The Failed Follow-up to Minecraft: Behind the End of Scrolls

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On June 29, Mojang—the creator and curator of Minecraft—announced that it was stopping active development on Scrolls, its turn-based card battler. “We won’t be adding features or sets from now on, though we are planning to keep a close eye on game balance,” reads the announcement. The game has only been officially released for six months.

Scrolls will still be available to purchase for the time being, and our servers will run until at least July 1st, 2016. All future proceeds will go towards keeping Scrolls playable for as long as possible,” the announcement continues.

The game is still playable and very fun, but it’s clear that Scrolls is on life support. Mojang is responsible for one of the most popular games in the world, but Scrolls only has a few thousand people playing on any given day and sometimes as few as 150 at a time. What happened?

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What is Scrolls?

At its core, Scrolls is a collectible trading card game, roughly similar to Magic: The Gathering. In short, you’ll open booster packs, trade cards (called “scrolls”) and build decks of creatures, spells and enchantments to battle other players. Scrolls really sets itself apart from the norm in two ways, however: resources and combat.

All card games have some sort of resource system which determines which cards you can play and when. In Magic, for example, you have “land” cards which are used to generate mana. In Blizzard’s Hearthstone, each player automatically gets one mana crystal each turn.

Here’s where Scrolls gets weird: once per turn, you’ll have the opportunity to “sacrifice” one of your cards for either one point of mana or two new cards. This presents an immediate dilemma: sacrifice for mana too often, and you’ll run out of cards; sacrifice for cards, and you won’t have the mana you need to play any of them.

From there, you have to choose which cards to burn. If you discard too many weak, early game scrolls, you may lose before you get a chance to play the expensive, powerful creatures in your deck. If you sacrifice your late game cards and focus on getting an early lead, you may run out of steam against more patient opponents. Or you could stock your deck with a few junk cards to sacrifice, but then you’re putting useless cards in your deck on purpose.

There’s more.

Every card in Scrolls belongs to one of four factions that mostly fall along your standard fantasy fault lines: Growth, Order, Energy and Decay. The Order faction, for example, focuses on armored knights that buff each other, while Decay trades in necromancy and poison. Your custom deck, however, can include any card from any faction. In multi-resource decks, not only must you sacrifice scrolls for mana, you have to choose which type of mana you want: you can’t play Growth cards with Energy mana.

After all of this, you are finally ready to start laying down shambling undead liches and trudging copper-plated death machines—precious, evocative figurines in a diorama. You’re in tactical RPG territory now: when you play a unit, it pops into existence on a 3×5 hex-tiled grid, complete with special abilities, statistics and attack cooldowns. At the end of each row are “idols,” and you win the match by destroying three of your opponent’s five.

Once per turn, you can move each of your units to an adjacent tile. Units automatically attack in a straight line as soon as their timers are up, so you may want to shift them around to take advantage of a Royal Vanguard’s health bonus or to avoid a Blightbearer’s poison effect.

Keeping all this in mind, here’s how a turn of Scrolls generally plays out, with some situational variance: you’ll sacrifice for resources or scrolls; play and position units; cast spells; and attack. Eventually, someone’s idols are cast down and the match is over.

It’s useful to think of Scrolls as a tactics game that uses cards and decks as an abstracted way of collecting, organizing and distributing resources. You’ll need to be smart with your positioning and timing, but CCG concepts like tempo, value, board control and card advantage are all at play as well.

Scrolls’ sacrifice mechanic is knotty, dense and difficult to learn, and it makes for long, sometimes arduous matches. However, it also allows for rich, varied, elegant and flexible strategies. When your elaborate machinations snap into place, Scrolls is almost aesthetic in its joy, like a symphony or architecture. When they don’t, it’s like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.

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Is there anybody else playing it?

The obvious (and perhaps facile) summation of Scrolls’ problem is that not enough people are playing the game. Matchmaking takes too long, veterans are thrashing new players and no one’s having fun.

And yet, being part of a small, niche community is appealing for a lot of people and a great way to learn the game. In my experience, the general chat in the Scrolls client is full of friendly, helpful people. Crucially, volunteers moderate the chat, and I’ve never seen anything gross, toxic or aggressive in there.

There are other small touches throughout that suggest that Mojang tried to cultivate a generous, welcoming community. A code of conduct greets new players, and it’s easy to spectate high-level games and chat with other people while doing so. A scrolling feed in the game client provides links to community-run blogs and forum posts.

Scrolls also features in-game trading and a “black market” where players can sell their excess cards. Both of these features are made possible by the fact that Scrolls isn’t free to play. Actual, schoolyard-style trading would be anathema in a game like Hearthstone, which depends on selling randomized booster packs to make money, but Scrolls costs $4.99 up front. You can buy a few things with “shards,” Scrolls’ in-game currency, but in general, you can’t buy cards with real money.

On the one hand, it’s nice to be able to track down and acquire specific scrolls to fit your decks. On the other, Scrolls’ trading and black market features give players cooperative, mutually beneficial and non-competitive ways to interact.

Taken individually, none of these features seem like a big deal—plenty of games have auction systems or spectator modes. Taken in total, though, they provide a framework designed to facilitate pleasant and helpful experiences.

The most outsized example of the Scrolls community’s benevolence happened during my first ranked game.

I was playing a basic Growth deck that, in theory, got plenty of small units—woodland creatures, mountain men, elves—out on the board and snowballed for an early victory. My opponent was a European player using a more sophisticated Energy deck that mostly consisted of “Lobber” units: monstrous, stationary catapults that can hit multiple tiles at once. In short, I sacrificed poorly and he used his area damage to zone me out of contested areas until there was no safe haven for my miniature guerilla army.

I sent him a congratulatory “GG” after a few rounds, but it was hardly a game, much less a good one: it was a massacre. He graciously told me to keep trying and explained that he had been playing since the game’s overlong beta phase: his experience and card collection was out of sync with his matchmaking rating. After that, he noted that my Growth deck seemed a little barebones and sold me dozens of cards for a symbolic 1 gold.

Not every Scrolls player is as patient and generous, obviously, but it’s clear that one of Mojang’s goals was to cultivate a helpful community and provide features that allow it to work in meaningful ways. It’s a nice way to approach competitive multiplayer games.

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