As League’s playable roster continues to expand — with Riot expected to celebrate their 140th individual release within a year — they’ve clearly learned a few things about how to make champions. So when Riot announced that more of their resources were going to champion updates (that is, reworks on the ones that “whiffed”), most of the community was excited to see more of their favorite old, broken, pizza-footed favorites step into the modern era.
However, when it was announced that one of the first on this new schedule would be Irelia, that excitement briefly shifted towards bewilderment.
Few champions are as notorious in League of Legends’ history as Irelia. Many years ago, League suffered the age of the meta-golems: stat-checking top laners racing to complete the then-uber-powerful combination of Trinity Force, Atma’s Impaler, and Warmog’s Armor. Ranked and normal games alike were decided by two things: which team had more fighters and which assembled the meta-golem fastest.
Irelia stood above them all. There was seemingly no item build she couldn’t dominate with: attack damage assassin, full tank — even AP Irelia was more viable than most entire champions. Shrugging off damage and crowd control in equal measure while striking back with true damage (damage unmitigated by armor or magic resist), Irelia demanded balance change after balance change — so much so that even after the community at large perceived her to be dead and buried, Riot tossed a few more nerfs onto the pile — spawning one of LoL’s oldest community jokes in “Something wrong? Better Nerf Irelia.”
With such a fearsome legacy behind her, you’d never expect Irelia’s update to be a controversial one. And yet, dulled by multiple season updates, her perception in the community had simmered to “just okay”. Not a powerhouse by any means, but devastating in the right hands; hardly deserving of an update over some of the roster’s bottom-of-the-barrel models and gameplay. Riot, however, saw an opportunity to cash in on that legacy — and in doing so released one of their best champion experiences to date.
The Fighter Problem
Before we can talk about what the Irelia update gets right, we need to talk about some of the difficulties with fighters in League of Legends.
Let’s consider the role of a fighter. At heart, fighters are more of a hybrid than anything else — melee champions that aren’t meant to soak as much damage as a tank, dish out as much damage as an assassin, and lack the range of marksmen or mages. This lack of centralized purpose has pushed fighters into a spectrum, with low-mobility juggernauts like Darius, target-focusing divers like Camille, and high-mobility slayers like Riven sprinkled along that spectrum. It’s this inherent overlap between these champions and their purpose that make them so hard to balance. When one’s damage or durability are too above-the-curve, the nuance that separates them fades and leads to familiar statements like, “Why would I pick Aatrox when Jax does it so much better?” or “Isn’t Camille just a better Vi?”
Beyond this identity crisis, fighters have another large problem: they’re among the hardest champions to learn to play. While many would imagine the precision-based micro of a Vayne or the dexterity requirements of a Zed might make them among the most difficult, these champions (and many other playmaking characters like Lee Sin or Yasuo) have built-in feedback loops that help you improve. Died as Yasuo? Well, I didn’t land my Q — I’ll do better next time. Died as Lee Sin? I didn’t execute my ward-jump fast enough — I’ll do better next time.
Now imagine you’re a Jax fighting Renekton. If you lose, will you know what to do better? If you win, can you point to a discrete action that decided it? If you’re most players, that answer is no— because fighters very often don’t teach you how to improve at them. This is largely due to their reliance on offensive and defensive steroids. Unlike some of the champions we mentioned earlier, there’s few cooldowns to time or skillshots to land — just a mashing of stats that makes duels feel less like tense skill-tests and more like math equations.
A Cut Above
Notable are the removal of her true damage and tying her old on-hit healing to Bladesurge directly. You’d be excused to let these changes slip past you what with so many new abilities flying around, but it’s important to analyze these for what they tell us. First, less healing and damage on a single button press means Irelia can’t just decide to start fights on her terms when she’s massively ahead like the MO of so many stat-stick duelists. Second, and perhaps most importantly, these changes carve a weakness into Irelia that wasn’t present before. Irelia needs time to ramp up before she’s at full effectiveness - a fact exploitable by basic attack focused duelists like Trundle or Master Yi that can stand their ground.
Instead, Irelia’s forced to rely on maneuvering the fight through her various cooldowns, giving critical windows of strength and weakness that weren’t really present before. This is an important part of parsing any sort of update — paying attention to see what the character is giving up to get all those special Wuxia goodies. So if on-demand stat-checks are toned down, what does Irelia get out of the deal? Easy answer: Bladesurge. This entire kit is about Bladesurge. Riot clearly understood the most fun things about Irelia: slicing up minions waves like vegetables, and then cranked it to 11.
Bladesurge is essential to how Irelia’s kit flows, creating a simple gameplay loop that slowly builds, teaching you as you go. Bladesurge resets on kill, so you want to use it on minions. After Bladesurging enough, you trigger her passive, which tells you it’s time to start fighting with all that bonus damage and attack speed you have. Now you Bladesurge to your enemy, they take damage, then you run away. Trade complete! Then you start mixing in the E to try and get even more bladesurges. Toss in her ultimate and you’re off to the races. There are clear signals at every step telling you what you want to do next, encouraging you to take risks (Thanks, W!) and get scrappy — naturally leading you to bigger play after bigger play.
It’s this act of removing Irelia’s generic power and giving her a fun loop you can anticipate that makes playing her and playing against her engaging. Unlike in the fighter problem above, you’re communicating what you want to do to your opponent (Bladesurge), they want to punish you for it, and interaction and tension are born from that process. It’s not easy to make a champion weaker while also making them objectively more fun, but designer Sol “Solcrushed” Kim and the rest of the team made it look easy.
Strategically, Riot’s taken Irelia’s interactivity one step further still. If you think about the most popular fighters (Fiora, Camille, Jax), there’s one thing they have in common: how much they love spending time away from the team rather than alongside them. Preferring instead to duel champions (or turrets, as is more often the case), split-pushing has gone from a rare strategy that’s harder to pull off to the norm. Whether it’s being pulled around the map trying to put out fires or trying to corral your stubborn top laner to group before getting engaged on, split-pushing is often frustrating on both sides of the experience.
While Irelia can serviceably split just fine, it’s her spicy new ultimate, Vanguard’s Edge, that actually draws her to the front lines, wanting to group. We’ve already established that Irelia is all about the Bladesurgin’. While her peers have powerful ultimates that all read “Press R to entirely wreck one person’s day,” Vanguard’s Edge effectively says, “Use this in a teamfight for a free highlight video!” And therein lies the magic! By making the absolute peak of Irelia’s blade-dancing gameplay fantasy contingent upon hitting multiple targets, Riot effectively tricks the split-obsessed and ego-fueled solo laners of the world into actually grouping with the team. And while I don’t love being murdered by Irelia’s psychic knife collection, there’s something to be said for so elegantly reinforcing League’s 5v5 aspect in a class that so rarely engages with it.
To put it into nice thin slices: Irelia’s update took on some of the deepest problems of an entire class and the champion’s own oppressive legacy and came out victorious. Riot’s design team is rarely at their best on their first trip into the unknown. League of Legends is a constant iteration. Big risks and sometimes big losses are part and parcel for Riot when you have a clockwork patch cycle to work out the kinks. But once they’ve cast their line, armed with understanding about what works, what doesn’t, and what needs shaking up, Riot shows the creativity and diligence that’s kept them on top of the genre.
Irelia is important because she shows that there’s still more in the playbook than constantly one-upping themselves with controversial or disruptive new mechanics. Breaking down her kit while amplifying the fun that was always present gives me hope that the future of Riot’s champion updates won’t just be making new toys, but refining them into the weapons they were always meant to be.