perfectly spherical

Game Design In Theory

Stat Sticks and Non-Choices (Your Honor, LoL part 3)

☰ Table of Content

It’s not characters with huge mobility powers, like Akshan or Yone. It’s not characters with intricate mechanics and interesting conditions for getting their damage, like Vel’Koz or Irelia. It’s not even characters like Vayne who get massive damage in the lategame if they can survive long enough.

No, there’s one kind of character with persistent power, one kind of build that is always popular, and one kind of playstyle that I just fucking hate so much.

Stat Sticks are fun to play as. They’re not fun to play against.

But first: What is a stat stick? For the purpose of this article, it’s a character, ability, or item that just functions as a stat boost. Its whole purpose is to say one thing: “My numbers are bigger than yours.” We’re mostly gonna talk about characters who are or have Stat Sticks built-in.

This is awesome for the guy playing with the stat stick. He feels powerful. It’s satisfying watching someone’s healthbar get cut in half with one autoattack. It feels good to stand in the middle of a group of enemies and take almost no damage because your armor is impenetrable. When you pop Singed’s ult and run circles around the fools who dared oppose you, you get the satisfaction of knowing that their struggle is in vain, and that their first mistake was chasing Singed.

This awesome power has a downside, though: The guy playing against the statstick isn’t having such a fun time. It feels great to stand there and take someone’s entire kit without flinching. But when you throw literally every form of damage you have against a target and it just isn’t enough to kill them, it is depressing. And, y’know, at least Singed has a convenient counterplay–don’t chase him and he can’t do damage. Characters like Kayle, on the other hand…

Pure Stat Sticks: “This game was over at 5 minutes.”

Kayle’s whole thing is that she gains massive buffs over the course of the game. She starts super weak–a melee character with limited engage and the squishiness of a ranged character. She struggles in the early game because she’s deliberately designed to be weak that early. All she has is a stacking attack speed buff.

Then she hits level 6, and becomes a ranged character. And if she can get the ball rolling after that, you’ve lost the game. See, at level 6, she becomes significantly more viable because now she’s a true ranged character, removing her main weakness in the early game. At level 11 she starts getting an AoE fire wave on every attack after her fifth shot in an engagement, giving her insane waveclear; if you can’t kill her quickly at this point, she’s deadly. And then she hits level 16, at which point every attack is a fire wave, the attack speed buff is permanently maxed out, and she gets another buff to her attack range. A Kayle who has hit level 16 is nigh-unstoppable in a 1v1, because if she hasn’t built her full set of items by then, she has enough wave-clear to finish her build while singlehandedly taking the rest of your towers. Kayle’s victory condition is “Have I hit level 16 yet?”.

This is not fun to play against, because the game can be over at the 5 or 10 minute mark if Kayle gets an early lead. Because Kayle’s win condition is “survive the early game”, and because there’s no counterplay once she’s survived the early game, you end up in my least favorite kind of League game: The kind that you lost by the ten-minute mark and will be stuck in for another 30.

The problem here is very simple: Once Kayle’s numbers are bigger than yours, you have no viable options. Once Kayle is winning, Kayle has won. You might stand a chance if the rest of the Kayle’s team is bad at the game. And if you focused Kayle early on, there’s a real chance that another member of their team is scaling that hard as well–if, say, your opponents are a Kayle in botlane and a Nasus in toplane, then the jungler has to choose between pressuring Kayle to prevent her from getting her early lead or pressuring Nasus to prevent him from getting his early lead in stacks, which brings me to the other kind of stat stick:

Anti-Choice Stat Sticks: “If you’re playing the game, you win.”

Nasus’s thing is that whenever he kills a minion with his Q–an enhancement for his basic attack–he gains a stack, giving him permanent stat boosts. You might argue this is better than Kayle, because Nasus actually has to do something that requires some timing to get his thing going. And there are Nasus players at low elos who suck at getting stacks. There’s just one problem:

If you are playing League of Legends, you are killing minions.

Minion farming is built into every character’s setup. The only role that doesn’t use minions for gold is support, and even that role is about 50% characters who rely on minions and the ability to share gold with their ally (via Targon’s Buckler). Nasus’s Q is not really a conditional effect in the way that, for instance, Veigar’s Q is–Veigar’s Q is a skillshot that has to be aimed, and he must choose between taking out minions with it or landing hits on champions with it. Similarly, it’s not a conditional in the way that Irelia’s stacks are, because Irelia has to kill four minions to set up her thing–she has to go above and beyond minion farming, and think about how many minions she’s killed in this wave, whether this is a good time to go in, whether she should wait to take the cannon in this wave or go in for the kill. Irelia has a limited window of opportunity to use that bonus, one which closes quickly.

Nasus, on the other hand, just has to farm–and farming is a thing you do anyway.

This is what I call an “anti-choice”–it is technically a choice, but it is so braindead easy to make that choice that it basically only functions as a punishment for players who don’t know about the choice yet. It is not a question of whether Nasus uses his Q; it is a question of whether Nasus is able to land his Q. Nasus has to hit a button with correct timing, but there is never a reason for him not to hit that button, and there is nothing his opponent can do about that button being hit.

And this is arguably an improvement over the way Kayle works. Kayle gets her upgrade whether she’s pressing the buttons or not. Technically she has to pick a skill, but a Kayle can be almost AFK and still get her victory condition because it happens when she gets to a certain level. Nasus has to hit a button at a specific time. This does introduce some element of input skill to the equation. Similarly, Mundo’s ultimate requires you to hit the button at the right time to save him from a death. However, the fact that the user of the ability has to have input skill does not mean there is counterplay.

A better example from the same game:

Sett was universally reviled when he came out, like many of the more recent champions. Decried as overpowered, hard to kill, with an overloaded kit that made him capable of playing in any lane, he was considered the latest and worst example of Riot being Riot. (Funnily enough, he’s already considered tame compared to the likes of Akshan and Vex.)

However, there’s a couple really interesting details about how Sett works, tied into his W.

Firstly, it has a resource. Instead of mana, Sett stores “Grit” when he has his W. He gains Grit equal to how much damage he’s taken, with a cap at half his health. This drains 4 seconds after he gains it. This introduces a form of counterplay: Hit Sett hard, then back off. Granted, he has a missing-health regeneration effect on his passive, so that four seconds might undo a big chunk of the damage you did–but if you can consistently poke him down and play patiently, he becomes vulnerable.

Secondly, it has two hitboxes. When he activates his W, it turns all his Grit into a shield–but also does damage in a cone-shaped area. The center of the cone does True Damage, piercing armor–but the sides of the cone do physical damage, resisted by armor, and if you run diagonally to his side, you may be able to simply walk out of it. Several other champions have this pattern of cone-shaped AoEs that can be avoided by walking diagonally toward the caster–Aatrox’s chain comes to mind. This rewards a player who has the confidence to move in, or who recognizes that Sett hasn’t got backup to cover that side. Even if you don’t move in, you can avoid damage by walking perpendicular to him–especially if you built armor. And his shield begins decaying just .75 seconds after it triggers–meaning that if you can kite him for a couple of seconds, you turn that massive shield into a waste of resources.

Because of this, Sett’s W has counterplay. Because it has conditions to be truly effective–conditions that opponents can react to, which aren’t things that players do anyway–you have a real choice, not an anti-choice, which gives Sett’s opponents a way to outplay him. It is this ability to outplay that makes Sett more interesting to fight than Nasus.

Of course, Sett still has some anti-choice built into him: He gains his Grit by taking damage…a thing that happens to everyone at some point in League of Legends. Indeed, you have to do damage to stop him, so at some point you’re gonna build Grit for him. This is still kinda bad design, but it’s offset by giving his opponents maneuvering options to mitigate the results.

This is not a silver bullet.

Not every ‘real’ choice is going to add counterplay, and not every ‘anti-choice’ is enough to make a character uncounterable. Hell, there are counterplays to things that may seem utterly impossible to counter. Sometimes it’s as simple as baiting the anti-choice out–getting an opponent to waste a powerful tool before they need it. Other times, you can rely on the target only being able to do their nastiest attack every minute or so. The right cooldown can turn an anti-choice into a resource to be managed, which makes for far better counterplay than the anti-choice by itself.

Sometimes, having the obvious answer is a good thing; one of the ways Sett’s power was mitigated was with the Serpent’s Fang, an item that simply halves the effectiveness of a target’s shields. This isn’t ideal, but it mitigates situations where Sett’s numbers are too large by giving his opponents a way to easily remove some of those big numbers. Both the Serpent’s Fang and the grievous wounds mechanics suffer from having no counterplay to the counterplay–though GW recently got some counterplay options in the form of Soraka’s ult removing grievous wounds before applying its heal–but they are useful as an answer to an otherwise uncounterable effect (shields and lifesteal, respectively).

Another thing that needs to be considered is whether the counterplay is obvious. It’s not enough to simply have counterplay–it must be easy for a player to understand that the counterplay exists. I used to hate playing against Irelia–but now that I know that she has a stack-building mechanic, that she relies on clearing the wave before going in, I know what to look for. That knowledge took that matchup from “impossible and frustrating” to “understandable and beatable”.

A game’s counterplay should be immediately obvious. You should go out of your way to show the player which actions are effective, which are not effective, what conditions are and when they are met. Jhin’s a great example–he sounds off his attack-stacking mechanic. He literally counts his shots as he makes them, emphasizing the power of the fourth shot–and his fourth shot also comes with a special animation as he starts spinning his revolver. These audio and visual cues give players a clear signal: Stay away from Jhin when he’s about to say “FOUR”.

This is good design. It shows the player what to do through the things they see on their screen, and thus gives them a way to learn interactively what to do about Jhin. What Irelia really needs is just some kind of audio/animation cue for when she’s got her stacks and is ready to engage–or maybe she already has one, and I simply haven’t noticed it yet. (You don’t want subtlety in these things–you need to make the key information obvious.)

Don’t forget to check out the previous article, where I talked more about the idea of ‘discoverability’ (AKA making counterplay obvious).

Update: 2021-09-14

<< Minecraft Modpack Dev Is Hell Dr. Strangeloot (MLHRWM, Part 3) >>