As we approach the midpoint of LoR’s second post-beta season, Season of Fortune, I find myself contemplative. Legends of Runeterra has had copious different meta environments, with even more viable decks that have powered players to the upper echelons of Masters rank. Despite this, there have seemingly always been a handful of cards or archetypes that stand out as dominant.
These are cards that defined the metas they were found in and warranted change from Riot’s balance team. Even now, they impart nostalgia on players who have seen these cards in their glory days and provide thought-provoking conversations for those who remember their impact. Some you may recognize immediately, others may have been before your time, but either way, I hope that this article gives you some perspective on the history of Legends of Runeterra’s various meta environments.
We start our trek down memory lane with a card that caused many a player grief in the early days of the Legends of Runterra Open Beta. Many who came from a Magic: The Gathering background are familiar with the notion of “counterspells.” These are cards that prevent effects from resolving and are typically found in control archetypes. Legends of Runeterra intentionally has few of these effects. In fact, at the time of writing this piece, there is only one. And that card is Deny.
Quickly cementing itself as one of the more annoying cards in the game to many players, in its heyday Deny was a 3-mana Fast spell that read “Stop a fast spell, a slow spell, or a skill.” Not only did Deny prevent spells from resolving, but it could also stop unit skills that use the stack.
In Legends of Runeterra, the difference between a spell costing 3 and a spell costing 4 is massive. At 3-mana any spell can be cast using only spell mana. A 4-cost spell needs to eat into your “generic” mana to be cast, which changes the tempo of the game significantly (not to mention the obvious synergies that a 3-mana spell has in Heimerdinger decks). Changing Deny to a 4-cost meant that control players could not build a late board presence on curve while holding up Deny.
This change resulted in fewer Deny’s seeing play and shifted the landscape of the meta to allow for more midrange lists. In general, the nerf was received positively by players. Deny now requires more involved decision making from its caster and is far less frequently found in aggressive Ionia decks.
Speaking of aggressively-tuned Ionia decks, Handbuff Elusives was an archetype that saw plenty of play in the early days of the open beta. Elusive is a keyword that has continued to harbor some resentment amongst players as, in a game heavily dependent on combat, few non-elusive units can hinder the Elusive gameplan. While this archetype is perhaps closer to a quick midrange list than a genuine aggro deck, it is capable of closing out games rather quickly nonetheless.
There is not a single culprit that made the archetype as powerful as it was. Instead, it relied on two separate components: units that buff and the Elusives that enjoy receiving buffs. In Patch 0.9.0, the balance team decided to take a stab at limiting the power of the archetype across the board by nerfing two of the more effective cards available.
The first was Inspiring Mentor, which at the time was a 1-mana 1|1 with “Play: Grant an ally in hand +1|+1.” As one of the most effective 1-mana plays in the game, Inspiring Mentor not only made your Navori Conspirator, Greenglade Duo, or even Zed more powerful, it was also a perfect target for the likes of Navori Conspirator and Solitary Monk. Players would frequently bounce the Mentor to repeatedly buff their hand. The balance team decided that this was too consistent and protected the low health Elusive units too well. As such, they limited the play affect to provide only +1|+0.
In the same patch, they nerfed one of the more powerful Elusive units as well: Kinkou Lifeblade. Originally a 4-mana 2|3 with Lifesteal and Elusive, they adjusted the Lifeblade down to a 2|2. Before this change it was almost impossible to race and also hard to remove due to all the stacking handbuffs.
While these changes did not prevent the archetype from being competitive (in fact it has remained at least an Tier 2 deck since Open Beta), they did allow other archetypes to defend against Elusives more reliably. That said, they weren’t enough and in Patch 0.9.2 the balance team took another small swing at Elusives with a nerf to Navori Conspirator.
No list of powerful cards is accurate without listing Hecarim as one of the most potent cards since the Open Beta season. At the height of his reign, Hecarim would see play in every deck that ran Shadow Isles. He needed no synergy and would handily win games on his own.
Originally, Hecarim was a 6-mana 4|6 with Overwhelm that summoned 2 Spectral Riders (which were 3|2’s at the time) when he attacked. His level up condition required you to attack with 8+ Ephemeral units rather than the 7+ players are used to seeing today. However, his higher health and extra damage output through his Riders made him a formidable enemy that would either deal immense damage to the opposing nexus or force the opponent into unfavorable trades.
Often, Hecarim was put into Shadow Isles decks simply as a go-to finisher. He was so singularly powerful that players did not have to build around him in any capacity to make it worth including him in a deck. At that time, if your deck was playing Shadow Isles, it was playing Hecarim.
Along with Hecarim’s dominance of the meta in the days before patch 0.9.2, Shadow Isles had the added benefit of being the most powerful region. It had the best removal in Vengeance, Grasp of Darkness, and Vile Feast while also having the efficient Fearsome package in Mistwraiths and Wraithcaller with Ledros, Rhasa, and of course Hecarim as top-end options. Along with The Rekindler, all of these units received nerfs around the same time Hecarim did.
The archetype was a force to be reckoned with in no small part due to Hecarim’s overwhelming power. Ultimately, the balance team had little choice but to nerf Hecarim (along with the aforementioned Fearsome package and other top-end finishers), hoping to shift the meta. They adjusted him in the hopes that he would be more of an Ephemeral archetype lynchpin rather than an auto-include in Shadow Isles decks.
Troop of Elnuks
Another large change in Patch 0.9.2 was to Troop of Elnuks. Troop was a unique card for Legends of Runeterra, a game that has remarkably few RNG effects. The design team has been adamant about limiting the amount of randomness that cards add to the game, but Troop of Elnuks was one card that broke that trend.
In its first form, Troop was a 5-mana 3|3 with “Play: Summon each Elnuk in the top 10 cards of your deck.” Apart from Troop, Bull Elnuk is the only other Elnuk unit in the game. Bull Elnuk is a 4-mana 4|5. By round 5 (assuming no extra draws), there will be 30 cards remaining in your deck. With a Troop of Elnuks (no other Elnuks) in hand and a full playset of both Troop and Bull Elnuk in your decklist, there is a 55% chance of finding at least 2 Elnuks in your top 10 cards.
With just 2 Elnuks off of Troop, you have spent 5 mana and developed a board of a 3|3 and some combination of two 3|3s and/or 4|5s. At worst, that is 18 points of stats for 5-mana! Of course, there is the chance that Troop summons nothing and you end up with a 5-mana 3|3. But the average and the ceiling on the card was still so insane it was worth to run it, and for some time, Troop of Elnuks was a mainstay in Freljord decks.
Riot decided to nerf the card by limiting the number of cards Troop can pick from. In patch 0.9.2, Troop of Elnuks’ play affect changed to “Play: For the top 6 cards in your deck, summon each Elnuk and shuffle the rest into your deck.” Riot’s goal with the nerf was to limit the randomness associated with Troop of Elnuks (and in the game at large) and to limit the number of decks that can simply splash the card.
Grizzled Ranger & Loyal Badgerbear
Enter Rising Tides. Legends of Runeterra’s first expansion introduced a number of powerful new cards that shifted the meta once again. One of the most controversial cards that were added to the game with Rising Tides was Grizzled Ranger. A new addition to the already meta warping Bannerman decks of the time, Grizzled Ranger (and his buddy Loyal Badgerbear) quickly became auto-includes in Demacia decks.
At first, Ranger was a 4-mana 4|1 with Scout that summoned a Loyal Badgerbear on death. This combination of abilities made Grizzled Ranger one of the most efficient cards in the game. It could trade well with most units and when it died it would leave behind a 4|4. It was a miniature Tryndamere of sorts! Hyperbole aside, Grizzled Ranger was arguably the best 4-mana unit in the game.
To allow opposing players more “flexibility and counterplay” when it comes to various play patterns involving Grizzled Ranger, Riot decreased the Ranger’s attack to 3. Simultaneously, they nerfed the most efficient 3-drop in the game in Loyal Badgerbear. Originally a 3-mana 4|4, Riot also dropped the attack of the Badgerbear to 3.
Demacia’s biggest strength was always in its powerful curve of well-statted followers but Grizzled Ranger (along with Loyal Badgerbear) pushed the boundaries of what was reasonable in that sense. While the general play patterns for the archetype haven’t changed at all, the decrease in attack for these efficient followers allows opposing players to have better blocks and overall survivability.
Here We Are
In its short tenure Legends of Runeterra has had a dynamic meta environment, with frequent shifts and alterations, most of which are facilitated by changes to cards that are simply too powerful. The responses by the balance and design teams have been remarkable and their dedication to maintaining a healthy meta has been refreshing.
With new cards joining the game every two months, there will no doubt be more overpowered cards and interactions to come. I look forward to seeing what the design team has in store and I appreciate that they aren’t afraid to be creative even if it temporarily makes an archetype or two too powerful.
Did I miss anything? Which cards do you think are the most powerful the game has seen? What is your favorite moment in Legends of Runeterra this year?