Riot Games may have built its reputation on League of Legends, but over the last few years has released the likes of Teamfight Tactics and the ever-popular Valorant. Somewhere in between, however, the company released Legends of Runeterra – and it may just be the best digital card game you can play right now.
While it's based on the League of Legends universe, Legends of Runeterra carves its own path with smart mechanics, a generous monetisation model, and plenty of ways to play.
The Hand We're Dealt
At first glance, there's little to separate Legends of Runeterra from similar titles such as Hearthstone. Players each occupy a side of the board, and play their cards to deal damage to the opposition's forces, while also whittling their rival's health down from twenty to zero to win the game.
It's actually much more nuanced than that, though. In each turn, when one player plays a card, their opponent can do the same, while only one player can attack per turn - denoted by an Attack Token.
This leads to rapid counters and a more conversational mode of play – while it's always important to watch what your opponent is doing, being able to react to stagger their momentum, or baiting an enemy into a trap, makes players feel like they take a more active role, moment-to-moment.
Once a player declares an attack and nominates their units that'll step up, the opponent can set blockers, but without any 'summoning sickness' a la Magic The Gathering, rounds offer more instant gratification. It's still possible to play the long game, but it also means that it's one less thing to worry about in each round.
When it comes to cards, Legends of Runeterra offers the usual units and spells you'll find in similar games, but also offers Landmarks that linger on the field until destroyed and Champions.
Champions are often the most powerful cards in a user's deck, and in true MOBA fashion they'll actually level up through prerequisites tailored to each card (and often tied to their role in League of Legends). Take Yasuo, for example - he's able to level up when he's stunned or forced five enemies to retreat and sees his ability to deal damage to stunned and recalled enemies increased.
It's a really neat mechanic that can turn a game on its head when used correctly, such as Jinx's ability to deal a huge amount of damage when your hand is empty.
Alongside these Champion strategies are keywords, which vary from offensive to defensive, to support boons for cards carrying them. For example, an Elusive unit can attack the enemy Nexus directly, and can only be blocked by another Elusive unit, while a unit with Quick Attack will deal damage before the enemy blocker - often leading to the removal of an enemy's unit before it even has a chance to block.
Word On The Street
The game's keywords have grown since launch, but each is introduced by a handy tutorial allowing players to learn the basics.
In fact, tutorials are one of Legends of Runeterra's biggest strengths. The game essentially contextualises everything through a handy glossary available by highlighting keywords, and examining a card will not only allow more detail (and some gorgeous artwork) but all cards associated with it.
It's a really smart system that means whether you're playing against the computer or skirmishing online in ranked or against a friend, you're never reaching for a Wiki guide to explain what something does.
Speaking of ways to play, aside from working your way up the ranks and battling friends, there's a Labs mode that offers unique modifiers, some with pre-made decks. While some are based on League of Legends modes like ARAM, others have focused on increased card draws, or only have one of each card within a deck. These rotate in line with patches and help offer something entirely different and can inform new strategies for the base game, too.
Free To Play – No, Really
If you're wondering just how pervasive microtransactions are in Legends of Runeterra, I've got good news. While the in-game customisation items are usually locked behind coin purchases (the game's real-world equivalent), you can earn every card in the game just by playing.
In fact, there are no card packs at all – players earn Wildcards which can be exchanged for cards of a corresponding rarity, and these are doled out on a regular basis. Any duplicates are dismantled into shards, too, which can also be used to buy cards without spending money. Players follow a series of reward tracks inspired by the regions of Runeterra and are able to unlock some cosmetic items, like card backs, too, while a weekly vault drops cards on Thursdays, too.
It's a flexible system and one that rewards players for their investment without ever feeling like you're missing out by not logging in.
Legends of Runeterra is a digital card game that's somehow both accessible and complex in equal measure. It makes smart use of the League of Legends universe while still being approachable for newcomers, and is the rare example of free-to-play done right.
If you've been looking for a card game to sink your teeth into, Legends of Runeterra is an easy recommendation.
Reviewed on iPad with time spent on iPhone and PC