Hi guys. I’ve recently started playing ESL again after a long hiatus, and wanted to share my thoughts on the design direction, current state, and evolution of the game. For some context, I started playing ESL in Beta, made legend in Beta, played until The Dark Brotherhood, where I took a break then briefly returned for Heroes of Skyrim. I didn’t play ESL again until last November. I’m mostly going to talk about the game conceptionally/from a design standpoint, rather than talking about the meta or why XYZ is OP or not. A lot of this stuff has probably been talked to death by the community already, but hopefully I can stimulate some good discussion regardless. It's also important to keep in mind I'm talking about these issues from the perspective of a casual player, rather than from a high level/legend/competitive perspective.
I'll also be using the terms "aggro" and "control" liberally here. By aggro I mean just any player who is trying to kill their opponent as quickly as possible, the "proactive" player. By control I mean the player who is trying to stop their opponent, the "reactive" player. This could apply to many match-ups, aggro vs control, aggro vs midrange, midrange vs control, even control vs combo where the player with a traditionally controlling deck is trying to play aggressively as possible before their opponent can pull off the combo.
The addition of Tri-Colour decks in Houses of Morrowind is probably the largest change the game has undergone since release. From my personal experience, I don’t think this change was for the better. Having missed the release of HoM, looking though old posts it’s hard for me to tell if the community was generally positive or negative about the addition of tri-colour, I’ve seen posts supporting both sides. On the plus side, having missed the release, this might make my thoughts less bias than they otherwise would be.
Lack of Clear Strengths and Weaknesses
The first (and major) problem I have with tri-colours is it upheaves the natural “harmony” of the attributes. What I mean by this is that each attribute has reasonably well-defined strengths and weakness, and being able to pick only 2 attributes means your deck would always have weaknesses you have to adapt to. Probably the best example to illustrate this point is the Battlemage-Dagoth comparison. Strength and Intelligence have arguably some of the strongest control tools in the game – namely the only two attributes with board clears, as well as decent single target removal. Battlemage has potential to be a strong control deck, except for one glaring issue – Battlemage has no access to healing, which is essential for control decks. However, now with Dagoth being Battlemage + Agility, suddenly Battlemage which was always wanting healing has access to it. In this specific case, Dagoth even emphasis healing with Drain on Hand of Dagoth. Tri-colour decks are better able to cover their weakness, and as a result, they can feel very similar to one another (and potentially make the deck too strong from a balance perspective). Battlemage-Dagoth is just a single example, but it can similar comparisons can been seen in other Houses. To me, this issue has made Tri-Colours feel indistinct from one another compared to two attributes and consequently feels less fun to play and play against.
Higher Proportion of Multi-Colour Cards and Higher Power Level
The second issue I have with tri-colour decks is the generally increased proportion of multi-colour decks, which generally increases the overall power level of the deck. This point is borderline a balance point, but I will try and look at it from a design perspective. In a standard deck of 50 cards, let’s assume that there with be 7 duo-coloured cards – 1 legendary and 6 epic/rare. This means 7/50 = 14% of the deck is duo-colour. Now with Tri-Colour decks there is a greater overlap between colours. For Tri-Colour, let’s be conservative and estimate that there is on average 5 duo-coloured cards for each overlap (1-2, 2-3, 1-3). 15/75 = 20%. Already this number is higher. On top of that we have tri-coloured cards, so let’s add another 5 cards. 20/75 = 27%. So as a rough (and relatively conservative estimate) Tri-Colour decks have double the amount of multi-colour cards as two attribute decks. Given that multi-colour cards are generally on a higher power level, this presents the problem of Tri-Colour decks having a higher average power level, or at least access to a bigger pool of strong cards. I know people will argue that this effect is counteracted by the larger deck size and having a less optimized/focused deck, but this leads me to the next problem…
Tri-Colour decks have much greater variance
This point is relatively self-explanatory. If you get lucky with your early draws (e.g. draw all your Hand of Dagoth, or even just draw all the best minions from all three attributes), you can easily snowball and shut out the game early. This makes for frustrating games where player decision making has little impact on the outcome of the game, with games essentially becoming coinflips or die rolls.
Related to this point is that Tri-Colour decks have 75 cards – a huge number. This makes predicting what cards your opponent will have in their hand (or even their deck) and consequently what to play around much less consistent. This would seemingly lower the skill ceiling as given there is less incentive to play around any one specific card given the high variance.
Larger deck size is not always detrimental
While the 75 deck size has often touted as the major drawback/balancing factor for Tri-Colour decks, it’s important to realize it’s not strictly always drawback. Certain cards and combos simply work better with a larger deck size. The most obvious example of this is Tullius’ Conscription, which would not be viable if it wasn’t for 75/Tri-Colour decks. Another benefit of 75 card decks being able to win fatigue, or more generally, not have to worry about drawing to aggressively. While going to fatigue in ESL is not super common, it still common enough to consider particularly in control vs control matchups.
To provide an anecdote, I remember one game I had recently where I was playing a Highlander/Singleton Control Mage vs a Namira’s Shrine Hlaalu. My opponent drew and played all three Shrines extremely early in the game, but the tempo loss they had allowed me to stabilise before I was rushed down. However because of their insane amount of draw, they were able to continue to play threats. The game eventually got to the point where my opponent had drawn over 50 cards. Had they been playing a 50 card deck, I would have won then from fatigue. The 75 cards in their deck allow to draw aggressively as they like.
Lastly, and I know this term gets thrown around a lot carelessly, but Tri-Colour and 75 cards decks are major limit on design space. Any card that could potentially abuse multiple colours and large deck sizes will fundamentally be balanced for them, leaving them useless for regular decks (Tullius’ Conscription again, but even meme stuff similar to Unite the Houses could raise issues in the future).
Elder Scrolls Legends Design and Aggro
Another major problem I have with ESL’s over all design is how many game mechanics and design choices favour aggressive decks over control decks. This is not a new thought, here is a comment I made 2 years ago highlighting how the game favours aggressive decks. This sections is going to be admittedly somewhat opinionated because I personally prefer playing basically anything that isn’t aggro, but I will try to remain someone objective when I discuss why I think the design emphasis on aggro is not a good thing.
Mechanics and Design that Favours Aggro
Firstly, it’s important to go over all the mechanics that favour aggro decks over control decks.
The two lane system inherently favours aggressive decks. If the aggressive player loses lane control in one lane, they can simply switch lanes in order to “reset” board control, and generally does not have to fear damage from the first lane as the non-aggro player will generally will not attack lest they give their opponent a free draw or prophecy.
The shadow/lane cover system similarly means that board control is never truly lost for the aggro player. Even if the non-aggressive player manages to gain board control, the aggressive player can continue to play into cover lane and threaten damage unless non-aggressive player has direct removal(s). Guards help somewhat, but guards can also be beaten with the aggressive player’s own removal or Breakthrough.
The Ring of Magicka is something I have seen debated quite often. The Ring of Magicka is much more useful for aggressive decks than it is for control/combo decks. If the aggressive player gets the Ring of Magicka they can insanely out tempo their opponent before their opponent even gets a chance to play a card. Nerfing it down from 3 magicka to 2 is a possible solution.
This next point is subjective, but I believe minions in general are overstated compared to the 30 hp total. Endurance is the guiltiest of this, though it is not exclusively their fault. Cards like Young Mammoth provide too much stats for low mana cost, and the game generally rewards playing as much stats early as possible to out-tempo and snow ball out of control.
Next is the extreme rarity of board clears (limited effectively only to Strength and Intelligence, and to a lesser extent Willpower), and of the major board clears that do exist, many of them only effect one lane, damage your own creatures, are (in my opinion) overcosted and generally don’t provide you net positive tempo when playing them. This has only gotten worse since release as very few board clears have been release since initial release. The only (generally) viable ones released since launch are Cradlecrush Giant, Unstoppable Rage (this is arguably more of a combo card), Red Year, and Tiny Dragon. This is contrasted with the numerous aggro cards that have been released over the expansions. The lack of board clears in the game means there’s not any serious punishment for overextending/flooding the board with except situationally by Strength.
Lastly, I’m also of the opinion that healing is extremely overvalued for its mana cost. Strong healing is mandatory to stabilise against aggressive decks. Every card that gives you even small amounts of health is generally poorly stated for the mana cost. Instead the game seemly designed around the fact that you should get most of your health back from Drain, which is unreliable if you are not already winning on board.
Why the Mechanics benefiting Aggro aren’t good
I get it – people like to play aggro. Smashing people in the face is fun. But the mechanics that benefit aggro create frustrating gameplay experiences for both players.
Losing after you stabilise on the board because your opponent can use the cover lane to gain one last hit to win leaves the defending player feeling robbed.
Losing because your opponent managed to out tempo you because they got a good draw and got the Ring of Magicka is frustrating, and it happens even in Aggro vs Aggro matchups. It can also leave the aggro player feeling unsatisfied because they feel they didn’t even earn the win.
In short, the mechanics that benefit aggro promotes one sided games, and can often leave players frustrated due to the lack of interactivity.
The Prophecy System
The Prophecy system, along with two separate lanes, is perhaps what separates Elder Scrolls Legends best from its nearest competitors. Prophecy is meant to be the counter to the above-mentioned mechanics that favour aggro. However, I think the Prophecy system has some major issues.
Firstly, a similar point to one that’s already been made for Tri-Colour decks. Prophecies can have extremely high variance. The damage dealer can just get extremely lucky and not hit any Prophecies, even if a deck has a large amount of Prophecies. The inverse is that your opponent can get a strong Prophecy on the first rune, and the huge tempo swing from the one early prophecy can win them the game. This introduces a huge RNG element to the game, which I’m sure many people don’t like. This high variance also means that prophecies are not a consistent answer to aggressive decks. Sort of some meme prophecy only deck, you can not rely on prophecies to beat aggressive decks.
Prophecies are interesting, but not fun
The major problem I have with the prophecies is that it inherently punishes players for doing something they want to do. Simply put, prophecies aren’t “fun”. Players either get frustrated by hitting an RNG phrophecy, or they have to choose not to hit their opponent in the face to avoid the prophecy, basically disincentivising the main win condition of the game. Prophecies remind me of Mark Rosewater’s Lesson 5 and Lesson 13 from his talk
. Lesson 5 being “Don’t confuse interesting with fun” and Lesson 13 being “Make the fun part the correct strategy to win”, with the lessons being related to each other. That talk by Mark Rosewater is fantastic for anyone who loves thinking about game design, I would highly recommend a watch, and a lot of the lessons from can be applied to ESL and the other things I’ve mentioned, but I’ll just leave it at prophecies for now.
Prophecies are intellectually interesting – players need to analyse the risk/reward of whether to deal damage to their opponent, including what prophecies their opponent could have in their hand and potentially losing card advantage. However, losing to a prophecy is inherently unfun – no one likes losing to RNG. Similarly, I think most people would agree that smacking your opponent in the face is a major source of fun in the game – but in many situations in ESL the correct strategy is not deal damage, which denies players that fun element.
Prophecies are meant to benefit control over aggro… except when it doesn’t
Early on in ESL’s history I heard many people constantly saying that prophecy is meant to be a mechanic to counter aggro, and I assume people continue to say the same today. While this does seem to be the design intent of prophecy, and as a general rule prophecy does benefit control more than aggro, I think people fail to acknowledge that in certain situations prophecy benefits aggro quite strongly.
The most obvious example of prophecy/runes benefiting aggro players is that it prevents control players from dealing damage to them. Even if the control player manages to gain control in one lane, they often won’t deal damage to the aggro player for fear of triggering a prophecy, or even just simply giving the aggro player an extra card. This allows the aggro player to potentially survive longer than they would have, giving them extra turns to draw lethal. It also means aggro players are not harshly punished for ‘abandoning’ a lane as they know their opponent won’t capitalise on having control of the lane by damaging them. Related to that is even when an aggro player does begin to lose, and their opponent has lethal on board, they can still potentially draw lethal from prophecy. This may be from drawing a guard to prevent the final bit of damage, then winning from the extra draw on their hand, or simply triggering a Lightning Bolt (or 2) when their opponent has 4 or less health.
One suggestion I have for the prophecy system is that prophecies only get triggered if you have less runes than your opponent. For example, if you only have 2 runes left, and you break your opponent’s 25, 20 and 15 runes, your opponent cannot activate a prophecy off them (but they still get the draw). This is more food for thought that a serious suggestion.
Just a collection of other opinionated issues I think the game has without going into huge depth.
Game is too snowball-y
Mostly a consequence of the lack of board clears, high stats and the Ring of Magicka. If you manage to have a good turn 1/2/3, your chances of winning skyrocket. I know people will say “well of course if you have good turns you’re going to win”, but the problem I have with this that it applies basically regardless of the decks being played. I can crush aggro decks with super greedy control decks just because I drew Firebolts, Harpies etc. I’ve crushed refined meta decks with meme prophecy only decks just because I happened to go second and draw well.
Control is centralised around Endurance
The amount of control extremely powerful combos Endurance has means they dominate control decks. If you make a control deck, it better either include Endurance or has counters to Endurance.
Probably the biggest culprit is the graveyard resurrection mechanics (I have a particularly strong hatred for Falkreath Defiler, who can potentially summon an Odaviing on turn 4/5). The insane power of resurrection cards means you better be running cards like Memory Wraith or Piercing Twilight to have a chance of winning control vs control, never mind the fact those cards are mediocre at best in every other matchup.
Endurance really needs to be toned down to provide some variety in control matchups. One suggestion I’ve liked is to banish cards after they’ve been resurrected the first time, so you can’t keep resurrecting the same card over and over again (I’m looking at you, Cicero).
Counters are often too binary
Pretty self explanatory – in many situations you either have the counter and win, or don’t have the counter and lose. Furthermore, the counters are often subpar when playing against all other decks. Memory Wraith against Resurrection Endurance was mentioned above, but support are another major example. It seems ridiculous that a 2 mana support can be removed by the same card as a 7 mana support. Cards like Wrothgar Forge can carry you to victory all on their own… or they can be a 7 mana tempo loss that loses you the game. Counters should be designed about creating incremental advantage (‘soft counters’) rather than completely shutting down your opponent’s strategy (‘hard counters’). Too great reliance on hard counters creates interactive games where the outcome is often predetermined by whether the opponent managed to tech for the right decks, or draws the counter in time.
If you’ve managed to read this far though these cluttered ramblings, thank you! I just want to say I think Elder Scrolls Legends is a great game, and any criticism I have are out of a desire for the game to improve. Despite my somewhat negative assessment of the lanes, cover and prophecies, I do actually like them quite a lot conceptually, it's just the execution that's the problem. Unfortunately, the issues I’ve talked about here really put me of playing hardcore/competitively, and I find myself mostly just messing around and playing casually and will continue to do so. I know that probably a lot of the things I’ve talked about probably just come across as a salty player complaining about stuff they hate, and while that’s partially true, I think the issues I’ve raised are important to the game.
I’m also aware that to expect most of the issues require massive changes to the game to address, which is unrealistic. Tri-colours can eventually be removed through a set rotation, but I personally think set rotation is archaic for a digital platform, and even if a set rotation was introduced, it would take time to remove tri-colours. Prophecy is such a core part of the game I can’t really see any major changes being made to it. Similar situation for lanes, and cover mechanics. However, the optimistic part of me things with a switch to a new developer presents opportunity form massive changes for the game. Only time will tell.
Feel free to leave a comment or feedback about your thoughts below! or just to tell me I'm an idiot who knows nothing about the game.
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