A little over a year ago, I discovered digital CCG Eternal Card Game and sung the praises of its robust solo content. Since then I’ve played more than three hundred hours, and perhaps not surprisingly, spending that much time in the game has brought some of its flaws into clearer focus for me.
Specifically, I have hit the wall in the gauntlet, my preferred play mode, and the more I’ve explored the issue, the more I have come to realize that this has been issue with the game for its entire history – and it’s a much harder problem to solve than it may seem at first glance.
Let me recap briefly: The gauntlet is a single-player mode where you take on a series of matches against seven AI decks. The final deck is a boss fight that includes some unique mechanics, with the boss’s deck designed to take advantage of those mechanics. The gauntlet ends when you beat all decks or lose once or twice (depending on your rank), and you get rewards depending on how far you got.
I do play PvP occasionally, but I prefer the gauntlet. I like the predictability, not having to wait on my opponent, and the option to go AFK mid-match.
Gauntlet’s difficulty automatically scales up as you increase in rank and get more wins. For a long time, the difficulty felt good. It became more challenging in accordance with my improved skill and increased card collection, and it felt tough but fair.
But after about a hundred hours of playing the game, I found the difficulty started to get a lot crazier. Enemy decks flood the board with units faster than you can react, or they completely shut you down by spamming removal and control effects. Not every match feels hopeless, but it does become vastly more stressful.
This is compounded by the fact that once you reach master rank, you lose any grace for losses. At lower ranks, it takes two losses to fail a gauntlet run, but at diamond and master ranks, it takes just one. That can get really infuriating in a game where you will inevitably lose because of nothing but bad luck on a fairly regular basis.
In fact, I would say the large majority of my gauntlet losses are down to games where I drew too few power cards or too many. Yes, you can mitigate this risk with good deck-building, but you can never eliminate it entirely.
In preparing for this column, I started keeping track of my wins and losses in the gauntlet, but I stopped counting after I’d gotten to over a dozen gauntlet runs without a single win. To be clear, I’m talking about gauntlet runs, not individual matches; I still win a comfortable majority of individual games. But again, it takes only one loss to end a master gauntlet run.
Adding salt to the wound, the difficulty scales up at higher ranks, but the rewards do not. You get rewards worth having only for winning the last two games of a gauntlet anyway, and even if you do win the whole gauntlet, the rewards are hardly amazing. Unless you get lucky with random chest upgrades, a completed gauntlet won’t even get you enough gold for a single card pack.
Some people can win gauntlets consistently, but it takes a lot of skill and a very strong, tightly tuned deck. Such a deck can take a lot of time or money to make, and I don’t think it’s very fun to be limited to such narrow builds. To me, half the appeal of a versus-AI mode is to not be a slave to the meta. I like building weird jank decks and theme decks built around characters and factions from the game’s lore.
My greatest joy in these games is tinkering with new decks, but between the gauntlet’s high difficulty and low rewards, I increasingly find myself in the position where I rarely earn enough new cards to build new decks, and when I do, those decks are usually chewed up and spit out immediately.
The only relief comes when a new set releases, as this also resets gauntlet ranks. We recently went through this with the release of the Battle Lines set, and it was such a relief to be able to break out all those fun but suboptimal decks I don’t normally get to play. But all too soon, I found myself back to grinding through master rank, with the next set probably most of a year away.
With all this, you might wonder why I’m still playing at all. Partly it’s that I still find the core gameplay very fun. Partly I don’t have another game that’s so good for killing 10 minutes here or there. Partly it’s because I’m not the most reward-driven player.
But by far the biggest reason is a simple lack of competition. There isn’t another digital CCG that provides such robust solo gameplay in such an appealing package. Magic Arena has no solo content to speak of, Hearthstone‘s is too limited, Elder Scrolls Legends is in maintenance mode, the UI in Shadowverse drove me mental, and Legends of Runeterra has scaled back its PvE (and I find all things Runeterra off-putting anyway). If another game came along with the depth and polish of Eternal but more rewarding solo content, I’d probably switch to it, but so far no such game exists.
In researching the issues with gauntlet, I found complaints similar to mine stretching back through pretty much the whole history of the game, so it doesn’t seem that developer Dire Wolf Digital is particularly interested in addressing the issue. And as much as that frustrates me, I also have to admit that I very much sympathize with the studio on this.
Usually the logic on free to play games is that the people who don’t pay are content for the people who do. As gauntlet is a single-player mode that can be used to earn cards, a gauntlet player theoretically provides neither revenue nor content for other players. I understand why making gauntlet more appealing wouldn’t be a priority.
Some people will say this is another example of developer greed, but this is a game with a small playerbase, from a small publisher, without the name recognition of a Runeterra or a Magic: The Gathering. They’re clearly barely staying afloat. It’s not greed to want to keep your game alive.
That said, that doesn’t change the fact that the current paradigm kinda sucks for us gauntlet fans, and just because gauntlet players don’t need to pay doesn’t mean they won’t. Gauntlet players have all the same incentives to spend as PvP players do, and arguably more so, since PvP tends to be more rewarding overall. Before I hit the difficulty wall, I was as close to a whale in Eternal as my modest finances allow. I’ve since drastically scaled back my purchases, as it doesn’t feel like the game is valuing my investment.
I spent a lot of time before writing this wracking my brain as to how DWD could make improvements for gauntlet players without risking the game’s fortunes. I kept coming back to the idea of monetizing gauntlet somehow, but that would be very tricky to do without infuriating people further.
The idea I ultimately settled on was to sell some “gauntlet boosters” that would give increased rewards per match (not per gauntlet, or we’re just exasperating the frustration of failed runs). If they weren’t too expensive, it’d be a way for gauntlet players to support the devs while getting more rewards for the mode we love, and it wouldn’t change anything for people who don’t buy the boosters.
Once the gauntlet becomes a source of revenue, that theoretically makes it easier to justify putting development resources toward improving the experience. Ideally, I’d like to see selectable difficulty with rewards that scale commensurately to the challenge, but I know that would be a huge overhaul and is perhaps too much to hope for.
But even some simple QoL changes would help a lot. Letting people keep the two loss limit at all ranks or making the draws for opening hands more forgiving to players are some obvious examples.
I acknowledge improving the gauntlet is a problem that’s hard to solve, and given how long the status quo has been in place, I don’t think change is very likely.
But on the off-chance anyone from Dire Wolf Digital is reading this, I would like to at least say this: Eternal has existed for the lion’s share of a decade now, and aside from new decks to play against, almost nothing has changed about gauntlet in all that time. Yet the card pool has expanded massively since launch, so completing a collection as a gauntlet player is infinitely less likely now than it once was. I think the devs could afford to be at least a little more generous without breaking the game.