The Best Deck-building Games | Digital Trends

There’s something just inherently fun about building a deck of cards, sitting down, and pitting your collection against someone else in a test of tactics and planning, but with a bit of luck thrown in to keep things interesting. Once computers, and video games, came along, the first types of games to be made were simulations of real games. Some were sports, but there were also plenty of board and card game translations that were digitized. Deck-building games were a natural fit for the digital format — you don’t have to worry about losing cards or having to find other people nearby to play against. Plus, with a computer handling all the math and rules behind the scenes, games were much more streamlined and easy to get into.

So many years later, not only have all the major physical deck-building games been translated into video game formats, but brand new ones were created that couldn’t be played physically, or would be too complex to realistically do so. This genre spans all types of games, from highly competitive PvP, PvE, roguelikes, and even horror games. Even some of the biggest IPs have created their own deck-building spinoff games that are a ton of fun to play. Whether you’re looking to craft the perfect deck to rise through the online ranks, or prefer the on-the-fly thinking of a rougelite, here are the best deck-building games you can play right now.

Further reading

Magic: The Gathering Arena (PC, Mobile)

Where else could we start but with the most popular and well-known deck-building game ever created. The card game Magic has been around for decades now, with hundreds of cards across dozens of expansions, and yet the base formula remains as accessible as ever. The concept of placing land cards for mana, which you use to summon your monsters and cast spells, was so influential that it has basically become the standard for most card games that followed. Each player has their own deck, health pool, and simply needs to drain their opponent’s health down to 0. While simple on the surface, the depth comes from the cards themselves and how they interact with each other.

Magic: The Gathering Arena is the second online version of the card game released in 2018 after Magic: The Gathering Online came out way back in 2002. Both versions are still played today, but for different reasons. Arena is obviously a more modern version of the game, with a much more updated user interface, satisfying animations, streamlined systems, and even cheaper cards. On the flip side, you can only trade cards in Online, and there are fewer rule sets you can play, those being Standard, Limited, and Historic. Even so, the quality of life improvements in Arena make it an easy pick for us. Unless you’re looking to get hyper-competitive, which you certainly could do, this version has everything you’d want from the physical card game with all the benefits of being online.

Hearthstone (PC, iOS, Android)

A duel on a jungle board with one player playing dagger mastery.
Hearthstone

Taking major cues from Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone is Blizzard’s expansion into the deck-building scene. Almost immediately after launch, this game became one of the most popular card games on the market thanks to some fresh gameplay ideas, recognizable characters, and free-to-play nature. Just like Magic, Hearthstone makes sure the core game is simple to understand. Here, instead of having cards dedicated to your mana needed to summon monsters or cast spells, each turn you gain one additional point to spend on whatever card you can afford at that time. That means, with some exceptions, of course, higher-cost cards won’t be playable until later in the game, leading to a more smooth power curve as the match goes on. Again, the goal is to simply reduce your opponent’s health down to 0 first.

Being a Blizzard game, they capitalized on their wildly popular Warcraft IP and themed the entire game around it. You’ll recognize monsters and spells from the games, as well as the heroes that you will choose in addition to the cards in your deck. These heroes add a small, but appreciated, wrinkle of depth since they add another bit of strategy you need to account for while playing. While not the real reason you’d want to play, Hearthstone does have a fairly decent amount of single-player content you can play through besides your normal matchmaking. Also, while it is still free to play, the progression system has changed a lot since launch and now follows a battle pass format as of 2020. Many players feel this was a poor move since rewards were re-balanced to push you towards spending real money on cards, so go in with that in mind.

Pokémon Trading Card Game Online (PC, iOS, Android)

A duel of two pokemon card players.

Outside of Magic, Pokémon cards were probably the biggest collectible card craze in the world. The only difference is that, at least anecdotally, hardly anyone actually played the card game. Most people just collected and traded cards, never even learning the rules of the game itself. But, some did decide to learn the game and create a passionate community of Pokémon card game players. Starting a card collection now would be very costly, but that’s where Pokémon Trading Card Game Online comes in to save the day. If you’ve been a fan of the RPGs but never really touched the original card game, this is the perfect way to get into a new way to catch ’em all.

This is another game with a long history, but that just makes the current version all the more refined and streamlined. This is the first online Pokémon trading card game to make it over from Japan back in 2011, but is still being updated and expanded to this day. Again, like most deck-building games, the game itself is free to jump into and get started with, but everything in the game is available to obtain through in-game currencies. Every card released after Heart Gold and Soul Silver is in the game, meaning there’s quite a bit to work towards getting if you’re a completionist or are looking for that one special Pokémon. With tons of modes like a tutorial, Trainer Challenges, Versus, Events, and Friend Battles, as well as challenges and login bonuses, there’s no shortage of ways to expand your deck. You can even trade with other players, though not all cards can be traded. This really is the entire Pokémon deck-building experience.

Slay the Spire (PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, iOS, Android)

The watcher using a zap spell.

Of all the genres to mix together, odds are no one thought that single-player and rougelite would be placed alongside deck-builder. What’s even less likely is that the game that the melding of those disparate elements would produce would be any good. Somehow, against all odds, developer Megacrit proved that this formula could not only work, but produce one of the most addictive and fun deck-building games ever made. Slay the Spire spent a long time in early access ironing out the kinks, but once it was released in 2019 it was immediately recognized by players and critics for how unique and polished this spin on both card games and roguelites was. It bucks the trends of most other games on this list, but is all the better for it. The art may be a little lacking, but everything else is about as polished as a game like this could be.

After picking a starting class, only one being available until you unlock the rest, you are given a standard starting deck for that character. Aside from the cards you start with, nothing going further will be the same every time. You will pick which path you want to take, with battles, shops, treasure, and rest areas along different routes, leading up to a final boss for each act. Every enemy will telegraph exactly what it intends to do, giving you all the information you need to decide what the best use of your current hand is. Winning battles will give you a set of three random cards you can add to your deck, plus gold you can use to buy more cards, or remove cards. It may sound simple, but learning how to build a deck that synergizes well, how to deal with all the various enemies, plus get the right set of random circumstances to make it all the way through is a true test of wit. It truly is the epitome of a “one more run” type of game.

Monster Train (PC, Xbox One, Switch)

A team of monsters getting rage fighting a boss on a train.

The other roguelite deck-builder on our list is both similar, yet very different from Slay the Spire. In Monster Train, you’re in charge of the titular train battling it out with the forces of heaven. You need to protect the trail as enemy angels invade the train, working their way up to the Pire, which acts as your total health. The train is four stories tall, don’t ask how, and you can place your units on the bottom three floors to try and stop the enemy before they reach the top to do damage. However, unlike most traditional card games, the enemy will still move up a floor after combat if they survive. Damage persists (in most cases), so planning out your floors is paramount.

There are 6 clans you will pick from, but instead of just one, you will choose a primary and secondary clan, each with its own champion, special units, spells, and unique mechanics. Mixing and matching clans is all part of the fun, and gives you a ton of reasons to try runs over and over. The game itself is broken up into different zones, where you are presented with two paths between each battle. Each path will give you the chance to gain certain upgrades, like a shop, free gold, health, extra unit, or random event. But you will have to pick between what you want and need after each fight. Aside from just trying to beat a run with all the different possible clan pairings, you will be unlocking new cards, new challenge modifiers for your run, unique challenges, and there’s even a speed run style asymmetrical multiplayer mode that’s quite fun too. Again, this is another one that you’ll find yourself addicted to very easily.

Inscryption (PC)

A card is sacrificed in Inscryption.

Okay, maybe there is one other genre combination besides rougelite that is more surprising to find written alongside deck-builder, and that’s horror. It might seem like a card game couldn’t possibly be scary, but Inscryption‘s style and narrative are absolutely dripping with dread. This is made by the same person who gave us Pony Island and The Hex, if that gives you an idea of what type of game you’re in for. Yes, that does mean things will get a little meta, but we won’t spoil any of that. You play as an actual character playing a card game inside a dark and dreary cabin and will assemble a deck of animals that act as this game’s version of units that you will need to manage while at the same time trying to find a way to escape. When not playing cards, you’re free to explore this unsettling cabin environment in an attempt to solve the many puzzles and mysteries to escape. You’re not meant to do it all in one run, though, and what you learn and unlock by winning card games and exploring is the way you progress in Inscryption.

But let’s talk about the card game aspect. This is another single-player game in which you are dueling against a figure you can only barely make out in the darkness. He’s kind of the DM of the game, which takes place on boards with different spaces on them that have different effects, somewhat similar to the paths in Slay the Spire. When a battle does break out, you will play your cards on a 4×3 grid of spaces where your win condition is to deal enough damage to your opponent, which is represented by a scale on the table itself. Again, the simplicity of the mechanics only leads you by the hand into the real depth of the game. If you’re looking for something a little, or perhaps a lot, different from your typical deck-builder, Inscryption is exactly the kind of experience that will grab you and threaten to never let go.

Legends of Runeterra (PC, iOS, Android)

A match about to start in runeterra.

Just like Blizzard took their Warcraft IP to make Hearthstone, Riot has leveraged their popular MOBA IP from League of Legends to make Legends of Runeterra. Again following a lengthy beta period, this deck-builder saw a full release in 2020. Unlike Hearthstone, however, Legends or Runeterra is meant to be much more faithful to the original IP, as opposed to more of a set dressing with some nods here and there. The heroes from the MOBA you can play as here are meant to feel like they do in that game and, almost across the board, they do. Just like League, this is a free-to-play style game that is exclusively made to be played in one on one matches. Mechanically, if you’ve played Magic or any other PvP focused card game, you’ll pick up the rules to this one right away.

Cards come in three types in Legends of Runeterra: Champions, Spells, and Followers. Cards all have a mana cost as you would expect, but with a nice little wrinkle of being able to bank up to three mana from one turn to the next, though they can only be used on Spell-type cards. To make the game run a bit quicker, there’s no form of summoning sickness like you have in Magic, meaning you can summon and instantly attack with a minion on the same turn at no penalty. But, to help balance that, each player has a counter opportunity when an opponent plays a card, so you’ll always be engaged even during the opponent’s turn. There are already hundreds of cards, with new ones shifting the meta and balance about as fast as with League of Legends. What’s really great is the lack of loot boxes or other shady microtransactions. If you want a specific card, you can either earn it by playing, or buy it outright for a decent price.

Griftlands (PC)

Two girls about to fight two wild fleads with cards.

Take a deck-building, set it in a fantastical world of charming yet alien-looking characters, and throw in RPG mechanics and you’ll start to have an idea of what Griftlands is. This card game isn’t quite as much a roguelike as Slay the Spire or Monster Train, though does have some elements of the genre. Instead, there is a much stronger narrative instead of focusing on highly randomized “run” based games. You do pick a character and play through a limited-time campaign, meaning you can only do so many things like side quests and exploration, which incentivizes you to go back again to see different events. If you like a bit of that CRPG feeling of character building and skills, Griftlands has just a touch of that to give it some extra flavor.

The real meat of the game naturally lies in the cards. But you don’t just have a normal deck in Griftlands, but two. One deck you build is made for combat, which you can fill with typical attack, defense, healing, and cards you would normally expect. The other deck is, at least in our opinion, way more interesting. This deck is for conversations. Griftlands has an almost completely different card game built around arguments and talking your way through situations. This type of “battle” has its own system of setting up cards such as arguments that act more like minions around your core argument. You need to break through the enemy’s rhetorical defenses, while bolstering your own, to eventually deplete their core argument’s “health” and win the argument. Being able to choose between killing everyone you encounter or convincing them to help you out just makes this already varied game even more exciting to go back to and play a completely different way.

Gwent: The Witcher Card Game (PC, PS4, Xbox One, iOS, Android)

Gwent game in progress.

There are some games that, while amazing on their own, are almost overshadowed by something that was only meant to be a distraction or mini-game within the larger experience. Triple Triad from Final Fantasy VII comes to mind, as well as the game that was so popular it brought a stand-alone version to life, Gwent. The moment people got their hands on this card game inside The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, it became an obsession for deck-building fans. For some people, collecting all the Gwent cards and beating every character you could play against became the main quest of the game. It only made sense that CD Projekt Red would want to capitalize on that game’s success, but expand upon it in its own stand-alone release. Gwent: The Witcher Card Game came out in 2018 with a host of new features.

The original Gwent was not balanced. The rules were solid, but the cards were clearly not meant to be used against other human players. So when Gwent: The Witcher Card Game came out it had to essentially start from scratch with card design. The game is played over three rounds, with the first to win two being the victor. Decks are themed around the different factions of the Witcher world, such as monsters, Novigrad, and Scoiatael. There’s no mana system, but instead, the game is more about knowing when to play your strong cards and when to hold them for a later round since the hand you start with is all you get to play with across all three rounds (with some exceptions of course). This deck-building game feels like a great mix of a faster playing Magic, but with some mental strategy of chess and perhaps poker also thrown in. It’s also free to play on just about everything, so it’s easy to give this one a shot, fan of The Witcher games or not.

Dominion (PC)

Playing a smithy card in dominon.

Last on our list, but by no means least, is the game many credit as the original deck-building game, Dominion. As basically the inspiration for all card games moving forward, Dominion is a great game to pick for anyone curious about the genre but is concerned about being overwhelmed by rules, hundreds of cards, and a meta that is so refined there’s no room for experimentation. In the game, you play as a ruler of a kingdom who is trying to grow their reach across the land. You do this by claiming land before your opponent, stealing lands through battle, and upgrading your own lands and buildings. The game is over when there are no more lands to take over, with the player who had achieved the most Victory Points being the winner, and can be played with two to four people.

Each turn is broken down into four parts. First you can play an action card, second is buying cards with any treasure cards in your hand, then you discard all played cards, and finally, you draw at the end of your turn rather than the start. Turns go quick, and you can easily figure out what you should be doing at any point in the game. The cards you start with are simple, but as you purchase better ones as the game goes on, the complexity starts to go up, as well as the opportunities to start hindering your opponents. You can play with the base set of cards to start, easing you and anyone you’re playing with into the system, but there are plenty of expansion packs you can add to spice things up as you get to grips with this very readable deck-builder. There’s not a ton of things you need to keep in your mind, and because it’s so beginner-friendly, there’s always plenty of people willing to play just for fun.

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