Given the rise of collectible card games (CCGs) in recent years, thanks in large part to the popularisation of the genre by Hearthstone, and Bethesda’s recent forays into the mobile app industry, something like Elder Scrolls: Legends seemed like a no-brainer.
A game that capitalises on one of the growing trends in the mobile industry and pairs it with The Elder Scrolls, arguably Bethesda’s most popular franchise, was likely seen as a pair made in heaven, with the company expecting returns similar to the smash launch of Fallout Shelter almost two years ago. That game quickly rose to become one of the most popular games on both mobile app stores within a week of its release and while Legends has failed to fill the rather large shoes of Fallout Shelter, it has definitely been successful in its own right. Delivering a compelling gameplay experience with its own take on the genre that is similar enough to existing heavyweights like Hearthstone so as to not alienate existing players but also unique enough to stand out on its own, Legends has carved out a niche of its own; I was certainly impressed.
As with most games in the genre, both players start thirty health and one magicka, which normally only increases by one every round. Each card has a magicka cost associated with it that determines which card you can, or cannot, play during a single turn. Each hero also draws a single card every turn, all of which is very similar to other CCGs.
What sets Legends apart from a game like Hearthstone is its uses of a dual-lane system, whereby you may place your creatures in either of two lanes: a ‘field’ lane, which functions similar to how the single lane in Hearthstone does, and a ‘shadow’ lane, which grants cover to any creatures placed here for one turn, disabling you from attacking them directly with a creature. This adds a whole new dimension to the game and also integrates a great degree of strategy into how you place your creatures.
A single really powerful creature, for example, cannot allow you to dominate the game if the other player can simply push out a sneak attack through the shadow lane to finish you off, requiring you to make interesting and often pivotal decisions about the division of your resources into each lane.
Also, unlike Hearthstone, Legends uses a system of attributes to augur the type of deck you’re playing instead of classes. From a choice of five different attributes, players can choose a combination of two to create a deck of fifty or more cards. You may also create a deck with only one attribute (mono) but these are rare and not particularly prevalent in the current meta. Each of these attributes has its own unique character and lends itself toward a certain type of playstyle, though enterprising players will often mix and match these to obtain their desired outcomes and create some truly wacky and out of meta decks that’ll leave you stunned.
In general, though, Strength (Red) and Agility (Green) both lend themselves well to aggressive playstyles, the former with brute strength and the latter with unique mechanics such as shifting lanes and 'lethal' and 'pilfer' effects that allow you to bend the rules of the game to your advantage.
Endurance (Purple) is the de-facto inclusion for a control deck that seeks to command the board in the early game and possesses some of the best late-game creatures to finish off your opponent. It’s also the only attribute that offers the means for permanent ramp (increasing your max magicka), allowing you to play larger creatures earlier than your opponent.
Willpower (Yellow) is the sweetheart of token strategies, adding a number of options for quickly populating the board with low-cost and low-stat creature and various ways of buffing them to make them more of a threat; it also offers powerful removal tools.
Rounding the attributes off is Intelligence (Blue). As its name suggests, Intelligence delivers a variety of tools that allow you to make clever plays around your opponent’s and while a powerful affinity in its own regard, it’s also one of the best affinities to augment another.
There are also neutral cards, which can be used by any deck, and certain class-specific cards which can only be added to your deck if you choose a specific combination of attributes.
Another interesting mechanic introduced by Legends is the use of runes and the accompanying Prophecy system. In this system, for every 5 health you lose, you draw a card. For a total of 30 health, this means you draw 5 extra cards before you die. Even more, if the card you draw has the ‘Prophecy’ keyword, you can play it immediately, in the middle of your opponent’s turn, for no cost. This can entirely turn the tide of a game, enabling you to destroy a pesky creature that’s causing you trouble or allow you to postpone that killing blow for one more turn, which may just give you the game.
This also adds another dimension of strategy to the game, whereby overly aggressive decks may be able to beat you down quickly but will also pay a price in terms of refilling your hand and potentially giving you just the card you needed to thwart their advance. They may also simply run out of steam if you can hold them off long enough due to the card advantage you possess, which means that if you want to be aggressive, you really have to end the game quickly.
Beyond these basic mechanics, Legends also offers a good match of game modes. There is, of course, the usual PVP ranked mode, which is divided into 12 different ranks named after the Standing Stones found in Skyrim, alongside the option for casual matches. A practice mode also lets you test your decks against three difficulties of AI.
Beyond these usual modes, there are also the two arenas. Both of these take away your carefully crafted decks for a temporary deck of cards which you will select individually from a choice of three random cards each, repeating this until you’ve got a deck of 30 cards. The Solo Arena will then pit you against 9 AI opponents with this makeshift deck, while the Versus Arena is based on the same principle, only the opponents are now other players. The Solo Arena will also often feature wacky effects for specific lanes that are often designed to give the AI an advantage over you. While the Versus Arena is normally devoid of such theatrics for the sake of balance, every month, at the behest of the Daedric Prince of Madness, Sheogorath, developer Dire Wolf Digital holds a special event called the Chaos Arena, bringing these wacky effects to the Versus Arena as well.
These Arenas provide a welcome change of pace from the normal game modes, allowing you to test your mettle against the AI or other players where everyone is, more or less, on equal footing and entirely at the mercy of RNG. More importantly, the choice to force players to come up with a new deck for each arena run allows players, especially those who are new to the game, to better understand how to build decks, what works and what doesn't. It also exposes players to new and interesting combos that they may not have discovered yet or even thought of when building the deck and which suddenly become apparent when they play a game. This results in an almost perfect blend of fun and self-learning that makes the Arenas an almost irresistible experience. On top of all that, you also get a hefty amount of gold and card packs in rewards based on the number of wins you were able to get in a single run.
The Story Mode, for new players, serves as a useful tutorial into the game and with the recent Dark Brotherhood expansion, also offers something new for old players. These are likely to only entertain you for a few hours but they do serve as a useful resource for getting free cards, which are unobtainable otherwise and so are highly recommended. The initial story is free, while the Dark Brotherhood expansion costs 3,000 in-game currency or $19.99. In my opinion, this is a rather steep price but, as we'll discuss next, earning the same via in-game currency is not particularly hard so I'd be willing to give the game a pass in that regard.
For a Card Collectible Game, card collection is, as you might imagine, rather important and this is the one place where Legends is somewhat in a tricky position. Like all other CCGs, there is definitely some grinding to be done and whether you’ll consider this to be fair or a bit too much will largely depend on your own personal preference.
What is clear, however, is that the opinion of the community is overwhelmingly in favour of the game in comparison to Hearthstone and the game is seen as far more rewarding than its competition. Indeed, you do win a lot of cards from the starting story alone, and a new card and 15-35 gold for every 3 PVP wins. That’s certainly very generous and the 50-70 gold from daily quests means you can quickly build up in-game currency if you’re a consistent player.
My qualms about the game aren't particularly about the lack of rewards but, rather, their implementation and their skew towards certain playstyles. The Arena rewards and the free cards you win from 3 PVP wins are all random, which means you’ll very rarely ever obtain Legendary cards this way. Of course, this is to be expected as they are supposed to be rare but this presents an interesting dilemma.
Aggressive decks, for example, are by their nature dependent on cheap, high power, low health cards and as these are also generally not as rare, new players will be able to build at least partially successful decks of that nature from the offset and can also gradually augment their collection from the recurring rewards. Midrange decks are also partially feasible in this manner. However, the truly game-changing, high-cost cards that are the cornerstone of a good control deck are almost all Legendary or, at best, rare cards. This means you’re far, far less likely to run into them via the natural progression of the game. The really good finishers that are needed for clinching a game in a midrange deck are also generally Legendary cards like the Supreme Atromancer or Tazkad. A card I particularly wanted, the Blood Magic Lord, is only rewarded after reaching Level 50 in the game, which is a very, very long grind.
As such, your only recourse is to build them by deconstructing the cards you already have for components (soul gems) and using these to build the specific Legendary you want. Unfortunately, the disparity between the what you get after deconstructing a card and the cost of constructing a card is so high that even after being a player for quite a while and having a Level 50 account (which is the cap), I’ve only been able to craft 3-4 Legendary cards after purging each and every copy of extra cards I had in my collection.
While this may not be an intended consequence, relying so heavily on RNG for rewards and making card trades via construction prohibitively expensive, Legends is, at least for newer players, heavily skewed toward a specific playstyle. I believe this is one area where the game could do with some improvement, either by indulging players with more choice when they do get those elusive Legendary cards or by reducing the delta between the returns from scrapping cards and the costs of constructing them.
You can, of course, speed the process along significantly by parting with some of your money and simply buying card packs but I, for one, found the pricing for card packs relatively prohibitive, especially when you consider the ease with which you can just earn rewards organically by playing the game.
Heroes of Skyrim
At their E3 conference this year, Bethesda announced the largest expansion for Legends to date, Heroes of Skyrim, bringing with it 154 new cards, a few new mechanics, dragons and a boatload of Skyrim nostalgia.
Over the past year, Bethesda has increasingly come under fire for milking the Skyrim cow for all it’s worth with multiple re-releases on as many platforms as the company can find, which, for a 6-year-old game, is quite the rarity. Heroes of Skyrim, however, is an example of Skyrim nostalgia done right.
Littered across the new cards you’ll often find nods to Skyrim characters or memes that players will instantly recognise, whether it’s the addition of a ton of new dragons, prominent Skyrim characters or the 5-cost prized chicken which brings on its heels a horde of angry villagers.
Alongside these obvious nods to fans of Skyrim, though, the expansion also fleshes out the game significantly, expanding upon mechanics that already existed and introducing new creatures that provide even more types of playstyles.
While there aren't too many big things that stand out in the expansion, serving as more of an evolution than a revolution, it was most definitely a much-needed evolution, filling in some of the many gaps in the game that are so clearly the result of its young age, and still leaving behind some, which will hopefully be addressed with future expansions like this one.
Legends definitely has a lot of things going for it. It has a number of interesting and unique mechanics that not only make it fun but also set it apart from other games in the genre. It’s also generally very generous in its rewards system and helping you build up your collection quickly. Months after its initial release, it’s finally available on phones, alongside the PC and tablets, making it a truly cross-platform game. Then, there’s the nostalgia factor from its association with the Elder Scrolls franchise, which is also what initially spurred me to try out a genre of games that I had never been interested in before.
What it lacks, then, is consistency in some areas and age. Its meta is not yet as refined as it should be, meaning there are certain cards like Shadowgreen Elder which provide buffs to all animals but just not any viable animal decks that would be able to use such a card. With time, and future expansions like Heroes of Skyrim, the developers will hopefully be able to iron out these problems and create a more diverse and balanced meta. Until then, while it may not be a perfect CCG, it definitely does come close.
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The Elder Scrolls: Legends was reviewed on a custom PC with the following specifications:
- Display: 34" 21:9 IPS UQHD (3440x1440) non-touch
- OS: Windows 10, 64-bit
- RAM: 16GB
- Processor: Intel Core i5-6600HQ
- GPU: NVIDIA® GeForce® GTX 980Ti with 6GB GDDR5 VRAM