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I have been playing collectible card games for quite some time. Living in Asia, I didn’t get to start my journey with Magic the Gathering. Unlike most other players. I started out with Duel Masters, being hooked on the anime since its launch (even though the dub was a parody of its own). Ever since Wizards of the Coast shut down the dub, finding cards for the TCG (the English cards) was hard. I tried switching over to Magic the Gathering and Yu Gi Oh, but they were too tedious with too many game mechanics to learn to get into. I had¬†found solace in Hearthstone, playing since launch. The game was fun for a while, till it became hard to keep up with the increasing costs. On League of Legends’ 16th anniversary, it was announced that Riot Games was working on a new collectible card game. I jumped into the hype train early on to get a first-hand feel of what a new collectible game might want to do to not feel like Hearthstone (which has become a king of digital card games and a model every card game wants to emulate). This game is none other than Legends of Runeterra – a card game set in the massive titular world.

Game Modes

Legends of Runeterra comes with a few features outside of the box to make it insanely rewarding to play. It seems to have learned from the successes and failures of other card games. One key difference is that it ships with quite a few modes out of the box to make gameplay interesting. You have both singleplayer and multiplayer modes – both allowing you to hone your deck building and card tossing skills. Singleplayer modes allow you to play versus the AI, testing various strategies and combinations and patching up errors before heading online. The AI plays well enough to allow a new player to patch up rookie mistakes, even though it might be a bit too easy when one has learned the basic mechanics of the game. However, it still allows you to do your daily quests, which in turn allows you to progress towards getting more cards for your collection.

Multiplayer game modes are a bit more varied since they allow you to play against human players. There are three main game modes here, with two focusing solely on PvP. You either enter the arena to get a feel of how dueling a real human would feel like casually, or get to grinding the ranks with your new cards. There are a plethora of ranks to grind through – and in the end, there are the grandmasters – the best players of the game in the region.

If that doesn’t feel fresh and rewarding enough, Legends of Runeterra brings the popular “Arena” mode with it as well – except the fact that it is called Expeditions here. You draft a deck from random cards in this game mode and use that deck to stack up wins against people doing the same. The only difference here is that you are allowed to choose from three gauntlets – each gauntlet consisting of three cards at a time. You are offered better cards on later gauntlet picks that help synergizes with your previous picks which help you in your duels.

The advantage of playing these expeditions is that you get rewards from participating in it. The more the number of wins you score with your deck – the better your rewards. Even if you fail to secure any wins, you still end up with an epic capsule, which guarantees five random cards out of which at least one is an epic (epics are the second most rare cards in the game after champions). You get two tries to score wins in each expedition – also termed as “Trials”. Each trial allows the player to draft a separate deck and play till they lose two games consecutively – the trial where the player scored more wins is taken while distributing the rewards. Two trials mean that players always have a second chance, allowing them to get more value out of an expedition. Expeditions require expedition tokens as a currency – which can be earned from the weekly chests as well as rewards from the previous expedition runs.

The Basics

Legends of Runeterra plays out in a manner different from traditional collectible card games. Most games nowadays have gone for the ‘Hearthstone’ approach, where players summon creatures to beat the opponent to death. Each creature can ‘trade’ blows with other creatures till one of them die, or attack the opponent directly. Spells are used for gaining temporary advantages and are then removed from the hand. However, the problem with this sort of games is that they start to feel boring and redundant after a while.

Legends of Runeterra also uses the same principle, but on a much broader scale. There are spells which allow the player to gain a temporary advantage, and creatures to attack and destroy the enemy. However, unlike Hearthstone (or other similar ‘clones’), creatures cannot attack random targets at any time they want. The game uses phases like Magic the Gathering and Yu Gi Oh. During the beginning of your turn, all special effects that occur at the beginning of a turn are executed. Note that Runeterra doesn’t involve tapping of cards like Magic the Gathering or Duel Masters, so there’s generally not much to do here.

During the first main phase, creatures can be summoned or spells can be cast. Following that, during the attack phase, creatures can be used for attacking the opponent. The opponent then selects his creatures to block the attack (or let it pass). Any unblocked damage is dealt straight to the opponent’s nexus (basically a physical embodiment of the player in the game).

Then comes the second main phase, where one can play their cards (creatures or spells). Following that, all special end of turn effects are executed, and that’s the end of your turn. Your opponent runs through the same phases, and then it’s your turn again. Creatures generally have special effects that can be used to get an edge in combat. Creature effects can be executed at the start of the turn, at the end of the turn, or any time in between (such as when one summons a creature or casts a spell, or attacks).

What really changes the pace of the game are not the creatures, but the spells. There are various types of spells indicating when it could be used against enemies. Slow spells can only be used during the main phases and are heavily focused on producing long term effects that either act as a debuff for the opponent or as a buff for the player’s creatures. Burst spells are some of the fastest spells in the game and can be played at any time. An opponent cannot counter a burst spell when cast – which is one of the biggest advantages of including them in your deck for finding a way out of a sticky spot. Fast spells are burst spells that can be countered by the opponent with their own burst or fast spells when cast. Both burst and fast spells are the reason the game feels so flexible.

You can counter almost any move, or come up with a way to beat a counter in almost any way possible. This feature seems to have been inspired by the quick play spells of Yu Gi Oh and instants of Magic the Gathering, yet seems to outdo them by being much friendlier and easier to comprehend, especially for beginners.

The Free-to-Play Experience

Legends of Runeterra was built fundamentally on the principle that digital trading card games are expensive, and they wanted to do away with the cost of building a decent collection for being competitive. There are multiple ways in which Runeterra rewards you just for playing the game. There’s an impressive battle pass system that one can grind through to unlock more cards for the collection. Depending on the rarity of the chests (the alternative name given to lootboxes in this game), one gets to unlock from five to fifteen cards for the collection. To progress along the battle pass, one needs to complete daily missions or simply play the game (every win or loss gains XP). There are several pathways in each region (for the seven regions released so far), with the rewards becoming more substantial as one moves further towards the end of the region.

The battle pass has almost everything for a casual player’s needs. If you wish to go beyond that and add more cards to your collection, the best way is to do expeditions (check the game modes above for more details). You’re always guaranteed an epic capsule (which in turn guarantees at least one epic card), and your rewards scale up depending on your performance in the run. Crafting a deck that actually stands the test of 7 runs is difficult and one could always make do with a lot of learning. Don’t be worried about the expedition tokens – you’re going to get one token every week from the weekly chest.

The free rewards don’t end there. Every week there’s a weekly chest that levels up based on the amount of XP gained. XP gained not only counts towards battle pass progress but levels up the chest as well. Chests can go from level 1 to level 13 – 1000 XP is required for each level up. The higher the level of the chest, the greater the rewards. With a bit of grinding, it’s guaranteed to get a legendary (or rather, champion) card from each weekly chest. Add the battle pass rewards to that, and you’ll be racking up a collection in no time.

There are a few features built in to help add to the collection. Firstly, whenever one opens a chest (maybe the weekly chest or a chest obtained from the battle pass) – if one happens to get a champion card, it will always be a card that you don’t already have in your collection. Moreover, in order to reduce the amount of randomness from pulls, the game uses a concept called wildcards. Wildcards can be used to craft any particular card of the same rarity (for example, a champion wild card can be used to craft a champion card) – on crafting, the card is permanently added to your collection. If you’re one who decides to put money into the game, you can always control what you’re getting – and that’s seriously nice. Earlier, there was also a limit on the number of wild cards you can buy with money aimed to reduce the number of players who could buy their way to the top (Seto Kaiba, I’m looking at you) – but that was removed in a patch shortly before the game’s launch. The patch also increased the rewards from expeditions and the weekly chest, so that kind of evens out the change.

Despite the large focus on “no randomness – you choose what you get”, the existence of chests that grant random cards still seem pretty dumb because they are literally lootboxes with randomized contents. At least when you drop money, you can be sure that you can get a card which you truly want instead of random garbage.

Visuals and Sound

The game takes a lot of inspiration from other card games visually. The player board seems to be inspired by Artifact, even though it doesn’t feature three separate lanes. Spells resolve at the center of the table, just like Magic – in a place called the stack. Once spells are played, all spells resolve in order in the stack one by one till the final spell is executed. All creatures are placed on the game board and are dragged to the main board for declaring an attack during the attack phase. Oh, you can also interact with the cute guardians on the side of the board (they react to your plays too)!

The cards have some decent voice acting attached to them. You do feel you can connect with them at a deeper level as you sink more and more hours playing your favorite deck. The game’s music itself is pretty enticing – it’s something that you’ll definitely notice, yet not be distracted by it.

Riot seems to have put quite a bit of resources into optimizing the game. Legends of Runeterra runs without framerate issues and without significant glitches on even low-end PCs and laptops. There’s one minor issue though – if your internet gets disconnected somewhere in middle, the game just goes unresponsive – something which still doesn’t seem to have been fixed.

VERDICT

Legends of Runeterra is a brand new card game that adds new game mechanics instead of being ‘just another digital card game’. It also rewards time invested in it in quite a generous manner. If you’re a card game enthusiast, this is definitely something that should be up your alley. Even if you’re a casual player who hasn’t played card games before, you can (and definitely should) try out the game once and see how it feels. It’s not like it’s costing you anything to give it a try.

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