Digital card games are a strange experience. They’re all fundamentally built from the basic idea of simulating the physical card game experience of sitting across from another person, shuffling a deck, and then taking turns putting those cards on a table in sequence. It seems strange that in the wide world of possible things to do with digital platforms that this, of all things, would be what people are jazzed about doing. Yet here we are. More bizarrely, these games are incredibly fun.
I’ve put a fair few hours into card games in my time and I can say this with confidence: The Elder Scrolls: Legends is a good game that is worth playing. I’m embarrassed to admit how much I got sucked into the closed beta, and while I don’t think I’m necessarily great at the game, I have had an enormous amount of fun learning the ins and outs of Legends’ take on the broad mechanical genre of the card game.
I’m a fan of complexity in my card games. I love to play Magic: The Gathering, and that game literally requires that you perform the actions of a finite state machine in order to delve through the complexity of its rules interactions (you even have to take tests to adjudicate the game). That strong desire for grindy, interactive play has always left me a little unenthused with Hearthstone, and if we create a spectrum with the former at one end and the latter at another, TES: Legends leans a bit closer to Magic. And for that, I love it.
The rest of this piece is going to be enumerating and explaining what I think is most exciting in Legends. It’s often hard to talk about these games without resorting to comparison, but I’m going to try to make this as painless as possible. Ultimately, if you’re looking for a takeaway without specifics, Legends is a digital card game with a lot of depth that rewards paying attention to many different factors. It never becomes overwhelming, and it always feels fair. All of these are great accomplishments.
Legends has what the game calls “lanes,” and most of the games you play have two of them. Each lane acts as a separate battlefield. Creatures in one lane cannot attack creatures in the other and vice versa. From a practical standpoint, this means that players have to split their focus (and forces) between each of those lanes so as to make sure that they opponent does not take one of them over. While this makes the board state more complicated than a game like Hearthstone, it is also a welcome complication as buffing your units and then clearing the board isn’t really something that can occur here.
The lanes are different, too. The one on the left is the Field lane and it does nothing at all; the one on the right is the Shadow lane, and it gives creatures you put into it cover. To put it simply, that means that putting cards in the right lane buys you a little bit of time before they can be attacked, meaning that you can kind of play toward conserving units in a way that Magic or Hearthstone doesn’t allow (other than cards with keywords that help protect them).
Legends also has a set of mechanics centered on your deck of cards and what card is on top of that deck. There are several kinds of cards that “check” the top card of your library when you play them. If the card on top is of a certain kind, the card you played gets an additional effect. This has a significant effect on the play of the game that leans into some of the most exciting ways to play Magic, and I am excited to see it here in an experimental form that is utterly untapped by Hearthstone. In Magic, by virtue of being a physical card game first before any of its digital versions, you cannot know anything about a card without knowing everything about a card. If you know that there is a creature on top of your library you know that it is green, has a power and toughness of X and Y, and so on. The wholly-digital nature of Legends means that the game can check certain qualities of cards without reporting them back entirely, and while I really love the current set of mechanics that deal with that, I’m definitely interested in seeing that get iterated on in later design.
This system also hooks into one of “runes” and “prophecies.” Put as simply as possible, each player has five runes at the start of the game. For each increment of five health that a player loses they draw a card. By itself, this is a great concept—I fully think that letting players see more cards, and therefore make more choices, is a way to make card games more fun and more competitive (even if that comes with some grindy plays). Prophecies build on this even further; they’re special cards that can be played for free if you draw them from losing a rune. It’s a way of swinging back from being on the losing end of a beatdown, and if they were implemented in a worse way it could be profoundly bad to play against. However, the designers have done well here, and prophecies cost higher than other cards that do similar effects so that it is strategically disadvantageous to put too many in your deck. Plus you only get to use them if you’re getting hit by your opponent’s creatures or abilities (that shouldn’t be Plan A).
There are several more mechanical implementations that are interesting (including giving the player who goes second three uses of extra “mana” per game), but I think the ones above are the most significant in how the game is played. Beyond these fine-grained details, the story mode of the game is legitimately fun and funny, and I’m looking forward to whatever the next narrative chunk of content put forward is.
In its current form, Legends is an exciting and interesting game. I’ve really enjoyed my time with it, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on it from now until release.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.