The Elder Scrolls: Legends review
The Elder Scrolls: Legends is the newly launched PC Trading Card Game from Bethesda. It draws heavily from Hearthstone – perhaps too heavily – but it brings enough new ideas to the table to create a fresh experience.
The core gameplay of Legends will be familiar to anyone who has played a trading card game. There are two players, both of whom have a deck of cards. They draw cards, some of which are creatures, some actions, and they take turns placing the cards on the board between them. The creatures fight one another or attack the other player, and the game ends when one player has fallen to zero health.
If this is all new to you, I recommend giving The Elder Scrolls: Legends a go. It’s very accessible. The tutorial is good, and the mechanics aren’t too difficult to understand. The art is slick, the interface is clean, the setting is a familiar friend from other Elder Scrolls games, and the animations are pleasantly chunky. The game’s free to play, but the monetization is unobtrusive and quite generous to non-paying players. On top of that, Legends is new, so there aren’t years of content to wrap your head around and everyone is still figuring out the best strategies, tactics and decks.
Digital TCGs have been very popular since the release of Hearthstone. I’ve played a godawful amount of Hearthstone. It consumed every ounce of my free time for a month or two. It opened the genre to a much wider audience by simplifying its incredibly complicated forefather, Magic the Gathering. It removed the worst mechanics, like land cards and convoluted turn phases, and added mechanics that would only work in a digital context, like partial creature damage and fun randomized effects.
Because Hearthstone was a much simpler game than MTG, it lost some of the tactical depth that longtime TCG fans craved. Later digital card games like SolForge and Infinity Wars tried to capitalize on this by introducing dramatic new mechanics and complexity. Most of these games, however, struggled with balance issues, were difficult to quickly understand, and failed to retain a sizable audience.
The Elder Scrolls: Legends tries to split the difference. It is much more Hearthstone-like than SolForge, but it still makes a few of its own modifications and refinements – most notably, the additions of lanes, runes, and prophecies.
In The Elder Scrolls: Legends, there are two different lanes where you can play your creatures. With a handful of exceptions, most creatures can only attack enemy creatures in their own lane. Some summon abilities (battlecries) and actions (spells) affect both lanes, and some only affect one. In regular games, the right lane is a “shadow lane,” which gives newly summoned creatures one turn of cover (stealth), and the left lane is a “field lane,” a lane with no special effects.
Lanes are an excellent mechanic. They add impactful tactics and strategy without being confusing. Most importantly, lanes complicate board control, which is a crucial strategic element of any TCG. Each turn, players must make decisions that they never have to make in Hearthstone: where do I want to put my creature? Do I want to try to maintain control of both lanes? Do I abandon the right lane and race to kill them in the left lane?
Runes are another important new mechanic. Each player begins the game with 30 health and 5 runes. When they fall to 25 health, 20 health, etc., they lose a rune and draw a card. This provides an inherent disadvantage to aggressive play, because when you are playing as the aggressor your opponent is drawing lots of cards. In most TCGs, there is little to no disadvantage to attacking the enemy’s face when there are no creatures challenging your own.
In Legends, this is distinctly untrue. You must ask yourself each turn if attacking face makes sense. Do you care more in this circumstance about card advantage (having more cards in your hand than they do) or kill pressure?
Additionally, runes create break points to work around. If the enemy is on 25 hp, I’m comfortable dealing 4 damage, because they won’t draw a new card until 20 hp. If they’re on 21 hp, I might be reluctant to deal only 1 or 2 damage even as an aggressive deck.
Prophecy is a keyword that means “if you draw this card when one of your runes is broken, play it for free.” This is the most problematic new mechanic in the game. It has definite strategic value, but it may have too many important drawbacks to justify its inclusion.
The biggest advantage of the Prophecy mechanic is that it adds a way for your enemy to sometimes have decision-making during your turn. This is a type of interaction that is central to Magic: The Gathering, but is totally absent from Hearthstone. When you draw a card like “Lightning Bolt: Prophecy. Deal 4 damage” as a prophecy, it’s not always clear what the best target is. Is it the 4 attack 1 health creature that hasn’t attacked yet? Is it the 5 attack 4 health creature that just attacked you? Is it the 2/4 guard in the left lane that’s preventing your big threat from getting through next turn? Or perhaps your opponent is so low health that targeting face will give you a potential lethal next turn? As the player who is about to break your opponent’s rune, the possibility of a lightning bolt has a lot of influence on your actions. Which creatures do you need to attack with first? Can you risk taking 4 damage to your face? Is the upside bigger than the downside? These types of interactions – and there are many of them, with dozens of Prophecy cards – are interesting and challenging. This is a meaningful upside to Prophecy’s inclusion in the game.
The downside, however, is considerable. Many games are won or lost on how many prophecy cards your opponent draws, and when. Prophecies that cost 4, 5, or even 6 mana are a huge swing in the game, especially if they are creatures which are drawn as prophecies early-on.
Here’s perhaps the most extreme example. You and your opponent are both a 3 mana. You attack them and bring them to 25 health. Your opponent draws “Fate Weaver: 3 health 3 defense creature. Prophecy. Summon: Draw a card. If it has Prophecy you may play it for free.” They now get to place down a 3/3, draw a card, and potentially play that card as well. Your opponent has just gotten 6+ mana of value at a time when you only have 3 total mana available. You just lost this game. Of course, most Prophecies are not as dramatic as this, but even 2 or 3 free mana will often win or lose the game.
Randomness is intrinsic to any card game. There’s a clear argument that almost all matches of any TCG are won or lost based on how well players draw from their deck. But there’s good randomness and there’s bad randomness. This is a very complicated and controversial issue, which could fill a book. “Good” and “bad” are subjective, the value of randomness differs based on context, and of course there’s a spectrum between the two.
The succinct version, from my point of view, is that in a game like Legends, bad randomness has a few qualities: it’s extremely influential on the outcome of the game, it’s not exciting, it’s not interactive, and it makes the player feel helpless. To its credit, the Prophecy keyword in Legends is extremely interactive for all of the reasons that I described above, and it’s sometimes exciting. Generally, though, it has far too much influence on who wins and who loses and it’s extremely dispiriting. When I see that my opponent has drawn a Prophecy, I feel dread and frustration. And when I lose a game because I never draw a Prophecy, even though I had plenty of good Prophecies in my deck, that feels bad too. Again, this is a complicated issue, and there’s a lot more to say about it, but my feeling is that the problems with Prophecies outweigh the benefits.
Let’s turn to something nicer: the Solo Arena is just fantastic. Draft formats are a lot of fun, but they’re daunting when you don’t know what you’re doing. Legends solves this problem with a dynamic and exciting single-player arena. You draft a 30-card deck and then you’re given a selection of 8 opponents and 1 boss opponent that is only unlocked when you’ve defeated the other 8. Each time you beat an opponent, you get to draft a new card. And each time you beat a boss, your rank increases. The next time you play a Solo Arena, your arena opponents are tougher and the rewards are greater. This is the best solution to the steep draft format learning curve that I have ever seen. It’s a new game mode that offers more than a dozen hours of exciting single-player content, and it trains you for Versus Arena.
As I assess Legends I keep coming back to the question: is it too much like Hearthstone? It might be. On my second Versus Arena run, I got a perfect 7-0. This was because the knowledge that I brought with me from my past TCG experience was more directly applicable than it was with Infinity Wars or even new sets of Magic the Gathering. Legends is young and there are a lot of other brand new players out there, but I shouldn’t be able to do that well without taking more time to study the new mechanics and adjust my instinctive card valuations.
Constructed is a different story – there, I’m getting stomped. Ranked play is usually the beating heart of a TCG, because in ranked games, unlike in Arena, you can carefully build decks that have a plan. One of my problems is that I don’t have the cards to make a good deck yet, but more importantly, I’m oblivious to the cards that I should be playing around, and I’m unable to judge how a match will play out by seeing my opponent’s class. Based on online tier lists and legend-level YouTube videos and streams, there is a very diverse meta and there are many cards that you need to play around. Each decision seems to require extra layers of thought, because there are more possible moves to make each turn. It seems like there is a wide variety of competitive decks, and that there are many dramatically different play-styles.
When I was playing Hearthstone at the legend ranks, I could guess 85-95% of a player’s deck after the first card that I saw, if not earlier. Legends, on the other hand, seems to have a lot of deck variety even within established archetypes. Hearthstone is a mature game with a lot of experienced and talented players who are continuously optimizing their deck lists and making them available online. Towards the end of each expansion, the deck lists start to feel “solved.” Legends is currently wide open for innovative deck builders, and that’s fantastic. This dynamic and diverse balance is very promising for the future of top level play.
I come to Legends with a different perspective on the genre than the average player. I was the lead designer on a similar digital card game for six months (it never shipped). Legends grapples with many of the same design problems that I’ve thought about for hundreds of hours. Some of their solutions to these problems are novel and successful, while other are not.
The Elder Scrolls: Legends is a fun, polished, dynamic card game. It’s generous and accessible to non-paying players in a way that Hearthstone no longer is. I’m excited to continue playing it after posting this review. I don’t know if the problems with Prophecies will become too big of a frustration, and I don’t know if it will continue to be an engaging experience after months of play, but for now Legends is definitely worth your time to explore.