Legends of Runeterra Review (2020)

An analog man in a digital age

Let me preface by saying, I’m old-school when it comes to card games. I love ripping open the plastic foil packaging, saying a silent prayer dedicated to RNGesus and get immediately disappointed with the cards I got. I also prefer my games on a plastic table where every emotion was laid bare – from the arrogant smirk of a counter-spell in hand to the desperation of a landlocked draw. Not to mention the pretty pennies I spent on fancy deck protectors and play mats to make myself feel special.

I know I sound like a curmudgeonly old man yelling at kids to get off my lawn but card games always had a sense of physicality that was near and dear to me. I would brave the cold and rainy British winters just to play MTG at my uni’s tabletop gaming society every Wednesday. So, when COVID-19 spread across the globe, the society cancelled all further sessions – and also the mandatory 14-day SHN and subsequent circuit breaker. I had to adapt to changing circumstance. It was time for this analog man to embrace the digital age, I had to play card games…on mobile! And since I’ve been playing League of Legends for years, I decide to play Legends of Runeterra – Riot’s very own digital CCG.

Welcome to Summoner’s Rift Legends of Runeterra

LoR’s play field looks and feels familiar to any player of CCGs. You have your mana zones, your battlefield and your hand. Just like its contemporaries, the objective of the game is to defeat your opponent by reducing their life points to zero and you do that by casting spells and attacking with creatures.

Legends of Runeterra Review

Each individual card is beautifully designed and represented by artwork that’s worthy of any big budget CCG – yes, that includes big daddy of them all, Magic the Gathering. But that is where the similarities end.

Change is good

Legends of Runeterra is pretty much the CCG analog to its MOBA counterpart. Essentially, it’s fast and frenetic with an emphasis on action. LoR challenged traditional CCG sensibilities and created a sense of aggression and speed that’s rarely seen in the slow methodical world of card games.

First off, one of the classic mechanics of CCGs: summoning sickness has been removed from the game. Summoned creatures can now attack as soon as they come into the battlefield. It is a mechanic that restricted wanton aggression and its removal caused huge paradigm shifts in the gameplay – interestingly, it didn’t cause wanton aggression.

Legends of Runeterra Review

Another major mechanical change is the removal of the Tap; creatures would no longer be tapped out whenever they attack on their owner’s turns. In essence, players would no longer need to keep creatures untapped for blocks – that is if they live to block another turn. This ensures someone would be swinging every chance they get.

Despite stripping mechanics meant to encourage slow methodical approaches in favor of aggressive plays, LoR still retained the strategic depth of CCGs. Chief amongst them is the presence of the Stack which is a zone where spells and abilities are put in the order that they’re played and resolved – i.e. players are able to respond to counters with counters of their own. Each spell card would have a pre-determined “speed” which determines its order on the stack. The presence of the stack lends a level complexity that might turn casual CCG players off but order of effects and subsequent board state is well presented leaving no room for debate nor confusion. So, there is no need to call for a judge every time a stack gets too complicated.

Legends of Runeterra Review

Left turns and turns left

The final major left turn for me was the unorthodox turn system. In MTG, games are played in entire turns – players would go through every phases and effects resolved before the buck is passed. In LoR, players would take turns resolving each phase individually – I summon, you summon and I attack, you attack. It really took some getting used to but it felt like a breath of fresh air to a tired old genre. The system forced me to think a lot more aggressively but I still couldn’t swing everything and the kitchen sink at every chance I get because I’d probably get smacked back just as hard. The immediacy of my actions and the subsequent consequences made LoR feel like playground slap fight – you better hit him with everything you’ve got or he’ll slap you back with Demacian vengeance.

5 stacks in a 2-player game

Units are divided into 2 types: Champions and Followers.
Champions are well… The champions you play in League of Legends proper, Garen, Lux etc. Each champion mirrors their 3-laned counterparts, Braum is a tanky defensive specialist while Lux just blows people away with her spells. Just like their counterparts, these champions can level up and gain stronger abilities when the right conditions are met e.g. Barum would level up after blocking 10 damage in total. It’s a little more complicated than right-clicking on minions but it’s a lot more tactical.

Then, there are followers who might seem like the CCG equivalent of LoL’s minions but they play a much bigger role than simply just gold and XP fodder. Followers exist to fulfill the roles that your champions can’t fill. Barum might be a defensive powerhouse who is as tough as Freljord is cold but he is as harmless as a Poro. He needs his followers (or other champions) to dish out the pain while he shields them from harm. Despite the flash and razzmatazz of Champions, they are not game-changing nor overpowered in any way – they might form the tip of the spear but followers are the shaft.

Legends of Runeterra Review

Time to Hecarim up the gold

Keeping up with contemporary franchise and genre tradition, Legends of Runeterra is free-to-play but it definitely come with (purse)strings attached. Most if not all gameplay affecting cards can be bought with consistent gameplay. The generosity of LoR is pretty evident in the sheer number of rewards players can earn just by consistently playing the game. Casuals players can build up a significant collection of cards just by playing for a couple of days. My favorite mechanic is the “Wildcard” where you can use it to trade for ANY card of the same rarity – it’s like buying singles but free(ish). But if grinding for rewards is not your thing, you can always splash real-life cash on cosmetics and cards that you want – just like in real life

Legends of Runeterra Review

Friday Night LoR

Constructed play might be the dominant game mode but the Draft is very much alive in LoR in the form of Expedition Mode. Draft is a game mode where players would pool money together, buy an entire box of booster packs and create/play decks made from the cards they got – it’s usually a slightly pricier affair than constructed but in LoR, the Draft is absolutely free. Expedition mode truly tests your ability because you can’t just rely on your standard deck that you’ve perfected, you’d have to fall back on your wits to come out on top.

It’s a new way to d-d-d-DUEL!

At the end of the day, LoR is a great game with great potential. Its new(ish) mechanics and overall generosity could see it usurp Hearthstone’s throne as the king of Digital CCGs.

Will we see LoR break the wheel and bring about a new age for the digital CCG landscape or will it be buried under the weight of its ambitions, only time will tell.

But it’s fun enough for this analog man to embrace the digital age.

Ratings: 4 out of 5 stars.

Written by Kenny Chen

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