Dote Night: How League Of Legends’ Starter Champs Work

Ashe. She's the first champion I played and I absolutely ripped the other team apart. Coming from another MOBA and knowing a lot fo the rules already is fun!

Part of a miscellany of serious thoughts, animal gifs, and anecdotage from the realm of MOBAs/hero brawlers/lane-pushers/ARTS/tactical wizard-em-ups. One day Pip might even tell you the story of how she bumped into Na’Vi’s Dendi at a dessert buffet cart. THIS WEEK, however, she will be finding out how League of Legends picked out their starter champion lineup!

League of Legends [official site] treats newcomers ever so slightly differently to veterans when it come to which champions they are allowed to play for their first few games. Instead of just plunging these baby Leaguers into whatever’s on the free rotation you get to pick from a pre-selected roster of more straightforward characters like Ashe and Aatrox. If you’re more familiar with Dota 2, it’s similar to that game’s Limited Hero pool. The idea is to give players a bit of guidance and prime them for a more positive introductory experience to League than if they pick a character like Orianna and proceed to get utterly destroyed. I got in touch with Riot to find out how their picked their champs:

“The starter hero lineup was one of the first things we worked on when we took a look at onboarding,” says Kacee Granke – associate product manager at Riot. “We did an experiment to test the many assumptions we had about champion learnability by specially selecting ten champions for one week of our free to play rotation, based on internal assumptions about what made a champion “hard” (Vayne, Fiora) or “easy” (Sivir, Annie) for new players.”

The team’s suspicions were borne out in these tests: “Some of our ‘high skill’ champs being chosen during a player’s first game resulted in faster departure from the game after a frustrating match where they had an abysmal KDA [kill/death/assist] against our easiest opponents, Beginner Bots.”

I love the smell of exploding nexuses in the morning

That was enough for the team to decide to work the idea up into a full feature, but the skill requirement of a character was only one factor in what made a champion a good fit for new players.

“Like most League players, we were initially biased towards thinking that complexity was the only important component in choosing a ‘good’ champion for new players. We asked a few other important questions that turned out to be quite relevant, though hard to quantify – what about champion fantasy, role, or aesthetics? How important were these for a new player deciding whether or not they thought the game was fun?”

When the feature went live the team was able to experiment with different line-ups in order to try and dig into how important these different aspects actually were. Here’s Granke on what they found out:

  • “Most surprisingly – and importantly – mechanical complexity is not the important factor. What matters is mechanical approachability – can I do good enough with this character with very little or no experience against bots or people of similar skill? Can I get a kill by pressing buttons, even if I’m not executing at the optimal level (or even close to it)? Lissandra and Varus are good examples of champions that surprised us by being really great new player champions, and we realized that you can be successful with them (ie, do lots of damage, kill things) even though you might be unaware of the champion’s intricacies or high-level play.”
  • “Ranged champions are almost universally easier for a first time player. Managing minion aggro and early-game damage turned out to be one of the most difficult things to teach gamers. Ranged characters force you to stand back and dish out damage from the back line instead of getting up-close and personal, which results in fewer deaths and more kicking (bot) ass. Ranged AD carries in particular fared very well for those reasons and also that their basic attacks dish out the majority of their damage, which is great for players still learning how to use abilities.”
  • “Early champion choices tend to be sticky, and aesthetic definitely comes into play. For players who went through the tutorial and played Ashe, Ashe would often be their #1 choice going forward. For players who hadn’t gone through the tutorial, new players would pick based on their personal affinity for certain archetypes of characters – or at least who looked like they could dish out the most damage (bigger sword = more damage, obviously).”
  • Speaking of big swords...

  • “Support champions had a pretty abysmal retention rate to begin with, but we thought they were important to offer and introduce to new players. Eventually we realized that it was what items we recommended to new players on support champions, not the champions themselves, were what was holding us back, and were able to make changes in Intro Bots that made support champions fun and accessible for new players.”

“Over several weeks, we adjusted the champions in the roster based on these observations which helped us turn this feature into something that made a real positive impact on the new player experience – improving KDAs against bots, reducing leaver rates, and ultimately increasing retention.”

The current roster of starter champions is as follows:

  • Aatrox
  • Ashe
  • Garen
  • Graves
  • Jinx
  • Katarina
  • Kha’Zix
  • Lux
  • Riven
  • Ryze

One of the interesting things to me – and, Granke says, the biggest lesson for the team – is that what an experienced player thinks will be easy or hard for a new player is pretty wide of the mark. What you end up assuming new players need to know is the stuff you deliberately looked up or consciously considered rather than all the little bits and pieces you gradually internalise through hundreds of hours of play.

“You learn so many unconscious rules and systems to understand how League of Legends works that you tend to jump right into the ones that you remember spending a lot of time learning consciously, like warding, last hitting, or game strategy, while forgetting about the most basic foundations of the game. The new player champion pool was our first foray into dismantling internal assumptions and we took a lot of those lessons into making Intro Bots.”

One aspect of the system I was curious about was whether having some heroes designated as harder than others meant players would shy away from those or feel intimidated by them when they showed up later. Basically, does saying “this is hard” put up a barrier between the player and some of the champions?

There is a lot of complexity even with our more ‘approachable’ heroes,” says Granke. “You can and do see many of our starter heroes played at the highest levels of competitive play, so I don’t think you’re necessarily hampered by having started off with these instead of a champion considered to be more difficult (though running into a higher-level player or smurf on a hyper carry is never going to be a good time). The individual skill ceiling may be higher for Vayne than Ashe, but you can play Ashe all the way from level 1 to Master tier, because there is so much more to being good at League than mechanical acuity.”

Just after level 5 you’ll transition to the regular champion rotation. The game feels very different at level 5 and at level 6 so I ask whether Riot has worked on helping players with that transition from one champion pool to the next.

“We did our best to bias our choices towards those that can be purchased for small amounts of earned currency (IP) that you could acquire by or around level 6.” That means if you really enjoy playing with one of those heroes chances are you’ll be able to afford to buy permanent access to them using the points you’ve earned through playing the game so far. That’s not true across the board though, as the team didn’t want champion cost to outrank the potential for fun with the starter champ pool. “More could be done in this [transition] area,” admits Granke.

What kind of jerk instapicks Ashe when I want to instapick Ashe?

“Figuring out basic game rules and mechanics is the very first step a player needs to take before they can start digging into the deeper world of the strategic and mechanical mastery, and those basic rules and structures are what we are trying to teach in the first five levels, because they were the most underserved. Transitioning from being a brand new player to being someone who is ready to play ranked is an area that’s serviced pretty well by the community, though of course we would love to work on it more someday.”

In terms of what the team might focus on next when it comes to getting new players to stick around, Granke points out hiccups on the MOBA learning curve which can be jarring – the example she gives is your first PVP experience. I don’t think I remember much about my first PvP experience in a MOBA, as it goes. I hadn’t played any bot games, I just launched straight in. I was concentrating really hard on not dying through the whole game so I think the encounter with the larger, more colourful creep, with the confusing abilities just got folded into a melange of “things to be survived”. Knowing more about what actually happens and how people deal with those flashpoints would be interesting.

Something I’ve wondered is about having the option of pressing a hotkey to save the last 30 seconds of play so you can watch it after the match and it would tell you what order the abilities were used and give info on whatever passives or item bonuses were in effect. Basically you could actually see what happened and work out which items and abilities made all the difference and what you could do differently next time.

“Identifying those [flashpoints] and making them easier to surmount would definitely be the next step in improving onboarding in League of Legends,” says Granke.


  1. Bioblit says:

    Is nexuses the plural of nexus? It seems like it should be nexi, or nexes.

    • DragonOfTime says:

      According to Oxford English Dictionary, nexus has two plural forms: nexus and nexuses.

    • wheadna says:

      In English, the English pluralisation is always considered acceptable, though you may use the root pluralisation as well. Hence octopuses or octopodes may be used as the plural for octopus.

  2. wondermoth says:

    Although it’s been a while since I played LoL, how is Kha’zix, with his many ability permutations and complex isolation mechanic, an easier champ to play than, say, Nunu?

    Also, there are no supports on that list, and while itemisation is important for LoL supports, so is actually being a viable support champion. One of the biggest causes of toxicity in LoL is the number of players who refuse to support, meaning your team ends up saddled with a “support” Lux/Nidalee, and arguments usually ensue. It seems Riot is now actively encouraging this?

    Thank god for Smite.

    • Xocrates says:

      Those champs were clearly selected to teach the basic mechanics, not the meta, and most certainly not preset roles – nor is that something new players (as in, pre-level 5 players) would be likely to be interested in if they just started playing.

      While I too don’t get why kha’zix would be there, Nunu is pretty useless outside the jungle, and most supports would just be weak mages.

      • honuk says:

        while nunu is useless outside the jungle, he is also arguably the only character who actually can jungle with no runes or masteries. as it stands, low level games simply can’t have a jungler, which is a little jarring.

        • Xocrates says:

          Keep in mind that these are targeted at extremely low level players who are expected to be playing against bots – which also don’t jungle.

    • Hideous Z says:

      Like the article said, the champions of choice were based on a lot of data about what new players found immediate success with, and some of them weren’t intuitive. My suspicious is that Nunu, while certainly not mechanically complex, is a difficult champion to find success with. He’s not about damage or kills, he’s about utility and teamfight CC, things that will just go right over brand new players’ heads. Plus, he’s best played in the jungle, which is another thing that new players are best off avoiding.

      Similar argument with supports. The support role is a semi-advanced concept – the idea of a champion not farming and avoiding taking kills isn’t intuitive. If the idea is to get players into the game and teach them the basics, avoiding champions that have victory conditions other than “see hero, kill hero” is probably a good idea.

      And the avoiding support role isn’t really a thing anymore. I’ve played LoL for several years, and the days of no one every wanting to play support are long gone. The last couple of seasons have done a lot to improve the enjoyability of that role.

      • wondermoth says:

        I dunno. I remember the big support item revamp. I don’t remember it making a big difference to the number of non-support supports being picked. I used to main support just to prevent people from picking “support” Nidalee/Lux/Shen/Ashe.

        As for the need to introduce new players to champions they enjoy… it’s just wrong. You can’t pretend the meta doesn’t exist. Even Level 1 players will find 40% of their team are smurfs, who will shout at them for not being pros. I’m sure far more people are put off LoL by the horrendous toxicity than they are by metagame stuff.

        • Smoky_the_Bear says:

          I agree about the smurfs but that is a different problem and imo shouldn’t mean that newer players are treated differently. If people are lame enough to smurf I’ll laugh at their childish little outbursts at people who clearly just started playing the game.
          Concepts like supporting and jungling, are not only counter-intuitive to a new player, but they overload the player with too much information. Combine with that they have their own distinct and more complex build paths AND generally require the right runes and masteries trying to teach new players all of that is too much.
          Maybe some form of system where at account level 15ish they introduce a new tier of free heroes (junglers and supports) and give some instruction on more advanced concepts would be a good idea. From the start, no, it wouldn’t help anybody.

        • Smoky_the_Bear says:

          Also from playing this season I’m definitely seeing less of a reluctance from people to support. Which is definitely a good thing.

        • Asurmen says:

          What exactly are you classing as supports? Give me some heroes and why they class as support and those others don’t in comparison.

          • wondermoth says:

            Well, let’s take Sona as a great example. Sona has heals, she has aoe stuns, she has damage buff auras and she has movement speed buff auras. As your laning partner, she can zone the enemy while buffing you in three different ways. In teamfights, her utility is amplified enormously, plus, in skilled hands, she can still do serious damage.

            Now, while her heal per second isn’t as big as Nidalee’s, we also need to consider the psychological angle. A Nidalee support isn’t picked with a support mentality. A Nidalee support is almost always going to max out their damage in their builds, and if you’re really lucky they might build a Sightstone. They’ll almost certainly max the spears instead of the heals, too, but her zoning in lane isn’t great as her spears are dodgable once you have some boots, her traps are near useless, and when you get to midgame, any pretense at utility is gone.

            Support champions are support champions for a reason. I can play Twisted Fate as a support surprisingly effectively, as long as I have an ADC who gets that I’m a stun machine. This does *not* mean Twisted Fate is a viable support for the majority of players.

          • Asurmen says:

            Just because Sona is a better support doesn’t stop those others from being support (why Ashe was on your list though I don’t know. Bit weird). Just because those others support in other ways doesn’t stop them from being support.

          • Xocrates says:

            Ashe has slows (includign aoe), a global stun, and a vision granting skill. She’s intentionally designed as an utility based ADC, and even Riot states she has a secondary role as support.

            Generally speaking, a support is a high utility champion that can get along well with little gold. Consequently, any damage dealing “support” tends to fall off massively after the early game unless they’re actively “stealing” from the carries.

          • Asurmen says:

            From my point of view of never having played a single ranked game, apart from Ashe I wouldn’t have an issue with any of those listed being support. Seems like you’re using high level play as a definition on who can support which seems rather restrictive.

          • Xocrates says:

            To be perfectly, all of those are acceptable supports, the problem mentioned was that most players that pick them as “support” don’t actually play them as such.

  3. Thirdrail says:

    I think it’s really only Ashe and Garen who are permanent starters. When I began League, early this year, most of the others, if not all of the others, were different than the ones listed here. Lissandra was on my list, and I fell in love with her. Then I reached level six and they took her away and I spent what seemed like forever saving up the 6300IP to buy her back. It was SLIGHTLY annoying. >< The only good part was that I bought Poppy in the interim, because she was cute and cheap, and now I'm pretty good at Poppy. Good enough that people friend me to ask for Poppy lessons! Still, that Lissandra rug yank was easily my least favorite thing from my time in League. Looking at the current list, I feel bad for the new players who are happiest with Aatrox and the bug. They both cost 6300IP, too. That's a long and lonely wait when you're new and overwhelmed and just want your partner back!

    • AceJohnny says:

      They both cost 6300IP, too. That’s a long and lonely wait when you’re new and overwhelmed and just want your partner back!

      Alternatively, you could buy the champions with RPs. Using the lowest-cost RP pack ($10/1380RP) a 975RP champion is ~$7, 880RP ~= $6.4, 260RP ~= $2.

      Riot is a business whose well-balanced game you’re enjoying and they have business model that doesn’t screw you over with pay-to-win. For me at least, the first few hours of gaming was well worth giving them $25 and pick a few champions I liked. At that point I had already gotten more value than many other steam games in the same price range.

        • Smoky_the_Bear says:

          Lol, got right to the bottom without a single mention of dota, then, last comment, ofc it has to come up.
          If you don’t understand why DOTAs free model is not possible for other games, get a brain, stop being a fanboy, or just go and play your damn game instead of trolling LoL articles.
          Dota fanboys are the fucking worst.

          • wengart says:


            More seriously though I’m replying to the guy who says ‘Well why don’t you just go pay Riot money to access heroes we’ve learned the game on and become comfortable with”, and more specifically to this:

            “At that point I had already gotten more value than many other steam games in the same price range.”

            Ostensibly Dota is very similar to LoL and provides a similar experience for $25 under his price range.

            Hell you even agree with me that the whole process is a bit bait and switchy.

            If I wanted to troll I wouldn’t be doing it in a thread about pricing and cynical strategies to get new players to buy into LoL, but instead be going around saying that LoL is “boring” and “mechanically easier”. I’d also probably try to make a pun based on the laugh out loud/ League of Legends acronym sharing.

          • Kitsunin says:

            You know, I’d have sympathy for LoL’s system IF THEY DIDN’T FUCKING SEGREGATE EVERY GODDAMN COUNTRY. As a world traveler, it is FUCKING BULLSHIT that I have to start from scratch whenever I’m somewhere new, lest I deal with unusable amounts of delay. Lest I be unable to play with the people I know. This is even more horrid when I know people who play on, say, a Chinese language client, I’d like to play with them but then I can’t even play in English. It’s ludicrous.

            Even for the bare minimum, a roster of my ten preferred heroes, who mostly cost 6300 IP, I have to spend somewhere around $50 in addition to hundreds of hours to get beyond ranked every time I move. As a preferred jungler, it’s even more awful since I can’t even use most champions I like, even if I did buy them, even if I’m cool with playing unranked and casually until that hundred hours + are past.

            You know, I liked LoL, probably more than other such games, but I cannot fucking stand anything about it which extends beyond the inside of summoner’s rift.

          • Kitsunin says:

            *can’t even play with items and skill info and other such important factors being in English, of course other players won’t use English, that part’s fine.

      • Smoky_the_Bear says:

        He does have a point though. I’d call it a bit of a cynical move to put new, full price champs available for new players then take them away knowing full well it will take a lot more games until people can afford to buy that champ. I refuse to believe they couldn’t find some older, cheaper champions to fit the list.

        • Xocrates says:

          It’s slightly trickier than it seems.

          While I do agree that it’s a dick move, Riot takes forever to lower champ prices (if at all), so pretty much all the cheap champs are the ones available at release or soon after. The game, and champion design, changed a lot since then so many of those champs are rather boring or ill-designed by current standards.

          More than half the champions (60+) are on the highest 2 price tiers.

    • Thirdrail says:

      Gosh, this went a lot of places. lol Honestly, I was speaking more to the emotional rollercoaster it creates when your anchor champion disappears. I wanted to get Lissandra back with IP because she was my favorite and buying her with IP seemed more meaningful. Once we were reunited, I immediately bought both of her alternate outfits. I’ve spent a lot of money on League since then. I have a couple hundred special outfits now, across almost a hundred champions, most of whom I have bought with RP. No part of me is opposed to shopping, and there is nothing I’d rather pay for than beautiful artwork, which is how I view all my League champions and their wardrobes. Except they are even better than paintings or sculptures because you actually get to play with them.

      Anyway, my point was really more along the lines of… I think it would be a nice/fair thing if Riot let you have one free champion from your starter roster when you graduate to level six. The game can be overwhelming, and the other players can be even more overwhelming (trying to be diplomatic here!). I think giving new people that anchor would make them feel more comfortable, and less abandoned, and, at least in my case, would only have led to me spending real money a week sooner than I did.

  4. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Huh. When I started playing there was none of this. And it’s really good they’ve done this because I wouldn’t wish what I experienced on others. My first pick (out of a huge list of champions I had no clue about) was Quinn. I’m now quite a bit more familiar with League but I’d certainly not describe her as easy to play. I think I had a KDA ratio of about 1/8/3.. against easy bots!

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      Then again, a champion like Lux isn’t exactly easy to play either. The big advantage Lux has is her range, but skillshots aren’t exactly that easy to pull off when you’re new to the game. For me, at any rate.

      • honuk says:

        while this is reasonably true, there are two things about Lux that would make her pretty good for this list: 1) she isn’t just a ranged champion, she’s a really long ranged champion. all of her abilities are significantly longer than average, and her E gives you a lot of room for error; 2) for whatever reason, new players all love Lux. seriously every player goes through a Lux phase (myself included). I don’t know why.

        • Hmm-Hmm. says:

          You may be right. You certainly are regarding her range. I actually never played Lux. I did play a few games with Ezreal very early on, though. And.. that didn’t work out very well.

  5. Abndn says:

    It’s interesting to see that Riven, arguably the most mechanically complex, highest skill ceiling champion in the game (at the very least in the top 3 range) made it in. I guess she has a cool aesthetic, and helps showcase the range of what is possible for a LoL champ, but it’s a curious choice.

  6. Bremze says:

    I play quite a bit of Dota but decided to give LoL a shot when my girlfriend’s brother was visiting. Got acclimated in a few games, preferring Katarina and Lux the most, though lacking all the summoner spells kinda sucked. Then I hit level 6, all the starter heroes were removed with the ones I liked costing about twice as much currency as I had at that point and I just noped the hell away from the game. Now I just chuckle whenever someone uses LoL as a example of good F2P cash shop.