Legends of Runeterra is a strategy card game developed by Riot – the same studio that produced immensely popular multiplayer titles such as League of Legends, Valorant, and Teamfight Tactics.
Many reviewers praised LoR for its innovative gameplay design, generous card acquisition system, and free-to-play-friendly in-game economy, as well as rich worldbuilding. Since its release in 2020, Legends of Runeterra keeps growing and evolving, supported by a passionate community and a caring developer team.
It is a game that any strategy fan would surely come to enjoy once they give it a real chance – this sentiment stands today as true as ever.
What Legends of Runeterra is about?
LoR is the digital collectible card game set in the universe of League of Legends.
As you’re surely aware, League of Legends is a title that 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 card games on the market. It has a gameplay depth that is comparable to the mainstay of the genre that is Magic: The Gathering, 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 worth your time investment and fits your gamer habits. 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.
Champions are the core feature of Legends of Runeterra – both in terms of gameplay and flavor. Champion cards are special units, that often serve as the centerpieces in your 40-card decks. 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 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 the 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.
It’s crucial that every champion card’s design 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 – he spawns a shadow version of himself when going into combat, which attacks together with him, but dies immediately after striking your opponent.
Champion designs are truly one of the most inspired and original parts of Legends of Runeterra as a card game. They feel like actual characters, allowing for players to bond and associate with on a more personal level.
- Spell Mana
The game’s mana system doesn’t feature ‘land cards’ or ‘energy cards’ that games like Magic and Pokemon use. Similar to Hearthstone, in LoR 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. You can use that banked mana only to cast spell cards – no units or other types of cards.
This unique game mechanic allows the player that had no cheap units to play on his early turns to catch up on the board with impactful spells.
For example, let’s say your opponent played two creatures on their first two turns – one that costs 1 mana, and another that costs 2 mana. You weren’t as lucky to draw cheap creatures and 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 some big 6-mana spell, swinging the board back in your favor!
Mana management system in LoR is surprisingly intricate, allowing for all types of decks to shine. Fast aggressive decks, slow late-game decks, as well as combo-decks that rely on some alternative win conditions – all are viable archetypes, and no game is decided based solely on your luck with the starting hand.
- 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.
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 and predictable.
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.
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. When both players have passed, the current round ends.
With this system, 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 late-game ‘control’ decks. So, passing even with full mana can be a correct play!
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.
However, whenever you play a unit, your opponent then also gets to play a unit. So, on the round when you have the ‘attack token’ and supposed to go into combat, 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.
And finally, on top of all that, Legends of Runeterra features a back and forth spell interaction resemblant of Magic. Whenever you cast a spell, opponent can respond with the spell of their own – and vice versa.
There are four types of spells. ‘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 can be cast in response to any other spell or ability.
And then there’s also ‘Burst’ and ‘Focus’ spells. Burst spells resolve immediately upon being cast, they can’t be responded to, and do not pass over the priority to your opponent (i.e. you can keep playing other cards after casting this spell). ‘Focus’ spells are similar to ‘Burst’ in that they also resolve immediately, can’t be responded to, and do not pass priority – but they cannot be used in combat or in response to your opponents spells.
This intensely dynamic mixture of passing mind-games, attack token mechanic, back-and-forth 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.
Simply put, Legends of Runeterra is just the most generous card game out there when it comes to collecting. No comparison to MTG Arena and Hearthstone – and I can say 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, over a year since the game release, I’m hoarding so much in-game currency that it will last me for years, probably. I never buy cardsand I support the game with cosmetic purchases instead – card back, fancy game boards, alternative arts, etc.
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 maximum.
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, allowing for you to collect cards 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 from and adapted it for LoR.
Runeterra is indeed quite groundbreaking in the way it treats card acquisition. There are no card packs for you to buy – you can purchase (or craft, using in-game currency) all the cards you want directly. You never pay for ‘a chance’ to open that one particular card you’ve been missing from your deck. You always know what you’re getting with your money should you decide to spend on LoR.
Runeterra also offers a rewarding progression system that naturally speeds up your free-to-play card acquisition. There are multiple progression tracks called ‘Region Roads’ that reward players with a variety of resources.
The advance along a progression track, you need experience points. You acquire XP just by playing the game and completing daily quests. The system is essentially a ‘Battle Pass’ that is completely free.
The rewards offered by progression tracks include various Chests and Capsules. These provide you with individual copies of cards, wildcards, and shards. ‘Wildcards’ are a type of resource – 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.
Cards, Formats & Competitive Scene
- Regions and Card Rarities
All cards in LoR come in four rarities – common, rare, epic, and champion. Each 40-card deck can contain only 6 total copies of champions, meaning there’s a natural cap to the decks’ costs.
To organize its vast card pool, LoR uses a system of ‘regions’. They represent the world of Runeterra with its diverse people, countries and continents, each having a unique flavor represented both in cards’ mechanics and lore.
For example, Demacia is a region in Runeterra with traditional societal structures that values hierarchy and chivalry. However, it can also be highly discriminate against particular 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.
LoR decks can contain only 2 regions at once. However, despite that the deckbuilding doesn’t feel rigid – there are a total of 10 regions 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.
- Release Cadence and Balancing
New card expansions in LoR are being released every two months, while every six months a new set is announced that unites usually around three expansions under some core theme.
As such, in March, LoR has seen the release of the Empires of the Ascended that introduced the Shurima region – it contained a total of 110 new collectible cards, including 9 champions. In May, it was followed by the Guardians of the Ancient expansion, which introduced 3 more champions and 42 new cards total. Very soon, at the end of June, another expansion – ‘Rise of the Underworlds’ was released, followed closely by another small release in July – ‘Sentinels of Light’. At the very end of August we’ve received another big card drop of 126 cards and 9 champions – and with it the new region Bandle City was 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 always listening to the concerns from the community and stirve to recognize and act on potential problems. Because of that, constructed metas usually contain 15-20 different competitive decks at almost any point in time.
- Formats and Competitive Scene
Standard Constructed 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 best-of-three Standard play (3 different decks, 1 ban).
Each season lasts approximately 2 months and is tied to the latest expansion release. For example, the current season is called ‘Beyond the Bandlewood Season’, and it will end in two weeks once the new set is released.
At the end of every season, top 700 players from Ranked, and 324 best 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 in LoR’s competitive scene. The first Legends of Runeterra World Championship was announced, and it will take place in September of 2021.
Additionally, there are two casually-oriented formats currently within the game. The first one is called ‘Expeditions’, where you get to build your deck on the go from a pool of cards presented to you. To play this mode you don’t need to have any cards, and it is a great training ground for beginners.
Another casual-oriented environment is called ‘Labs’ – it is a collection of rotating free-to-enter formats that either offer some unique deckbuilding limitations and wacky rules or allow you to participate in various co-op and ‘social’ modes. Among them ‘Lab of Legends’ is particularly popular – it is essentially Runeterra’s own take on a roguelike, heavily inspired by titles like ‘Slay the Spire’.
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 last year – Legends of Runeterra has everything to become the biggest digital card game.
If you’re interested to learn more about the game, check out the rest of the resources available on our website! Here you can find beginner guides, 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!