Legends of Runeterra: Early Review

Legends of Runeterra has been getting a generally favorable reception. The game is highly relevant to my interests as someone who plays a lot of collectible card games and is making a collectible card game of my own called Emergents, together with Brian David-Marshall, that will be ready for its first Alpha test soon.

Thus, after the latest round of prompting to check the game out, I have checked the game out. I figured I should report back.

Legends of Runeterra has some very cool things that it does well.

It also has some things that, from my perspective, it does poorly.

That doesn’t mean those things that I personally disliked are bad or wrong! It means they made my initial experience worse, slash lowered my expectations for my future personal experiences. I am a weird customer.

I notice that I am having the hit from ‘this is a new card game with new decision points and new cards and new decks.’ Which I’m always happy to experience. There’s some potentially interesting tactical games of chicken, and the spell mana mechanic is nice. Plus, the game plays smoothly and looks gorgeous. Always a plus.

And yet, already I find myself thinking about games as something the game assigns to me, as work, to complete quests and unlock cards. I don’t feel the urge to play for the sake of playing – although I do feel a bit of ‘I have only my phone and I can play a game of this, whereas I can’t play Magic or Slay the Spire right now so maybe?’. I don’t have the same kind of ‘just one more game’ urge I have with Magic: The Gathering, or in the first few months with Hearthstone, or Artifact or Slay the Spire.  But it’s always tinged with ‘…grind out some rewards’ which always makes me feel sick about feeling it. There’s no larger scale motivation to keep playing, as the ladder gives essentially no rewards. As ladders often do – I have no idea why ladder rewards are reliably super stingy in such free to play economies.

Strategically, there isn’t much there, there. What there is is mostly tactical guessing games and games of chicken. The games blur together and all feel the same after only a few dozen total, and I wish my opponents would ‘get on with it.’

Overall, a mixed bag.

I don’t want to discourage those looking for a new game. Check it out! It’s free, the joy of seeing what they’re up to makes the first few hours reasonable (and, again, totally free), and you’ll know quickly if what this game is offering appeals to you.

Two Big Picture Perspectives

While writing this, I saw this review on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. I like the framing here a lot, and it helped me gain confidence in and tighten this review.

The big problem with Legends of Runeterra is that it is not a collection of interesting decisions. It is a collection of decisions, but most of them are tactical and forced, and easy to figure out once you have a few games under your belt. Hence not interesting. However, games can still be still enjoyable because they’re fun to watch play out.

The other big picture is one I realized yesterday. This game can be summarized as a metaphor. Hearthstone is to Magic: The Gathering as Legends of Runeterra is to Artifact.

Consider this chart:

Infinite Battlefield
Limited Battlefield
Diverse Permanents
Creatures and Spells
Strategic Decisions
Tactical Decisions
Focus Required
Focus Not Required
Real Economy
Free to Play Economy
Deck Minimum Size
Deck Exact Size
Color Unreliable
Color Always Reliable
PC Only
Mobile Available

Hearthstone took Magic, and gave us a lighter, mainstream version of it. Some elements were new, many were adopted from the original. You could play on a phone or tablet, play without much thought or focus. The game looked great and had a great interface. You could play without thinking too strategically. You moved from (let’s face it) Dungeons and Dragons to the World of Warcraft. You could play for free, and get daily rewards to expand your collection and create habitual game play, and did so largely with an endless ladder grind.

(Magic Arena then took many of these aspects and brought them back into Magic. Some, like the improved UI for playing games, were clear improvements, and very welcome. In other places, we got daily quests and now companions.)

Legends of Runeterra started with Artifact rather than Magic. That makes sense, since Dota 2 is the main rival of League of Legends. Artifact had three distinct battlefields of limitless size, which got narrowed to one with a strict six creature limit. Artifact had five heroes always moving around, Legends shuffles six into your deck instead. And so on.

Reliability is Excellent on Mobile and PC

The game works, both on mobile and on PC. It downloads and updates quickly, far quicker than Arena or Magic Online or Eternal. As far as I can tell, it does not crash. It does not hang. I assume the rules work as designed, even when I don’t understand them. You can play games.

The mobile deck builder was the only exception. The game was refusing to recognize my dragging of cards into my deck. Also, I had to drag cards across the screen to add them to my deck. I have no idea why. On PC, you don’t have to do that, and you have a mouse, so the process is straightforward. This was on a Google Pixel 3a.

I tried to play on my Google Pixelbook, which would have been my preferred method – the game is the right speed to play while chatting and hanging out with family, rather than something you focus on. Unfortunately, the device was not supported.

Graphics are Excellent, with One Problem on Mobile

The game looks gorgeous, the cards are readable and easily blown up to bigger size. Everything fits well. The card art isn’t as good as Magic’s slash is not my style, but it’s definitely plenty good enough.

The problem is that on mobile, the central design slash size of the screen means you run out of screen real estate, and don’t have enough space to be able to see the cards in your hand properly. Things are moving around and overlapping, and even zoomed in cards are extremely hard to read – Eternal has cards with more text and seemed to me to do a much better job of making them readable when you hover your finger over the card. Getting the game to show you what keywords mean can be a struggle, as the game doesn’t tell you unless you ask it. Again, we can contrast that with other games, where a window with the reminder text automatically opens up off to the upper right of the card.

Sound involves some interaction between units, and some sound effects. It’s a positive, and I prefer the sound on to the sound off, but it’s not a big deal.

Hearthstone-Style Mana Crystals with Saved Spell Mana

Legends uses Hearthstone-style mana crystals as its core mana system. On turn one you get one mana, on turn two you get two, and so on.

The good news is, there’s a twist. The twist is spell mana.

At end of turn, you can save up to three unused mana, and it becomes spell mana, which you can use to cast spells but not to play creatures. This creates opportunities to plan ahead and make decisions in interesting ways. It’s pretty cool. I’m a little sad that Emergents didn’t get to show off its version of this idea first, but I’m glad to see great minds thinking (somewhat) alike.

The other twist, which has its own section, is that players spend mana and play things every turn, but only get to attack every other turn. Thus, in some games you’ll attack when you have odd amounts of mana. In other games, you’ll attack when you have even amounts of mana. This mixes things up a bit, effectively creating a small form of unreliability in how one’s curve will progress, which I appreciated.

Rather than manage colors or other mana types beyond spell mana, the game restricts you to your choice of two of the eight factions. This is much better than Hearthstone limiting everyone to only one character class, but it’s much less interesting than letting players balance playing more factions versus having better and more reliable mana, as in Magic or Eternal.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the game’s ability to keep mana interesting while not letting it increase the game’s complexity. Given what the game is looking for, what they’ve done is a solid compromise.

Other Core Gameplay

Legends is a compact game, even more than Hearthstone is a compact game.

Legends centers around creature combat. Its secondary focus is timing and the stack.

Players alternate taking actions. Some actions have Burst, and happen right away. Others are Fast, and can be played any time onto the stack. Then there are Slow actions, which can only be played outside of combat and can’t respond to things. Playing a character is slow, but can’t be responded to. When a Fast or Slow action is happening, players can respond to each other until no one wants to do so. The exact timing of actually doing this can be tricky, and you’ll miss your window a few times, but you’ll get the hang of it.

If both players pass without doing anything, the round ends. The key strategic dynamic is doing things before or after your opponent as appropriate. The big decision is often, I get to attack this turn, so I get first action. Do I attack with what I have, which is a good attack, or play a new creature and try for a great attack, but risk the opponent playing their own action or character first and ruining everything? The other big decision is trying not to blink, so your removal spell can respond to their spell and break up their plan.

You can have up to six creatures in play at once. If you would create one while you have six, you don’t create a new one. If you summon a new one while you have six, you replace an existing one.

Each turn an alternating player gets the right to attack once, as one of their actions. Some subset of their creatures attack. Then the defending player can block each attacker with up to one defender. If you’re blocked, you fight, and damage is permanent. If you’re not blocked, you deal damage to the opponent’s nexus (e.g. the opponent) which starts at 20.

One good thing about this is that you have to plan your deck for both the games where you attack on odd numbers and defend on evens, and for the reverse. There’s a certain amount of sandbagging and time shifting you can do to smooth this out, but mostly you have to balance real issues. During the game, of course, you do what the cards want you to do.

As you would expect, mechanics favor attacking. Fearsome prevents small creatures from blocking. Quick attack is like gunslinger in Eternal, a First Strike that works only on offense but not defense.

The game generally flows quickly. If the game does not end, there are a number of expensive cards that take over the game in various fashions. At low levels of deck quality, they are mostly very good.

The game’s themes mostly hit you over the head with linear designs. You’ll want to lean into those quite a bit. A lot of them involve building around your champions. There’s a ‘dive’ strategy where you get a small library. There’s a spider tribal strategy. There’s a ‘when my creatures survive they improve and I deal damage to them myself’ thing. There’s go straight for the enemy’s head. There are some less anvil-like things available as well, but so far anvils seem like the bulk of what is happening.

One problem is that the spider strategy is far and away the most available with the starting card pool – it is sort of a real deck, and nothing else comes close unless you’re willing to burn a lot of wild cards. To be fair, you do have a reasonably large number of wild cards right off the bat, if you’re willing to use them.

Cards Constantly Create Other Named Cards

I mean constantly. A huge portion of all cards, including in draft, create a card by name when they are played, or when they die, or when something else happens. Often more than one new card. You can dig in and find what those cards are, but it’s non-trivial. When I look at the Google result for a visual spoiler, something like a third of the cards are impossible to interpret without knowing what some other card does. You can do better in the deckbuilder on a PC, where you can click over to see what these other cards do, but it’s still rather infuriating to me. It’s fine for cards to create other cards. It’s even fine for cards to occasionally create complex other cards whose full rules text can’t be or isn’t printed on the original card. But this density of such things is utterly ridiculous.

When you get a new card, you can’t click on it to zoom in, so you also can’t see what its keywords do or what its created cards are. Congratulations. If you try to click on it, the game thinks that means you’re done seeing what all your new cards are, and they vanish. You get mystery box. Now go to the deckbuilder and maybe you can figure out what new cards you have and what they do.

Decks Inherently Have Broken Cards Called Champions

It is possible I am misunderstanding how this works, but I do not believe I am.

You always play exactly forty cards. I dislike requiring an exact deck size rather than a range of possible sizes, but it’s not a big deal. Of those forty cards, up to six can be champions.

Champions are very, very good cards. The game seems to be telling you to build your deck around your champions.

In particular, champions level up. They each have some requirement, generally that they ‘see’ something happen enough times. When that condition is fulfilled, they become a stronger version of themselves. Often that version is much stronger, and if not killed it will dominate the game.

This has definitely led to a bunch of ‘whoops, my/your champion got to level up, I guess I win/lose now’ situations. Or even ‘whoops, I/you drew my/your champion and you/I don’t have a removal spell, guess that’s basically game.’ When you have a big payoff card that’s inherently super awesome, and you build your deck around getting that payoff, the games where you get that payoff slash that card are going to play very differently than the ones where you don’t. Sometimes a player will have multiple champions, and the other won’t have any.

The champions also introduce a lot of cognitive overhead. One of the problems with Artifact was that you needed to memorize what all the heroes did, so that once you saw which ones your opponent was using, you could play around their abilities and their associated spell cards. Here, we have the same problem, except the game is more opaque about what those champions are up to. The game displays pictures quickly and expects you to figure it out from there. You can always wing it and play some cards and see what happens, but it’s a point of frustration.

It’s especially frustrating because champions have multiple levels, a unique level up trigger and usually a bunch of additional abilities, so they are typically more complex than almost all Magic cards. And they’re central to how the game will be played.

Broken is a strange word, since the champions are presumably balanced against each other, but it still feels like it applies.

Magic is going the way of the companion and the commander. It’s the same thing. I hate it, to the extent that it’s making me loathe playing constructed Magic games. I’m not alone. But I guess some players really like that style of game play, and you need a focus on the champions/heroes when you’re making a game based on League of Legends (or DOTA 2) so it’s here to stay.

Timing is Bizarre, English is in Peril, Nothing is Explained

The game uses the stack, but doesn’t explain it until it happens. When you are supposed to be declaring blockers, that’s apparently when you’re supposed to be using fast effects, but they’ll happen after the blockers are declared. If they play a spell there, and you want to play one, you must respond to their spell, if you don’t then it’s too late, you missed your window. If you “take the attack token” then the other player still has “an” attack token, and can attack. Creates with can’t block can be forced to block. “I see your hand is empty” means the player, not the opponent. Duplicate champions randomly transform into other cards.

I did two drafts, which they call expeditions. Of the five games I lost, at least two are directly because the timing rules are counter-intuitive and don’t follow conventions and weren’t explained.

Yes, a few things are explained in the tutorial, but very little. Mainly the way you learn the rules is you lose the game and try to figure out what just happened. Keywords are everywhere, and fire before you can hope to get a description of what they are. In one case things were ‘burned’ and I didn’t find out for several games what had happened.

In many games this would all be a minor annoyance. Given that such timing interactions are most of the actual strategy and determine the outcomes of most close games, not knowing how they worked, or even worse thinking I knew and being wrong, was infuriating. I presume this would all pass, in time.

There are also giant screen-consuming animations for cards you’ve never seen before, when you’d really like to be reading their card and the three cards it might create to see what the hell is going on.

I mean, I’m sure it’s all working as designed. And doing this all correctly is hard. But the desire to yell at the screen has been not small.

Generous Hearthstone Economy Still a Hearthstone Economy

I have written before about what I think is wrong with what I call the Hearthstone Economy model. Legends uses a hybrid of the wildcards from Arena with a currency from duplicates that can also create cards. All of that applies here.

The good news is that the economy seems to be quite generous. It’s probably even far more generous than Eternal, especially given all the wild cards, although it’s opaque enough that it is hard to be certain.

Daily Rewards Still Considered Harmful

The game rewards you via XP. Exactly how you get XP is somewhat opaque. You get some for playing games, more for winning games, a lot for completing your daily quest (which often means building a deck that contains card X or cards from region Y, and playing vs. the AI a bit), and a bonus for your first few PvP wins each day. Sometimes there’s a rested bonus, sometimes there isn’t.

The system seems to encourage players, even more than in Hearthstone or other games, to do the things it wants them to do in order to get XP. It also seems to want players to play a lot of games quickly even if they lose, including against the AI, and it’s surprising I don’t see more turn 1 surrenders than I do. I haven’t done that myself, because honor or something. But most on the internet do not aspire to honor.

There are nice login rewards the first week, but then they go away, which overall left me feeling bad coming and going.

The contrast is stark that there are few to no rewards for accomplishing anything, other than playing and winning games, or doing well in the drafts (which they call expeditions). That’s it, so the rewards look even more central. And when you finally do draft, the stakes go from actual zero to kind of a big deal in context.

I’ve talked many times about how I dislike such systems, so I won’t belabor the point here.










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7 Responses to Legends of Runeterra: Early Review

  1. C.H. says:

    I’m confused about the issue with name cards – in every instance you can simply left click or tap the car doing the creating and scroll to the right in the blown up version in order to see all of the name cards that it creates.

    • TheZvi says:

      You can’t do this when looking at a spoiler image or description. You can’t do that when you get card rewards. And it involves a bunch of clicks to do it at other times – unless you have card functionality memorized you end up doing this a ton during deck construction and during games.

      But yes, it’s not like they hide the information that well, if you care enough.

      • C.H. says:

        True, I suppose I was just considering situations in matches.

        I think a lot of your criticisms here could have equally been levied against Alpha/Beta MTG (aside from the system level ones), so I’m optimistic that complexity and interaction improves. It certainly seems like its headed on a better path than Hearthstone IMO.

      • TheZvi says:

        I think “early Hearthstone” was a better game than early Legends. Or at least, there was a sweet period where the cards were balanced enough and also simple enough, and it was a fun little diversion that did its job. Then it slowly became worse in a way that isn’t obviously anyone messing up, it’s just hard to sustain a game at that low complexity level with new cards while keeping it balanced and fun etc etc. Also one grows tired of it.

        There are a ton of good criticisms of Alpha/Beta MTG. Game had some issues! I don’t think they’re *similar* issues, mostly. There was definitely “the rules don’t actually make any sense” but when the group decides how they work (as it was back then) it’s fine if they kind of don’t work, and also the timing wasn’t vital to the game’s strategy so long as it ‘worked’ – e.g. you could cast Power Sink and it would do something.

  2. Jorge says:

    “I did two drafts, which they call expeditions. Of the five games I lost, at least two are directly because the timing rules are counter-intuitive and don’t follow conventions and weren’t explained.”

    This is what (proximally) made me uninstall. You can’t simultaneously have your game be All About Tactical Choices and then make the nitty-gritty timing/priority rules opaque and unintuitive.

    “The champions also introduce a lot of cognitive overhead.”

    This is probably a deeper reason I uninstalled. Everything felt too ‘structured’, for lack of a better word… and in a way that made it really, really hard to get a feel for what was going. I grokked MtG in 5 minutes when I was introduced to it almost 2 decades ago- but the learning gradient for all the champions etc felt like homework rather than a chance to experiment.

    There was also something unsatisfying about the spell/creature power balance- in order to not make “always bank spell mana” an obvious strategy, the power of spells is (generally) pretty low for their mana cost.

    Lastly, and I think this is probably somewhat unfair- my ultimate reaction to the game was “been there done that”. It’s Midrange Magic for Mobile reskinned with fanservice for the LoL crowd. Meh.

    • TheZvi says:

      That all seems right. You’re not being entirely fair to the game, but you recognize that, and who said we always have to be fair to games?

  3. Austin Chen says:

    > Timing is Bizarre, English is in Peril, Nothing is Explained

    I think this is primarily because as Magic players we’re used to being able to respond basically whenever. If you think about the sheer number of timing windows an instant presents:

    1. Before an opponent draws
    2. After an opponent draws but before they can play creatures
    3. After creatures are played but before attacks are declared
    4. After attacks are declared but before blockers
    5. After blockers
    6. Again, in 2nd main phase
    7. After they can no longer play creatures

    So your mental shortcut from Magic becomes, “I can play an instant whenever, and have the effect take place before we get back to sorceries.”

    That’s just not true in Runeterra. The only windows you kind of get are #4 and #5, and like you mentioned, the spells only resolve right before combat. As far as I can tell, this isn’t really any more confusing to e.g. a card game newbie coming from League; it’s just different enough from Magic that it falls into the uncanny valley of timing expectations.

    One other tactical difference from Magic is the ordering of combat — everything resolves in left to right order, and “state-based actions” are checked in between each fight. I feel like they could have done some more designs to tap into it strategic aspect, but so far it’s been basically “keep Champions on the right so they can level in combat”.

    Anyways, I thought it was interesting comparing notes with my own first impressions coming from Magic (https://strategy.runetiera.com/magic-intro.html). I have played hundreds of Expedition games since I published that, though, so some of my thoughts may have changed in the meantime…

    (And can’t wait for Emergents!)

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