White Wizard clearly knows what they’re doing in the digital space and I imagine that Epic will eventually approach similar levels with some quality of life improvements, but as of right now it simply hasn’t met that bar.
I have to talk about Magic the Gathering before I can talk about Epic.
MtG is the stuff of legends. It single handedly keeps dozens of game stores in the black and has been doing so for decades. Set after set it constantly introduces new ideas to its simple ruleset, and it has several formats for people at all levels of involvement and dedication. Constructed and all the sub-formats within, draft, sealed, even casual pickup games with premade decks. I have fond memories of playing MtG with a pile of old cards on lunch tables in school, then getting kicked out of there and having to set up a “secret” club in a teacher’s off hours (who also happened to play). I used to deckbuild at home with the tools I had, while chatting on the phone with some of our other players, excited for the next opportunity I’d get to cheat out a Thorn Elemental.
I don’t play MtG anymore. There are a lot of reasons for that, but it’s mostly one of commitment. There just aren’t as many hours in the day as there used to be. But I frequently miss the fast fun of throwing my absurd brews against my friends. Fortunately we have digital versions of MtG and so very many other games like it that are as easy to pick up and put down as our phones. White Wizard Games, hot off the success of the excellent Star Realms, have decided to give their Magic-in-a-box game Epic the digitalization treatment.
Epic has a curious take on the wizard fight formula. Unlike most games in its genre it forgoes a growing resource economy entirely, instead having every card either playable for free or cost 1 coin. The coin refreshes each turn so you’re always able to play something. On the surface this is intriguing and it often plays well, but over time it reveals itself to often make the game even more reliant on draw luck and mulligans than comparable games are. Since decks can’t have a cost curve in Epic and constructed limits the ratio of free cards VS coin cards players are constrained to a very rigid structure. Play what you can afford, make the most of the turn, repeat. Eventually someone will get ahead on tempo, and barring a particularly powerful card effect or lack of response to a large creature that typically decides the outcome of the game. This doesn’t mean that every game is unsatisfying, but it does mean that you’ll get downer games periodically where you absolutely crush an opponent with no challenge and vice virca.
The app supports multiple formats of play: pre-constructed modes including a campaign, constructed with online support, throwing a randomized 30 card deck at another randomized 30 card deck just to see what happens, and draft. Draft is where I had the best time so I’ll be focusing on that. The rules are simple: draw 5 cards, select 1, switch hands with your opponent, select 2 more, discard the remaining cards. Repeat until you have a 30 card deck. Once cards are drafted they’re made visible so you can tell where your opponent is trying to steer and adjust your course accordingly, but since you have to play all your cards hate drafting can be a bit dodgy. Despite the inevitable pulls that don’t quite fit your gameplan, a 30 card deck feels tighter and more “right” for a game as wild as Epic is as opposed to the 60 card constructed minimum. It’s also a better way to learn the cards as you get a chance to read everything in front of you at your leisure before you actually hit the table. I found the draft mechanisms well implemented and the games afterwards to be the most satisfying of all the modes, but that it could sometimes run a bit long due to a few issues. I’ll elaborate.
The slow pace of the digital game is partially due to Epic’s attack structure being poorly suited to an app. I’m unsure whether to consider this a gameplay issue, an implementation one, or both. Every champion in play may be sent to attack individually. This means that both players must go through multiple block and reaction windows every single time, and in many cases it’s strategically most prudent to send units one by one to avoid potential reactive counter spells. This wouldn’t be as severe of an issue if there were a limit to the number of units on the board like other app-oriented card games have done, but Epic was never designed for this and that has not changed. As such it’s not infrequent that a turn can take quite a while to resolve with an outcome that would be much faster played in person.
This is compounded by UI and AI issues respectively. Because Epic is intended to be played on phones it cannot display all the cards in play at once. White Wizard tried to solve this by using Star Realms’ system for players that have several bases – scroll buttons – but unfortunately that doesn’t work particularly well for this game. The cards have significantly more information on them than in Star Realms and there’s no shorthand or iconography to speed up the reading process. Like any game you’ll eventually learn to recognize cards on sight but the learning process is held back by this interface. Additionally the AI seems to struggle when it needs to interact with a large quantity of units. I once had the AI’s turn take over 5 minutes to resolve, and 4 of those were it “thinking” about how to handle a multi-target effect against my board. One card. 5 minutes. I realize that it’s early days for the app, but that’s not acceptable in any case.
I feel compelled to emphasize that the majority of my complaints are with the app rather than the game. The game itself is fine if not entirely to my taste but the implementation just isn’t up to snuff yet. I played on both Android and PC. The PC port was perfectly functional, but on my Galaxy S8 I found the usability notably poor. Cards were difficult to parse, buttons were unresponsive, constructing a deck took considerably longer than it needed to thanks to imprecise controls, and the aforementioned slow AI issues were noticeably more pronounced. Unfortunately I couldn’t test on any other devices to see if it was just an issue with my phone, but operating the thing became far more frustrating than it needed to be.
My biggest disappointment with Epic as an app came from the inevitable comparison to Star Realms. SR is a personal favorite that I play often and a shining example of how to adapt a card game so well that it’s actually the superior version. White Wizard clearly knows what they’re doing in the digital space and I imagine that Epic will eventually approach similar levels with some quality of life improvements, but as of right now it simply hasn’t met that bar.