Rediscovering a New Balance Approach: Riot's Silently Successful Experiment
In April, 2014, I was delighted by Riot's proposition in the 4.6 patch notes. At the time, the top lane in several professional League of Legends scenes was dominated by the trinity of Shyvana, Mundo, and Renekton, and I vividly recall fan disdain from the staleness of the picks. I was expecting for the nerf hammer to be brought down, but to my delight, Riot had decided to try a new balance approach. “We know that nerfs won’t work because taking down today’s bullies (hi Renekton!) means that others would rise to the spot. Instead, we're going to be buffing(!) champions over time that have teamfight-oriented, healthy gameplay.
I loved the theory behind this approach. Rather than nerfing a popular competitive pick, why not buff other champions to bolster their performance at the highest level of competition? This could potentially improve the experience playing those champions at all levels of play without dampening the experience of Silver-Queue Warrior and the casual player who favor playing a champion that had to be nerfed due to competitive dominance.
Unfortunately, Riot’s explicit efforts barely made any immediate impact. Rumble was buffed in patch 4.6, while Jarvan and Malphite were also buffed in 4.7. These changes were cited as part of Riot’s new prerogative. Despite the intent of the buffs, these champions didn’t make the splash into top lane while the likes of Jax, Aatrox, and Trundle crept in without such changes. Rumble would eventually see play at the end of the 2014 year as a contested pick, but not after huge swings in the top lane meta and a bug fix to his damage in patch 4.9. Eventually, Jarvan took his Demacian conquests into the jungle. Malphite was left to collect moss.
But Riot’s new approach actually did not fail: it just succeeded when they didn’t intend it to.
New Survivors on the Island?
In late summer, the top lane meta had transformed completely. Mundo grasped on with his ungodly tankiness, but Renekton and Shyvana (along with Trundle and Jax) had given way to the utility or tank mage top laner. Ranged champions such as Lulu, Kayle, and Ryze were able to poke out their melee counter parts while providing massive utility and tankiness for their team after having been proven viable by innovative players. Three other champions also found themselves shipwrecked in top lane, but only after receiving reworks: Nidalee, Maokai, and Gragas.
Gragas was the first to receive his rework. In patch 4.5, Riot had stripped out most of his damage reduction from his Drunken Rage, his ranged damage by nerfing his Barrel Roll and Explosive Cask, and some damage from his Body Slam. However, they improved his CC by giving him a stun on his Body Slam and buffing the Movement speed Slow on his Barrel Roll. Additionally, they added a % Maximum Health burst to his auto attack through his Drunken Rage. With the rework, Gragas went from an alcoholic who killed you by chucking his drink at you…
To a drunken brawler who bashed your head in (go to 49 minutes and 41 seconds).
With this change in function, Gragas could either build as a tanky AP bruiser with ROA and Iceborn Gauntlet, or build traditional AP burst, but have to get in melee range to consistently kill. Either way, this change in function found the alcohol connoisseur changing venues from mid to top lane, as he had more favorable match ups there. It’s important to note that Riot does not mention any intent to shift Gragas from mid to top lane. The rework was a project to have him fulfill the “fantasy of a tanky drunkard who takes on his foes belly first,” rather than the weird long range barrel artillery mage he was played as.[ii]
Nidalee’s rework in Patch 4.10 attempted to take power out of her low-counterplay spear barrage and place it into her melee cougar form, making her function better as a split pushing duelist. Triforce-Bork Nidalee became standard build as the cougar prowled top lane. Again, this rework was not an intentional meta role shift by Riot, but a thematic overhaul which aimed to introduce more counterplay to her kit; which happened to make her thrive in a new lane.
Maokai would receive a slight kit rework in 4.11 that would ship the sentient tree across the sea of forgotten champs into the port of meta picks. While suffering slight nerfs to his Arcane Smash, the removal of channel time on his Twisted Advance, adding a slow and movement speed scaling to his Sapling Toss, and changing his Vengeful Malestrom from being a stationary field to being anchored on him would be all he needed to be planted among the established top lane picks. Once again, Riot didn’t even seem to consider the idea of having this rework result in a new top laner: in reading the 4.11 notes, Riot discusses Maokai in his traditional role as a jungler, stating “Old Maokai might not be the strongest jungler on the scene but he's still very capable of shutting down entire lanes in the early to mid-game while not contributing much to later teamfights.”[iii]
Besides these rework cases, there was in fact one case where a champion became a top lane pick after receiving buffs: Alistar. In patch 4.12, the cow’s hefty mana costs on his Pulverize and Headbutt would be reduced, while his Unbreakable Will would be buffed to apply his immunity to cc, damage reduction, and bonus ad apply immediately on cast, and his damage reduction boosted to a flat 70% at all ranks. These buffs were enough to have Alistar dominate top lane with his excessive damage and insane tankiness, with builds like Triforce or Roa Lichbane synergizing well with his incredulous laning, and he became the most contested pick during Season 4 Worlds Championship with a total pick rate of 100% (92% banned, 8% picked).[iv] The irony of this? Riot stated in the 4.12 notes that they wanted these buffs to bring him back into the support role.
The Realized Dream Which Went Unnoticed
If these role shifts are any indication, Riot’s idea of effecting the champion pool diversity in the competitive scene by buffing champions rather than nerfing the dominant picks is plausible, but precision with the results of buffs, with relations to the roles a champion is played in, is lacking. What importance does this have for the League of Legends game and community? Well, it presents itself as an alternative means of balancing the game to nerfing. Nerfing does two things outside of its reduction of a champions stats: it makes the champion less effective to play in casual play (non-ranked), which can spoil the experience of a casual player just wanting to play their favorite champion, and in competitive play, it simply opens up the way for the next strongest champion to take their place, until the cycle starts anew.
An example of this latter phenomenon would be in the current state of the ADC meta picks. Lucian is slowly succumbing to nerfs, meaning the next safe-to-play-while-dealing-great-damage ADC’s, currently Corki and Graves, are set to take the dominant picks in bottom lane. Riot recognizes this, as far as to preemptively nerf Corki in anticipation for his ascension to the top slot in patch 4.21 and with more nerfs on the PBE.
What’s interesting is the schism in Riot’s balance approaches in relations to roles. In April of 2014, they were willing to experiment by buffing other champions to change the diversity of top lane, but for the marksmen role, a role which has been dominated by a single champion for close to a year, they didn’t attempt such a change by buffing other champions to match Lucian, instead opting to rework him into a more balanceable state (a necessary step), and then nerfing him. These have done little to improve the viability of other marksmen, such as Varus, Miss Fortune and others, as the limitations which hold those champions back from competitive play still exist. The closest Riot came to emulating their top lane experiment was their buffs to Tristana in 4.10. Unfortunately, Tristana’s current kit is in such a toxic state that if it is remotely good, it is dominatingly good, and she eventually received nerfs. However, it should be noted that Riot effected the ADC meta picks by buffing a champion rather than nerfing the dominant pick.
Perhaps Riot isn’t aware of their own success with improving and controlling diversity through buffs because each of their conscious attempts to do so were so underwhelming they had no effect, but their well-designed reworks and miscellaneous buffs accidentally solved the diversity issue in top lane they had tried to solve in spring of 2014, albeit unintentionally. Although attempts to balance the meta via buffing or reworking a champion does lacks precision with relation to how that champion is used, and nerfing truly overpowered champs can be healthy and a guaranteed result, the potential to proactively shape the meta by applying reworks and buffs to champions rather than nerfing dominant picks is worth exploring as a different, perhaps even healthier, mean of shaping the League of Legends scene, both for competitive play and casual play.