SaucyMailman, Legends of Runeterra content creator and Teemo appreciator, had an in-depth conversation with Alex Lee aka DeadboltDoris on Twitch. Lee is the Senior Game Designer and Design Lead for Card Releases on LoR, who has worked on the game since the beginning.
The questions for this interview were picked from the ones submitted through the official Legends of Runeterra Discord. Most of them were quick-fire, covering a lot of interesting talking points. However, the upcoming expansion release, ‘A Curious Journey’, was not among the topics of the conversation.
Below, we’ve provided a written recap of the interview. You can find the link to the video of the conversation right here.
Saucy Mailman: Which set went through the most drastic changes before release?
Alex Lee: Definitely Rising Tides. We were in the interesting position where we were working on it before it went live, and we did our early betas and got a lot of awesome feedback from our players that we wanted to act on quickly. So I think Rising Tides had about half the set go through some small adjustments to make sure we could hit release and it could be as good as it could be.
Saucy Mailman: How do you pick which champs should go in a set?
Alex Lee: Yeah, good question. Previously we would figure out what the new region is, and think about what mechanics and themes fit the region really well. Usually there are some marquis champions that really fit those themes. From there, we look at the region pairings and look for what kind of obvious thematic pairings work there or mechanical pairings that work well there. We’ll usually build stuff out from there.
Saucy Mailman: That makes sense, I’m gonna add my own stuff to this. Do you find yourself, when you’re choosing out champions for a set, do you lean towards a mechanical choice for a champion or a thematic choice?
Alex Lee: That’s interesting. There’s no one hard answer here. It usually comes down to what do we think is the particular resonating thing about the champion. Sometimes it is thematic, that something is really well done, like with Diana and Leona; the sun and moon opposing each other. Mechanically, Draven fills a really important role, even though the axes are really thematic. That’s a way we normally look at it.
Saucy Mailman: That’s really interesting. I’m curious, do you ever find yourself when you’re choosing champions for sets, do you ever find yourself saying “we need a really strong control champion because of the meta, or what we see happening”. Do you find yourself balancing the kinds of cars you want to put in with what kinds of archetypes might be needed?
Alex Lee: That’s tough. Live design can really shift things around. I’d say directionally yes we do, we can tell by the time this set rolls around things are likely to look this way, so we should include something there. It’s usually “X region is lacking in this kind of effect that we want them to have, can we design something in that spot?” We try to make sure our champions have a different mix of aggro and control and midrange, we try for that variety. Towards the end of design, we try to tweak numbers, and push and pull things to where they should be, so we get a good balance.
Saucy Mailman: How does lore make its way into card design?
Alex Lee: This is a really good question, and it’s a core part of our set design. When we’re working on sets, we generally break into design, narrative, and art teams that will work close with each other to make specific cards feel as coherent and cohesive as possible. They’re there every step of the way, and they’re big voices in the room to say “hey can we do this thing?” A great example with that is the Gray Legion in Noxus. We had Sion, but now we see The Lady of Blood and we know how Noxus makes these soldiers.
Saucy Mailman: Without the need to put more regions in the game, is there a certain freedom for designing new sets? Since now you already know the identity of each region and don’t need to create a new set of mechanics linking it to the established regions.
Alex Lee: Short answer is yes, long answer is absolutely. One of the nice things about shifting how we release content it essentially says the restrictions we used to have are gone now. The design space is relatively open, so given the new set of constraints, what can we make? What are the things we couldn’t do previously that we can do now? I’m very excited to work in that space and for you guys to see it what is coming out post Bandle City.
Saucy Mailman: When you design a champion, do you start with a function and try to tie it to a champion, or do you draw from the lore/narrative side of the champion?
Alex Lee: So to use a little designer jargon, we make designs either top-down or bottom-up. Top-down is “I have this theme or idea I wanna express on a card”. An example is, “I wanna feel like I control all the sea monsters or I wanna feel like a pirate lord.” Those are great, and pretty helpful for understanding what the feeling is supposed to be, so let’s make mechanics to match. Bottom-up is generally mechanics focused, so we take a mechanic and find a champion that really ties into that. We do both pretty frequently, there’s no hard and fast rule about which one is the starting point.
Saucy Mailman: So this is an interesting question. What is the process for designing “bad” cards? Such as cards for Expeditions or bad Epics?
Alex Lee: There’s a few points here. We don’t intentionally design “bad” cards. We’re aware of the trade offs of certain types of designs in our game. Our analysis team does a great job of this, rarely do they say “for balance reasons you can’t put this card in the game”. Sometimes with a design means we have to ask ourselves tough questions to wonder if a card should be in the game, or if we should scrap it and do something else? From a design space, I’d rather us have some of those weird effects in the game, cards like Curious Shellfolk, with a unique cool effect that it was important to just have. Other examples of that are Avatar of the Tides or Back Alley Barkeep. Some say it’s bad because it doesn’t have competitive viability or won’t be in a tournament, but they enable different types of play for different types of players.
Saucy Mailman: What is the craziest card that went the furthest through set design before it got scrapped?
Alex Lee: I’m gonna tell two, one really old and one more recent. The really old one was Neverglade Collector, which had the original design of “Summon a unit from your deck, then kill it”. There’s lots of fun Last Breath things you can do with that, but what if I just say Tryndamere? That combo gets gross quickly, because you get a lot of round 3 level 2 Tryndameres on board. So we quickly pivoted to a design that’s a bit less explosive. A recent one that was more design had a sweet idea but it didn’t match up to the idea of what we were doing, was the Pantheon Grand Skyfall ‘cos it’s such a great moment in League. The spell read: “pick a Unit in play, Obliterate it. Summon it at Round Start striking an enemy.” The thing about Pantheon and Fated means he likes to stay in play to gain stats so if we remove him from play, you don’t get to have him for a whole round. Our engineering team had trouble trying to make the card mechanically work.
Saucy Mailman: Are there any plans to add followers for Champions that don’t have any right now? Tryndamere and Katarina come to mind.
Alex Lee: Yes absolutely. We’ll do them in the form of callback cards. That’s one of our best ways to inject cards for Champions that don’t really have them. For those champions specifucally, I’m not sure, but there will be opportunity for it. I know for Katarina, we want to take a heavy look at her gameplay first because she comes up a lot in power conversations.
Saucy Mailman: Do you have a favourite champion related follower?
Alex Lee: Probably Slotbot. Card’s fun and really weird. Not sure how we got to that design space but it’s a lot of fun and some of the voice lines it has were in jokes that made me lose my mind when I finally heard them.
Saucy Mailman: Final question! What’s your personal favourite card in all of Runeterra? You can’t say Slotbot, that’s not allowed.
Alex Lee: That’s tough. Not Slotbot. For sentimental reasons, it’s probably Corina Veraza. For a long time in development, I ran a Demacia Piltover Corina deck, because Reinforcement used to summon 3 3/3s for a very cheap cost. So I played a Magnum Opus deck, that would do nothing for the first few turns until I kill you with Corina. She had to change because she used to be able to hit you for 10 because her original design was deal 2 for each spell you reveal.
It’s a rare treat in any game to have the high ups in design and development be so open to talking with us players. Alex Lee has had deep conversations about the health of the game and fun chats like this, letting us players feel even more reassured that the game at present is in good hands.