League of Legends’ Sustain Problem

There’s a pursuit that’s been going on in high level League of Legends for years. No one brings it up, no one talks about it, I’m not even sure most people realize what they’re doing when they’re looking for it, but it is constantly in play: it is the persistent search for the next great source of free or cheap early game sustain.

You could argue that this goes back to the days of Doran’s Blade, Crystalline Flask, or even Long Sword/Boots + Health Pots, but for the first half of League of Legends’ lifespan the options remained fairly stagnant. It was really the introduction of Warlord’s Bloodlust at the start of Season 6 that made people realize just how powerful early game sustain could be. And thus began a cycle: high-level players would discover a source of early game sustain, one that was cheap or free, and they would use it to bridge champions’ weak early games, or make their oppressive laning even stronger, by mitigating opponents’ ability to trade against them.

How Did We Get Here?

If sustain is such an early-game inhibitor and Riot wants to encourage early-game aggression and player-to-player engagements, why have meaningful early game sustain at all? Well, the answer is simple: sustain feels good. Or maybe it’s more relevant to say that being low on health feels bad. It’s no fun when you’re forced to stick around in a lane at half HP. You have to constantly be on edge, worried about what your lane opponent might do, or protecting yourself from even the most poorly angled gank or roam. You’re giving up CS, playing back near your tower; you can’t trade at all. You’re burning through your mana pool just to pick up whatever farm you can reach.

Obviously, this is not very fun to watch either. One player is playing scared and passive, while the other is looking for a tiny window that a good player probably won’t leave open.

So the apparent solution is to have mechanisms in the game that allow you to consistently heal yourself up, especially for champions who are vulnerable to finding themselves on the losing end of things early on.

There is another side to this coin however, which is that players are less likely to use a full spell rotation’s worth of mana or risk an aggressive trade in the early laning phase when at least half of the damage they dealt is going to be healed back in a few auto attacks or with a single charge of Corrupting Potion. So Riot would see how this sustain was discouraging early game aggression and engagement, they would nerf it, and the process of finding the next version of free or cheap sustain would begin anew. From the balance team’s perspective, it’s a catch-22. Not enough sustain, and you end up with too much passivity. Too much sustain, and well… same thing. Opposite extremes; same result.

Riot has constantly been chasing a central balance point on a playground seesaw and high-level players have been the children dropping rocks on the seats, constantly tipping things to one side. Warlord’s Bloodlust, Grasp of the Undying, Long Sword and pots, Corrupting Potion, and Fleet Footwork… These and more have all had their day in the sun as the dominant form of laning sustain. The latter two have been alternating in and out of the meta for a while. This list doesn’t even mention the less noticeable lower tier runes that pros frequently take as defaults—assuming no other runes synergize particularly well with a champion—such as Time Warp Tonic, Font of Life, Revitalize, and Ravenous Hunter.

Pursuing Predictability

So, why is sustain so valued in professional and high-level play? Why do we keep pursuing sustain in every form we can find it? It’s because perhaps the single most important thing in pro play from a strategic standpoint is risk mitigation. You don’t want anything unpredictable, anything that can go either way, except in the most desperate of circumstances. That’s why 50/50 Baron calls have coaches ripping their hair out and analysts shouting on Twitter. That’s why bull-rushing team fights makes coaches and analysts so nervous, while rotational play and split pushing is much more respected despite being less entertaining. Sustain mitigates risk for both sides. If you are at higher health in lane you are less likely to die, less likely to be forced back, less likely to end up taking a bad trade, less likely to use a summoner spell defensively…

A high-sustain arrangement benefits both sides, even in early-game vs. late-game team comp matchups. The early game champion gets to slowly win and pressure out the late game champion with less risk of a mistake accelerating the opponent’s scaling or slowing down their own snowball, and the late game champion has less risk of being put down hard by the early game champion before they have a chance to get going.

At the end of the day this is why professional players pursue sustain so doggedly. It makes the game less risky and more predictable, which in turn makes it easier to devise strategies prior to games, adjust plans during the game, and keep things under a greater degree of control. In a way, by making the game less about individual player-vs.-player interactions, sustain gives teams as a whole more control over the flow of the early game, simply by tempering aggression and regulating the laning phase.

Where Do We Go Next?

I’m not to going to posit whether high volatility or high stability is better for League of Legends on a grand scale. That debate has been talked to death at this point and has good points on both sides. I will say, however, that in its current state, the level of sustain is a problem. It’s a problem because it has become a constant cycle, with everything ending up in the same places over and over again, just with different sets of tools each time. It isn’t good to constantly have to reinvent something to serve more or less the same purpose. It causes needless frustration for players and teams, and it’s a waste of time and effort for both the balance team and professional teams. That time and effort could be used innovating new and interesting things, strategies, builds, game mechanics, etc., instead of just trying to come up with a new version of the same thing repeatedly.

So to Riot I say this: figure out which side of the seesaw you want the game to be tilted towards and stop chasing that center balance point. You’ll never find it.

Once you do that, we can all agree to embrace the new normal and work from there.

Cody Gerard is currently the Head of LoL Analytics for Rogue. He has previously worked for Roccat and Baskonia Esports.

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