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Legends of Runeterra #2: A dive into its gameplay

In-depth gameplay analysis Legends of Runeterra, the CCG by Riot Games. It explores its mechanics, the mechanics of its closest competitors, how the game has solved their problems, and which are its key innovations.

Welcome to our second article on Riot Games’ Legends of Runeterra collectible card game. This time we will be focused on analyzing its gameplay — as well as its competitors’.

In case you haven’t checked out our other posts about LoR, here are the links:

  • In the first article, we reviewed the CCG market status (as of June 2021), focusing on Runeterra’s position and growth perspectives. Read it here.
  • This article will explore its gameplay mechanics, how the game has solved the problems of its closest competitors, and we will also discuss its key innovations.

    Note that we won’t be dealing with the different game modes in this article. That will go in the next one, as we consider it more related to its content management. Here we will talk exclusively about what happens inside the match.
  • And the last one will look at its content management strategy and how it might affect its long-term engagement. It will also include our POV on if their approach can work or not.

Before going into the deal, I would like to give special thanks to my editor Victor Freso. He helps me structure the content so that it’s not a bunch of mad ramblings. And of course, remember that we are not affiliated with Riot Games in any way. These are just our thoughts as fans.

Breaking down LoR gameplay

In our previous article, we explained how Legends of Runeterra suffers the handicap of entering the digital CCG market at a moment where it’s pretty crowded. It’s competing with games that got a significant early advantage in market penetration.
When it comes to gameplay, on the other hand, it benefits from being a latecomer.

As a short description, we could say that LoR is a fast and aggressive mix of Hearthstone and MTG
It cherrypicks most of its core design from Hearthstone and adds elements from Magic: The Gathering to go beyond the design limitations in Blizzard’s game.

Of course, we are not blind to the fact that LoR also adds new mechanics and ideas which aren’t present in neither of them. And some are incredibly game-changing (like the fragmented rounds). We will talk about those unique characteristics in detail later in this article.

But before that, we think it’s essential to look at Hearthstone since many design decisions in LoR were heavily influenced by it.

Hearthstone: A milestone for digital CCGs

We feel it has often been underestimated how revolutionary and important was Hearthstone to the CCG genre. Specifically on adapting and streamlining the core gameplay mechanics from the tabletop to a digital platform.

Before Hearthstone, most digital card games fell under any of these categories. They either weren’t explicitly designed for a competitive card game experience or struggled with tabletop mechanics, which don’t avoid the limitations or explore the unique opportunities of videogames.

Hearthstone was the first game to reach massive appeal that aimed for a competitive CCG experience while being 100% designed as an approachable videogame.

To improve overall accessibility, it decreased complexity and accelerated the gameplay, allowing a space-efficient visual presentation and also using new game mechanics available only on a computer-driven experience.

This is better seen in the following design decisions:

1. Having a strict mana curve

Although fun and spicy, resource generation represent a lot of complexity and friction on many CCGs: Either because it requires significant math probability juggling when deckbuilding and playing (Magic, Pokemon TCG…) or because it involves custom sacrifice systems (Yu-Gi-Oh, Legend of the Five Rings…), which are as complicated.
And, perhaps more importantly, it makes it very hard to predict the game’s tempo, since designers can’t have certainty when a card becomes playable.

In MTG, resource generation randomness means a vast disparity of possible scenarios, making balancing much more difficult. And this example is not even taking into account the complexity of having multi-colored mana.

To simplify this, Hearthstone took a Solomonic decision: 
Each turn, players automatically get one more mana than the previous turn. End of the story. They also removed multiple types of resources (contrary to MTG or Pokemon, where there are several color types), which simplified the whole process.

Additionally, in contrast with MTG, they have very few cards that accelerate the mana curve and no “resource generation” minion.

In Hearthstone, resource acquisition is strict and predictable (+1 mana per turn, only one type of mana). This makes balancing way easier to control. In contrast, in MTG the mana is highly affected by randomness, and bad luck can generate frustrating situations where the player can’t play at all.

Was simplifying mana generation a good decision?
My personal opinion is that complex mana dynamics in MTG is part of what makes it attractive for a wider audience: By being lucky, a bad player with a bad deck can be challenging to an expert with a better deck. And it makes that experts need to strategize around that uncertainty.

The most exciting moment at MTG is when you draw the mana that you desperately needed. And the most frustrating one is when you desperately need a land, and it doesn’t want to appear. 
So it is both the best and the worst of the game. And therefore removing it takes away frustration but at the cost of losing something extraordinary.

Additionally, the complexity of mana in MTG generates deep mechanics based on the resource curves accelerations possible (for example, in mid-range decks).

That said, I think that random land drawing it’s a mechanic that feels much more frustrating in digital CCGs:
First, because they focus on single matches rather than in the best of three, the main competitive model on tabletop MTG
And second, because on the tabletop is the player itself shuffling: bad luck can’t be externalized as someone else’s fault. While if it’s the RNG shuffling, bad luck is the game’s fault.

For that reason, even MTGA is experimenting with altering the probability system in some modes to favor the appearance of mana in the opening hand, which avoids the worst case in randomness (a player not being able to play at all).

Because it’s more frustrating on digital, it makes balancing much harder, and it’s a significant entry barrier for new players; I believe that it was a good call to simplify the mana system in Hearthstone.
If anything, the only problem I could see is that perhaps it was too strict since it removes any gameplay depth around mana generation.

Colorless mana and Hero Classes
In MTG, mana colors also serve as a balancing control mechanism. They establish groups of cards that can’t be used together on the same deck, at least not with a significant effort (multicolored lands, etc.).

So Hearthstone introduced Hero Classes to achieve that same objective: Most cards are exclusive to specific character classes, making balancing much easier. (LoR has more or less followed a similar approach by limiting the amount of Champions and Regions in decks).

2. Removal of turn phases where the opponent interacts

One of the main ways this is achieved is by not having any kind of instant or answer spells that interrupt the opponent’s turn or counter an action. As well as by having no units with player-activated minion abilities.

This means that the game doesn’t have to wait to see if the opponent will answer constantly. And it dramatically decreases the viability of control decks, which slow down the game and aren’t very friendly for newbies.

Blizzard also removed the opponent’s ability to assign defenses on an incoming attack: In Hearthstone, the attacker determines the unit encounters during an attack. The defender may only passively limit the choices through units with Taunt.

In MTG, there are several actions that the opponent can perform at any moment. In the videogame, it means constant timers to check if the enemy will act. Any of these actions can trigger a chain of answer & reply spells between players.

Ultimately, all this makes Hearthstone faster since all those opponent answers meant many delays in the progression of the match, timeout timers, etc. And it removes turn phases, which also makes the overall game easier to learn.

3. Tokenization of units (less unit orthogonality & survivability)

Hearthstone also decreased the cognitive and visual load of having multiple orthogonal units on the battlefield. This is achieved in 3 main ways:

First, by creating units with less gameplay depth:
Compared to MTG, Hearthstone features fewer cards with specific rules. Instead, it focuses on standardized abilities shared by multiple characters (i.e., windfury, lifesteal…), transformed into recognizable icons and FX.

This allows removing a lot of card info when they are on the board, as it becomes redundant, again decreasing the visual and cognitive load that a minion represents.

A factor contributing to this is that sets in Hearthstone don’t tend to be built around a new keyword mechanic (which is the case in MTG). This means that the complexity of minions doesn’t grow as much when more sets are released.

Ultimately, most minions with unique behaviors trigger them either on summon or on death or have triggered effects that generally less complex than MTG’s. Additionally, Hearthstone doesn’t feature player-activated creature skills.

Creatures in MTG often feature complex and unique behaviors which generate many chances of emergent gameplay. Most Minions in Hearthstone have effects on summon or on death, or simpler rules which usually take a smaller amount of text.

The second way how minions become more dynamic is by decreasing their survivability:
Minions don’t regenerate their health at the end of the turn (a computer has no problem keeping track of the individual health of every unit).

This means that even the tankiest creatures won’t remain for long in the field, as critters can slowly eat up their health. Therefore, it means fewer chances of having many different minions on the table simultaneously, making turns faster.

And last, by adding a hard limit on the number of creatures that a player can have on the battlefield (7 minions max). Although, because of the lack of regeneration, the creature limit is not often reached.

4. Less amount of game elements

On top of simplifying the minions, this game aims to be easier to learn by decreasing the number of different types of cards, game zones, and playstyles.

First, there’s the topic of the number of game zones:
In Magic: The Gathering, there are many of them (battlefield, graveyard, exile, player hand…), each with its own specific rules. Also, many cards interact with the opponent’s zones, which means even more areas to keep track of.

While this offers many gameplay possibilities, it also makes it overwhelming for a new player and requires more UX effort to make it manageable.

Meanwhile, in Hearthstone, there’s no graveyard or exile. The only card zones are the hand, the battlefield, and the deck. And the amount of cards that interact with the deck or the opponent’s hand is minimal.

The same happens with the types of cards:
MTG features many different card types, including creatures, sorceries, instants, enchantments, equipment, lands, planeswalkers, and many more, each with its specific rules. 
The amount is way higher if we consider the types specific to some sets like Sagas, Companions, Vehicles, Food… the list goes up to +26.

In contrast, Hearthstone only has 5: Minions, spells, secrets, weapons, and heroes, with the first two agglutinating most of the cards and mechanics. 
Ultimately, this means fewer specific rules to keep in mind, making Hearthstone easier to learn and present on a screen.

Wireframe comparison: Notice how Hearthstone has fewer elements to represent on-screen (game zones, types of cards…). This makes it easier to learn by players and is easier to present on a single screen.

The problems of Hearthstone’s design

It’s beyond doubt that the changes introduced by Hearthstone helped its adoption by massive audiences. But as hinted above, they also introduced several design dead-ends that have not been fixed despite some workaround mechanics.

In our opinion, the most important of those issues can be summarized in:

ISSUE #1: Simplification means less gameplay depth

Since the big move of Hearthstone was to have a lighter core ruleset, it also means less repertory of rules to create innovative gameplay. This translates into two main problems:

Limited range of available strategies

Because of many gameplay elements that interact between them, MTG has decks built around bizarre strategies, such as casting from the graveyards or playing in the opponent’s turn (control & flash decks). It also features a considerable amount of combo decks.

This creates a lot of variety, creates many different ways to play the game, and provides an incentive for expert players whose challenge is not simply winning but using a crazy specialized technique.

Because I’m a petty person, this was my favorite combo in MTGA (last rotation). I swarmed the table with critters while taking damage, and then I attacked with the boosted Chandra Spitfire. As the final timer went down while the other player realized that the match was over, I swear I almost could hear the sound of a table flipping on the other side.

Contrary to that, in Hearthstone, there are only a few strategies available, all of them entirely dependant on tempo (aggro, midrange, and control), and there is little room for decks that deliver unorthodox strategies.

While this makes the game easier to balance and playtest, it also means that it’s more repetitive and predictable. Hearthstone allows many deck tunning, but it’s impossible to find truly innovative strategies, and therefore the game is a bit less appealing for experts.

Less variety in new content

Another of the problems is that new content is not very game-changing or innovative. 
It relies on new cards that rebalance the meta that is already there (i.e., more power for less cost, add a card that cancels a current meta-strategy…) rather than introducing truly innovative mechanics.

And when new mechanics are introduced, they generally focus on very contained dynamics, which can’t generate synergies with many points of the game but rather a particular set of combos.

This is a good tactical decision: It makes new sets easier to playtest and less costly to develop. Therefore it allows a smaller design team to manage Hearthstone.

For example, the latest Hearthstone set introduced Frenzy, which has a limited impact on the overall game. Although it’s on the Warrior meta, it primarily affects specific classes and cards, so it has little chance of getting out of control because it’s a quite situational.
In contrast, in Throne of Eldraine, MTG introduced adventures, which impacted all deck strategies and colors, and had more potential for emergent gameplay (grants card advantage).

Don’t Computer-driven and randomness mechanics fix this?

To avoid being too plain, Hearthstone added new game elements that enrich the gameplay.
To achieve it, it embraced mechanics that required a computer-managed game experience, taking full advantage that the game has no tabletop equivalent.

For example, the computer can handle complex random calculations, keep track of past events, or act as a referee validating secret actions that an opponent can’t see.

Some examples of cards exploiting computer-only features which would be hard to bring to a tabletop experience. Among them, the most common is the use of randomness.

Out of all of these computer-exclusive mechanics, randomness has become the trademark of Hearthstone’s gameplay. 
One of the main reasons is that randomness is streamer friendly: The moments that cause the most impact in HS are when randomness generates something amazing or frustrating.

Summoning Yogg-Saron is always a streamable moment, as a massive amount of random spells with random targets are cast in sequence.

But, while in some cards, it fosters interesting dynamics built around diminishing their unpredictability, randomness doesn’t create alternative strategies that move the player to play in a radically different way to achieve victory.

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