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Balancing Champions around Multiple Builds


Recently, Lich Bane has shown itself to not only be an extremely strong item on the champions who benefit most from it, but also quite strong on every other champion. As a result, instead of nerfing the champions who benefit from it most, Riot is nerfing Lich Bane itself. Obviously, this prompted buffs to the champions who basically require it as a part of their build, with Twisted Fate, Fizz, and Ezreal being among those compensated.

However, the inclusion of Ezreal in this list has created a bit of brouhaha. Why? Because it comes across as though Riot cares about some alternative builds, like AP Ezreal, but not others, like AP Sona. In a sense, AP Sona players feel like they are sanctioning AP Ezreal, but not Sona. Why is this neither true nor problematic?

But first, I wanted to briefly introduce myself! My name is Gentleman Gustaf, and I’m best known for my work at A Different View (where I was first hired by DiffTheEnder!) However, I have since branched out on my own, writing LCS analysis for Riot Games as well as managing my own LCS analysis and game theory website. I’m super excited to return home, both in writing mathematical analysis and in working once more for DiffTheEnder (now at Cloth5). I hope you enjoy my work here, and I’m excited to be part of such an intellectual community of Cloth5!

Now, back to the Lich Bane changes! I stand by Riot’s decision to do compensate Ezreal, but not Sona for the Lich Bane nerfs. However, this is not because I:

  • Am an AP Ezreal fanboy — I don’t particularly value champions who have multiple, vastly different builds over simply having more viable champions.
  • Hate traditional supports — I do happen to think that Morgana, Thresh, and Leona are all more interesting champions than Sona, but Sona and Lulu are probably my best supports.
  • Judge AP Sona because she’s not ‘top-tier’ — …To be fair, I do a little bit. If AP Sona were a build I saw regularly in pro play, I’d be slightly more concerned with her balance levels, but that is not the primary thrust of my thesis.

Reliance on an Item

Why do I think it’s ok to buff Fizz and AP Ezreal, but not Sona? Because those champions rely on Lich Bane; that is, without Lich Bane, they necessarily lose strength. Because there are four qualities we should consider when buffing a champion because an item was nerfed:

  1. That item should be a crucial component of a/the competitive build of that champion
    AND
  2. That item should not be a crucial component of a/the competitive build of all champions that fill that role.
    AND
  3. That champion should be in need of a buff.
    OR
  4. That champion should have no other competitive builds which would also benefit from these buffs.

#1 is a necessity. Obviously, you don’t need to buff Garen because Warmog’s Armor was nerfed: Randuin’s Omen is another viable option. You certainly don’t need to buff Garen over a Lich Bane nerf.

AP-Garen

#2 is also important. Doran’s Blade nerfs don’t necessarily mean ADCs need to be buffed in response; in fact, you could be nerfing Doran’s Blade specifically to nerf the early game of ADCs

Then, you need one of #3 or #4, to prevent accidentally making the champion overpowered.

If the champion needed a buff anyway, you should probably not buff them in the same rotation as the item nerf; you should probably be investigating buffing them independently.

Sometimes you simply can’t enable this alternative build. Let’s take a quick example: you want to buff Support Lulu to give her more utility. Careful, you risk giving Mid Lulu a buff and making her even more powerful!

This is where the distinction between Ezreal and Sona is notable. You can easily buff AP Ezreal without doing much to AD Ezreal: give AP scaling somewhere (preferably to Mystic Shot; the ability associated with Lich Bane). On the other hand, plenty of Support Sonas naturally pick up some AP, whether it is from Spellthief’s Edge or AP items, so giving any related buffs to her inherently buffs regular Support Sona, whether or not we want to. As such, while Sona may build Lich Bane, and Lich Bane may synergize well with Sona, we cannot buff Sona to compensate for the Lich Bane nerfs.

Wrap-Up

When discussing balance of the game, it’s important to keep these considerations in mind, because you’re rarely just addressing one thing. You may think you’re just changing one item, but who builds that item? Who benefits most from it? Who has to build it? Buffing a champion who fills multiple roles? Which role is stronger currently? Which benefits more from the buffs? Careless buffs and nerfs send ripples throughout the game. For example, Riot may have thought they were buffing support Lulu with the Season 4 changes, but as we’ve seen, Lulu has come out as an extremely strong mid champion. So the next time you complain that Riot hasn’t buffed your favorite champion, or nerfed your most hated, remember that they have to take their time, because even Riot, LCS players, or the best analysts cannot predict what will happen with 100% certainty, making rash action extremely risky.


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GentlemanGustaf

Known for his mathematical column at A Different View, being one of the only Diamond 1 Skarner jungle mains in Season 3, and covering the LCS for Riot at lolesports.com, Gentleman Gustaf is excited to come full circle by writing for DiffTheEnder again, this time at Cloth5. Check out his Game Analysis Website and LoLEsports posts for Riot, and follow him on Facebook and @GentlemanGustaf

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