Collectible card games have been around for decades, but it's much more recently that the genre has garnered popularity online, with Blizzard's Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft being one of the games to thank for that. Other major franchises have attempted to jump on the bandwagon and piggyback off Blizzard's success, such as Fable with Fable Fortune, Runescape with Chronicle: Runescape Legends, and Gwent: The Witcher Card Game, lifted straight from The Witcher 3, and as one of the most well-known RPG series of all time, it's unsurprising Bethesda has conjured up Elder Scrolls Legends in the same way. As the games are so similar and Hearthstone is so well-known, there will be references and comparisons to the Warcraft-themed card game throughout this review.
One of the first mechanics you're introduced to you is perhaps the one that best distinguishes Elder Scrolls Legends from Hearthstone, and that's the two lane setup. On the left, you have the field lane, where no special effects are applied to your minions and you can attack the turn after placing a card down, but on the right is the shadow lane, where all minions played start with stealth, or 'Cover', as it's referred to in Legends. This means they can't be attacked by other minions for a turn, however, they can be targeted by spells, unlike Hearthstone where they're unkillable by anything except large AOE spells. Minions in opposite lanes can't attack the other lane, unless the card specifies they can, such as Blood Dragon.
These keywords often have the same effect as others in Hearthstone, but are known by different terms; Taunt is now Guard, Deathrattle is now Last Gasp, Freeze is now Shackle, and so on. Bethesda has also added a few new ones of their own, such as Breakthrough, which deals any excess damage after killing a minion to the enemy player, and Drain, which turns any damage dealt by a minion into health for your hero. Legends also seems to rely more on the effects of cards rather than their stats; you'll find a lot of the high cost cards have significantly less strength and health compared to a lot of Hearthstone cards, for example. Take Mantikora for instance - it's a 10 cost card for only 6/6 stats, but it has Guard and destroys an enemy creature when summoned. Nahkriim, Dragon Priest is another, as this costs 10 to play and only has a 5/5 body, but when played it draws a card and the next card you play that turn is completely free. Compared to most of the high cost cards from Hearthstone such as Alexstrasza, which has an 8/8 body for 9 mana and a powerful effect, you realise that it's much easier to remove minions from the board in Legends.
Each deck contains 50 cards, and given how quickly you tend to cycle through your deck, it's needed. Your options aren't just limited to one type of card per deck though, as you have two, along with any neutral cards you want to include. There's five separate categories that are split by skills, like in the main Elder Scrolls games: Strength (Red), Agility (Green), Intelligence (Blue), Willpower (Yellow), and Endurance (Purple). You're able to choose two skills to base your deck around, depending on your playstyle and what archetype you want to opt for, and classes depend on what two skills you pick. For example, the Battlemage uses both Intelligence and Strength cards, while the Scout relies on Agility and Endurance. Each class has different tools to win the game, whether that's relying on low cost minions and aggressive strategies, or board clears that pave the way for your expensive, powerful minions.
Each player also has five runes that are staggered at intervals of five hit points for your character. For example, when you go down to 25 health, one rune will be broken, again at 20, and so on. When a rune is destroyed, that player draws a card, and the innovative aspect here comes with the Prophecy keyword, which means that if you draw a card from a rune that has Prophecy, it can be played instantly. They can also be played normally for a cost if you don't draw them from a rune, but they're usually just average cards otherwise. They also tend to target the idea of defence, with most Prophecy cards being healing-focused, Guard, or removal, such as the Fighters Guild Recruit which is a 1/2 with Guard and Lethal, the Piercing Javelin which just destroys any creature, or the Dune Stalker, which can move another friendly minion to the other lane to protect it.
Runes mean you need to consider how you play too. If you ignore minions and go for the other player's face each time, it increases the chance of them drawing a potentially devastating comeback card with Prophecy which, when combined with the established board they're already likely to have, means you'll go from having a strong lead to having to backpedal. As the Prophecy cards are often overcosted for their effect too, you need to consider just how many of them you want in your deck. Will you play as many as possible to increase the chances of being able to play it for free? Or hardly any to generate more value from the cards you do play and aim to win the game from maintaining board control?
Like Hearthstone, there's ranked and casual play. Ranks work similarly, while there's also an arena feature that can be played online or offline. This is almost identical to Hearthstone, in the sense that you pick one of three classes, then you pick 30 cards, one at a time from a choice of three. Three losses means you're out, while eight wins means you've been successful and won the arena. It costs 150 gold to enter and you're rewarded at the end with prizes depending on how you performed.
For players who aren't too keen on the competitive aspect, there's also a decently sized offline story campaign. Each chapter rewards you with a card, and each battle often has a unique modifier, and this is taken a step further in the Fall of the Dark Brotherhood DLC, which has you infiltrate the ranks of the infamous group. Modifiers like making one lane the dock and the other the water during a battle taking place in a harbour, so when a character gets damaged on the dock it's moved to the water lane and shackled for a turn, makes each battle unique, and you'll find yourself having to go back and create specific decks for each fight. There's also a few multiple choice options, increasing replayability in the story.
Mechanically, Legends is absolutely sound, as it sticks to the Elder Scrolls lore, with a few well-known faces in the cards available to you, however, in terms of presentation, we feel it's lacking a little. Drab colour scheme and artwork suffers in comparison to other CCG games, and although it's certainly thematic, when you look at the vibrant colours of the various different game boards in Hearthstone compared to the singular beige parchment available in Legends, and the charming, almost cute art style for a lot of the Hearthstone cards compared to the cards that almost seem to take themselves a bit too seriously in Legends, you can see why it's not quite faring as well as was initially expected when it was revealed.
Overall, The Elder Scrolls: Legends does enough different to make itself a unique CCG, but at the same time some of it might not be for the best. While the new mechanics like two lanes make the gameplay fresh and interesting, the presentation can be a bit dull at times, but the tactical options available to you should ensure that people pick up and play the game, even if they're in the door purely for The Elder Scrolls name alone.
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