Legends of Runeterra is the Start of Riot's Massive Next Phase

By Alistair Jones on at

Over the past ten years, League of Legends has become a phenomenon. A decade of global success later, developer Riot Games is ready to announce its first new game: Legends of Runeterra is a card game set in the universe of the studio’s established MOBA, but while there’s a big name behind the new project, that’s not all that success is riding on.

A card game is a significant departure from the multiplayer strategy genre that made Riot’s name, but League of Legends fans should find much of Legends of Runeterra relatively familiar. The game’s first set of cards is split between six regions from across the continent of Runeterra – the landmass upon which the League IP is set. Each region is represented by four Champions who embody its strengths; hardy Freljordians like Braum and Ashe use their resilience (and affinity with ice magic) to outlast their opponents, while the Shadow Isles’ Hecarim attempts to overwhelm his foes with an army of numerous but fragile units.

In Hearthstone, your heroes tend to stand back from the action, but in Legends of Runeterra, Champions fight on the frontlines alongside their Followers – background characters who help bring Runeterra to life. Blizzard’s influence is clear in the game’s cartoonish take on its source material, but elsewhere it draws far more strongly from Magic: The Gathering. Combat is a round-based system in which players rotate between attack and defense. At the start of each turn, the attacking player sets out offensive units, which the defending player then has the opportunity to block. An attacking unit that’s not stopped will deal damage directly to the defenders’ health pool, the Nexus, but if it’s held up by a blocker, both units will take damage as the pair slam together.

Combat isn’t dripping with tactical complexity, but the way in which first one player, then another, takes the initiative makes for a far more back-and-forth approach than in many other CCGs. Turns begin as each player prepares their forces, adding new units to the battlefield or conserving mana for spellcasting. As the battle lines are drawn, Fast, Slow, and Burst spells are introduced – quicker spells might enhance stats or deal direct damage, but Slow enchantments have the capacity to wipe entire boards as each game progresses. As the dust settles after combat, players use remaining mana to reinforce their depleted armies, or keep it to enhance their spell-slinging in their next turn.

Each 40-card deck will be built primarily around your choice of champions – up to six can be included in decks built out of cards from up to two regions – but your ranks will be swelled by the addition of your Followers. Many of them have been invented specifically for the new game, but Riot clearly has grander ambitions for some others; Tianna Crownguard is the aunt of in-game champions Lux and Garen, and appeared in this year’s Marvel Comics collaboration, while a story is already emerging around new character Cithria. Plans for a potential single-player adaptation – similar to Gwent’s Thronebreaker campaign – will be shaped by community response to new characters, but design director Andrew Yip says that Riot has “a lot of advocates” for expanding upon the foundation provided by Legends of Runeterra.

Followers are important, but it’s not just your Champions’ famous names that set them apart from their more lowly companions. Each card comes with its own mana cost, health and damage stats, and maybe a few extras. Some like Regeneration are generic, but others have specific effects similar to Hearthstone’s battlecries and deathrattles. Champions do have one particular trick up their sleeve: after completing a specific in-game goal, they level up, improving stats and abilities. If you manage to empty your hand as the chaos-loving Jinx, for example, her enhanced form will let her draw an extra card every turn, and grant a spell that deals damage directly to her opponent every time she ends up with an empty hand.

A single turn can be spread out across multiple steps, but Legends of Runeterra manages to remain refreshingly transparent. Blockers slot cleanly into place opposite their respective attackers. The order in which spells will take effect is presented clearly on the board, the recipient of each card’s effect made clear by ethereal lines that snake between cards. Riot has even made an attempt to do away with RNG to encourage greater impetus on imaginative deckbuilding. Regions make it easy to pick a playstyle that suits you, and the level-up requirements of your chosen champion make it easy to find cards that compliment their strengths. Familiar faces help too: Garen’s ability to regenerate health after combat makes sense given his passive ability in League of Legends; Jinx’s reckless approach to hand-size matches her in-game personality; and Teemo’s mushrooms are a key part of his entire champion identity. It may just be because I enjoy League of Legends but, regardless, I had more fun cobbling together decks than in Legends of Runeterra than in any of its competitors.

Building sets around multiple champions also makes for less constrained play. While other CCGs focus on efficiency – how quickly you can bring your pre-established strategy online – Legends of Runeterra encourages you to think on-the-fly. A modest 20 health means that a dogged refusal to adapt to your opponent will see you on the ropes pretty quickly but, as a deck can be built on a foundation of multiple different champions (each with their own distinct win conditions), it’s not hard to craft a deck in which one tactic complements another, and you have enough options to be flexible.

Legends of Runeterra borrows too strongly from other titles to feel entirely like a breath of fresh air; the influence of Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering is writ large, while the spectre of Artifact looms over everything. This is, however, a solid starting point for Riot’s wider developmental efforts – an entertaining and polished title with which the studio hopes to reignite a somewhat stagnant genre. It also gives LoL a better framework for a narrative that has been somewhat underutilised over the past few years. Harnessing the massive LoL community is the important next step, but Riot has already done much to set Legends of Runeterra up for success.