...but then I played The Elder Scrolls Legends. Seriously, as much as I love Hearthstone, I’m not so sure I can go back to Blizzard’s CCG. When Bethesda announced TESL during E3 2015, many fans of the series were up in arms, thinking the title to be little more than a cash grab in an effort to follow the success Blizzard found in its own CCG. While TESL should feel largely familiar to Hearthstone players, Bethesda is doing enough things differently to make the game stand out on its own.
To start, TESL's "classes" are a sort of hybrid between Magic: the Gathering’s color based system and Hearthstone’s classes. There are five attributes (colors) in TESL, but unlike MtG, you can’t combine more than two colors at a time (though you can also play single color, if you like). Drafting a deck featuring two different colors is considered a “class”, but this is mostly cosmetic, and should be used to understand the identity of an opponent’s deck more than anything else. For example, combining Blue (Intelligence) and Green (Agility) will give you an Assassin deck. This doesn’t mean anything more than being able to say, “Oh. I’m going up against an Assassin, he’ll be able to do X Y Z.”
There are also dual color cards and neutral cards, though the latter appear to be emphasized a bit less than they are in a game like Hearthstone. Deck sizes are looser, too. Hearthstone features a locked down 30 card limit, while TESL’s decks require a minimum of 50 cards, but can include up to 70 cards. I’m still coming to grips with this as someone who was introduced to the world of CCGs through Hearthstone, but I’m sure veterans of these games will find the larger deck sizes and looser deck limits to be a bonus.
Bethesda’s also added another wrinkle to deck building that all players are going to need to consider: Prophecy cards. Prophecy cards are generally weaker for their mana costs if you draw them normally, so you’ll ideally want to draw them through the game’s Rune feature, which means striking the right balance of Prophecy cards in your deck will need to be a careful consideration.
In TESL, players have 5 runes, each destroyed every time you take five points of damage. Once a rune is destroyed, you’ll draw a card from your deck. If the card features the Prophecy keyword, you can play it for free in the middle of your opponent’s turn. This feature can be completely game changing and adds yet another layer of decision making to each game. Maybe I want to hold back on attacking this turn because I don’t want to give my opponent more cards until I’ve built my board up a bit, or I should attack in this order to ensure that any Prophecy cards that are drawn can have the least potential impact on my turn. For example, I might want to attack with my 4/4 card first, because if I break a rune with another creature, my opponent might draw Lightning Bolt (a four damage Prophecy spell) and kill my 4/4 before I can even attack with it that turn. These are some of the additional things you’ll need to think about while deck building and while playing a match.
The one thing Bethesda is doing with The Elder Scrolls Legends that makes going back to Hearthstone almost impossible for me now is the dual lanes. Before I actually got to play the game, it seemed like such a simple thing. “OK. You’ve split the board down the middle. So, what?” Boy, was I wrong. TESL’s dual lanes completely change the way you make decisions during a game and offer tons of mindgame opportunities. With dual lanes, up to four creatures can be fielded in each lane, with the left lane being a standard lane, while the right lane is considered a shadow lane (all creatures played into it are given cover (stealth) for a turn). This makes the shadow lane a hotly contested zone, since creatures are safe from reprisal on your opponent’s turn unless they have spell based removal or some creature effect that can target your covered creatures.
Some decks, particularly those that feature the Pilfer keyword (Agility/Willpower), can be even trickier. Creatures featuring the Pilfer keyword gain effects when they hit your opponent's face. They can grow in strength, draw cards, and do all sorts of things. But there are also Pilfer cards like the Riverhold Escort, a guard (taunt) card that switches lanes if it hits the opponent’s face, allowing him the potential to protect you or your creatures in both lanes. Or Agility cards such as Shadow Shift (move a friendly creature and draw) and Dune Smuggler, a creature that moves another friendly creature to the other lane when summoned. Probably the most frustrating of all these cards and a card that highlights the potency of the Prophecy/Rune feature we discussed earlier is the Dune Stalker card. This is a Prophecy card that moves another friendly creature when played as well, but due to the Prophecy keyword, this can happen in the middle of your opponent's turn. Imagine you draw this guy after a rune is shattered and you get to move a high priority target your opponent was going to take out into another lane before he can do so. This simple lane shift could change the course of the game.
I encountered one player who completely cleared my board because they attacked with a creature that gets to attack again every time it kills another creature. He killed a creature or two and then used a lane shift card to move him to the other lane where he proceeded to sweep the rest of my board. Game over. It’s hard to go back to playing a single lane CCG after you’ve played a couple games of TESL.
The Elder Scrolls Legends also features a great singleplayer campaign, complete with voice acted narration and in-game cinematics leading into every chapter. It's really a lot of fun. The fights often take advantage of the lane mechanics to spice things up, as well. One chapter had me fighting pirates on a ship and the game simulated the strong winds by blowing creatures to the other lane each turn, changing up the flow of battle. You also make choices throughout the story and your choices result in different card rewards. After fighting a pack of wolves, do you adopt the lone wolf cub left after the battle? Or do you abandon him to survive on his own? Adopting the wolf grants you the Snow Wolf card for your collection, while abandoning him will award you with Cast Out, a spell that lets you bounce a creature back into your opponent's hand.
There is one thing that does concern me about The Elder Scrolls Legends though and it has to do with the game’s economy. Like Hearthstone, there’s no trading in TESL, so you’re acquiring cards from leveling up, buying packs using in-game gold or real cash, or crafting them using soul gems (dust, for you HS players). The issue here is that TESL’s 50+ card deck size and 3 per card deck limit (which also includes legendary cards not marked unique) can result in some extremely expensive decks when considering crafting cards you’re missing. Thankfully, also like Hearthstone, you can stretch your gold value by entering the Arena to see how far you can get and potentially earn more packs, gold, and individual cards. What's great is that TESL also features a Solo Arena where you can earn these same sorts of rewards by tackling PvE opponents with a drafted deck. It's a nice alternative for us mortal folk who worry about running into those who play Versus Arena as their primary mode.
The Elder Scrolls Legends is currently in closed beta. You can sign up here.