My problem with collectible card games - or more accurately the digital versions thereof - isn't having to buy decks in hopes of getting the really great cards. It's the people.
Just about every CCG out there has some sort of solo mode, but it's usually pretty toothless and just meant to teach you the basics before you test your deck against a human competitor.
Playing against a living brain is the best way to experience a card game once you've mastered it, but before then? It kinda sucks. You lose a lot and very rarely fully understand why, which just leads to more failure as you make the same mistakes over and over.
Which is why I adore The Elder Scrolls Legends, because it's happy to let you play in your own little isolated corner of the world, away from the rest of humanity, learning at your own pace.
I tried Hearthstone and Ascension and Magic: The Gathering, and left them all pretty quickly once I realized I was never going to master strategy quickly enough to be the least bit competitive. I freely admit that I was more willing to give ESL a chance because of my deep fondness for the Elder Scrolls franchise lore, but the story mode is what really endeared it to me.
The game eases you into its play mechanics gently, so every time you lose - which you will, of course, and quite a bit - it's a learning process. You gain an idea of what different kinds of cards can do, and how a clever opponent can use them effectively to crush you; reading what "Breakthrough" means on a card is one thing, but seeing it bypass the guard you thought was about to save your bacon is something far more instructive.
By the time you complete the first story of Legends - which is free, by the way - you'll have built a deck or two and feel competent enough to use them. But you still don't have to sally forth into a sea of the great unwashed if you don't want to; instead, you can pop over to the Solo Arena, where you test your understanding of card mechanics by building a deck on the fly to beat a certain number of AI opponents.
And you will perhaps be surprised when you lose and discover HOO BOY, you know nothing, John Snow. You are but a babe in these cardy woods. There is still so, so, so much to learn.
And so you hit the recently-added puzzle mode, which exposes you to all new kinds of card types and ways to use them. Each puzzle lays out a specific scenario of cards and magicka (the point total that determines the cards you can use on a turn) and presents a win condition such as “win on this turn” or "survive this turn". If you can correctly suss the correct order to play cards and how precisely to use them, you’ll succeed.
It's a brilliant, and more importantly FUN, way to teach you how mechanics like Rally and Exalt work, allowing you to view cards in a way other than "this one hits the hardest, so it's probably the best." And the first batch of ten puzzles is also free.
If you dig Elder Scrolls: Legends' groove, you will likely end up forking over real-world cash to get some new cards, especially once you see what the Skyrim and Morrowind packs bring to the party. But you can play for a long time by yourself, and indeed against other live players if that's your jam, without spending a cent.
And thank goodness, because is there anything worse than buying a game and feeling like you'll never be any good at it because there's no room to learn its nuances as people are stepping on your face?
By the time I actually bought anything in ESL, I'd spent maybe a dozen hours just pottering around, building decks to see how cards might work together, and learning my preferred play style. (And also learning that one deck, even one as rad as my Lizards -n- LadiesTM deck, does not fit all situations.) I purchased another block of story levels, and they are teaching me new ways to play, new strategies to try, and new profanities to utter when I lose.
Sometimes I play other people, but most of the time I don't. And Elder Scrolls: Legends is totally fine with that.
Read more of Susan Arendt's columns on Pocket Gamer, and find out more about The Elder Scrolls: Legends at the game's official site. If you're looking for more columns, then check out Harry Slater and Jon Jordan, who are always on-hand with sharp, tasty opinions too.