Why AD Casters Suck - It's a Scaling Problem
Gentleman Gustaf here today to talk to you about Ability Scaling, and why it makes LoL unique in a way only rivaled by Design Philosophy, and why, unfortunately, AD Casters are much harder to balance.
How is LoL Unique?
In a lot of MOBAs, especially those based off of DotA, such as HoN, scaling is done very simply. There are three primary stats, Strength, Agility, and Intelligence. Strength boosts health/health regen, Agility boosts Attack Speed/Armor, and Intelligence boosts Mana/Mana Regen. Each champion has a primary primary stat, and every point in that stat gives them more damage on their auto attacks. Finally, you can buy each of the secondary stats separately. So everybody gets AD scaling and AS scaling with levels. This means that spellcasters start out strong early, with high burst values, but as targets get tankier, sustained damage becomes more and more necessary, until Agility based champions take over with their high auto attack rates. Sound familiar? Well, with a few changes, that's exactly how things work in LoL.
In LoL, Health and Health Regen tends to be higher on melee champions, while Attack Speed tends to be higher on carries, and while mana and mana regen tends to be higher on spellcasters. The only real difference is that attack speed champions and armor champions don't really tend to go together. But as far as AD scaling goes, casters and melee champions have slightly higher AD scaling. Nothing particularly awe-inspiring, but the correlations are there. However, LoL has some key differences from DotA/HoN, namely ability scaling.
What is ability scaling?
In DotA, if you take a caster like Zeus, he has a single target spell called 'lightning bolt', and at max level, that spell does 350 damage. And that's all there is to it. He can never increase that damage. On the other hand, Annie's Disintegrate, another single target spell, does 245 + .7 AP
But Gentleman Gustaf, why do we need AP scaling?
AP scaling means that Annie can put a lot of her gold into AP, to continue to be relevant into the late game. Essentially, this helps to mitigate the carry problem of DotA. In DotA, if you are running a carry/hyper carry, every champion becomes a support for that carry, because gold will really only benefit them efficiently. Essentially, as discussed in my post on multiplicativity, auto attackers scale extremely well because they have so many stats to invest in, each of which scales off of the other. An auto attacker can buy a little bit of AD, a little bit of AS, a little bit of Crit Chance, and a little bit of Crit Damage, and all of a sudden - look ma, no hands! - they pentakill your team with autoattacks. At least when Katarina or Cassiopeia pull that off, they have the decency to make it look hard. The only non-AD Carry (I'm using this term loosely, and including melee AD Carries, who are rarely seen due to viability issues) who makes pentakills look that easy is Karthus, and everybody already knows how much they hate him. Even a Darius pentakill looks like it took some mental and physical effort on his part, but when you have a fed enough AD Carry (let's say, Caitlyn or Ashe), often times using abilities SLOWS their rate of dps. I do not mean to call AD Carries overpowered; I think the dynamic of a glass cannon but ranged champion who relies on their team to help with kiting and peeling, and in turn puts out ludicrous sustained damage makes for very interesting team play. But I do mean to call to attention the sheer scaling evident in being able to invest in so many stats. An AP Carry only really has AP and CDR. As such, in the late game, you have Rabadon's to provide pseudo-multiplicativity. Essentially, AP Carries need something to push them into the mid and late game; Rabadon's says 'hey, all that AP you got? Here's a reward for getting so much: more AP!'
And so for a long time, League of Legends had a relatively simple system: for burst and AoE damage, you got AP, and to help your late game scaling, you got a Rabadon's Deathcap for more AP; for sustained damage, you got a healthy mix of AD/AS/CritChance/CritDamage, and it was good.
The Rise of AD Scaling
At some point, however, new champions started coming out with AD Scaling abilities. This was not entirely new, as champions like Gangplank and Nasus already had AD scaling abilities, but these were abilities that linked to their attacks. You know how when you're playing Teemo - and I know who you are! - and you use Blinding Dart, for a moment, you think 'huh?' because it does less than your auto attack? That's because Teemo's Blinding Dart doesn't scale with AD, but since it's basically an auto attack - I mean, it's not actually an auto attack, which is why it doesn't scale with AD, but it sure looks like one - that feels weird. But when Gangplank or Nasus use their Q abilities, you expect them to scale with AD because they're attacks. But at some point, Riot just started replacing AP ratios with AD ratios on new champions. I remember first thinking about this around Caitlyn/Renekton/Jarvan/Nocturne. Caitlyn felt a little weird with her 2 AD scaling abilities, but I let it go because I had loved the Dwarven Sniper in DotA, and she had his ult. And then Renekton basically rolled in AD ratios, but I didn't think much of it. He was a cool, unique champion who was fun to play. Same went for Jarvan and Nocturne, and I started thinking 'why don't all AD champions have a bit more AD scaling? That way, they wouldn't have those useless AP ratios!' Boy was that a dangerous thought. Half a year later and we get Riven and Graves and I start thinking 'isn't this a bit much?' and that's not even beginning to cover a champion like Draven who has so many AD ratios I start to think Riot is going out of business and has them on a clearance sale.
But Gentleman Gustaf, what's the big deal? Sure, it makes champions like Sivir and Tristana feel outdated, but Sivir got her remake with AD scaling, and Tristana has always been more of a late game siege monster anyway!
I agree. AD Scaling isn't making older champions weaker; if buffs or nerfs are necessary to maintain competitive value, I trust Riot with that. But the problem is what this extreme AD scaling does to other classes.
Consider the AD Caster
What is an AD Caster? Well, it's a regular caster, like a mage, but with AD Scaling. You've got your Pantheon's, your Talon's, your - uh - well, people like AD Casters and complain about how they aren't viable, so I assume there are more but I honestly don't care about your infatuation with casters that are just like mages but not quite because they have auto attacks and -- ohhhhhhh! And this is where things get interesting! You see, when you have a mage, you have a tradeoff, between burst and sustained damage, so it's ok that you get WAY more AP than AD - that's why Needlessly Large Rod gives 80 AP while BF Sword only gives 45 AD: because AD is always useful on your auto attacks - and if you need to fix AD burst, you can always just raise or lower ratios. Sounds cool so far, so why don't we see AD Casters in competitive play?
First, there's so much more armor naturally in the game, both through champion scaling and through itemization, but hopefully that's something the penetration changes can help with, so I'll avoid discussing it here and let Riot continue to work on it.
Well while you are USING auto attacks, you're not taking advantage of their multiplicative scaling because you have abilities that you want to use instead and plus you're not ranged, so staying up there is scary. So sure, you HAVE auto attacks, but you don't really scale off them as well as an AD Carry would. I'm not saying AD Casters don't USE auto attacks, I'm saying that without crit and attack speed, that doesn't really mean the same thing as it would on an AD Carry (does that make Sword of the Divine the item of multiplicativity on AD Casters? Maybe, actually).
How Not to Fix AD Casters
Alright, well we solved AP scaling, so let's just use the same method and bust out an AD pseudo-multiplicative item! We'll call it Stabbington's Deathsword! It gives 80 AD, but also gives you +some% Bonus AD. That sounds fair, right? Except you just broke AD Carries. Sure, they're all about auto attacks and crit scaling and attack speed and all that, but they're going to want SOME AD to do damage (and if you don't trust my intuition, go watch some high Elo games and tell me how many Graves and Draven players rush BT + (optionally) Zeal + LW and try to tell me they wouldn't be all over a bonus AD item. I guess Riot could go the route of making an item that instead increases the AD ratios on every one of your abilities by some%, and that would buff AD Casters but not break AD Carries because it wouldn't stack multiplicatively with your crit and attack speed (Riot, my agent is awaiting your call to come work with Xypherous). I doubt Riot would like that, though, as they don't really seem to like the Aghanim Scepter style approach of 'this item changes your champion's abilities in some way', and I can respect that because it did always feel a little bit forced, but then again, what is AP but a marker for 'some items change your champion's abilities in some way'?
Another major complaint about AD Casters is their piddling laning ability. Sustain feels weird on them because lifesteal doesn't apply to spells, but spell vamp isn't spammable on them because, unlike Kennen/Rumble/Vlad, AD Casters have mana. Oh hi Zed, I didn't see you over there because I started this article before you came out, so I'm just going to throw in a snarky comment and pretend it addresses you at all.
But Gentleman Gustaf, why don't we just make physical spells use lifesteal instead of spell vamp?
And buff AD Carries even more? This is just as bad as Stabbington's Deathcap, and Bloodthirster will just become even more powerful on AD Carries.
How to Fix AD Casters?
The top laner on my team has the following comment/question: So Gentleman Gustaf what's the solution for AD Casters? It sounds like you're just saying 'well, sucks to be you, player who likes AD Casters, because they're just not going to be a good part of this game'
The lazy answer would be to say 'nothing, they're a doomed class'.
The slightly less lazy answer is a bit more complicated. It's not really that AD Casters are dead, it's that MELEE AD casters are forced to build tanky, not bursty, because they're melee. There are champions you could almost call AD Casters, but since they're ranged, and it's safe for them to auto attack at will, you can get away with building them as AD Carries and nobody will know the difference. Now all of a sudden, it doesn't seem so bad. After all, nobody complains about not being able to build Cho or Maokai glass cannon AP, so why should they complain about Talon?
However, you just made me feel bad for defining your playstyle (squishy melee AD Assassin) out of existence, so I'll throw you a bone. Riot has done a lot of work to make them more viable. For one, they're making stacking resistances (one of the easiest counters to AD Casters) less viable by applying % Pen before Flat Pen (making them stack better), and by making AD cheaper. And to prevent that cheaper AD from buffing AD Carries, they're making AS a harder stat to come by. So an overall AD Carry build will cost the same, but should be more AD biased. I feel like this is a painful solution for champions who like that Attack Speed (Kog'Maw), but those carries have always hugged the line between useless and mindnumbingly terrifying, so I'm sort of ok with that. Honestly, I don't think this will do much for assassins, but it should help out those AD tanky casters like Renekton or Garen, and the new Black Cleaver will be downright dirty on them.
But ultimately, I think it's my second, less lazy answer that gets to the heart of the problem. AD Casters might have been a thing that could have broken into the game before AD Carries started picking up so many AD scaling abilities. Stats like flat AD and Pen would have been AD Caster stats, and stats like Crit and AS would have been AD Carry stats, but they'd occupy separate niches where one has burst and the other has sustained dps. But now? Why play Talon when you could play Graves? You have the range, you have similar AD ratios, and when you ARE auto-attacking, it's from a distance and with a nice attack speed buff.
Proof of this? What do AD Casters benefit from more even than AD Carries? Armor Pen. This is because they have such high base damage that a % increase in damage is more efficient than a flat one. So while AD Carries are content with Last Whisper, and flat and multiplicative damage other than that, AD Casters may stack Flat Pen in addition to % Pen. So we've got this AD Caster niche that AD Carries don't really encroach on, and we can buff that niche to make AD Casters viable without breaking AD Carries and--what? Gentleman Gustaf (and Aphromoo, and he's way better than I am) get flat Armor Pen Marks and Quints and sometimes Brutalizer on Draven? Could it be that all of his AD Scaling abilities have made him into an AD Caster? So what happens if we build BT -> LW on him and then pick up SotD like we suggested for AD Casters? I'm not going to say I've done the math and as such, I'm not going to say that it might be sort of ludicrous burst on top of his already ludicrous burst, but I might have already told my team's AD Carry to build that way once the penetration changes and new items roll around.
And if you don't believe me, make an Armor Pen page on Draven. Hit level 2. Axe somebody, pop W, catch the axe and axe them again. What's Talon got that can compete with that? And if Talon can barely compete in burst AND has to get up close to do his damage AND has worse sustained dps AND can't siege towers AND can't lane as well because he's melee, why are you picking him at all?
So what now?
If you're asking me how to make AD Casters viable, I don't have rage, and I don't want to say the problem can't be solved. In fact, it has been. They did exactly what Morello and Xypherous and Phreak have been telling them to: they started using their auto attacks. They just also decided to become ranged so they wouldn't die whenever they tried to do that. So now that we're buffing 'AD Casters', I expect to see those AD Caster Carries come straight to the forefront. So bring out the Graves and the Miss Fortune and the Draven and maybe not so much the Caitlyn because Attack Speed is expensive now so we're only running AD Carries who have AS steroids built in. I'm expecting to see four classes of AD Carries excel with vastly different builds:
- The AD Caster Carry (Graves/MF/Draven) - Look to see the BT/LW build become even more popular. Maybe we'll see a SotD thrown in, and we'll probably still see IE too, because it's too good to pass up. But maybe not so much on the attack speed items early anymore, because they're expensive, and you have attack speed already.
- The on-hit Carry (Kog'Maw) - this guy will be good with Attack Speed no matter what because his W is ludicrous, so look to see him stay strong as long as he can continue surviving the laning phase.
- The Trinity Force Carry (Ezreal) - kiting is pretty OP.
- Tristana - really, Tristana will always want IE first, because she has AS already, and her abilities scale off of AP, so no stacking AD for you... And once you have IE, you may as well get PD + LW.
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