Thursday, February 6, 2020

Legends of Runeterra

Riot just released the beta for the League of Legends CCG, Legends of Runeterra. I thought I'd share my reactions:

The first thing I noted during the game's on-ramp is that damage to creatures is permanent, which is a red flag for me. Hearthstone and a whole suite of pretenders miss an entire dimension of play by making all damage permanent, because it means that every attack presented will be absorbed in some way. It reduces the decision space by making it trivial how I block your 2/2 and 3/1 with my 0/4 and 2/1. In Magic and Eternal, I have to make a strategic choice; in games like this, there's only one valid answer. We lose cleverness, foresight and surprise, instead making damage and health resources that will almost always trade 1:1. It becomes a slog.

There is a creature keyword, regenerate, which lets your creature heal back to its original health at the end of each round, but how common is that?

There's an upgrade system where your named creatures are upgraded if you fulfill a specific condition, but that's not novel to digital CCGs.

They brought back interrupts. Well, not exactly. They have three speeds of spell, but here the difference between an instant (fast spell) and an interrupt (burst spell—'fastest' isn't how I read the word 'burst') isn't whether you can respond to it, but whether it counts as an action. What does that mean?

The most novel thing about Legends of Runeterra is the turn structure. Rather than one player taking all of their actions, then passing the turn and the other taking all of theirs, players here take one action at a time each round until both pass. Attacking counts as an action, which creates a dynamic where I can either play my creature for the round first and reinforcing my attack later—which gives you an opportunity to play your creature before the attack—or I can attack now before you can reinforce—which means any creatures I play this round won't get to attack.

There's another big wrinkle to the turn structure here. Only one player can attack each round. The ability to attack passes between us each round in a use-it-or-lose-it fashion. This has the effect of simulating the usual CCG duel structure of I-take-all-my-actions-and-attack-or-not-then-you-do, in a way that drastically reduces the novelty of Runeterra's I-act-you-act structure. A subtle advantage is that players draw twice as many cards, which is a tweak Magic and Eternal would benefit greatly from. This system also makes possible Runeterra's rally keyword action, which grants you an attack token, allowing you to attack 'off-turn' or twice in a round.

Here's a cool and unique design choice they made: You can store up to three mana at a time that would otherwise be wasted at the end of your turn, but you can only use that mana to cast spells. Do you build your creature-heavy deck to be as efficient as possible, or do you build a spell-deck that casts a 6-cost spell on turn 3?

They named flying 'elusive,' which is a surprising and poor choice, as demonstrated by the moment when they explain "their defender can't block your elusive creature because it isn't elusive." Riot seems to have a few gaps in their vocabulary.

There's no multi-blocking. Which would be a shame, except with the loss of permanent damage, it doesn't matter. I'll block your 2/2 with one 1/1 this round, and another next round, same result. Womp womp.

There are some fiddly designs:
  • If you 'heal' yourself or an ally, it won't increase the target's health beyond it's starting amount. Unless, I presume, you increased it permanently, somehow? There's a spell that grants an ally +0/+2 this round. How does that work? If I cast that and my ally isn't hurt, I assume it's wasted. And if I take damage, I hope it comes off of my temporary health first. What if I cast this after my unit takes damage? A spell as simple as that needs to be intuitive and it's the opposite.
  • There are effects that let your unit strike an enemy unit (fight, 'strike' is an event that happens when a spell or unit deals damage, as well as a verb that allows them do so) but when a unit with overwhelm (trample) strikes a small enemy unit, whether damage goes through or not depends on which meaning of strike is happening.
The UI/UX is okay, but suboptimal in a number of ways:
  • They make you click too much. To cast a spell with a single target, first you drag it to the battlefield, then you choose your target. You even have to pass priority on your own slow spells like it was 1999.
  • There's no button for attack-with-everything (though you can type 'A'). When you do attack with everything, your 0/Xs come in, which is silly.
  • When you complete a tutorial, the buttons prompt you to play it again, instead of moving on to the next tutorial, and it's not remotely clear that's what's happening.
  • Visually, there's room for just three creatures on the field. It turns out you can play more and they shrink to fit, but you've got to intentionally test the limits that are presented to you. 6 is the limit, I've found through trial and error.
  • You can't see what a keyword on a card means without right-clicking on it, and you can't see the cards or upgrades linked to it without right-clicking, which adds one more barrier to learning the game.
  • Each keyword has an icon, and you can see those icons while cards are in your hand. Nice. Their icons aren't all great, though: Regeneration has a red flask that looks like a Fantasy bomb. That should be the icon for 'burst' which should hit multiple targets or something.
  • The area where units fight is distinct (and much larger) than the area where units exist, but you have to drag units to the fighting area to play them, not the area where they sit the rest of the time. C'mon.
I guess the theme and characters are direct translations from LoL, so I won't speak on that. There are some cool back-and-forth taunts between characters, but I don't know if those are limited to the tutorials or built for any game where they square off.

If there's a deck-building limitation, I haven't seen it. As far as I can tell, everything's colorless. I have noticed an icon that's probably a faction token, but none of the tutorials mention it, so who cares.
I'm sure with some work I could figure out how deck-building works, and what kind of drafting analog they have, but I've finished the tutorial, there's no clear next step, and I haven't been given a compelling reason to do the work of figuring the rest out on my own.


  1. Thanks for the review, I'll have to check this out. Riot has established such a great IP, I like that they are expanding into different game types but I hope they do it well

  2. I would like you to iterate on why you think permanent damage makes a game worse. I agree it feels weird in a game with a combat system this similar to Magic but in Hearthstone it's crucial to the game's direct attacking. If damage wore of, you could always attack your 3/3 into their 2/3 without any downside. In Magic you just wouldn't make that block. I also like how permanent damage makes you think ahead more often. Decisions you make in one combat might have consequences in future combats.

    Also I don't get your example. If I attack my 2/2 and 3/1 into their 0/4 and 2/1, they usually just absorb all the damage the 3/1 does and then decide to trade with the other or, if health matters, block the 2/2 und trade with the 3/1. In a game with permanent damage, this block is way harder because your 0/4 can't block my 3/1 forever. Maybe I'm saying what you're saying and I just feel differently about it, but your example didn't feel like a slog to me.

    I agree with some of your nitpicks about the client, although it still is miles ahead of Arena in my opinion.

    And yeah, Elusive being what it is, is just silly. Why not Horsemanship?