Elemental Dragons and the Dangers of Randomness
Riot released their Mid-Season Magic update post several weeks ago with the intention to rework and improve many of League’s outdated Mages and to promote greater early teamfighting with the introduction of Elemental Dragons. In short, there are four different dragons that provide varying team buffs to their killers that stack with dragons killed of the same type. The goal of the update is to improve the currently slow pace of the game, forcing teams to fight over neutral objectives earlier in the game (as they did with earlier patches). The type of dragon that spawns, however, is random with an icon displaying on the minimap which type will spawn next. This sparked a fleeting debate on the place of randomness in League of Legends and E-Sports in general, many voicing their concern over the upcoming changes. Last Shadow discussed in a video how teams that draft suboptimally might coerce their opponent to contest a bad dragon simply because of the random selection possibly turning the tides of the game on a coin-flip. The Elemental Dragon change by Riot will have the intended effect of increasing the amount of early game team fighting and interaction, however, randomness should be limited as much as possible in competitive E-Sports titles and the Mid-Season Update reflects poor balancing philosophy on behalf of Riot.
“Controllable” RNG is not the problem
My issue with the RNG of Elemental Dragons is not with the presence of randomness on the whole in League of Legends. While I believe that a game that has no elements of randomness, where the outcome of a game is determined solely by the relative skill of each competitor, is optimal, randomness can add a certain spark of flavor to a game so long as it is controllable. A marksman in League makes the conscious choice to buy a crit-chance item or use crit-chance runes, choosing to roll the dice on less guaranteed damage from damage or attack speed, and is either rewarded or punished for their decision by RNG. In this case, the player actively decides to stake the gold they have earned on the chance that they might do extra damage. RNG haters, often justifiably so, point to plays in which the randomness of crit-chance turned the tides of important games, yet rarely are critical strikes the sole reason a team wins or loses. Moreover, a player cannot rely on crit-chance alone as a stat to win, working in tandem with damage and attack speed stats to amplify their damage. A team does not draft a composition praying that the dice rolls in their favor and they get the random crits throughout the game that award their victory, nor should they, just as a team should not draft a composition on the prayer that they get favorable dragon spawns.
Elemental Dragons as an inconsistent balancing trend
The Elemental Dragons also represent a deviation from Riot’s general trend away from randomness throughout the course of League’s patching history. Dodge was removed because it added a basically unnecessary level of randomness into a single stat and served to buff an already overpowered Jax. Madred’s Razor was reworked because the randomness often hurt junglers trying to donate buffs and could have cause ridiculous game swings in counter-jungling wars through a few lucky procs. Fear was changed to make the target always run from the caster, rather than in random directions. Abilities that deal with randomness, like Kindred’s passive, Blitzcrank’s ult lightning, Twisted Fate’s passive, and others at least have some measure of predictability and consistency to where their outcomes are expected and calculable when picking the character; Kindred should be ready to counter-jungle wherever her mark lands anyway, Blitz lightning hits targets within a predictable area, and abilities like Miss Fortune Q prioritizes targets behind the initial shot first. Furthermore, the randomness of these abilities is not enough to turn the tides of the game like a lost dragon fight would.
The 'Mario Party' Effect
The fundamental issue with the randomness of Elemental Dragons is not randomness itself; randomness is often a necessary component in E-Sports in general (the randomness of jumping and running accuracy in CS:GO, random spawns in Starcraft, random rune spawns in DOTA) and does rarely has ludicrous effects on the outcome of a game (the most prevalent instance in recent memory is the Coldzera AWP shot at the MLG Major). The issue lies in the nature of randomness as a win-condition: that, if the odds roll in their favor, a team might win a game not by outplaying their opponent, but simply by chance. If the RNG of the dragons turns out to be not particularly game-changing, with teams happily giving up unfavorable dragons in the early-mid game without fear of their buffs and reward, then the game is back to its current state of relatively low team interaction around dragon, only without the consistency of successive dragon rewards. My key point is that the winner of a game should always be determined by who plays better, and the game randomly “deciding” winners and losers is inherently unhealthy game design.