Revisiting the Runeterran Champions
It’s been a while since the inception of Runeterran champions. T’was once a mind-blowing game-changer of a concept, but now the idea of Runeterran champions has been somewhat normalized. The hype of being able to break the boundaries and build decks far outside of the realm of possibility was exciting. It still is.
It’s Trevor “Shugo” Yung here. Our final Seasonal Tournament is coming and Rotation is around the corner. We’re at the end of an era, and so I want to take some time to reflect. Have the Runeterran champions been a success? How do we feel about their current design space? I’m going to be evaluating each champion based on these two key points.
- Balance: I’ll be focusing less on how playable the champions are currently, and more so taking into account their past performance.
- Creative Potential: How much creativity is available within its Origin card pool? Does the champion open up a lot of deck-building possibilities, or does it pigeon-hole us into using Ctrl-C + Ctrl-V?
I believe these are the most important factors that lead to the champion being fun to play. Balance is the obvious culprit. If we push too far in one direction, things end up either unhealthy or disappointing.
On top of that, the Creative Potential is what keeps the game fresh for as long as possible. When there’s only one viable option to play with, it doesn’t take long until things start to feel stale.
It’s time to dive in one by one and see just how each champion has fared.
The first Runeterran champion that started it all. Jhin has been a pretty reliable champion since release. The Origin effect allows for a wild combination of skills, immediately creating the powerful burn deck we know as Annie Jhin. Additionally, simply beholding Jhin allows the player to deal extra chip damage for every three skill procs. Sweet.
So how’s balance been? Honestly, pretty good if you ask me. Upon release we saw immediate nerfs to Imperial Demolitionist and Crackshot Corsair to compensate for how obviously powerful this new combination of burn cards could be.
Annie Jhin’s had its time in the spotlight, and still continues to creep up every now and again to punish decks that aren’t prepared for it. Never broken, and far from unplayable.
Creative Potential on the other hand is unfortunately lacking. I want to preface this by saying that I think Jhin’s Origin is very well designed. Having access to every new unit that has a skill is amazing and allows for a ton of experimenting in the future.
So why do I consider it lacking then? Well, it’s because ever since launch until now, not much has happened. We have yet to see Jhin make a reliable appearance in any other archetype. We can’t discount the fact that there’s really not much we can explore.
Overall, I would still consider Jhin a success, despite the current lack of creativity. The Origin is still super cool, and definitely gives us hope for the future!
Definitely the most controversial of the bunch, and the only one to receive a nerf; it’s Bard. Bard introduced us to another unique Origin and the Chime mechanic. Initially, these Chimes were generated from turn one but eventually patched to begin on turn three.
Pre-nerf Bard broke the rules of the game and added a whole new level of RNG in the worst way possible. Games could be decided off the back of an early Chime draw, as a single +1|+1 buff would keep valuable units outside of removal range.
Other times you would draw multiple Chimes at once and have a straight-up broken unit entirely. Bard was completely unfair and developed a meta where either you tried to out-stat-check your opponent, or played something that didn’t care about stats at all. Yuck.
Fortunately, this is no longer the case, but now Bard exists only on the sidelines and doesn’t do much of anything anymore. However, I will say, Bard’s great for completing many of the annoying event missions and daily quests, so I guess there’s that.
As for Creative Potential, Bard is extremely disappointing. Card pool is limited to Chime cards which leave very little to be desired. This turned most Bard decks into essential allegiance builds, which isn’t particularly exciting.
The future potential will be very limited as well unless we’re given some solid Chime support, though I don’t expect to see a large quantity. The one area where Bard could open up is if we continue to see more designs around hand-buffs. However, even with the recent Empowered cards, Bard still sits on the sidelines.
The community wasn’t too happy to see the introduction of another arsenal of random keywords. RNG was already on the rise, and Evelynn added even more salt to the wound. Additionally, this was the first release where its Origin didn’t provide any additional gameplay mechanics.
Balance wise Evelynn has been okay. The initial worries didn’t last long as players realized her inconsistencies. Even when draws did work out, Evelynn couldn’t ultimately close out the game. And that’s not factoring in the counterplay with Husks.
Eventually, we did see a reasonably popular deck with Evelynn Viego. Husks provided additional support to the Viego game plan while adding high roll potential if you hit the right keyword.
Unfortunately, aside from Viego, Evelynn has failed to do much else. Even at her prime, it was really only good because the deck was carried by one mana Hate Spike. After the revert, it’s mediocre at best.
Creatively, Evelynn has one of the worst Origin designs. Similar to Bard, the available pool of cards is just anything that says “Husk” on it.
Most of the playable ones are already in Shadow Isles, the ideal region pairing, making the Origin a huge deck-building liability while providing almost nothing in return.
What makes it even worse is most of these cards are well below the curve of playability. Outside of Husk synergies, these cards are awful, and alongside synergies, they are borderline playable at best.
In my opinion, Evelynn hits rock bottom in terms of Runeterran designs. Nothing really worked from either aspect of balance or creativity. This may have been a miss, but Riot’s definitely taken it as an opportunity to learn, as the future designs have been a lot better!
Kayn was the first of the Darkin trio which introduced one of the most powerful Origin abilities, tutors; the ability to draw a specific card from your deck. In this case, the champion itself. This mechanic became a game-changer for LoR. It’s incredibly powerful. Not only does it essentially guarantee you draw your win condition every game, but it’s a FREE card draw!
In terms of balance, Kayn’s playability has fluctuated a fair amount from low to mid-Tier 2 to eventually the top half of Tier 1. Kayn is powerful, but not without his limits, as there are lots of counterplay options available from both sides. While we are edging closer towards being maybe just a little too good, I would say that’s more related to the Cultist units than Kayn himself.
From a creativity standpoint, we’ve seen a lot of experimentation with Kayn, and there have been multiple builds that have seen at least some level of success.
A big part of this is due to Kayn’s Origin. Unlike the predecessors, Kayn has access to some powerful interactive spells such as Furious Wielder and Momentous Choice. Previous Runeterrans don’t have access to good spells, and so they have to rely solely on their second region for support.
I really like this design direction as it lessens the burden of Origin deck building, though they do have to be careful how far they take it.
I’m really happy with how Kayn has been and where he’s ended up. There’s an argument that Kayn’s the best designed Runeterran champion we’ve seen. From balance to creativity, there’s a lot to like. And while we are starting to push the boundaries with power creep, it’s still healthy enough that a few small adjustments would make a reasonable difference, if ever necessary.
Jax came into the game alongside the Weaponmaster package, but unfortunately ended up being less interesting than the cards around him.
Improvise is an incredibly powerful mechanic that provides utility and card advantage attached to a respectable body. Jax is kinda just a 3|2 Quick Attack that can occasionally become a big Overwhelm dude. No additional Origin mechanic is also a bummer.
Jax definitely saw some success with Vayne. Demacia added both the ideal hosts for equipment and free attacks to abuse the extra stats and keywords.
The deck was strong but had a lot of competition against the rest of the Vayne and Seraphine madness. Unfortunately now with all of the nerfs, there’s not a lot of ground left for Jax to stand on.
The best unit it had access to via its Origin, Ionian Hookmaster, is dead. There’s nothing really else going for it, especially since other unit-based decks are just better.
There’s unfortunately not much creative potential either. All the Improvise cards are dual-region, making it a lot easier to include multiples in one deck without the need for Jax’s Origin.
The one unique build that’s possible is Bandle Tree. If we had pre-nerf Bandle Tree this deck would be insane, because even the current version is actually somewhat playable.
Weaponmasters make it stupidly easy to hit all ten regions, and since we can play them all, we get to accelerate our win condition and minimize some of the bad multi-region cards we had to play previously. It’s not half bad.
While Jax did have some success and a little bit of build potential, overall it feels like a bit of a flop. After all, the Bandle Tree list doesn’t even care about Jax.. It’s simply just a 1-of for the region. Perhaps a new type of weapon support could make things interesting, but I’m not holding my breath.
Number two of the Darkin trio, and another batch of Cultist cards. Varus gets the Kayn treatment by being tutorable. This time, it’s spells instead of units, but Momentous Choice and The Unforgiving Cold make it incredibly easy.
Competitively Varus has been a solid supporting champion. While never really the centerpiece, his Origin pool is fantastic with the Fated archetypes. Pantheon Varus was a very powerful deck for a time and mainly fell off due to a large number of nerfs. Although even now it’s still a respectable Tier 2 option.
Varus does offer some deck-building variety thanks to a very solid Origin pool. Since Varus isn’t incredibly necessary on his own, he’s become a good 1-of that can still be tutored while leaving room for other champions. I think the only real downside is that the self-target archetypes are often limited to Akshan and Pantheon.
They are the best options by far, which makes other considerations hard to justify. However, Rotation could end up removing those options, and would give Varus more room to grow!
All in all, I’m pretty happy with where Varus ended up. Balanced while still powerful and interactable, with a pretty respectable amount of room to build in the future.
The release of Ryze brought a new wave of hype similar to the reveal of Jhin. Ryze’s Origin expands deep into the card pool allowing a wide range of spells, but restricting to non-targeted Burst and Focus speed options only.
That’s huge! This clever design opens up a ton of deck-building potential while not handing over access to a complete library of removal spells. On top of that, Ryze himself brings a new alternate win condition unlike any we’ve seen before.
If there’s a champion I’m willing to give a pass to in terms of balance, it’s Ryze. I can’t fault the devs for where Ryze ended up. Alternate win conditions is a dangerous design space. When pushed too far they can completely break the game. So where we are now is probably a good thing.
While I would like to see Ryze make a real appearance competitively, it’ll have to be done carefully. Perhaps around the level of old classic Fiora Shen. Powerful, skill expressive, but counterable.
Alternate win conditions are sweet, so long as they aren’t at the level of pre-nerf Sun Disc. Complete inevitability shouldn’t consistently happen by turn six.
There’s a lot to explore in terms of design here, from simply splashing Ryze for his unique spell pool, or searching for the best way to invest in Exodia. We may have come up short for now, but we’re guaranteed to get more spells in the future, so there’s always something to look forward to!
The third and final of the Darkin trio is of course Aatrox, and it’s no secret that this champion packs a punch. Some have argued for it being one of the most powerful decks we’ve ever seen in LoR.
I would agree that it deserves to be in the conversation, but still a ways from the top. Once again we’ve got the free champion tutor Origin and with Aatrox it’s even easier than most. Simply equip three times and the job is done. Darkinthralls make this “requirement” a joke.
As if that weren’t good enough already, we get World Ender as a free “I win” button that already matches our game plan.
Yep, Aatrox is super pushed. Both Aatrox Vayne and Aatrox Kayn have dominated the meta, and while we did see a hotfix, the decks are still very powerful. So as far as balance, Aatrox definitely broke the game for a little while.
Aside from Seraphine Bar decks, nothing else was even remotely in the picture. We’re in a reasonable spot now, but I’ll be curious to see how things progress moving forward.
We have seen some experimentation with Aatrox outside of the usual Kayn or Demacia. WhatAmI popularized a Shadow Isles build with Kindred a while back that put up pretty good results into the field.
I do actually feel that Aatrox is the least interesting of the three in terms of deck building, as the Origin really just lets you play any Darkin weapon you like, but nothing more.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to not see Aatrox as a success given how much it’s impacted the meta. It’s one of the best champions in the game, and I expect it to get even better once Rotation cycles out many other top champions like Twisted Fate.
So, have Runeterran champions lived up to the hype they once commanded? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure myself. I love the creative direction of Jhin or Ryze.
Kayn is incredibly well designed and balanced, as is Varus, and to some extent now Aatrox. However, I’d really like to avoid the extremely RNG-heavy champs like Bard and Evelynn. As for Jax? Meh?
I’m optimistic. We’ve been on an upward trend for a while now, and I think the devs have done a pretty great job figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
There’s still a ton more to explore, including new support for the current champs, and the possibility of even crazier future Origins!
That wraps things up for now. This is looking to be an exciting year for Runeterra and I can’t wait to see what the future of Rotation and competitive play looks like. If you ever want to discuss anything, feel free to hit me up on Twitter @Shugo_LoR!
Shugo’s Mindful Minute
Getting started is often the biggest barrier to productivity.
What can we add to our routine to make it easier?
What can we subtract from our routine to make it easier?