Why I like Legends of Runeterra

This is not the usual StarCraft related post. I’m going to share why I think Legend of Runeterra (LoR) is a well designed digital collectible card game.

Magic: The Gathering Arena and Hearthstone seem to be the go-to card games for gamers (mainly RTS) I follow on Twitter. I’m surprised that none of them has played LoR, which in my opinion is better designed in many ways. LoR is a card game designed by Riot Games using the League of Legends Lore.

Game design

Games like this always face the challenge of balancing the interests of the competitive players and those of the casual players. For example, random card effect outcome plays a very important role in Hearthstone, and it appeals more to the casuals than the competitive players. “Skill above all” is one of the cornerstones of LoR, and their game design is well aligned with that. At the same time, it is enjoyable and not overly complicated for casuals. 

All the features I’m mentioning below follow these few key design philosophies:

  • Skill-based
  • Interactive
  • Easy to understand

Mana system

LoR uses a “no-land” mana system, whereby the players automatically get one additional mana each turn like in Hearthstone. This system obviously doesn’t have the land flood and land drought problems that we see in games like MTG and Pokemon, but it feels punishing when you do not spend your mana. This often results in missing a “drop” in the first few turns to be a sizable disadvantage. LoR addresses this issue with the spell mana system (see image below):

Since the spell mana can only be used for spells, players cannot summon an ally three turns in advance of its mana cost. The cap of three spell mana also does not allow players to simply bank up as many mana as possible and then spend them in one turn for something crazy. Thus, this mana system attenuates the luck issue with draw and accentuates the influence of strategic planning. 

Combat mechanics

One player has the attack token on the odd turns, and the other has it on the even turns. You can only attack when you have the attack token, and it is gone after an attack. Hence, you can only attack once under normal circumstances when it is your attack turn. Despite its seemingly simple combat phase, it is balanced and rewards attention to details. The combat mechanic is very similar to MTG, whereby the defending player assigns blockers to the attackers. Allowing the defending player instead of the attacking player to distribute damage lets both players have input on the battle outcome.

Alternating actions

Both players get to play cards in every turn regardless of the attack token. Whenever a player makes an action (e.g., summon an ally, cast a spell), s/he passes the initiative to the other player. The other player can then take an action. The player with the attack token at the start of the turn takes the first action of the turn and has the option to attack (an action). This is very different to most of the card games I have played, whereby a player normally has all the initiative in a turn. 

This alternating action design adds enormous depth to the game without making it overly complicated. For example, you have the attack token on turn three and 2/2 ally on the board, while the opponent has nothing on the board. You can attack with the 2/2 ally for two damage, or summon a 3/3 ally and attack with both for five damage. If you summon a 3/3, the initiative is passed to the opponent who can then summon a 3/3 ally to block and kill your 2/2 ally if you attack with both of your allies. This is a common situation in the game. 

There are times when you want to pass the initiative to the opponent, so you could make the best reactive play after the opponent has made a move. You can do this by either making an action (e.g., summon an ally) or simply click the pass button (i.e., make no action). However, if you use the pass button to pass your initiative, your opponent could end the turn by clicking the pass button too (i.e., two consequent passes would end a turn). Then, your plan to play reactively might unintentionally end the turn with you not spending the mana you have for that turn. 

This is my favorite feature of LoR. See the two vods below to learn more about this feature.

Spell reaction and speed

Like Yu-Gi-Oh!, LoR has three different spell speeds: slow, fast, and burst. Slow spells can only be played as an action when you have the initiative (like sorcery in MTG). After a slow spell is cast, your opponent has an opportunity to react to it before it is resolved. A fast spell can be played like a slow spell, but it can also be used in response to a slow or fast spell (like instant in MTG). Burst spells can be played at any time, and it resolves immediately without necessarily passing the initiative to the opponent. Players can play as many spells as they want in response to a slow or fast spell (like “stack” in MTG and “chain” in Yu-Gi-Oh!). This spell reaction and speed design goes well with the alternating actions design to create an interactive card game. 

Deck building and balance

The main deck building restriction in LoR is having cards from no more than two regions (like the five colors in MTG). There are seven regions now, and more will be added in the future. I initially thought certain regions are just going to go well together naturally, and this would then result in a few established “region alliances” for most part of the game. But I was wrong, as the regions mix and match well with no dominating alliance. There are even more than one competitive deck using the same combination of regions.

The (perceived) balance has been very good in my six month experience. There is usually a good number and range of top tier decks at any point. From my card game experience, it is very rare to have five or more top tier competitive decks, because usually the meta is dominated by one to two decks. Even the “most overpowered” deck now is not as overpowered as many say it is. The balance team does a very good job. Balance patches roll out more frequently than I expected, and the changes are often spot on. 

In many card games, there are often times when you play the perfect game and still lose. This problem obviously also applies to a card game like LoR, but I don’t feel as frustrated and salty after a loss. This is because I have to make so many decisions throughout the game due to the alternating actions design. The number of decisions makes it difficult to be certain that I could not have done better to improve the outcome, even though I might have practically played a perfect game and lost.

Free-to-play friendly

LoR is unbelievably free-to-play friendly. I am a casual player who plays a few games when I commute and did not spend a cent.I have a competitive deck quickly, and I can form all the top tier decks after two to three months. The progression and weekly rewards are amazing.

You do not buy packs. If you want a specific card, you can just use in-game currency to get it. There is no gamble element in purchase, so this model is prepared for the potential loot box law in the future. 

Other game modes

There are several game modes now and more will be added soon:

  • Vs. AI
  • Ranked
  • Unranked
  • Expedition (draft)
  • Gauntlet (special rules event)
  • Lab (for fun format with crazy rules – PvP and PvE)

If you are playing MTGA or Hearthstone, I strongly recommend you to give this a go. It is available on desktop, Android, and IOS.

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