Legends of Runeterra is Some Kind of Magic

The League of Legends flavoured card game Legends of Runeterra has entered open beta. Let's see how it's shaping up so far.

I’m genuinely surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed Legends of Runeterra so far.

The League of Legends flavoured Collectible Card Game went into open beta recently, and I downloaded it entirely on a whim. It’s been years since I actively played League of Legends, and I’ve not been huge into CCGs aside from dabbling in the first year or two of Hearthstone. It’s not the kind of game I’d normally leap into, and yet that’s exactly what I’ve done.

Our coverage of the game so far has been a bit sparse, to say the least, so I’ve taken it upon myself to introduce the game to people. How has Riot Games fared in their first foray into a game that isn’t League of Legends? Does it stack up compared to other card games out there? Let’s explore that.

Under the Hood

Comparisons to Hearthstone are inevitable, and the presentation evokes that from the outset. It’s clear that Legends of Runeterra is its own experience long before the tutorials are finished, however. The systems are closer to Magic: The Gathering, and my familiarity with that game made the transition to this ruleset easier (though I haven’t played Magic Arena to contrast). So let’s take a glance at what’s going on, shall we?

Rather than giving players a full turn to play everything before passing, players instead take a single action before control passes to the opponent. This continues back and forth until both players have nothing playable, or both pass. This ends a round; each player then gets an additional mana, mana is replenished, and the process repeats.

Like Hearthstone, mana is given at a rate of one additional maximum per round, and every card has an associated mana cost. An added benefit, however, is spell mana. Excess mana at the end of a round is converted to spell mana, and you can store up to three. As the name suggests, this mana is used on spells only, and will always be used first. This means you can keep a buffer to use buffs, interrupts and so on.

And there will be interrupts. Spells are divided into three types in Legends of Runeterra. Slow spells can only be used on your turn, fast spells can be used in response to other actions, and burst spells are fast spells that immediately resolve. The multi-spell stack of Magic is present in a limited form here, and it makes potential interactions much deeper.

Beyond spells, you otherwise have a slew of unit cards. Each has a damage and health stat, as well as numerous potential effects. Many of the archetypes present in other CCGs are here: effects when they enter, effects when they die, effects on hit, keywords that grant additional permanent traits and so on. Damage that is dealt to them sticks between rounds, like Hearthstone. All fairly familiar.

“The multi-spell stack of Magic is present in a limited form here, and it makes potential interactions much deeper.”

What stands out the most, then, are Champion cards. Based on the champions from League of Legends, these units serve as the legendary cards of Hearthstone and have much more impactful effects. Chief among these is the ability to Level Up; each has a condition that, when achieved, sees them gain better stats and new abilities.

For example, Garen is a 5 mana card with 5 power and health each. He’s got Regeneration, which means he heals all damage on a new round. He levels up when he strikes twice total (whether attacking or blocking), making him a 6/6 with the added ability to cause Rally at the start of a round. What’s Rally? Pin that, we’ll come back in a moment.

Every level up condition is unique to the playstyle of that champion, and these will usually be what you build decks around. Elise, for example, levels up when you have three other spider allies at the start of a round. In this upgraded form, she gives spider allies buffs. Shen grants an attacking ally Barrier; when four of your allies have received a Barrier, his ability will grant anyone with said barriers extra damage. There are about two dozen champions currently in the game, so there’s a lot of possibilities.

If all of this is sounding familiar, what really separates Legends of Runeterra is the attack token. Every round, the attack token goes to the other player. Even though you take turns within a round playing a card, you can’t launch an attack unless you have the token. When you choose to attack, you commit which of your units are going to strike, and that takes your turn.

Hearthstone players will likely be used to having minions attack one another, but not so here: Magic is once again the inspiration. Once the attack is committed, the opponent can then choose which of their creatures they want to block them with. Fast and burst spells can be played, damage is calculated, and anything not blocked will strike at the enemy’s Nexus (their health total, capped at 20). If the enemy’s Nexus reaches 0 or less, you win.

The alternating attack turns means you’ll often be juggling setting up for your own assaults, preparing defenses, and so on. Sometimes you have a good board state and want to attack as your first turn in a round, other times you might get a few more units out and risk better defenses being set up before committing.

Plus… remember that pin in Garen’s Rally ability? Rally gives you an attack token. So a leveled up Garen lets you attack every turn, effectively. By now, you can probably see the potential strategies starting to form.what do 

This is the crux of the mechanics in Legends of Runeterra. There’s a lot more, naturally, but this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list. So let’s talk about building a deck.

Getting Decked Out

Every card is assigned to a region of Runeterra’s world. There are six: Demacia, Noxus, Piltover & Zaun, Shadow Isles, Ionia, and Freljord. Each region tends towards certain playstyles with their cards, and a deck can only contain cards from up to two of these regions. 

Want to rush an opponent down quickly? Shadow Isles/Noxus is your combo. Play defensive and build towards big units? Demacia/Freljord. Lots of spells and spell tricks? Piltover & Zaun/Ionia. Each pair can offer quite a few synergies and strategies.

Once you’ve got your regions selected, you then pick and choose to finish off the deck. Decks can have exactly 40 cards and up to 3 copies of any card within. No more than six of these can be champions; whether you just run multiple copies of two champions, or else run individuals of six, that rule holds. It’s also possible to build decks with no champions if you really want to (I’ve seen it done), but they’re so potentially powerful that it seems counterintuitive.

And that’s the gist of Legends of Runeterra. You can play against AI or other players. Normal and Ranked modes are both included, with ranks following the style of League of Legends (Diamond > Platinum > Gold etc.) and containing 4 tiers within each.

There’s also a draft mode called Expedition. Similar to Hearthstone’s Arena, you’ll be presented with a selection of cards in stages and build out your deck with your choices, then play against others to get as many wins as you can. 

Rather than drafting individual cards though, you’ll be given multiple at a time. You’re guaranteed to get two champions to begin with, and this determines your region selection for the rest of the run. Each pick afterward will feature two to three cards of a similar theme, from three options. At the last pick (and after every single Expedition game), you’ll get to trade a card you have for another alternative and are once again given three options to pick from.

Expeditions tend to be quite forgiving, however. You’ll get two matches to start with that serve as trials before picking a couple more cards/trades to round out your deck. Then you’ll get into the matches proper, where the objective is to reach seven wins. However, the Expedition only ends when you lose two games consecutively. Win a game and that grace period returns. 

Not only that, but each Expedition gives you two drafts, and you get rewards for the best you did. Play the first, get a deck you hate, and bomb out instantly? No problem, your second draft might go much better and you’ll get rewarded. Plus, rewards always include a champion card, so it’s well worth doing… assuming you have the entry fee.

Which segues nicely into the burning question present for all such CCGs and F2P games… monetization.

No Whales Allowed (No Big Ones, Anyway)

So, Legends of Runeterra is free to start and play from the outset. You’ll be given three intro decks that include a smattering of cards and champions, such as the aforementioned Elise and Garen. From there, you’re probably expecting to have to grind up a currency to pay for booster packs, or else open up your wallet to buy them en masse?

That’s exactly what I was expecting, and I was stunned to learn that that’s not the case at all.

Perhaps in anticipation of the ongoing lootbox backlash and potential legislation, Riot has implemented a system that’s remarkably fair. There are no booster packs or card sets to speak of. Instead, you buy individual wildcards of a specific rarity, and you use those wildcards to unlock a card of your choice. So you have the freedom to pick and choose exactly what cards you want.

Fine, so it’s not random, but you can still just throw money at the screen and receive everything right? Nope! Legends of Runeterra instead caps how many wildcards you may purchase each week. You can get 3 champions, 3 epics, 6 rares and 6 commons per week. That’s it. There’s also a starter bundle that gets you a selection of cards from each region, all of which are specified and the price reduced if you already own some.

If you do want to drop money on it, there’s a selection of purchase-only cosmetics. Board skins graphically change your side of the field and come with specific music. Guardians are cute critters that perch next to your deck that you can poke (everyone gets a Poro by default, so I see no need to change).

Legends of Runeterra
caps how many wildcards you may purchase each week.”

Most transactions, if any, will likely see Expeditions as the source. Expeditions are started by forking over either the premium currency, shards from duplicate cards or rewards, or an expedition token from player rewards. Even then, you can only run three expeditions per week, so once again, there’s a limit on how much money can be thrown at it.

Still, there are two sides to every F2P game’s monetization model. That’s what a paying player can get, but what can a free player get? Well, Legends of Runeterra isn’t too skimpy on that front either.

In short, every match you play will reward experience. Initial daily wins and games will give more, and there’s a new daily quest that provides additional experience (stacking up three of them much like Hearthstone). If you’re out of quests and you’ve played a lot of matches, eventually the experience gain will trickle down, but it’ll only run out after 30 wins each day; you aren’t likely to attain that unless you seriously grind hard.

Experience goes into two things: a weekly vault and your region rewards. The weekly vault contains three chests that unlock every Tuesday. Reach a new tier of experience and the quality of the chests, with a higher threshold guaranteeing an expedition token. It’s fairly passive, but it means you’re rewarded over the week for your playtime.

If the weekly vault is the big thing you work towards, then the region rewards are the steady drip-feed. You start out with a tutorial track, with each tier unlocking when you gain enough experience to provide a reward. This’ll usually be a selection of cards/wildcards at a set rarity. Once you’ve completed the tutorial track, you move into the region tracks.

In short, you designate which region your experience goes towards and then it’ll gradually unlock rewards for you. The card rewards will all be cards from that region, so players can choose what kind of cards or playstyle they’re after and dedicate their rewards to it. Each region has 20 levels to work towards, with the rewards naturally getting better as you climb.

You can change your designated region at any time, should you want to bounce around for the cheap rewards or change up your playstyle. I’m trying to level up every region to rank 8 to get a guaranteed champion capsule from each, for example. The choice is yours.

To summarise: players will always have something to work towards and can fine-tune their rewards to maximize getting what they need. The power granted to paying players is not so massive as to incentivize whales, and so a skilled free player will have plenty of opportunities to climb and succeed. As far as card game models go, it’s remarkably fair, so kudos to Riot Games on front.

Deal Me In

I quite enjoy Legends of Runeterra, if it wasn’t quite obvious by now. For a game well outside my wheelhouse, I’ve latched on to it quite thoroughly. I’m playing it almost daily, slotting it into my breaks or wind-down moments as something quick and fun to engage with. At no point have I felt like I’m behind other players, or that I’m being coerced into buying additional power. 

Legends of Runeterra is fun, well made, moderately complex, and ha plenty of options. It’s fair to free players, the presentation is excellent, and overall it feels like a game that I will continue to play in the coming weeks.

I quite enjoy Legends of Runeterra, if it wasn’t quite obvious by now.”

Of course, a soft launch is only step one for a CCG. Balance updates will roll out, changes to rewards or progression might occur, and new mechanics or sets might end up breaking things beyond repair. Individual strategies and decks inevitably emerge as the ones to beat, potentially stagnating things for a time. But for now, at least, Legends of Runeterra feels like it’s in a solid place. 

The first attempt by Riot Games to expand their roster beyond their behemoth of a MOBA has passed the first test with flying colours. If nothing else, I’m now genuinely excited to see what else they have on offer with their coming projects. Comparisons have been made in the past of Riot Games attempting to replace Blizzard, and… well… it’s not a high bar nowadays, is it?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Fiora deck I want to try out…

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Kris Cornelisse

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