Q&A with Legends of Runeterra Design Director Andrew ‘RiotUmbrage’ Yip

Last week LoR Game Director Andrew Yip appeared on The TwinSunz Podcast Episode 23 (click to listen). In addition to the 2-hour in-depth talk on the show itself, RiotUmbrage also answered all the questions asked in the podcast’s Discord community. Below we post this extensive Discord Q&A session in its entirety, with questions and answers grouped by the topics covered.

Big thanks to RiotUmbrage and The Twin Sunz Podcast for the permissions to publish this interview!

Part 1: Legends of Runeterra Design and Vision

What is like to create a brand new card game from the ground up? What was the process the team used to go from an idea to a game ready for, say beta even? Is there anything about that process you would change if you had to do it over?

“Oh wow, this could take me days by itself to answer. The shortish answer is, it can feel impossibly hard, but has been incredibly rewarding already.

“When we started working on LoR in earnest, it was obvious that there was a ton of competition – Hearthstone of course, but also Magic Arena was getting spicy and hitting its stride, Shadowverse was popping off in Japan, and there were a ton of other games either trying to make a quick buck with a sweet IP, or were trying truly novel things that were really alien but exciting to us.

“And while the team is a bunch of CCG-lovers, few if any of us had actually tried to make one from the ground-up. For the previous card games I had worked on, I jumped on with the ‘engine’ already done, and for paper games that’s basically a wrap in terms of your ability to make huge changes.

“So it was pretty intimidating, but that’s kinda what we sign up for when we join a Riot R&D team – we aren’t playing for second.

“There are infinite things we’d do over or faster; I’d say the biggest one was trying to find a way to reach players sooner, because that’s how we learn what resonates, and that’s how we’re going to make the game even better faster (which y’all are seeing starting to come to fruition!)”

You guys took some substantial deviations from standard CCG design. Which of your innovations do you think worked out the best?

“Great question! I suspect you’d get different answers if you asked different designers on the team. For me, possible answers would be:

“1) “Back and forth” turns (though that’s not really an innovation, depending on what you consider standard CCG; I mean, chess has it. I just think we executed well with good complementary rules, like delayed resolution “skillshot” spells);

“2) Different spell speeds, because it enabled the types of interaction we wanted; we actually had just Fast + Slow for a while, which meant things like Frostbite were really hard to interact with (pump spells on the stack after just got zero’d out too);

“3) Champion level-ups, because it really made the difference in making Champions feel unique to followers, and helped LoR feel like a League game;

“4) Spell mana, because dead hands suck and not spending mana feels really bad.

“Of these, I’d probablyyyy say spell mana, but I want to say level-ups. I think back and forth is the backbone of our game but I can’t really claim it’s a big innovation vs many other games, whereas spell mana really is an unsung hero (though other games do have ‘saved’ resources of course, like Netrunner a local fav!).

With new cards coming out pretty frequently, how will they keep other old cards relevant in the meta?

 “We’ll keep cards relevant in a variety of ways. One interesting element is, regions actually grow slower than classes or colors might in HS/Magic — because most of a new set is actually an entirely new region, cards can maintain utility because there’s just less redundancy. If you want to play a region and get a particular effect, probably there’s still only a couple cards that do that effect. Over time, we’ll also start to lean into more narrow tools that can provide players the precise answer they want. Beyond that, we’ll lean on more common tools like balance updates and different formats for cards to have a chance to shine.”

Will LoR implement set rotation at some point?

“This is a great question and definitely something on our radar. We can’t share details yet because we don’t have them.

“At some point, we will (just like every game) run into a fork in the road where we are faced with two options: Slow the amount of new content we introduce (because new cards are struggling to have any impact without power creep), or find new formats for new content to shine. We haven’t decided anything yet, but I will say we have options I’m pretty excited about as a player.

“CRAZY STORY: This was actually a conversation we had on League of Legends a longgggg time ago. It’s crazy to think about what the game might be if we had gone with a rotation model; we’d certainly have sold less skins I’m guessing!”

What is the team’s views on OTK combos and alternative win cons? With Karma Ez lagging behind further and further and the underwhelming presence of Maokai, will we see any more potent alt win cons or OTKs? Or is that something actively being avoided due to generally poor player perception of them among the more casual players?

“OTKs is a weird term in our game due to the back-and-forth structure. I’ll say this: It’s important for wins to feel earned by both the player and their opponent. OTKs of various flavors have risks of not feeling this way, but I’m much less concerned about alt-win cons.

“I think there are absolutely flavors of alt-win cons that can be dangerous because they feel just as un-interactive as OTK decks, but they don’t have to be! Fiora is highly interactive as an alt-win, whereas Deep/Maokai as I mentioned has a much higher risk profile of feeling un-interactive as an alt-win.

“I actually don’t have the impression that casual players have poor perception of alt win-cons; if anything cards like Fiora and Maokai are super exciting for many because they provide clear direction – “Do X and find cards that help do X and you’ll win!”

What are the team’s views on what the earliest turn an aggro player should be able to win by?

“I haven’t chatted with live or final design on this recently, so I actually don’t know the precise answer, if we even have one. We do have metric around average game duration in both time and rounds, and we do make called shots when we make changes in terms of the direction and magnitude it’ll shift.

“My personal view is more: We shouldn’t have non-games when two reasonable decks match-up, and players again should feel the win was earned by their opponent or they could have played or deckbuilt differently to improve the matchups they want to improve. This’ll be more true over time of course as more depth is added to each region. But also the answer is 5 (I’m just kidding please don’t pasta that!).

From a design standpoint, what goes into determining whether a spell should be Burst, Fast, or Slow?

“There aren’t a tonnn of hard rules here, but we do have some general guardrails. I’ll try and recall; these may be slightly rotted because it’s actually been a while since I’ve been hands-on with cards:

“1) If it interacts with enemy stuff, Fast or Slower.

“2) If opponent is extremely unlikely to be able to interact with it, Burst

“3) Pumps are Burst, unless they’re strong (pump everything), in which case slow to enable interaction or have a high opportunity cost. Pumps being Burst allows them to positively interact with Frostbite, which we like.

“4) If the main way to interact with it is Burst, make it Burst (pumps are again an example; if they were Fast but Frostbite was Burst, it wouldn’t be as interactive. Similarly, if Barrier was fast, ping damage couldn’t interact with it well)

“5) If card draw, Burst because it’s satisfying to try to top-deck answers mid-combat.

“6) If there’s a component that could end a game in a sudden or unsatisfying way, try to make it Fast or Slow. This is where sometimes a card will change speed from prior guidance”

What’s the process in preemptive nerfs? I’ll cite Dreg Dredgers as Deep was barely Tier 2 and a hit to their early game really hurts the deck. Yet Heimer/Vi is left untouched. What’s the timeline in which you roll out those nerfs?

“Deep is a scary deck for us as designers because the ‘input’ isn’t easy to interact with, and Nautilus is a really sharp ‘page turn’; if he sticks the game is often over. This means our threshold for change for this particular strategy is pretty tight until we’re confident we better understand it, or until players have more tools to interact/demonstrate they know how to beat it or aren’t frustrated against it.

“Heimer/Vi Steve touched on a bit over twitter, but the TLDR was that the deck wasn’t outside of our winrate thresholds on ladder overall, but was outside in Masters. This did prompt us to investigate and talk about what a Masters-only winrate threshold should be. In general we do like decks that have a high skill ceiling, but that still needs to have a reasonable payoff.

“Another secret we don’t talk about much is, we are often making changes through fog of war. What I mean by that is, since we treat players equally importantly regardless of the platform they play on, it takes a LONG time to get a change through. We’re often ‘locking’ a change wayyyy before it hits players, because once we decide on the change, we need to localize it to every language we ship in. Then, we need to submit it to Google and Apple for every region we ship, and then we wait until every single individual region approves. This takes a TON of time, so sometimes we just made the wrong called shot through fog of war because we made it two weeks in the past compared to what players experience.”

It seems that lots of players are starting to stack up a lot of shards… Is the final goal for every player to have all the cards and lots of shards or are they going to implement more ways to use shards? And how will this affect new players coming to the game?

“Our goal isn’t necessarily for all players to have all cards (because we think progression and collection is fun). But we do want it to be satisfying to chase your next deck, and we want every new set to be a great time to start (or come back) as a new player. We have great tools here y’all have already seen: XP bonus for region rewards, as well as new player login rewards. We’ll also be experimenting with other solutions soon, like bundled decks players can just buy in the store to drop-in and play.”

LoR not having chat, “add friend” features, or even an in-game character like a shopkeeper can make it feel like a bit of an isolated experience. Is this something the team wants to change, or do they like the Yasuo’s-solitary-journey sort of feel?

“While we know Yas is a popular champ, our goal is not in-fact to have LoR be a solitary journey. As a one-on-one game we of course believe it’s great to play when your friends are doing something else, but we also think friends make activities feel worthwhile & even more fun.

“No concrete plans I can share yet, but I’ll say for a long time a regular ritual on our team was to hit up the local comic store Hi De Ho for Magic prereleases, and that was always gas and something we believe would be awesome to bring to LoR players – a belief I think is even more emphasized in these crazy COVID times.”

Will there be 2v2 format or any 4 player formats at all?

“We’ll be experimenting with a lot of formats and mutators to our game through gauntlets and labs this year!”

Are there plans for more posts from the developers giving insights into the LoR’s design process, goals, player data, etc.? Generally, how does the team approach the question of how much to interact with/reveal to the community?

“Our publishing team is great; best in the world! They’re the only reason I don’t sound like a 100% dumbass on videos and only like 80%. They also empower me and anyone on the team to communicate with players directly, which is actually true for every Rioter.

“The challenge with effective communication is actually just how big the player base is, and how many different languages players play in. We want to make sure we’re reaching every player and don’t love when there’s an asymmetry of information, so we try to localize all major messages, which does get time consuming and expensive.

“That being said, we’ve been experimenting with lots of different communication mediums (twitter, reddit, videos, blog posts, chats like this) and more and more of the dev team will be interacting with players as more of their work reaches you!”

How does the team prioritize fixing UI bugs?

“Whenever y’all spot a bug that’s new to you, the best way for us to understand frequency/impact/which devices is to submit a bug through in-game bug reporting. This helps us triage which bugs are impacting the most players and most severe. We do have bugs like that on the backlog, but often are chasing ones we think are more painful to players, like card interactions not working as intended, or worse, game crashes.”

Part 2: August Set & Future Releases

How many new cards will you add in every set?

“I won’t share details on exactly how many (because it often changes as we observe player reaction!), but I think y’all have seen enough of our structure to draw your own conclusions. Think of it this way: Every time a region debuts, we bring it to parity with each other region. At the same time, we give every prior region new cards. So directionally, every region debut’s set will be … bigger than the last!”

Can we get any juicy details about August, something that you can reveal? Tell us what are you most excited about for the next expansion?

“Wish I could, but that’s not my privilege, that’s Shawn Main who’s the lead of that set. I will say y’all won’t have to wait till August to have cool new stuff to experience!”

What are some LOL champs you want to bring into LOR personally; any chance there may be non-LOL champ lore figures made into champ cards?

“Kassadin, Kha’zix, Veigar, Rengar, Warwick, Pyke, Viktor. Non-LoL champ lore figures as champs, absolutely! Just no timeline to share on that yet!”

Could we ever see different variations on existing champions? For example, if we get a Bandle City region somewhere down the road, is there a possibility that another version of Teemo appears there.

“Nothing’s off the table! One of the best part of working on LoR is being able to deep-dive each Champion; help identify and share more about that Champ, where they’re from, who they hang out with, etc. That takes a ton of time, and also means we have just a giant backlog of Champions from LoR we can’t wait to explore. Inevitability we’ll revisit champs and maybe even make new versions, but no promises on when, or who’s first!”

Part 3: Bilgewater Design & RNG in LoR

Has Riot been happy with the amount of variance in Bilgewater? Has it met their design goals?

“When we explore variance and RNG designs, we have several goals:

“1) It maintains the skill testing nature of the game;

“2) It’s thematic to the subject;

“3) It creates more memorable situations for the player;

“4) It increases the ‘net fun’ for both players. It’s no good if we make an experience that increases one player’s fun at the direct cost (or worse) of their opponent’s. It’s the most important goal, and I think there we could have done better.

“We think theme fit is good, there are lots of memorable moments, and high level players have no trouble tracking possibilities constrained to what’s in their own deck. But I think on the net-fun side players just don’t love having their cards stolen, even if it’s fair and skill-testing. Rubin & Alex Lee already mentioned this, but we’ll probably make changes soon to make these situations at least less common.”

Is the next region going to be less RNG-focused to compensate for all the stuff they added with Bilgewater?

“You’ll have to wait & see!

“This is one area where our design values and goals may not always be complementary with what players want. As a player, I want to be able to have the most consistent experience possible so I feel like my skill is the reason I win or lose. As a designer, my goals are to make sure players feel their skill matters, but also that players have a hugely varied experience with lots of novel situations and memorable moments.

“If the player could control their draw every game they’d probably get bored quick. RNG in itself is a method we use to get variety from game to game with the same pile of cards. Some of the specific RNG cards make it feel like your skill is invalidated, but we think there are others that can create novel situations for both players to adapt to. 

“All that being said, we wanted to push ourselves particularly in this direction due to the themes of Bilgewater; what you can expect every set is we push the boundaries of the game in new directions, but that direction won’t always be RNG-flavored, it’ll be something we think is thematically appropriate to the region that’s debuting.”

Part 4: Expeditions & Limited Experience

How does the design team feel about the state of Limited in the game right now and what is their vision for Limited’s place in LoR? Would you agree with the statement that the “no bad cards” LoR design philosophy is an amazing thing for the game overall, but makes creating a deep Limited experience more difficult?

“I actually disagree that a lack of bad cards makes a deeper limited experience more difficult; certainly not so much more difficult that it feels out of reach. We play (or did, before COVID) a ton of Cube, as well as other make-do experiences like Slay the Spire, and many of those experiences you can’t find a bad card in sight.

“I think what does make limited depth more challenging are elements like: 1) Ability to adapt or “read” the draft; 2) Poor ratio of narrow vs value cards such that there isn’t good texture to picking (i. e.: “Do I want to be risky here or safe and stay flexible?”).

“For Expeditions specifically, we are interested in creating a greater sense of power progression as you build your deck and make picks (because it’s fun to level up), but we think we can accomplish that still while still dodging bad cards.”

With nerfs to Expeditions’ rewards, I feel like there’s no reason to continue improving at the format.  Is the problem on Riot’s radar, and are you guys planning on implementing anything like a player rating or ladder system to give Expeditions players something to chase?

“Definitely on our radar; I’d say loosely our strategy right now is to “go wide”, figure out what experiences resonate most with players, and then invest deeply.

“That’s a big reason why we’re introducing new modes via both Gauntlets and Labs; we want to experiment more and find out what y’all love first and then invest more in those areas.

“At the same time, we’re building some more ‘generic’ technology like leaderboards that we can use to better recognize players across all modes as well as more reasons to play.”

Are there any plans or desires for adding a deeper Limited mode, something comparable to Magic: The Gathering’s draft format?

“Desires: absolutely. Plans: Nothing to share yet. We’re still developing our understanding of what the current expeditions is serving for players, and we’re always discussing what it could be serving. Many of us are limited fans on the team, actually probably more so than constructed when it comes to paper CCGs.”

Part 5: Individual Card Designs

What was the thought process behind Unyielding Spirit’s design?

Unyielding Spirit and to much lesser degree, Barrier and Frostbite, are aimed a creating crisp gameplay situations and clear “focus points” for games that can otherwise get bogged down or mathy.

“Compare us to Magic or HS: Magic has lands, so there’s a ton of ‘dead’ cards leaving only a few creatures in play, so those naturally draw your full attention and can’t be quite as complicated. HS has direct attacking, so boards simplify often. We have “every card’s live” principle like HS, but indirect attacking like Magic, which can lead to very full boards that are hard to understand – what’s important and what will trade with what in a combat scenario.

“We like these sort of effects because they highlight a particular threat and path to victory – or defeat – that becomes the focus for both players to play around. These are also cards that are really attractive to players looking for big, splashy effects. However, the ‘play around’ part is really important, and this is where we think we slightly missed the mark with Unyielding Spirit, and why we made the Fast change in the last patch. I think if we were 2-3 sets deeper and players had that many more interaction tools, we actually may have been fine.”

Was the design goal for Heimerdinger to basically make him a 3/1 Elusive-spawning machine?

“No, but we did want him to be able to end games when he pops off. We’re looking at Heimer and seeing what adjustments make sense. Our design goal with Heimer was to make sure he was the most complex card in our base set, and towards that goal I think we succeeded.”

Will you consider changing Ren Shadowblade again? If he is to create a non-Ephemeral Shadowfiend on board (instead of in-hand) or next round start, I feel it will give Ephemeral a new alternative strategy.

“I haven’t been involved in discussions about Ren since we updated him, so no promises there. I will say it’s unlikely we do something like non-Ephemeral Fiend just because we like to not have two cards with the same art that ‘by default’ are functionally different because we think it leads to confusion and upset.

“I hear what you’re saying in terms of giving Ephemeral a bit more variety in strategies, and that’s something we discuss generally. We tried this a bit with Sapling Toss in Rising Tides, so take that as a signal we’re interested, but we also want to be careful to maintain Ephemerals’ identity and not homogenize to be too similar to other archetypes.

“So yes, absolutely interested in more variety to Ephemeral play, but probably will aim to keep some of its distinct strengths and weaknesses (and a big weakness we think it should have is, has a harder time defending).”

Plans of changing Von Yipp card art so it focuses actual Von Yipp – the cat?

“Nah, we like it like that!”

Rainmaker

Rainmaker’s love for Legends of Runeterra was born from his passion for Magic: The Gathering and League of Legends. His aspiration is to enjoy and improve in all the aspects of LoR - be it brewing, tuning, piloting, or drafting - and report all of his experiences along the way!