Every CCG out there, be it for mobile or PC, is hunting the tail, if not the head, of that big dragon called Hearthstone (Free), and let me tell you, from what I’ve seen this last year or so, that dragon isn’t easy to slay or even harm. Hearthstone has managed to give us a game that’s easy to get into but hard to master, and when you add that balance to the great production values Blizzard is famous for, you can see why other developers have a pretty tough job ahead of them. Of course, when a company as big as Bethesda develops a CCG based on its very popular Elder Scrolls franchise, you can’t but give that game a chance to at least battle for top CCG dog on the App Store.
I’ve been playing Elder Scrolls: Legends on the PC for a few days now (a mobile build is not ready yet but both mobile and PC should play the same), and so far I’m liking what I’m seeing. I feel that ESL scratches a different itch than Hearthstone, and it definitely doesn’t feel like a clone. Whether that’s a good thing for its future, though, remains to be seen.
If you’ve played any CCG, ESL won’t look unfamiliar to you; you have a card collection that you slowly expand by buying packs, and when you battle an opponent, your goal is still to use creatures, spells, and so on to reduce your opponent’s health to zero and win the game. You start with one Magicka (mana), and each turn you get another. It’s F2P, of course, though it’s hard to judge how the economy will work until the game is actually out. The main feature that will help ESL stand out from other CCGs is its clever two-lane system; Most CCGs either have no lanes – like Hearthstone – or have multiple lanes – like Solforge.
ESL has only two lanes, and while the left one has no special rules, the right one, called Shadow Lane, gives any creature placed there immunity to creature attacks for one turn (you can still kill it with spells, though). This special lane rule will have you making different strategic decisions than in a game like Hearthstone because instead of just trying to control the board, you’ll be trying to figure out which side of the board is worth controlling at each moment of the game and whether you should play a card in the right lane or the left lane. You can play 4 cards in each lane, so there are many decisions to make.
The other intintriguing mechanic in ESL is Prophecy; when you take a certain amount of damage, a rune activates and you draw a card. If that card happens to be what’s called a Prophecy card, then you can play it for free immediately. The purpose of this mechanic is to help the player who’s low on health respond to the onslaught. As you can imagine, there’s RNG involved, so we’ll see how players will respond to losing just because they managed to inflict so much damage that their opponent got to use a great Prophecy card.
Deckbuilding in ESL is different from Hearthstone in a few ways. First of all, you can run a 50 card deck or a 70 card deck. And you can pick cards with one or two of the five attributes (Agility, Endurance, Intelligence, Strength, and Willpower). Think of them sort of like colors in Magic. Unlike Hearthstone, where your deck can have neutral cards and cards from a single class, ESL lets you mess around with the various attributes, which should make deckbuilding more challenging and, at the same time, more rewarding.
ESL offers quite a bit of single-player content, which is accompanied by lovely cinematic cut-scenes (though not all are available at the moment). This story-drive campaign is pretty entertaining and offers a good way to get a handle of how the game plays. I know many complain about the lack of single-player content in many games, so this should please quite a few of you. And if you’re a fan of the Elder Scrolls lore, you’ll enjoy the many references to characters and places you’ve already encountered in the past. Speaking of single-player content, while ESL‘s Arena plays a lot like Hearthstone‘s, you can actually play against an AI. The Arena even has a number of opponents and a boss, and if you take three losses, you are done. In PvP Arena, you get to face seven opponents.
So, how good is ESL? In my opinion, very good. While the game lacks Hearthstone‘s lively art (the color scheme makes everything feel like you’re playing cards on a sandy floor in the dark) and its accessibility, the two-lane mechanic along with the ability to make two-attribute decks means the game plays quite differently from Blizzard’s baby, so it scratches a different itch. Add to that the single-player content and the AI Arena mode, and you can see how it offers features that Hearthstone lacks (I don’t count the Adventures because you have to buy those). Because Magic has failed so spectacularly as a mobile game so far (and Hex hasn’t yet make the jump to mobile), I wonder whether people searching for something a bit more demanding than Hearthstone will gravitate towards ESL.
The fact that it’s demanding, though, can also work against it since those who are already playing Hearthstone might not want to invest in another CCG all over again. At the same time, the Elder Scrolls name will help put the game on players’ radars, so we’ll see how that will play out. The game is still in development (you can join the PC Beta here), so I don’t expect it to come out on mobile soon, but it’s definitely promising and one to keep an eye out if you enjoy meaty CCGs