Are you a fan of Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering Arena? Can’t get enough of digital cards, daring decks, and stomping fingers as you climb the PvP ladder? Allow me to introduce you to Legends of Runeterra, the digital card game by Riot Games. It takes more than a few cues from the other giants in the room but does so with flair and finesse, creating something that feels familiar, unique, and innovative all at once. It’s safe to say that digital card games will never be the same again.
Ready to start our expedition?
- What is Legends of Runeterra? It’s a digital trading card game, with all the usual tropes and quite a few novel spins on the genre. Build your decks, field your Heroes, cast spells on the stack, and whittle down your opponent’s life pool.
- Reviewed On: PC
- Developer: Riot Games
- Release Date: January 24th, 2020 (Open Beta)
- Website: www.playruneterra.com
Welcome to Runeterra
Set in the same world as League of Legends, it’s apparent that Riot Games wanted to evoke memories of the rich history behind Hearthstone. Hero cards (and even some follower cards) have unique voice lines acknowledging one another. You can inspect cards for some top-tier artwork and snippets of lore. There’s a whole shelf of backstory here, and Riot wants to make sure you can sense its weighty presence.
Coming into Legends of Runeterra, I couldn’t have cared any less about the backstory. I hadn’t played more than thirty minutes of League. Demacia, Lux, Garen, Darius — they were all just names to me. But I respect good worldbuilding; even as an outsider, it gives you some handholds during the critical period of settling into a new game. Suffice it to say the game grew on me such that I installed League as well.
And it wasn’t the characters or the worldbuilding that sold me. It was the game, plain and simple. What Legends of Runeterra does best is acknowledge its sources. “Sure, I borrowed some of this and a bit of that. No sense in hiding it. But let me show you what else I can do.”
Game after game, Runeterra never stops showing you what it does differently — and what it does better. This is no cheap cash grab or two-bit knockoff. It’s a strong, self-justifying entry in the digital card game space that the legends would be wise to borrow from in turn.
Hearthstone was built from the ground up to be accessible. Magic: The Gathering (and thus Arena) was designed for complexity and depth, with accessibility as an afterthought at best. Legends of Runeterra falls somewhere in the middle — and it feels like it sacrifices nothing in the process.
Your mana pool increments with each passing round like Hearthstone. Spells have different speeds and trigger on a stack like Magic. Not to mention that you can selectively mulligan your opening hand — little of column A, little of column B. When it’s your turn, you get the first move and the opportunity to attack. When it’s not your turn, you can still grow your army and assign blockers to incoming attacks. Except when you proverbially upend the table and Rally, spawning an attack token on your off turn. There’s a lot of upended tables in your wake after a few hours with Runeterra. And not necessarily because you’re frustrated.
In card games like this, keywords are law. And the laws of Runeterra are very, very fun to play with. A follower or Hero with the Challenger keyword allows you to force an enemy unit to block it, producing challenging situations to respond to. The Ephemeral keyword means that a unit will die at the end of the round — so use it wisely. Elusive units can only be blocked by other Elusive units. And the list of keywords rolls on, some familiar and others delightfully novel. If this is the foundation Riot is starting with — after all, the game is only in Open Beta — then the sky’s the limit for Runeterra’s bright future.
Stack Spells, Make It Rain
The concept of the stack will be familiar to players of Magic. Instead of Sorceries and Instants, you get Burst, Fast, and Slow spells. Bursts can be played at any time and can’t be interrupted. Fast spells can also fit into any spare moment, but the opponent has a chance to respond with a spell of their own. Slow spells can only be played before and after combat, which a veteran Planeswalker might call the upkeep phases. But overall, the stack here feels streamlined and simplified. Spells trigger from left to right, so adding Fast or Burst spells to the stack means you might get the first word in. Or your opponent might have something else to say. Watch that spell mana!
Leftover mana at the end of your turn will roll over into spell mana, of which you can store three at a time. Spells automatically prioritize this mana, so after a turn or two of leftovers, you’re halfway to a six-cost spell on top of whatever mana you get then. It’s a brilliant way to make inaction a viable strategy while offsetting the cost. And there’s nothing more satisfying than slamming your opponent with spells after they’ve exhausted their mana pool.
Heroes Get Remembered…
The Hero cards will be what you build your decks around. They can level up through the course of play, usually coming with a boost in health and power as well as new keywords or buffs to play with. Each Hero has a different mechanic for leveling up — some need to take damage without dying, others need to see allied units die. Some need to see you spend mana casting spells. And one even needs to suffer fatal damage before it levels up and revives in a burst of flame like the Phoenix. The Heroes become strategy-defining keystones in a deck, and the rest of the cards stand ready to help them snowball into your end-game condition.
… But Legends Never Die
Like any good card game, it’s not about the cards themselves but how you, the player, put them together. It’s about the decisions you make —from deckbuilding all the way through the final turn. And there’s a crisp, deep wellspring of interesting decisions awaiting you in Legends of Runeterra. Some of it may be well-trodden ground, but it never feels stale or formulaic. As a wise man once said, Runeterra is what results when you let “smart, weird people break genres over their knee.”
I never thought I’d say this, but Riot — please break more things with your knees.
Zoom Out: Verdict
Visuals - 9/10
Gameplay - 10/10
Monetization - 8/10
Legends of Runeterra is a familiar yet unique digital card game. It borrows from many legends in the space, yet manages to justify itself with novel twists on well-known mechanics. It finds a strong balance between accessibility and depth, and seems to sacrifice nothing in the process. It’s a must-play for fans of the genre.
- Beautiful artwork
- Engaging and innovative mechanics
- Familiar and deep while remaining accessible to casual players
- Could be (rightfully) accused of “me-too” syndrome
- Simpler than Magic, which might be a Pro depending on who you ask