What's all the fuss about...The Elder Scrolls: Legends - Hearthstone’s most serious challenger yet?

Constantly hearing about a particular game, wondering what exactly the big deal is?  In our regular series, we delve into the hottest community games and ask the important questions: Why do they generate such a devoted following? Is all this fuss is warranted? And if so…are they worth your time?

This time we dive once again into the world of online collectible card games, with a look at what Bethesda is bringing to the table with its Elder Scrolls CCG.

What is it, exactly?

Bethesda were understandably keen to get into the online collectible card game business after the runaway success of Hearthstone and the lightning-fast expansion of the genre. It must have been a pretty easy decision to make; they are after all sat on one of the most recognizable licenses in gaming. The Elder Scrolls: Legends has taken the familiar card-battling gameplay we’ve come to expect from an entry into this genre, made a few significant changes to shake-up the mechanics a little, and wrapped it all in a freshly gleaming coat of Elder Scrolls paint. The game officially launched on Windows and Tablets in March after a protracted beta period, and this month scored its first extra content in the shape of the new PvE campaign, ‘The Fall of the Dark Brotherhood.'

How does it play?

If you have any experience with online CCGs, you know the drill by now. Two players each bring a customizable deck of cards to the match. A resource (here called ‘Magicka’) is granted to the players on each turn and is spent by playing cards onto the field. Both players start with a set amount of health, and the first player to take their opponent’s total down to zero is declared the victor.

What’s interesting here is how developers Dire Wolf Digital have switched up the basic CCG formula a little to give Legends its point of difference from other games in the genre. The most instantly striking change is the lanes mechanic. In Legends, players play their cards in one of two areas of the table, called lanes. The left lane is the Field-lane, which doesn’t add any special rules. Think of it as the ‘normal’ place to play your cards. The right lane is the Shadow lane. Any creature card played here gains the ‘cover’ attribute, allowing it to be safe from enemy attacks until the start of its master’s next turn. This allows for some fascinating layers of strategic scope, with players able to easily keep weak-but-useful cards alive long enough to utilize them in their grand strategy. Just as significant though is the fact that a creature in one lane can’t attack an enemy creature in another lane. This means that players who rely on a lot of chunky, powerful creatures in large numbers can’t easily dominate the board, as their attention must always be split between these two areas. There are other lane effects too. In the game’s PvE campaign or Arena modes, you might, for example, encounter a graveyard lane, where dead cards rise as skeletons, or you may be granted random attribute-bestowing items when you play a card in a specific lane.

Legends has another interesting quirk in the form of its Runes and Prophecies mechanic. Basically every time a player loses 5 health, one of the Runes surrounding their portrait is broken, and they instantly draw a card. If that card has the Prophecy attribute, it can instantly be played, interrupting the opponent’s turn with a potentially game-shaking action. A card with the Guard attribute, for example, could throw up some much-needed defense between you and the enemy right when it's needed. Or maybe you’ll draw a card that will instantly boost your health right back up. This system, designed to add extra balance by giving a battered player a chance to hit back, is of course governed by an element of luck. But by building your deck with Prophecies in mind, there’s always a chance your preparation could orchestrate a dramatic mid-match turnaround.

Runes have another bearing on matches too, with some cards being directly linked to their destruction. A creature on the field could, for example, gain extra attack points when a rune breaks, allowing a player to go in for the kill on a weakened opponent. This further thickens the already rich tactical stew with another element that is satisfying to use, yet relatively simple to understand from the outset, which is, understandably, the way Dire Wolf have gone with Legends’ levels of complexity.

Is the fuss justified?

The growing community Legends enjoys isn’t for nothing. Many have, of course, checked out the game for its Elder Scrolls connection, but the developers have worked hard to create a polished and accessible CCG that can stand on its own feet without relying on its license -- understandable when you consider that Dire Wolf are the minds behind another CCG, Eternal, based off a wholly original IP. It’s also totally necessary when going up against the might of Hearthstone.

The game’s variances add just enough spice to make it feel like a noticeably different experience to Blizzard’s game. The artwork and overall aesthetic, too, is accomplished and feels in keeping with the Elder Scrolls world. I can’t help but think, though, that Legends suffers from a little of the same lack of personality as Gwent: The Witcher Card Game. The iconic worlds of Tamriel and Skyrim feel epic and grand while you’re actually inhabiting them, but when you’re just looking at the artwork laid out in front of you on largely static cards, it all feels like a much more generic fantasy setting. It’ll come down to individual preference, of course, and if you have a particular affinity for the Elder Scrolls universe, you’ll likely to be thrilled with the overall look and feel, but for me, it doesn’t quite top the friendly and approachable mass-market appeal that Hearthstone is so incredibly good at.

Worth a look?

Legends is certainly a worthy contender in rapidly growing world of online CCGs. It’s well-designed, bringing something new to the party without going too far off-piste and risking becoming too unfamiliar to defectors from other game systems (a fate that may befoul its similarly positioned competitor, Gwent). Though its overall aesthetic feels a little bland for my taste, it’ll probably strike a chord with fans of the Elder Scrolls series. And that’s the kicker, really; if you want something that’s simple to pick up and has plenty of that Elder Scrolls flavor, Legends might just be for you. Whether it’ll attract enough fans to seriously challenge Hearthstone’s dominance, though, is absolutely another matter.