As the saying goes: you come swinging at the king, you’d best not miss. And say what you will about Legends of Runeterra, its swipes are neither light nor mild. If anything, Riot’s entry into the increasingly-crowded digital card gaming space is the most bold bid to upstage genre heavyweight Hearthstone since Valve’s Artifact crumbled under its own ambitions.
The difference here is that while previous pretenders to the throne focused on emulating Hearthstone’s strengths, Legends of Runeterra hones in on its weaknesses.
Modern Hearthstone is a simple game made complicated by years of expansions and shifts in the game’s competitive meta. By contrast, Legends of Runeterra feels like a complicated game made simple. Where Blizzard’s card-battler plays with chance and chaos, Runeterra emphasises individual agency and more-reactive gameplay.
For those spurned by Blizzard’s frugality and the cost of staying up with Hearthstone, Legends of Runeterra is also going to seem particularly generous when it comes to monetization - and that specific quality may prove a massive boon to the game’s popularity over the long run.
Right from the start though, Riot have been spinning Legends of Runeterra as a response to the things that people hate about modern card games - both digital and traditional - and the launch-day experience embodies those virtues to a tee.
Playing Your Cards Right
Matches of Legends of Runeterra are turn-based, one-versus-one affairs with either side vying to reduce their opponent’s HP to zero by deploying champions, minions and spells against them.
If you’ve played many digital or trading card games like Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering, spells and minions play pretty similarly to what you’d expect. The first big twist on this template comes in the form of Champion cards, where Riot have injected their own MOBA-flavored spin on an otherwise familiar formula.
These hero characters tend to be better than your baseline minions when it comes to stats. In addition, each hero also has a special condition for leveling up, some of which can be met regardless of whether the hero is on the board or in your deck. Leveling up grants existing heroes better stats and new abilities. Left unchecked, a hero card can quickly tilt the odds in your favor.
At launch, cards in Legends of Runeterra are currently split across six different regions. These regions don’t just reflect the lore and geography of the game’s titular fantasy setting, they also embody different playstyles. Noxus cards tend to be beefy brawlers, treating offense as the best defence. In contrast, Piltover and Zaun are all about spells that buff and empower their units.
Functionally, the setup here is closer to how colors in Magic: The Gathering work than the class-based antics of Hearthstone. Decks in Runeterra are built out of cards belonging to either one or two of these regions.
Riot says that additional regions will be added to the game over time, which theoretically promises to keep the meta interesting in a way that most card games - digital or not - rarely attempt. Magic: The Gathering had five colors when it released in 1993 and modern sets are still built around those five same colors.
The notion that the fundamentals of Runeterra deckbuilding could shift over time is both narratively and strategically ambitious in a way that stuff like Hearthstone just isn't.
Most cards in Runeterra cost mana. Both players start at 1 mana and their capacity grows with each turn. Unlike Hearthstone, up to 3 unspent mana can also roll over into your next turn and the mana capacity of both players grows with each consecutive turn. This, combined with the lower HP pool for both players, allows for both faster and more meaningful early game play.
Simply put, there’s less filler before you reach the part of a match where individual turns have the greatest potential impact.
Another key difference here is that whenever you play a card, you cede control of the board to your opponent - giving them a chance to respond. Where Hearthstone lets you make as many moves as you want before ending your turn, Runeterra only lets you make one move at a time. In practice, I found that this made turns move a lot faster - since players are only ever focused on the one-move in-front of them, rather than anything more elaborate.
The final wrinkle here comes in the form of Runeterra’s initiative system. Players take turns being designated as the attacker and defender. If you’re the former, you can launch an offensive against your opponent using anything you have on the board. If you’re not, you can’t. This creates an interesting rhythm, where some moves are better saved for a turn where you’re on the defensive while other cards have more value when you’re able to attack.
At face value, this setup might sound pretty similar to Hearthstone. However, it’s the unique configuration of these familiar elements that yields fresh results.
As mentioned above, Matches of Runeterra are often faster than Hearthstone and, more importantly, they don’t take nearly as long for things to get to the point where you’re making interesting strategic decisions. Even if you get a bad hand up front and can’t mulligan your way out of it, it only takes three turns of waiting to build up a potential 6-mana swing that could put you back on the board.
Another smart inclusion here is the Oracle. Whenever you remember to use it, this on-screen button lets you instantly get a glimpse of how your next potential move will change the board state. Annoyingly though, I found this feature of little help when it came to a phenomenon that I came to call Ghost Blocking.
Diving into the nitty-gritty of rules errata for a moment: this unnecessarily-cute term refers to a situation that occurs when a minion or champion used to block an attacking minion of champion gets removed from play by a spell or ability before the blocking actually occurs. Instead of the unblocked attacker dealing damage to the defending player’s Nexus, the damage goes nowhere and gets negated outright. Even when I’m the one using this quirk of the game’s combat system to my advantage, it always feels more like an unfair exploit than a clever trick.
In addition to regular and ranked play, there’s also a drafting experience in Legends of Runeterra called Expeditions. Here, you get to draft two decks and then your rewards will scale with whichever of the two performed better over a series of matches. Between each game, you’ll also get the chance to tinker with your deck by swapping or adding cards to it - which gives you room to course-correct and refine things over time.
The other thing that has to be talked about here is the monetization. Legends of Runeterra is also monetized in the same way as Riot’s MOBA is: through cosmetics. You’re able to buy new board themes, pets and card backs.
There's also Wildcards - which are basically vouchers that can be redeemed for any card of the corresponding rarity. Wildcards can also be purchased using real-world money but you’re limited to only buying a handful of these each week.
Unlike other digital card games - you don’t buy any random booster packs in Legends of Runeterra. Instead, you earn new cards by playing. The more you play with one region, the more cards you’ll unlock for that region.
Each week, players are also awarded a Vault Pack each week that’ll add a handful of random new cards to their collection. These vault rewards will scale with you in-game level and Riot says that, once you're above level 10, you're guaranteed to get a champion from each one.
The end result of this system is that you feel like you have a more tangible sense of progress as your collection of cards grows. Money isn’t so much the object as time is. Even just play a few matches each day, you’ll probably be able to collect every card in the game or at least every card you’d want to own.
As a free to play game, Legends of Runeterra does almost everything right. Riot have made it really easy to see at a glance just how far you’ve come and how far you have to go when it comes to mastering each of the game’s regions. It would be nice to be able to check my quests in the middle of a match though.
The Bottom Line
Although doubtlessly intended to be welcoming to newcomers, so much of the pitch and the reality of Legends of Runeterra feels like it's been targeted to steal away the free time of those vexed by the status quo of modern digital card games. Riot’s willingness to be generous as well as smart makes a big difference here.
With Hearthstone, it sometimes feels like you’re fighting an uphill battle to become good at the game. In Runeterra, it feels like Riot are encouraging you at every turn. Whether that feeling lasts is another question but right now, it feels like a breath of fresh air.
Legends of Runeterra launches on PC, Android and iOS later this week.