Platforms: PC (Reviewed), iOS, Android

Last year, Riot Games announced that their Runeterra IP (or for those of you who aren’t up on the lore, the League of Legends IP) would be adapted into several other video game genres, one of which was a digital collectible trading card game. This is Legends of Runeterra and after a long and interesting beta period it has finally officially launched on PC and mobile platforms.

LoR excited a lot of people because it offered an alternative in the pseudo-monopolized digital trading card game space. It’s undeniable that, even for all their blunders, Blizzard sits on top of the digital card game throne with Hearthstone, and anyone who wasn’t playing Hearthstone is probably playing the OG trading card game with Magic: The Gathering Arena. Valve tried to enter the space with Artifact a while back, but their design was a bit too ambitious and convoluted for its own good. In fact, Artifact’s failure has made quite a few people skeptical about Legends of Runeterra. Getting into this space is difficult and nothing hurts more than spending a ton of money on a new trading card game just to see it go under.

Innovation through derivation

During its beta period, many criticized Runeterra for being a bit to derivative, and it was but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, you could say it was a combination of the best elements of Hearthstone and Magic. Battling creatures is a lot like Magic, with attackers and blockers, but health is Persistent like Hearthstone. Mana is straightforward and grows every turn, like Hearthstone, but spells can be layered onto a “stack” like Magic.

But Runeterra was also willing to innovate in ways new ways too. It’s turn structure is one such innovation. There aren’t turns, in the traditional sense, rather both players take each turn at the same time, passing priority back and forth. That means every turn both players can play creatures, cast spells, and do practically anything they have available to them. The only difference is that only one player can attack each turn, and this swaps back and forth.

And this small little change fixes so many issues that many other card games run into. Inevitably, creatures with an “attack the turn it comes into play” ability end up being broken in games such as Hearthstone or Magic. But attacking in Runeterra is an action and taking any action passes priority to the other player. That means that the opposing player will always have a chance to play defenders before you attack, which means there’s no reason to give any creatures “summoning sickness.” Instead, every creature can attack as soon as you play it and every creature can block as soon as you play it. This is much simpler for new players who aren’t used to digital card games, but also surprisingly deep, as you constantly have to adapt to the cards your opponent’s might play.

In fact, that’s the general theme of Runeterra: adaptation. Many trading card games mathematically shake out to foregone conclusions. You’ll both be playing, someone will miss a drop or make a bad move, and then it snowballs downhill from there.

That’s not the case with Runeterra. It seems designed that you constantly have to think on your feet, and the battle system is only one aspect of that. The mana system is the other. Any unspent mana becomes “spell mana.” It can only be used on spells, but it essentially lets you float mana for another turn.

Say you miss a three mana drop. That sucks, and in any other card game you have just wasted a turn. In Runeterra however, that means that next turn you can cast a seven mana spell (four mana from the turn and three heldover spell mana). A seven mana spell could be a boardwipe, which will even up the advantage your opponent had from your missed drop. Of course, if you blow your spell too early, your opponent can play creatures afterward, or even float their own spell mana. This tiny little change causes you to think of each and every play, rather than just play the highest mana card you have on auto-pilot.

Runeterra is also willing to play around with its unique mechanics in ways that really make the game flow stand out. There are cards that fill up spell mana to give you a slight mana advantage. There are cards that allow you to attack on an opponent’s turn or “steal” their attack. There are cards that allow you to have two attack phases if you attack with the right cards. Heck, they even implemented simple and understandable versions of Magic’s more loathed mechanics, banding and interrupts. All of this is on top of the mechanics you usually see, the many different renamed versions of first strike, flying, trample, etc.

Choose your champion

Of course, Runeterra is based on a MOBA and MOBAs are very character centric. Thus, Runeterra’s highest rarity card is the “champion” which represent the many characters you would play in League of Legends. Champions tend to be units with somewhat unique abilities but that aren’t game changing… that is until you level them up.

Each champion has its own unique level up conditions. Maybe you have to attack a certain number of times. Maybe you have to kill a certain number of units. Maybe you have to deal damage with spells. Maybe you need to block or be unblocked. There are a ton of different conditions, each unique for each champion.

Once a champion levels up its stats grow and it gains new abilities and these abilities can decide the course of the game. Miss Fortune, for example, deals three damage to anyone the opponent sends into battle against you when you attack, basically giving you a three-damage board wipe. Garen allows you to attack no matter what turn it is. Fiora will flat out win you the game if she, personally, kills four of the opponent’s units. Whole decks are built around champions and successfully playing one and leveling them up changes the game’s momentum so much. In early game, you are pecking back and forth at each other with tiny units, but in late game with leveled up champions, it feels like you are making world shattering attacks. It’s a great feeling.

You can only ever play one champion of a type at a time. Once a champion hits the field, all other copies of that champion become spells, specifically that champions signature attack. Casting that spell will shuffle another copy of the champion into your deck, allowing you to either cast it again at a later date, or cast another champion if the first dies.

Once again this seems like a simple mechanic but it has a lot of rippling effects that make decks super fun to build. There are decks that purposefully mill themselves to their last few cards just to cast signature spells over and over again. There are decks that use other abilities to summon multiple copies of a champion at once, breaking the one champion copy at a time rule. There are even decks that run no champions at all, in an attempt to out speed players that spend all their time leveling up.

Deckbuilding, factions, and expansions

Deck building is, once again, a simple derivative of other trading card games with a new twist. Cards are divided up into factions in Runeterra and your deck must include 40 cards, of no more than two factions, with no more than six champions, and no more than three copies of any one card.

Those are fairly simple restrictions, but what really makes them unique is the way Runeterra is handling expansions. Each expansion adds only a few cards to existing factions. Their real draw is that they add whole new factions to the game! For example, the latest expansion added a faction with new milling mechanics, a new sea monster creature type, and much more

This is such a great idea! One of the biggest problems with expansion design in trading card games is that, inevitably, only one or two cards are good enough to make any decklist. You usually just keep seeing the same old good cards from older expansions and the main set, over and over again.

But in Runeterra, the cool new cards require playing a new faction. To use them you have to sub out half your deck! This makes each new deck that comes about when a new expansion releases feel new and unique! It’s not just the same deck you have seen before with a few replacements, it’s an entirely new deck with entirely new strategies. This keeps the meta feeling really fresh.

There are a million other little tweaks that just make Runeterra a joy to play. There are tutorials for each and every mechanic, including new expansion mechanics, to make sure you aren’t surprised when you see something new. The draft mode, “expeditions,” actually sorts cards into different categories as you pick them, which makes sure your decks have synergies. You get new champions and draft tokens for free each week, just for playing the game! You can even target what cards from what faction you want to get when you open packs and earn rewards. It’s just a lot of small innovations built upon the successes of trading card games past. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it certainly reinvents the way we use it.

The pitfalls of platforms

Runeterra is a blast to play on PC, but the same can’t really be said for its mobile implementation. It’s stable, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that the cards don’t really fit the mobile format. Many cards in Runeterra have a lot of text on them, and that text is nearly impossible to read on a phone, or even a tablet in some cases.

Here’s an example. There is a new mechanic called “deep” which gives you bonuses when you get halfway through your deck. Every card that makes use of this mechanic has a counter on it that tells you how many cards away you are from going “deep.” That’s great on the PC version.

However, on the mobile version it’s awful. The extra text for the counter crams all the other text of the card into a teeny tiny font. Yes, you can blow up each card’s picture and text, but then it covers the entire screen making it at best tedious and at worst impossible for you to actually play the game. All of this could have been avoided if, say, instead of putting a counter on each individual card they just put a big number next to your deck! Sure, there would be less room for all the neat little graphics in the play area, but then cards would be readable!

The PC version isn’t without its pitfalls either. Some players are still complaining about corrupted accounts that can’t add people to their friends list or even redeem cards. Very quickly surrendering and attempting to exit the game will cause graphics to overlay your menu. There are peculiar pieces of lag whenever you buy a card from the store, and every week it feels like there’s some problem with XP not showing correctly or collections being bugged, or something else. The game is still rough around the edges, fun to play, but a hassle to get working.

Oh… and there’s no Mac version, period. It’s PC, mobile, or nothing.

The next, next, next big trading card game?

Ever since Legends of Runeterra hit its beta phase I have been addicted to it. I’m not even that big of a League of Legends fan. In fact, I kind of hate it, preferring Heroes of the Storm myself. What? Stop laughing at me!

The point is, I’m coming from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about the League of Legends universe, characters, or anything like that. I have no idea if card mechanics accurately represent MOBA mechanics. I have no idea who any of these champions are or what these factions represent.

What I do know is that Legends of Runeterra is fun. It’s just plain fun. It’s deep, and strategic, and it combines the elements of some of my favorite trading card games in ways I would have never thought of. Each match, constructed, draft, or otherwise causes me to think on my feet and come up with ludicrous combos out of nowhere. The meta has been remarkably stable yet interesting, with more than 20 1st and 2nd tier decks shaking out of the mix, giving you tons of options if you really want to start grinding the ladder.

I really do think that this is the next big digital trading card game. Granted, it will likely be overshadowed by its predecessors, but if you aren’t currently playing Magic or Hearthstone and you want to try something new, you will love Legends of Runeterra. It’s more than worth your time. It’s worth your attention.