Case Study: Ezreal in League of Legends

So this isn’t so much of a case study as it is a fantasy changelist, but oh well. Ezreal is my favorite champion by far, but if I had a chance to rework him, there are plenty of things I would want to try.

He’s one of those weird cases where he can become OP simply by existing. Look at Ezreal’s history and you’ll see that he has been buffed relatively few times compared to the number of times he has completely changed the meta. Remember when people started maxing W first for the attack speed debuff? Or remember how Ezreal pretty much single-handedly nerfed the Iceborn Gauntlet and the Runeglaive for ranged champions? In all of these cases, nothing happened to Ezreal to make him stronger, people just found new ways to use him. Who’s to say that there won’t be even more new ways to use him popping up as the game evolves? It’s not sustainable to just reach for the nerf hammer every time something new comes up. Out of all the champions, this phenomenon seems to happen most often with Ezreal.

Then there’s the whole issue with AD vs. AP Ezreal. If you go AD, your W is almost useless, and if you go AP, your passive is almost useless. Both versions of Ezreal are essentially balanced around the fact that they only have 4.5 abilities rather than 5. Right now, Riot is trying to encourage more aggressive Arcane Shifts by adding an AD ratio, but I feel that Arcane Shift is really powerful as an offensive AP spell if you build Ezreal as a mage. What if the next Ezreal meta becomes full AP and max E first in mid? It sounds silly, but remember that it also sounded silly to max W first before the Koreans started doing it.

But putting balance and game health aside, Ezreal has a lot of untapped potential to fill a unique role in the League: an explorer. There isn’t really an explorer character in the champion roster. I’m talking about a pathfinder, a scout, a ranger who clears the way head first. Teemo is kind of like an explorer, but he is what I would call a passive explorer: he places traps and watches them like wards. I think Ezreal could be an active explorer, someone who gets his hands dirty and puts himself in risky situations because he can.

The Core Theme: Ezreal’s Identity

In keeping with my three-part system of game design, we start by identifying the theme. So who exactly is Ezreal? What’s he like? How can his personality translate into his mechanics?

Ezreal is cocky and arrogant, and he likes having situations under control. He’s most comfortable when he’s setting his own pace, and when he’s in his element he thinks he’s invincible. But if something unexpected throws his rhythm off balance, he panics and retreats, looking for an opportunity to try again.

Ezreal is a loner. Other people slow him down, and he sees cooperation as babysitting. He’ll work together with other people if he really has to, but he’s more comfortable launching a small precision strike by himself rather than joining a coordinated siege. When other people help him, he takes it grudgingly: he thinks he would have been just fine by himself.

Ezreal is selective and picky about his targets. When he fights, he loves intense duels and skirmishes. Nothing makes him happier than a true display of skill. Enemies who rely on their teammates, towers, or minion waves just seem cowardly. Summoner spells, monster buffs, and level/gold advantages are all external factors, and Ezreal hates external factors.

Ezreal likes to think of himself as omniscient. He is aware of everything that happens around him. If something hostile is nearby, he’s forming a plan to deal with them before they even reach him. When he’s being suspicious and careful, it’s difficult to surprise him, and it’s nigh impossible to hide from him. But he has tunnel vision, and when he focuses too strongly on his target, he loses sight of other things he should be paying attention to.

The Unified Elements: Ezreal’s Skills

Again, I’m not a god of game design, so I’m going to try to avoid numbers wherever possible. I can’t come up with balance off the top of my head. But hopefully, these reworked skill suggestions point towards a direction that helps support what I think Ezreal should become.

Rising Spell Force: Reworked. Ezreal gains a stack of Rising Spell Force whenever he hits an enemy champion with a basic ability (max 1 stack per spell). When he reaches three stacks, he enters Rising Spell Force mode, where he gains 50% attack speed, his basic abilities refund half of their mana cost when they hit an enemy champion, and his basic abilities gain new bonuses. Rising Spell Force mode lasts as long as he has three stacks, and its duration is refreshed if Ezreal gains another stack while it’s active.

Mystic Shot: Basic mechanics remain unchanged. Mystic Shot no longer applies on-hit effects, but has higher AD and AP ratios. It has a higher base cooldown, but if Ezreal lands a Mystic Shot on an enemy champion while in Rising Spell Force mode, it reduces its own cooldown by an additional amount (important: only its own cooldown).

Essence Flux: Completely reworked. No more attack speed buff, lower cooldown, higher mana cost. It now acts as an instant ground line cast. Ezreal goes into a short casting animation, the line indicator is drawn in front of him, then after a brief delay he zaps everything along the line. Hitbox and behavior is about the same as a fully-charged Arcanopulse from Xerath. Damage is lowered drastically, I’m thinking something like 20/50/80/110/150 (0.5 AP). When Ezreal casts this, he gains vision along the line during the casting animation, and if he hits an enemy, they are revealed for a brief period of time (even if invisible). If Ezreal is in Rising Spell Force mode, Essence Flux does a large chunk of additional damage, I’m thinking something like 100/150/200/250/300 (1 AP).

Arcane Shift: Basic mechanics remain unchanged. If Ezreal is in Rising Spell Force mode, the arrow from Arcane Shift slows its target by 20% for 2 seconds.

Trueshot Barrage: Basic mechanics remain unchanged. Mystic Shot no longer reduces Trueshot Barrage’s cooldown. No longer generates Rising Spell Force stacks.

So what does this do? First of all, it decentralizes Ezreal’s power in Mystic Shot. Too much of Ezreal’s strength lies in Mystic Shot, which is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a cool spell and it’s fun to use, but there’s a point where you’re going too far. Removing the on-hit effects on Mystic Shot is a really big nerf, and it’s alleviated a little bit by slight buffs to AD/AP ratios, but his power level is still lowered. Next, increasing Mystic Shot’s cooldown propagates a cooldown nerf on all his other abilities, because of how it reduces cooldowns when it lands.

In exchange, a lot of power is stuffed into Rising Spell Force mode. He is very weak outside of Rising Spell Force mode, but very strong when it’s active. This represents how Ezreal needs to build up his power through a prolonged display of skill (landing successive shots on the enemy). The three-hit mechanic generates a lot of interesting play: do you use three Mystic Shots over a long period of time, or do you unload all of your basic abilities at once to trigger RSF mode immediately? Note that Rising Spell Force stacks are much harder to gain now, since you only get them when you hit an enemy champion (and there’s an added limit of one stack per spell). Also, there’s no spectrum anymore, his passive is all or nothing.

RSF-enhanced Mystic Shot brings back the URF feeling of machine gun shots, but only if you can keep hitting your target. Even though it only reduces its own cooldown by a greater amount, that still means you can reduce the cooldowns of your other basic abilities faster by using more Mystic Shots. On the other hand, RSF-enhanced Essence Flux goes in the opposite direction that incentivizes players to be more accurate and deliberate in order to cash in on a more damaging payout. Finally, RSF-enhanced Arcane Shift is just a small buff to help Ezreal when he’s in the zone.

Trueshot Barrage is nerfed by no longer having its cooldown reduced by Mystic Shot. The enhanced Essence Flux is meant to act as Ezreal’s primary finisher, replacing Trueshot Barrage’s purpose in duels. With this, Trueshot Barrage is almost completely decentralized from the rest of his kit, which encourages him to save it for situations that are outside of Essence Flux’s reach.

The Ensured Delivery: Ezreal’s Dynamics

This rework would demand a lot of skills that people don’t usually associate with Ezreal. People are used to just forgetting about his passive and his Essence Flux, but now they are the most important parts of his kit. He will feel very weak, especially without the on-hits on his Mystic Shot. Ezreal is known for chopping out chunks of health with Mystic Shot, but a lot of that damage comes from Triforce or Lich Bane.

But under this system, Ezreal takes out larger chunks of health with RSF-enhanced Essence Fluxes. The Mystic Shots do some damage, but mostly they act as indicators to show how Ezreal is building up his power. He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee depending on whether he’s in RSF mode or not.

Mystic Shot and Essence Flux serve two different purposes: damage and utility. Outside of RSF mode, Mystic Shot is for damage and Essence Flux is for utility. But when RSF mode becomes active, it suddenly switches. Mystic Shot gains greater utility as a tool for maintaining RSF mode because of its self-cooldown reduction, and Essence Flux gains a massive damage boost. Ezreal tracks enemies down with Essence Flux and whittles away at them with Mystic Shots until he enters RSF mode, at which point he uses Essence Fluxes for nukes and Mystic Shots to keep track of his prey. This creates an interesting dynamic because Mystic Shot is nowhere near as good at tracking targets as Essence Flux is, but you have to get good at predicting enemy movement with Mystic Shots in order to keep Essence Flux ready for a nuke, because if you use Essence Flux for tracking you will lose its potential for damage. Skilled Ezreal players already use Mystic Shot to check brushes.

Ezreal’s AP and AD builds are also separated distinctly. AD Ezreal is the safer build, the one with consistent damage. If you can’t enter RSF mode, it’s still okay because Mystic Shot’s damage doesn’t depend on it. Essence Flux and Arcane Shift are used primarily for utility and scouting, and autoattacks still become his primary source of damage. AP Ezreal is the risky build that relies heavily on RSF-enhanced Essence Fluxes for damage, and Mystic Shot just becomes a tool to enter RSF mode and reduce Essence Flux’s cooldown.

He’s not comfortable with direct confrontations, but he’s strongest in jungle skirmishes where neither combatant knows where the other is. In those situations, he probes with Mystic Shots and Essence Fluxes until he enters RSF mode, at which point he starts using Arcane Shift more aggressively to line up an enhanced Essence Flux finisher. If the battle doesn’t go his way, he probably doesn’t achieve RSF mode, and instead Arcane Shifts to safety while using the vision from Essence Flux to make sure his escape route is clear.

In teamfights, Ezreal either tries to focus down a single target with Mystic Shots and autoattacks, or he lines up enemies for Essence Fluxes and Trueshot Barrages. He’s not a focused killer like Vayne, nor is he a widespread damage dealer like Miss Fortune, but he’s flexible enough to switch between them on the fly. But rather than being in the heat of teamfights, this Ezreal is much, much better during the start or end of one. Before a teamfight starts, he can scout ahead so he and his allies knows where the enemies are with consistent Essence Flux vision, making sure that they are never surprised. After a teamfight ends, he takes a pursuit role and hunts stragglers down with precise Essence Fluxes enhanced by RSF.

Principle of Charity

In keeping with the principle of charity, I have to ask why this hasn’t actually happened. This is the part where I tear my own suggestions to shreds, so I might not be the best person for this, but that’s the nature of criticism.

It’s really confusing and difficult to keep track of abilities that change uses. Abilities in League don’t usually change so dynamically between vision tools and damage nukes the way that my proposed Essence Flux does. Usually, abilities are straightforward and clear, and always do the same thing no matter what the context is. If you want to have an ability that does multiple different things, you split it up into two separate abilities and use some kind of transformation (Nidalee, Gnar, Jayce). However, my proposed changes are a lot more subtle than full-on transformations, so they force players to reevaluate their abilities in the heat of battle. Not a very easy thing to do.

Small bursts of vision have historically not been very well received. Just look at how the Warding Totem is so much more popular than the Scrying Orb. My proposed changes to Ezreal revolve around those small lines of vision from Essence Flux, but practically, they’re kind of difficult to work with. Vision in general is a source of power that isn’t very easily grokkable, in that it’s hard to know when you played your vision right. Long-lasting stationary vision just feels better than long-ranged temporary vision, and I don’t think balance can change that. Branching off of that train of thought, precisely aimed vision is even more troublesome. The new Essence Flux is basically like Ashe’s Hawkshot with a much shorter range, much shorter vision duration, and a much shorter cooldown.

Two long-ranged skillshots are kind of overkill and give too much zone control, especially when one of them (Essence Flux) doesn’t stop on collision. Currently, this is balanced by the fact that Essence Flux is useless on AD Ezreal, and it’s one of the reasons why AP Ezreal is so strong in the late game. Right now, my proposed changes mean that non-RSF Ezreal still gets a little bit of utility from Essence Flux, and RSF-mode Ezreal is basically as strong as late game AP Ezreal.

Finally, it’s very difficult for this Ezreal to fit inside a team composition. He’s not a strong sieger, he’s not a strong assassin, he’s not a strong split pusher. He is a strong explorer, and I’m not entirely sure when a team would want an explorer, at least in the current meta. In fact, I would see this Ezreal as a strong counter jungler, and he could possibly be pushed in the direction of an ADC jungler like Kindred (maybe he can charge Rising Spell Force on monster hits?). When you think about it, he’s not the type of guy to stay put in bottom lane anyway.