Balance is a unique creature, with many delicate interactions. Players like to think it’s easy to buff or nerf a champion or an item, but often it sends ripple effects throughout the game!
For example, Imagine a hypothetical First Person Shooter. In this game, you show up on an enemy player’s radar if you are:
- Moving at any speed higher than crouching
- Within a certain distance.
However, there is one class — let’s call them the Infiltrator — who never shows up on enemy radar. Let us assume that this class has lower health to balance for this strength. What balance issues does this class bring up?
Let’s say that the designer of the game introduces a new weapon that causes you to never show up on enemy radar, but does less damage.
Every other class has choices: more visibility for more damage or less visibility for less damage. But the Infiltrator? He’s presented with a false choices.
If he buys the stealth gun, he does less damage, but gains no advantage. Obviously, this gun will be weaker on the Infiltrator than it will on every other class. On the surface value, we should be worried about this type of design, both because it cheapens the uniqueness of his abilities and because it creates a balance problem.
If the gun is balanced on other classes, it will — by necessity — be weak on him: he gains a strength he already has, while taking a penalty. The solution is simple: balance the gun for other classes and assume he will never buy it.
The other option is just silly: buff the gun so that it is balanced (compared to other guns) on him. This would lead to the gun being overpowered on every other champion, which would lead to most champions buying that gun (and thus invalidating his whole class by making its unique ability something everybody gets.
However, let us say that we introduce another item: it does extra damage if you manage to sneak up on your opponent. In other words, it is already optimized to his playstyle. If that item were buffed to be viable on every champion, it would be straight up OP on him.
This may seem like an abstract thought experiment, but it happens in games all of the time.
I’ve walked through an example on Cloth5, but here it is below, for ease of access!
Recently, Lich Bane has shown itself to be an extremely strong item on the champions who benefit most from it, but also quite strong on every other champion. As a result, instead of nerfing the champions who benefit from it most, Riot is nerfing Lich Bane itself. Obviously, this prompts buffs to the champions who basically require it, Twisted Fate, Fizz, and Ezreal included.
However, the inclusion of Ezreal in this list has created a bit of brouhaha. Why? Because it comes across as though Riot cares about some alternative builds, like AP Ezreal, but not others, like AP Sona. In a sense, AP Sona players feel like they are sanctioning AP Ezreal, but not Sona. Why is this neither true nor problematic?
I stand by Riot’s decision to do so. However, this is not because I:
- Am an AP Ezreal fanboy — I don’t particularly value champions who have multiple, vastly different builds over simply having more viable champions.
- Hate traditional supports — I do happen to think that Morgana, Thresh, and Leona are all more interesting champions than Sona, but Sona and Lulu are probably my best supports.
- Judge AP Sona because she’s not ‘top-tier’ — …To be fair, I do a little bit. If AP Sona were a build I saw regularly in pro play, I’d be slightly more concerned with her balance levels, but that is not the primary thrust of my thesis.
Reliance on an Item
Why do I think it’s ok to buff Fizz and AP Ezreal, but not Sona? Because those champions rely on Lich Bane; that is, without Lich Bane, they necessarily lose strength. Because there are four qualities we should consider when buffing a champion because an item was nerfed:
- That item should be a crucial component of a/the competitive build of that champion
- That item should not a crucial component of a/the competitive build of all champions that fill that role.
- That champion should be in need of a buff.
- That champion should have no other competitive builds which would also benefit from these buffs.
#1 is a necessity. Obviously, you don’t need to buff Garen because Warmog’s Armor was nerfed: Randuin’s Omen is another viable option. You certainly don’t need to buff Garen over a Lich Bane nerf.
#2 is also important. Doran’s Blade nerfs don’t necessarily mean ADCs need to be buffed in response; in fact, you could be nerfing Doran’s Blade specifically to nerf the early game of ADCs
Then, you need one of #3 or #4, to prevent accidentally making the champion overpowered.
If the champion needed a buff anyway, you should probably not buff them in the same rotation as the item nerf; you should probably be investigating buffing them independently.
Sometimes you simply can’t enable this alternative build. Let’s take a quick example: you want to buff Support Lulu to give her more utility. Careful, you risk giving Mid Lulu a buff and making her even more powerful!
This is where the distinction between Ezreal and Sona is notable. You can easily buff AP Ezreal without doing much to AD Ezreal: give AP scaling somewhere (preferably to Mystic Shot; the ability associated with Lich Bane). On the other hand, plenty of Support Sonas naturally pick up some AP, whether it be from Spellthief’s Edge or AP items, so giving any related buffs to her inherently buffs regular Support Sona, whether or not we want to. As such, while Sona may build Lich Bane, and Lich Bane may synergize well with Sona, we cannot buff Sona to compensate for the Lich Bane nerfs.
When discussing balance of the game, it’s important to keep these considerations in mind, because you’re rarely just addressing one thing. You may think you’re just changing one item, but who builds that item? Who benefits most from it? Who has to build it? Buffing a champion who fills multiple roles? Which role is stronger currently? Which benefits more from the buffs? Careless buffs and nerfs send ripples throughout the game. For example, Riot may have thought they were buffing support Lulu with the Season 4 changes, but as we’ve seen, Lulu has come out as an extremely strong mid champion. So the next time you complain that Riot hasn’t buffed your favorite champion, or nerfed your most hated, remember that they have to take their time, because even Riot, LCS players, or the best analysts cannot predict what will happen with 100% certainty, making rash action extremely risky.