State of the Meta: Forced vs Free Adaption
In a League of Legends (and lots of other games) the metagame is constantly shifting and is different week from week. The reason this happens is due to players adapting to changes within the game. The majority of the time this adaption is caused by either a new strategy emerging or a balance change. Now both of these are fundamentally different causes for adaption so I will give each a separate name. Adaption due to a balance change can be called “Forced Adaption” and adaption due to a new strategy can be called “Free Adaption”. All adaption can fall into one of these two categories. I will now explain each in more detail using an analogy taken from Physics.
Think of a pendulum swinging from side to side. Consider every swing to be a change in the metagame. If there are no new forces applied it will swing from side to side forever without any need for external help. In Physics this would be called “Free Vibration” and it is perfect to describe “Free Adaption” in games, if the developers don’t interfere it will just happen on its own.
Any new way of playing the game will cause Free Adaption, whether it’s an unorthodox champion pick, a new team composition or a whole new way of playing (think of all the things the recent 2v1 lane trend caused to change within the meta). Free Adaption even happens in response to Free Adaption. The meta may be high-mobility push comps, people will adapt and run hard-engage comps to counter it. Then people may run teamfighting compositions to counter the hard-engage comps and the cycle continues. This is the essence of Free Adaption, a constant cycle.
Now imagine that someone is repeatedly giving the pendulum a push. It will keep swinging from side to side but it won’t be as consistent as before, each swing will be different. I’m sure you can guess what this is called in Physics by now: “Forced Vibration”. Any changes done to the game by the developers will cause Forces Adaption: new champions, balance changes, jungle respawn timer changes, new items. When these changes happen they are the quickest and easiest to adapt to for players and often the best way to deal with “overpowered” things. The most common cause of Forced Adaption are nerfs.
It’s not all good though, to an extent these changes will always disrupt the cycle of Free Adaption. For example consider that Champion A is overpowered. It might take two weeks for people to realise that Champion B is strong against him (this is Free Adaption) but in only one week the developer nerfs Champion A (causing Forced Adaption) so the Free Adaption never happens.
Free Adaption vs Forced Adaption
As I just mentioned Forced Adaption can completely prevent any Free Adaption from happening, so the natural conclusion is that Forced Adaption is bad so developers should leave their games alone, right?
Consider the freely swinging pendulum again (this analogy really is perfect). In a perfect world it will swing forever, but the world isn’t perfect, it isn’t possible to have no external forces acting on it. Air resistance will gradually slow the pendulum down, the swings will get smaller and it will stop. Just like the world isn’t perfect no game is perfect. In a perfectly balanced game Free Adaption will keep going, and going, and going. But if the game isn’t balanced at all then the proverbial pendulum will slowly stop . When this happens in the game you will encounter the best strategies in the game, they may be uncounterable, they may do everything very well, they may just be unbeatable cheese. These strategies will exist in any imbalanced game, and since no game is perfect that means every game. These strategies perfectly fit the definition of “Overpowered”. It’s not even the case that there only has to be one strategy which is best. There may be three: A, B and C. Let’s say A beats B, B beats C and C beats A. This is still bad, no adaption will happen, if you are against A you have to play C. Of course this doesn’t take into account skill but the metagame would be stale, which is good in no way whatsoever.
Alternatively you can look at it this way. Without any changes from the developers (and thus no Forced Adaption) there is a finite amount of depth within the game. Eventually players will learn everything there is to know and hit the depth ceiling. They won’t be able to strategise further, the meta will stop evolving and Free Adaption will die a slow and painful death because all adaption will already have been done.
What I am trying to get at here is that a game like League of Legends needs both Free AND Forced Adaption to have a fluid and interesting metagame. At the same time Forced Adaption shouldn’t be overused, if a champion is seemingly overpowered give it a while before nerfing it. It may just seem overpowered because Free Adaption hasn’t had a chance to happen yet.
Specifically on the League of Legends metagame…
That brings me nicely onto what made me want to write this article in the first place. Recently some people have been of the opinion that Riot may be making too many changes to the game too quickly and not giving the players a way to adapt on their own. More specifically the rapidfire balance changes to nerf OP champions and strategies. I mostly disagree with people saying that, in my opinion Riot aren’t far off getting it right.
The large nerf of 2v1 lanes coming up would be the example that I would cite. 2v1 has dominated the laning phase for most of the season, players have had plenty of time to try to counter it. We have had early 3v1 turret dives, junglers helping the solo laner keep their turret alive and poor 1v2 champions not being played. These are all Free Adaptions that have happened but they haven’t stopped the strategy being used. There was even the blue-side golem nerfs to encourage duo lanes to go against each other which didn’t stop it. This all indicates that lane swaps are indeed an overpowered strategy, everyone has had time to adapt to it and it’s still used nearly every game. Now is the time to directly nerf it.
In terms of champion nerfs though I think Riot has room to improve (not much though). Often nerfs are on champions because they are flavour of the month, not because they are overpowered. Consider back when Volibear and Nasus were both must have junglers. They got nerfed extremely quickly. Nasus was nerfed but is still played indicating that he truly did need the nerf and it wasn’t a case of players needing to adapt to him. Volibear got nerfed and hasn’t been seen since, this indicates that it was simply a case of people needing time to adapt.
Free Adaption vs Forced Adaption is just a case of getting the balance correct. Too much Forced Adaption and you eliminate Free Adaption, too little and players will find and begin to use the unbeatable strategies.
If anyone from Riot happens to be reading this, great job! You get it right the majority of the time, the game is very well balanced. I would suggest waiting longer before flavour of the month nerfs in general. If a champion has spent ages without being played and is suddenly considered really strong, that champion is probably balanced and is just strong in the current metagame. *cough* Ashe *cough*.
This brings this article nicely to a close and introduces the next one to come in the series nicely… State of the Meta: rise of hard engage.
Oh did I forget to tell you that this was going to be a series of articles? Sorry for that. If you want to get notified the moment the next one goes live just follow this blog or follow me on Twitter.
Thanks for reading folks.
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