There is an abundance of card-based free-to-play games on the Xbox One market these days, with Eternal providing a relatively easy segue into the strategic experiences and the more tactical side of proceedings being accounted for by the likes of Magic: The Gathering. If you cast your mind back to 2017 though, DR Studios’ Battle Islands: Commanders arrived on the scene at no cost and brought about some fast PvP action that incorporated deck-building. For a freebie, you couldn’t argue that it wasn’t enjoyable in short spells.
But why is that particular game relevant here? Because the new kid on the block from developers BetaDwarf is actually quite similar to Battle Islands: Commanders in many ways and yet manages to accomplish so much more. The army blokes have been traded in for all manner of weird minions to command and it possess a decent selection of modes to play as well. This is Minion Masters.
The concept of Minion Masters is to become a mighty Master and take on all challengers in an arena setting with nothing more than a deck of cards at your disposal. These encounters are either 1vs1 or 2vs2 against mostly human opposition and once a battle begins, anyone can play a card whenever they please – Mana permitting of course. These cards could unleash a myriad of minions, a dastardly spell, or even a solitary beast that’s a bit of a wrecking machine. The Masters stand upon podiums at separate ends of the playfield and whoever destroys the opposing podium on the battlefield first, wins.
And it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing solo or as a tag team, the resulting action is pretty darn hectic, in a good way. These cards come to life in an exciting manner, with some really unique designs on show, and the minions swiftly start fighting in what’s akin to a mass brawl. Thinking on your feet is the order of the day as options are weighed up as to what cards to use, where to place them, and when it’s the best time to counter-act the incoming enemies. The tactical aspect is constantly throwing up possibilities, especially with only four cards in your hand to choose from at any time, as one must ponder whether to let the constantly recharging Mana meter build to release a devastatingly strong Red Golem or swiftly cash-in a smaller amount on a lesser card to garner access to whatever replaces it.
The Masters also have a part to play as their perks unlock during matches by taking control of the two bridges connecting the bases together, which garners XP. Depending on the Master chosen, the perk could add a card to the deck that resurrects a fallen minion or set the bridges on fire, whilst others can give your range-based minions improved marksmanship. The variety is fairly decent, with the Rambo styled rodent Ratbo, the magical Milloween, an extremely old lich named Mordar, and cute trickster King Puff, to mention only a few.
Only one Master is yours to own at first though, the Stormbringer, and the rest must be purchased via in-game currency. Now, there is a chance to grind for the necessary Shards and Rubies to acquire the desired Master, but the aforementioned currencies can be purchased for cash. While it certainly helps to have a Master suited to your favoured deck, it’s possible to overcome the paid characters and excel with the free one. As an extra counter-measure against a potential ‘pay-to-win’ argument, the developers have ensured that two of the paid offerings are free to use in a weekly rotation, which is a great decision.
Upon winning a match, XP and Gold is earned, with the former used to rank up your player level and the latter to be spent on Power Tokens and other such things in the shop. Opening these Power Tokens will see you rewarded with a card for your collection, of which there are a decent selection available to acquire. Expect to find rock creatures, skeletons en masse, raging army folk, demons, elves, buildings that summon minions, and a whole load of crafty spells that could turn the tide of a duel.
In terms of game modes, the vast majority are PvP based and the main focus is on 1vs1 or 2v2 Ranked battles, with the aim to climb up the rankings, earn chests and shape the cards you possess into a winning deck. Friendly matches between friends and Guild mates are available and relatively straightforward to set up too. Then there’s Draft mode, which is a smashing way to try cards that you may not have collected yet in a deck curated by you from a selection of choices – it’s greatly rewarding if you win a few games. Expedition mode is a rather unique one, because there’s a mixture of battle options presented as you roam an area as if it’s a game board, searching for opponents. Although you’ll face humans for the most part in Expedition, there are A.I. characters to defeat as well.
Meanwhile, the increasingly difficult Challenges are solely A.I. orientated encounters and they really push you to your limits at times. There’s also the regularly changing Mayhem offerings that lock down a deck of your choosing whilst setting some rules; for example, the current Mayhem event, at the time of writing, lowers the Mana cost of your two lowest cards by two. There generally will be an entry fee for this mode, but the rewards for doing well are definitely worth the investment of in-game currency.
Given that Minion Masters throws rewards at you from all directions to level the playing field and the gameplay is frantically fun, it’s not going to escape some real criticism. The biggest of which is how the matches, despite being enjoyable, are very similar in the overall play no matter what game mode is being played. It’s only pre- and post-match that the quirks of the different modes are truly noticed; however the saving grace here is that every match plays out differently due to the combos of Masters and decks, ensuring enough freshness to keep you coming back.
The other issue faced is just how clunky all the menus are, with deck-building suffering the most as you watch it sluggishly transition from showing one card to the next. Even when opening tokens and chests it can lag massively or stop completely for a short period of time, which makes zero sense given how the gameplay manages to stay smooth during the chaos.
Overall, Minion Masters on Xbox One is an addictive card-based game that’s full of fast, furious, and tactical gameplay that seldom fails to provide enjoyment. There are a decent amount of game modes, a great selection of cards to collect and some cool looking character models for both the minions and the Masters. It has to be said that BetaDwarf appear to have balanced out the benefits of those who pay for stuff and the ones who want to earn their way to the top the slightly tougher way. And although the technical gripes in the menus are an annoyance, I don’t believe they’re detrimental enough to do any harm to the rest of the experience.
Minion Masters might only have a solitary trick up its sleeve, but it’s a real curtain raiser and the action throughout the rather similar game modes is still more than worthy of your attention. Especially as it’s free!