By Thomas Rahal
With the recent surge in the popularity of CCGs/TCGs among game developers and designers, largely due to the release of Blizzard’s Hearthstone 2 years back, there have been many attempts at reinventing and improving the formula. While some of these have been successful – and others not so much, there a quite a few whose prophecies that have yet to be fulfilled. Today’s suspect is The Elder Scrolls: Legends, Bethesda’s new spinoff in the Elder Scroll franchise and developed by Dire Wolf Digital. Let’s get started, shall we?
First and foremost, The Elder Scroll: Legends – or TESL for short, is a strategy card game where you build a deck and pit yourself against other players and AIs – artificial intelligences. In each deck you may have anywhere from 50 to 70 cards with up to 3 copies of any card – except Uniques, which are 1 copy per deck. While games such as Hearthstone have opted for smaller decks, this design choice allows for greater variation among decks, while still having about the same chances of drawing a specific card when using 3 copies. There’s a wide variety of decks that you can build as you acquire more cards, and many of them can be viable on ladder – the ranked play system. But deck building and preparation is only half the battle, the “best” decks with all of the “best” cards will not ensure success in The Elder Scrolls: Legends.
The deck editing mode, featuring the “Free-to-Play” deck that I got to the Legend Rank with -on the right
In order to win a game in TESL, the standard method is to reduce your opponent’s health to zero, while preserving your own. How you choose to do this is up to you, you can beat them down in the early stages of the match, outlast them until dominating the late stages, or anywhere in between. You could even wait until their deck is completely empty of cards, which results in an immediate loss when they try to draw a card at the start of their turn—although this isn’t viable with 50 card decks -yet…, it can happen. There are pros and cons to every deck and every strategy.
There are quite a few things in TESL that do a great job differentiating it from other “choose your attack target” card games, despite seeming like other CCGs such as Hearthstone. The first aspect would be in the board layout itself, the dual lane system. In TESL, there are two lanes in which you can place your creatures/minions. Creatures in one lane can only attack enemy creatures in the same lane. This seemingly minor change results in a fairly complex decision making process of deciding where to put your minions and when to do. A huge creature getting you down by continually eating your creatures? Put them in the other lane instead. Want to outplay your opponents? Predict their strategy for future minion placement and subvert it, forcing them to take the difficult and risky routes to -possible routes, giving you control and the upper hand. If the strategic possibilities of two lanes didn’t strike your fancy, then factor in the reality that at least one of the lanes will have special effects added to it in most games, such as buffing creatures placed in it, giving you extra mana, or hiding your stuff from attacks for a turn, and you have a plethora of possibilities in store while giving a lot of cards value where they might not have had any otherwise.
The other game changing aspect that sets The Elder Scrolls: Legends apart from other current card games would have to be the Rune mechanics. As your health reaches certain thresholds for the first time in a match – 25,20,15,10, and 5 health a “rune”, will break and you immediately draw a card. This helps prevent situations where a player has almost nothing to do as their opponent beats them down without restraint. Add in the “Prophecy” mechanic present on many of the game’s cards, which lets a player play a card with Prophecy immediately -for free! if it’s drawn via Rune breaking -even on the opponent’s turn, and you have a battle of wits, my friends! Cards with Prophecy are generally only cards that disrupt you opponent on their turn and/or prevent your opponent from decreasing your health further. This system brings in decision making on whether or not you want to attack your opponent’s health directly, creating a “health matters” system where health is a resource more than ever. Not to mention always giving losing players a chance to come back if their opponent makes a mistake, depending on how that losing player built their deck in the first place. It also discourages super aggressive strategies that don’t interact much with your opponent’s minions at all, while not making those strategies obsolete, they just require more thought and care in how they’re played. In fact, I got to the highest rank in TESL -the Legend Rank by mostly playing an aggressive free-to-play deck that focused on summoning and buffing an army of minions distributed across both lanes, using hard removal to take care of priority targets that would simply end me if they lived.
I have to say that I’m in love with the strategic depth of TESL, which gives it a very high skill ceiling, while still keeping the complexity up front low enough for new players to come in and learn – “easy to learn, hard to master”. But that’s not all that makes up The Elder Scrolls: Legends, moving on!
A typical “mid” to “late game” board state in The Elder Scrolls: Legends
Aesthetics and Story:
As I’m sure you can tell by now, TESL takes place in, and draws inspiration from, the Elder Scrolls universe. You know, the one where The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, and all the ones before it took place. That said, everything in the game -including the cards, story, music, battlefield, etc. takes inspiration from the main series in their designs, and this is done beautifully. The melodies and rhythm of the music sounds epic and grandiose while the art fully encapsulates the look of the Elder Scrolls world. No cards feel out of place, oozing of Elder Scrolls flavor; the Breton spell casters use wards to deflect damage, the siege catapult needs a full lane of friendly minions to operate it, the dragons feel powerful to play and fight with, and some sneaky Khajiit pilfer the theoretical wallet of the opponent when they strike him/her -gaining benefits. Dire Wolf Digital did an excellent job of translating the aesthetics of their source material, to the game.
The flavorfully big “Siege Catapult”, and the unique legendary dragon, “Odahviing”.
With regards to the linear story mode, it isn’t so much of an actual “story mode”, as it takes the role of a tutorial, teaching you the basics and giving you cards and basic decks as you progress through it. While it does have some RPG elements, the choices that it offers you at the end of some story matches, represented by the cards gained when picking one or the other, do not appear to affect the story in any meaningful way in my experience. Not to mention that, while you may replay every story match out of the 20 if you want to, you can’t pick anything at the end of each one after replaying it. I won’t go into the details of the story, but in short, it’s short and sweet, but doubtfully canon to the universe as a whole. It does however, point to a possible continuation of your character’s story in future expansions.
Just about every online card game is labeled “free-to-play” these days, with only a few of them really living up to that status, in not subtly requiring money to make any progress competitively, or just in general. Thankfully, TESL does an excellent job of allowing the player to not spend money in order to make a decent deck. Having first playing the game on the 4th of August, I was able to make it to the Legend rank -the highest rank on the competitive ladder without spending any money whatsoever -a free-to-play run, if you will. This included the time it took me to play through the story mode and many arena challenges.
Be warned, it’s still a lot of work, free-to-play run or not.
There also exists “Soul Gems”, which is its own currency used for crafting specific cards. Soul gems are generally acquired, along with gold, through Arena prizes, but you can also break down the cards you already have yet don’t want. While the buy and sell cost don’t perfectly line up -legendaries break into enough for an epic, an epic into a rare, but a rare doesn’t break into a common? the soul gem prices are still reasonable when rounding out your collection with epics and legendaries, costing 400 and 1200 soul gems respectively. “Did I mention that you can farm the Practice AIs for up to 300 soul gems a day? While it can seem slow, with a 5-minute match getting you 15 gems against the Expert AI – which isn’t hard in my opinion, you may find that the AI can give you enjoyable gameplay against themed decks during your grind, if you choose to do it. Either way, you’ll find that if you put in the time and effort, The Elder Scrolls: Legends can be a good game to play without spending a penny.
Bethesda’s and Dire Wolf Digital’s Elder Scrolls: Legends so far proves itself to be a phenomenal digital CCG with a ton of strategic depth, while still staying open to new players without too high of a learning curve, teaching them through its story mode. It also stays true to its source material, oozing with flavor that also comes through in the story mode while also hinting at future expansions as part of one of Bethesda’s best and most story-rich franchises. It even happens to be friendly to people who want to spend absolutely no money on the game, but not without patience and effort.
There are a few technical flaws/bugs that I didn’t get to discuss in depth, but they aren’t anywhere close to being game breaking or unbearable. Keep in mind that this is a game in open beta, where Dire Wolf Digital is still ironing out some stuff. You’ll also want your ISP -Internet Service Provider to not mess around with your bandwidths and online capabilities, as this is an online game hosted on remote servers.
But overall, my opinion is that The Elder Scrolls: Legends is a fantastic game that has a ton of potential, while already being able to stand up to more popular games such as Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering with its deeply strategic gameplay and aesthetics -and no potentially game ending cards based on random effects. I’m not a fan of review scores, as standards can vary among people, but on a scale from 0 to 10, I will give it the following score since it still needs refinement: