Hex: Shards of Fate is a massively multiplayer online trading card game (MMOTCG) from the developers at Cryptozoic Entertainment. It's currently in a closed beta, but it'll barrel into the open beta phase soon. It's also known as one of the more successful video game Kickstarter campaigns, earning over $2 million dollars during its 2013 funding period. Since the game is slowly nearing a finished state, I spent some hands-on time with it so I could share some impressions and information.
Developer Cryptozoic Entertainment is no stranger to the world of TCGs. It was responsible for the popular World of Warcraft TCG and has also developed a number of board games based on popular franchises, like The Lord of the Rings and The Walking Dead. The gaming background shows when you're introduced to the basics. This is a very complex, multi-mechanic TCG that features new concepts that fit well in the digital space, like card transformations and the ability to upgrade cards with sockets and gems. These concepts help Hex stand out in comparison to physical trading and collectible card games.
There are still a lot of familiar elements in place for anyone who's played a game of Magic: The Gathering or other like-minded TCGs. I've spent a fair amount of time (and money!) on Lord of the Rings, Magic, Star Trek, Star Wars, WoW, and other TCGs over the years. The hooks and mechanics of what make TCGs work are very familiar to me. Hex certainly nails the basics by offering up the same booster and starter decks you'd see in real life, with varying degrees of rarity and some really well-rendered card art. Making use of the digital format, cards can even change as they develop, offering expanded art and something called "double backs," a secondary card back that shows when a card is flipped twice.
When you jump into Hex, you're given the opportunity to pick a starter deck for free, based on a number of different preset Champion classes. These characters are in line with typical fantasy tropes and feature races like Dwarves, Elves, Humans and Orcs, with a few standout exceptions like the rabbit Shin'hare or the coyote-themed Coyotle. In total, the game features eight races with six different classes. For my starter deck, I went with the Orc, whose Champion comes equipped with a card draw ability that sacrifices some life to perform — similar to the Warlock class in the Blizzard TCG, Hearthstone.
Once your initial starter deck has been selected, it's time to play some games. From here, you can do a number of things, like take on other players via Proving Ground matches or check out the current tournaments. Your best bet is to take on a series of trials against AI-controlled opponents to unlock additional cards. There are only a handful of matches, and the AI isn't particularly challenging here, so earning these new cards doesn't require much effort. If you have very little experience with TCGs, then I'd suggest the in-game tutorial, which gives you enough basic information to get started.
Playing a game of Hex is very similar in design to a basic game of Magic: The Gathering. Each player takes turns playing cards, battling, and responding to cards played by other players. At the beginning of a game, a coin flip determines which player goes first. The winning player has the option of drawing first or playing first. Starting hands are comprised of seven cards, but you can mulligan a bad draw in favor of a redraw. Each mulligan nets you one less card. Ideally, you want to have a few resources and low-level card plays to get you started.
Resources come in the form of shards, which work very similar to mana in Magic. After the draw phase of a round, you have the option of playing one resource and then additional cards based on your available resources. Once all resources or card plays have been exhausted, you move on to an attacking phase before ending your turn. Every time you play a card or perform an action, your opponent is given the chance to respond. There can be various cards that can counter or destroy plays, so Hex features a constant state of back-and-forth turns and passing prompts before every player's turn is finished. It makes for a slower game-playing experience than something like Hearthstone, but at the same time, it offers up more strategic options and deck diversity. You'll find Hex to be a pretty complex experience at first, but it's doubly so if you're inexperienced with TCGs.
The combat phase has you choosing attackers based on the troops you've managed to play in previous turns. Troops have a one-turn delay before they can become valid attackers, unless card text has a listed function that overrides the rule. You can only attack an opposing champion directly, not their troops. Each champion has 20 hit points you'll need to diminish to win the game. Once you've selected attackers, your opponent can respond by assigning defenders. Multiple defenders can be used against one attacker, or they can be spread out to consume all incoming damage and protect your champion. Damage typically won't spill over once you've defended against it, unless the card text states otherwise.
Cards come in a variety of forms, and each has a certain associated shard cost. There's a number in the upper left-hand corner of a card indicating the cost, and there's an additional color-specific shard cost below. You'll be able to outfit your deck with shards of different colors to take advantage of the diversity of the initial 350-card set. You'll also want to make sure that you're packing enough shards of applicable color to match the Artifacts, Constants, Troops and Quick Action cards that require shards to be played.
Most games of Hex will feature a number of turns of back-and-forth attacking and defending before it's completed. Sometimes, it's smarter to not attack an opponent with every available troop, since troops who have attacked are essentially spent until your next turn, making them unavailable to defend if your opponent goes on the offensive. The basic strategy requires knowing when to push and when to hold back, and you need to plan for all possible outcomes or cards in your opponent's deck. Again, this is similar to most other TCGs on the market, and it'll be very familiar to anyone who's spent considerable time with such products.
The current state of the closed beta is limited if you're looking for some free-to-play fun. You can take the deck that you constructed from the starter pack and trials earnings, and you can challenge player-controlled decks via Proving Ground matches. There's no actual reward for doing so, since there isn't any in-game currency or additional card unlocks to earn. It can be a good way of learning the game and getting familiar with card types or champions that you don't have. If you want to get the full experience of Hex, you'll need to drop some money on tournaments and booster packs.
At around $2 a pop, boosters are relatively cheap compared to the cost of boosters in physical TCGs. For that price, you get 15 cards of varying rarity, which seems pretty reasonable. There's also an in-game auction house where you can also pick up single cards and packs being sold by Kickstarter backers. This can often be more advantageous than banking on luck, especially if you're looking for a handful of specific cards to improve your deck.
Tournaments come in a few different forms, with standard constructed tournaments featuring decks built by players, or draft and Swiss variants. These often require you to have access to unopened purchased packs, from which you'll build a deck for use in the tournament. Swiss tournaments are the best for new players, since you have the opportunity to play more matches even if you're not that great. At the same time, it maximizes your reward payout regardless of how early you're eliminated. All tournaments have a cost associated with entering, typically as low as $1, but they also offer up rewards regardless of your final placing. Cryptozoic sometimes runs free, large tournaments featuring over 100 players, so it's worth keeping an eye on the website and message boards, so you can join when these tourneys are announced.
Apparently, a significant PvE portion has been planned for Hex: Shards of Fate. This isn't available in the current closed beta, and it probably won't be available in the open beta, either. However, the PvE will offer some free-to-play aspects that won't require money. As it currently stands, you need to spend money to get anything significant from your experience in Hex. The pricing structure is fair, so there are a lot of players to compete against, and the overall mechanics are very fun and engaging. There's still work to be done on the technical level, and the user interface could use some clean-up, but the overall structure of Hex is coming along nicely, and I look forward to seeing the finished product.
More articles about Hex: Shards of Fate