Impressions: The Elder Scrolls – Legends

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the team behind The Elder Scrolls: Legends [official site] must be great fans of Hearthstone. Much of this new collectible card game will be instantly familiar to those who’ve played Blizzard’s Warcraft-based equivalent. There’s a gradually increasing pool of magic points with which to play cards. The same attack value and health stats, with most creatures being unable to strike on the turn they’re summoned. A slew of common special abilities that break the base rules, such as allowing for an attack immediately after being played, or having a one-hit shield to protect them from damage. Sure, everything has a different name, like “Guard” instead of “Taunt”, but the initial sense of deja vu is overwhelming. Thankfully, that fades.

The respectful borrowing doesn’t stop with Hearthstone. Developers Dire Wolf Digital count some hardcore Magic: the Gathering players among their team and you can see the influence of that game in Legends too. A number of the keywords used to explain rules are recognisable from Magic, such as “Breakthrough”, which deals any leftover damage from an attack on a creature to the opposing player. Each card also has a colour which, like Magic, represents a broad category of play style. Red ‘Strength’ cards, for instance, tend to be hard-hitting and aggressive, whereas green ‘Agility’ cards revolve around debuffs and movement. Decks can be composed of one or two colours, and anywhere between fifty and seventy cards, allowing lots of flexibility in deck building.

After a few battles of the solo campaign, you’re likely to be left with an impression of familiar ideas from other games that have been recombined into something that. It’s fun, but seemingly devoid of its own creative spark.

The campaign is a series of fights against A.I controlled opponents held together by an initially forgettable narrative and the first chapter serves as the game’s tutorial. By the end of those eight battles however, those initial judgements have to be revised in the light of the final mechanics to be introduced.

For starters, it becomes clear that the solitaire experience is fairly sizable. Not only does it span several chapters, each composed of encounters with a variety of decks under interesting temporary rules, but you can even play the game’s draft mode solo. In yet another borrowing from Hearthstone this is called the arena and it’s the same concept: build a deck from a series of card choices and see how many battles you can win with it. You might presume this would be an easy task, but this alpha version of the game presents a solid enough AI algorithm to keep you engaged as you try and grind out wins to earn bigger rewards.

There are also points in the story where you’re offered a choice of how to react to a situation, and you gain a different card for your collection depending on your decision. At one point after defeating a spider I found a high elf merchant bound in the creature’s web. Faced with a tempting bounty of gold for looting his pockets or a fairly weak card for rescuing him, I opted for the card out of sympathy for his grisly fate. Obviously, for me at least, these decision points helped to make the narrative more engaging.

However, the biggest new trick in Legend’s book is also something it’s arguably taken from outside the world of digital card games: the concept of lanes, as seen in MOBAs. The battlefield is split in two, and when you play a creature you have to decide which half it goes in. Most of the time one lane is labelled a Field lane and plays normally, with the other being a Shadow lane in which creatures are safe from attack on the turn they’re played. In occasional solo games you’ll also find a Wind lane which blows minions out into the other lane at random.

It’s like playing two games at once from the same hand, and the impact this has on strategy is enormous. One approach, for example, is to try and overwhelm one lane while just throwing the occasional damage-controlling spell or Guard minion into the other. Or maybe you could throw high-damage, low-health creatures into the shadow lane and hope their one-turn protection lets them live long enough to swing the game. Alternatively you can riff on combos, such as placing one of the yellow Willpower cards that boost or gain boosts from summoned creatures in one lane with lots of cheap minions in the other. Or mix and match to your heart’s content. It’s early days, but right now Legends looks like a deep well of potential.

There are other aspects to the game you’ll have seen before, like the ability to upgrade cards in your collection and to trash cards you don’t want in exchange for soul gems to spend on cards you do. And just as you think there’s nothing original at all on offer, you’ll get hit with runes and prophecies. See, Legends has a neat mechanic to boost the losing player because each five damage you take nets you a free card draw. And then if the card you pull has the Prophecy keyword, you get to play it for free, too, which is a far less neat mechanic that can lead to massive, game changing swings of fate. We’ll see if this concept survives the beta unscathed.

Chances are it might, because in spite of all the extra depth from lanes and a bigger keyword dictionary, Legends is currently a game that can swing suddenly and hard. Limited amounts of direct damage and card removal, together with Shadow lane protection, means big creature plays that turn the tide in your favour are very much a feature. And that’s okay, because most of the time you earned that swing through good planning and clever play. It’s only when your opponent gets handed such a turn thanks to a powerful prophecy that it feels unfair.

Legends feels slower and more serious than the majority of its competitors. There are more things on the board, more mechanics to deal with, more to think about. Even the art and sounds have a more somber, realistic tone than Blizzard’s card battler, and games take longer. At first, the thought of taking longer to climb a steeper learning curve doesn’t seem too appealing, especially with less of an addictive buzz.

After a good few hours with the alpha though, I can begin to see the game unfurling before me like a map of Tamriel, and the scale is impressive. The huge scope of Betheda’s RPG’s might be offputting for some. But the same approach to a CCG has the potential to pay big dividends.

You can sign up for the upcoming Legends beta right now.

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  1. Owl Mark says:

    I like it better than HS. Not so complicated as MTG but just enough to be challenging.

    • Cerulean Shaman says:

      Bingo. Hearthstone is, like everything else Blizzard these days, X Genre for Dummies and for those who would never otherwise play it. That’s what they turned WoW into, that’s what Overwatch is, that’s what Heroes of the Storm is. All of them the super simplified and bottom level versions of their respective genres.

      MtG, on the other hand, can get pretty overwhelming and until the rule works competitive play worked heavily around abusing said rules. Right now Legends is in a comfortable place between both…

      Though I still have my money on Gwent.

      • Kitsunin says:

        Hm, I see it in Hearthstone, WoW, and Heroes of the Storm (although in that case I actually see it as making the game far superior even for the experienced, as that genre never needed or even, IMO, wanted such complexity)

        Don’t see it in Overwatch though. It’s a simpler…TF2? No, certainly not. If anything, TF2 is a more casual game despite their dissimilitude, albeit that’s more to do with the lobby system and popular game modes than its mechanics.

        Rather, I think Blizzard is exceptionally good at seeing what it is that people (the mass market, primarily!) desire and providing it in a way which hasn’t been properly tried before. People typically desire simplicity. Even if this game looks better than Hearthstone to me, I bet even if it had come out instead, it would never achieve Hearthstone’s popularity. Which I find a bit sad.

    • Frostbeard says:

      MtG as in Dual of the Planeswalker or MTGO. DotP are unplayable in opinion when you are used to MoDo

  2. SteelPaladin1997 says:

    Creatures not being able to attack on their first turn (“summoning sickness”) comes from MtG long before it came from Hearthstone. It’s odd that you misattribute that when you reference MtG elements immediately after.

    • MisterFurious says:

      Yeah, it drives me crazy when people give credit to Blizzard for an idea that they swiped from somewhere else like when people give WarCraft 3 credit for adding hero units to an RTS when Warlords Battlecry did it before them or people forget that EverQuest existed long before WoW.

    • Frostbeard says:

      For some reason it seems that RPS has a horn in the side to WotC. Might be conformational bias from me, but whenever they comment on a CCG it seems that they either overlook MtG or make some snide remark. I agree that WotC is a industry giant that pretty much steamrolled a lot of competitors early on (and still do, look at HEX, even though HEX was an obvious ripoff almost verbatim from a lot of magic cards and mechanics) But WotC is still the best when it comes to development, world building and the sheer depth of strategy that is in he game.

    • mattdp says:

      Sorry if I gave the impression that I’d misattributed summoning sickness as coming from Hearthstone. That wasnt my intention: I was just trying to highlight how similar Legends feels to Hearthstone, especially during the early stages.

  3. left1000 says:

    imo it is incorrect to say the new feature of lanes was derived from moba’s. Duel of champions is a major online ccg which uses a lane like system. In many ways so does infinity wars. Lanes is just a common way to add a little depth to online asymmetric ccg’s when you don’t want them to be as dumbed down as hearthstone.

  4. AngoraFish says:

    I’m a big fan of online card games and definitely looking for the next big hotness. Tragically, this just isn’t it for me.

    The lane system does add a bit of tactical interest, but the game is generic in pretty much every other way. Creatures are bog standard X attack / X defense, spell cards mostly do damage, heal or add +X atk / +X def.

    The Elder Scrolls theme is tacked on, and the artwork on the cards is all desaturated and grungy, making the cards unremarkable and samey. The voice work is quite good though.

    For a game set in an RPG universe, the game is also pretty light-on when it comes to RPG and progression systems, and it just doesn’t offer a ‘one more game’ feel encouraging me to reach a new level or complete a new objective.

    I stopped playing a copuple of days ago, not due to any explicit decision but simply because I’d literally forgotten that I had it on my hard drive.

  5. Scrofa says:

    Looks pretty decent for an Elder Scrolls/Hearthstone-killer game.

  6. Catchcart says:

    I’m afraid that the reason this will not replace Hearthstone for me is inertia, pure and simple, regardless of merit. I just can’t be bothered to reinvest that much time and effort when HS isn’t seriously flawed IMO.

  7. Divolinon says:

    <We’ll see if this concept survives the beta unscathed.

    I'm confused. The runesystem is the most important feature of the game (and for some reason barely even mentioned in this preview). Why wouldn't it survive the beta?

  8. PanzerVaughn says:

    Oh, NOW that Mojang:Scrolls lawsuit makes a little more sense.