Can Legends of Runeterra Break Hearthstone & Magic’s Card Game Duopoly?
An overview of Riot’s innovative CCG.
Hearthstone is the only game I’d consider myself to have actually had potential to go pro in, which is quite fitting because it’s a game about getting lucky and making the most out of said luck, which I feel like is my only real discernible skill. I never put enough time into learning the game to actually make it, however, I did come 2 games short of reaching Legend status in the game, before choking the opportunity away in a tilt-based meltdown.
For a few years, Hearthstone was my favourite game, a game I could spend hours in, experimenting with decks, winning unfavourable matchups and pulling off insanely satisfying combos. It was a game I truly adored.
However, as years went on, I became disillusioned with Hearthstone’s offering. The meta went from celebrating cerebral decks that required careful planning, great decision making, risk-reward analysis and anticipation to a rather stale serving of mid-range tempo-based decks that oftentimes had me yawning as I played with all the enthusiasm of a bot that just played cards on curve.
It doesn’t help that top-tier decks became more and more expensive, as did playing the game itself. It was hard for me to experiment when I had to choose one deck to define my next season of gameplay at the start and stick to it if I didn’t want to spend any money. The fact that I’m not the best Arena player (or Arena fan, for that matter) didn’t help my enjoyment of the game. Eventually, I stopped playing altogether, only popping in to see whether the new expansions changed anything, and also enjoying the Battlegrounds mode before moving on to the superior offering held by Teamfight Tactics.
When Legends of Runeterra released in open beta last week, it was a breath of fresh air for me. I never got into Magic: The Gathering, since the convoluted flow of the game never appealed to what I enjoyed about Hearthstone, the dynamics and ingenuity that used the game’s virtual setting to its fullest. CD Projekt Red’s GWENT never really tickled my fancy either, its slow pace and rather boring mechanics at launch threw me off playing it rather quickly. Legends of Runeterra however, hooked me immediately.
Riot’s newest game places itself firmly between Hearthstone and MTG in terms of complexity, seemingly taking its favourite features from both. The mana system resembles Hearthstone, however with an added bonus of being able to save up to 3 mana every round and reserve it for spells. However, its turn structure takes more inspiration from MTG with players being able to interact with the board, even when they’re the passive player.
This creates a game that feels familiar enough to get into immediately if you’ve played either of the two CCGs it emulates most strongly, but at the same time, it features some interesting features which may surprise even grizzled Hearthstone veterans and Magic aficionados alike.
For starters, the turn structure leaves the active player with control over when he attacks. If they feel that their board is strong enough to go after their opponent’s Nexus, they can attack immediately at the start of the turn, disabling the other player’s ability to play anything other than “Burst” (instant) and “Fast” (resolving after both players agreed to resolve the phase) spells. Once the combat phase is done, or the active player starts the turn by playing a unit or a “Slow” spell, both players can use up their mana pool interchangeably until they use it up, or both pass their turn.
This unique phasing has led to equal amounts of frustration and fun for me. I don’t think there’s a Card Game where I felt as helpless as in Runeterra after I didn’t draw a counter to a giant board. But I also haven’t felt the satisfaction of a Hail Mary Combo working as well as it did with my discard Jinx/Draven combo deck in a long time. Which neatly brings us to LoR’s truly unique mechanic.
Champions. Champions are special status cards comparable to Legendary cards in Hearthstone in value, limited to 6 per 40 card deck, kinda like the Hero cards in GWENT. Champions are immune to certain cards and can be levelled up by fulfilling the “quest” set out by the card. For example, Jinx is levelled up by emptying your hand. She then gets a 1/1 stat increase and allows you to draw an extra card each turn. If you empty your hand again, you get rewarded with a cheap & powerful card that can easily turn the tides of your game.
Other cards provide different levels of destruction. Tryndamere, who needs to die to get upgraded immediately becomes an unstoppable force of destruction upon his resurrection. Additionally, some cards can be upgraded without even being in your hand, allowing you to immediately drop a high-powered destruction machine on the board.
Heroes represent different regions and decks in the standard modes can features cards from two at most. Unlike Hearthstone, there are no neutral cards, so you’re going to have to be very careful when selecting which region you choose and how a region’s strengths and weaknesses synergize with your deck. Each region has very characteristic features. For example, Demacia, similarly to Hearthstone’s Paladins loves beefing up units with d̵i̵v̵i̵n̵e̵ ̵s̵h̵i̵e̵l̵d̵s̵ Barriers, while the Noxus focuses on aggro-heavy zoo and d̵e̵a̵t̵h̵r̵a̵t̵t̵l̵e̵ Last Breath mechanics, similar to Hearthstone’s Warlock.
While the basic archetypes are not dissimilar from its undoubtedly biggest competitor, LoRs ability to mix very differing mechanics into a consistently synergistic deck is very impressive. You won’t see a mana-ramping mage in Hearthstone, while a deck like that can certainly exist in the realm of Runeterra.
All of this sounds overwhelming, however, Riot’s design philosophy really shines in their tutorials and card text designs. Every card can be highlighted via a right-click, showing not just an appropriately tool tipped card text, but also all cards associated with a certain card. In addition, if you know that the opponent’s card produces another one (say, the Last Breath of a unit you killed gives the opponent a certain spell), the interface will turn it over face-up on your screen, a feature left to Deck Trackers in Hearthstone.
Of course, the meta is still crystalizing and feels like it has a lot of balancing ahead of it. I have to admit that some games are oftentimes frustratingly one-sided, oftentimes because of a rather large 40 card, 3-copy-each decks combined with a relatively low health total of 20 HP per player. Additionally, meta-defining cards such as Deny, which stops a spell from triggering being limited only to certain regions seems like something that might limit the competitive viability of regions without such cards in the future. Hopefully, this open beta will help Riot sort out these issues in a game that’s already extremely polished for what it is.
On a more casual level, the game requires much more concentration than Hearthstone, something that I’m sure might hurt it in the long run. As of right now, I can’t imagine playing this game on my phone, or even on a tablet. I kept missing important bits & pieces of information on my 27" inch screen, so I can’t imagine smaller ones will do the game any favours. Given that the mobile scene played a relatively big part in Hearthstone’s success among casuals, Riot has a tough task ahead of them when porting the game to smaller screens.
At the same time, what Riot may lose in mobile devices (and the absence of a Mac version) it may gain back thanks to its unique economy. The monetization model in Legends of Runeterra isn’t reliant on packs. Players can instead purchase Wildcards of varying levels of rarity to purchase the cards they need or want. These purchases are limited to weekly amounts, limiting the P2W aspect of the game and keeping the players collecting cards through gameplay. There is also a starter pack containing a lot of useful, currently at around $4.99 on an early-bird discount, after which it will cost $20. You can still buy random packs through buying entries to Expeditions, a draft mode that will set you back around $2.50 (250 Coins) a pop and guarantee at least a one Champion Card. Entry can also be bought for 3000 Shards, the equivalent of the cost of crafting a Champion card.
In another wildly pro-consumer move, the Expedition mode actually gives you two separate drafts as you try to win 7 games. Your draft ends if you lose 2 games in a row or lose Game 7 once, and the best out of your two attempts is the one that counts for your rewards. There is no obligation to take the 2nd try, though, and if you feel like you can’t beat your score, you can easily settle for whatever you’ve gotten in the first.
Finally, every game, win or lose, contributes to your selected region’s Trophy Road, with bonuses given for playing cards from it. You can only complete one Trophy Road at a time, but all of them have the same rewards and scale the same way. This both encourages continuously building up the collection from your favourite regions, as well as experimenting with new decks to get some extra XP. You can also switch regions at any time, with XP being separately assigned to each road. The collected XP also contributes to a weekly vault that you can level up and open every Tuesday for some additional rewards.
Duplicate Commons and Rares are turned into Shards, while duplicate Champions and Epics are automatically turned into a different card that you don’t own yet. This means that, unfortunately, this game won’t have a button for Kripparian to press. More importantly, however, you won’t have to watch as your excitement over packing an orange card turns into disgust after you realize that you’ve packed your 2nd Lorewalker Cho and all you can craft for discarding him is an Epic.
The game also offers monetization through cosmetics. You can customize the look of your Guardian, a cute everpresent animal companion, as well as the board you play on. Unlikely to give you a competitive advantage, unless Poros distract you way too much.
All of this contrasts with Hearthstone’s and Magic: The Gathering Arena’s ever-increasing price of entry, constantly shifting meta landscape and near-impossibility of keeping up with the meta without paying insane amount money. Riot openly highlights that they want this experience to be open to F2P players, and seems to want to ensure players get all the help the game can give them to fill their collections through natural progression.
Having seen Elder Scrolls: Legends, GWENT and Artifact all fail to grab a piece of Hearthstone’s and Magic’s action, Legends of Runeterra feels like the first game that actually has the potential to dethrone the duopoly. With the most consumer-friendly economy I’ve seen in a free-to-play card game, it certainly has the chops to draw in, and keep a big player-base.
The main challenge in all of this won’t be economy-related. Legends of Runeterra neatly places itself between the cerebral and deliberate gameplay of Magic and the simple, free-flowing chaos that is Hearthstone. Is it casual enough for Blizzard’s core audience? Will its complexity satisfy the community fostered by Wizard of the Coast? Those questions largely depend on a metagame that is only now being developed and how fast the game’s designers and developers will be willing to adjust to feedback.
Whether the game becomes a genre-defining game like League of Legends or a blip on the CCG radar like GWENT remains to be seen. I do, however, sincerely believe that the future is Riot’s to lose.