Playing the Dying Game – The Last Days of Mojang’s Scrolls

You may have heard of Mojang’s Scrolls– the game was at the center of a controversy in 2012 when Bethesda sued Mojang over the name of their game- Bethesda, you see, is the company behind The Elder Scrolls series, and in spite of their open world fantasy RPGs bearing no resemblance to an online trading card game, they were willing to take Mojang to court over the matter. Taking Mojang to court hurt Bethesda’s reputation a bit, since it seemed like a real David and Goliath situation- after Markus “Notch” Persson offered to settle the matter through a Quake match, which Bethesda declined, the whole thing was settled outside of court. Scrolls would go on being named Scrolls, so long as Mojang didn’t trademark it or use it to create a competitor to The Elder Scrolls.

Scrolls was a digital trading card and board game; players would collect cards that were creatures or structures or abilities, assemble these cards into decks and then do battle with other players on a board that was three tiles wide and five tiles long on either side. The game was built upon a simple premise, but was designed for complex and engrossing play. At its best, it was welcoming and accessible to beginners while remaining challenging for advanced players.

In December of 2014, after a couple years of beta testing, Scrolls received a full release. It was at that time that I’d begun to play the game. To me, it was a new world: I’d not played a trading card game before. I started playing Scrolls on a whim while on vacation, loved it, and never stopped playing. In a lot of ways, Scrolls was the game that I went to whenever I needed an escape. Scrolls offered me was a complex game with many opportunities to experiment with unusual strategies- but it was also a very comfortable game to sit back and just enjoy. Did it have flaws? Certainly. Losing a game often felt like a fifteen-minute uphill slog- a finely crafted strategy was often no match for an opponent with a “cheesy” deck- that is to say, you could come up with a fantastic idea for a deck and find it destroyed by somebody running a “removal” deck, one that specializes in eliminating units from the board. How will you use your grand strategy when everything you put on the table dies? While I wouldn’t be too quick to blame any one aspect of the game for its ultimate demise, the frustration factor likely pushed away a number of potential long-term players.

In spite of the issues, Scrolls was loved by a small but dedicated playerbase; regrettably, after the game’s last major content patch, it was announced on June 29, 2015 that active development on the game would cease- aside from the occasional balance and bug fix. The servers would continue running until (at least) July 1, 2016. Scrolls was my favorite game, and in memory of it, I’ve chronicled its last days.

May 24, 2016, 11:47 AM: In 38 days, Scrolls is shutting down. Besides a couple of bots, the queue is completely empty, though the game claims that eighteen other players are online. This isn’t the first time I’ve been the only one in queue, waiting for somebody to show up, and it won’t be the last. I choose to play the Daily Hard trial, and I’m slaughtered in a matter of minutes. After my defeat by the AI, I wait again in queue. A player appears, followed by another- the game’s not totally dead. I chat for a little while with one of the players while we’re waiting for the game to match us up together; she mentions that she’s using some older cards, since it’s been two years since she played.
I ask what brings her back to the game in its last days, and she’s stunned; she’d not realized that the game was shutting down. The game eventually matched us together, and she says that returned on a whim, having always loved the game but also having been disappointed that there were never quite enough players. I win the match, and she leaves to get lunch.
I wait in queue a while longer, and I take on somebody else- somebody less talkative- we have a long, uneven match, and his deck eventually overcomes mine. I go back to the queue and wait.
Soon, I’m playing a Judgement match with a player who says that he’s been into Scrolls since the game was in beta, though he’s just now returning to the game after a long hiatus. What brings him back? He says that he’s just really fond of the game. He beats me, mercilessly, and the game is over in seventeen rounds. I go again, I’m beaten again, and that’s the end of that Judgement deck. I build another and get back in queue, though I suspect it’ll be a long time before I get to use it.
Eventually, 2:00 PM rolls around and nobody’s playing. I call it quits for the day.

May 25, 2016, 4:48 PM: The game reports 25 players online- I get to the queue, and there are three in chat- I ask if anybody’s in queue, and I get a positive response from somebody. I don’t have much time today, but I decide to wait to be matched with this person- well, I wind up getting into a Judgement match with another player altogether- it’s a guy who’s playing the game in trial mode, and has been on the fence about purchasing it. I beat him, but offer some words of encouragement at the end of the match.
We wind up matched again- as fate would have it, he was trying to get into a Judgement match with his girlfriend. This time around, he’s not repeating the mistakes he made in our first match- I win again, but my win comes with a bit more challenge. After our match, I decided to give him a bunch of cards since I have many duplicates- it’s the least I can do. I’m done for the day.

May 26, 2016, 3:58 PM: It’s ninety degrees outside, and our air conditioner can’t keep up. I may be dying of heatstroke, but it’s no matter, because I have to play Scrolls. There are three other players in the queue chat. Not one of them responds to a challenge.
By 4:35, I’ve watched an episode of The Twilight Zone. Nobody is in the queue. I leave.

May 30, 2016, 1:51 PM: I played a bit over the weekend and failed to write about it, for which I apologize. Today I logged in and was greeted by a message- I’ve been awarded 2000 gold and special avatar heads for earning the Weekly Winner badge. Out of all the players, I had won the most ranked matches. I felt awful about this, because I know for a fact that I’m not a great Scrolls player- I only won because I was one of the few people still playing.

At 1:58, I receive a challenge from an old friend, attached to a wager of 5000 gold. I accept, and whip out one of my favorite Decay decks; he uses an energy deck. As we play, we chat a little about our weekends, and I ask him about what he sees in Scrolls– he says that it’s his favorite game ever, and he stumbled across it while looking for something new to play. He wins the match. I get back into queue. At 2:21, I’m matched with another old player. His Order deck completely destroys my Growth/Decay, and I’m reminded that I didn’t deserve that stupid medal. He challenges me to another match, and I accept, this time using my Order deck- he, too, is using an Order deck, but a gentler one- he explains that it’s experimental. I think he just feels sorry for me after the thrashing that was our last match. I win, and get back into queue- the player from earlier wants to bet again, and he challenges me- I accept, assuming that this is the day I lose 10,000 gold.
Choosing my Order deck, I get into battle- he’s running an Order/Decay hybrid, and though he has a couple of tricks up his sleeve- an enchantment that causes his units to deal damage to all my Idols upon their destruction coupled with a lingering spell that doubles this damage- I manage to win. I feel less bad about my medal.
He challenges me again, for another 5000 gold. He’s running an energy deck, and I have decay. I’m assuming that this is the part of the story in which I give back the gold again- and I’ve assumed correctly.
Around 4:40, I return to the game and get in queue with a new deck- Energy/Order. I’m matched with a player who says he’s been away a while, and claims to be a “noob”- I find this claim questionable. He says that he discovered the game through Minecraft Youtubers Etho and DocM77, who spoke about Scrolls while the game was still in beta.
“What brings you to the game in its last days?” I asked.
“Memories,” he replied. “Good memories.”

May 31, 2016, 3:08 PM: I’m matched within a minute of starting the game- it’s a strong Energy deck against my standard Growth/Decay- the match is close, but I’m beaten. During the match, one of my old friends asked me to play a match- I agreed. I play my experimental deck and lose, but it feels like a good loss. After the match I go back to the Deck Builder to improve the deck when I receive a challenge from an old friend- we’ll call him Tom. Usually when we play, he challenges me to a match of True Highlander, a custom game type in which your deck contains a copy of every card in the game. It’s a challenge to play, but it’s also completely fair. It’s been a few months since I’ve played against him; he wins the match- though it’s quite close.
After that match, I’m challenged by somebody else- a player named AluCituc. He says that he came across the game via the Minecraft splash screen; like many of the other players who are now returning, he’d started in Scrolls long ago, though it’s just now that he’s become active again. After a long battle, I finally beat him.

June 1, 2016, 3:48 PM: It’s not long before I’m matched with somebody- a player who has been around since the beta, and says that he got into Scrolls on the recommendation of a friend. He beats me- I get into queue again, and I’m beaten- again. This goes on until I switch to a boring (but effective) Decay deck, and I finally beat this fellow. By 5:00, I’ve had enough.

June 2, 2016, 3:32 PM: After spending eight minutes in queue, I’m matched with D4N, an experienced player. After introducing myself, I ask how he came across Scrolls- it turns out that he got the game through a Humble Bundle- a bundle a while back brought a number of new players into the game, though it wasn’t a strong enough influx to save Scrolls, ultimately. I asked what kept him playing these days- he says that it’s the game’s daily trials that keep him going. Scrolls was his first TCG, as it was mine- I lose to him; my somewhat experimental Energy/Order deck still needs work.
After that, I wound up playing with Knightmarez, who has been playing Scrolls since the very beginning. After I told him about my project to document the last days of Scrolls, he requested an interview, and I gladly obliged.

June 6, 2016, 2:40 PM: Within about thirty seconds, I’m challenged by another player. Naturally, I accept. It’s a player I don’t recognize; he tells me that he last played against other players a year ago. After losing the match, I play against another player- an old friend- and wind up beating him. Afterwards, I’m challenged by an experienced player who came back to the game after watching a match that was streamed by veteran Scrolls player NRP. His pure decay deck beats my Order/Decay hybrid.

June 14, 2016, 5:40 PM: I’ve been neglectful. Right now, there are about twenty players in queue- in this game’s last days, players are returning; within a minute of my entering queue, I was matched with another player. In the game’s last days, I’m learning so much about it; for instance, I didn’t realize it earlier, but it’s entirely possible to create custom trials- one of the more experienced players has created several, and I’ve not beaten a single one.

June 20, 2016, 2:05 PM: I’ve been extra neglectful in the past week due to E3 2016- I spent much of this morning trying to beat a player-made trial- I couldn’t- though, earlier in the week, I had managed to beat another trial after hours of struggle. I had the pleasure of entering the queue and, within a couple minutes, finding an opponent. Though the game’s death is iminnent, its playerbase is very alive.

June 22, 2016, 4:43 PM: I Played against somebody named VanBradford- a player who has been with Scrolls since the game was in beta, but in spite of this, he suspected that he’d lose our match. He tells me that he’s had an on again, off again relationship with the game, and that he stopped playing when the shutdown was announced- it ruined his motivation, but recently, thanks to videos by NRP, he returned. His pure Order deck made quick work of my experimental Order/Decay hybrid.
Immediately after this, I challenged a player named Necropuissance, who had begun playing a couple years ago- he said that while he grew bored with the game after having gone through much of the content, the updates kept him coming back for more. Now, he plans to continue playing every day- perhaps until the end. We discussed what we thought contributed to the decline of the game, and while he blames Hearthstone, which admittedly has consumed a good chunk of the former Scrolls playerbase, we both agree that the game needed to have been marketed better.
As I won our last match together, I asked what it was that drew him to Scrolls– turns out he was a fan of the game because it wasn’t pay to win and on account of the updates- and that he’d play it “over any real card game”, TCG or otherwise.

Personally, I believe that a large part of the trouble for Scrolls is that it could be tremendously frustrating. Imagine spending an entire game losing, and losing terribly, in spite of your best efforts. Not necessarily because you made a bad decision, but simply because your opponent’s deck counters yours, either through a cheap trick or merely because their deck is designed against your own. You’re on a sort of slippery slope. It’s feels like your every move of yours is throwing all your cards down a hole. You know that you’re going, to lose, and it’s not a matter of how, but of when.
To elaborate, one of those cheap tricks that I learned was to enchant an Ether Pump with Vitriol Aura, an ability that poisons units, along with Overdrive, which would cause the pumps to fire once every turn, instead of once every three turns. I’d combine that with Earthbond, an enchantment that negated the damage caused by Overdrive. Believe it or not, most of the time I didn’t win matches by using this cheap trick; it was often countered by other abilities and took a while to be effective. That said, when I got it up and running, it was devastatingly effective.

Today, Scrolls was patched for the first time in nine months; three changes were made, namely that Vitriol Aura stopped working on structures (I could kiss the most brutal part of my favorite unfair combo goodbye), Appurtenance stopped granting extra resources and Just Conviction now only applies to the units that it’s supposed to. Maybe it’s swabbing the decks on the Titanic, but I can’t help but appreciate these changes- even if one of them killed a favorite (and notably unfair) tactic of mine. Perhaps the game will die with a whimper, but it’ll be the soft, contented sigh of a thing that was loved down to its last days.

June 29, 2016, 10:55 AM: Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to participate in the tournament that happened over the weekend. While I wasn’t able to check into the game in time to compete, I was able to watch some of the matches as they went on; many old players wound up returning for one last longing look at the card game that united them. Most of them didn’t stick around long after the tournament, but a few kept playing down to today. I got to play a (currently rare) Judgement match against another player who’d not played Judgement for a year- his deck quite impressively destroyed mine.
Aside from the tournament, these have been quiet last days for Scrolls.
Secretly, I’ve been hoping that somebody, somewhere, finds a way to save the game, but thus far, things have been looking bleak. According to a Reddit post from Mans Olson, one of the game’s developers, “anything happening within the next three weeks is relatively unlikely,” meaning that tomorrow and the day after are the last two (promised) days of Scrolls– anything after that is borrowed time. The community has had discussions about hosting their own servers, but nothing solid has come of it since there’s too much legal red tape for Mojang to release the game’s code. Besides my disappointment of the death of my favorite game, what’s bothering me the most about this affair is that it feels like a tremendous waste. There’s so much work that went into making Scrolls– the unit sprites, card art, coding- if Scrolls had an offline component, I’d feel a little less awful about what’s happening to it, but once its gone, where will all its art go? The Trials and custom skirmishes created both by the developers and the players? It’s all going to disappear.

July 1, 2016, 8:15 PM: Well, here I am: it’s the last promised day of Scrolls. The game is, technically, supposed to end tomorrow. Will it? I can’t say. Should it? I don’t think so; I think there’s still some sort of chance for it- I want, so badly, for salvation to come out of nowhere, but I know that salvation doesn’t work that way.
For the last day of the game, it’s awfully quiet. Aadriaanka has a new trial that she’s invited me to try- it’s incredibly clever. I play a couple matches, and I leave. I’m sad, but I’m also grateful: I got a good year and a half from this game, and I wouldn’t trade it for any game.

July 2, 2016, 9:36 PM: Scrolls is still running. We’re gaming on borrowed time.

July 13, 2016, 1:31 PM: The community is quiet. Shrunken, and silent. I played against an experienced player, and when I asked him if he felt nervous about the game’s inevitable shutdown at an unknown date, he replied that “we don’t know when we’re gunna die but somehow we manage,” and that sort of sums up our situation. As far as anybody can tell at this point, the game’s doomed. There’s no repurchaser on the horizon, so the game’s going to wind up in some sort of limbo, and in spite of my disappointment in Mojang for their failure to advertise the game, and Microsoft for their failure to nurture the game upon the acquisition of Mojang, I can’t be angry now.

Our days have been extended, and I am grateful.

November 7, 2016, 12:51 PM: Every day, if you log in at just the right time, you might notice a user named “jeb,” with the Mojang logo, logging in to the game. Generally, he’s a bit of a ghost; type a message to him in the main chat, and he’ll disappear before you can hit “Enter.” If you’re at all familiar with Mojang, you’ll know that this is Jeb Bergensten, who worked as a lead developer on Minecraft– I’ve heard rumors that he only logs in to play the game’s trials, though I’ve never quite had these rumors confirmed- until today.

“Jeb!”

“yes”

jeb-scrolls-pending-nov-7

A brief conversation ensued between us- naturally, I asked if there was any word on the game’s future- to which he replied that the news is still pending, though “the plan is to keep the game alive somehow,” though he wasn’t at liberty to say much more than that. I mentioned how I imagined that Scrolls would’ve been great if it were packed in to Windows 10- and that it could’ve captured a chunk of the Solitaire audience, to which Jeb winked- agreement? Implication of where the game’s heading? I can’t say and I won’t speculate, but I can say that Jeb wanted to see Scrolls spinoffs based on the game’s lore. At the end of our conversation, he left to play the game’s daily medium-difficulty trial.
It’s been four months since I’ve updated this article. The game’s been going on as usual, small and quiet, but still alive.

February 7, 2018, 10:09 AM: In 6 days, Scrolls is shutting down- for real this time. I’ve played Scrolls almost every day for the last few years. It’s been my first card game, and the only one I’ve ever really loved. In all the time I’ve spent playing, never have I found another game that quite compares to the deck-building-board-gaming goodness that is Scrolls. Sure, games of Scrolls can take too long, some combinations of cards are too powerful to be countered (Ether Pump+Overdrive+Earthbond, my most shameful strategy) and getting stomped by somebody who’s several levels of skill above you is, to say the least, frustrating.

Nonetheless, Scrolls is something special- if we’re comparing digital CCGs, Hearthstone is checkers and Scrolls is chess. With better marketing, perhaps it would’ve found a wider audience; the few players such as myself who continue to log in have seen under the game’s skin a little- not to the degree of the developers, perhaps, but we know what Scrolls is, and what makes it special, and we’re going to miss it.

Mojang has officially announced that Tuesday February 13 is the last day of Scrolls– it’s the day the servers shut down. Prior to the game’s shutdown, however, there will be an official tournament held on February 11, while on February 9, several Mojang developers will join the players.

The news isn’t all bad- according to Mojang, the plans for community-run servers are underway, and while they “are still unable to guarantee this will happen or set a date”, they’re planning on making it happen sometime in the next few weeks.

February 9, 2018, 4:00 PM: There are more players online than I’ve seen in years- some names are unfamiliar, others are players I’ve not seen in a long time. One of these players, MansOlson, has the Mojang logo beside his name; he’s one of the developers. After entering the queue for a Judgement match, much to my surprise I’m matched against Mr. Olson himself! We played a close game against one another- he won, ultimately- then, he said he was logging off- for good, it seemed. I’d just played the game against one of the folks who worked on it just before he left it behind for the last time.

February 11, 2018, 2:00: Well, I suppose that wasn’t Mr. Olson’s last time as he logged back in for the tournament which, incidentally, I seem to have missed. I did, however, get to have a good last talk with the community and the developer; Mr. Olson expressed his concern that the game’s learning curve may have been too steep, too much of a challenge to new players. Even though we’re all saying goodbye, there seem to be a lot of good vibes on the server- nobody’s fighting or angry or sad, and if they are sad, they’re not showing it.

February 12, 2018: This is my last day playing Scrolls. I visit the game at intervals throughout the day. The servers are mostly empty- it’s Monday, after all. This is, largely, how I remember Scrolls– but when I look back upon the game, it’s not going to be what I remember.

February 13, 2018: It’s been a blast, and now it’s over. I don’t resent my time with Scrolls, and while I’m gonna miss it, I know that there will be other games. We’re in a new era of game development- the runaway success of a game like Minecraft, which was so unlike anything the industry had seen before, is proof of that- when speaking of the success of Minecraft, however, not so many folks mention Infiniminer, the game that came before Minecraft that has since sunken into obscurity. In case you’d not heard of it, Infiniminer is a block-based game that was canceled by its developer early on in its life cycle- frustrated to see that his favorite game was being abandoned, Markus “Notch” Persson created his own version, which became one of the most popular games in the world.

Even though Scrolls has come to an end, there are a great many gamers who’ve played it, who’ve loved it- perhaps one will be inspired to create? I’ll be watching.
Were you a Scrolls player? If so, how did you feel about the game? Is there anything you’d have done differently? Leave a comment below, or be sure to hit us up on Twitter @1RuleBeCool; you can follow me to hear when I finally discover my new favorite card game.

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