As someone with almost 1000 Aatrox games since 2013, I’d be lying if I said the announcement of this update didn’t have me a little worried.
About a month ago I stopped by the Riot offices to say goodbyes as I departed to the Bay Area. I got to catch up with old friends, see some cool stuff, and in typical Riot fashion, hop in a playtest to cover for someone who was late to a meeting. Aatrox was on the enemy team, and I was excited to see his kit in action. On my first visit to top lane however, I barely recognized him — and as the game dragged on, screaming accented voice lines through distorted demonic processing and flailing about while various work-in-progress indicators danced along the ground, I saw less and less of the character I was familiar with. It’s important to keep in mind that not all playtests are created equal. Performances and team compositions vary, and I was seeing only a fraction of Aatrox that the capable designers around me had tested for months. Still, I was dismayed. Something didn’t feel right.
After the test, I gave my feedback to his designer (RiotJag, father of Camille and Kai’Sa) and he confirmed what I’d thought — some of this was temporary, they were still working on him here and there, nothing was final, etc. For months the Aatrox team had hinted at his new direction — less agile and frenzied attacks in favor of weighty, impactful strikes — but my expectations had clearly still been off. I had no doubt in my mind that Jag and the entire team were doing their best, but when the degree of change present is so high, you always wonder what could have been saved.
Fast forward to a few days ago, sitting down to write this article. I was ready to rip into the areas of the kit and personality I felt was off, all the things I didn’t like about it, but even that didn’t feel fair. If there’s one constant when working in game development, it’s that no matter what you change, no matter how widely asked for a feature is, there’s going to be some part of the players who oppose it. And they’re not usually quiet about it either. I felt this aversion to change very specifically during my career and upon reflection, realized I was doing the same thing I used to blast the community at large for. I wasn’t thinking about what was best for LoL or its players at large. I was being an Aatrox main, and only thinking what was best for my experience. I had let my fears become fury, and wasn’t giving credit where it was due.
So to give this update its fair shake & understand the new Aatrox in its entirety, we need to go back and understand exactly why it was necessary in the first place.
A FORGOTTEN LEGACY
When Aatrox released in 2013, he shattered records to become the highest selling champion in League of Legends history. Everyone wanted to be a nightmarish demon with a huge sword. His popularity was heightened further due to his ubiquity as a jungler in Worlds 2013, facilitating level two tower dives with his controversial revive passive (contributing to the years-long perception of China being the most ‘aggressive’ region). After the tournament however, Aatrox received nerfs, falling into relative obscurity for the better part of five seasons. He was LoL’s flash-in-the-pan: an exciting toy left to collect dust by all but the most dedicated Darkin fanatics.
For years after his fall from the spotlight, Aatrox managed to post consistently good win rates, proving the reports of his lack of viability to be greatly exaggerated. Aatrox wasn’t unpopular because he was bad, nor hard to play, but because there was nothing about him you couldn’t get somewhere else. Players actively wanted to enjoy him, but in a world of Wind Walls, Super Mega Death Rockets, Shurima Shuffles and Lee Sin “InSec” kicks, they bounced off one by one, seeking the thrills and skill-testing plays of Riot’s newer and more novel releases.
Fast-forward to today, and Aatrox is currently a first-pick priority in professional leagues around the world. No need for a rework, right? The most common misconception with Champion Update is that Riot chooses them because they’re weak or “unplayable.” While it’s certainly true that some updated champions struggle to find success (Urgot and Karma perhaps being the most notable examples of being both unpopular and underpowered before their updates), power levels vary so wildly between season shifts that it’s impossible to draw consistent correlations. As mentioned with Irelia, champions are updated for two primary reasons: either they’re failing to live up to their gameplay fantasy, or in Aatrox’s case, they fail to have a cohesive or unique identity at all.
Had Aatrox been updated a year or two after his release, it’s possible that we’d see more of his original kit’s ideas intact. Furiously slashing to stay alive at low HP, toggling between self-harm and sustaining to walk the edge between life and death. But after durable sustain-focused updates like Swain, Vladimir and Warwick, even that wouldn’t be enough to differentiate him from his peers. This was Aatrox’s rock-and-a-hard-place, left to be in the shadow of champions that did his job better or forever have his performance linked to the strength of synergistic items like Guinsoo’s Rageblade. If Riot was going to give Aatrox something to call his own, they’d need to think about what players wanted from his kit instead of trying to work with the scraps that were already there.
ENTER THE WORLD ENDER
It’s important to stress the difficulty of making something entirely new. While previous updates have had the luxury of taking distinct elements of a kit or fantasy and pushing it to the limit (like tank-legs for Urgot or Irelia’s agility), Aatrox’s only unique thing was that he was a Darkin, something Riot has only recently attempted to define, and utterly meaningless to the community at large. Apart from “Has a Sword,” there wasn’t really much to work with.
Through this lens, Aatrox’s new theme is actually a pretty clever solution to his identity crisis. Very few of League’s sword-users actually wield two-handers, and among them, none wields their power with as much weight as you’d expect (Tryndamere slamming his sword like Bam-Bam comes to mind). Aatrox is no longer a battle angel, but rather a Final Boss, the top of the food chain for Runeterra’s melee fighters, making imposing martial figures like Darius and Garen look rank-and-file by comparison. By playing up his size and strength, Aatrox has room to grow both within League’s roster and wider narrative as someone you should be afraid of.
If Aatrox lacked skill expression before, his new Q, The Darkin Blade, ensures there’s no shortage of that here. Providing the raw impact and weight worthy of its title, Q enforces his new philosophy: advance slowly and kill anything in your way. While some champion kits have their bread-and-butter ability and seek to use the rest of their skills to provide alternative or backup means of engagement, Aatrox’s kit is special in that every ability supports his Q. W snaps enemies back to the center of the field, providing a predictable way to combo Q’s various sweet-spots. E’s short dash can be used mid-cast to juke or outplay crafty opponents. R’s massive size, speed and damage increase all feed into Q’s ground-shaking damage potential.
The Darkin Blade is the sort of ability worthy of Aatrox’s unique visuals and has such a depth to it that figuring out how to maximize its use against each new opponent is the sort of challenge that could take hundreds of games to master, if not more.
It’s because of this that I believe Aatrox will stay a pretty niche champion despite his new look. This isn’t a blockbuster à la Kai’Sa, Irelia or Yasuo that everyone’s going to want to get their hands on. This is the sort of character that requires diligence and commitment to get the best use out of. I don’t think this is unintentional. Aatrox has always been a champion with a die-hard playerbase, and while many of his supporters (like I did) may not see something they love in this version, this style of design means that he’ll remain someone that only the most dedicated can make use of. This keeps the title of “Aatrox main” something to be proud of and intimidated by, a nice homage to the players of weird and obscure styles everywhere, even if they need to relearn him alongside everyone else.
NOT THE END OF THE WORLD
That said, Aatrox’s update isn’t without his blemishes. E’s dash animation is probably one of if not the lowest quality animation the studio’s put on a modern release in years, and the ability feels entirely limp when not combo’d to reposition Q. It’s a necessary evil to beef up the Darkin Blade’s mastery curve, but joins the ranks of Jarvan’s sad flag and Ezreal’s W (an ability stripped entirely of its unique effects for over six years), but that doesn’t mean it’s free of critique.
To be clear: not all criticisms of Aatrox are nostalgia blinders and salty mains. There are things being lost here, most notably his imposing in-game base model and his philosophical personality, rife with introspective musings on the nature of war and conflict. Those things had real value, and it’s not certain that we’ll ever get something back that feels like a real replacement for them. But given the monumental challenge of updating a character with no clear identity, I think the result is far more impressive than most will give it credit for.
There was no easy path to follow to achieve the result we have today, and it’s clear that it took a lot of effort and experimentation to get here. But even though he’s shouty, cocky, and does an extremely embarrassing headbutt, Aatrox finally has something he’s never had before: a gameplay experience you can’t get anywhere else.