Few things can beat the feeling of real paper cards and dice. It’s fantastic to sit across from another human opponent and see the gears whirring in their heads as sweat beads on their brow. Playing traditional tabletop trading card games is as fun now as it has ever been.
That being said, it’s not easy for the working adult to keep playing their favorite TCG as much as they used to, which is why I’m so happy that these games have been digitized and can now be played on tablets and phones. Now you can sit on your couch and get in a few rounds of Magic: the Gathering before you go to bed. Even lunch breaks at your soul-destroying job can now include a quick round of your favorite card game.
The problem is that there are now so many TCG video games it can be hard to know where to begin, so here is a list of five top-tier names that have plenty of people to play against.
Hearthstone did for mobile TCG video games what Magic: The Gathering did for the physical game it essentially invented, based on the lore of the wildly popular World of Warcraft franchise. Whether you know anything about WoW or not, Hearthstone is the benchmark against which all other digital TCGs are measured. The game has incredibly high production values, as we expect from Blizzard entertainment. Games are fast and intense. New formats and card packs are regularly released, and there’s a strong international ranking with big cash prizes for the world’s best players.
Being the game design geniuses they are, Blizzard developers have created a TCG that’s natively digital and has many mechanics that could only work in the virtual world. You can also play for free, earning in-game currency to spend on card packs and expansions. Only truly impatient or highly-competitive players will feel the urge to spend money. Since I enjoy the actual game so much, it never feels like work to grind enough virtual money to pay for things. The game also sets daily challenges that help you earn money at a faster pace.
While playing against human opponents is the ultimate form of the game, Hearthstone offers plenty of single-player content, including fun campaigns that offer powerful new cards as prizes. Hearthstone represents the future of TCGs, and anyone who likes this style of gameplay should give it a try.
The Witcher: Gwent
The Witcher games, based on a series of popular Polish fantasy stories by Andrzej Sapkowski, have become a surprise smash hit. The last game in the trilogy, in particular, became a mainstream darling and is one of the best computer RPGs ever made.
Within The Witcher 3 there’s a mini-game known as Gwent. Clearly inspired by Magic: The Gathering, Gwent is played by characters within the game world, so your character can also build a deck and take part in Gwent matches. The popularity of Gwent in The Witcher 3 led the developer CD Projekt Red to create a standalone version of the game. However, the Gwent from The Witcher 3 has been substantially reimagined.
Gwent is a very tactical game where position matters quite a bit. Instead of cards attacking each other or the health bar of a player, the game is played over three rounds using a single deck of cards. Best out of three rounds win. You win a round by having the most cumulative points. There are three positions for cards, each representing a combat distance. There are also cards that modify the weather, which affects the scores of certain cards. The strategic element is quite pronounced in this TCG.
The Elder Scrolls: Legends
Just as with Warcraft, the Elder Scrolls series of games represent a well-known treasure trove of lore spread over five main games and several spinoffs. With the popularity of Hearthstone, the folks at Bethesda clearly thought their own fantasy world also deserved the TCG treatment.
Legends is a one-on-one card battle game that takes ideas from both Magic and Hearthstone, providing an experience that is unlike either of those games. Decks are quite substantial, weighing in at between 50 and 70 cards. You can mix cards from two lore factions from the core games, somewhat corresponding to the different colors from Magic: The Gathering.
It also uses a lane system where you essentially have two game boards to deal with. There’s also a system where you can draw a new card with every few health points you lose. This keeps things unpredictable. Cards are also divided into various subclasses that describe what their general function is on the playing field.
The lanes themselves can have different effects, which change between games. It can seem a little daunting and complicated at first, but then that’s true of Magic as well. If you’re already invested in the Elder Scrolls as a whole, this is a nice way to take it with you.
Magic: The Gathering Arena
Magic: The Gathering Arena is by far not the first digital adaptation of the legendary game that started it all. However, compared to the slick and polished game Hearthstone is, these games all pale in comparison. I own several versions of the original Magic games on both PC and iOS; they worked well enough but were very clunky and unappealing to look at.
Having their cake eaten by Blizzard with Hearthstone lit a fire under Wizards of the Coast to bring something fresh and competitive to this suddenly competitive market. That’s what led to Magic: The Gathering Arena, and boy did these particular wizards deliver!
This is the MTG game I’ve always been waiting for. Right now the game is still in its Beta phase and only available on PC, but there’s no doubt it will be coming to mobile platforms; Wizards of the Coast has effectively said as much. The game is free to play with an in-game currency system to buy card packs, but Wizards has also stated you don’t need to spend any money to access any part. It’s all open if you are willing to grind for it.
Wizards has also solved the learning curve issues that plagued previous Magic games. You can have every technical aspect of the game set to manual for a full tabletop simulation, or you can dial it down for casual players. There are more features coming, but based on what I’ve seen so far this is going to be the game to take back the TCG crown on digital platforms for Wizards of the Coast.
There are some tabletop purists who look down their noses at computer-based TCGs, but if you have an open mind there’s a lot to love here. You can either have a proper tabletop sim or something that’s uniquely designed for digital. Most importantly, there’s nothing stopping you from also enjoying TCGs in paper form!