Hands-On: Legends of Runeterra has the makings of a Hearthstone-killer

At least, for me

Credit: Riot

I don’t love League of Legends the way I used to.

First, my friends moved on from the game. Then, I did - for the at-the-time greener pastures of Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm. But even if I don’t play it regularly anymore - deep down - I’m still fond of the world and characters in League of Legends. Riot have invested a ton in the quality of their IP and one of their biggest strengths lies in their ability to get players to do the same.

It only makes sense that they build on that in other ways like a fighting game or in the case of Legends of Runeterra, a digital card game.

Legends of Runeterra, which will enter closed beta in early 2020, is a two-player card battler in the same vein as things like Hearthstone, Gwent, Magic: Arena and Valve’s Artifact. If you’ve played any of the above, it’s going to look and sound a little familiar. However, Riot are spinning Legends of Runeterra as a response to the things that people hate about modern card games - both digital and traditional. 

Credit: Riot

The most prominent and noteworthy of these is the business model. Unlike other digital card games, you don’t buy any random booster packs for Legends of Runeterra. Instead, Legends of Runeterra is monetized in the same way as Riot’s MOBA is: through cosmetics. Riot indicated to us that you’d be able to buy new board themes, Poros and potentially even skins for your heroes. 

Credit: Riot

Jump in play Legends of Runeterra, and you’ll be able to select one of the game’s six regions. Each game then earns you experience towards exploring that region and unlocking its rewards - which include both new cards and cosmetics. 

There's also Wildcards - which are basically vouchers that can be redeemed for any card of the corresponding rarity. Wildcards can also be purchased using real-world money - though Riot do say that players will be limited in how many of these they can purchase per week.

Credit: Riot

At the end of the week, each week, players are also awarded a "vault pack" each week that’ll add a handful of random new cards to their collection. These vault rewards will scale with you in-game level and Riot say that, once you're above level 10, you're guaranteed to get a champion from each one.

There’s also the game’s draft mode: expeditions. When you play Expeditions, you’ll get to draft two decks and then your rewards will scale with whichever of the two performed better over a series of matches.

It’s all really generous - which seems like a great strategy for luring in all those people who just quit Hearthstone. The timing is almost spooky. 

As for the matches themselves, having sunk a few hours into Legends of Runeterra during its recent five-day “preview patch” period, they’re a lot of fun. The game does feel a lot like Hearthstone but it feels like there’s less of a build-up. You get to the good part of a match sooner than you expect and most matches feel like they could go either way up until the final few turns.

Credit: Riot

The game's not technically not even beta - so we did encounter some technical hiccups from time to time - but nothing game-breaking got in our way. Still, overall, this game already seems really polished.

The art is lavish. The soundtrack isn’t quite as memorable as some of the sound effects in the game are but it’s fine. The UI is intuitive. The mechanics are easy to learn and it feels like Riot are leaving themselves plenty of room to grow and mature. 

The flow of the game is turn based but, on top of that, you and your opponent are also trading the roles of attacker and defender. You can only attack when you’re the attacker, which shapes the pace and speed of play in a way that’s subtly different from Hearthstone. 

You can attack at the start of your turn before your opponent has the chance to bolster their defenses. Alternatively, if you hold off for an action or two, you might be able to get a few more units on the board and make a bigger dent in the health bar. The strategic depth in the game is immediately palpable. 

Despite the in-game timer, which kept matches flowing, it sometimes felt like my opponents were taking far too long to make their moves. I imagine this will change as more players become more familiar with the game. 

Credit: Riot

Up to three unused mana can carry over from one turn to the next. So if you have a bad turn, you’re much more likely to be able to make up for it the next time around. There’s also three different “speeds” at which card effects can happen. This allows for some very MTG-esque chain reactions. 

The other key piece here are the champions. Each champion card has a condition on it which, when met, will upgrade that card into a better version of itself. These all look, feel and behave in a way that feels very authentic to their League of Legends counterparts. 

For example, Katarina’s gameplay is all about here jumping onto the board, dealing damage and then teleporting back into your hand. Braum is all about blocking damage. Teemo is all about setting up nefarious and explosive mushroom traps. 

The leveling up animations are delightfully over-the-top and the nature of each card’s quest often mirrors their MOBA gameplay in a fun way. At launch, Riot say that the game will have 24 champions split across six regions - so there’s plenty of room for this roster to grow.

Credit: Riot

If you had pitched me on the idea a few weeks ago, I don’t know how excited I would have been about the idea of a League of Legends card game. After a few days or regular play, I think this has skyrocketed towards the top of my "games I’m most looking forward to playing more in 2020" list.

More than just a Hearthstone-killer, Legends of Runeterra seems like it might just get me to uninstall that Artifact icon on my desktop. 

Riot say they’ll then be moving Legends of Runeterra into closed beta in early 2020 before launching the game proper later that year.

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Fergus Halliday
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