Is Hearthstone King, with its history and large player base? Or perhaps the newcomer, Fable Fortune will swoop in and steal the show? This article compares the strengths and weaknesses of the most popular CCG titles to decide which game is deserving of players’ time.
The digital collectible card game genre (DCCG) has boomed in the last couple years, producing many robust, free-to-play contenders. Perhaps the most well-known titles are a handful of spin-offs from stellar franchises: Hearthstone (World of Warcraft), Gwent (The Witcher 3), Fable Fortune (Fable), and The Elder Scrolls: Legends (Elder Scrolls).
But players don’t have the time to commit to four different card games, especially when these games are often played as a filler between bigger titles. So which CCG should players go with?
I have my personal favorite, but at the end of the day, it depends on what players are looking for in their CCGs. So I’m going to run through the main categories to consider when picking a CCG to give you a play-by-play of who wins which rounds, that way you can decide which game is right for you.
Search TL;DR for the short version.
And bear in mind, as of this writing Gwent is still in Game Preview and isn’t officially launched yet. There is a chance that more modes will be coming before the launch of version 1.0.
The core of every good CCG is its strategy. Is it complex? Is it fun to play? Am I rewarded for crafting a winning deck? These are the questions that draw players to CCGs and keep them playing.
Hearthstone is the oldest game on the list, and as such, it also set many of the standards for digital card games. Its strategy pulls from physical card games like Magic: The Gathering in that players can play minions and spells for a set mana cost in an attempt to bring the opponent to 0 life points.
Although, Hearthstone improved upon this formula, introducing the mana system that modern DCCGs know and love: get one mana at the start of the game, then one more every turn up to 10. (Other CCGs tweak the numbers a bit, but the concept remains the same.) This system ensures that players won’t have to contend with an unpredictable mana pool to pull off their desired strategies.
As the first in the mainstream, Hearthstone has become something of a boilerplate for other developers to base their own card games on, changing a few names and strategies here and there.
But while Hearthstone’s age opens it up to copycatting from competitors, it also means it has one of the largest card collections, creating a wide variety of strategies and metas. As such, starting a couple years ago, Hearthstone began implementing Standard vs. Wild collections to differentiate which cards are eligible for competitive play, versus which cards should only be allowed in casual settings. This leads to a very large and robust card ecosystem.
But in practice, Hearthstone games often feel like they come down to luck rather than skill. Whenever a game goes longer than a few turns, players will eventually run out of cards in their hand, forcing them to pray every turn that the top card is something they can use. In my opinion, this leads to a very frustrating way to play.
Meanwhile, The Elder Scrolls: Legends took care to learn from its predecessors. It took the updated mana and taunt systems from Hearthstone, mixed them with old-school elements from games like MTG, such as color-based decks and lingering enchantments (supports), and then added their own improvements on top.
While players often run out of cards in Hearthstone, that is rarely a problem in TESL. Sitting at five point increments throughout a player’s health bar are runes. Once a player’s health drops below the value marked by a rune, that rune explodes and grants the player a new card. In practice, this means that as a game becomes more dire a player is granted more cards with which to fight back. It makes for a very satisfying comeback mechanic that enables a player to rely on their skills and their deck rather than luck.
Not to mention, TESL takes the battlefield and divides it into two lanes that can be affected by modifiers. (Perhaps an influence from Gwent?) This adds another layer of strategy when considering how to attack the opponent, or defend against their onslaught. Sure, you may have a defender in the left lane, but the opponent has dropped Paarthurnax in the right lane (a 9/9 dragon), and you have no way to block him. Oops!
I definitely do more thinking than praying when I play TESL.
Fable Fortune stays pretty close to the Hearthstone boilerplate with one major difference: the quest/morality system.
Essentially, throughout every game players work to complete quests. Upon completion, the quest grants a special reward card directly to the player’s hand, and one morality point. When accepting the morality point you can choose good, or evil. The choice will alter the player’s hero ability and affect certain cards in the game, cards which can gain power or change form based on your morality.
Not to mention, each game is played on a different map with different quests, adding a new flavor of strategy to every game that can be expanded upon in future updates.
I won’t bore you for too much longer, I realize this article is long-winded as is, but if you’re curious you can learn more about Fable Fortune and its gameplay in my review.
Overall, Fable Fortune’s quest/morality system adds a fantastic amount of depth over a game like Hearthstone, but I don’t think it adds quite enough to be competitive with The Elder Scrolls: Legends. But, I suppose it comes down to what flavor of strategy you prefer in your CCGs.
Gwent is the only game on this list that lives entirely outside of the Hearthstone boilerplate. Based on the mini-game from The Witcher 3, Gwent is based on the simple premise that the battlefield has three rows – melee, ranged, and siege -, and that a player only gets one hand with which to win two out of three rounds. You don’t draw new cards every turn. Creatures don’t attack each other directly, and there are no life points. Instead, players amass their armies, and at the end of each round, the player with the biggest numbers wins.
As Gwent has evolved into a stand-alone game, it has evolved far beyond its humble roots in an attempt to become a more robust and sustainable PvP game. Cards have gained a plethora of abilities, rows no longer dictate what types of units can live there, players now draw a card or three between rounds, and more. But at its heart, Gwent is still the patient, strategic bluffing game it has always been.
Do I forfeit this round so I have enough cards to win the next one? Or do I push for the win and pray I draw a decent card for round three? Decisions, decisions…
It is hard to compare the strategy of Gwent to the strategy of the others CCGs when it is so fundamentally different. But overall, I would say that it is a game that always rewards skill and cunning over luck. And to me, that is enough to make it worthwhile.
Hearthstone is the vanilla foundation, Fable Fortune spices things up with its quintessential Fable morality, and The Elder Scrolls: Legends improves upon the formula with comeback mechanics that make for an exciting game. Gwent, meanwhile, stands apart with its own unique formula for out-bluffing and outwitting your opponent.
Different Ways to PvP
Of course, the main goal of any strategy is to use it against other players, but each game goes about PvP slightly differently
Gwent, Hearthstone, and The Elder Scrolls: Legends all have two main ways to play: casual and ranked play. Fable Fortune, on the other hand, does not have a casual playlist. All PvP players go into the same seasonal, competitive queue, gaining medals and ranking up with every win.
Gwent, Hearthstone, and The Elder Scrolls: Legends also have arena modes in which players pay an entry fee for a shot at big prizes. Players build their decks from random cards, getting to choose one card out of three until the deck is complete. This enables players to play with powerful cards that aren’t in their collections. The goal is X amount of wins, with increasing rewards for each win along the way. But lose three times and you are out of the running.
The Elder Scrolls: Legends also has a highly competitive Grand Melee in which players build their best decks and compete for exclusive prizes in a competitive, limited time ladder. Players get one shot to play twelve matches. The more wins they get, the better the prizes.
Hearthstone, meanwhile, has a more casual game mode called Tavern Brawl. From week to week the game mode opens from Wednesday through Monday with a different set of rules and deck criteria. Sometimes players can bring their own decks, sometimes they are given a premade deck, and sometimes there are rule modifiers to force players to think outside the box. Overall, it is intended to be a fun, easily accessible mode.
Hearthstone and The Elder Scrolls: Legends have the greatest variety of PvP modes, while Fable Fortune is woefully limited. Gwent, meanwhile, is only a step behind the leaders, standing one PvP mode shy of being tied with the top contenders.
Co-op Game Modes
This one is short and sweet since only two of the four games actually have it.
Hearthstone has hosted co-op on occasion in the form of Tavern Brawls (mentioned above). Players face off as they normally would in a PvP match, except instead of attacking each other they attack a massively overpowered minion that floats back and forth between the two sides. Neat.
On the other hand, Fable Fortune has a more robust co-op mode designed to be its main alternative to PvP. (If the layout of the play screen isn’t a dead giveaway, I don’t know what is.)
In Fable’s co-op, players sit side by side on one side of the field, facing off against a computer opponent. Players can see each others’ hands, ping suggestions, and utilize each others’ minions on their turn.
Overall, Fable’s co-op is the most robust iteration I’ve seen in the genre. While it is prone to the usual problems of playing with strangers, it is still a fun and challenging experience.
If you’re curious to know the full story behind my roller coaster ride with Fable Fortune’s co-op, you can check out my Fable Fortune review. Long story short, I enjoyed it, but it won’t necessarily be my go-to game mode.
Hearthstone has a casual co-op that occasionally pops up in Tavern Brawls, but Fable Fortune has a fully fleshed out co-op mode that is as fun as it is challenging.
The Professional Scene
In this day and age, any game with a PvP element is bound to spawn a competitive scene, and CCGs are no different.
That being said, Fable Fortune doesn’t really have a competitive scene to speak of, and The Elder Scrolls: Legends, while growing, is currently limited to amateur tournaments and streams, such as their recently announced Elite Circuit tournament
Meanwhile, Gwent, a game that isn’t technically released yet, has a thriving professional scene called Gwent Masters. It is a vast scene, composed of an in-game ladder, amateur tournaments, and CD Projekt Red organized tournaments. These CD Projekt Red tournaments are split into three tiers, Open, Challenger, and Masters, offering $25,000, $100,000 and $250,000 respectively, with Masters being the final, worldwide championship.
During the course of these events, players compete for Crown Points, players’ tickets to compete in the Masters tournament. Masters participants are a mix of Challenger winners and Crown Point leaders, designed to bring the best players from around the world together. Full details can be found at the official masters.playgwent website.
And these tournaments don’t take place in the quiet corner of a convention center. CD Projekt Red goes out of their way to create sets that could be straight from the Witcher 3, complete with actors playing fan favorite characters. It makes for a pretty entertaining event, even if you’re just waiting to see what the actors do next.
As of this writing, Gwent has already had three Open tournaments and two Challenger tournaments, with a plan for eight Opens and five Challengers per year. And it bears repeating: Gwent isn’t even out of Game Preview yet.
Then we have Hearthstone, which operates in much the same way as Gwent: players compete in a series of smaller tournaments, including the Hearthstone Global Games, to be eligible in the big Worlds tournament. And much like Gwent, Blizzard shells out for elaborate, tavern themed sets for the professionals to play on.
Hearthstone’s final tournament also has the largest prize pool of the pack: $1 million dollars to the last player standing at the Hearthstone World Championship. Full details can be found at Hearthstone’s official eSports page.
Professional Play TL;DR:
Hearthstone has the largest prize pool of $1 million, but Gwent has the clearest cut pro scene, with multiple tiers of tournaments leading players to the final Masters tournament. The Elder Scrolls: Legends is limited to smaller tournaments, but it is growing. Fable Fortunes does not yet have a professional scene.
Solo adventures have been on the rise in CCGs, giving players an alternative to PvP, and creating a fun environment where players can play with or against powerful new cards and modifiers.
Hearthstone and The Elder Scrolls: Legends are neck-in-neck on this one. Both offer three campaigns in which field modifiers and/or powerful opponents shake things up. While Hearthstone has two free campaigns and one $20 campaign, The Elder Scrolls: Legends has one free campaign and two $20 campaigns. The stories in both make heavy references to their respective main games, World of Warcraft and Skyrim, making them easy favorites for fans. So, at the end of the day, it comes down to which flavor of fan service you prefer.
That being said, the modifiers in Hearthstone’s s campaigns often feel loosely connected to the story, such as a skeleton with the ability to regen 30 health, or a Kobold in the Catacombs with a whip. Meanwhile, the modifiers in The Elder Scrolls: Legends always feel like they are throwing you into the tale, such as in the arena where weapons are “scattered across the arena floor”, so whenever you play a creature they equip a random weapon. Or the battle on the ocean where a random creature would slide into the other lane every turn, mimicking the tossing of the ship. So while Hearthstone and The Elder Scrolls: Legends technically do the same things, I feel like The Elder Scrolls: Legends does it slightly better.
Oh, and The Elder Scrolls has in-game cinematics. So there’s that.
Meanwhile, Fable Fortune pales in comparison. The voice acting and modifiers are minimal, leaving players to experience the story primarily via short pages of text between each match. While it is a neat and fun mode that introduces players to the characters behind the classes, it just can’t keep up with the big leagues.
Of course, there are still three new storylines coming to Fable Fortune, so there is a chance these new tales will mix things up. But not likely.
And then we have Gwent. As it stands in its Game Preview state, Gwent’s solo adventures sit somewhere between Fable Fortune and the other guys. The story is mainly experienced in short text blurbs between matches, but those stories have a depth and richness straight out of the Witcher 3. While the story and gameplay in the regular solo challenges are a bit limited, the Midwinter Festival challenge was fantastic. The modifiers were robust reflections of the events unfolding, and so they felt engaging and satisfying.
However, Gwent’s first expansion, Thronebreaker, promises to blow the competition away. This campaign won’t merely be a series of matches to click through. Players will go out and explore the map, discovering treasure and advancing their cause. Matches won will grant resources with which to go back to camp and build one’s army, a camp with taverns and workshops and whatever else the player can unlock as they prepare for war. And, of course, the story ties in closely to the rich world of the Witcher 3.
You can learn more about Thronebreaker, including the announcement video, by checking out this page.
Solo Campaign TL;DR:
Hearthstone and The Elder Scrolls: Legends currently lead the pack, but Gwent’s Thronebreaker campaign promises to blow them out of the water. Fable Fortune has a story mode, but it pales in comparison to the others.
Take Me With You – Mobile Availability
While all of these card games are available on PC, one of the best parts about CCGs is the fact that matches are relatively quick and easy to pick up on the fly. This makes them perfect for mobile platforms, where players often gravitate toward CCGs as a way to pass the time in a waiting room or on a bus. As such, mobile availability is a must.
Hearthstone and The Elder Scrolls: Legends have robust mobile versions that lack none of the functionality of their PC counterparts. So long as you don’t count mobile Hearthstone’s two playgrounds in the corners of the board, versus PC’s four.
On the other hand, Gwent and Fable Fortune do not have mobile versions.
For Gwent, this makes sense because it would be difficult to effectively fit six rows and a hand onto a mobile screen.
Fable’s lack of a mobile version is a little more surprising since it plays closely to the Hearthstone model, but considering Fable Fortune’s somewhat unfinished nature, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is on their To-Do list. But, co-op may not work well on mobile, and that may be what’s holding them back.
But for now, CD Projekt Red is focused on their PC/Console releases, and Flaming Fowl Studios has given no comment on the subject.
Hearthstone and The Elder Scrolls: Legends have great mobile versions. Gwent and Fable Fortune have no mobile versions.
This is where the tables flip. While Gwent and Fable Fortune have console versions, Hearthstone and The Elder Scrolls: Legends do not.
Gwent is available on Xbox One and PS4. Having played it on Xbox One, it plays surprisingly well for a CCG on console. Usually, CCGs are tricky on console because it is tedious to scroll through cards with a joystick. But while playing with a mouse is still better, the difference is subtle enough in Gwent that players can easily switch between the console and PC versions without getting frustrated.
Fable Fortune, on the other hand, is available on Xbox One – not the PS4 – and it does suffer from the awkwardness of playing with a controller. While they do make efforts to ease the experience with button assignments for common tasks, there are other bugs that make it more obnoxious, such as the finicky behavior of trying to communicate with enemies and allies. You can read more about it in my review.
Gwent has a great console version. Fable Fortune has a mildly obnoxious console version. Hearthstone and The Elder Scrolls: Legends do not have console versions.
Overall TL;DR: Which CCG is the Best?
It all comes down to personal preference when picking any game. Different categories will have different weight for different people. For me, personally, I prioritize satisfying gameplay and engaging solo-modes that have fun modifiers to bring the story to life. So here is my personal ranking:
- The Elder Scrolls: Legends – It has the best of all worlds: satisfying gameplay, great solo modifiers, and a mobile version.
- Gwent – It has the most unique strategy, just as satisfying as TESL, with a fantastic campaign on the horizon. Unfortunately, it does not have a mobile version.
- Fable Fortune – While it is technically at the bottom of the list in nearly every category, the whimsy of the game, coupled with Fable nostalgia, makes this game fun, pure and simple. I like to switch to it when I’m frustrated with the ranked ladders in other games.
- Hearthstone – It is outdated and not nearly as satisfying as the other games on the list.
Many people will disagree with me about Hearthstone, but I don’t care. I do recognize that Hearthstone is the first hugely popular DCCG and that its long life has enabled it to build up a robust ecosystem with a little bit of everything. The yearly changes to eligible “standard” cards can attest to the fact that the Hearthstone card collection is huge, and there is more coming, bringing more possibilities to play with the meta.
But regardless of which mode I play, or which cards I play with, Hearthstone always feels incredibly unsatisfying. Games are often decided by luck, or by who didn’t run out of cards. And the solo play, while neat, never feels particularly exciting, either because the abilities don’t fully mesh with the story, or because rewards are sparse, with modes like Kobolds and Catacombs only giving out three card packs and a card back for pouring piles of hours into it.
The other games on this list don’t suffer from many of the problems Hearthstone has because the developers took the time to improve upon various aspects that frustrate Hearthstone players. From The Elder Scrolls: Legends’ comeback system that grants players more cards, to Gwent’s more straightforward eSports scene. While I know that many players are thoroughly invested in Hearthstone, and many love it for the World of Warcraft nostalgia, I don’t see any reason to spend more time on it when there are better titles on the market.
Final TL;DR: The Elder Scrolls: Legends is the best, Gwent is a close runner-up, Fable Fortune has a soft spot in my heart, and Hearthstone is outdated.
Do you agree with my assessment? Do you have a pitchfork in hand? Did you find this guide useful? Let me know in the comments, or come shout at me on Twitter.