‘The Lee Sin Issue’ and Power of Burst Spells
Hi everyone, den here! Today I’d like to use this article to start a discussion about the various spell speeds that exist in the game (Slow, Fast, Burst & Focus), and the way they are shaping Legends of Runeterra.
Spell-based strategies have been the talk of community in recent weeks, and decks such as Lee Sin Combo seem to have become the new public enemy No.1, replacing Azir Irelia in that role.
Lee Sin catches a lot of heat for the fact that he is too easy to level up, allowing for 20 damage OTK combos that opponents often can’t do much about. But what’s interesting to me is that Lee Sin as a card has not been changed lately, and I didn’t see anyone complain about him before the ‘Sentinels of Light’ event brought new cards.
So is Lee Sin actually the problem? Or is it the support cards and mechanics enabling him that are problematic?
Well today, I want to look at what I think is the essence of the problem of which Lee Sin is only the symptom: the power of spells.
More specifically, I will talk about how the various spell speeds relate to their power levels, and what strategies can be used to effectively fight against Fast/Burst spell-based strategies.
To cast a Slow spell, you have to pay for it with mana and your priority, just like you would if you’ve developed a unit. Because of this important limitation, the game has a very high ‘bar of expectation’ for Slow spells – they have to offer something of big value to be considered.
Over time, we’ve seen fewer and fewer Slow spells remain in the metagame – but we still have some in today’s environment that are core in their respective archetypes, like Avalanche, Tri-beam Improbulator, or Decimate, for example. Overall, you know that when a Slow spell makes its way into a deck nowadays, it usually ends up being very important to its gameplan.
Fast spells are usually at best when they can enable some impactful tempo swings. They are rarely used proactively, but instead to answer or counter the opponent’s action.
In today’s game, Fast spells are mostly used for removal, damage, or other tempo-efficient effects. They often have some kind of restriction tied to it – for example, a condition that prevents them from targeting the opponent’s Nexus, or champion, etc.
Burst spells (keep in mind that when I refer to a ‘Burst speed’ in this article, I also include Focus speed in my definition of it, unless specified otherwise) are most of the time combat tricks and card draw effects. Very rarely will a Burst spell directly interact with our opponent’s stuff, but a lot of time it will do so indirectly.
It’s important to acknowledge that the Burst spells are intrinsically unique cards for Legends of Runeterra’s core ruleset because they don’t abide by one of the key principles of this game – they don’t give back priority to your opponent when you play them.
Now that we’ve defined the key characteristics of each spell speed, let’s dive headfirst into the controversy that is the main subject of this article, something I call ‘The Lee Sin Issue’.
The Lee Sin Issue
Personally, I truly believe that Burst spells are a great thing for the game, and overall, the 3-speed spell system that we have is one of the best I’ve experienced in any card game. However, balancing the interactions of Burst spells with other game pieces and mechanics can be tricky, and it will always be a potentially dangerous design space in LoR.
In a Lee Sin deck, every spell you play essentially has a hidden line of text: ‘advance your win condition by 12.5%’.
Obviously, the spell has to resolve – if it gets countered or fizzled, it will not count towards Lee Sin’s level-up. Burst speed ignores that condition completely and takes away the possibility of maybe derailing the spell resolution.
Now, I’m not saying Lee Sin is a problem to the game, but he is great to illustrate the point: the 3 speeds that have been carefully balanced relative to each other in terms of their strengths and weaknesses might end up feeling less-balanced when other factors enter the system.
In particular, any card to appear in the future that benefits from spell-synergy will always naturally favor the Burst speed.
Another issue that will always be a part of the game is that Burst spells are the only spells that never be countered by your opponent. So cards like Deny, Nopeify! and Rite of Negation become completely irrelevant when playing in Burst-heavy metas.
Looking at things from this angle, it’s only natural to predict that Burst spells will get more and more popular as time progresses. And because those spells are all mostly buffs and draw effects, that means the game will lean towards non-interactive and combo decks even more.
As more sets are being released, these kinds of decks will get better, achieving the victory faster and more consistently the wider is the pool of cards they get to choose from. It also helps them a lot that we are conveniently able to store mana for spells, so their strong suit is rewarded by yet another core LoR mechanic.
You might think that looking at things this way paints a bad picture of the current state – and the future – of the game. But do not lose your hearts, it’s important to understand that Burst spells are still very limited in what they can do, and those limitations are the price to pay for their non-interactive nature. And because Burst spells are restricted in their effects and use, the strategies that rely on them have weaknesses that can be exploited.
How to Fight Burst Spells
Burst-reliant combo decks abuse the fact that they do not need to pass the priority as much. This is what makes them so dangerous – just imagine, if you knew exactly what was coming and could prepare for it over many actions, their plan wouldn’t be as effective.
So for us, the way how we can counter those Burst-based decks is to actually try and make them take as many actions as possible and force them to pass priority as much as possible. And what is the best way to force your opponent to take actions? Through playing out your own units.
Every time you play a unit, you are asking your opponent “do you want to do something against it?”. And every time your opponent passes, that means they either have a spell they plan to react with, or they can’t match it with a unit of their own and will have to use their health to tank it.
Now, if we will repeat this question a couple of times, our opponent will now need to cast several spells during combat to match our development or to drop low on health.
The ultimate advantage for us here is that we are gaining more tempo than our opponent simply because our units are essentially cards that are better for their cost than their spells. And it is only fair from the standpoint of game balance – we are giving up our priority to play our units, so we have to be rewarded for that.
For example, if we play a 3/2 unit for 2 mana while our opponent keeps his 2 mana up to play Twin Disciplines, we get more stats for 2 mana. Also, we do get a board presence – something that permanently stays on our side until it has been dealt with.
Both players paid the same mana cost, but we definitely got a better deal in terms of development. The Twin Disciplines will only match or surpass the value of the 3/2 if it enables a favorable trade, which is by itself a condition that the Burst speed player has had to really work for over the course of the previous turns.
This is the reason why aggressive, efficient unit-based decks like Discard Aggro or Spider Aggro are doing so great into Sivir or Lee Sin decks. Those kinds of archetypes are great at punishing Burst-spell hands.
The way in which the various types of cards in the game interact with each other creates a complex, constantly evolving system.
As time passes, we see more and more possibilities, and having sound fundamentals will be the key to being able to navigate a metagame that is getting harder and harder to figure out as more cards are added to the game. Otherwise, we are just letting the popular opinions dictate what we can and cannot play, and we will oftentimes end up in a passive stance with frustration mounting as a result.
Currently, Burst spells have a lot of good things going for them: Sivir is a very strong champion that is also a premium target for buffs, Akshan is a shiny new addition that loves targeting stuff with Burst spells, and Lee Sin is always happy whenever we get a bunch of new powerful spells added. All of this logically leads to an environment where spell-based decks are seeing a ton of play and find early success.
But this doesn’t mean we are in this Burst meta forever – once we understand the limits this particular speed has, we can exploit it and force some changes in the metagame.
Thanks for reading guys, I hope it has been helpful to some of you in your quest of getting better at the game ad understanding the meta evolutions on a deeper level.
Good game everyone,