Elder Scrolls: Legends preview impressions

This online CCG adds MOBA-style 'lanes' to the play area.

There are few game studios with enough brand power, fan loyalty, and game design chops to successfully pull off a collectible card game that can actually challenge the empire Blizzard built atop Hearthstone. Luckily for Bethesda, they’re one of those few game studios and The Elder Scrolls: Legends is shaping up to be one of the best CCGs on the market.

For those unaware, The Elder Scrolls: Legends, takes the underlying concept of card games like Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and others, and adapts it to fit inside the lore and setting of The Elder Scrolls universe. You’ll begin the game by choosing one of Tamriel’s iconic races and will acquire cards and decks that all function based off of different core stats and abilities.

Finding Common Ground

Before we dive into the differences between Legends, Magic, and Hearthstone -- of which there are plenty -- let’s get the similarities out of the way first. Every match begins with players drawing a hand of cards from their deck, redrawing if desired, and starting with a life pool of 30. Each turn you draw a card and gain one point in your pool of Magicka (or Mana.) The goal is to defeat your opponent by reducing their life to zero.

Stylistically, the artwork and overall presentation feels much more similar to Magic: The Gathering. Instead of silly characters like Leeroy Jenkins, you’ll find grittier creatures with the stylistic flair of the darker and more realistic Elder Scrolls universe. The menus and artwork are beautiful, as expected from a studio like Bethesda, but it does lack some of the flashy stopping power a more fantastical game like Hearthstone packs.

Mechanically though, it borrows elements from both Magic and Hearthstone quite liberally.

For example, each card has a cost, which is the amount of Magicka required to play the card, and creatures have an attack and defense value. Many of the abilities and effects are similar to that of Hearthstone, such as creatures not being able to block incoming attacks unless specified.

Many of the cards will also have additional effects, like Lethal, which kills any other creature that is attacked regardless of its defensive value, or Guard, which forces other creatures to attack it instead of you -- exactly like Taunt from Hearthstone. Many of the same effects are used, just with different names.

Each deck in Legends is assigned specific colors (or in this case, attributes.) Whereas you could build a Black, White, Red, Blue, or Green deck in Magic, for example, you’d instead build a Strength, Wisdom, Agility, Intelligence, Wisdom, or Endurance deck in Legends.

By relying on an attribute system for deck building, it opens up the doors for additional strategic depth compared to Hearthstone as well. Some cards get special bonuses when you play them, but only if the top card of your deck matches their attribute. Each deck may only contain up to two colors, so choosing how much you mix and match -- versus how many attribute-specific bonuses you employ-- is a fundamental consideration not found in Hearthstone, but it’s a huge component of games like Magic. There are also neutral cards that can be slotted into any type of deck.

In Legends, you also choose an avatar themed around one of several Elder Scrolls-themed fantasy races. This avatar affords passive bonuses, like finding a higher frequency of certain cards. These avatars behave very differently than the ones in Hearthstone, which features class-based heroes who come with unique powers and can directly attack the enemy.

Innovation Through Iteration

Above all else, the biggest new feature that Legends adds to the formula is more like a cataclysmic rift than a merely curious wrinkle: it adds lanes. Every match in Legends is split in half down the middle. Instead of playing your cards on opposite ends of a single battlefield, there are two vertical lanes that operate (mostly) independently of one another.

If the implications of that aren’t immediately apparent, let me explain.

When I play a creature in the left lane, the creatures in the right lane cannot attack that creature. In a way, this creates two subgames that are being played simultaneously, in addition to the overall game itself. It gets a bit trickier though. Some creatures have bonuses only for friendly creatures in their own lane and some of them can harm only enemy creatures in their own lane. Throw into the mix some creatures that can use abilities across lanes and the endless complexity starts to reveal itself.

One of the most interesting strategies is how you choose to utilize the various creatures that have Guard abilities. If my opponent filled a lane with several creatures at once, I could essentially neutralize that lane by playing a single powerful creature with the Guard ability. It would force my opponent to either attack the Guard creature, likely killing their own creatures, opening up the other lane for me to press as I attack, or wait for a future opening and do nothing. Deciding how and where to balance your forces between the lanes is crucial to success in Legends.

Not all lanes are created equal in this chaotic world though, as there are also different randomly selected lane types to contend with. For example, some lanes might be windy. In that case, creatures can suddenly and quite randomly shift between lanes, leaving you at the mercy of the elements. Another common lane type is the shadow lane, which shields your creature from being attacked for an entire turn after you play them.

That’s huge. If I play a relatively weak 2/2 creature in the same lane as my opponent’s 4/4, it might seem like suicide at first, but if it’s a Shadow Lane, then my creature essentially has a full round of immunity. On my next turn I could buff that creature, or simply use it to whittle down my opponent’s health pool slightly before finishing them off.

Other lane types mentioned in this article by Bethesda include Hall of Mirrors, which duplicates summoned creatures under certain circumstances, or a Graveyard type, which summons skeletons in the place of dead creatures. They’ve stated that over 20 different lane types exist in the game, which not only adds a significant amount of strategy and complexity, but sometimes adds an element of pure unpredictability, since players don’t know which lanes will appear until the match actually starts.

The last big unique feature of Legends is the interplay between Runes and Prophecy cards. You start each game with 5 runes hovering over your character portrait. For every 5 health points you lose, you lose a Rune. When you lose a Rune, you also draw a card directly into your hand. The catch here is that if this card has the Prophecy attribute, then you get to immediately play it, for free, regardless of the cost. Playing a card this way -- via a Rune-triggered-Prophecy -- can change the course of the game dramatically.

It’s possible to build an entire deck around this concept - baiting your opponent into doing large amounts of damage to you just so that you can string together several of your best cards in an instant. Depending on which card happens to appear when your Rune drops, it could be the difference between winning and losing.

Difficult to Master

The Elder Scrolls: Legends is one of the deepest, most complex, and purely intelligent CCGs I’ve played in a very long time. It takes the presentation and accessibility of Hearthstone, adds in several mechanics from Magic, and twists everything on its head with the brand new lane system, all while wrapped up in the flavor and atmosphere of The Elder Scrolls universe. This is far from the easiest or most accessible CCG on the market, because the strategic depth of Legends is still far from fully realized at this early pre-launch stage.

If you’re not very familiar with either Magic or Hearthstone already, then chances are you’re not going to be compelled to continue playing Legends for very long. The single player story will provide you a few hours of enjoyment and the subtle references and atmosphere is enough to keep you going for a while, but unless you truly love the competitive and strategic lure of a CCG, then Legends isn’t going to turn you into a believer.

For fans of the genre though, there is more depth here than a brief beta preview has time to uncover. I can’t wait to dive into this deck of mysteries even further.