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Ghostcrawler on the unique design challenges in League of Legends’ strangest position

Riot’s lead game designer talks to The Rift Herald about the state of the marksman position, what Riot can do to make it healthier and meta-breaking picks like Ziggs bot.

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Over the past few weeks, complaints from AD Carry mains in League of Legends have been loud and clear. After preseason changes included buffs to both tanks and assassins, win rates for multiple ADCs fell, many ADC mains expressed concerns that the position lost agency and even non-marksman like Ziggs starting showing up in the bot lane.

This week, Riot took the first step towards combatting these concerns with Patch 7.1. The patch includes nerfs to ADC killers Poppy and Camille, nerfs to early game jungle experience and buffs to a few marksmen.

But these are only the first steps. This week, The Rift Herald talked with Riot Lead Game Designer Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street about the problems facing AD Carries right now, what Riot can do to make the position feel better and what the design team’s thoughts are on non-conventional picks like Ziggs in the bottom lane.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

PV: When the design team came back from winter break and saw there were a lot of discussions about the state of the marksman position, what was the first reaction from the team to try and assess the problem?

GS: We weren’t super surprised, because we had done a lot of potentially disruptive things when starting the preseason, and there were already some things going on that I think put marksmen in a defensive position, such as jungle had been fairly dominant in the game for a while, and even some players were mentioning once that first tower change went in, which we made in the middle of the year, bottom looks like a very attractive lane to go for! You get a first tower, maybe you get a double kill, let’s do the four-man gank down there.

So I think there was already a trend of ADCs feeling on the defensive. And then we knew that some of the itemization changes, some of the mastery changes, the whole jungle work that we had done at the end of the year made junglers come out really strong because they have an XP and gold advantage, and we thought that all that has the potential of making ADCs feel like they have to be super careful because there could be someone in their lane at any moment who could shut them down before they really have a chance to get big and dangerous.

PV: Is your sense then that the problems with AD Carries are more of a result of external factors or problems internally with some of the marksmen?

GS: My sense is that it’s more outside factors. We did some changes in the marksmen update to like change their itemization, and one of the things that marksmen players have been struggling to find since then is, what is their early option? If they feel like they can’t do the standard, you know, “be cautious be cautious build build build and become a late game monster,” if they feel like they need to respond to some kind of early threat, they don’t have a really great option, and I think that’s something we need to fix on the ADC side of things, not just looking at junglers and other roles.

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PV: Do you think part of it has to do with marksmen being completely different in that it’s the only class that’s been kind of reliably strong for a very long period of time, and that the play of the position itself requires dependency on some of the other players on the team? Is it possible that small changes taking agency away from a role without much agency to begin with makes the problem seem even worse than it is?

GS: Yeah, yeah, I agree with all of that. There are three separate points I wanted to make coming out of that. One is, yes, marksmen are very dependent on their support in the bottom lane, and another mitigating factor is that we autofill support a lot now, depending on how you queue. We do know that some marksman players duo queue with a support buddy, but sometimes you’re just stuck with a support who is maybe not very experienced, and now you have someone looking out for you and trying to help you in the early laning phase who isn’t that familiar with their role. That could apply as well.

It’s a weird position. It’s an auto attack-based, ranged, a lot of the agency is based around “Can I get my individual shots powerful?,” and that usually takes four, five, six items before they really feel like they’re there. When games are short, marksmen feel weak. When games are long, marksmen feel strong. There are obviously exceptions, but I think that trend often holds true. When someone puts a video on Reddit, you can look when in the game was this video taken and it’s a pretty good prediction of if it’s going to show marksmen going off as being unbalanced or someone ganking them as being unbalanced.

We’ve talked a lot about it, it’s the weird role where players feel like they have to have it, but at the same time that can disguise power problems with marksmen. For example, if assassins are weak, you start to see assassin play fall off. Marksman play is never going to fall off that much because every team is still going to feel like they need one in order push towers and eventually win team fights. It’s kind of a blessing and a curse for marksmen players, in that they’re always going to be in style, but it also makes it hard to tell if holistically the position is too weak.

I think it’s too weak right now, a lot of marksmen players are saying that, but we also want to avoid ... you get this perception sometimes where some marksmen players are like “Hey, it should be up to me whether or not I win the lane, and oh by the way if I win the lane I should be able to win the game,” so they feel like any time if the game isn’t under their control, something’s wrong. And I understand how that perception can manifest.

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PV: With what you were saying about marksmen being a position that’s always in style, and a class that’s reliant ranged attacks and auto attacks, does that ever make it feel like a stale class design-wise compared to others?

GS: It does. I’ve kind of opined before that we run out of things to adjust with marksmen, and it even makes it a challenge to add additional champions to that space, because we have to go to things like ‘hey, this is a marksman that can play the jungle!’ or ‘this is a marksman whose thematic is very different, their abilities are unusual’ but at the end of the day, if you start putting too much power into the Q W E R, it starts to feel like a mage and not a marksman, because now you’re really holding onto those big bursty abilities. That has been a challenge.

I think the itemization work we did when we did the marksman update has helped a little bit, because we have created a little bit of diversity in builds. Long-term, we would love to A) have more classes that can play in the bottom lane and B) have more places that marksmen can play. Because it’s not fair to marksmen players if we’re like “Yeah! You can bring a mage, you can bring a tank, you can bring an assassin as a carry,” and you’re like “Okay great, but I love these champions, where do I get to play Varus, where do I get to play, you know, Caitlyn, Ashe, fill in the blank.” We have to kind of solve both of those problems, we can’t just give you a lot of alternatives to the bottom lane if marksmen don’t have anywhere else they can reliably fit.

PV: It seems like it would take a lot of work across the game just to get a character like Caitlyn or Ashe viable anywhere but the bottom lane. Have there been any ideas towards how to accomplish that?

GS: You’re right, these are very long-term changes. These aren’t like “Hey, patch notes 7.5! There’s now a cool item that lets Caitlyn play top lane.” It’s telling that you look at esports and they talk about the roles like top, jungle, ADC. It’s not bottom, it’s ADC, because the perception is that’s all you can put in that spot. So it’s a long-term goal, but it’s going to be hard to fix.

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PV: You were also talking about other kinds of champions in the bottom lane, and another thing that was there when you all arrived back from vacation was Ziggs. We’ve seen some Veigar too, some other mages as well. Was this something you all expected to happen for a while or was it a surprise?

GS: We debate internally whether or not this could have happened a few months ago and players hadn’t quite picked up on it enough to make it happen, or if it’s kind of tied into marksmen being too weak. A lot of ADCs will say “See! Here’s the problem, the only viable bottom laner is not even a marksman.”

You know, when we made changes to Ziggs, making him really good at taking objectives, one of the things we thought is you might see him as a dedicated tower killer. Overall, we like the potential of playing him in the bottom lane, we think more diversity and more cool stuff like that is good for the game, but it can’t come at the expense of every marksman. It can’t be like the smart choice for your team comp is Ziggs in the bottom lane and nothing else will do.

So far, last I looked, his win rate is still higher mid than bottom, maybe that’s changed since the week I looked but hopefully it doesn’t flip too far. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when an unusual strategy is just popular with players at the moment or if it’s just overpowered. We’d love to not have to do anything to Ziggs.

PV: You were also talking about buffs to the AD Carry class in general. How do you balance that with other auto attack-based champions that build those same items, like Yasuo?

GS: Our general strategy there is to try to push different classes towards different stats a little more. That was kind of the point with changing lethality and doing some of the item changes and so forth. We think, long-term, there will just be different items that Yasuo will want. But the challenge of League item design is if we make something cool, other classes will look at it and say “Yeah, that is really cool, and by the way it helps me out a lot so now I’m going to abuse it and make you feel sorry you ever created that item.”

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PV: There are only so many items that you can say, like Runaan’s Hurricane, that “Ok, this is a ranged item only.” Other than that, you put it out there and you never know what’s going to happen.

GS: Yeah. And we can do that, we can say “P.S. Yasuo can’t use this,” but that feels super heavy-handed to players. We’d rather design a system that just naturally works out like that. If you go back to the roots of the MOBA in Warcraft, they had items where you just don’t take this item for the wrong character. The original League designers wanted to have more flexibility with items and say “Hey we’re going to have AP items and AD items and you can kind of play around with them a little bit.”

That flexibility is cool, we just get into problems sometimes when a champion becomes overpowered because of the items that they’re picking, but if we nerf those items it affects a whole bunch of other champions. We’d like to make it a little more like “these items are intended for mages, these items are intended for assassins, if you want to pick one up as an off-build, that’s fine but it needs to come with some downsides.”

PV: Some of the most vocal critics of the current state of marksmen have been professional marksman players. How much communication has there been between Riot and some of the pro players at that position?

GS: We talk to those guys, we also talk to a lot of Challenger players, we have Challenger players who work on our balance team to try to not only tax out themselves but also stay in touch with what is the conversation going on right now. I personally came back from the holiday break a little out of touch with what was going on with League, since I’d unplugged so much. We’re getting back more into that now, 7.1 has some changes, 7.2 will have some more changes and we’ll see how it goes from there.