Tuesday, September 15, 2015

champion design review: mordekaiser rework

Unlike most people shouting their thoughts about League of Legends design into the void, I consider myself a fan of CertainlyT. Zyra is a lot of fun, and the trio of Thresh, Yasuo, and Kalista are so flashy and high-octane to play (and so rewarding to practice) that they'll always be popular picks in solo queue regardless of viability. Sure, there's some stuff to poke fun at with his designs, like his proclivity for passives on top of passives, but his designs have made League a more fun game, and the open-endedness of the mechanics he makes have filled up countless YouTube montages.

Which brings us to his latest: Mordekaiser's rework. And holy hell did he fuck this one up.

The concept for the rework is centered around making him a melee mage that takes the place of the ADC in a duo lane. And he certainly works there, in the same way that a nuclear bomb can effectively kill a mouse in your grandparents' attic.

The most important change to make him function in this role is the passive on his W: as soon as he levels it up, he gets full XP from all minions, rather than sharing with his support (who still gets the normal amount).

This mechanic is dumb. It is a brute-force way to make a champion work in a duo lane when they otherwise would not. Outside of the game, just reading it, it seems inelegant; any damage-dealing champion could fulfill the role of the botlane carry if they had the same passive. There is nothing Mordekaiser-centric about it at all. Does Mordekaiser's extensive knowledge of 80s metal bands give him the experience needed to hit level six faster? Hey, I see that Riot wants to make sure that Lulu is primarily a support champion, and not an oppressive solo laner. Why not give her the same passive?

In the game itself, it just feels... wrong. No matter what team you're on, laning with Mordekaiser present has the inevitable, "oh now that just shouldn't happen" moment when Morde hits six and everyone else is either four or five. Seeing as Morde's ult is a point-and-click that does 25% of the target's max health as magic damage, that's a pretty big deal.

(Minor quibble: why is this passive on W at all, instead of just being... a normal passive? Everyone is obviously going to level W first to get it, so they have it all the time. Is that that the entire purpose, to force players to take W first in lane, which they might do anyway?)

Bot lane, more than anywhere else on the map, revolves around early leveling power spikes. Both duos aggressively push the first two waves, in order to hit level two off the third melee creep. Then, the ritual is repeated as level six approaches, to enable the Vaynes and Leonas and Threshes to show off their new skills. Even being level five instead of level four is an enormous deal, for the combined thousands of gold worth of stats that the experience-advantaged lane has over their opponents.

Morde being in a game means that your leveling power spikes are irrelevant, because he gets those first. Because... that's what his W's passive is. If you don't like that, you can attempt to make him unable to get any CS, to deny the W's experience. Good luck doing that, though, against a lane with double Relic Shield.

Being even one or two waves of experience up over an opponent matters a lot. A one-for-one trade in kills in top lane can be miraculous or atrocious, depending on who loses more minions to tower (and thus, their XP). Even if the lane opposing Morde somehow holds the fucker to just twelve CS to their 40, that's still two waves of XP he has as an advantage.

But of course, it's obvious that XP matters. What I haven't proved is that giving Morde this advantage in his kit is necessarily bad.

My issue is that Morde comes into this established metagame of ADC/support and completely disrespects what was present already. It's obvious he would do that, as a melee carry in a world of 500-650 range, but the way he does it makes him feel less like an outlier than an alien invader. He just has nothing to do with the duo lanes that don't include him. Anything that players learned laning against ADCs is now irrelevant, for the purpose of laning against him.

Let's move on to the rest of his kit. Well, really, let's dwell next on the part where his damage output is completely obscene.

A lot of the Morde hate has been directed as his pet dragon, but to be honest, I think this is one of the cooler aspects of him. He's taking the spot of the ADC, so it makes sense that he needs a tower-taking mechanic to compensate for his lack of range. Plus, it's gated behind a neutral objective that's already commonly warded and contested, so it's not like it's completely free for him all the time.

What I do have an issue with, though, is that Morde gives up nothing in order to get the ghost dragon beyond his team securing it. The fact that he can win a bot lane all-in with ult (which obviously he does; have you played this champion), move to dragon with his support, kill it, and get the ghost dragon... that's silly. He should at least have to ult the dragon in order to get the ghost. That way, if he really wants this super-powerful pet, he has to not use his ult for combat purposes. It would be a tradeoff between "more likely to get dragon" and "better once he has it."

Morde deals damage in a way completely unlike ADCs (and, really, completely unlike most mages). He gets up to melee auto range with someone, and they explode while his own health bar barely moves. The skill that's responsible for this is his Q, which to my knowledge is the only exponentially-scaling damage spell in the game.

The design logic for this is easy to guess at: it prevents him from being just another burst mage, who goes up to the range of his spells, presses buttons, and the opposing team is now dead in less than a second (Annie being the canonical example). Instead, Morde's Q needs to ramp up, so that it's his third Q that's worrisome, rather than the first two. In theory, this gives him some counterplay, in that it's okay to take one, maybe two autoattacks in melee, but really, if you can't move out of the way for the third, that's on you.

The way it plays out in practice is rather different. Here's two different scenarios that I've experienced:

"Oh, I can fight this guy, this isn't so WHY AM I DEAD WHAT JUST HAPPENED."


"Well, he just killed my teammate, but he's at low health and used his ult already so HOLY CHRIST HE JUST ONE SHOT ME."

(Minor quibble the second: I really dislike that Q scales off AD incredibly hard, but deals magic damage no matter what. It makes it super confusing and awkward to itemize against. It should be a truism that, if the opponent is stacking swords in their inventory, you build armor; if they have books and rods, you build magic resist. Against Morde, the more AD he has, the more magic damage he does; if he's building AP, he'll treat it instead like he was building spell vamp, via the heal on his W. What a champion.)

It's difficult to separate his power-agnostic design (that is, the ideas and mechanics before those pesky testers and developers fiddle with the champion to make them balanced) from the fact that Mordekaiser is, as of this writing (patch 5.17), super unreal next-level shit-yourself broken. But simply put, I don't think that a basic ability, attached to one single auto, should have a 2.6AP ratio. I also do not think that it should have a 3.9AD ratio.

A skill having those two, put together, on the same auto, isn't even overpowered or too good. It's so far beyond what other champions are capable of that it's just funny. It's also on a four second base cooldown. It also costs... 32 health. (32? Seriously? Why 32?)

When a champion is capable of dealing that much damage, people that die to it need to feel like it was earned in some way; that they got outmaneuvered, outplayed, or just walked right into the damn thing. But an autoattack is not a skillshot. Because Morde can build up the Q on other targets before it goes full apeshit (and rather quickly, once he has an item), the person that gets hit with the final Q in a teamfight might not have done anything spectacularly wrong. They might have just... been trying to dive the carry, like one does when the carry in question has been murdering fools the entire game (and has no real ways of kiting or escape).

The worst part about this broken champion is that he's not even that much fun to play. Well... in a specific sense he is. He's fun in the same way that turning on invincibility and infinite rockets in GTA is fun. You just run around murdering relentlessly for a few minutes, completely shrugging off everything. But after five minutes with no challenge whatsoever, you feel ready to do something else.

A recent solo queue player, who locked in Morde, summarized it rather well. You just walk up to people and hit Q. And that really is the extent of Morde's gameplay. His shield is triggered by dealing damage, so the best way to stay alive is to deal a lot of damage. Sure, you'll also occasionally use your other buttons, but they're so straightforward that it would require a pretty spectacular brain fart to mess them up. You press E when they're next to you, and since you're a melee champion, that's fairly often. You press W... when you're also pressing your other buttons. You never need to worry about whether it's the right time to walk away, because as an immobile juggernaut, that time is literally never: they'll kill you in retreat anyway, so just stand there and deal damage until you die.

Somehow, Riot has made a champion so weird and powerful that no one wants to play him. He's the third most-banned champion, available in fewer than 40% of games, but his pick rate is below 5%. Of the top 25 most-banned champions, only two of them are picked less frequently than he is, and those are very close to him in play frequency. From playing him myself in ranked a few times, and seeing him picked, I get the feeling that people aren't playing him out of desire, but necessity: "well, Mordekaiser is open, guess I have to play this broken thing if I want to win."

Despite absolutely crushing with him in my first two ranked games, I, too, want to play him very little. You just... walk up to people and auto in melee. Then they die.

I have nothing against simple kits, if their simplicity contains within it interesting gameplay decisions to make. What's bizarre about Mordekaiser, though, is how complex his kit is for how simple it plays out. It makes sense that the ability descriptions of intricate champions like Azir and Zed take some reading. But why do Morde's abilities have so much text? How much of it is even needed?

How much of the mechanic of gaining and losing shields (and one of his abilities gives a higher shield percentage; without looking it up, guess which skill this is) is necessary for "damage = shield?"

Why does he need a passive shield, a heal on a basic ability, and a heal on his ult?

Why does his ult...

Wait, his ghost gives him 25% of the target's bonus health and 30% of their AP? To plagiarize Trinimmortal: I didn't even know it did that! WHY?!

The truest sign that Mordekaiser's kit is bloated and needlessly complex is this: if you want to play him, you don't even need to read his kit, or even skim it. Here's the guide:

Level W first. Get last-hits. Get Q at level two. It's most of your damage. Use R when in all-ins. Use E and W whenever. Control your ghost with alt. Never run away from anyone ever, just stand there and attack. Build literally anything, because he scales perfectly well off AP, AD, attack speed, move speed, spell vamp, CDR, and tank stats.

That's it. That's all you need to know.

The biggest question moving forward is: when at some point, enough patches have come out that Mordekaiser is finally balanced, will he be interesting? Absolutely not. His power is condensed in his more-free-than-free stats via leveling up faster than everyone else. He puts a huge burden on his opponents to stop him, and little for the person piloting him to actually do to make him more effective. He's a champion in the "farm until late" role that dominates early and falls off super late, so his team is either going to force a surrender at 20 or completely fall apart because they have an immobile, auto-attack-based mage instead of a ranged carry for teamfights.

If I might project my thoughts inside the Riot offices, I imagine them thinking something about how the bot lane ADC/support metagame is really stale, so they should shake it up. This is a fine impulse. Then (my imaginary Riot strawman thinks), once one mage is viable in the bot carry role, players will realize that any damage dealer is viable there.

It didn't work out this way. Players now think that either they have an ADC, or they have this bullshit metal guy who somehow gets unkillable while dealing infinite damage. If they had wanted to shake up the metagame in a reasonable way, they could have given us a different sort of mage: someone who did the ADC things similarly (taking towers, sustained damage over time) while scaling harder off gold than experience, like ADCs do. This makes me wonder if Azir was ever a shadow-attempt, a sort of alpha prototype of Morde that was ADC-esque but dealt magic damage.

I can't summarize this rework as anything other than a complete failure. It's demoralizing to play against, it's boring and unfun to play, it's too complex to read and comprehend, and it feels nothing like a League of Legends champion should feel. It seems like someone copy/pasted a design from some budget ripoff of League, put it into this game, and now we have to deal with the fallout.


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