League of Legends has just celebrated its most diverse world championship ever. With 109 of the MOBA game’s 162 champions contested in the draft, over 127 games, records were broken during LoL Worlds 2022.
Leading the charge on balancing this year’s tournament was lead designer for the Summoner’s Rift team, Matt ‘Phroxzon’ Leung-Harrison. Having spent the best part of eight years with the developer, Phroxzon found himself promoted to the role at the end of 2021. Although he has worked on balancing several Worlds metas, this was the designer’s first rodeo as the top dog.
We sat down with Phroxzon in the lead up to the Worlds 2022 Final to not only dissect some of the champions which defined it, but to also learn more about how Riot goes about balancing its massive roster around the pro scene. Statistics referenced throughout come courtesy of Leaguepedia and Games of Legends.
Dead set on delivering the best Worlds possible, for Phroxzon there were three key high level performance indicators that would decide whether or not he and his team had done their jobs properly: “bloodiness, champion diversity, and play styles.”
In order to dedicate enough space to enact its vision, Riot typically dedicates the few patches leading up to Worlds to making pro play-oriented changes. Patches 12.16, 12.17, and 12.18 – the patch the tournament itself was played on – saw over 40 unique champions either buffed or nerfed.
What transpired to be one of the most significant changes during the LoL Worlds patch cycle came on 12.18, where Riot readjusted Maokai to work better as a jungler. The result was staggering, with the Twisted Treant picked or banned 91 times – the joint sixth-most overall – over the course of the tournament. As one of only two champions played in three different roles (the other being Seraphine), Maokai became the de facto blind pick for many teams at Worlds due to his draft flexibility.
“Flex picks are an interesting topic,” Phroxzon says. “They are strictly positive for players playing the regular game because, for example, if I want to play Maokai, I can play them in different roles. And that’s exciting for me if I was, say, a Maokai one trick.
“However, in pro play, we know that flex picks can make a champion a much higher priority than they would be otherwise for their given power level, because you can hide the pick and move it around. So we need to be very conscious of when we’re adding flex picks for champions, and we monitor them very carefully.
“Typically when a champion is triple-flexed with any reasonable frequency, they tend to skyrocket in priority. This in turn reduces the diversity of picks in general, so we’re very careful about Flex picks.”
Good things come in pairs
On top of a very measured approach to artificially adding flexibility to certain champions, Riot has also utilised the Worlds patches to great effect when it comes to creating a host of balanced bot lane pairings for the tournament. Such a feat, however, could only be achieved thanks to the groundwork laid by the LoL patch 12.10 Durability Update.
“The durability update resulted in a lot more champion styles being viable in the bot lane specifically,” Phroxzon explains. LoL patch 12.10 made champions tankier across the board, making scaling lanes less painful to play out as a byproduct.
“So it’s a combination of that, and I think a focus on champion pairings. We know that supports are going to be played with specific bot carry pairings, so we certainly balance around that. No one’s going to play something that’s not so synergistic, like Ezreal-Janna.”
While this sort of balancing doesn’t quite work for solo queue, where your average player isn’t going to be playing 34-dimensional chess in the drafting phase, it certainly made a huge difference to Worlds. 19 unique champions were piloted in the farming carry role. Meanwhile, a whopping 31 different supports were picked.
In fact, duo lanes like Miss Fortune and Amumu, which had originally been buffed into being a viable combo at Worlds 2021, but quickly dropped out of favour, returned naturally for this year’s edition, with neither champion receiving straight up buffs during the Worlds patch cycle. The “rock, paper, scissors” effect was visible.
Changing (play) style trends
To Phroxzon this revival was unsurprising, as the pro meta is traditionally slower to adapt to new possibilities than average LoL ranks play, due to players having to “get their team comfortable with playing around them as a win condition”, be that through individual practice, or tweaks to the team’s overall style of play.
Naturally, as Worlds progresses – from Play-Ins, to Groups, and even in the weeks separating each Knockout Stage round – the meta continuously matures and evolves. This year was no exception, with the likes of Miss Fortune and Amumu gradually giving way to stronger, yet more difficult to pilot pairings like Lucian and Nami.
Additionally, though the aforementioned Maokai was feared as a triple-flex throughout much of the early-mid phase of the tournament, even he fell out of favour across all three roles, though DRX’s Hong ‘Pyosik’ Chang-hyun did find victory on him in game four of the Worlds 2022 Final.
Much of this shift, Phroxzon infers, comes down to the proficiency of stronger teams and regions when it comes to executing more complex styles of play. Whereas weaker teams tended to trend towards playing safer picks and compositions that are easier to pilot – typically with a weak side top lane – the strongest LCK and LPL teams were able to play around more powerful picks in the top lane like Fiora, Jax, and Camille, giving them a major advantage in-lane which they could transition elsewhere on the map.
This shift also had a major knock-on for the most dominant champion at Worlds this year, Aatrox. Sporting a near-omnipresent 98.4% pick/ban rate in the draft, and commanding the title of fourth most-picked champion overall with 46 appearances on the Rift, Aatrox had a monstrous 70.8% win rate during the Play-In Stage. However, this dwindled to a far more balanced 54.5% by the end of the tournament’s Main Stage, thanks largely to better players being able to play those strong counterpicks proficiently (see: Choi ‘Zeus’ Woo-je’s Yone).
But that’s not to say Riot was disappointed with the Worlds meta in its final form, just because it was able to predict it. Now very much a studio veteran, Phroxzon always finds it “interesting” to see where the Worlds meta leads, especially coming from the more bot-centric meta we saw in the Summer Split.
“The team, I think, also gets a lot of enjoyment out of seeing the way that the meta develops. We don’t want the meta from playoffs to be exactly the same for Worlds, however we want to make sure that we’re paying respect to the way that the teams qualified, and don’t want to fully flip the table in terms of ‘wow, well now you’re really terrible at the style that you qualified on.’ But we also want to make sure that we shake it up a little bit.”
The surprise picks
Of course, while Riot has a better, stat-driven crystal ball than those Pick’Em players out there, not everything went entirely by design. The arrival of three unprecedented picks – Bel’Veth, Heimerdinger, and Kayn – were very pleasant surprises to Phroxzon.
“The level to which [Cho ‘BeryL’ Geon-hee’s Heimerdinger] became a feared pick, and how effective it was overall was pretty unexpected. I think Bel’Veth and Kayn were interesting adaptations as well, because they are champions which are generally tuned around average play.”
As Phroxzon notes, champions which are potent in solo queue (a ~53% win rate is the number given) but not in pro play generally require “some pretty significant balance adjustments” to slot into both types of play while maintaining the balance.
However, at Worlds we saw players like BeryL, Seo ‘Kanavi’ Jin-hyeok, and Kim ‘Canyon’ Geon-bu pilot these respective picks to such a high level – be it through pure mechanical prowess or intelligent pathing – that those ceilings were shattered.
“You could tell that Damwon in particular had practised that style. It’s one of those things with these champions where you need both the specific player and the specific team playstyle to execute them. That’s one of the things that makes it challenging to balance, because you have to know which teams are qualifying, and the playstyles they are going to opt into.”
Indeed, this challenge covers all picks that are either unique or almost trademarked by a player. Another example given by Phroxzon is Kacper ‘Inspired’ Sloma’s notorious Fiddlesticks.
Appeasing the Bloodthirsters
With a diverse meta and a variety of playstyles accounted for, it’s unsurprising that Phroxzon feels that most of the team’s targets were hit for Worlds 2022. “The champion picks, the classes, and the playstyles have all been excellent.”
However, despite post-Durability Update bloodiness being “pretty good”, the dev feels that more can be done when it comes to seeing more action during the early game.
“Games tend to start out a little slow, slower than we would like”, Phroxzon feels. “It’s not an absolute crawl, and certainly the stronger teams tend to create a lot of action, but on average we’ve seen a relatively low number of kills by 15 minutes.”
When asked if it would be a simple case of enticing junglers out of the bushes and into the lanes earlier, while Phroxzon notes that “you might see an uptick in bloodiness in the early game” short term, players would simply adapt to the style change and play safer to avoid being ganked.
“Oftentimes, it’s not super simple to make changes like that. I would say that for bloodiness in the early game, the 12.14 changes that we made were an attempt to swing at that.
“We increased the durability of dragons by a significant amount, and we also increased the buffs that you get from them by a decent amount, with the idea of promoting more conflict. We have seen a lot more conflict around early dragons, and there are a lot of high tension fights, but they often don’t result in a takedown. [Despite this] the fights are still interesting to watch – there’s a lot of back and forth.
“And so it’s a question of ‘is bloodiness in the early game even the right way to measure something like that?’ If the teams are having a lot of back and forth, and it’s really exciting action with a lot of trading, but it’s 0-0 at 15 minutes, was that good? Who knows? It’s up to the viewer to really inform where we want to go in terms of what they find satisfying. So it’s always a push and pull of what we think is going to create the best viewer experience and what viewers actually resonate with.”
Phroxzon’s 2022 in review
Chalking up his first Worlds as design lead as a general success, we wanted to pick Phroxzon’s brain to learn more about his personal ethos, and some of the goals he had set himself when he first came into the role at the end of 2021.
“I’ve been on the team for a very long time – seven, almost eight years now. So I’ve seen basically every evolution of the team. One thing I wanted to come in with was a focus on executing on the specific strengths of the people we have on the team.
“For example, our team has a lot of really good systems designers, and so we had a lot of systems-based projects this year to play to that.
“The other one was that I wanted to take a big swing at the problems that we had been observing – jungle select was one of them, damage in the game was another. I think that we took pretty effective swings at both. It’s yet to be seen how preseason will play out, but I think we have a pretty good package lined up for that.
“On our personal side, I wanted to focus a lot more on community engagement and visibility. And so that’s something that I hope will continue into next year as well.”
Judging by the success of Worlds, the damage changes with the Durability Update certainly appear to have been vindicated. As for the Preseason 2023 jungle changes, well, as Phroxzon says, we’ll just have to wait and see how they pan out when they finally arrive on the live servers – though he has shared some thoughts with us on the community response which you can check out right here.
While it remains to be seen if Riot will tweak that early game formula in the hopes of achieving a slightly more action-packed viewer experience pre-15 minutes, we think we can safely say that, overall, this was one of the most exciting Worlds metas we’ve ever seen. And, as this chapter of LoL esports history comes to a close, we’ll never forget it – especially the Teemo pick in Play-Ins.