Plants vs Zombies: Heroes

Here is my review of the game

PvZ:H is a digital card game by PopCap in the Plants vs Zombies aesthetic. It’s on phones and probably tablets. It’s heavily inspired by Hearthstone, with elements of Magic: the Gathering and Spectromancer. Since I started playing, I have been recharging my phone 3-4 times per day, which has given me time to write this review.

You can play as either the plants or the zombies. The game is slightly asymmetrical - on each turn, the zombies first get a phase to play their zombies; then the plants get a phase to play both plants and tricks (one shot effects, aka “spells”); then the zombies get a phase to play tricks only; then combat happens. This allows both players to respond to what the other player is doing, without needing a priority system like in Magic.

Plants/zombies and tricks are the only card types, but there are special kinds of tricks called superpowers. Whenever your hero is damaged, a counter ticks up by a random amount which can cause you to block the damage and draw a superpower, which you can either add to your hand to play later (for 1 resource) or play it immediately for free. This system seems quite weird, but adds a lot to the gameplay. It means you might deliberately let the opponent make low damage attacks on you so you can draw your superpowers faster. It gives another way for players to interact during combat, but since the superpower you draw is random, you can’t plan around it too much. It also means you can’t always be sure when you will land the killing blow.

The combat occurs in lanes. There are five lanes, one of which is water. Only amphibious plants/zombies can be played in water, which adds a kind of evasion. Each lane can usually only have one plant and/or zombie in it. All plants and zombies automatically attack the opposing creature (or the opponent’s hero if there is no opposing creature) so you don’t have to make decisions about how to attack or block.

There is a color pie like in Magic. There are five classes for plants and five for zombies, and every hero has two classes. There are no neutral cards and no rules for splashing outside of your class, so deckbuilding consists of simply choosing 40 cards from your two classes (with a four-of each card limit). There are ten plant heroes and ten zombie heroes, covering all possible two-class combinations, so any one card can be played with any other card if you have the right hero.

In terms of the freemium model, it’s not too obtrusive. Of course, you can spend real money to buy premium packs containing cards of higher rarity, and it takes a long time to grind out the resources needed for them if you don’t; and there’s a daily quest system handing out miniscule rewards to make sure you log in and play twice a day, sometimes even requiring you to play against real opponents instead of the AI. But you are given three plant heroes and three zombie heroes for free, just by playing a certain number of games at the start - these cover all classes, and each comes with a complete deck. And you are constantly earning hero coins while you play, allowing you to buy basic packs containing commons only, so you have a chance to customise your decks a bit.

Every successful card game eventually runs into a number of problems, like how constantly releasing expansions means it gets harder for new players to enter the game, or how the metagame is quickly solved by competitive players sharing information and “netdecking”. The cards and kinds of effects in PvZ:H are quite interesting, but it seems obvious that some combinations of cards are going to be more powerful than others. Even if the metagame ends up being balanced (which I doubt), it will still be hard for a homebrew deck to beat a netdeck, which takes away some of the fun for people who want to design their own decks, and inevitably leads to the creation of a “limited” format. It seems appropriate to quote The Dark Knight Rises here: You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

Fortunately, PopCap has put a lot of work into the single player mode of the game as well. There are two story campaigns represented as episodes of comic books, one for the plants and one for the zombies. Some of the fights have minor modifications like each hero starting with +10 health, or more high ground or water lanes, but they don’t draw too much focus from the main mechanics of the game. Also, each hero has a series of quests specific to that hero which you can try and complete while you play. These are not boring, generic quests like the daily quests, but make you change the way you play around them.

There’s a couple of good design choices to help the new player get into the game. In the first few episodes, the AI goes easy on you by hoarding some cards in their hand as the game goes long, which isn’t noticeable unless you’re a veteran card player constantly checking how much mana your opponent has open and how many cards are in their hand. Also, the starter decks you get have eight obviously bad cards (1/1s for 1 mana, in a game where you can get a 2/2 with upside for the same cost) so when you first open new cards it’s easy to choose what to take out. Those bad cards aren’t completely useless later on though, since you can make tribal decks that care about their subtypes (like “at the start of each turn, all Sports zombies get +1/+1”).

Some minor nitpicks: When editing a deck, you can either read what a card does, or add it to your deck, but not both at once. This means you have to memorise what each card does by its tiny picture. I guess this is due to the platform’s limited screen size. There’s even more memorisation needed if you want to play competitively, since you need to know what superpowers your opponent could have based on which hero they are. Also, some of the animations take a long time especially for triggered abilities, making the games artificially long.

Final comments: One of the best things about this game is the aforementioned assymetrical phase system. There is a lot of tension as the plant player since the zombies get the last phase before combat, but if you’re the zombies and you know you have no tricks to play then there is the same tension of the plants getting the last word. It’s a bit like playing as the corporation in Netrunner. PvZ:H is a fun game with a wonky-cutesy atmosphere thanks to the characteristic PvZ art, animation, and music, but still has the depth to sustain the interest of a veteran card game player. 10/10, play it and enjoy!