Mystic Vale: Essential Edition Review

22 June 2022
Card crafting classic

Mystic Vale came out in 2016 to great excitement. The reason? It had a gimmick.

Players take the role of druids working to remove a pestilence from the land. You do this by drawing and playing cards in a manner similar – but not identical – to many deckbuilders like Dominion, Ascension and Star Realms. The crucial innovation of Mystic Vale is card crafting. Rather than simply adding new cards to your deck or discarding less powerful ones, you can upgrade your existing cards by sliding clear sleeves over the top that increase payoffs.

There are some other mechanical tweaks that differentiate Mystic Vale from other deckbuilders. Instead of drawing a set number of cards each turn, you draw until you reveal three ‘spoil’ symbols, which represent your druid’s becoming overwhelmed by the arcane powers open which you draw. This means drawing additional cards each round relies on managing the number of spoil symbols you add to your deck. Your total deck size remains the same throughout the game, but what’s on the cards – some start out blank – shifts according to which upgrades you buy.

Calling card crafting ‘a gimmick’ is a little unfair. Every nice twist in a game is a gimmick to some degree. Cool minis, quality artwork or custom dice are, strictly speaking, surplus to requirements, but they add a lot to the core experience. That’s part of the reason we play – for the sensory experience at the table, the feel and look and sound of components.

So it is with card crafting. It’s easy to start out cynical, but it feels satisfying and neat to slide these little upgrade sleeves over your core cards and build an increasingly powerful, customised deck. Part of many good games is the feeling of creating something, and by the end of Mystic Vale, each player has – for better or worse – made their own deck, each upgrade telling part of the story.

But is it any better than just adding and removing cards? For my money, no. In a standard deckbuilder, a card has room for big, colourful artwork, its powers and abilities, and maybe even some flavour text. Here, everything’s scrunched up on little transparent cummerbunds. It makes the experience feel more abstract, more about counting up symbols, than Mystic Vale’s mechanically similar but more thematic counterparts.

More problematically, even in this essential edition, which comes with some expansion material, games can feel a bit swingy. This is an issue to a certain extent costed in when you play any deckbuilder – the possibility that someone’s deck pops off and they end up doing a long, combo-heavy turn while everyone else just watches. With Mystic Vale, this happens more often than most players would like – the fact that you can craft your own cards opens the door to some truly runaway victories, where one player’s deck just accelerates into the stratosphere.

For some groups this not only isn’t a problem, it’s a positive feature. Which is totally cool, if you and the people you play with love seeing a deck go nova. But more than once, you might feel some of the momentum go out of the game as it becomes apparent one person’s deck is probably uncatchable.

Like most deckbuilders, Mystic Vale has very little interaction, either in the main game or the expansions, except when someone goes for something you were after. But none of this is to say it’s bad. The three expansions that come in this edition, Vale of Magic, Vale of the Wild and Mana Storm, add a lot of variety, while contributing further to some of the balance issues.

Still, individual games finish quickly, and there are an awful lot of nicely produced components crammed into this box, including wooden tokens and a full neoprene playmat. If you’ve been meaning to get Mystic Vale, or you enjoy the digital edition, this is a must-have. If you’re a deckbuilder fan after something new, try before you buy. For those who love swingy combo avalanches, this will be right up their tree-lined street.

Tim Clare

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Mystic Vale is closest to the more solitaire-style deckbuilders like Ascension and certain variants of Dominion, so if you enjoy that genre of card-bingo, it’s likely you’ll find much to enjoy in this.

Designer: John D Clair

Publisher: AEG

Time: 45minutes

Players: 2-4

Ages: 14+

Price: £70

What’s in the box?

  • 80 Starting cards
  • 252 Advancements
  • 18 Fertile soil advancements
  • 90 Vale cards
  • 4 Reference cards
  • 16 Leaders
  • 14 Conclaves
  • 30 Dividers
  • 44 One point VP tokens
  • 12 Five point VP tokens
  • 4 Mana tokens
  • 8 Amulets
  • 100 Card sleeves
  • Playmat
  • 160 Spirit tokens


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