Legends of Runeterra: An Introduction for Magic Players

So, you’ve probably heard about Riot’s card game built around League of Legends IP. It was announced about a year ago, went into open access last spring, and was quite warmly received by many card game veterans. Back then, the reviewers praised LoR for its innovative gameplay design, generous economy, and rich worldbuilding.

Several months have passed – how did it fare since you ask? Has anything changed? Only towards the better, I’d say! Legends of Runeterra keeps growing and evolving, supported both by a passionate community and a caring developer team. It is a game that any card-slinging fan would surely come to love once they give it a real chance – this sentiment stands today as true as ever.

If you’ve heard good things about Legends of Runeterra, but are still on the fence whether you should try it – this article is for you.

  • What Legends of Runeterra is about?

LoR is the digital card game set in the universe of League of Legends.

League of Legends, developed by Riot Games studio, belongs to the MOBA genre. It is one of the most popular multiplayer video games worldwide and the biggest Esports title. First released in 2009, it evolved and created a complex and multi-faceted IP with hundreds of recognizable characters that fill up the fantasy world of Runeterra.

Over the last decade, Riot has been quietly working on the card game that would take inspiration from their rich IP. Legends of Runeterra was finally released in spring 2020, both on PC and mobile, with the ambition to become one of the best digital CCG’s on the market. It has a gameplay depth that is comparable to Magic but also has a customer-friendly free-to-play model.

This article is your introduction to LoR. We will explain its most distinctive gameplay features; we will also talk about the economy of the game – so that you could decide for yourself if the game is actually as generous as the rumors go. In addition to that, we’ll cover some other facets of the game – the variety of formats it currently offers, the evolution of the competitive scene, the direction of the development, and more.

Gameplay Features

  • Champions

The core asset of Legends of Runeterra that the game is built upon – both in terms of gameplay and flavor – are its Champions.

Champion card is a special unit (in Magic terms, a ‘creature’), that often serves as the centerpiece in your deck. Each deck can only include 6 copies of champion cards in total.

Champions have mana-cost, attack, and health value, just as any other unit would. But where it becomes interesting it is in their ability to ‘level up’. Each champion has a special ‘level up quest’ attached to it, upon the completion of which it evolves into a more powerful version of itself.

For example, Kalista, after three of your other units have died while you have her on the board, gets an ability to revive your allies whenever she attacks! These kinds of level-up effects are often game-changing and make champions into natural build-arounds for their decks.

Every champion levels up to become a more powerful version of itself

It’s crucial that every champion card is a top-down design that is directly inspired by the flavor and the abilities of their respective characters in League of Legends. For example, Zed is known as a ‘master of shadows’ who is able to magically create the shadow clone of himself on the battlefield. This is directly reflected in Zed’s card design as well.

Champion designs are truly one of the most inspired and original parts of Legends of Runeterra as a card game. Just like Planeswalkers in Magic, they are there not only to represent a particular ‘gameplay dream’, but also exist for players to bond and associate with on a more personal level.

  • Spell Mana

The game’s mana system doesn’t feature ‘land cards’, ‘energy cards’, or any other type of resource that has variance built into it. Similar to Hearthstone, both players start their turn 1 with 1 mana, which refills and grows up to 2 mana on the next turn, then up to 3 on the turn after – and so on. This way both players have access to the same amount of mana at every stage of the game.

However, LoR has introduced one important innovation that makes mana management much more intricate and skill-based than it is in Hearthstone. Every turn, up to 3 unspent mana will be banked into your ‘spell mana’ reserve, which will persist between turns until it is expended. As the name implies, off of that banked mana you can only cast spell cards – no units or other types of cards.

Unspent mana becomes Spell Mana

What this mechanic does is it allows the player that has missed a curve-out play on his early turn to catch-up on the board with impactful spells.

For example, let’s say your opponent did hit a perfect creature curve on their first two turns – Cithria of Cloudfield into Battlesmith – while you didn’t play a single card in that time. Looks bad if you were playing Hearthstone! However, in LoR you would still have an access to a total of 6 mana on turn 3 in this case – three regular mana plus 3 spell mana. With it you now could play an Avalanche + a two-drop of your own, swinging the board completely. Or, cast a Remembrance, and get ahead of them by slamming a bigger unit.

Mana management system in LoR is surprisingly intricate, allowing for all the types of decks to shine. Aggro, midrange, and control – as well as combo – are all viable archetypes, and rarely if ever a game is decided based on the first few turns.

  • Priority System & Back-and-Forth Action

Legends of Runeterra is heavily inspired by Magic’s trademark interactive gameplay, where any player can act on any other player’s turn. But what’s more, LoR takes this concept even a step further.

There is no ‘my turn’ and ‘their turn’ in Runeterra. Instead, the game is organized into ’rounds’ where both players get to act, playing out their units and spells whenever they have a priority.

However, on any given round only one player normally has what is called the ‘attack token’. If the player has the ‘attack token’, it means they can declare attacks during the current round, threatening the opposing player’s life total. The defending player then gets to choose how to block attacking creatures (just like they would in Magic, except there’s no multiple-blocking).

In a sense, there’s a natural rotation of ‘attacking’ and ‘defending’ rounds for each player. However, some game mechanics can break it by giving players ‘attack tokens’ out of order, making the game flow not as linear.

Opponent has the ‘attack token’

There’s also an important ‘passing’ mind game that is built into the LoR’s core ruleset – card game veterans must be familiar with the concept from the titles like Gwent and Artifact.

In order for the round to end, both players have to pass their priority. Whenever a player gets an opportunity to act on any given round, they can instead choose to pass and let an opponent make their move.

Sometimes it is advantageous to act proactively and play out your cards. But oftentimes you want to see what the other side does before committing to any play yourself – this is especially true for control decks.

Be wary that by taking a pass you always risk that the opponent immediately passes back and ends the round on the spot. For example, if you’ve passed before declaring attacks on your attacking round, ending the round prematurely could be a disaster if you are an aggressive deck. If you are a control deck – this scenario could be very much desirable for you.

Another unique mind game that is unique to LoR is about what we call an ‘open-attacking vs developing’ dilemma.

When your attacking round starts, you have the first move and can choose to attack right away with the units you have on the board at that time. It is called to ‘open-attack’. Alternatively, you could also choose to ‘develop’ – i.e. play out additional units to build up a better board before attacking with everything at once (there’s no summoning sickness in LoR, so units can attack the round they came into play).

However, whenever you play a unit, you pass the priority. It means your opponent also gets to play a unit – on the round you’re supposed to attack you are letting them strengthen their defense. Knowing when to ‘open-attack’ or ‘develop’ requires the mastery of the game and understanding of its constant back-and-forth flow.

Should I open-attack or is it better to be greedy and develop?

And finally, on top of all that, Legends of Runeterra features an instant-speed interaction resemblant of Magic’s own ‘stack’ system. Whenever a spell or an ability is being cast, before resolving it is placed on the stack, passing the priority and allowing for an opponent to respond.

There are three types of spell ‘speeds’. ‘Slow’ spells are much like Sorceries – they can be responded to, but can’t be cast in response to other spells or in the middle of a combat. ‘Fast’ spells are essentially Instants – they can be cast in response to any other spell or ability and whenever you have the priority.

But there’s also a unique ‘Burst’ spell speed that is very much frequent among Runeterra spells. Burst spells resolve immediately upon being cast, they can’t be responded to, and do not pass over the priority to your opponent.

Spells and effects on the stack resolve left to right

This intensely dynamic mixture of priority, attack token mechanic, stack system, and different spell speeds make games of LoR highly interactive and full of small but meaningful decisions – no matter an archetype you play or face against. Rarely it happens that the outcome of a game is decided and you had no agency over it.

Economy

Let me start this section by simply confirming the rumor – yes, what you’ve heard is true, Legends of Runeterra is indeed the most generous card game out there. No comparison to MTG Arena and Hearthstone – and I’ve played them both extensively to know.

Here’s a quick recap of my own personal experience with LoR. In just under a month into my Runeterra journey, I have already owned 70% of all cards and additionally have amassed enough resources to build any deck I wanted. Today, 9 months after the game release, I’m hoarding so much in-game currency that it will last me for the whole next year – even if I would stop grinding completely. In all that time I didn’t spend anything on cards – I supported the game with occasional cosmetic purchases instead.

In short, the ‘card chase’ in this game is minimal. You will never have to pay for cards if you have time to play for about an hour every other day. And if you’re wondering how much it would cost to buy into the game without any initial grind for resources whatsoever – well, any top-tier deck is worth just about 25 USD investment.

So, how Riot does make money if the LoR economy is so generous? Well, their monetization approach is quite different from the mainstays of the genre, the likes of Hearthstone and MTG Arena. These titles make a significant amount of their revenue by selling randomized packs of cards. Riot have instead put their focus on providing high-quality cosmetics and vanity items, offering the game pieces and components essentially for free.

This approach has worked for them incredibly well over the past decade, sustaining League of Legends’ brand that developed into one of the biggest and most profitable free-to-play games in the world. Their artists and designers are great at making cosmetics that sell – and Riot took this model and adapted it for the CCG economy.

Runeterra is indeed quite groundbreaking in the way it treats card acquisition. There are no card packs for you to buy – you purchase all the cards you want directly, like singles in paper Magic. You never pay for ‘a chance’ to open that one particular mythic you’ve been missing from your deck. You always know what you’re getting with your money in LoR.

Runeterra’s main F2P progression system – ‘Region Roads’

Runeterra also offers a rewarding progression system that naturally speeds up your F2P card acquisition. There are multiple progression tracks called ‘Region Roads’ that reward the player with a variety of resources. Unlike a mastery pass in MTG Arena, these roads are completely free and focused more on the card acquisition aspect rather than providing cosmetics.

To advance along a progression track, you need experience points. You acquire XP just by playing the game and completing daily quests. The rewards offered by progression tracks include various Chests and Capsules. These provide you with individual copies of cards, wildcards and shards.

Wildcards work exactly the way they are implemented in MTG Arena – you can redeem any individual card by converting it from a wildcard of corresponding rarity. Shards are similar to dust in Hearthstone – you can use them to craft cards directly.

In addition to Region Roads, all the experience you gain during the current week accumulates as your ‘Weekly Vault’ progress. Weekly Vault unlocks every Thursday and offers even more cards, shards and wildcards.

The important milestones to hit when upgrading your Vault are: level 2 (draft ticket), level 5 (random Champion card), and level 10 (Champion wildcard instead of random Champion). A couple of games per day usually get you to level 10 with no effort. The Vault Level upgrades infinitely, meaning that nothing limits your F2P grind.

Cards, Formats & Competitive Scene

  • Regions and Rarities

All cards in LoR come in four rarities – common, rare, epic, and champion. Each deck can contain only 6 total copies of champions, meaning there’s a natural cap preventing the decks’ costs from spiraling out of control.

While Magic has colors that organize its vast card pool, LoR has ‘regions’. They represent the world of Runeterra with its diverse peoples, countries and continents, each having a unique flavor represented both in cards’ mechanics and lore.

For example, Demacia is a region with traditional societal structures that values hierarchy and chivalry but also can be highly discriminate against specific minorities, like mages. In line with this image, Demacia cards are mostly valiant warriors and knights, high-born generals and low-born soldiers – but also outlawed mages and corrupted mageseekers. Mechanically, the region relies on its well-statted units that do well in combat. There is just a splash of spells present, and they are all mostly intended to help out either during the combat phase or with buffing Demacia units up.

While Magic isn’t limited in the number of colors its decks can include, LoR decks can contain only 2 regions at once. However, the deckbuilding doesn’t feel rigid – there are a total of 8 regions currently in the game, each with its own unique strengths and weaknesses. The mix-and-match process of brewing in Runeterra feels highly creative thanks to the diversity of its many regions.

Moreover, Legends of Runeterra keeps adding more regions into its card pool – the developers intend to have a total of 10 regions by the end of the next year.

New expansions freshen up the card pool every two months
  • Release Cadence and Balancing

New card sets in Runeterra are currently structured around this idea of introducing new regions. Card expansions are being released every two months, while every six months a new set is announced that introduces a new region.

As such, in August, LoR had the release of the Call of the Mountain set featuring the Targon region – it contained a total of 7 champions and 82 other cards. In October, it was followed by the Monuments of Power expansion, which introduced 3 more champions and 37 non-champion cards. Just recently Cosmic Creation expansion rounded up Call of the Mountain set with yet another 3 new champions + 37 non-champions. In February we’ll get the new set into the game – and with it the new region that is yet to be announced.

Thanks to this stacked card release schedule, there’s very little ‘downtime’ in Runeterra. Once the meta has settled, it is soon disrupted either by new cards or balance changes to the existing ones.

Speaking of balancing – LoR developers are not afraid of an aggressive approach there and don’t take long to recognize and act on problems. They are very fast to respond if any card seems off in power-level, and are open to buffing some other cards that see no play whatsoever.

Runeterra Live Design Balance department, led by a former MTG pro Steve Rubin, knows their job very well. The most recent constructed meta boasted upwards of 20 different decks, half of which could be considered Tier 1 archetypes.

  • Formats and Competitive Scene

Standard is the core format of LoR – decks in this mode contain exactly 40 cards, with up to 2 regions and up to 6 champions. It is the primary format used for the ranked ladder, where games are played as best-of-one. Of course, there’s always an option to play ‘Normals’ instead – i.e. Standard queue that doesn’t affect your rank.

The secondary competitive mode is called ‘Gauntlet’ and features either best-of-three Standard play (3 different decks, 1 ban) or Singleton play (1 singleton deck which can consist of up to 3 regions).

Each season lasts approximately 2 months and tied-in to the latest expansion release. The current season is called ‘Cosmic Creation Season’ and will end in February, once the new set is released.

Every season culminates in a Seasonal Tournament held fully in-client

At the end of every season, top 700 players from Ranked, and 374 best-performed players from Gauntlets are qualified for the Seasonal Tournament. This is an official high-stakes competitive event, held fully within the in-game client, and broadcasted by Riot media and esports channels. No bye-ins are required, the tournament is completely free and awards cash prizes.

From what we know from the developer communication (which is always clear and timely), Riot plans to keep evolving and investing into LoR’s competitive scene. Bigger tournaments and bigger prizes are planned for 2021.

Additionally, there are two casually-oriented formats currently within the game. The first one is called ‘Expeditions’ – it’s a spin on a guided phantom draft experience. It is both a great training ground for beginners and a valuable tool to boost your card collections. The second casual mode is called ‘Labs’ – a free-to-enter format that either offers some unique deckbuilding limitations and wacky rules; or serves as a demo for the most recent released champions and cards.

There is no division of ‘eternal/rotating’ formats in LoR as of yet, since the game is less than a year old. However, the developers have hinted that they do plan to implement rotation at some point in the future.

Conclusion

There’s a lot more to talk about when it comes to Legends of Runeterra and what makes it great. The game client is fast and slick – both on PC and mobile, the dev team is very responsive and attentive to player feedback, the visuals of the game are absolutely gorgeous, sound design and voice acting are best in the genre hands down.

But in the end, only you should be the judge of whether this game deserves your attention. My own verdict hasn’t changed since the game went into open beta in the beginning of the year – Legends of Runeterra has everything to be as big as Magic years into the future, at least in the digital space.

Now is a great time to get into LoR as it just saw the release of its newest expansion:

If you’re interested to learn more about the game, check out MTG Arena Zone’s sister website dedicated solely to Legends of Runeterra – RuneterraCCG.com. There you can find all the beginner advice you might need, as well as deck guides, in-depth articles aimed at different levels of players, and much more.

Also, feel welcome to join the growing RuneterraCCG Discord, where our writers and kind members of the community are ready to answer questions and offer help to newer players.

Hoping to see you soon among the vast landscapes of Runeterra!

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