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League of Legends' biggest change in years is for the better

How to fix an outdated leveling system

Riot Games patches its ultra-popular MOBA, League of Legends, every couple of weeks. Usually the contents of those patches are pretty minor — containing minor nerfs or buffs to champions that are considered too weak or too strong with maybe a couple of new cosmetic skins.

Patch 6.5, however, which was released on March 9, contained a potential game-changer: Riot cut the amount of experience required to reach the maximum account level in half.

Why is this a big deal?

It's not that leveling is now quick, it's just that it's less slow

League of Legends is an intimidating game to approach as a new player. It's extremely complicated, highly competitive and, since there's no single-player mode, you often have to learn to play in multiplayer matches where your mistakes will often impact the experience of other players. You can train against bots, but you'll want to start playing against other human beings as quickly as possible to learn how the "real" game operates.

League has also historically had a brutal account progression system for new players. You needed to earn a total of 40,000 experience points to reach the level cap of 30 prior to this change. This isn't just a talking point for players, as you have to be level 30 before you can even queue up for League's competitive ranked mode.

You earn about 150 points for winning a blind-pick game that lasts 40 minutes, but only about two-thirds of that amount if you lose. That means leveling from level 1 to 30 took about 250 hours before this latest patch. Even after the new change, you could probably play Fallout 4 and Witcher 3 to 100 percent completion in the time it takes just to get to the competitive starting line in League. But that's still half as long as it used to take. It's not that leveling is now quick, it's just that it's less slow.

League Screen 9

Still, this is a big deal. Older champions routinely get updated visual models and revamps to modernize and improve their kits and gameplay, and new items are routinely introduced to the game. The main map, Summoner's Rift, got a complete visual update in 2014 to modernize its visuals, and the start of the 2016 season brought with it a completely redesigned UI for champion selection and hero drafting. In the meantime, the path to level 30 has been largely unchanged for over six years.

Riot designer Greg Street has described the leveling process as "miserable," and, in a recent podcast, the game's designers referred to the one to 30 experience as a vestigial part of the game. The new process doesn't fundamentally change the outdated experience of leveling in League of Legends, but it makes that process a lot shorter, and that's a step in the right direction.

Before we talk about what this will change, let's talk about why people care.

How does your level affect your play?

In addition to the ranked mode being gated behind a requirement that players reach level 30 and own at least 16 champions, a couple of other important game systems in League of Legends interact with the player's account level.

The first is the mastery system, which looks similar to a talent tree from old-school versions of World of Warcraft. Each level your account gains in League of Legends gives you a Mastery point, and you can allocate these points to give your champions advantages like slightly higher attack speed, a little bit of life-steal or a health boost.

There are three trees to choose from: Ferocity, Cunning and Resolve, which are essentially damage, utility and tankiness. At the bottom of each tree are the keystone masteries, which are massive bonuses you can first access at level 18.

For example, the Will of the Undying keystone mastery in the Resolve tree lets your attacks steal an amount of health equal to three percent of your max health every four seconds. If you're top-laning against a character who has their keystone, and you don't have this ability, you will always lose your lane unless the opposing player misplays very badly. This means level 18 represents a huge power spike, and getting matched against players who already have their keystones while you're still leveling toward yours is extremely frustrating. Things like the Will of the Undying Mastery aren't nice to have, they're mandatory in competitive games.

Leveling also unlocks your rune slots. Runes are basically flat stat increases that you buy outside the game using a currency called Influence Points, or IP, which you earn as a reward for playing. Runes are a way to customize your characters a little bit and to specialize them for different roles.

For example, you can choose between using your yellow seals to augment your armor or your health, while your blue glyphs can increase your ability power, your cooldown reduction or your magic resistance. Runes also reward game knowledge; if you know whether allocating your runes to increase attack speed or attack damage is more advantageous for a particular kit you'll have a slight edge over players who don't know their champs as well. Or who haven't bought as many kinds of runes.

These aren't nice to have, they're mandatory in competitive games

But until you have access to all your slots, runes just put you at a mathematical disadvantage to any player who has a full page, regardless of how the runes are allocated. You can't use any tier three runes until level 20, which is another big power spike, and some of the slots on your rune page stay locked all the way to level 30.

When you're leveling up, particularly once you get above level 20, you're going to start seeing a few level 30 players in most of your games, and the fact that they have a few more mastery points and rune slots gives them an edge that lets them bully lower-level opponents in the early game before snowballing that advantage into a runaway win. As you level, you're likely to get pushed around by players who may not really be much better than you, but who have access to buffs that you don't. A lot of smaller advantages in terms of abilities and buffs means that the playing field isn't level, and you're unlikely to win even if your play is slightly better. It's just math.

How will this change impact the League community?

So now that we know why this is important, let's talk a bit about what the change will do.

Expect to see more inexperienced players in ranked games

Riot announced that, in 2014, League had 27 million daily users and 67 million players each month. The game sees 7.5 million users concurrently at peak times. It's not just a big game, it may arguably be the most popular game in the world.

However, only a fraction of that number participate in ranked games, and it's very likely that a big part of the overall userbase is stuck somewhere on the sub-30 leveling curve. Thanks to this change, a lot of those folks will be hitting the level cap soon. New max-level players will only be half as experienced as previous ones due to the new leveling curve, and many players who might never have stuck with the game long enough to reach 30 might now hit the level cap and try out ranked.

League Screen 12

These players aren't likely to be top performers, and since League of Legends ranks players based on their standing within the overall distribution, a big surge of low-bronze quality players might push everybody else up a few tiers. So, if you've been trying to break into gold or platinum, and you haven't quite made it in the past, this could be your year. The game is about to be flooded with, if you'll forgive my vulgarity, fresh meat. Have fun slicing them up!

At the same time, if you're a new player, you may not want to jump straight into ranked when you hit 30. League's learning curve is very long and the skill cap is very high. Even after 100 hours, you've probably still got a lot of room to improve, and if you play ranked games too soon, you're likely to get placed in a low division.

New players will hit 30 with less stuff

Although the amount of experience required to reach level 30 has been cut in half, the amount of IP you earn from playing remains the same. That means that players who level from 1 to 30 will reach max level with only half as much IP as they would have previously earned while leveling. This is an important distinction.

Roughly speaking, you earn about 120 IP per hour you spend playing League, and if the new 1-30 process takes about 125 hours, you'll earn maybe 15,000 IP while leveling up, plus however many first-win-of-the-day bonuses you get while leveling — call that another 6,000.

Riot has been preparing to reduce the leveling curve for a while now, and one of the steps they took was halving the IP costs of many starter runes, which took effect in Sept. of 2015 . Runes are still pretty expensive though, even with the price cuts.

I added up the cost of filling two basic rune pages; one for attack damage characters and one for ability power characters. If you buy attack damage marks, attack damage quintessences and magic resist glyphs for your AD characters, and then buy ability power glyphs, ability power quints and magic penetration marks for your AP characters, and you use flat armor seals on both pages, you'll spend 11,361 IP on runes.

Riot has been preparing to reduce the leveling curve for a while now

That's not all the runes you'll want. Some mages are better with cooldown reduction runes than with ability power, and some attack damage characters build attack speed. But even if you don't buy any alternative runes for any of those slots, you still won't have much IP left over to spend on champions.

That means we're going to see a lot more max-level players with incomplete or suboptimal rune pages and very limited champion pools. Sometimes these guys are going to turn up on your team, and that's going to be frustrating, but if you're better than the players in your division, you're likely to climb and this will make it a little easier to stay ahead of the curve if you stay out of ranked until you've got the runes you need.

More smurfing

A "smurf" account is an experienced player creating a new low-level account.

There are many reasons why somebody might do this. Some players might make smurf accounts to play with low-level friends. Others believe they've been trapped in "ELO hell" on the ranked ladder and hope they can get a higher placement if they get a fresh start on a new account. Finally, players whose accounts have previously been banned for toxic behavior or cheating often come back to the game and start over.

Reducing the barriers to getting back into ranked is likely to encourage more of this behavior. With experience boosts, which Riot sells in their store for real money, players can apply multipliers to their experience gains which could allow them to do 1-30 in a hard weekend of play.

That means that new players may have to contend with more of these guys on the way up, and that's not a great thing. Banned players were banned for a reason, and playing against someone who seems to be at one skill level while actually playing at a much higher level can lead to frustrating games. Riot may not have many weapons for fighting this behavior, so it will likely be something we all to live with for now.

Less of a bad thing is a good thing

While the changes to League's leveling system may create some minor snarls, reducing the game's brutal leveling grind is an improvement that hugely outweighs any of those problems. League's new player experience still leaves a lot to be desired but now, at least, players don't have to spend hundreds of hours limping along with incomplete mastery trees and locked rune slots. This change will open the game up to more people in more ways, which is a very impressive step forward for a community that's always looking for fresh meat new blood.

As a player who is working to improve at League of Legends, I wish there were modes that helped me practice certain key skills, like my efficiency at last-hitting minions, or my speed at farming the jungle.

However, I can't think of a single complicated multiplayer game that does a good job of teaching newbies how to play. Mostly, they just throw you into the deep end and let you sink or swim. This makes sense, from a design perspective; resources are finite, and it seems inefficient to develop elaborate tutorials when most players will eventually figure this stuff out on their own, or learn it from YouTube videos.

Daniel Friedman is the Edgar award-nominated author of DON'T EVER GET OLD, DON'T EVER LOOK BACK and RIOT MOST UNCOUTH.  He lives in New York City.

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