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The 6 Design Values – Part 3: Counterplay & Skarner


6designskarner

Hi there! Welcome to the next installment of The 6 Design Values! (This article is quite long so I’ve included a TL:DR at the bottom!)

Riot’s philosophy is focused on making League of Legends a game in which skill matters, and only skill should matter. This is the basis of Counterplay. Every action a player makes in the game should have a suitable reaction an opposing player can make. If an ability, a spell or any set of masteries and runes does not offer this, it does not offer counterplay.

As a champion that truly suffered from the lack of counterplay, Skarner has seen a significant ability rework since his initial introduction to League. So why were the changes necessary? What is the meaning of counterplay in this context? And how did this affect Skarner to reach his current state?

Let’s deep-dive. Welcome to Design 101!

tahalden

(Artwork by kkako)

Introduction

League is a multiplayer PvP game. There’s three relevant aspects in that statement. While obvious, sit back for a moment and consider what they imply.

  • League is a game. Well, duh. However, a game is about fun. Players playing League should be enjoying themselves. Satisfaction is key.
  • League is played by multiple players at the same time. In other words, it’s a team-oriented game in which satisfaction means accomplishing victory together. Teamplay is key.
  • League is almost exclusively PvP. Two teams are pitted against each other and get to battle it out to see who’s the most skillful. Counterplay is key.

So for League to be successful, teamplay and counterplay are both essential ingredients. If one of them is not present the game will not be satisfactory for at least one side of the PvP match. This is the baseline for a talk given at the Game Developers Conference by Tom ‘Zileas’ Cadwell, vice-president of game design at Riot Games. 

Check it out if you want to know more about League’s implementation of teamplay and counterplay!

The gist of Zileas’ talk comes down to three questions one should ask when designing an ability. Is a response to an ability…

  1. … possible? Escaping when silenced by Le Blanc’s old Sigil of Silence is not.
  2. … clear? Destroying Sion’s shield before it does damage is not.
  3. … interesting? Avoiding a point-and-click stun by staying out of range is not.

For exactly these reasons Le Blanc’s silence was removed and Sion is currently on the drawing board for a rework.

In a perfect world, every single ability in League adheres to these properties such that skill will always be the determining factor in a victory. Every action warrants a potential reaction.

Moreover this does not only apply to interaction between opposing players but also between allied players. Hence Zileas applied these properties to teamplay as a design value as well and I will discuss that in the next article.

While counterplay is a type of meaningful choice, it’s so important to League of Legends as a competitive multiplayer game that we consider it a pillar of our design values. A fight loses its excitement if the first punch wins – it’s what you can do after that adds depth and complexity. We try to prevent hard counters and abilities with no room for reaction, as no game should be over without a real show of skill. (source)

This also provides an answer to the following question: why does League not have hard counters? Hard counters do exist in other MOBAs, so it’s not impossible to introduce them in the game in a meaningful way. However they essentially remove any reaction the opposing player could make to your actions.

To an extent they also remove the fun from the game for the enemy player and for this reason hard counters simply don’t have a place in a game that is focused exclusively on PvP.

So it looks like counterplay is a pretty big deal in League. I’ve already touched upon a few examples that suffer from a lack of counterplay. One of the more subtle examples of a champion that did not offer a lot of counterplay before his rework is our beloved scorpion, Skarner. And he has one of the most appropriate quotes in the game.

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Skarner 1.0 — Perma-Slow Lacks Counterplay

When Skarner was released, he was weak. Or so they said. He saw a few buffs to damage output, cooldowns and mana costs and then… all hell broke loose. So what was it about Skarner that made him so obnoxious in the game? Why did Skarner reach ban-or-pick status at some point during Season 2?

  • Perma-slowQ – Crystal Slash used to contain the slow of Skarner’s kit. Every time an enemy was hit by an Empowered Crystal Slash, they would be slowed by 25 / 30 / 35 / 40 / 45%. Owing to the spammability of Crystal Slash, this meant any player that Skarner reached would never get away unless they blew an escape.
  • Dummy-proof: W – Crystalline Exoskeleton was a short-cooldown, instant attack/movement speed increase ability with a strong shield tagged onto it. If the enemy champion successfully used an escape, the speed up allowed Skarner to get back in range to extend the slow duration of Crystal Slash.
  • Broken ultimate: R – Impale has always been Skarner’s most iconic — and game-changing — ability. If Skarner got to you and this ability was off cooldown, you were done for. Never mind escape abilities or spells: Impale would still go off and pull you into oblivion.
  • Prone to snowball: P – Energize was Skarner’s old passive that reduced cooldowns on all abilities for every auto-attack. If Skarner got ahead and built cooldown-reduction as well as attack-speed items, he would snowball completely out of control, both in terms of damage output as well as tankiness.

Combined with Skarner’s significant damage output his kit was extremely punishing for anyone making a mistake on the enemy team. In other words, there was essentially no counterplay. Let’s see how the three properties of good counterplay fare with Skarner’s kit.

Assuming his abilities are all off cooldown, is a response to Skarner catching you…

  1. … possible? Yes, but it’s difficult. Hard crowd-control is your only option and even then, he can speed up instantly after the CC wears off and get back to chasing you. Remember, Crystalline Exoskeleton has an insanely low cooldown when combined with Energize.
  2. … clear? No. When being permanently slowed to a crawl, the intuitive reaction is to use an escape ability or Flash. Skarner cares not. He will use Impale as you use your escape and pull you into your death. Moreover, your escape is now on cooldown.
  3. … interesting? No. Hard CC is not available on every champion’s kit and requires solid teamplay. There is no alternative. Yes, you can try using your escape but you risk putting it on cooldown while still being pulled into the enemy team.

Skarner’s original kit was extremely punishing and left barely any room for response. Moreover, it was nearly impossible to time his ultimate due to his passive and work around it.

If that wasn’t enough, the tankiness from Crystalline Exoskeleton combined with Energize meant Skarner could put out tonnes of damage in team fights and still survive.

As a result, Skarner was brought down by severe cooldown nerfs on Crystalline Exoskeleton and Impale was “bug fixed” so that it would not finish casting on targets who used an escape. Skarner disappeared from the competitive scene and his pick rate plummeted in SoloQ. The end of an era.

Skarner 2.0 — No More Identity

How do you fix a champion whose kit offers no counterplay? It’s a difficult problem to solve because if a champion has been in the game for a while players get attached to the playstyle and identity of that champion.

However for the health of the game, and the need to make all champions equally viable, there is no choice but to remove the troublesome aspects of Skarner’s kit.

That’s what Riot tried with the first gameplay rework for Skarner. So what changed with Patch 4.2?

  • Skarner’s slow was moved to E — Fracture, an ability that was previously never leveled in the jungle and caused an unhealthy sustain-poke pattern in lane. The heal portion was removed from the ability.
  • Skarner’s attack-speed steroid was moved from Crystalline Exoskeleton to Crystal Slash as a stacking buff.
  • The movement-speed increase of Crystalline Exoskeleton was given a charge-up period.
  • Impale now roots the target in place during the cast animation.

Yes, some of Skarner’s old problems were solved:

  • No more unhealthy perma-slow.
  • Impale had become more reliable again without putting the enemy’s escape on cooldown prematurely.
  • He’s no longer able to instantly boost his movement speed up and catch you again
  • Fracture had also been turned into a meaningful ability — in fact, this hard-to-hit skillshit was the only way Skarner could still close a gap and get into melee range.

The result? Skarner’s old identity was gone. He could no longer stick to people anymore because of a long cooldown on Fracture and the charge-up period on Crystalline Exoskeleton.

Of course Riot was aware this would happen but hoped that Skarner players would appreciate his new identity as a high area-of-effect damage fighter and duelist. But Skarner was always an excellent fighter and duelist and players simply did not pick him for that reason though.

Regardless of the rework, some issues remained. Skarner was still prone to snowballing heavily and opponents still could not reliably time windows of opportunity when Skarner’s ultimate was on cooldown.

So Riot tried again. This is where Riot excells: if a rework did not work out, they will eventually revisit the champion. Sure it might take a while, and for Skarner it took a few months, but given a rework requires designing, programming and animating followed by rigorous testing, that’s a very fair window to revisit a champion.

counterplay tahalden

Skarner 3.0 — The power of iteration

Skarner players cried out for his lost identity but what really is Skarner’s identity? Is it slowing an entire team to a crawl forever or is it the fact he can stick to anyone like glue? Is there a difference?

Definitely. The latter can be achieved without having Skarner permanently slow his target. That was the goal of the next rework in Patch 4.10:

  • Crystal Slash now also gives a stacking movement-speed bonus but deals significantly less damage.
  • A new passive, Crystallizing Sting, applies stacks to enemies for every ability hit. After three stacks an auto-attack triggers a stun or Impale receives bonus damage.
  • The old passive was tacked onto Crystal Slash while the cooldowns of Skarner’s other abilities were significantly reduced.

These changes solved the last of Skarner’s game health issues. A static cooldown on Impale and no permanent Crystalline Exoskeleton allow for better timing of windows of opportunity for the enemy to react to a misplay. While a champion that can snowball, it is not as punishing as it used to be.

Sticky Skarner is back: you don’t feel silly when Skarner says your enemy can’t escape.

So how is this not unhealthy for the game if Skarner can stick to people again? Well, for one, Skarner will not permanently slow you to a crawl so his team can catch up with you and kill you. It’s only a speedy Skarner with lower damage output that’s on your tail now. Remember: the intuitive reaction of using Flash or your choice of escape ability makes sense now, because Impale does not punish you anymore for trying.

Moreover, Skarner’s identity as an excellent duelist remains. He just needs a bit more time to kill you.

Some Item AdviceFrozen_Heart_item

Skarner’s new kit did introduce some changes into how he is built in most games.

  • CDR is still a must-have because it is now the only way to bring down Impale’s cooldown. Crystal Slash still synergizes amazingly well with it and more use of FractureSpirit_of_the_Elder_Lizard_item in a teamfight is nothing to sniff at!
  • While previously attack-speed items were a good way to keep snowballing after maxing CDR they have fallen off on the new Skarner.
  • His jungle clear has slowed down a bit with the damage reduction on Crystal Slash, so Trinity_Force_itemsome itemization to help out with that is a good idea. Spirit of the Elder Lizard has excellent synergy with the AD portion of Crystal Slash.
  • Never build more than two offensive items on Skarner! As a sustained-DPS champion he would otherwise die too fast.
  • Full-tank Skarner is not amazingly fast in the jungle, but oh so disruptive in team fightsBanshee's Veil. Remember: Crystalline Exoskeleton works best with resistances!

Conclusion

When designing a multiplayer PvP game, the primary goal is to provide satisfaction to players on both sides of the gauntlet. This implies that counterplay is essential to make sure a game is not one-sided: fun for one team, boring for the other. In League this means that a few properties have to be inherent to champion kits. Is a response to an ability…

  1. … possible?
  2. … clear? 
  3. … interesting? 

Every action a player takes, must warrant a possible reaction by the enemy player. This is where the old Skarner failed: perma-slowing an entire team without a solid response is not good counterplay.

This led to a two-staged rework. Barring the perma-slow and heals, all aspects of Skarner’s old kit remained in some form or shape. But because Skarner’s identity as a sticky disruptor was not met in the first version of the rework, Riot decided to have a second go and bring back Skarner’s stickiness.

It worked. Skarner’s gameplay update has been a success in maintaining his identity while also addressing the unhealthy aspects of his kit. This shows the power of staying true to a given set of design values. As long as Riot is willing to revisit a reworked champion if it was not immediately successful.

 

As always, an expression of gratitude to Denise for providing the amazing splash arts to these articles, and to Fridgecake and Valkyrie for their editing!


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Tahalden

A game-design blogger on League of Legends, with some editor work on the side. Alternate mathcrafter, professional stargazer, dedicated gamer, Skarner fanboy. Getting better at games by understanding their design philosophy is a thing! Follow me on Twitter @Tahalden or on Facebook for updates.

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