Case Study: Arguing Against Mana in League of Legends

Ryze, the living embodiment of mana in LoL.

This essay takes the concepts from my previous essay The Mana System Paradox and applies it specifically to League of Legends. Knowledge of both of these is preferable, but if you haven’t read “The Mana System Paradox”, its core argument is that resource systems in action games are bad because they punish players for taking actions in a game that’s all about taking actions.

Thus the main question is this: is LoL one of those kinds of games? I believe it is, and that it would benefit from rethinking its mana systems.

In my original essay, I took apart a few games that use mana and analyzed what the resulting effects were. There is no blanket statement on mana systems: they work great for some kinds of games, but are horrible in others. Copying a mana system directly from one game to another can have drastic consequences, because every game is different and reacts differently depending on how its mechanics communicate. Just imagine if Magicka had a traditional mana system.

A game like LoL has a lot of subtle nuance: many factors go into every interaction in every match, and mana governs over a lot of those interactions. Judging mana in LoL requires a breakdown of mana’s consequences and its effect on the game as a whole.

A Quick Foreword

This essay does not argue for the immediate abolishment of mana. Simply snapping a finger and instantly making every champion manaless would have disastrous effects. Many of the game’s core systems are built off of mana, balanced around mana, and deliver engaging experiences through mana. There are many good points about mana, and the bad points aren’t quite as obvious. Personal mana control, resource management, and long-term tactics are all strong mana-based aspects of the game that I don’t intend to demean.

For example, the argument “Mana isn’t a problem if you buy an Unholy Grail and run regen seals” lies within the issue itself. I am not talking about mana on a personal scale, but rather on a game-wide level. Athene’s Unholy Grail and mana regeneration seals fall under the scope of mana that I seek to address.

Champions like Blitzcrank, Kassadin, Kog’Maw, and Ryze who depend heavily on their dynamics with mana would also need to be reconsidered in this new direction. I do not mean to say that these champions should just have all of their mana costs removed: of course more care would be necessary for cases like those.

Rethinking mana in LoL would be an extraordinarily massive shift in design philosophy, possibly one of the largest in the history of the game. Large tasks are to be approached in small steps, and I hope to make one of those small steps with this essay.

Problems With Mana: Hoarding Encourages Passive Turtling

LoL‘s design philosophy is all about interactive play between opponents, and mana doesn’t allow much of that to happen. The problem with a statement like this is that “mana” is often connected to “abilities,” but they’re two separate concepts that are considered separately in battle and need to be considered separately in design as well.

There’s no way for players to intentionally cause their enemy to run out of mana. It’s bad for you when your enemy has a lot of mana, because that means they can use a lot of abilities on you. But the only way for you to reduce their mana (and thus reduce their threat level) is to let them use abilities on you. Gameplay around the actual usage of abilities has plenty of interaction, but there’s a distinction between using an ability versus deciding whether or not you should use an ability.

Let’s say that I’m playing as Ezreal and I want to hit you with a few Mystic Shots. There are two decisions that I need to factor into the equation before I fire an ability off: how it will impact my current mana pool, and how it will impact my enemy. The net worth of my ability depends on the latter, because even though two casts of the ability cost the same amount of mana, it’s worth more to me if it hits than if it’s a complete miss. However, enemies still don’t have the ability to do anything to my mana pool: they can only change what happens after my ability is fired, if they react fast enough to dodge. All resource-consuming abilities have this dual nature between deciding when to use the ability (mana) versus deciding how to use the ability (counterplay).

Thus we run into a problem: what happens if I just decide not to use any abilities? I can maintain high amounts of mana (which means a higher threat level) and there’s nothing that my enemy can do about it. Sure, I’m not using abilities, but I’m not losing mana either. It’s beneficial for me to do damage to my enemy, but it’s also beneficial for me to have lots of mana, and I can only do one or the other because damaging my enemy costs mana. If I’m able to do enough damage to my enemy to kill him, the benefits outweigh the loss of mana. But on the other hand, if my enemy outplays me, now I’ve done no damage and I’m out of mana, which is a bad situation to be in. If I just don’t use any mana in the first place, neither of those outcomes will happen, and I’ll be in an unremarkable but safe place.

If you’re at 100% mana, you’re probably throwing out some harass now and then. If you’re at 50% mana, you’re a little bit more hesitant about using your abilities. If you’re at 10% mana, you’re saving every last drop for your escape mechanism. The degree to which you need to save mana scales with how little of it is left.

It’s a decision between the high-stakes path versus the consistent path, and the latter is a pretty popular option. LoL has struggled with passive play for a long time, most notably with the support sustain meta. But it’s important to notice that mana systems also contribute to passive play. No one wants to get yelled at for being killed, and it’s a lot easier to avoid being killed when you have mana than when you don’t.

One solution might be to strengthen the connection from “using the ability” to “deciding when to use the ability.” Ezreal is a good example of this, because when he hits an enemy with his Mystic Shot it reduces his ability cooldowns by a second. His decision to use Mystic Shot is reliant on how well he can land Mystic Shots. For every other champion, it’s the other way around: their decisions to use their abilities is reliant on their available resources, whether it’s mana or cooldowns. Enemies can reduce the rate at which Ezreal uses Mystic Shots by dodging the ones he fires. This places emphasis within the action of the ability rather than the decision behind its usage. Olaf’s Undertow and Reckless Swing abilities were recently reworked to use similar structures.

Another possible solution would be to allow interaction with mana, but LoL decided not to go in that direction. If enemies could somehow reduce the amount of mana you have, they could actively prevent you from using your abilities. In the MOBA realm this concept is called mana burn, and LoL intentionally removed it. Having mana burn would solve this current problem, but it still feeds into the next problem I’m about to describe.

Problems With Mana: Being OOM Sucks

Naturally, resource systems cause things to run out. The paradox is that the gameplay experience depends on having resources that are consumed by the gameplay experience itself. Why does playing the game as it’s intended to be played cause you to be unable to play the game anymore? If the core gameplay experience of LoL is to use abilities, and using abilities causes you to run out of mana and be unable to use abilities, then there’s a problem. It’s antithetical and confusing for the game’s core experience to prevent you from fulfilling the game’s core experience.

But it’s a matter of understanding what exactly LoL‘s experience is supposed to be. Is it to outsmart your opponent? Get the most gold? Last-hit the enemy nexus? Kill Teemo as many times as possible? Have as much fun as possible? You could take each of these random ideas I just threw out and design a whole game around it. Implementing a mana system makes perfect sense for some of these ideas, and is a horrible idea in others. If you went all-in with a ton of mana and your opponent outsmarted you, that’s a proper punishment in a game about outsmarting your opponent. On the other hand, if you run out of mana because you killed Teemo too many times, and the only reason why you play the game is so you can kill Teemo, it’s a total buzzkill. Of course, the core gameplay experience of LoL isn’t actually to kill Teemo. What exactly is the core gameplay experience, and why don’t mana systems play into it?

Many of Riot’s prominent designers have said that counterplay and player interaction is a major focal point for LoL‘s experience, and you can feel this in the game itself. If you look at supports in LoL, traditional healers were nerfed because they didn’t provide strong counterplay: there’s not a whole lot you can do when the enemy Soraka heals your lane opponent back to full health every ten seconds. However, recent supports have been designed with counterplay in mind. Nami’s Ebb and Tide ability is a weak heal outside of combat, but gains strength when used within an engagement, so it becomes an active skill used in the heat of battle rather than a way to patch up allies after the fight. Thresh has no heals whatsoever but is able to reposition his allies, so enemies must coordinate in order to catch an enemy being assisted by a Thresh. Other trends like the rising amount of dodgeable skillshots have also pointed towards this direction.

A large part of counterplay lies in abilities. If I’m Ezreal and I fire a Mystic Shot at you, your counterplay is to dodge. If I’m Yasuo and I place a Wind Wall in front of you, your counterplay is to navigate around it. If I’m Zyra and I place a seed on the ground, your counterplay is to trample it. Other than abilities, counterplay also happens through item purchases and through metagame. But counterplay through abilities is the main hook, the event that happens most often during a match, the part you remember after an awesome play, the moment when crowds get up and cheer at tournaments. Nobody gets up to cheer when the tank buys a Randuin’s Omen.

In order for counterplay through abilities to happen, it’s obvious that abilities need to be used. However, the existence of mana presents two cases which prevent the use of abilities: holding back in order to save mana, or being out of mana. Either way, someone is unable to interact meaningfully with their opponent, and it’s frustrating.

These concepts are even used thematically in champion design. Rumble’s overheated state is functionally the same thing as being out of mana. For him, the frustration of being unable to unleash all of his abilities is a part of his character. He has to fight against himself as much as he has to fight against enemies, which is why he needs Danger Zone benefits: the more he fights against himself, the easier it is to fight against enemies and vice versa. On the other hand, manaless champions like Katarina can divert focus away from herself and more towards her enemies, like an assassin concentrating on her prey. As thematic mechanics, both of these champion’s resource systems work fine. But giving a champion mana is basically giving it a toned-down version of Rumble’s heat. It’s not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be the default. Ziggs is a “blow-up-everything” kind of guy, but since he has mana there are times when he has to stop himself from blowing things up.

There are plenty of other situations that prevent abilities, but those situations tie into LoL‘s core experience. If you’re silenced or stunned or dead, you’re unable to use abilities because the enemy outmaneuvered you in some way. The punishment is reasonable because your counterplay was not as strong as the enemy’s. However, being out of mana isn’t a matter of being outplayed, it’s a matter of using the abilities you were supposed to use. Mana systems inevitably lead towards OOM situations, but in a game about interactive counterplay it’s more fitting to focus on dealing with your opponent rather than struggle to balance your own expenses.

Problems With Mana: Balance Revolves Around It

Regardless of anything I say about mana, it’s still a valid point that LoL was built from the ground up with mana, and it’s a core part of how the game is balanced. However, mana is a balancing point for the decision to use an ability, not the action of using an ability. Attaching high post-usage costs feeds into the passive turtling and OOM scenarios described above, and doesn’t deal with the abilities themselves.

Currently, nearly all ranged champions are gated by mana costs to limit their harass potential, and manaless champions generally have higher ability cooldowns, but mana and cooldown gates both shift too much focus into the decision to act rather than the act itself. Mana and cooldowns serve very similar purposes: both of them limit ability usage by forcing the user to wait for a certain duration. An individual ability’s cooldown can be thought of as a miniature mana bar, with its own regeneration rate. Xerath’s 20-second cooldown on Locus of Power can be reimagined as a mana bar that’s capped at 100, regenerates 5 per second, and costs 100 to use. Thinking this way, it’s as if all champions have five different mana bars, one for each separate ability and one to govern them all.

Many of my arguments against mana also apply to high-cooldown abilities like ultimates and summoner spells. If you don’t use an ability, it won’t go on cooldown, and it’ll be ready to use if you’re suddenly caught in a bad situation like a gank. Offensive flashes are rarely used except when a kill is almost finished and it just needs to be secured, but defensive flashes happen all the time (in fact, offensive flashes are generally used to follow up after defensive ones). The similarities between cooldowns and mana mean that both systems carry similar effects on gameplay. High cooldowns should be condemned as much as high mana costs.

Abilities need to provide windows for counterattacks, but mana and cooldown costs present those windows outside of the ability itself. Sion’s Cryptic Gaze has a high mana cost, but it doesn’t lend much counterplay. This has historically turned Sion into a one-trick pony: once he stuns you, he either succeeds at bursting you down with his shield, or he fails and he’s unable to take other actions. In the former case, his enemy has no meaningful actions to respond with because the stun is inevitable. In the latter case, Sion himself is left out of mana and has no meaningful actions to use against enemies. The counterattack case is clear (if Sion fails to kill me, attack him), but that’s an external cost that lies outside of the ability itself. If, for example, Cryptic Gaze was a skillshot, it would provide counterplay in and of itself because it would be dodgeable. Lissandra’s Frozen Tomb is the cooldown equivalent, and presents a similar gameplay pattern (but unlike Sion she can still function without her on-demand stun).

Up until several months ago, every champion has been gated by either mana or cooldowns, but recently abilities have been gated by windups instead. Mana and cooldowns are both post-usage costs, which makes them feel more like punishments for taking action. However, windups shift the cost to pre-usage, so players need to properly set up a scene before using abilities to their full potential. Pre-usage costs are paid in preparation rather than in mana, and the effort invested in pulling off a perfect ability results in a positive payoff. Lucian’s Culling is a strong example of this: by itself, it’s rather difficult to land and doesn’t do much damage. However, when Lucian first hits an enemy with Ardent Blaze, the movement speed allows him to keep pace during The Culling, so more of his shots will land and he does more damage. If in addition he also times his Relentless Pursuits well, he gains even more potential out of his ultimate. Thanks to all of these elements, The Culling is able to have relatively low post-usage costs, because so much of its cost is shifted to pre-usage preparation.

Contrast Lucian’s Culling to Miss Fortune’s Bullet Time, which doesn’t benefit from prior preparation and is instead balanced by longer cooldowns. Let us imagine for the sake of example that Bullet Time has a 60 second cooldown and The Culling has a 50 second cooldown. The Culling just by itself is drastically weaker than Bullet Time, but Lucian can invest ten seconds to properly prepare a perfect scene before ulting. This means that each ability needs 60 seconds to reach its full potential. However, those ten seconds that Lucian is spending on preparation means  a ten second window for enemies to respond. His enemy can dodge Ardent Blaze, or try to force him to reposition with Relentless Pursuit, so that The Culling’s potential drops. In this case, enemies have ten seconds to exert force and try to outplay Lucian to reduce his total power. On the other hand, there’s nothing that enemies can do about Miss Fortune’s Bullet Time except dodge it and spend the next 60 seconds on offense.

Having lower post-usage costs is good because it weakens the mana-hoarding strategy and reduces OOM punishments. In this over-simplified hypothetical case, Lucian’s The Culling is able to have lower post-usage costs than Bullet Time because it’s weaker. To compensate, Lucian can invest time and effort to make The Culling stronger, but likewise enemies can interfere with his efforts. This way, both abilities can be balanced without running into the problems of high post-usage costs. Of course, there are so many other elements that play into the actual game, so I’m not trying to say that The Culling is the paragon of balance. Still, many recent champions have taken advantage of pre-usage preparation.

Mana costs work well enough at balancing abilities, but they do so on a game-wide scale rather than fixing the dynamics of individual combat scenarios. Costs are a necessary element for counterplay to exist, but they do not necessarily have to be traditional post-usage costs. Abilities can be balanced by attaching high mana or cooldown costs, but that doesn’t give the ability counterplay and runs into the mana hoarding/OOM problems. On the other hand, abilities with pre-usage costs can have windows for counterplay, low post-usage costs, and balanced power levels.

A New Direction: Externalized Mana Design

Being unable to act should be a punishment. Taking actions is what makes LoL fun, and if you’re rendered unable to do that, it should be because you did something wrong and your opponent rightfully bested you. And yet, mana systems bring you closer and closer to being unable to act every time you use an ability. When you lose mana, you’re being punished for trying to play the game.

Rewards and punishments should be justified. Punishing players for using an ability is not justified in a game where you’re supposed to use abilities. Instead, reward players for their successes and punish them for their failures. This allows opponents to focus on dealing with each other, rather than worrying about themselves. If your opponent is unable to take action, it should be because you intentionally rendered them unable to take action, not because you curled up into a ball and let them rain blows upon you until they got tired (unless you are Rammus).

Windups create anticipation, whereas cooldowns create dread. Ability gates need to exist so that opponents can have a meaningful opportunity to counterattack, but the timing of where those gates go changes how the ability is experienced. Time spent preparing for an attack makes the payoff a reward, whereas time spent waiting after an attack makes the result a punishment. This also gives enemies opportunities to disrupt a powerful attack during its preparation phase, so the outcome of the battle depends on how well the combatants play within the battle itself rather than how many costs they incurred before the fight.

I call this direction “externalized mana design (EMD),” as opposed to LoL’s current “internalized mana design (IMD).” With these definitions, internal refers to the self, whereas external refers to how the self interacts with the others around it. Internal refers to how many mistakes you make, whereas external refers to how many times your opponents best you. Internal refers to sticking to your guns and maintaining your own path, whereas external refers to how you change dynamically in response to your enemies.

Mana and ability usage gates are too much of an internal struggle and not enough of an external one. In a game about counterplay, the tools that we use to outplay our opponents are limited by personal consumption. There are still many, many benefits to IMD, but externalism and internalism are not mutually exclusive: it’s possible to get the best of both worlds.

LoL already has many examples of EMD. Cho’Gath’s and Swain’s high costs are balanced by their regeneration passives, so they’re rewarded for getting kills and punished when their enemies successfully starve them. The ninja’s energy systems are great ways to focus on in-combat dynamics: you can starve a ninja’s resources by avoiding their energy regeneration abilities, which likewise makes it a priority for them to land those abilities, but energy refills after a fight so there are no crippling long-term mana costs.

I feel that Yasuo channels the general concept of EMD most strongly. His Q and R put emphasis into windup, so they’re able to function with plenty of counterplay without having crippling cooldown costs. If his ultimate wasn’t restricted to airborne enemies, it would essentially be a 1300-range AoE stun nuke, and its cooldown would have to be ridiculously long to compensate. Since it has that prerequisite restriction, Yasuo and his enemies are able to have interactive, exciting battles where the most skillful player wins. All of his kit works on interactive reward systems that both the player and the enemy can build off of.

On the other hand, Rumble is the epitome of IMD. His internal struggle against his own resource system is his central character trait, his game balancing point, and ultimately one of the largest parts of the Rumble experience. That’s not to say that Rumble is a bad champion, nor that IMD is a bad design philosophy. There are pros and cons to both IMD and EMD, and a careful mixture of both can create uniquely engaging experiences.

Illustrating The Concept Of Externalized Mana Design

These charts are here to further illustrate what exactly EMD is and how it compares to IMD. Let’s take Varus’s Piercing Arrow as an example and analyze it using these graphs.

First, the top chart analyzes windups and cooldowns, the outside factors that go into ability uses. Windups are the parts where you try to ensure that your ability will land (or deal more damage) once you use it, but before actually using it. For Piercing Arrow, the windup is applying Blight stacks: Varus isn’t actually using Piercing Arrow, but the Blight stacks exist outside of the ability and can make it stronger. Other windup factors would include positioning, timing, and lining up so that enemy minions aren’t in the way.

The more effort Varus puts into the windup, the higher his threat level becomes. However, after he unleashes Piercing Arrow, his threat level suddenly drops: he loses mana, his ability goes on cooldown, he is vulnerable to counterattack. As he recovers mana and his cooldown continues counting down, his threat level slowly increases again as his opponent recognizes that he’ll soon be able to fire another Piercing Arrow.

EMD puts emphasis on the first portion, whereas IMD puts emphasis in the latter. For example, Karthus’s Requiem has very little windup: there is nothing he can do to increase the damage it does. To balance the lack of windup, it needs to have massive cooldown and mana costs.

While the top chart focuses on the outside elements influencing abilities, the bottom chart focuses specifically on what happens when an ability is fired.  Once again, let’s use Piercing Arrow as an example. As soon as he presses the key and starts drawing back his arrow, the mana and cooldown costs are applied, dropping the ability’s net worth. Enemies may then take actions in response to Varus’s ability. If Piercing Arrow lands, the net worth will go up and the damage dealt to the enemy will compensate for the costs incurred. However, if Piercing Arrow misses, the net worth doesn’t change: the initial cost was already paid at the start of the ability.

There are two directions that EMD can take within an ability’s specific dynamics, and both of them attempt to exaggerate the final effects. Notice the degree of the angle that occurs at “the actions that are taken in response.” Under IMD, this angle is quite low: a hit is better than a miss, but not drastically so. However, under both directions of EMD the angle is much wider, representing a much wider difference between a hit and a miss. Both directions of EMD attempt to make landing a hit drastically better than a miss (and conversely, they make missing a hit drastically more punishing).

Under EMD 1, Varus’s Piercing Arrow would cost more mana, but refund mana if it hits an enemy. Under EMD 2, Varus’s Piercing Arrow would cost less mana than it does now, but drain additional mana if it expires without hitting an enemy. Either way accomplishes the same goal of exaggerating the difference between a success and a failure. An ability’s net worth from its specific dynamics will propagate further up to the surrounding influences depicted in the first chart.

The point of EMD is to put more emphasis on “the actions that are taken in response,” in other words, counterplay. Punishments and rewards can be made to be an interactive experience rather than an individual one. Effects from these individual abilities can influence the flow of battle as a whole by strengthening the connection between long-term costs and short-term dynamics.

Applying Externalized Mana Design

Before I start, I must mention: I do not presume to be the god of design and balance. All of these are just ideas and nothing more: actually implementing these in any kind of useful fashion requires far more effort and resources than I have available. However, I hope to illustrate the general direction that EMD would take.

Riven – Increase the cooldowns on her basic abilities, but add an effect to her passive: if she attacks an enemy champion and consumes a charge of Runic Blade, it reduces her basic ability cooldowns by a flat amount. As an enemy, this helps clarify that Riven is a threat when she is engaged in a combo, and that you can win by breaking her combo. As Riven, this means that you have to be more careful before you rush in with a combo, because if the enemy manages to disengage, you don’t get the cooldown restoration and you are more vulnerable to counterattacks as a result. However, if she manages to get her full combo off, she’s rewarded for it with reduced cooldowns and thus higher threat potential.

Ezreal – I like the positive feedback attached to his Mystic Shot on-hit cooldown reduction, but I feel that it could be pushed further. EMD could be emphasized in his kit by increasing the base cooldown on Mystic Shot by a certain amount, but also increasing the amount that Mystic Shot reduces its own cooldown (important: only its own cooldown) by an equivalent amount. If EMD’d Ezreal lands a Mystic Shot, he is functionally identical to the current Ezreal. However, if EMD’d Ezreal misses a Mystic Shot, he is punished with a longer cooldown and enemies have a greater window for counterattack.

Nidalee – Reduce the overall damage of her spears, but if she lands a spear on an enemy currently revealed by one of her traps, it does bonus damage. I think it’s fine that she runs on mana, because her cougar form is manaless and it creates an interesting duality between human restraint versus bestial ruthlessness. However, tweaking her damage around this way gives Nidalee’s spear a preparation cost that it didn’t have, and reduces its uncounterable consistent poke damage. With this, the danger case is clear: if you’re revealed by a Nidalee trap, you better be really careful for spears coming your way, because not only can she see you, her Javelin Toss does extra damage to you. On the other hand, if she’s throwing spears randomly, she’s wasting mana on attacks that won’t make much of an impact even if they hit.

Draven – Every time he catches a Spinning Axe, he regains a bit of mana. If he misses an axe, he loses mana in addition to the mana cost he paid when first activating the ability. He’s the kind of guy who brags on and on when he catches an axe, but beats himself up when he misses one. This way, there’s even more incentive for both Draven and his enemy to focus on his axes (and of course Draven wants everyone to focus on his axes). As long as he continues catching axes, he gets rewarded with more mana to cast abilities with, but if an enemy forces him to drop an axe the enemy is rewarded for their play by actively hurting Draven’s mana pool (and ego).

Karthus – Change Defile’s mana restoration on kill to be mana restoration upon dealing magic damage instead, like a form of spell vamp that heals mana. Make Defile scale with and consume a percentage of his maximum mana. Currently, Karthus relies on getting kills to restore mana, which is how he sustains through the laning phase, and after the laning phase he hardly needs to worry about mana at all because he builds tear. By switching “kills” to damage in general, mana loss and restoration stays relevant throughout the game.

Ziggs – Create some kind of interaction from Short Fuse to his basic abilities. The interaction from basic abilities to Short Fuse is already there (using an ability reduces Short Fuse’s cooldown by 4 seconds), but it could go the other way around as well. Increase Ziggs’s basic ability cooldowns, and make Short Fuse reduce their cooldowns when it damages an enemy. Alternatively, reduce Ziggs’s basic ability damages, but Short Fuse applies a debuff to enemies that increases the damage they take from Ziggs. There are lots of things that can be done to Short Fuse that would make Ziggs more interesting than a max-range Bouncing Bomb spammer.

Yorick – Increase the cost it takes to summon a ghoul, but have all of them restore mana back to Yorick every time they strike an enemy. His ghouls are way too spammable, and enemies should have the opportunity to fight back. This way, if Yorick summons a ghoul, the enemy has to decide between going about his previous business (farming, harassing, etc) or focusing down the ghoul before it replenishes Yorick’s mana pool. However, if Yorick is smart with his ghouls, he’s rewarded with more mana.

Sivir – She’s interesting because her Spell Shield was actually changed in the opposite direction: it used to have a mana cost and restore more mana, but then the mana cost was chopped out so she can cast it free. On one hand, this is necessary to balance the high cost on Boomerang Blade, so the interaction of these two abilities creates a unified whole system that welcomes smart counterplay from both sides. On the other hand, I wonder what would happen if Boomerang Blade’s power and mana costs were reduced so it wouldn’t need an auxiliary balancing point. Either way is fine.

Brand – This is getting into personal opinion territory, but I feel like Pyroclasm’s Blaze effect is a little underwhelming compared to the Blaze effects of his basic abilities.  Shifting some of Pyroclasm’s power into its Blaze effect wouldn’t change a massive amount because it’s the last step of Brand’s combo anyway, but it’s a step towards more preparation-based abilities.

Kassadin and Kog’Maw – I’m able to lump these two together because the primary issue is their simultaneous damage/mana cost increases with consecutive uses of their ultimates. For them, I would suggest a new type of resource, Void Energy. Void Energy would work similarly to Rumble’s Heat: starts at 0, caps at 100, decreases over time (although Void Energy would decrease at a slower pace than Heat), silences the champion for a duration when 100 is reached. All of Kassadin’s and Kog’Maw’s abilities would add a certain amount of Void Energy to their pool, depending on the ability level, and thus bringing them closer to hitting 100 and becoming silenced. However, dealing damage to enemies decreases Void Energy proportional to the amount of damage dealt (reduced to a third for AoE and DoT damage, doubled against champions). This way, they are naturally capped from spamming their abilities (namely, their short cooldown ults), but they can strive to make the most out of their Void Energy before it silences them. Likewise, enemies have to shut them down before they’re able to refund Void Energy and continue their assaults. Again, I am not the god of game design, I can’t whip out a perfect new resource system out of thin air, but it’s just to illustrate the concept of EMD.

Blue buff – Change its mana regeneration component from a constant passive aura to an active effort. Something like a stronger version of Doran’s Ring’s restore mana on kill would be suitable, or restore mana upon damaging an enemy, or restore mana proportional to damage dealt. This could possibly be applied to Baron buff as well, but considering Baron buff’s rarity it’s probably not an urgent change.

Ultimates and summoner spells – I think that summoner spells are fine because they’re external forces, like deus ex machinas that you call upon to save your champion. But with long cooldown ultimates, it’s really a case by case basis. For example, Shen’s Stand United is just so powerful that there’s no way it could function without a massive cost. If some of its power was shifted to preparation cost instead, that could mitigate its strength and it would be possible to reduce its post-usage costs. On the other hand, LoL benefits from the diversity. There’s no hard line stance I can take on long cooldown ultimates, as long as they aren’t a core integral part of what makes the character engaging and fun to play. If they are, they should be integrated like Yasuo’s and Lucian’s ults.

A general EMD trend is an overall nerf on long-range poke, and I think that’s a good thing. Just like the pure healer support playstyle that was nerfed long ago, the long-range poke playstyle is frustrating and not very fun for the victim. Attaching long-range poke to in-combat dynamics reduces the effectiveness of poking outside of battle.

Consequences Of Externalized Mana Design

One major consequence that I can already tell is lane snowballing. Positive feedback is essentially another word for snowballing, and EMD is all about positive feedback where it’s due. I talked about balancing abilities with mana earlier, but mana is also used as a long-term balance to prevent snowball cases.

On a theoretical level, this is exactly what EMD is supposed to do in the first place. If one player is more skillful than the other player in a scenario where both players are given equal opportunities to demonstrate skill, then the better player should win. The whole point of preparation cost is to give those equal opportunities to both players. However, the snowball situation could spiral out of control very quickly.

The core pieces that go into snowballing a 1v1 matchup are levels, gold, and skill. EMD would place a greater emphasis on skill, and I believe that out of those three factors skill should indeed be the defining one. If you’re able to consistently outplay an enemy three levels higher than you, you should win. Likewise, if you’re three levels higher than your enemy, you shouldn’t be able to roll your face on your keyboard and still win.

In order to balance the system as a whole, emphasis on levels and gold would have to be lowered in order to compensate for the increased emphasis on skill. That would entail reducing stat gains per level and item stats across the board. This is part of what makes EMD such an enormously massive change in direction.

Another problem with EMD is the reduction/elimination of long-term consequences. Just like with the ninja’s energy systems, the goal of EMD is to allow players to interact meaningfully every time they clash, but many clashes can happen while waiting for a long cooldown to end. A lot of gameplay centers around these long-term effects, the abilities that trigger them, and the events that happen during the cooldown period.

EMD itself is adverse to long-term effects. Abilities that are powerful enough to warrant such costs can’t be easily shifted to a preparation-cost format, because they would have to require a ridiculous amount of preparation. In addition, if enemies are able to counterplay against these powerful abilities, the punishment for the original caster feels unproportional to the effort required by the enemy. It’s like if you were playing Magic: The Gathering and you tried to summon an 8-mana creature, but your enemy prevented it with a 2-mana counterspell. A more relevant example would be stunning Karthus as he channels Requiem, putting his ult on a 3-minute cooldown with little effort (in comparison) on your end. There’s no clean way to attach long-term effects to EMD.

This is why I am not arguing for LoL to completely convert to EMD. IMD is far better at making these long-term effects balanced and engaging. A MOBA like Awesomenauts fully embraces EMD because its design goal is very different from LoL’s, and the end result is a palpable contrast in the game experience. Awesomenauts has no mana, short cooldowns, and absolutely everything is manually aimed (and is thus dodgeable). In exchange for letting players do awesome things whenever and wherever they want, Awesomenauts loses the long-term tactical depth that LoL gets out of IMD. And likewise, the opposite is true: LoL cannot subsist solely on IMD, for the reasons I wrote this essay to argue for.

IMD and EMD can coexist, and many LoL champions are already proof of that. Yasuo can fight Rumble fairly and cleanly. Manaless champions and mana-based champions battle side by side. The effect of EMD is already there: we need only be aware of its existence, and we can reap its benefits.


Externalized mana design is a tool just like internalized mana design is, and like all tools, it has its uses and its flaws. Some situations are undeniably better with IMD, and some with EMD. Some situations will call for a completely different direction altogether. But it’s important to recognize that these different directions exist, and weigh their pros and cons against each other rather than defaulting to one. Right now, LoL defaults towards IMD.

It may be presumptuous for me to say this, but I want to see a game where every player strains their hardest to win. I want to see a game where people clash with absolutely everything they’ve got. I want to see a game where whether I win or lose, I understand that the result was fairly and soundly earned, and I can be satisfied thinking about how hard I tried. LoL is very, very close to being that game, and EMD is a tool to help it get there.

6 responses to “Case Study: Arguing Against Mana in League of Legends

  1. I enjoyed reading your argument, and for the most part I can get behind that kind of counterplay-centric design philosophy. From what I understand you’re trying to promote active and skill based play. I don’t agree with alot of what you said in terms of how the game is currently played.

    I spent the better part of an hour trying to write up an argument, before conceding that it’s almost impossible to construct an argument without going back to the fundamental differences between what the core element of the game should be. It’s basically the biggest disagreement I have with you.
    I find League of Legends to be a mix of combat skills, tactics and resource control, rather than just simply. The systems of gold, and towers are in there for that very reason. Other wise, League of Legends would simply be a brawler.
    There’s plenty of counter play to be had outside of, such as positioning, timing, and effective use of vision. It’s just naive to dismiss all these aspects in favor for simply the combat mechanics.

    On the other hand, I find the idea that mana (and in extension, cooldowns) are detrimental to player interaction pretty ridiculous. Central to this argument is the idea that a higher mana equals a higher threat level, which causes mana hoarding and passive play. I simply don’t see the logic behind this argument.
    A higher mana doesn’t equal a higher threat level. Take Leblanc, for example. A full combo of her abilities is able to take down a single enemy at the cost of only 40% of her mana. In this case, Leblanc’s threat level is exactly the same whether it’s at 40% or at 100%. The other 60% of her mana is free for her to use, either to harass, or to gain better positioning.

    The thing is, losing mana because you’re using your abilities ISN’T a form of punishment. If you’re unable to kill the enemy with all the mana that you have at your disposal, it’s down to the fact that your skill at killing them just isn’t as high as their skill to avoid getting killed. THAT is when your mana becomes a punishment. It’s then that you’re forced to return to base to replenish your mana. If you can’t return to base because the enemy is pushed to your tower, it’s because they out played you, and not simply because you’re playing the game.

    One other thing I find disconcerting is how you name “internalized mana design”. In reality, how a champion uses their abilities isn’t only on their internal struggle to balance mana resources, but also to capitalize on the enemy’s mistakes. Punishing the enemy for their mistakes is most likely than not, a higher priority than conserving mana, as being able to punish the enemy is usually a greater rewards than the mana cost it takes to do so.

    Moreover, alot of the changes you suggested, while promoting active play, would seriously undermine alot of play styles centered around reactive and passive (or poking) strategies. This doesn’t benefit diversity(as you mentioned pertaining Shen’s Ultimate). I’d argue that these strategies are not inherently frustrating to play against, as they can be countered by relying on ambushes and positioning, but then we’d dive back into the problem of what the core elements of League of Legends actually are.

    • I think you’re right that the core of the argument is a debate over what LoL should really be all about. For example, I would never ever argue that Dota 2 should take this kind of design direction, simply because Dota 2 has such different goals.

      It’s also probably good for us to get away from individual details, because I might just not be at a skill level where I can talk about specific minutiae. At that point, it’s much more valuable to talk about the game’s core theme instead, which is what I always like to do when talking game design.

      But it’s good that you’re writing this reply now, because when I originally wrote this essay, that was before URF mode was released. I was definitely doing a lot of theorycrafting and abstract thinking that doesn’t really translate into the game, but URF mode shows us what could happen if LoL moved away from mana. URF mode didn’t make positioning, timing, and vision meaningless, but it did enhance the combat mechanics. It’s not like the game has to balance between long-term skill and short-term combat, you can make one better without impacting the other. I agree with you, LoL is about a lot more than just fighting other champions head-on, but enhancing that aspect doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing the others.

      In the end, you’re right that a lot of this is about deciding what LoL’s core theme is. You say that my suggested changes would undermine reactive/passive/poke strategies, which was totally my intention in the first place because I don’t think those things help LoL’s core theme. It’s just like Morello’s crusade against healers, heals make for good gameplay in many other titles but they’re bad for LoL specifically. And likewise, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I want poke to be nonexistent, just like how Morello has been pushing Soraka to be a healer champion. Things like this can exist in moderation for the sake of diversity, but heals shouldn’t be the default choice for supports, and mana shouldn’t be the default choice for everyone.

      But with everything said and done, my imagined direction for LoL is probably different from most other people’s. You say that without all the other elements, LoL would simply be a brawler, and honestly I think it would be pretty cool if LoL was a brawler. I had tons of fun in URF mode, and lots of other people did too. That doesn’t mean I want towers and gold and mana to vanish completely, but I would like a greater emphasis on champion vs. champion interactions.

  2. I’m going to moot all of your arguments: League of Legends is not an action game, it’s a strategy game. Which means the team that uses their resources most efficiently (mana, gold, items, etc.) will win.

    There are also items you can purchase relatively early in the game (7 minutes or so in) that regenerate mana at a pace so that it is no longer an issue.

    • For us, it’s a disagreement behind the core element of the game then. I personally think the most exciting and engaging part of LoL is the ability interactions and in-combat dynamics. You think it’s the overarching tactics and team decisions. Either way is a totally legitimate interpretation. Mana doesn’t belong in mine, but is a good system in yours.

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