How Elemental Dragons May Impact the Flow of the Game
Dragon Reward Consistency, Incentives, and Team Composition Issues
Riot Games recently announced in their Mid-Seasons plans to revamp the "Mage" role an equally impactful diversification, and randomization, of the buffs accrued by taking the Dragon. With these changes, set to go live in the middle of Season 6, there will be four possible drake buffs that spawn randomly: the Fire Dragon, who "increas[es] champion killing power", the Earth Dragon, who will "increas[e] [a team's] turret and epic monster damage", the Water Dragon, who grants teams "increas[ed] health and mana regeneration", and the Air Dragon, who's buff is set to "increase out of combat movement speed" upon a successful take. Finally at the 35 minute mark, the deadly Elder Dragon will spawn in place of all future Dragons, granting successful teams "a powerful burn-over-time on spells and attacks and a buff that is stronger for each Elemental stack you have".
In the current Meta, Dragon can stack up to 5 times with different, but always consistent, stat values. The players know what they will get when contesting Dragon and what possible trades they may take when Dragon is coming up. For instance, if the second Dragon is spawning and your composition is in a power trough, you may just opt to farming lanes, securing jungle, or try to secure a tower while the enemy takes the drake. Both teams know the trade they are creating. By adding impactful randomized elements to an early game neutral objective, Elemental Dragons will change this facet of the game.
Where once you could just give up a couple Dragons in favor of gold, you will now be initially unaware of the kinds of benefit you are giving to the enemy. The randomness involved in choosing one of the four Dragons could cause the enemy to secure two Dragons which enhance their composition greatly. The team avoiding Dragon will still benefit from the additional gold; but the added benefits of each Dragon and the future scaling from elder Dragons can be a big worry. Elder Dragons spawn at the 35 minute mark. Most games won’t have a team contesting Dragon with four stacks at 35 minutes. The pressure of five Dragon stacks just isn’t there currently. However, with Elemental Dragons, all you could require is the luck of securing two to three beneficial Dragons. This low number of dragon stacks could be enough to get a considerable buff from the elder dragon. The importance on the type of Dragon spawns will cause massive implications on how compositions play.
In order to understand what Dragons are most dangerous for either one's own team, or the enemy team, to have will require players to constantly take into consideration how the Dragons enhance the strength of their composition, what Dragons will be strong against the enemy composition, and what Dragons may possibly cover weaknesses. An example of this is a weaker scaling composition prioritizing fire Dragons to aid their late game woes. This in-game analysis adds an additional layer of decision making to teams during early and mid-game.
It doesn’t stop here though. The unique interactions of each dragon will require more team decision making on how to both set up and contest it. For instance, the water Dragon’s slow can cause problems for compositions that are heavily prone to flanks. Such teams will be unable to initiate a water Dragon without fear of being too slow to retreat. Having unique interactions every game can be exciting for casual players. But on the professional level, not keeping the game consistent will cause outliers to appear like aforementioned example of a team lucking out on two Dragons they need. In effect, adding a chance of one's carefully drafted composition to be nulified, or a poorly drafted composition to flourish.
This luck factor shouldn’t be forcing a team’s hand. On the current patch, teams will fight for Dragons when they know a certain stack gives the enemy a passive that benefits them, or if the stacks begin to threaten a deadly fifth Dragon. That is fair, but the incentive to grab Dragons early isn’t there. Instead, teams on the current patch tend to prefer guarenteed gold via farm and towers to accelerate their power spikes. In past seasons, Dragon kills used to give gold. By only giving gold Dragons had a consistency to them while also making it a higher incentive to contest since it has a controlled monetary value. Riot could implement the Elemental Dragons idea for the variation in fights, but instead of granting these passive stacks they could just give gold. There could also be a possibility to find a blend of the two. The main issue is finding the right balance can be difficult - especially with such prominent randomized elements.
How this Affects Lane Swaps
One area that will always be under constant watch when neutral objectives are changed are lane swaps. Before I go too much into this I need to clarify some jargon. When I say "first outer", I meant the first Tier 1 tower a team takes, likewise, "second outer" will refer to the Tier 1 tower in the opposite side lane. Currently, if we base lane swap standards off of LCK, team will typically trade first outers. More often the not, the standard approach afterwards is to swap your duo lane over to the opposite side lane to begin a second outer push. This ideally culminates in the teams trading neutral objectives either a little before finishing off the second outer or right after. There are several ways to differentiate these steps. But in Korea, this is the most common iteration of the lane swap. To understand what these Dragon changes could mean, I first need to go over the benefits of current Rift Herald.
When Rift Herald originally came out, teams didn’t know what do with it. Since, teams have discovered that the Rift Herald can enable strong pushes for Tier 2 towers after taking "second outers". When teams rotate their duo lane to the opposite side lane, there will likely be no Tier 1 tower due to the second outer trades. Without a Tier 1, the lane becomes long, especially if the enemy pushes the wave instead of bouncing. Having such a long lane allows for large waves to grow. The Rift Herald buff powers up these large wave to create very strong and fast tower take downs.
Certain champions you draft can be ineffective in dealing with these large waves. For example, a team could have low wave clear and start on the top side in the 2v1. Most teams would take the standard approach by swapping their duo lane to the opposite side lane and take the second outer. But in this case, the enemy can take the Rift Herald on the second outer trade, which can force your hand on trying to defend against a Herald empowered wave. To prevent this a team can just recall your duo lane and send them back top to force standard lanes, presuming your opponents are taking the standard approach. There are other variations as well to this such as setting up traps or ambushes. A much riskier approach is trying to match the push. This is only possible if your jungler is an ADC, leaning towards Graves jungle.
The other positive of Rift Herald, besides using it for pushes, is the way in which it's buff enables your jungler to move around the jungle faster. This can often result in a camp lead. These specific usages of the Rift Herald make it more valuable than a first Dragon. With this change, Riot is forcing Rift Herald to spawn later which, depending on how late it ends up spawning, will put the focus onto the randomized Elemental Dragons. Including the randomness of Dragon types teams undoubtedly will have to change their approaches after they secure the first outer towers.
When teams do trade first outers, they will have to take more priority into scouting Dragon on this patch. This will be harder for the team on the top side. The composition one drafts will always affect your tower tower taking speed. Having AOE spells on your ADC and top laner increases that speed, since you want to be able to clear the incoming waves before they can kill your minions tanking tower shots. If you're tower taking puts you behind, then a Dragon is given up. The cost of this is unknown, since there is really no way to check Dragon, save a risky trinket ward from the mid-lane. Once Dragon is down the teams will go back to prioritizing farm, towers, and jungle camps. But particular aspects of a Dragon, like the Air Dragon's movement buff, can make open lanes very dangerous. Strong roaming supports and mid laners who have roam priority will be able to control more of the map through affecting side lanes and invades in the jungle.
Another possibility that jumps out to me, is getting matched in standard lanes after taking a Water Dragon. A Water Dragon would allow for more consecutive trades in lane, due to the regen bonuses. This uncontrolled variable may force teams to not even bother looking for swaps. It may also cause teams to just start pushing for Tier 2 towers after first outer. If the enemy is taking the time to do Dragon, the team staying in the swapped lane is going to be behind regardless, making this objective more appealing.
Until riot releases the full notes on the rift herald and elemental dragon buffs we won’t know how potent these changes will be. I will remain neutral on these changes since as for now I can’t think of how elemental dragons really enables more creativity in lane swaps nor in drafting compositions. We may just see early game compositions come out constantly where you can contest for dragons and not fall behind in any 2v1 scenario. As long as dragons are not dictating the entire game flow then there is a chance for it to work.