two digital card games apart is that FITS pushes its card-driven combat into a real, physical space made up of a square grid. Enemies will come at you from all angles, trying to surround your position and line up punches, kicks or even bullets to hit you with. Your deck of standard attack and defence cards are accompanied by dodges, sprints, pushes and pulls to manoeuvre yourself and your opponents to the best of your ability. There are even tactical spots in the map where you can instantly take down a foe by shoving them out of bounds like you’re fighting in the Royal Rumble.
This element of FITS feels heavily inspired by cult indie classic Into The Breach, with that game’s tactical puzzle of tight movement and damage reduction taken from its original theming of massive robots fighting huge bugs and swapped to a suave simulation of Casino Royale-style punch-ups. Just like Into The Breach, everything that will happen when you press that End Turn button is laid out for you plain as day. You can see the attacks your enemies are planning, the direction they’re going to punch, move and shoot - and, if you play your cards right (pun intended), you can manipulate that info to your advantage. Someone aiming at you with a gun? Drag their mate into the path of their shot and let them take the damage for you. Getting shoved by an enemy into a different space might be annoying, but not if they’re going to do it just before you get smacked with an iron pipe.
The visuals are really nice as well, reminiscent of time-stopping combat game Superhot or even party board game Dead Last, with the stark environments populated by monochromatic mischief-makers trying to paint the white canvas with your bright red blood. After a particularly intricate fight you can treat yourself to watching the whole thing play out in a real-time sequence by using the replay function and watch the chaos unfold in a piece of cathartic cinema. It’s worth watching, as well, because your suit-clad kicker has some seriously cool animations to unleash on his enemies when you drop a tricky-to-use card.
5. Hand of Fate
A storytelling adventure that mixes digital cardplay with roleplaying
As you start up Hand of Fate you’re immediately introduced to your storytelling companion. Are they friend or foe? It’s not immediately obvious, but he’s certainly menacing. Face obscured and speaking in riddles, he invites you to play his cursed card game in the back of a dodgy carriage. Here’s the interesting thing about Hand of Fate: whilst it might on the surface level share some DNA with other digital card games on this list (including procedurally-generated dungeon crawls, roguelike elements, narrative events and deck construction), it’s actually the shadowy figure across the table who will be handling the cards.
Like a mystical fortune teller, your counterpart will lay cards across the table for you to move between, each holding different encounters for you to deal with. There might be tavern brawls or tests of strength, vendors to upgrade your equipment or tricksy riddles to wrap your head around. It’s reminiscent of a Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy book, with the shadowy figure accompanying you acting like a game master, leading you from each encounter to the next. Hand of Fate is a card game, but it’s less so one that you’re playing yourself and more one that you’re stuck inside of.
Each game is full of different stories to play through - which of the two games you pick will determine how those stories will play out - but the main draw is that whilst your opponent is building a deck of cards to try and whittle you down, you’ll be able to select your own set to shuffle into the deck as well. You can lay down pieces of equipment you might find, people you might meet, companions to fight at your side, enemies you might encounter or even troubles you might have to deal with on your journey.
Each card has its use but there’s only so many you can choose, with the start of each session seeing you build your own deck of things you want to do that will allow you to build your character as well as you can before you face off against the fortune teller’s boss. Imagine building your Hearthstone deck but instead of just shoving creatures and spells inside, you’re filling it with miniature RPG adventures for you to encounter in random order.
Hand of Fate is a really intriguing way to play with the digital card game concept. It’ll keep you busy for hours, too, as missions will set themselves up differently every time, with you unlocking new cards to play with and cards you’re familiar with changing and evolving as you come across them multiple times.