With the Mid-Season Invitational around the corner for League of Legends, plans are already well underway at Riot Games for the Summer season. As we've discussed before, Riot are not the kind of studio to sit on their haunches and major changes are coming to the game in the form of the Mage Update. You can find the full details of the patch here, but here’s what you need to know:
The Dragon has long represented a significant problem for Riot. Once it was a true game-winning objective, used to snowball early leads out of control by awarding significant experience and global gold. It could be leveraged to force team-fights, benefiting sides with clever objective control or strong laning phases. But in its current form it's more of a bonus objective, quite nice to have with small buffs permanently awarded for each dragon you kill, but rarely critical to success. That is, until a team grabs their fifth dragon of a game, when suddenly it bestows the entire team with god-like buffs to their team-fighting abilities.
Riot are now introducing elemental dragons, that grant specific buffs to a team depending on which dragon spawned. The dragon can first spawn as one of four elemental types, while a timer will appear after its death letting both teams know which element will be the next to appear. But an important thing to remember is that they don't come in a specific order, but are instead partially randomised until the 35 minute mark.
Let's take a look at the different kinds:
“The Fire Dragon increases champion killing power. Augments your dueling and Team Fighting abilities”
“Increases turret and epic monster damage. Augments your ability to take objectives.”
“Increases health and mana regeneration. Augments your ability to siege and poke.”
“Increases out of combat movement speed. Augments your ability to outmaneuver opponents on the map.”
“After 35 minutes into the game, all future dragon spawns become Elder Dragon spawns. The Elder Dragon is far more difficult to kill than his elemental counterparts, but taking him out grants a powerful burn-over-time on spells and attacks and a buff that is stronger for each elemental stack you have.”
It's worth noting here that any existing dragon on the map won't despawn to make room for the Elder, it will simply be the next dragon to spawn once 35 minutes have passed. The Elder Dragon will also have a 10 minute timer until it respawns, which suggests it may end up as a more important late-game objective than Baron Nashor, who sits at 7 minutes. The Baron buff itself will however have an increased duration.
Professional players have spoken out already with some major concerns about the changes to dragon. Origen's jungler Amazing weighed in with his thoughts on Twitter, stating “Riot is trying way too hard to achieve unique solutions to certain game mechanics instead of just going back to the roots. Give dragon gold; buff turrets; nerf death timers; make devourer equal in design to warrior; increase cost of CDR.”
He added: “Every pro will tell you that the constant changes kill the incentive to prepare for a split. We never know what's going to stick. Might as well just get to play-offs and peak there. Just admit you done goofed and stop trying to be fancy with the changes.”
Amazing's comments are interesting in the context of our interview with Riot analyst Deficio, who suggested that Origen are a team who particularly struggle to adapt to big meta changes - though they always seem to come good at the end of a season. A possible reason behind their struggles could be that Origen think it's simply not worthwhile to try and second-guess how meta changes will affect the professional scene until evidence has solidified over the duration of a split.
For Riot's part, Andrei 'Meddler' van Roon – their Lead Gameplay Designer – has weighed in with some of their reasoning behind the Dragon changes. He stresses that Riot's intent is to drive early conflict, by making Dragon more appealing, while introducing more variation from game-to-game. As a spectator that reasoning appeals to me, but it's understandable that professional teams might find that the prospect of a partially randomised objective presents new problems in planning, with no obvious solution.
Aside from the Dragon, the key thrust of the Mage update is - as you might expect - an update to mages. Riot have selected seven champions they consider to be ripe for tweaks and gameplay updates in an effort to differentiate them from the pack.
Malzahar is a void (think purple space hell) obsessed control mage, who can lock down single-targets, push waves with ease and infect targets with dangerous damage-over-time effects.
Malzahar's main changes revolve around his new ability to spawn upto three Voidlings – scurrying little creatures that target enemies afflicted by his Malefic Visions, who multiply as they attack. Moving some of Malzahar's power away from his strong but easily countered ultimate ability can only be a good thing for him.
Brand is a fire mage, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Planescape Torment's Ignus, with a similar propensity for setting enemies alight.
Brand's changes are aimed at making him slightly less of a single target threat, with a stronger focus on his already formidable Area of Effect abilities. His passive still sets targets hit by his abilities ablaze, but stacking it three times on a single enemy will now detonate dealing heavy damage in an AoE that scales off a target's maximum health, meaning the more enemies present, the more damage Brand is able to dish out.
Vlad is a vampire, who harnesses the power of blood to heal himself and harm his foes.
Vladimir retains his status as LoL's primary sustain mage, but changes to his kit allow for more risky play, spending health to deal more damage. This is particularly evident in his E ability 'Tides of Pain', where he can charge an AoE around himself damaging all enemies in the radius.
Zyra is a control mage who uses deadly plants to lock down foes and control the flow of a battle with powerful Area of Effect and Crowd Control abilities.
The changes to Zyra are mostly focused on removing her rubbish passive that gave her a difficult to aim projectile on death. Instead, her new passive 'Garden of Thorns' periodically spawns seeds around her. Using her spells she can grow plants from these seeds to aid her in battle. Where before Zyra had to manually place a limited number of seeds, now she will have more options at her disposal.
Vel'Koz is a be-tentacled void creature - basically a flying octopus with a giant, long range laser beam.
The major change to Vel'Koz is that his ultimate 'Lifeform Disintegration Ray' starts to deal true damage after ticking on an enemy three times. It means that instead of needing to try and position himself near enemy carries, Vel'Koz will be able to absolutely melt any front-line tanks caught in his laser.
A serpentine Medusa, Cassiopeia floods the battlefield with poisons, honing in on enemies afflicted and turning her foes to stone.
The major change to Cassiopeia is the new status affliction caused by her W ability Miasma; enemies caught in the poison (now a much larger area) are 'grounded', meaning they are unable to use movement abilities, such as dashes and even Flash. Meanwhile as a half-snake, Cassiopeia now receives movement speed per level which doesn't stack with boots, which kind of makes sense since her bottom half is that of a snake.
Meanwhile Annie, Swain, Fiddlesticks, Ziggs, Syndra, Xerath, Anivia and Veigar will be receiving minor updates to their kit.
My take on these changes is that these characters may very well become viable, but they share a common trait in their almost total lack of movement abilities (Cassiopeia has a small movement speed buff on her Q, Vlad can turn into a pool of blood, Ziggs has his satchel charge albeit on a long cooldown). This has always been the case of course, but mobility creep in the last few years has left them in a very vulnerable position, unable to chase down more mobile champions for a kill and unable to escape clever initiations.
While some ADCs like Kog’Maw can survive being limited in such a way thanks to support champions and utility mages providing protection, it's difficult to see a scenario where these mages receive the same level of care and attention from their team-mates. Almost by definition they live in a solo lane, where weakness is seized upon instantly. The Mage update seems to be an attempt to put some power back into the hands of these almost stationary targets, while leaving their key vulnerability intact. It will certainly be interesting to see which if any of these champions are suddenly found flooding Dynamic Queue and the professional scene.
Finally, there are changes to items - particularly those used by mages. Will of the Ancients – a tome that grants healing on abilities used by mages – has been removed, but several enticing new options come into play, such as:
The Hextech GLP-800
The Hextech GLP-800 offers Health, Mana and Ability Power, turning damage received into mana, while spending mana returns some of your lost health up to a cap. It also has an active component where you're able to fire out a spray of icy bolts to damage and slow enemies.
The Hextech Protobelt-01
The Hextech Protobelt-01 grants Health, Ability Power and Cooldown Reduction. The active allows you to dash forward and unleash a ring of fire bolts that deal magic damage.
This patch will likely sit on the Public Beta Environment (PBE) for some time before going live and Riot are being careful not to introduce major patches just before tournaments after the backlash over the 2015 World Championship. Next week sees the start of the Mid-Season Invitational, which will run on the recent 6.8, with the newly re-tooled and still fabulous Taric unfortunately disabled.