[Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Luis Scott-Vargas, Vice President of ChannelFireball, worked as a developer on The Elder Scrolls: Legends.]
Lately, I’ve been playing quite a bit of Elder Scrolls: Legends (ESL for short), and I wanted to write an introductory article to it in terms that Magic players will understand, like I did with Hearthstone some years ago. First:
1) What is The Elder Scrolls: Legends?
ESL is an online card game that’s made by Direwolf, which is a company that employs a lot of great Magic players, and also Matt Nass. It’s collectible card game but not a trading card game, and it’s based around the world of The Elder Scrolls (the one from Skyrim), but you don’t need to have played the game to understand anything (I’ve never played it). It’s more similar to Hearthstone than to Magic, but it’s still similar enough to Magic that if you’re a Magic player, you’ll have an advantage.
2) Why should you play it?
1) The game is excellent. ESL has that rare combination of simplicity when it has to be simple and complexity when it has to be complex—there’s a lot to think about, but you don’t struggle beneath a mountain of rules and technicalities. It’s easy to understand how it plays out, but it’s hard to play perfectly, as you have a lot of micro decisions every game that will look like decisions to you only if you’re at a high level. In this regard, it reminds me of Bridge—low-level players won’t struggle to make a decision because they don’t even see it, but high-level players will identify those spots and find them challenging.
2) It’s convenient. Games can be quite short, which means you can play them while you’re waiting for something else to happen. It’s available on most platforms and will soon be available on iPhone.
3) The story aspect of the game is well done. I’ll talk more about this later, but the story modes and campaigns are the best I’ve seen in any card game, and they truly do resemble RPGs. If you aren’t into it you can skip them, but if you like this kind of thing, then the game delivers.
4) The tournament scene is just starting—the game just recently got out of beta, and this is the perfect moment to jump in. The game is nowhere close to solved and there are probably several great decks that haven’t been built, which is a refreshing environment to be on. On top of that, as Magic players we have a severe leg up on everybody else, which is great in a game that is so skill intensive.
3) Where can you find it?
You can download it here. The game is free to play and it is possible to have a decent collection even if you spend no money, but it might take some grinding to have many competitive Constructed decks. If you want to spend money, you can buy 7 packs for $10, but you get a better deal if you buy arena tickets (6 for $10), adventures or bundles (I recommend the Fall of the Dark Brotherhood story—it costs $20 and comes with 45 new cards that cannot be opened in packs).
Now, onto the more technical things so you can see how the game works:
In ESL, there are 5 “attributes”:
- Agility (Green)
- Strength (Red)
- Intelligence (Blue)
- Willpower (Yellow)
- Endurance (Purple)
In my mind, willpower is white and endurance is black, so I’ll use the Magic abbreviations (i.e., U/W is an Intelligence-Willpower deck, or a “Mage” deck).
Every deck, either Constructed or Limited, has two attributes. You can play as many cards of each attribute as you want, as well as any neutral cards, but be aware that in this game, the neutral cards are usually below the curve in power level. There are also gold cards for each combination.
The colors are mostly deck-building restrictions—inside the game, unless a card specifically cares about the color of other cards, they are identical. All mana is colorless and casts cards of any color. Every turn, you get one more max magicka (which is the same as 1 mana), and your magicka resets every turn (so you have 1 mana turn 1, 2 mana turn 2, up to 12 mana on turn 12). If my deck is R/G, I can play a red 1-drop on turn 1 and 2 green 1-drops on turn 2 if I want.
Decks in ESL have 50 or more cards and can play at most 3 copies of a card, unless that card is a unique legendary, in which case you can only play 1 (all unique cards are legendary, but not all legendary cards are unique. In ESL’s case, legendary is just a rarity akin to mythic).
You start with 3 cards in hand and you can mulligan any number of them and replace with the same amount of cards. You then draw a card at the start of every turn (including the first turn). The player going second gets a “Ring of Magicka” with 3 charges, and each charge is a Lotus Petal (but you can only use one per turn).
Key Differences From MTG
There are 3 main mechanics in Elder Scrolls that are different than in MTG:
In ESL, a creature can attack either a player or a creature directly—there is no blocking. Creatures attack individually, and at any point on your turn (there’s no combat phase). All damage is permanent (so if you attack a 2/2 with a 1/1, the 2/2 becomes a 2/1). Some creatures have guard, which forces them to be attacked. The combat system is identical to Hearthstone’s.
In ESL, there are two lanes—the field (regular) lane on the left, and the shadow lane on the right. When you play a creature, you place it in one of the lanes, and it can only interact with creatures in that lane—it cannot attack creatures in the other lane. Some creatures have abilities such as “creatures in this lane get +1/+0,” or “gets +1/+1 for each enemy creature in this lane.” The shadow lane gives every creature “cover” the turn you play them (cover means it’s “hidden” and cannot be attacked that turn, though it can be targeted).
The two lanes offer plenty of strategic choices, and are one of the things that make this game more complex than Hearthstone, in my opinion. You could have two people drawing the same 3 cards and making the same plays on turns 1, 2 and 3, but the game will be completely different based on whether they played the creatures in the same lane or in two different lanes.
One of the key things is that the field lane advantages whoever is ahead. When you start playing Elder Scrolls, it’s common to think of the shadow lane as the “aggressive” lane, since creatures in it can’t be attacked immediately (which guarantees they’ll live for a turn which means they can then attack after losing summoning sickness). Most of the time, however, if you’re the first person on board, you want to “establish dominance” over the field lane, not the shadow lane. The reason for this is that the field lane is much harder to contest, and your stronger creatures can protect your weaker creatures.
Imagine, for example, you have a 2/2 and a 3/3 in the shadow lane, and your opponent plays a 2/3 to try to contest them (which has cover, and therefore can’t be attacked this turn). In this spot, you’re going to get in for 5 damage, but then the 2/3 is going to kill the 2/2 the following turn. If your creatures are in the field lane and your opponent plays the same 2/3, you can now immediately attack the 2/3 with the 3/3 and kill it before it kills your 2/1.
For this reason, the first creature played in the game should usually be played in the field lane. Later on, as the game progresses and the offensive player establishes dominance over the field lane, you want to start playing creatures in the shadow lane, as you can then have at least one turn to attack with them before they are eaten by more powerful creatures.
Likewise, if you’re the defensive deck, you usually want to play a big attacker in the field lane (so that it can kill anything that is placed there before it has a chance to attack), and then guards in the shadow lane, as the creatures there are protected for at least a turn and you want to stop them from attacking you for that turn.
Players start at 30 life and, whenever they drop 5 life (to 25, 20, 15, 10 and 5), they break a rune. Breaking a rune means you simply draw the top card of your deck. If that card has the keyword prophecy, then you can play it for free, on the spot. This is the only situation you can do something on the opponent’s turn. If it does not have the keyword prophecy, it goes into your hand normally.
This is the game’s catch-up mechanic. Since lanes tend to favor aggro in general (if you place your guards on one lane, I can put my creatures in the other, for example), the runes exist to favor the deck that is defending. They are sources of card advantage and offer a tempo boost if you hit a prophecy. Knowing when to not attack so that you don’t risk breaking runes is one of the key strategic decisions in the game.
This is also the biggest source of variance in the game. Magic has the mana system, Hearthstone has cards like Ragnaros, and ESL has prophecies. Sometimes you win the game because the first rune they break is a prophecy, and sometimes you lose because you don’t hit a prophecy in any of your 5 runes.
As a general rule, stronger creatures should attack first, since it will force prophecies to be aimed at weaker creatures if they want to prevent damage that turn. For example, if you’re at 26 life and I have a 1/1 and a 4/4 against a blue deck, I should attack with the 4/4 first, because if you hit Lightning Bolt (which is a prophecy that deals 4 damage) you’re going to kill the 4/4, so I don’t want to break your rune before it has attacked this turn. There are a lot of exceptions to this, however, and playing around the multiple possible prophecies is one of the big skills in the game.
Prophecies make it more important than normal to know what cards are in each color. You’ll learn quickly enough by playing, since there aren’t that many (6 or so for each color), but if you want to look at all of them you can go to deck editor, select the crafting mode (which shows every card that exists), and then type “prophecy” on the search and that will show you every one of them.
Here are some things I struggled with when first playing ESL:
- Tokens are cards that can be interacted with. If I bounce a token back to your hand, you can replay it for its cost, and it doesn’t vanish.
- Drain (lifelink) only works if it’s my turn. If I attack you or your creatures with my drain creatures, I will gain life, but if you attack me then I won’t. Slay works similarly.
- Control decks have creatures. In Magic, control decks have a ton of spells, but in ESL the combat system makes it so that a creature can also act as a removal spell by directly attacking the opponent’s creature. As a result, even control decks will have a ton of creatures and you won’t see a “true” control deck like in Magic.
- The “layers” are different and the bonus is removed first. Say I have a 2/2 and you have a 2/2. I then play a creature that gives my creatures +0/+1, and I attack your 2/2—my 2/2, then becomes a 2/3 and subsequently a 2/1 after combat. If you then kill my creature that was pumping it, it won’t die. It’s now a 2/1 on its own merits, and the +0/+1 bonus was removed by the damage it already took.
- The shadow lane gives the property to the creature. If I play something in the shadow lane it will gain cover, but if I then move the creature that same turn, it’ll retain cover.
- The mulligan system is different. You can mulligan any number of cards once (as opposed to MTG where you keep or mulligan the whole hand). The general rule of “mulligan all your expensive cards and keep all your cheap ones” works for this game as well.
- Wounded instinctively means a creature that has taken damage, but if it has had its toughness reduced by something it’ll also count as wounded.
There are 4 main ways to play ESL:
To begin, Elder Scrolls: Legends has an RPG-esque campaign that is actually quite fun and I strongly recommend you start with it. You get to choose a class (which has some repercussion on what rewards you get, but nothing you should worry too much about), and then you follow the story along, facing incremental challenges that teach you how to play the game. It’s different than other tutorials, however, because you actually have meaningful choices. For example, there’s a point in the story in which you meet a young wolf, and then you have the choice between abandoning it, or bringing it along with you. If you decide to adopt it, you get a Wolf card to add to your deck, and if you abandon it, you get a spell to add to your deck instead. The spell card seemed a bit better to me, but I brought the Wolf along because I have a heart, but in the end it’s your choice and no one will judge you if you abandon the Wolf (I will judge you).
As you gain experience and level up, you also get to upgrade your base cards into one of two different options, and that’s also a choice that you make. Between choosing your class, the quest rewards, and the upgrades, you get to customize your deck quite early on, and then more decks become unlocked as you beat the campaign opponents. It truly feels like an RPG where you level up by beating enemies.
Some new card releases also come in the form of adventures, the latest of which is Fall of the Dark Brotherhood. They’re also RPG-esque, and you go around a map defeating enemies and trying to achieve a goal. During the campaign, you can switch decks tailored to each enemy you’re facing, and sometimes you play with a deck that they give you.
I thought the Dark Brotherhood campaign was extremely well designed, and again it felt truly like playing an RPG. The lane system gives the game a lot of flexibility, since they can just replace the shadow lane (or even the field lane) with some sort of gimmicky lane. For example, you can have a lane that says, “whenever you summon a creature here, gain 1 life,” or “creatures summoned here gain +1/+1,” or “creatures in this lane lose guard.” The possibilities are endless and make sure that each match in the adventure is completely different, while also challenging you to build decks with those specifications in mind.
Arena is a mix of Drafting and Sealed. You get your choice of 3 classes, and then you get your choice of 3 cards 30 times, which means you end up with a 30-card deck. Arena costs 150 gold to participate in and you can play solo arena or versus arena.
Solo arena means you play versus the AI. You have to beat 8 opponents and then you get to play versus a boss. There are often wacky lanes in solo arena. Versus arena means you play against other players with the two normal lanes (field and shadow), and you need to get to 7 wins. At any point if you get 3 losses your arena is done.
Arena is the best way to start up a collection, as it gives you much more for your buck than opening packs. A pack is 100 gold, and a 7-2 arena can give you 4 packs and 150 gold, for example. I recommend starting with solo arena to get the gist of it and then moving to versus arena, which has better prizes.
My recommendation for arena is usually to try to have a curve. You don’t need 1-drops (the Elixir of triple Lotus Petal makes sure you don’t fall behind even on the draw, and you can curve 2-3-4-4), but 2-drops are important. You also usually want at least some number of 6-7 drops unless you have a dream aggro deck. Removal is good, but not as good as it is in MTG, as there aren’t many utility creatures you must remove. Items are much better than Auras are in MTG, since you can play an item and immediately kill their creature, which makes sure you won’t be 2-for-1’d.
This is ranked Constructed play. For every 3 wins you get in Ladder (not necessarily consecutive), you get a prize—usually 15 gold + a random card. At the end of the season, the best ranked players get the season reward—1, 2 or 3 copies of a special card, depending on how well you placed.
One interesting characteristic of ESL Ladder is that you cannot fall off more than one ranking. If you are, say, Rank 6, and you lose five matches in a row, you’ll fall to the first level of the Serpent Ranking, which has 2 levels. If you then lose 10 more matches in a row, you’ll still be at the first level of the Serpent Ranking. If at any point you win two in a row, you leave Serpent Ranking and go back to Rank 6. This is great because it means you can test decks on ladder without much punishment.
Rumbles are bright new modes that resemble tournaments. You join a rumble with a Constructed deck, and you play to 9 wins or 3 losses, whichever comes first. You then get prizes based on how well you did. For this season, the first 3 rumbles you play will count towards your leaderboard standing, and there are additional prizes for finishing in the Top 128. I like this mode more than Ladder because there’s basically no grinding, and it rewards a win/loss ratio more than just straight number of wins.
Building a Collection
The game has a dusting system, where each card can be created by a certain number of crystals. Here are the amounts you get from soul trapping each rarity and the amounts needed to summon a card from each rarity:
- Common (White): +5/-50
- Rare (Blue) +20/-100
- Epic (Purple) +100/-400
- Legendary (Orange) +400/-1200
Packs have 6 cards in them, at least one of which is a rare. It’s possible to get packs with 1 rare and 5 commons, which means it can take some time to build a full collection, particularly because some legendaries are 3-ofs in many decks. This was a bit problematic in the beginning, but there have been several attempts by Bethesda to make it more accessible.
Things cost a lot in ESL, but the game is also very generous with its rewards. The campaign itself gives you a lot, and you upgrade things often when you level up. Every day you get a quest that can be completed in Draft or Constructed that rewards you from 40 to 70 gold (100 gold is a booster, 150 is a draft), and every 3 wins you get in Constructed gets you 15 gold plus a random card. On top of that, it’s now possible to link your twitch account to ESL, and then you can randomly get a bonus for watching ESL streams (you get either a random legendary card, a 1200 crystals, or 600 gold).
Playing arena is probably the easiest way to start a collection. Once you have enough copies of the core cards for a deck, you can then start playing Constructed.
One thing that’s different about ESL is that the colors do not have as defined of an identity as they do in Magic—there are certain abilities that are specific to certain color combinations, but you can build aggressive or defensive decks in any attribute. For example, the most aggressive deck in the game is U/R, and the most defensive arguably U/W, with a big overlap in blue cards between both decks, which end up playing completely differently depending on what you pair them with. This is one of the biggest advantages the game has versus a game like Hearthstone, which will probably never mix and match, say, Paladin and Warlock cards, so there’s less context to analyze a card in.
A lot of this diversity has to do with the combat system and how flexible it is. Creatures can attack other creatures directly, so they serve as removal spells as well, which means even control decks run a lot of them. At the same time, guard and shackle can be used to protect your life total, but also to stop your opponent from attacking your creatures. In the end, a lot of the cards have aggressive or controlling functions, just like you’ll see Lightning Bolt in Burn but also in Jeskai Control. As such, it’s hard to associate strategies to a color combination, but I’ll try to give you a rundown of the classes:
Sorcerer is usually midrange, often tempo-based, and it thrives on having a dominating board presence. It does not have many catch-up mechanics. I would compare a Sorcerer deck to something like Naya in Magic.
The Sorcerer theme is ward, which means that whenever the creature would take damage for the first time, you remove ward and prevent it. There are multiple creatures that receive bonuses when their wards are removed, and you can pair that with cards that give them ward again for an even better board.
Monk is traditionally an aggressive deck, but you can also play it as control because green has early plays and the white late game cards are very good. I’d say the aggro monk decks are also similar to Zoo, whereas the control decks remind me of the tap-out control decks in Magic.
The Monk theme is pilfer, which means that, whenever the creature deals damage to an opponent, it gets a bonus. Control decks won’t run a lot of Pilfer, since it’s fundamentally aggressive, but it’s a very snowbally mechanic for the aggro decks that run it, and there are cards that interact with pilfer creatures by getting them through or giving them multiple attacks in a turn (which will trigger the ability multiple times).
Battlemage is, in my mind, the combination of “damage”—most damaging things are in either red or blue. You can use this damage to control the board or to kill your opponent, which means there are U/R decks on both ends of the spectrum. Aggro Battlemage decks are the mono-red aggro of ESL. The most aggressive deck in the game right now is U/R and it was the deck I used to climb the ladder a couple of seasons ago.
The U/R theme is items, which are like Auras. It’s not really a keyword and not exclusive to U/R, but both colors have several of them and several creatures that get bonuses when you equip them. Ironically enough, the most popular item deck right now is U/B, but I’m sure this will change in the future.
B/W is a bit of an unfocused class right now. Its main theme is supposed to be tokens, but the support for tokens is almost all in white. Both classes have a lot of guards, so they can be good defensively, and you can pair black’s mana ramp with white’s late game to form a powerful control strategy. I’m not really sure what a Magic equivalent would be.
Assassin is usually an aggressive pairing. There is a lot of early game, so stalling into the late game isn’t a problem, but the payoff isn’t really there, as most of the super powerful late game cards aren’t in either of those colors. For this reason, most Assassin decks that go late have some sort of combo in them to close the game out. The U/G Combo decks remind me of Birthing Pod (there’s even a card similar to Birthing Pod).
Its theme is last gasp, which means “whenever this creature dies, do something.” This isn’t that great for control, since they aren’t incentivized to kill your creatures, but can be very good for aggro.
B/G is the ramp combination. Green has the early game, and black has most of the payoff and most of the ramping. I’m sure it’s possible to have an aggressive B/G deck, but I haven’t seen one that is good yet. R/G Ramp would be the Magic equivalent.
The B/G theme is mana. There are several cards that add more mana and that get bonuses when you reach a certain amount.
Crusader is usually an aggro deck, though it’s possible to play it more controlling since white has a lot of good control cards and red has some early game removal. Its main theme is rune breaking, which gives you bonuses when you break opposing runes, and that really lends itself to aggro decks more than anything because slower decks don’t want to be breaking their opponent’s runes early on anyway. Boros in Magic is a good equivalent.
Archer is usually a midrange deck, but it can really be found on all sides of the spectrum—I’ve played plenty of R/G aggro decks before and I found them to be quite good. I’d compare them to Jund or Junk.
Officially the R/G theme is “pinging,” which means it has a lot of 1-damage effects and then cards that get bonuses if your opponent’s cards are wounded. This lends itself more to “midrange control,” and not “full late-game control,” since you can generally deal with small creatures easily but you have trouble with the big ones, and the late game isn’t always there in this color combination. Unofficially, R/G are also the charge (haste) colors, which is an ability that is usually thought of as offensive, but that can also be good defensively since creatures are also removal.
U/W is yet another combination with decks at all points on the spectrum, though the most common right now is control. Blue has good early game defense and white has the best late game, so it’s a powerful combination. They’re also comparable to Magic’s tapout control decks.
The U/W theme is action matters, which means you gain bonuses when you cast spells. It hasn’t been explored very well though, and most U/W decks don’t have a lot of spells-matter cards.
B/R is usually an aggro or midrange combination, since it has trouble removing big creatures.
The main B/R theme is Orcs, which is the most supported tribe in the game. There are several Orc lords, which means they thrive on having a good board presence. I’d say this is the Merfolk of ESL.
So, What Should I play?
It really depends on what you want and what your budget is. Most of the time, the control decks are more expensive and rely more on their super powerful cards. If you’re playing to the late game, then you have to make sure you win the late game. A control deck with 5 legendaries will almost always beat a control deck with 1 legendary, because the game will invariably come down to the last legendary left. An aggro deck with 0 legendaries, however, can easily beat a control deck with 5 legendaries.
If you are super new to the game and you’re planning on playing ladder or tournaments, I do not recommend you play a control deck unless you want to spend a considerable amount of money. I would start with budget versions of the aggro decks, since the cards in those decks are more replaceable—playing a medium 1-drop is not much different than playing a great 1-drop in a lot of games, but the good 10-drops are truly much better than the medium 10-drops.
There’s a very good website for Legends deck lists called Between the Lanes—they have regular Meta Snapshots with examples for all the popular decks. If you click on the decks, it takes you to a deckbuilding website that tells you how much each deck costs to craft (and you can hover any card to know what it does), but that number isn’t always accurate because a lot of the expensive cards you actually get for free through the campaign.
If you want to know everything you should read that link, but here’s my recommendation depending on what you like to play:
If you like super aggro: Play U/R Prophecies.
U/R is the deck I played when I was starting and my record was ludicrously good—I just smashed everyone. You can beat control decks by being fast, and you can beat other aggro decks because you have a ton of prophecies. It’s definitely the deck I recommend if your budget is very limited. A lot of people play 6- and 7-drops in decks like this, but I like to keep it simple.
Here’s the deck I’m currently playing (click the deck name to see what all the cards do):
It says you need 10,650 gems to build this deck, but the bulk of that is in the 3 legendaries (Relentless Raiders). They are very good, but you can play the deck with other 1- and 2-drops instead—that’s what I did when I first climbed.
If you like midrange creatures (i.e., Naya): Play U/B Items.
U/B Items is another relatively cheap deck that can win against almost anything. It doesn’t have a lot of catch-up mechanics, so establishing a good board presence is your way to win, but the synergy between the items and the items-matter cards make for some explosive turns that other U/B decks don’t have access to.
This deck costs 13,400 to build, but it has 7 legendaries in it, which means that the rest of the deck is actually quite cheap. I’d say that, to start, you don’t really need Supreme Atromancers (though you get one when you level up to a certain point), but you really want Daggerfall Mages.
If you like midrange with disruption (i.e., Jund): Play R/G Midrange.
This is a midrange deck with a decent touch of aggression. Against aggro decks, it aims to stall the board and then play 5-, 6- and 7-drops to kill your opponent quickly. Against control decks with 10-drops, though, it aims to close the game before that. In Magic, this deck is bad, but in ESL it works, and it’s considered a tier 1 deck.
If you like ramp: Play B/G Ramp.
B/G Ramp is the quintessential ramp deck. It is, however, quite expensive, because it needs all the expensive cards that are in it. I don’t recommend this on a budget.
If you like control: Play U/W Prophecy Control.
This is a control deck that compensates for its glacial pace with a lot of prophecies. If you don’t hit your prophecies it can be quite hard to beat aggro, but if you do then they usually can’t stop you from taking over. Like ramp, I do not recommend this if you have a limited collection, as a lot of the expensive cards really are irreplaceable.
Glossary in MTG Terms
- Action: Spell (instant or sorcery).
- Activate: Tap (an artifact).
- Breakthrough: Trample.
- Charge: Haste.
- Cover: Can’t be attacked for one turn (but can be targeted).
- Drain: Lifelink (but only on your turn).
- Guard: Has to be attacked if it’s in the same lane as the attacker.
- Item: Aura.
- Last Gasp: X—when it dies, do X.
- Lethal: Deathtouch.
- Move: Put in the other lane.
- Ongoing: Enchantment.
- Prophecy: Can be played for free if you draw it from breaking a rune.
- Regenerate: At the start of your turn, remove all damage from this creature.
- Shackle: The creature misses its next attack (so if it has already attacked this turn when you shackle it off a prophecy, then that means it can’t attack next turn).
- Summon: X—when it enters the battlefield, do X.
- Support: Enchantment or artifact.
- Ward: The next time the creature would take damage, prevent it and remove the ward.
- Wounded: A creature that has less toughness than it started with.
Well, that’s it! I hope this provides enough of a “starting guide” for all MTG players who want to dabble in a similar but still very different game.
See you soon,