League of Legends is a 5v5 team game, but has a solo ladder that is meant to be an indication of one’s skill. There are many players (myself included) who play this game with the sole purpose of climbing this ranked ladder. It can feel very frustrating for players of any game to feel like their fate is in the hands of outside forces, and League of Legends ranked players can often feel this way.
Teamwork is one of the design pillars of the game, however. It was crafted specifically as a team game, and that’s really what makes it so compelling in a lot of ways. It’s certainly one of the reasons League is so successful as an esport. But there is a difficulty in balancing that teamwork with the individual impact a single player can have on the game.
Champions interact with the game and the other players through their abilities. Riot’s champion designers know this well, and design abilities that can have deep gameplay interactions, even if they seem simple on the surface. I think about that a lot. The thing I love the most about game design is thinking about how the player will interact with your game. For most champions, the ability is simple on its own, but promotes interesting decisions about how you use it.
Take Annie for example, perhaps one of the simplest champions in the game. Her Disintegrate (Q) ability is a point-and-click damaging fireball. On its own, it’s pretty basic and doesn’t really offer a lot of choice. But, it also refunds its mana cost and half of its cooldown when it kills a target. Now you have some more choices to make. Do I use this on a unit to secure a minion kill, or do I use it on a champion for damage at the cost of its mana and cooldown? On top of that, add Annie’s Pyromania (P), which adds a stun effect to her next ability after she’s casted four times. Now you have to also consider that stun effect. Is there an ally nearby who can take advantage of this stun and secure a kill for our team? Maybe I should hold onto my abilities now and try to land it. Maybe I can zone the enemy off of potential minion kills with it and secure an advantage. There’s a lot more going on with Annie’s gameplay now.
My Bold Statement
The title of this post is about Caitlyn though, not Annie. Caitlyn has an ability called Ace in the Hole (R), a point-and-click skill that causes her to lock onto a target, channel for 1 second, and launch a homing sniper shot at them. The catch is that the bullet is a projectile that can be blocked by other enemy champions. This key detail is what really makes this ability awesome.
I mentioned earlier that teamwork is one of League’s design pillars. The others are Mastery, Meaningful Choices, Counterplay, Clarity, and Evolution. The great thing about Caitlyn’s Ace in the Hole, is that it hits on every single pillar (except for Evolution, which really isn’t applicable to champion abilities). With champion abilities, Mastery and Meaningful Choice tend to walk hand in hand. If you offer meaningful choices to a player in a multitude of situations, learning which choices to make in what situation is Mastery.
First of all, it’s important to note that Caitlyn is a Marksman. That means that she’s a basic attack reliant champion. She builds attack speed and critical strike items to augment her basic attacks and output a ton of damage for the team. That means that every second you’re not hitting an enemy with a basic attack is a waste of time (in a vacuum of course). As I mentioned, Ace in the Hole channels for 1 second before firing. If you’ve never played League, that might not seem like a lot, but Caitlyn could be pumping out a max of 2.5 basic attacks a second during that channel. If she crits, there’s a very good chance she’s going to put out more damage than what Ace in the Hole would even do.
Every champion in League of Legends has a basic attack range, which varies depending on the champion. Caitlyn has a very long one, but Ace in the Hole reaches much farther. Aside from not outputting consistent and high damage for your team while you’re channeling, you’re also completely immobile during that channel. Marksmen tend to build all damage items with a lack of defense, and instead rely on their positioning and their teammates to keep them safe. An entire second of immobility opens you up to a lot of attacks, and as a primary damage dealer, your death will have a greatly negative effect on the outcome of an ensuing fight.
Next up is Clarity, the importance of letting the player know what’s happening on screen. The game draws a line between Caitlyn and her target during the channel before the bullet is released, and there’s a large indicator around the targeted champion as well. These are really important to have for a number of abilities, but especially so for Ace in the Hole. Because of its long range, its very important to know you’re being targeted. Caitlyn could be entirely off your screen when she fires, so its possible to not even know it’s coming. The other reason leads us into our last pillar, teamwork, because other champions need to see their ally targeted by the ability if they want to try and block it.
Being able to block an ability for your ally is such a great mechanic in a team game like League of Legends. There’s a bit of Meaningful Choice and Mastery within this mechanic as well. Do I block the shot and damage myself, potentially putting me in danger? Can I correctly use an ability to position myself in front of the bullet? Is it even worth it for me to use this ability (looking at you Flash)? Can I prevent some or all of the damage without blocking the shot with a shield or a heal?
By far the most impressive thing about this ability though, is that it manages to create deep and fun gameplay experiences in a single ability. Players don’t even have to think about it. Getting players to work together can be hard, especially in a game like League of Legends where players are trying to focus on their own performances above all else. When that Ace in the Hole mark appears on one of their allies though, you can be sure there’ll be a wall of champions scrambling to line themselves in front of the shot. And that’s why Ace in the Hole is the best designed ability in League of Legends.