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Hands on: ‘The Elder Scrolls: Legends’

‘The Elder Scrolls: Legends’ Splits The Difference Between ‘Hearthstone’ and ‘Magic'

‘The Elder Scrolls: Legends’ splits the difference between ‘Hearthstone’ and ‘Magic: The Gathering’, combining the former’s accesibility with a bit more of its forebear’s complexity.

Like Dungeons & Dragons before it, Magic: The Gathering looms large over modern gaming. The original collectible card game established the rules we still use whenever players duel using custom decks filled with fantastical creatures and spells.

Magic has spawned countless derivatives, but none have made quite the impact as Hearthstone, Blizzard’s take on the form inspired by World of Warcraft, which translated the famously complicated card game into a widely accessible digital experience. Trading on Hearthstone’s success, publisher Bethesda Softworks has created it’s own take on the collectible trading card game, The Elder Scrolls: Legends, inspired by the incredibly popular high fantasy universe of games like Skyrim and Oblivion.

Wagering that a lot of players want a game that sits somewhere between the two, Legends, which is currently in public beta, has infused Hearthstone‘s slick presentation with a bit more of Magic’s strategic crunchiness to offer something different than the games that inspired it.

Something old, something new

Any Hearthstone player will be able to very easily jump right into a game of Legends and know generally what to do. At the start of a game, both players draw one card at the start of their turn, and begin with one mana, gaining one more to spend on each subsequent turn. Minions have numbers for attack and defense, and after their first turn can attack either the opposing hero or their minions once per round. Most of Hearthstone’s keyword effects, such as “battlecry,” a special effect triggered when a minion is played, and “taunt,” which enemies to kill that minion before attacking any other target, are present in Legends under different names (“summon” and “guard,” respectively).

The most immediately apparent way that Legends differentiates itself is by splitting the battlefield into two lanes. Minions must be played into one lane or the other, and are only able to interact with other minions in their respective lane. In addition to the basic new tactical dimension of managing defense and offense through two channels, both lanes can feature environmental effects that complicate decision making. The standard configuration features, a normal lane and a Shadow lane, where minions cannot be targeted for one round after they are played (like Hearthstone’s “stealth” effect). Other, more powerful effects can occur in certain play modes as well, such as a wind that pushes some minions around between lanes, or giving every minion a random weapon when played.

Each player starts with thirty health in a standard match, but their portrait is ringed with five glowing runes. As you pass each five damage threshold between thirty and zero, the runes break, allowing you to draw a card. Having more cards is extremely powerful in games like this, so this counter-balances hard-hitting play styles by compensating the victim with card advantage.

That baseline advantage is amplified immensely, however, with “prophecy” effect, a modifier similar to “summon” or “guard.” When a burst rune causes a player to draw a card with “prophecy,” they may play it immediately and at no cost. Some of these cards are extremely potent, giving games a tendency to swing dramatically, especially when players build their decks around Prophecy cards to ensure that they trigger more.

Something borrowed, something blue

Legends also takes a few cues from its IRL forefather, Magic: The Gathering. Like Magic, Legends adds item cards that can be equipped to minions, buffing their stats and adding new abilities. It also reintroduces enchantment-type spells that apply ongoing effects to the field after they have been played.

Legends splits the difference, adding a bit more of Magic’s grit and complexity to Hearthstone’s elegant mechanical core.

Where Hearthstone has classes, limiting each deck to cards from one class plus neutral, Legends takes a page from Magic by giving cards colors. Rather than elements, the colors correspond to attributes (Strength, Intelligence, Willpower, Agility, and Endurance). Each can contain cards of up to two colors, in addition to neutral cards. Every pair of attributes corresponds to a class (i.e. Strength + Intelligence = Battlemage, Endurance + Agility  = Scout, etc). This opens up a more complex deckbuilding space than Hearthstone’s, further helped by increasing the deck limitations from a fixed thirty cards with no more than two copies of each up to fifty to seventy cards with no more than three each.

Epic solo adventures

Legends shares the same basic play modes as Hearthstone, with ranked online multiplayer, arena runs with drafted decks, but places a much greater emphasis on single-player gameplay. The game’s tutorial extends into a full campaign, replete with voice-acted and illustrated cutscenes, and a growing cast of characters having adventures throughout the Elder Scrolls world.

Like Hearthstone’s more sporadic single player expansions, the campaign plays around with Legends’ core rules to make matches with unique conditions that flavorfully match the narrative circumstances. For instance, during a bar fight each player’s turn started with a one damage broken bottle being thrown at a random opponent, or the aforementioned weapons lane was applied when our heroes were fighting gladiators in a colosseum. The way Legends awards cards fun ways tied to the story: When evil cultists held a member of my party hostage, we had to choose between saving his life, gaining his unique minion card, or sacrificing him to grab the powerful artifact for which we had come.

Tying together gameplay and story is Legends’ biggest contribution to the form. Depending on the rate at which Bethesda produces new content, it could be one of its biggest selling points for players that might not be as interested in competition.

That said, the story is classic Elder Scrolls, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on the player. Though the game often translates its story into gameplay cleverly, the narrative does not stand out in and of itself. The band of unlikely heroes coming together, creatures such as elves, undead, sinister cultists — it all falls well within the series’ somewhat rote high fantasy wheelhouse.

Put on your grown-up tunic

Despite their fundamental similarities, Legends feels bigger and meatier than Hearthstone in every way. Every element feels a little more complicated, a little more expansive, and a lot more serious. Hearthstone puts a light-hearted spin on Warcraft’s already colorful world. The Elder Scrolls, on the other hand, is a much more classically poe-faced fantasy franchise, and Legends reflects that more self-serious tone. Whether that’s a selling point or not is a matter of taste.

In a vacuum Legends’ changes all feel smart and interesting, making it an evolution rather than a derivative.

Although Magic is hugely popular, it’s always had a reputation for being something of a “gamer’s game,” drawing a conventionally nerdy crowd along with all of its baggage. Just like with World of Warcraft, Hearthstone refined what made that niche genre compelling to make it much more broadly appealing and accessible. Legends fills a space between those two, adapting features from both while adding a few new twists of its own.

In a vacuum Legends’ changes all feel smart and interesting, making it an evolution rather than a derivative. TCGs live and die by their communities, however, and while the abundance of single player content certainly helps hedge against the need for a huge player base, there is no replacement for a robust pool of invested players. In that way, it will be up to the fans to decide whether or not The Elder Scrolls: Legends becomes that next phase in the evolution of digital card games.


  • Smart evoltion of Hearthstone’s basic gameplay
  • Rich Elder Scrolls lore from which to draw
  • Adds more complexity akin to MTG


  • Serious high fantasy won’t appeal to everyone

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Will Fulton
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Will Fulton is a New York-based writer and theater-maker. In 2011 he co-founded mythic theater company AntiMatter Collective…
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