On paper, League of Legends is a DotA clone. On paper, Heroes of the Storm is Defense of the Ancients clone with a couple cues from League of Legends. But play the games side-by-side, and they feel as far removed as Texas hold ‘em poker is from seven-card stud is from five-card draw. Mechanically, they all share similar traits, and at first glance, the strategies seem like they’d translate at a 1:1 ratio. But as skill caps rise, even the most miniscule details of these games morph into strategies and gameplay loops that look wildly different.
The Elder Scrolls: Legends, on paper, is a Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft clone. Each player starts with one mana (or magicka in Legends parlance), which increases by one each turn—allowing them to play more powerful cards as the game goes on. Each player starts with 30 health, and by playing a combination of items, actions, and minions, they can either remove each other’s creatures or hit each other in the face repeatedly until the opponent loses all their health.
The Elder Scrolls: Legends, on paper, is a Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft clone.
Beyond that, even the creatures and spell effects seem to share the same mechanics. Instead of Hearthstone’s Divine Shield mechanic, Legends has the Ward mechanic. Instead of deathrattle, Legends has Last Gasp. Instead of Taunt, there’s Guard. Some mechanics, like Charge and Silence, don’t change at all.
The nice thing about these initial similarities is that, like Hearthstone, Legends is simple for beginners to pick up and play. Judging by Hearthstone’s success, Blizzard Entertainment was obviously doing something right with the game’s design, and Legends uses the same template to try and tap into a collectible card game (CCG) model that’s simple enough to attract new players while providing enough new layers to entice some Hearthstone players into jumping ship. Unlike Blizzard, Legends developer Dire Wolf Digital does not have a knack for the kinds of simple design details that make Hearthstone stick to your subconscious. The game boards are simplistic and mostly static, the animations are stiff, and the art direction’s biggest influence appears to be early 2000’s Dungeons and Dragons cover art.
Still, Legends makes changes in a few places where it really matters. Unlike Hearthstone, Legends doesn’t have “hero powers,” meaning that players don’t have an easy or efficient way to deal damage or draw cards or heal up the way they do in Hearthstone. The lack of hero power is used well here, though, in that Legends seems to be much less about breakpoints and more about macro decision-making and advantage maximization. An example: in Hearthstone, a major breakpoint exists between four and five health minions. Whereas the former will die to a whole host of mana-efficient spells or a simple spell-plus-hero power combo (e.g. Frostbolt + hero power, Wrath + hero power, Stormcrack, Flamestrike, etc.), a five-health minion will survive to kill other minions—especially if the opposing class doesn’t have an efficient way to deal one damage. It isn’t that Legends doesn’t have breakpoints, but the game uses its comeback mechanics to help players slowly reestablish board control instead relying on high-damage area-of-effect spells to wipe out opposing minions at certain breakpoints.
The implications of this detail grow even more significant when you consider Legends’ lane system, which gives players two adjacent playing fields. Minions can only be placed in one lane, meaning that the very idea of “board control”—that is, the ability to get minions into play and keep them there—requires double the effort. Without the help of hero powers to efficiently build an advantage or climb back into the game, the lane system makes Legends prone to extreme bouts of snowballing. If you fall behind in Hearthstone, it’s easier to wipe the board with a single spell if it’s in your hand, but in Legends, you have two boards to wipe, and you’re gonna need some divine luck if you want to survive.
With this in mind, Legends provides some dramatic comeback mechanics to mitigate the lane system’s tendency to spiral out of control. The first and most obvious of these mechanics is the rune system, which gives players an automatic card draw for every five damage taken. If the enemy deals 10 damage to your hero in one turn, you draw two cards, and if they deal 15 (heaven forbid), you draw three. This system awards card advantage to the player on the back foot, which is great for evening things out in the lategame.
Legends makes changes in a few places where it really matters.
Still, some aggro moves are so efficient (it’s not all that hard to concoct a 9-attack minion by turn two) that it can be hard to stabilize after an initial bashing, even once you do reclaim card advantage from rune activations. For that, there’s the prophecy effect. If you draw a “prophecy” card from a rune activation, you get to play the card for free—right then and there. Even though the mechanic adds an extra element of RNG to the Legends mix, it also makes it a strategic challenge to close out games, and forces players to try and circumvent rune activations to the best of their ability. It’s much preferable, for example, to burst an opponent from 11 health—negating two whole rune activations—than to have a bunch of little minions chipping them down to zero health.
The Elder Scrolls Legends is still in beta, but in its current form, the game strikes a nice balance between Hearthstone’s accessibility and Magic: the Gathering’s more open-ended strategic gameplay. And while it’s tough to read too far into the specific metagame differences between Legends and Hearthstone until the former exits beta, it’s already clear that there are enough differences between the two games that it’s worth trying both on for size.