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Pyke champion analysis: Into the deep end

Riot set out to prove they could make an assassin support, but did they stop to think if they should?

Riot Games

Whether you’re ready to buy him, ban him or become his next victim, you’ve probably heard about Pyke, League of Legends’ newest support. While Riot’s champion updates achieve their goals by bringing a beloved (or maligned) character’s concept and mechanics into the modern era, new champions carry a different burden. Without the years of attachment or history that an Irelia or Galio might have to inspire excitement, each new champion must generate enough interest and novelty to even have a shot at becoming an addition to your portfolio of favorites. Sometimes, this is achieved by mixing a popular class with a unique theme - like say, “fighter + hookshot + bladelegs = Camille.”

Other times, Riot wants to get your attention by showing they can still shake things up. That’s where Pyke comes in.

Pyke’s position as League’s first intentional support-assassin (more on that later) has stirred up no shortage of controversy within the community at large.

Pyke’s art direction, visual effects, voice and sound are all home-runs for Riot’s champion team. His kit’s got a good flow, and if a few games of what could be a tough learning curve (if you’re unfamiliar with playmakers) aren’t going to get you down, it’s hard to imagine having a bad time with him. Pyke will provide a unique bot lane experience and is probably worth the Blue Essence or RP for that reason alone.

Let’s take a dive.

The right way to support

In the months leading to Pyke’s reveal, Riot was all too excited to tease that a new support ‘with a twist’ was in the works. As the days drew closer and details about his aggressive nature came to light, many players began theorizing just how they’d pull it off. After his gameplay trailer went live however, there were two sounds that drowned out the other reactions: cheers from those who’d always wanted to carry from support, and agitated groans from those who felt Riot had made something that would be too frustrating to play against. The fevered discussions eventually subsided, but a core disagreement separated its participants. Was this going “too far” for a support? Or was Pyke’s brand of murderous aid exactly what League needed to spice up its least popular role?

Let’s start with the opposition. League’s been around for almost 10 whole years — and while folks argue that’s exactly why it needs to push boundaries, to some it’s because of the rigid systems governing the game’s framework that it’s lasted this long. Marksmen with supports, only so many threats on a team, the duo lane goes bottom, never chase Singed, etc. This side argues that it’s Riot’s ability to innovate within the lines that keeps League fresh. You don’t need to throw out years of what worked just for a shot at something that might not. This is why “kill lanes,” a concept that’s been around since the early days (shout-outs to my Garen + Taric botlaners in the audience), has always been deemed a “cheese” — a gimmick, something unworthy of being called a legitimate strategy — even if it led teammates to victory as often as “normal” strategies did.

Riot Games

While Garen/Taric or Jarvan/Leona combos were always viable in a technical sense, higher level play never bought into these wackier kill lane tactics. Until season 3 that is - when Annie support took the world by storm. It was a big conversation for the burgeoning pro scene. Is this legitimate? Even if it is, should it be? Just as with Pyke today, many felt it invalidated what it meant to be a team player. That one side is trying to help their team win by any means necessary, and the Annie player was just a discount mid laner. They just wanted to throw a wrench in the whole thing, stop everyone from playing the game how it was meant to be played. Regardless of how wrong or right it was — it won games at an astonishing rate both casually and competitively. It wasn’t long until Riot reacted, dropped the nerf hammer, and Annie rarely supported again.

Life finds a way

Still, for a section of players, Pandora’s box had been opened. Seeing their rogue playstyle of using champions in unique ways in the slot traditionally left for tanks and healers was affirming beyond measure. In a landscape where experimenting was risky and the word of pro players was law, no less. Annie never quite made the comeback to her 2013 height, but then Veigar, then Brand and even Miss Fortune started to show up — and of course, Zyra has never really left bottom lane — infrequently but explosively onto the support scene by veterans and mad scientists alike. Aggressive supports were here, and they weren’t going to go away.

Riot Games

It shouldn’t be hard then to see the viewpoint of those in favor of Pyke’s creation. In the years since, players looking to play aggro-supports haven’t had the same luxuries of those who prefer the more mainstream roles. While a Vayne one-trick’s performance might be affected based on how strong or weak Vayne is at any moment in time, the game has never existed in a state where marksmen aren’t a welcome and essential parts of a balanced and healthy League of Legends team composition. They can’t be that bad, because the strategic ecosystem basically slots in an entire support structure for even the worst ADC.

Supports don’t have that luxury. Want to play nothing but Brand support? Better hope you’re not in a season with too many assassins or hard-engage supports to abuse your immobile nature and turn you into pocket change. And unlike marksmen who can pick for more damage, utility or mobility to suit their team’s needs, aggro-supports don’t have that flexibility. Brand, Annie, Vel’Koz, Veigar, Xerath and Zyra all fall to the same predators. When it’s a hostile environment for them, you either stop playing what you enjoy or accept that your games will feel more like a coin-flip than usual. And unlike the “true” supports, Riot hasn’t always prioritized making sure items feel good for these characters to buy. Toss in the ever-present ridicule for not conforming to whatever’s popular that month, and the issue is further exacerbated: if this is your playstyle, it’s going to be an uphill battle. In this context, Pyke’s addition to League isn’t just welcome - it’s a signal flare of developer support for a playstyle that’s previously been seen as illegitimate.

Elephant in the room

Let’s shift gears and talk about Pyke’s other, more murderous parentage: assassins. They’re agile, stylish, lethal and among the most popular champions in the entirety of League of Legends. They’re also incredibly frustrating to deal with.

Strategically, League’s classes mostly hold up. Tanks are durable crowd control machines that start fights with their bodies, but too many on a team will fail to do enough damage to win a head to head fight. Marksmen are sustained damage artillery that help sieges and long fights, but the more you have, the more their vulnerability and lack of on-demand effectiveness become a liability. On paper, assassins have trade-offs as well — reliable target access and best-in-class burst damage at the cost of being tough as tissues with little follow-up after their combos. In practice however, these trade-offs don’t play as nicely in LoL’s strategic landscape and draft system as one would hope. That’s because they’re centered on the individual’s execution rather than a rock-paper-scissors hierarchy.

If the enemy team’s champions work best as a group of five, the response might be to counter with picks that pull them around the map into smaller skirmishes or duels. Similarly, if your team is all damage dealers, having a few bulky frontliners could win you the war of attrition. But when assassins are locked in, the lines are blurred. A traditional support like Soraka or Janna might heal or shield your carry from an assassination attempt, or could serve as food for them in the early stages to start the snowball rolling. A tank might be invulnerable to a burst combo, but can be ignored as an assassin runs right past them. This isn’t to say that the class has no weaknesses — just that it feels like they’re holding all the cards. If they aren’t sufficiently skilled, they’re worthless. If they are, it’s hard picking out a moment or string of situations where you could have played better to avoid a 15-minute surrender.

Riot Games

Riot not only acknowledged these frustrations, but went a few steps further, dedicating their 2016-2017 preseason towards updating the class as a whole. The goal was to push for more interaction when assassins moved in for the kill, making the exchange feel more like an outplay where you could isolate mistakes to capitalize on. Ideally, even if games still revolved around whether an assassin succeeded or not, players would feel like they had control in those situations. Noble as their aim was, the update was largely considered a failure. Of the four headlining champion updates, Leblanc and Rengar fell off the radar entirely and were later reverted to their pre-worked, problematic states. Talon and Katarina, despite looking a lot cooler, don’t feel any better to lose to than they did before. Even Kha’Zix’s brush-stalking stealth interaction introduced in the very same update has been removed as well. It’s worth noting that Evelynn, Riot’s first pure assassin since that update, followed many of their guiding principles, making her stalking feel like an interactive game of cat-and-mouse. For the class as a whole though, Riot’s struggle to consistently practice what they preach has made attempts to talk philosophy on this subject feel less like a forward-thinking foundation the company believes in, and more damage control while they figure out what to do about the issue.

A watery grave

Back to the topic at hand, it’s been difficult to figure out the proper lens by which Pyke - and thus Riot - should be judged for their work. As an assassin, he’s fairly standard. I don’t think he pushes the class forward, nor do I feel like he needs to be particularly tricky or clever to do what he wants to be doing. As a support, he clearly expands what players in the role can do, bolsters a shunned subsection of the roster, and is intriguing enough to invite non-supports to test out the waters.

I give Riot a fair amount of credit for taking a stab at something this bold. In itself, Pyke’s existence shows a certain type of maturity. He is a sign to players that if they truly love a specific way to play the game, Riot considers it their responsibility to serve that style as best they can. As someone who’s played since the early days, where alternative playstyles were shot on sight, researched heavily and then maybe allowed to exist after intense debate, that’s a pretty big deal. However, until they can truly commit to a narrative and balance philosophy for assassins that resonate with the reality players face in-game, Pyke’s long-term success and viability will be every bit as volatile as his ancestors before him. For a revenge-seeking slayer left for dead by his crew, it would make a certain amount of sense if this experiment didn’t work out in Riot’s favor, but the values that led to his creation are well-intentioned enough that despite the amount of preemptive hatred I feel for being ganked by him, I hope that Pyke (and the rogues that love him) get to have their support and kill steal, too.

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