Hi everyone, Den here, with a piece that should be quite different from anything I wrote previously. This article is a follow-up to my TwitLonger about the state of the current metagame that I recently wrote and that got a lot of reactions inside the community.
RuneterraCCG offered me to go even more in-depth on the topic and provided their platform to share my point of view on the game’s current situation and why so many high-profile players currently are expressing frustration and doubts towards the game we all love to play.
First and foremost, I’d like to thank the website for trusting me on this one, and I want everyone to know that in no way my goal is to diminish the work of the dev team from Riot, or to call out anyone, or to be disrespectful. I would also encourage you to go and read the original Reddit post made by Riot Dovagedys that started the discussion, as well as the twit longer linked above, to have the full background of what I will cover in this article.
The Root of the Problem
Right now, we are experiencing our fourth metagame in a row that is defined by a dominant, out-of-line-powerful deck or champion. And in 3 out of those 4 cases, it was due to a newly released champion. First, there was Aphelios meta, then Fizz Twisted Fate meta (with Lissandra Trundle making its original appearance during that time), then Thresh Nasus meta (which is still ongoing), and now Irelia Azir meta.
It is completely normal when new releases are causing some havoc. As the game grows, more cards get added which means synergies are getting stronger and disparities are more likely to arise. This is the main reason why other popular card games like Magic or Hearthstone have used a ‘rotation’ system in order to try and combat that problem. Taking some cards out of the ‘Standard’ format every year out limits the effect of continuous power creep.
It is also completely normal to see dominant decks rise and take over – card games will never have a perfectly balanced metagame because that simply is not possible. It’s the continuous updates shifting metagame from one state of ‘unbalance’ to another that keep players interested as they have to solve the puzzle again and again to find those ‘broken’ things that result in the best decks.
The reason why I took initiative and wrote my twit longer in the first place was the sense that I got from Riot’s developer post: the idea that things don’t need to change. This perception demonstrated by the LoR balance team for me is the root of the problem.
In this article I will explain why some things should actually be addressed and changed in the current state of the game, and why we might be headed towards a chronically poor state of the game (especially at the higher ranks and in a competitive environment) if the balance approach continues to follow its current route.
‘Pressure Decks’ and ‘Defending Decks’
In recent expansions, there has been a noticeable push to introduce more ways of closing out the game, and to provide players with an even more intensive card flow.
Of course, this is a sensible direction. These days, players want dynamic gameplay filled with meaningful actions. There is nothing more frustrating than watching your opponent ‘play solitaire’ as you are out of resources and just passing your turns. As such, LoR offers a lot of ways to close out games, and it features lots of good ‘reload’ and ‘value’ mechanics to make sure you’re rarely running out of cards.
We can see that in all the dominant decks of 2021:
- Aphelios: impossible to run out of cards (also the case for most Targon decks with the Invoke mechanic);
- Twisted Fate Fizz: best draw in the game, plenty of card generation;
- Lissandra Trundle: game-ending mechanic that circumvents combat;
- Thresh Nasus: incredible refill tools available at all the different stages of the game;
- Irelia Azir: 1-drop that can serve as a repeatable draw, unit generation through champions and landmarks.
Even if I would look outside of these decks and toward other meta archetypes that are rarely considered oppressive, the pattern still holds. Ezreal Draven has plenty of card generation and cycling power, Discard Aggro has Jinx and Augmented Experimenter… No deck in the game can be sustainable without a strong draw engine – unless it has a way to end the game before the card advantage becomes a problem.
When the card flow is as intensive as it is in LoR, decks pressuring are better than decks answering the pressure. The ‘pressure deck’ has the ability to constantly convert its draws into seemingly unending pressure. As a ‘defending deck’ you struggle to stop their snowball and get ahead on cards meaningfully.
Moreover, when you want to draw, you are spending mana, but not addressing their pressure – so it will effectively cost you some health as well. When they draw, there’s no punish because they already have the upper foot, so all they pay is mana. That is our first big ‘unbalance’ that exists in the game.
Only one deck has seemingly managed to circumvent that inherent logic of the game: Lissandra Trundle. The reason for that is because it actually builds invisible pressure assembling its combo, and once it is over, the opponent loses unless they can perfectly answer it. As it turns out, the best ‘defending deck’ of these last 3 months is actually a ‘pressure deck’ – it just pressures differently.
As time has passed and new cards have been released, ‘pressure decks’ got access to more ways of closing out and more card flow. That means that the decks in front of that pressure have seen smaller and smaller windows of time to answer it:
- Go Hard: games usually ended with Commander Ledros + Pack Your Bags on turn 9;
- Aphelios: could pressure early but rarely killed you fast, tempo is the main win condition;
- Twisted Fate Fizz: games usually ended around turn 7-8 with the flurry of Elusives, and/or Mind Meld;
- Lissandra Trundle: games usually end around turn 8-10 with Watcher combo;
- Thresh Nasus: can end as soon as turn 6-7 with an early board, Nasus, and Atrocity;
- Irelia Azir: games usually end around turn 5-6 with Blades, Sand Soldiers, Irelia, Azir, Inspiring Marshal, Sparring Student, and Greenglade Duo.
Once we enter the Thresh Nasus era, we can see that the density of threats in pressure decks became much higher. The defending deck has to answer more ‘questions’ and has less time to do so.
Fizz TF was the first deck to really set a clear ‘must beat that’ kind of situation – where if your deck can’t deal with its Elusive pressure, you had no chance. Lissandra Trundle has continued that trend, giving you more time but presenting a much more difficult-to-answer threat.
Thresh Nasus and Irelia Azir also present a very clear ‘must answer’ path to victory. The new thing that these decks brought with them was that even the ‘build-up’ towards the win condition is now also something the opponent must be afraid of. This creates a situation where if you overfocus on what is coming, you will lose to what is in front of you, but if you spend too much to defend against the current threat, the next one will be too much to handle.
The way these decks can create an almost never-ending wave of pressure means that the only thing other decks can do to stop them is to beat them at their own game and present some form of counter-pressure.
Back Row Champions and Protected Scaling
First, let us address the concept of ‘scaling’. Simply put, the more mana a ‘scaling’ deck has access to, the more threatening it becomes. Most decks have a ceiling in terms of their scaling – after a certain point, they wouldn’t be able to use their mana efficiently, and a deck with the better scaling would take over.
Scaling is a natural thing in most card games, and it is usually not the issue. Where the actual problem lies is that in LoR the scaling is often protected and almost guaranteed through the so-called ‘back row champions’.
In every game, you have your win condition you work towards. The other player has the choice of either trying to disrupt that win condition of yours or advancing their own win condition (which essentially would make the game into a race).
Most of the time in LoR, win conditions are based on one or both of your champions. All champions are units, and all units can be dealt with in two different ways: with removal or through combat. The thing is – some champions that serve as win conditions never willingly enter combat, which significantly reduces ways in which your deck’s win condition and scaling potential can be disrupted.
In the past, this problem was the most noticeable with Twisted Fate and Aphelios. But the core issue lies even deeper and goes beyond those examples – it is in the fact that in LoR, back row champions tend to do better than fighting champions, by their pure nature. And there are even more back row champions than you would think! For example, Nasus is essentially a champion that ignores combat: he grows passively, then strikes once for a win or a level up. Your scaling is very much protected with Nasus, especially if we add Atrocity into the equation.
Let’s look at the current meta and see how many top decks rely on champions that could win a game without ever attacking the opponent (or doing so only at extremely low risk of punishment):
- Irelia Azir: Azir and Irelia both can wait in the back row.
- Dragons: Shyvana is a combat-oriented champion that benefits from attacking; Aurelion Sol is rarely required to attack; Zoe attacks when the risk of punishment is low and sits back when she’s close to level up.
- Thresh Nasus: Thresh is only required to attack when leveled, at which point we are interested in killing him off to drop another copy and get the effect again; Nasus is the Atrocity target.
- Ezreal Draven: Ezreal can sit in the back row; Draven attacks.
- Draven Jinx: Draven attacks; Jinx can sit in the back row if rockets are enough to win.
- Azir Burn: Azir sits in the back row unless it is safe or necessary to attack.
- Lissandra Trundle: Both are back row champions in the deck. Trundle is needed for his Ice pillar, and like just Thresh, losing him in combat actually benefits the deck.
- Overwhelm: Renekton and Sejuani are both fighting champions.
- Deep: Maokai is a back row champion, Nautilus can be used both as a fighter and as a back row threat.
The list has 16 different champions, out of those, I can confidently say that 10 of them are contributing to their decks’ win conditions, all the while sitting in the back row or attacking only when it’s a 0% risk. Out of the 6 left, Draven is the only one that is represented twice, and overall he is the best fighting champion – notice also that he has a form of card generation attached, that his decks actively use.
Of course, you could say: “But Den, there is removal in LoR, and there is the Challenger and Vulnerable keywords to force the units into combat.” And you would be correct – it is actually what still makes the game good and playable currently. Recently Shurima has brought ways to force more combats and make the opponent worried about his important units. We can also see that the best combat-oriented deck – Dragons – still relies a lot on the Challenger keyword or cards forcing unit combat.
The trouble that could arise in the future is that if we keep moving in the current direction, the back row champions will remain an issue, and as players find ways to make the most out of the support the champions receive will become more and more dominant. The fighting champions on the other end will be relegated to a role where they see play only when their mechanics can serve as direct counters to the popular back row champions in the metagame.
That trend has been going on for a while too. Fiora was mostly played as a counter to Fizz TF because of her Challenger keyword. Currently, Sejuani only sees play because she can freeze Nasus on-curve, while Renekton and Shyvana are good because they can feed on the tokens Azir and Irelia produce. It has been a very long time since a fighting champion has been the centerpiece of a metagame in LoR and not just a glorified tech card.
There it is folks, a long read for those who might be interested to join the debate on why some players believe the game might be going in a wrong direction lately.
I hope this was at least informative on how I see the game and the reasons why I might be worried about the future.