Turns out, trying to balance a game with more than 120 unique characters can sometimes end in disaster. At least this latest one in League of Legends was a lot of fun.
The jungle in League of Legends has been in a state of relative disarray since Riot revamped the whole thing at the end of last year, making jungling prohibitively difficult for all but a few champions. Continued attempts to improve the situation just seemed to make things worse. The most recent patch aimed to improve jungle champion diversity by adding a new in-game item. It ended up doing something completely different.
While Riot released the new item with the intention to help jungle-centric champions, League of Legends players—clever and super-competitive gamers they are, soon discovered that it could overpower non-jungle champs to devastating effect. One guy in particular stood out. But let me start from the beginning of this bizarre and thoroughly entertaining saga.
In case you don’t know, “jungling” is a special position one person usually plays on a five-man League of Legends team. Unlike the four other champions on the team who stick to an assigned lane for a good part of a match, junglers flit back and forth between the three lanes on Summoner’s Rift—the game’s most popular map:
Junglers do this so they can a) kill clusters of monsters (“camps”) in the jungle to gain experience and unique buffs, and b) jump into different lanes to help their teammates ambush (“gank” in MOBA-speak) an unsuspecting opponent, or maybe just help out a friend in need.
The problem that began to surface back in February after Riot released its 5.4 patch was that a lot of champions once known for their jungling abilities were starting to fall by the wayside. To be a successful jungler, a champion needs to have a lot of “sustain”—i.e., the ability to survive a long time on their own without going back to base to purchase new items and heal up. Coming on top of a lot of other gradual changes to League, the tweaks that 5.4 implemented made it frustratingly difficult for champions who relied on their ability power (AP) rather than their basic attack damage (AD) and hitpoints. This in turn left League’s beefy tank champions as the only viable champions to venture into the jungle.
Ok. That’s all the stuff that happened back in February. Riot put out the 5.12 patch for League of Legends two weeks ago, opening its patch notes with the promise that it would “bring back AP junglers in pursuit of the ideal that is champion diversity.” The way Riot’s developers said they were going to do that was by introducing a new jungle-specific item called “Runeglaive.” When equipped, Runeglaive grants a unique passive that does three key things:
- Whenever a champion uses one of their special abilities—the ones cast with the Q, W, E, and R keys, it converts the damage from his or her next basic attack into magic damage.
- The converted basic attack also deals a 75% attack damage bonus.
- Finally, it restores 8% of the champ’s missing mana.
Runeglaive therefore offered a sensible workaround for AP junglers who’d been getting stuck in a vicious cycle. Lacking the auto attack prowess of other junglers, AP-heavy champs would have to lean on their special abilities when taking out jungle monsters. But this would cost them a lot of mana, and therefore hamper their ability to execute ganks for their teammates. Runeglaive promised to reward them for spamming their abilities and help them keep their mana up at the same time.
Thing is, there’s nothing stopping other League of Legends players from picking up the item as well. The only way the game tries to limit its use (like it does with all jungle-specific items) is by requiring players to select a specific spell from the handful every player gets to choose and equip their character with prior to the start of a match—one that, like the in-game items, is primarily made to help junglers deal extra damage to the game’s neutral monsters.
Experimental types that they are, League players quickly began testing out Runeglaive on other, non-jungle champions. One quickly emerged as a newfound powerhouse thanks to the buffs afforded by the item: Ezreal. Normally used as an attack-damage carry (ADC) character who plays on bottom lane with the help of a support ally, Ezreal suddenly became a viable champ to handle mid lane on his own.
“Runeglaive Ezreal” quickly took off in the League of Legends community. By last week, professional players were using him in League Championship Series (LCS) games and doing truckloads of damage. In this clip from a recent game between Giants Gaming and Fnatic, for instance, you can see Giants’ Ezreal player Isaac “Pepiinero” Flores deleting opponents late in one game:
Actually, all you really need to see to appreciate the power of Runeglaive Ezreal is this breakdown of the damage each champion dealt in that match that Riot’s LoLeSports site tweeted. Pepiinero is the one at the very top:
He dealt almost 50,000 more damage than his next-closest teammate. Dang.
League players of all shapes and sizes have been joking about the monstrosity that is Runelaive Ezreal since his power came to light:
Even the pros joined in:
Ezreal has taken to Runeglaive so well in recent League games largely because of an idiosyncrasy his Q ability has. Normally it just shoots a bolt of energy at an opponent, the specific damage it deals scaling by 40% based on how much ability power he has. While its damage still scales, Runeglaive converts it into magic damage—just like a basic attack. At the same time, his Q has also been triggering another in-game item called Luden’s Echo to periodically blast out damage to anything in Ezreal’s immediate vicinity.
League jargon and meta-game minutiae aside, this story is going in a predictable direction. Runeglaive helps him deal more damage and spam his fastest and cheapest ability more often than usual, which in turn helps him charge up another powerful attack ability more frequently, turning one of his weakest moves into a devastating poke for anyone playing against him.
You might be wondering: why does Ezreal’s Q ability get all these special buffs when Riot’s description for Runeglaive said it was meant to affect the basic attack after an ability? Well, the Luden’s Echo area-wide damage boost is actually a bug. A Riot developer confirmed this on Reddit over the weekend in response to player queries about it, saying that it would be corrected with the 5.13 patch that’s expected to roll out tonight.
As for the damage conversion to his Q? A Riot representative explained to me in an email that Ezreal’s Q is functionally very close to the guy’s basic attack move, making it one of those special “edge cases” where an extra nudge was deserved (emphasis added):
Consistency is really important in League (mechanics, interactions, etc), but sometimes we specifically make things unique to a champion and that can also lead to us trading consistency for uniqueness.
With Runeglaive, we tried something unique where we wanted to straight convert a basic attack (usually assumed as physical damage) to magic damage.That said, the full extent of that interaction created a lot of edge cases with champions like Ezreal without any really unique gameplay changes.
Ezreal’s Q is a good example here. His Q is designed to be an extension of his basic attack that has its own set of unique tradeoffs (can be body-blocked, costs mana, can’t crit, but extends his attack range by a large amount, can be ‘landed’ without having to click a target, and can apply on-hit effects like life-steal, red buff, Sheen, Runeglaive, etc). In other words, Ezreal’s Q is designed to be as spiritually close to a basic attack as can be allowed, but we have to weigh each rule in this light and then adjust according to game fairness.
So if Runeglaive converts the next basic attack to magic damage and applies an on-hit effect, Ezreal’s Q is considered a ‘spell cast’ on cast, so it applies the Runeglaive buff. But once that Q lands, it becomes a basic attack on landing so that it can apply things like Sheen / Trinity Force / Runeglaive. We want to preserve that interaction, but we are going to continue to monitor its use and listen to the community’s feedback.
It’s curious that, despite acknowledging that part of Runeglaive Ezreal’s powerhouse status was the result of a bug and promising to fix it, Riot didn’t end up disabling the champion once players started using him in all his OP glory. Heck, they even let professional players take him into LCS matches that would help determine their team’s chances to make it into the lucrative World Championship this fall.
Riot’s statement tells me that the developer sees Runeglaive’s buffs to Ezreal as welcome ones that, however ironically, accomplish their original goal: to diversify play styles in League of Legends. They hope that removing the Luden’s Echo bug will cut him down from being insanely powerful to just viably powerful.
A lot of League fans are expecting (or hoping) that’ll happen as well. As the popular YouTuber Blakinola put in his latest installment of his humorous “TL;DR Patch Notes” series: “Sorry, AP Ezreal. You can still be cool; you just won’t be as cool with Runeglaive.”
Will it, though? One longtime League of Legends fan who’s been playing the game since its beta in 2009 told me he thinks that without the Luden’s bug, Ezreal will revert back to something like his “Blue Ezreal” days—referring to a build for the champion that also took jungle items into a lane that was kicked around in matches several years ago. Several other League players told me they were still concerned about how Runeglaive Ezreal would play post-patch, though. They all worried that after seeing pro players use him so successfully in LCS games, others will try to imitate them with disastrous results. We’ll just wait to wait and see if Runeglaive Ezreal’s lane will only last a few weeks, or take some more work to stop being such a monster.
Regardless of what happens to Ezreal, there’s still the whole matter of Riot putting forth earnest (and, occasionally, comically disastrous attempts) to improve the state of the jungle in League of Legends. It’s just really, really difficult to keep a game with more than a hundred unique characters balanced and account for every possible loophole its tens of millions of players might discover and, predictably, use to their advantage.