Review: The Elder Scrolls: Legends29 Mar 2017 2
Review: The Elder Scrolls: Legends
Released 09 Mar 2017
You can never have too many collectible-card games, right? Ok, no…that's not right. The CCG market may be huge but it won't support every game that comes in search of a piece of the pie. It is accurate, however, to say that you can never have too many quality CCGs. Not everybody likes Hearthstone, after all, and it is good to have alternatives. The Elder Scrolls: Legends recently launched on PC and iPad—with releases for Mac, Android tablets, and phones on the way—and aims to be that alternative. It has a lot going for it. Legends is set in a known universe and filled with characters and places that will be familiar to fans of games like Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim. It's backed by Bethesda, a top-tier gaming company, and developed by Dire Wolf Digital makers of the Eternal card game and home to esteemed Magic: The Gathering player, hall-of-famer, streamer, and personality Luis Scott-Vargas.
The Elder Scrolls: Legends, like most CCGs, is free-to-play and as such this is going to be less of your standard game review. You can easily try it and get some quick impressions that will doubtlessly be more valuable to you than anything I can say here. Instead, my intent is to cover what differentiates Legends from its competition and therefore makes it worth your time to try, how viable it is to play without paying, and what it takes to get to a reasonably competitive deck.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That must have been a mantra bandied about by Bethesda and Dire Wolf when designing The Elder Scrolls: Legends. The game feels a lot like playing Magic: The Gathering, more so than Hearthstone and certainly more than Faeria, and this is a good thing. Legends has the same "hey this is cool" factor that has sucked so many people into Magic over the decades. You'd play half a game of Magic and be hooked and out buying packs at your local game store the next day. It appealed to casual players who could throw together a deck to have fun right up through the super competitive crowd who like to tune decks based on metagame trends and revel in identifying and executing the correct line of play in any situation. Legends has all of this going for it as well.
Unlike Magic, however, Legends was designed for digital and is not burdened by the stack, passing priority, or tying digital cards to paper ones. It is a much smoother digital experience. It differentiates itself from Hearthstone, the king of the digital CCG world, in several important ways as well. First, the battlefield is split into two lanes. When you cast creatures, and some other spells, you must pick a lane. Creatures can only attack foes in their own lane. Adding to this, the right lane is called the "shadow" lane. Creatures cast there cannot be attacked by opposing creatures for one turn, though they can be the target of spells and creature-based abilities. So if you have a creature you'd really like to survive until your next turn, the shadow lane is your best bet. Overall, the double-lane battlefield creates a layer of decision making that is fun and compelling without bogging the game down in unnecessary complexity. It adds a lot more to the game than I expected going in.
Another difference is life-loss milestones, called runes, and prophecy cards. In Legends you start with thirty life. Every five life you lose (so at 25, 20, 15, 10, and 5 life) a rune shatters and you draw a card. If that card has the "Prophecy" keyword you can play it for free. This is huge. Not only do you gain cards to help dig yourself out of what is likely a bad board state, but you also might get to play those cards instantly and for free. It cuts the other way as well, if you're in the lead pulling a strong Prophecy card can be the nail in the coffin. There are a great many cards you'd love to see come up as a Prophecy. Cast Out lets you unsummon a creature (ideally a big expensive one that hasn't attacked yet), Lightning Bolt deals 4 damage (I've won games targeting my opponent off of a prophetic bolt), Healing Potion allows you to gain 5 health, Piercing Javelin destroys a creature, Ransack deals 3 damage and gains you 3 health, and Midnight Sweep summons a creature with Guard into each lane (you must attack creatures with Guard, same as Taunt in Hearthstone). As you can no doubt tell, runes are a major tactical component of the game and gives rise to many interesting tactical and deck building considerations.
A third big difference from Hearthstone is the minimum constructed deck size of fifty cards. This is much closer to the sixty cards of Magic than the thirty of Hearthstone and opens up some more interesting deck design space. In Hearthstone decks looking to be consistent will often just figure out the best ten playsets of cards to include, legendary singletons notwithstanding, but in Legends there's an opportunity to include several more playsets and therefore pursue different themes. Cards are organized into attributes—Agility, Endurance, Intelligence, Strength, and Willpower—rather than color and each attribute has its own identity. Intelligence features a lot of direct damage and favors trickery over brute force, for example, and Endurance cards are meant to build up your mana reserves, while Strength features creatures that hit for a ton but are relatively easy to kill. When you build a deck you pick a class, which is able to use two attributes. A Mage is Intelligence and Willpower and an Archer is Agility and Strength, for example. Calling them classes sounds like Hearthstone but it plays out much like the Magic color wheel without being a direct copy of it. The attributes and classes support a lot of different playstyles and provide lots of deck building opportunities despite what is still a relatively small card pool.
The Freemium Path
Time to address the usual free-to-play CCG question: "Can I play for free or is the game pay-to-win?" Short answer is that you can play for free and reliably build up a collection. As with any CCG, it's a matter of patience. Playing through the tutorial and finishing up Story mode provides a bunch of cards and other rewards to get you started. You level up as you go and leveling provides cards, gold, and other goodies throughout your time in the game.
Elder Scrolls: Legends also has the usual daily quest feature, worth 40 to 50 gold each. A pack is 100 gold so you can earn one pack every couple days from questing alone. Quests can be fulfilled in either Play mode (casual or competitive games against other players) or the Arena draft (both solo and against other players). Most are not focused on winning, but things like playing creatures, equipping items, and the like. This makes it possible to complete them even with less competitive decks. Taking on other players in Play mode also yields 15-35 gold and a card (with a slight chance at scoring a pack) for every three victories which can speed up the pack-acquisition rate.
Legends also awards soul gems (dust) for playing against the AI in Practice mode. There are three levels of difficulty that earn an increasing amount of gems per victory: Novice (5), Adept (10), and Expert (15). It sounds like you can earn up to 300 gems a day this way, though I didn't grind that much to confirm. To put that in context, a common card costs 50 gems to craft, rares are 100, epics are 400, and legendary cards cost 1200 gems to craft. It's a slow-and-steady route to be sure, but Practice mode is also a good way to quickly test and tune new decks.
Last but not least is Arena play. Arena is Legends' draft mode and comes in both solo (AI) and versus (other players) mode. In solo arena you must play and defeat eight AI opponents before facing a boss. In versus arena you play seven human opponents. In both cases you continue until you've won nine or seven games or accrue three losses. It costs 150 gold to enter the Arena and prizes scale based number of wins. If you get to seven or nine you'll earn around 150 gold (so your entry back), three packs, and a rare or better card. Two wins, on the other hand, is worth 50 gold, one pack, and a rare—roughly breaking even. If you are good at drafting this is a really good way to build a collection quickly.
If you're willing to do some grinding you can expect to earn anywhere from several packs a day (assuming you are good at drafting and have the time to play that many matches) to a pack every two to three days. The alternative method, of course, is to just buy packs. There are a couple decent deals as well, including a one-time get-you-hooked package of ten packs and some other cosmetic stuff for $5.
Picking Up Playsets
The next question for any CCG is "What does it take to be competitive?" At this point, I have opened thirty-five packs. According to Legends' collection tracking metric that is 54% of the game's Core Set (and only set to date). That's just single cards, however. As any CCG veteran can tell you playsets, in this case three of a card, drive consistency and consistency is what separates good decks from mere collections of cards that sometimes get you the win. Here's where I'm at with playsets:
For commons I included cards where I had two copies because it is relatively cheap to craft a common and I wouldn't think twice about completing a set if needed. I do have two copies of another 33% of the rares, but crafting one requires 100 soul gems—a good chunk of my total—so I did not count these as having a playset. For legendary cards I assumed having one was a playset, although this is only true for unique legends—there are many where you can play more than one copy in a deck.
As you can see, I have just over half the cards but only 27% are playsets…what does that mean in terms of viability? I experimented with a great many deck classes and ended up gravitating more toward classes with Intelligence and Willpower—two attributes with solid common removal cards. The fifty card deck limit, rather than the thirty you find in Hearthstone, opens up deck-design territory but makes it harder to field a consistent deck with a limited card collection. My decks either used playsets of common and some rare cards or made due with groupings of similar cards—two mana creatures with roughly the same stats that can defend early or five-to-six mana mid-game threats, for example.
I found these decks to be decent but not great. They were able to beat the Practice mode AI on novice and adept difficulties regularly but struggled at times on expert where the decks are stacked with playsets of strong rare, epic, and legendary cards. Facing other players offered mixed results. Against other newer players with similar collections I was able to hold my own and then some. But when I ran into a player who clearly ran sets of epics and many legendary cards I would get run over.
The bottom line is that 35 packs just doesn't do it. In every single deck I've built I long for more of the cards that work well and better cards to replace the ones that are sub-optimal. This is a familiar sensation, because, of course, it is also very much like Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone. My guess is that another 25 to 30 packs and associated crafting would be enough to get the right playsets to build in consistency and effectiveness in a some decks, especially if you were to focus on a few of your favorite attributes.
All the Platforms
As I mentioned earlier The Elder Scrolls: Legends has launched on PC and iPad and is slated to arrive on Android Tablets in April, Mac OS in May, and on Mobile Phones in early summer. This is significant because not all CCGs have opted to support phones due to the difficulty in providing a quality experience on a smaller screen, among other reasons. It's pretty unlikely I'll play many Legends games on a phone, no matter how well the app is designed, but I do like the option to build or tweak a deck while I have a few minutes somewhere. I'd also wager grinding out gems in Practice mode on a phone will be more than doable.
I've played extensively on both the PC and iPad versions of the game and am very happy with both. I haven't run into any bugs or even annoying UI decisions, which is saying a lot. The iPad app is very good and has all the same functionality as the PC version. Legends looks and plays great on my iPad Pro, and unlike Faeria and even Hearthstone, I prefer it to the PC version.
There is a good freemium path in Legends. It isn't quite as easy to build up your collection as it is in Faeria, but it does feel easier than in Hearthstone, especially if you are good at drafting in the Arena and are willing to grind out some games in Practice mode. I estimate that once you get to the 60 to 70 pack range you should have the card collection necessary to field some strong, consistent, and competitive decks. What's more, I really like the game, how similarly it plays to Magic, and how it differentiates itself from Hearthstone and other digital CCGs through lanes, runes, deck size, and attributes. If you like Magic: The Gathering and are looking for an alternative to Hearthstone, The Elder Scrolls: Legends is definitely where I'd put my time and money.