Could Bethesda’s new digital card game The Elder Scrolls: Legends be Hearthstone’s first real competition? We played the beta to find out.
In the flood of digital CCGs since Blizzard ‘s Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft exploded in popularity, few have managed to put a real dent in the game’s large playerbase. Often times new digital card games are often times quickly branded as a “Hearthstone clone.” Sometimes that is the case, as companies are hopping onto the trend train and hoping to get a slice of the market. But in some instances, these new CCGs distinguish themselves enough from Blizzard’s behemoth to potentially garner a real playerbase on its own. After getting our hands dirty with the beta, we think The Elder Scrolls: Legends falls into this category.
If you have a background in Hearthstone or other digital CCGs, there will be some obvious mechanics The Elder Scrolls: Legends employs that are frequently used in the genre. Each player has a hero that starts with 30 health, and the first player to run out of health loses. Similar to mana in Hearthstone, each player has Magicka that you spend to play cards and that increases by one every turn to a maximum of 12. You start the game with three cards, which you can mulligan in the beginning of the game, and you draw one card each turn.
Cards have different Magicka costs and attack and defense values. They also can have a number of different effects, which are identified by sixteen different keywords. Guard is like Hearthstone‘s Taunt, forcing you to attack that minion before you attack the enemy hero. Summon is like Battlecry, which triggers an effect when you play the card on the board, where as Last Gasp is analogous to Deathrattle and triggers when the minion is destroyed. Sounding similar so far?
Legends introduces a number of different card effects from Hearthstone, some of which draw inspiration from the popular physical TCG Magic: The Gathering (MtG). Breakthrough allows any excess damage done to an enemy minion to be dealt to the enemy hero, while Shackle locks up an enemy creature, preventing them from attacking for a turn. Although without a keyword, cards can also have a static ability similar to Hearthstone‘s Joust (but without the dramatic visual effect). If the top card from your deck is a certain “color” or attribute, then the specified effect is activated, such as buffing your creatures on the board.
And hence lies a core mechanic of Legends that draws more from MtG than Hearthstone. Instead of having strictly defined classes like Mage or Warrior, Legends uses a color system that allows your deck to use cards from two different colors. There are five total colors that each correspond to an attribute that semi-defines the general play style of that color: Red is Strength, Blue is Intelligence, Yellow is Willpower, Green is Agility, and Purple is Endurance. There are also Dual Attribute cards that are a mix of two different colors as well as neutral cards that can be played in any deck.
This color concept, along with the fact that decks are between 50-70 cards, gives deck building a layer of complexity that Hearthstone does not have. This gives the player a total of 20 different “class” options for deck building rather than being limited to only nine distinct classes. For a player new to the genre, this might become a little overwhelming, especially with the complexity of some of the card combos you can string together. But it seems like a good next step for players looking for more advanced mechanics than Hearthstone has to offer while not being quite as complex as MtG.
Legends also offers a couple unique catch-up mechanics. The first is handling the player who starts the game second. In Hearthstone, that player gets both an extra card in their opening hand along with The Coin, a spell card granting them one extra mana on the turn it’s played. Legends instead gives players an Elixer of Magicka support card. Support cards are similar to MtG‘s Enchantment spells in that they are effects the are played onto the board but can only be used a limited number of times. The Elixer of Magicka has zero cost and gives the player one extra Magicka for that turn when activated. There are additional Support card spells you can utilize with varying costs and number of uses, and you can have up to two active Supports at a time.
The primary and very unique catch-up mechanic in Legends is the Rune system. Every time a player loses five health, they gain a Rune, which immediately draws them another card. If that card has the Prophecy keyword, that card can be played immediately. This can be a huge momentum shift and prevents the matches from snowballing out of control too quickly. Drawing a Guard minion with Prophecy can protect yourself from fatal damage and help even out the game. This also provides an additional strategy aspect to the game, as players need to consider in what order they want to attack minions versus the enemy hero.
Another interesting mechanic, and my favorite aspect of Legends, is the two lane system. The board is split into two separate “lanes” that can hold up to four minions. Each lane can also have a special effect, for instance, the right lane in PvP matches is the “Shadow Lane”. Minions without Guard played in this lane gain a stealth effect each turn, meaning they cannot be attacked by opposing minions until the following turn. In the PvE adventure mode these lanes have even more interesting effects, such as a “Renewal Lane” in which all minions in this lane heal themselves with Regenerate.
Minions in each lane can only attack enemy minions in that same lane, making positioning a super important strategical decision you must make with each card. An exception to this rule is any Summon effects, which can be placed on any card in either lane. Compared to Hearthstone‘s single lane setup, this provides a huge shift mechanically as to how you play your cards. For instance, you probably want to place cards that provide buffs each turn in the Shadow Lane to increase their sustainability.
You start the game in a three act, twenty chapter single player story mode that acts as the games tutorial, increasing in difficulty as you progress. The game does a good job introducing mechanics, but for players familiar with CCGs it might seem a bit long and drawn out. I found the story itself quite bland. I am no expert in The Elder Scrolls lore, which might have had an effect on my experience, but I found it hard to follow what the purpose of the story really was. The added mechanics such as different types of lanes were interesting, akin to some of Hearthstone‘s adventure modes. But the encounters were relatively easy to complete and without any difficulty settings, making it seem more like an extended, glorified tutorial than anything else.
Legends also has a unique system in which you can make choices within the story that reward you with different cards depending on your actions. For instance, you have the option to either spare or execute an enemy: the spare option gives you a buffing spell card, while the execute option gives a spell that destroys a minion with two or less attack. For a new player to the game and unfamiliar with what types of cards are available, I found this a bit perplexing. While you can still get all of these cards later through either crafting or from packs, the rarity on some of these rewards make the choice a bit daunting. How do I know which Unique (the rarest card quality) is better?
The same difficulty lies in their card upgrade system. Instead of leveling individual classes, you have a single account level. As you gain experience points and level up, you are given the ability to upgrade certain cards, which sometimes require a choice. Again, all of these cards are obtainable by other means, but the complexity for new players is still there. How can I choose between a mass removal spell or a debuff spell when I can’t even view my collection and see what I already own and might need?
Related to leveling your account, you also get to pick an avatar that ties in with the races from The Elder Scrolls universe: Breton, Dark Elf, High Elf, Imperial, Nord, Khajiit, Orc, Redguard, Wood Elf, and Argonian. These avatars affect how quickly you will collect certain cards when you level up. For instance, if you had an interest in focusing on playing aggressive flood decks, you might chose Nord, which will allow you to “more quickly collect cards rewarding you for relentlessly attacking you foes.” Overall I found this mechanic underwhelming. It’s unclear how much of an effect this really has, and you do have the ability to change your avatar at any time. But as someone who likes to switch my deck style frequently along with wanting to collect all the cards, choosing which avatar I picked seemed like a crapshoot and just a small added bonus.
Legends offers a number of game modes, including a Practice mode, Ranked and Unranked multiplayer, and both single and multiplayer Arena modes. Arena mode is a drafting mode in which you are first given a choice between three different deck types (e.g. Red and Green being one possible choice). You then draft a deck of 30 cards one a time between three possible cards. Every time you win an Arena mode match, you get to choose an additional card to add to your deck.
In single player mode, you are given three lives to defeat eight bosses plus one final end boss. Like the Story mode, these encounters have different rules that affect how the match plays out. For example, in one encounter you start out the match with extra Magicka, while in others the Shadow Lane is replaced with Lanes providing various effects. Multiplayer Arena uses the same drafting style, and you have three lives to get as many wins as possible. In both Arena modes, the number of wins you get effects your rewards at the end of the Arena run, including in-game currency (gold), enchanting materials which allow you to create new cards, card packs, and singular cards.
In general I have found the A.I. to be much more competent than in Hearthstone, but that is not saying all that much. The Story mode was a complete joke: I failed on only one encounter in which I drew awful cards for the first several turns. Single player Arena Mode was similar: in my first attempt I cleared all nine bosses with only one failure (awarding me with a pretty useful Unique card though). Practice Mode does have difficulty settings, the hardest of which actually required significant effort to beat. You can also choose which decks the A.I. plays in Practice, so if you want to try out how your new control deck plays against a frequently used aggro deck you can give it a test run. How well the A.I. can play decks with complex combos I am not sure, but this is a really welcoming feature for players looking to practice in a noncompetitive environment.
Playing against people, however, is a different story. While I like to think I can hold my own in Hearthstone, getting thrown into a new environment with all new cards and combos was a fun but sometimes salt-inducing experience. I mostly played a Red-Yellow deck, focusing on putting out lots of minions in both lanes and buffing them. While some games I played better than others, it’s clear that this game requires practice and lots of knowledge. I have no idea what the meta is like, I don’t know which cards are actually good or not, and my deck building with 50+ cards is less than stellar. I’m not even sure what the curve of card costs should look like in a deck that large.
This game made me realize how much I rely on the plentiful outside sources for Hearthstone. While helpful websites such as Legends Decks have already popped up, I forgot what it’s like getting thrown into a new game in this genre is like. While the matches tend to be pretty fast-paced, the tooltips, play history, and the extensive help menu guide you along the way. While the game is steps ahead of Hearthstone strategically, it’s easy to see how different cards and deck types play together. It was a really fun experience, and a breath of fresh air from playing against the same Aggro Shaman and Dragon Warrior decks in Hearthstone over and over.
While The Elder Scrolls: Legends doesn’t quite have that Blizzard polish, you can tell the game is being carefully crafted. Bethesda Softworks is no small publisher, and compared to some of the other CCGs I’ve played it definitely shows. The cards are all voice acted and special effects are all animated (albeit some better than others). They also have in game titles which essentially act like achievements, something people have been wanting to see in Hearthstone for a while. But some small things really stood out, like minions with Guard only being designated with a gold border compared to Hearthstone’s large shield border. I also miss Hearthstone’s Innkeeper’s epic narration.
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While the cards tie into The Elder Scrolls universe, I found the overall aesthetic relatively generic fantasy. The card artwork is similar to MtG, and the game has a much more serious undertone then Hearthstone. But that is one reason Hearthstone is so popular. The silly game boards, ridiculous card flavor text, and extravagant animations really give the game polish that I can’t help but feel is lacking with Legends.
But aesthetics aside, the game is mechanically very sound. I think complexity wise it falls between Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering, which is a great balance. If you are an Elder Scrolls fan and have never played a CCG before it might be a bit overwhelming at first, but I don’t think it’s unreachable for new players. I think if you are an avid Hearthstone player and are looking for a good next step in the genre, then Legends is definitely worth a playthrough. They’ve set themselves up with lots of room for expansion as well with their decision-based store mode and unique rule changing encounters. While it will be hard to directly compete with the monstrosity that is Hearthstone, I think this is one of the few games that really has the potential to stand on its own.