Every year, around early November, League of Legends becomes a completely different game.
In the past few years we’ve seen major updates to supports, new item additions, the removal of old items, a rebuilt Summoner’s Rift and even the addition of a loot system. This massive patch, aimed at breathing life back into LoL after a year of play and constant iteration, is called preseason.
Players spend the months of September and October scouring the League of Legends boards, hoping to hear what the new preseason changes will be. But not this year — this year was different. Instead of surprising the community a few weeks out with changes to come, Riot revealed its big project for this season, Runes Reforged, all the way back in May 2017.
We asked League of Legends lead gameplay designer Andrei “Meddler” van Roon about the shift in communication.
“We knew pretty early on that this was a big enough change to the game that we wanted to give player a lot of context, a lot of time to think about it,” van Roon said in an interview with the Rift Herald. “To understand where we’re going and why. A long ramp up there made sense, the same way we did with Summoner’s Rift a few years ago.
“At the same time, we really wanted player feedback on it. So, get a bunch of stuff out there, even if it’s placeholder art or still pretty rough UI or whatever it be, to be able to say, ‘Hey cool, here’s what we’re thinking, here’s what we’re planning,’ and then look at ‘OK, they love these bits. They hate this bit, this bit’s unclear.’ It was really useful to us during that process.”
Communication may be key to the improvement of systems on Riot’s end, but all the players care about is what’s coming next and how is it going to break or fix their League of Legends.
The Runes Reforged update was close to starting from scratch.
A complete rebuild of the runes and masteries support structure is a massive undertaking, one that Riot wanted to take seriously. These bits and bobs affect every champion in the game to some extent. Unlike in previous years, every player, regardless of the roles or champions they play, would see big changes this preseason.
“We’ve actually wanted to do work on runes for quite a few years,” said van Roon of the rebuild. “The first pitch that looked kinda like this was probably three and a half years back or something. This is rough but there’s a great idea in here of condensing down that power, moving away from a purchase with IP model, combining runes and masteries.
“When we finally came around to doing this version of runes it was more of, ‘Alright, OK, is this the right time? Do we have the great team together?’ The new client was a requirement for that. Once we were confident enough that the new client would be in the right place and we had a game systems team that would be right for making it, that felt like the natural time to tackle it.”
The old rune system was a steep hill to climb for new players entering the scene. Between levels 20 and 30, most players would discover that they needed to buy runes if they wanted to stay competitive. This meant spending your hard-earned IP on uninteresting rocks rather than dynamite new champions. The process was clumsy and unfriendly, but Runes Reforged aims to fix all that.
Some runes bring over ideas from the old mastery system. Some runes are completely new.
While Riot built Runes Reforged to be its own complete system, the team was certainly able to pull in masteries from the past few seasons. The inspiration from these old masteries has led to new runes like Grasp of the Undying, which is essentially completely unchanged from its previous mastery form. On the other hand, an extremely popular mastery like Thunderlord’s Decree was split in half, becoming Arcane Comet and Electrocute.
The old system has changed and these masteries have now been resigned to the League of Legends history books. Still, some memories live on.
“We knew we wanted to keep around a few old favorites at least, so figuring out which keystones players particularly loved was pretty high on our minds,” said Meddler about the old mastery system. “Thunderlord’s was far and away the winner there, with Grasp coming in at about the middle of the pack. We also wanted to keep around any we thought had particularly good gameplay around them, either in terms of the things they enable in lane or teamfights or the decisions they create. Stormraider’s was a strong candidate there, and even Thunderlord’s, even though I think we overused three hits a little bit. They’ve got some pretty cool play to them.
“At the same time, we also wanted to ensure we didn’t have a too much of a ‘this just feels like all the Keystones ported over’ feeling. We wanted to do a bunch of new stuff. We had a lot of ideas we wanted to try. Some of it was getting new Keystones into internal testing and then comparing how good we thought they were versus the existing keystone mastery options.”
Striking a balance between new and old is at the very heart of Runes Reforged. There is a familiarity there still mixed with beautiful discovery. But while everything was being built to better the game, touching on nostalgia and revelation, some cool ideas never made it out to the rest of the world.
“We were playing around with one called ... actually, I can’t remember its name,” van Roon said, when asked about runes left on the cutting room floor. “It was an inspiration Keystone. We tried a lot of different versions of it. The first one was, you got an extra skill point at level one, so you could start with two skills. That was really cool, because you can take it on a champion like Blitzcrank or whatever and go, ‘Cool, I want to try this, I know how I’m gonna use it, I’ll have this brief spike of power and then I’ll be slightly more powerful than other people — not too much so.’ But it ended up just ... a few edge cases were so dominant that we just couldn’t get that to a state where it created good, fun play for both sides.
“We had another one, also Inspiration, that had an alchemical thing to it. You had all these different types of potions you could buy with limited duration and you were spending a unique currency on them, so it wasn’t coming from gold. Basically you could cycle through a bunch of elixirs every four to five minutes. The fantasy there was really cool. At the same time, though, it was a incredibly complex system. Playing with it, you could understand what you were meant to be doing. Playing against it, you were fighting an enemy who almost felt like they came back to lane with a different Keystone every time they recalled based on what effects the elixirs had.”
With the Runes Reforged system out in the League of Legends wilds, these old runes feel more like fun ideas for the future more than anything else. Currently, players are delving into the system itself and pulling it apart, trying to find the best possible strategy for victory.
Some of the newly released runes will need to be monitored closely.
The first few weeks of preseason are usually somewhat of a beautiful, chaotic mess. With Runes Reforged being added in, this disaster timeline could be far longer than average. Everything and nothing is OP at the same time.
But Riot is prepared. The micro-patch system that the studio has been using quite a bit over the course of season 7 is ready to go whenever things get out of hand. Meddler and the rest of the team will be keeping a close eye on all the information as it streams in. If something is too out of whack, they can deal with it before it becomes a real problem.
However, that doesn’t mean Riot thinks the new system has launched in a completely balanced state.
“There’s a few actually, and they’re risks worth taking,” said van Roon of having OP runes on release. “They’re very much on my mind. Dark Harvest is one of them. Anything with infinite stacking damage is going to be a risk point. It’s also going to be pretty appealing to junglers, and we’ve seen that whole ‘farm up a lot of power and then dominate late game with a jungle pattern’ be problematic sometimes. Got some ideas on how to deal with that if we need to but that one’s very much on the mind.
“Glacial Augment is another. Anytime we give out CC to any kit, that’s a potentially really powerful effect. We’re kicking around some ideas of what to do if it’s a problem, but I think that one’s pretty plausible.
“Unsealed Spellbook has a little bit of risk of having the opposite problem: something players really want to play around with that’s actually much more niche and specialized than people would want. I worry more there that it may be used by a lot of players in what seems like good circumstances but aren’t. We might want to go and do some work so that so it can be a more broadly used option.”
Unlike the previous mastery system, the goal with Runes Reforged is to create a more open environment in League. While some players are bound to find the “best rune combo,” others should be able to play a bit more flexibly than before.
If you find something you like using, that should be a viable strategy, even if an LCS pro wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. As a result, these new runes must both take risks and be reserved. While perfect balance is boring and hard to attain, each Keystone being usable in some situations is a good goal for the team to have.
Large updates to League will continue coming.
As this preseason comes to a head, it’s impossible not to think of the future. Just as every new champion raises the question “I wonder what they do next,” so do major system updates like Runes Reforged.
We asked Meddler if the team would ever consider adding new runes.
“Absolutely,” van Roon said almost instantly. “I’m pretty confident we’ll add new runes, both Keystones and non-Keystones, next year. We’re open to adding another rune tree at some point, if we can see a good gap for one. That would probably be a long-term thing. First steps going to polishing and stabilizing everything, maybe adding a fourth Resolve Keystone if some tanks are not supporting well enough. Someday.”
In the future, van Roon also sees potential for a fifth Elemental Drake or another plant type in the jungle. But projects are always coming in and out of Riot, being brought to the forefront or left on the back burner for another few years. Ultimately, that’s what makes League such an excellent game to not only play, but to follow from year to year. It grows and breathes, never staying the same thing for too long.
Just as its player base evolves, so too must League itself. As long as Riot Meddler sits in the gorgeous West Los Angeles headquarters of Riot Games, he and his team will continue building something new and exciting for players to experience.