Legends of Runeterra early access - Where Magic: The Gathering meets League of Legends

Riot Games revealed what seems like 82 new games and a fistful of TV shows at the 10th anniversary celebration of its flagship game, League of Legends, this week. And among those many games (there were six, I'm just being dramatic), Riot unveiled Legends of Runeterra, an online card battler set within the same universe of League and using many of the same characters and regions.

Near the end of this particular announcement, Riot revealed that a preview patch of the game would be available to certain individuals, and more upon approval of their applications. This preview won't last long, but the full game is supposed to come out around the early parts of 2020, so everyone will be able to hop in soon enough. Fortunately for your reading pleasure (and that's about it), Riot made the mistake of giving me, self-titled pessimist and hard-stuck rank 25 Angry Chicken in Hearthstone, access to the preview patch of this online card game.

I love complaining about things to distract myself from all the sucky parts of life. Who doesn't? (Don't answer that) But when I dove into Legends of Runeterra, I couldn't find a lot of things to hate. Don't worry, there are still some things I dislike, but there was far more I enjoyed. The artwork is beautiful, the voice-acted cards have charm, the special effects and animations are jaw-dropping, the gameplay isn't totally dominated by RNG, and more importantly, the microtransactions aren't totally dominated by RNG, either. To anyone that's played an online card game... ever, that last part's probably going to stick out to you, but we'll get more into that later.

For now, just sit back, relax, and try not to think too hard about why Riot allowed me to test a game I'm probably doomed to suck at.

Pretty, shiny, and other synonyms for "lookin' good"

Legends of Runeterra is one of the most visually stunning games I've ever played, and it's a card game. It doesn't have incredible next-generation graphics or anything, like Cyberpunk 2077 is being hyped up to have. It's not that kind of good-lookin'. Instead, the entire game is like one big work of art, and I mean that quite literally.

Cards, backdrops, animations—everything looks like it was hand-painted by very talented artists, whether it was actually hand-painted or not. I don't know a lot about artwork as a whole, like what goes into different types of work, different brushes to paint with, or any of that mumbo jumbo, but I created a list of some of my favorites on Twitter using the arbitrary criteria of "Huh, that's neat." You can see for yourself which of them you like, but my favorite, in particular, is Cithria the Bold.

Other than just pristine artwork across the product as a whole, there's one aspect of it that I want to call out specifically. The full-screen animations, both from leveling up a Champion card or by the game ending, are magnificent. They feel totally epic and screen-shaking, but they don't sacrifice frames-per-second to pull that off. When I do something cool in game, or maybe I lose (this one happens more often), these big sweeping animations just nail that feeling home, for better or for worse. That humungous and well-crafted Defeat screen really reminds me just how awful I am at the game, but at least it's impressive to look at.

A little bit League, a lot a bit Magic

I know that's not proper grammar, but it gets across my point very succinctly. When Riot revealed the game, seeing the vibrant colors and mana crystals I'm oh so familiar with, I assumed it would be a lot like Hearthstone, but with Riot's own personal touch, similar to how League was at first essentially Dota but made better than Dota would ever be (don't @ me). 

When I actually played the game, though, I was proven immediately wrong. It's actually much more similar to Magic: The Gathering than it is to Hearthstone. There are attack and defend turns, spell slots, many of the same card mechanics, and like Magic, you build decks by mixing categories of cards. But instead of colors like Magic, decks are sorted by region in LoR. For example, you can have a Demacia-Freljord deck, a Noxus-Piltover deck, or an Ionia-Shadow Isles deck. The only other competitive card game I've played that uses regions like that is Gwent, from The Witcher franchise, but it's not quite the same concept, as you can't mix them together in Gwent.

With mechanics similar to Magic, and a whole host of Champions, regions, and other references derived from League, it really does kind of feel like a League-skinned Magic. That's certainly not a bad thing, though, and Riot has done some very laborous work to make sure that some of the worst parts of Magic aren't here. For example, the Champion system, and the level-ups that come with them, ensure that you can change strategies on the fly. You're always given a path to outwit your opponent, and it doesn't feel like every game is decided by who draws the better hand. And, more importantly, buying cards is way, way, way less scummy.

No RNG card packs or dishonest microtransactions

This is the biggest win for me. As someone who has always and likely will always suck at card battlers, one of the biggest barriers for me to actually get to the next level is spending the money to build good decks. Why? Because card games have run the loot box scheme since before loot boxes were even conceived as an idea by a greedy video game executive somewhere in hell.

Think about it. Even physical card games, like Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Yoh, have always operated under a pretty strict RNG-based deck building system—card packs. You pay a bunch of money for a pack, and if you don't get the cards you need out of that pack, it's time to buy some more. In other words, they're loot boxes. Guess what? LoR doesn't do that, for the first time in... I don't actually know how long, but it has to have been a while, right? In LoR, you just buy something called a wildcard, and then you can turn that wildcard into whatever card you need. The most expensive wildcard you can buy, at least right now, is a Champion wildcard, and it costs a little under $5. Everything else costs about $1 or less.

In other words, if you spot a deck you want, and you're missing, say, half the deck, you can plan out which cards you need, drop $20 on the corresponding wildcards, and add them to your collection directly. I've never dealt with a microtransaction system so straightforward and honest, and I'll be angrier every time I go back to a game without this system until they all adopt the same strategy.

Looking at you, Blizzard.

Information overload

Now onto the things I don't like about Legends of Runeterra. For starters, one thing I will say Hearthstone does better is teaching new players how to dig in. LoR, I think, is way more complex and therefore offers more room for outplaying and strategic thinking, but that also makes it a few ticks more difficult to learn. And at the beginning, it feels like the tutorials don't really prep you for some of the more intricate maneuvers.

For example, today, after my 31st game, I realized that cards always attack left to right, so if you have a card that says it provides a Barrier on attack, but you have it in your order last, it won't do anything. Pretty big rule that wasn't addressed, and card game noobs like me wouldn't have picked up on until royally screwing up a few times. Me screwing up isn't a rare thing, and it likely would have happened anyway, sure, but help me avoid it when I can. Secondly, the attack-defend swapping plays a little strangely, and I find myself fumbling on ordering cards and coping with rounds within rounds when an attack action begins, even after so many games played. I like to think I'm not so dense that an intuitive mechanic would stump me this many times, but that's also possible. The attack round seems like it would flow much easier if both sides were only given one reaction to it, just to use any last-minute reactionary spells. Anything more seems a little too convoluted and time wasting.

The game doesn't hit the big stage for a couple of months, so my fingers are crossed that some of these minor missteps will be updated or corrected, even if they can all be solved by just telling someone to git gud. After all, just because the game is based around the world of League, that doesn't mean we have to treat everything like All Chat.