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Legends of Runeterra Strikes the Balance Between Hearthstone and Magic

Michael Bitton Posted:
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I’ve had friends try to get me into Magic: The Gathering since I was around eight years old, but it just never grabbed me. It wasn’t until Blizzard released Hearthstone in 2014 that I finally got the card game bug. While Hearthstone opened up my eyes to the world of competitive card games, I’m still not a fan of some of Magic’s enduring mechanics, such as having to draw mana.

Enter Riot Games with Legends of Runeterra, a new digital card game based on League of Legends that successfully strikes the balance between the approachability of Hearthstone and some of the more complex elements of Magic.

Riot’s spent considerable effort over the years developing the richness of its IP. Players identify with individual champions, favor specific factions such as Ionia or Demacia, and eat up all the little bits of lore that Riot’s put out over the years. In the end, a game about battling over map objectives and farming gold to level up and acquire items has spun out a universe that feels like it could viably exist outside of the core League of Legends experience. 

LoR leverages that some of that richness into card game form by replicating common Magic color archetypes as factions. Factions such as Noxus correspond to something akin to Red in Magic, and you can mix multiple factions together if you like, just like colors. The game's card art is a sight to behold and if you examine it closely you can find a story being told across a number of different cards. Creatures, including iconic League of Legends champions, comment to each other or in response to events happening in game.  Listening to Draven go, “What the f**k is that?!” every time Teemo drops on the board or hearing Katarina and Draven placing bets on who will kill more units when they are on the same side never gets old. Champion cards also “level up” if they meet certain conditions and these come with some really great animations. In short, Legends of Runeterra oozes with personality.

As a game, Legends of Runeterra is simply more compelling than Hearthstone ever was for me. Gone are the rampant RNG elements, for one. But more importantly, the game flow is much more akin to Magic than Hearthstone. You don’t simply play out your turn, pass, and then give your opponent a chance to respond on his turn with no real interaction in between. In LoR, players respond to and interact with each other throughout each turn. The “stack” found in Magic is present here, as well.

If you’re interested in learning more, I’ll leave it to Phreak to explain the particulars below:

I mostly quit playing Hearthstone due to the fact I didn’t feel like I could keep up with all of the new cards without spending tons of money and also the bad feeling that comes with realizing those cards that cost me all that money would become obsolete within two years (unless I ventured into Wild). It just began to feel like a money trap. I still like the game overall, but it just doesn’t work out for me.

With Legends of Runeterra, Riot’s taken a decidedly player friendly approach to progression and this approach has positive gameplay implications, too. There are no packs to buy in LoR, you can only directly purchase a couple of cards each week if you do want to spend money on cards, and rewards are generous and front loaded with the intention that players will complete card sets in a reasonable amount of time. Instead of selling players cards, the original Pay-to-Win as far as I’m concerned, Riot is monetizing cosmetics such as special play boards or board companions called Guardians.

The result is this sort of frictionless acquisition of cards as you play the game and a lot of the concerns I had with something like Hearthstone, where my actual dollar purchases essentially came with an expiration date, are no longer an issue.

In terms of gameplay, it helps keep most players on even footing in terms of card availability, so you aren’t necessarily walking into these crazy oppressive decks when you start playing. The flip side of that is that it can be frustrating to collect cards more slowly if you are excited about putting together a particular deck and you’re willing to pay. Speaking as someone who isn’t averse to spending money on a card game, I still prefer Riot’s approach.

Riot also doesn’t need to create filler cards to pad out packs since packs don’t exist. And the devs can actually be proactive about card balance since they don’t need to worry as much about pissing people off for changing cards they spent money on. Or if they have to nerf a deck, they can expect that players will have the available cards to switch to a new one. There's a lot to like about this approach from both a business and design perspective.

Legends of Runeterra is still early, officially in open beta right now, with a full release planned for later this year. It’s a ton of fun, but be warned, there are some rough edges in terms of polish and quality-of-life features that need to be worked on right now. The available card set is also much smaller than you’d find in more developed games like Hearthstone. But if that all sounds OK to you, I highly recommend checking it out.


Michael Bitton

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined MMORPG.com as the site's Community Manager. Follow him on Twitter @eMikeB