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Daenerys Targaryen wishes her dragons had an iota of the power that my draconic minions show in The Elder Scrolls: Legends. Of course my wyrms are beefy and fiery and soar over the battlefield. But they also make my foes quake in fear, reducing their power or shackling them to the battlefield upon which they stand. They buff my troops, giving them amazing powers. And they even destroy every other soldier in play.
Even mighty Drogon looks weak in comparison.
Dragons came to Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls-based card game, Legends, in June with the Heroes of Skyrim expansion, and it didn’t take long before they “wrymed” their way into many players decks. They are powerful, as are many of their companion cards. I’ve been playing nearly every day since the set’s release, and I’m enjoy how Legends presents a different take on “wizard poker” than what we see from Blizzard Entertainment’s Hearthstone, another game I play almost daily.
But I wondered if why all these dragons were coming to Legends now. This is the first expansion set, after all. Bethesda’s Pete Hines, its vice president of public relations and marketing and a passionate collectible card player, said that the Skyrim set was a natural fit.
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“Well, it was the only one where we could do dragons, because it’s Skyrim, and in the other ones dragons don’t exist in those timelines,” he said.
But then he got serious about the design decisions behind this parade of dragons. Along the way, we also broke down The Elder Scrolls Legends’ recent debut on smartphones, card design, and how Bethesda approaches changes (aka nerfs) — how, and when, do the needs of the many outweigh the fun of the few.
Here is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Why was this expansion the one for dragons?
Pete Hines: Skyrim as a setting was something we talked about doing a lot, even before the core set, when we were talking about the timeline and setting and mechanics and creatures and all of that. This is years ago. We kicked around Skyrim a bit and ultimately decided we were going to do something that was a little less specific to a particular game, and do deeper, game-focused dives as part of stories or expansion sets. This was the one we were most excited about doing, not just because of dragons, but because of shouts and some of the other things we could do: Imperials versus Stormcloaks. We targeted this one for a long time as the first one we wanted to do to really mix things up.
GamesBeat: When you talked about Imperials versus Stormcloaks, it’s funny, as I’ve approached this set with my decks, I haven’t even started mixing and matching those. It’s been all about dragons.
Hines: Right. It’s not a main theme. It’s one of the underlying themes going on. Like the werewolves. There’s not 50 different werewolf cards, but it’s a subtheme going on in the set as we support some of these different tribal themes. Stormcloaks and what their mechanic is, obviously Imperials were a thing in the main set. But we want to continue to explore some of these. You probably noticed there are some more orc tribal things going on. A whole bunch of smaller sub-themes going on.
But obviously, dragons and shouts is the big one, because it’s cool and fun and different. It not only brings new card types, but also deck types. There’s a lot more graveyard matters decks now than there used to be, for example.
GamesBeat: I was going to ask about the graveyard. It’s one of my favorite mechanics in the game.
Hines: It’s pretty heavily influenced, I think. I haven’t specifically asked this question of the design team, but if you look at who’s on our design team, between—after Paul Dennen, you look at guys like Kevin Spak and Matt Nass. A whole host of guys who are known for playing Magic. The graveyard mechanics in Magic have been pretty big over the years, and I think probably had some amount of influence around them doing those kind of mechanics in the game. We now have a card that’s essentially the Magic scry mechanic — look at the top card of your library and either decide to keep it on top or discard it, then draw a card. Again that’s not an exact mechanic from Magic, but it does feel like “scry one, draw one.” There’s some carry over and influence there.
GamesBeat: I know part of it just comes from the interests of your designers, but is it also a way to help Elder Scrolls Legends stand out from other card games that don’t play much with the graveyard, like Hearthstone?
Hines: We’re always looking for additional ways to distinguish ourselves, No. 1, and highlight the things we do that other games don’t do, for sure. But it’s also — and this is a bit more subtle — if you know the story of Skyrim and dragons and how all that works, that’s what was taking place in Skyrim. Dragons being raised from the dead, coming out of the graveyard. It wasn’t just dragons being born all over the place. Someone was going around raising them from the burial mounds and bringing them back to life. That plays into it as well.
GamesBeat: I’m not the best player. I’m Rank 7. I’ve reached as high as Rank 5. But more than a month into the expansion, I’d go a day of playing two or three hours and not see a dragon in an opponent’s deck. Are you disappointed that you don’t see more opponents playing with dragons?
Hines: No, I think it’s just down to people playing around and trying different things. At different ranks, you’ll see more or fewer dragons. Right now one of the decks I’m playing — if you had played me, you would have seen lots of dragons, because I have a dragons matter green-purple ramp deck. I used to love to play the green-purple scout ramp deck, and I completely morphed it and changed it.
I talked to a guy, Frank Lepore, who’s a very good Magic player. He’s done some content for us. He was telling me about his new version of it that he really liked, and it’s all about dragons. You’re ramping up to Alduin and Paarthurnax, playing ramp cards and lots of dragons and trying to get to high amounts of magicka to dump dragons on the board. You play Midnight Snack, because I care about making the dragons cheaper. Inevitably I have at least one of them in my hand. I can spill them out and not even care if I trade off and they die, because I’m trying to get them in the graveyard anyway, so Alduin is cheap enough to cast. He gets a lot cheaper if I’m really throwing dragons out there.
I’ve had a lot of success and a lot of fun with that deck, but I also play an Action-Assassin deck that Sam Pardee built. He’s another designer who’s also a terrific Magic player. He built this really interesting deck around zero-cost cards. It doesn’t have a lot of anything that anybody’s playing. I’m playing the stupid 1/4 Merchant’s Camel, but it’s all built around this idea of the market card that drains your opponent for one every time you play a zero-cost card.
I did it on the stream two weeks ago and people were like, “This is really cool and different. I haven’t seen anyone play Legends this way.” Usually they’re trying to play really cool action spells or big creatures, but I’m doing something completely different. I’m not going to do what you’re doing. I’m doing my own thing over here and making really interesting decisions about cards that I want to keep or throw away.
That’s the thing about our game that I really like. If everyone is playing dragons, dragons get less cool. What’s healthy about our game is how much variety and diversity you get. You’re not seeing any dragons, but yesterday all I played was dragons. I think that speaks well to—I’m not seeing the same decks. I’m not playing the same matches. I’m not always trying to deal with the same cards. That’s good for us.
GamesBeat: That’s one of my favorite things about ESL. I’m not always playing the metagame same decks against the same decks, which I get really tired of in Hearthstone.
Hines: Beyond that, it’s actually something I debated with Paul Dennen for a long time. As usual, he’s always right. I asked him about deck size, because I was worried about inconsistency there. You’re just not seeing your cards. He said, look, that’s what I’m going for. I want it to be the case that you can’t just build a deck around a card you have three copies of and reliably hit it all the time, in every match. That makes for much for predictable, boring matches. I want it to be less likely. I want you to have to play more cards, to add more variability in terms of what you’re going to draw.
The card I was thinking of at the time was Dres Tormentor. It’s the 3/4 blue card, when a creature gets shackled–I tried to build a Dres Tormentor teck, but if you don’t get Dres Tormentors on the battlefield, the deck did almost nothing. He said, that’s the point. Your deck can’t just be, I draw this card, and I go off. Because of the size of the deck, you have to put more cards in and have more than one way to win.
It turns out that was a smart decision, as usual from Paul, and something that makes our game really healthy.
GamesBeat: How challenging was it to design dragons for this set that fit all of the colors?
Hines: That’s not something I’m as intimately involved in. By the time it gets to me they’ve figured out a lot of that stuff in terms of what they’re doing mechanically. But when you look at what the dragons are doing, they fit nicely into the themes you expect in those colors. The blue dragon, the Lookout, it’s not just about dragons, but it’s also about cards that care about dragons. In blue you have Ghost Sea Lookout, which is part of this cycle of cards that are Lookouts, creatures that are looking out for dragons. Each one does something different. Green does life gain when a dragon is played because that’s a mechanic you’re used to seeing in green. Blue does ward because blue has a lot of ward in it. Or a card like Dragon’s Fury, the action that does additional damage for each dragon. Blue is used to have actions that deal damage. That’s the color that has lightning bolts and fireballs.
I don’t think the balance part of it was tricky. Each color lends itself pretty well to what dragons would be about and be doing. The Lookout in purple spews out guards because purple is known for having guards and getting in the way and clogging up the board. Each of them fits nicely with what’s going on in those colors. The purple dragon helps you gain magica and the Lookout puts down guards, which leans more toward control decks and ramp decks, which makes sense, because that’s what you see in those colors.
GameBeat: What’s been your favorite dragon to play with so far?
Hines: The Shearpoint Dragon, the 4/4 for 6 magicka, and it gives a creature -2/-2. If you reduce a creature’s power or health because of some other effect, it reduces by an additional one. A 4/4 for 6 is not a great deal. You can get much bigger creatures for 6. But coming in and being able to immediately get rid of something with ward, a lot of times that shrinks down another creature such that you can trade with it. The fact that it stacks with other Shearpoint Dragons and can take something and reduce it even more when you have reducing effects – which green tends to do, with cards like Curse that give -1/-1 – that’s been a really fun, interesting.
Truthfully, the most fun one is Alduin, because he’s a 20 magicka giant thing. He’s the top end of my dragon ramp deck. Dropping a 12/12 that blows up the world and starts randomly summoning dead dragons from your graveyard — there’s a reason why he’s a unique. More than one of him would be broken.
GamesBeat: Yeah, he’s the favorite card in my blue/gold deck.
Hines: Dropping him down and having him do stuff—it’s not like he’s invincible. There’s any number of ways to kill him. But Soul Tearing, the action that lets you draw a creature from your discard pile—going and getting him back and doing it again is just such a groan test from your opponent. Oh my god, I just killed that thing and it’s coming again. Summon more dragons. It’s pretty great.