Why Legends of Runeterra is still the best digital card game

Truly free to play.

Card games have always been a pricey hobby. Whether it’s a physical trading card game or a digital one with in-game purchases, it’s easy to sink a lot of money into them.

When Legends of Runeterra was first announced, I was apprehensive. As a League of Legends fan, the idea of playing a new type of game with the MOBA’s characters was appealing, but I’ve never been able to get into digital card games properly. They’re usually a huge commitment, requiring constant purchases for new content in order to build competitive decks.

So when I first gave Legends of Runeterra a go, I was surprised to see how generous the game actually is. Almost a year after the game’s full launch – and with its Empires of the Ascended expansion launching today – this statement still holds true.

In Legends of Runeterra, you’re practically showered with rewards. Every card is available for free, and every future expansion will be too. You can complete daily quests to gain XP, then use that XP to level up a weekly vault which will explode with new cards to add to your collection. There are different reward paths to take too, providing even more free cards for each specific region in the game. Go down the Bilgewater path to unlock cards associated with that particular region of Runeterra (like sea monsters and pirates). If you prefer a different playstyle, you can switch to another region, from the snowy wastes of Freljord to the creepy, haunted Shadow Isles. Over time though, you can unlock every card in the game without spending a single penny. You’ll never be restricted to playing just one type of region or deck archetype.

This is such a great model because it puts the player first, ensuring that no one will ever have to fear missing out on particular content. Legends of Runeterra makes its money through a cosmetic shop, where players can purchase new boards or cute creatures to cheer them on as they play. It’s entirely unobtrusive – you can ignore it completely and the gameplay won’t be affected at all. This approach means players will be more invested in the game overtime. Knowing that you can build towards any deck you want just by playing makes gameplay more enjoyable because you’re always gaining new unlocks and there’s always something to work towards.

New expansions will never require you to open your wallet, making the game more accessible and deck-building less restrictive. There’s not a single card you can’t unlock for free, and there are so many in the game already. That applies to the 110 cards being added in update 2.3 as part of Empires of the Ascended. Knowing I can collect everything LoR has to offer for free is an incredible feeling, and one that’s truly rare in this genre.

It’s easy to take LoR’s approach for granted. Some of its biggest competitors lock content behind paywalls, forcing players to spend money to obtain all the new cards. Hearthstone allows players to build certain decks for free, but others require you to fork out for card packs. Dedicated players can end up spending a huge sum before you get everything you want. MTG Arena is another major competitor and another game which isn’t nearly as generous. While both these games are definitely playable for free, you won’t really be able to get the complete experience in the same way you can with Legends of Runeterra. Keeping up with the meta can have a serious effect on your wallet, with cards becoming obsolete and new ones requiring more purchases.

This has been the standard for a while, and Legends of Runeterra is continuing to buck this TCG trend. Riot Games have proven that a cosmetic-focused payment model is financially viable for this genre, and I hope more developers take note of how many players are satisfied with the state of the game. However, it’s worth noting that Riot, owned by global megacorp Tencent, have plenty of money in their coffers already. Being in such a advantageous financial position, they could afford to risk monetising their digital card game without relying on the sales of booster packs and expansions.

But despite this, a lot of care has gone into all aspects of it, from the card design to the presentation to the game balance. It’s an amazing game, and one I believe is the best the genre has to offer. It remains to be seen whether a less established company can match LoR’s value, but if it inspires more developers to take a similar approach, it can only be a good thing for the genre as a whole.

Runeterra’s next big expansion, Empires of the Ascended, is available today, and players will soon be able to travel to the desert land of Shurima and try an all-new set of cards. Knowing I’ll be able to try all of them on day one is an amazing feeling. It’s one that simply can’t be felt in other titles, and I really hope future digital card games are able to replicate LoR’s generosity and value. It sets a new precedent for the genre, a healthier and less restricting model which all developers should take note of. Whether or not the competition realises it yet, Legends of Runeterra has given us a taste of what the future of card games can look like, and I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I’m not keen to go back to how things were.