Understanding Tier Lists

Intro

Gentleman Gustaf here today to talk to you about Tier Lists. Tier Lists are a pretty divisive topic in many circles. Casual players think they ruin the game by making it seem too deterministic. Amateur competitive players may think the tier lists are stupid; they cause players to fixate on a few characters, or they may think that the tier lists are simply flawed; we never have perfect knowledge of a game, or they may think that the whole idea is pointless, as it still comes down to skill. Finally, pro players - well, we'll get to that in a minute. But first, what is a Tier list?

 

Tier Lists

When we approach competitive games where you have a choice of characters in some way, some characters are considered more powerful than others. This may mean that they are simply easier: they have the same potential output as another character, but it's harder to mess up. For example, if you made a new champion, Ryze 2.0, who was just like Ryze except all of his abilities were skillshots, they'd have the potential to go toe-to-toe: they'd have the same damage output, the same stats, the same everything. But Ryze 2.0 would have to land skill shots to put this damage out, whereas Ryze would not. Essentially, the mechanical complexity for playing Ryze 2.0 would be higher, and as such, the skill cap would be higher, and the room for failure due to errors would be higher. Both characters would still take skill. Both characters might still be viable. Both characters may even end up being tournament competitive, if the meta favored his kit enough. But why pick Ryze 2.0 over Ryze?

However, this is the simplest idea of a Tier List: which champion is best. In reality, this is hard to do, because champions are simply not as comparable as that. There is no Ryze 2.0, instead you have to compare Ryze to Morgana or Ahri or any number of other champions with entirely different abilities. And so Tier-Lists are less a function of 'good-ness', and more a function of viability/safeness. Essentially, a huge factor in Tier Lists is the ability to be countered. Let's say you have an AP Carry who beats every other AP Carry in the game. This AP Carry would a top tier AP Carry. Would it always be the best choice? Not necessarily. Let's say this AP Carry SLIGHTLY beats every AP Carry in the game. If they pick their AP Carry before you pick yours, you're better off picking a different AP Carry; one who beats their specific AP Carry harder. This, for example, is part of why Morgana has remained high-tier for so long; she isn't necessarily the best laner against any given champion, but it sure is hard to counter her in lane. Most of the champions who "counter" her in lane don't really counter her in lane so much as minorly inconvenience her and not lose lane to her. Champions who can fill multiple roles are even more extreme in this tendency. You can counter them in one role only to have them go to another role. In fact, if we take the top three champions from Elementz' (admittedly old) tier list, we see that the top 3 champions can fill multiple positions; when it comes to Tier Lists, versatility is king.

I do not mean to suggest that tier lists are built solely on matchups and difficulty of play. Matchups are very important, and difficulty of play varies wildly as a factor depending on the competitiveness of the tier list. Other factors include damage, cooldowns, and base stats.

Typically, Tier lists are broken up as follows

  • God Tier: Champions which have no glaring weaknesses, and thus no strong counters (except extremely niche champions).
  • Top Tier: Top tier champions are basically less strong god tier champions. While god tier champions stand head and shoulders above the others, top tier champions are simply at the top (and some champions have to be). They are typically low on weaknesses, and only countered by a few (probably niche) champions.
  • Mid Tier: These are your run of the mill champions. Mid tier champions tend to lose their matchups to most top tier champions (slighty), but to have a few favorable matchups against a few top tier champions.
  • Low Tier: These are champions that you probably don't want to pick, although if you are really good at them, they can still be reasonable picks. It's just that if you got that good at some other champion in Mid Tier or above, you'd do better. They can occasionally have niche value against opponents who aren't used to seeing them, but this is really only applicable to lower levels of skill
  • Trash Tier: These champions are extremely niche. Perhaps if used with a team built around them, and against a team they perfectly counter, they could be a viable last pick.

In fighting games, Tier systems include matchup information. So 'Graves vs Vayne: 6-4', means that in a typical 10 game set between equal skill players, the Graves player will win 6 games, and the Vayne player will win 4. As far as ranges go, the average matchup rating will be higher the higher your tier. It is this average value that is very important. A Low Tier champion may have 4 incredibly favorable (8-2) matchups, while a God Tier may have only 2, but the God Tier will have almost no 4-6 matchups, whereas the Low Tier champion will probably have mostly 4-6 matchups.

Why Tier Lists?

Tier Lists serve two very simple functions:

First, Tier Lists provide a good intro into the competitive aspect of the game for players. Higher Tier champions are not always beginner friendly, but they are often slightly easier for average players to excel with. For players who have mastered the basic skills of the game, the high-tier champions can at least give you an idea of what is valuable in a champion. For example, the Morgana case above shows the value of CC avoidance (and as such, ability to lane safely and avoid ganks), sustain, AoE damage, and CC.

Second, Tier Lists provide a good tracker of how play is progressing at higher levels of play (at least, when made by pro players). The champions valued at high tier are not valued because they're better, but because they are more valuable in/on typical teams.

But all too often, Tier Lists serve an all-too-different function.

Excuses

Gentleman Gustaf, it's not fair! Everybody always picks high-tier champions and wins!

People naturally form attachments to characters. And some people just like to play worse champions 'for the challenge'. Don't handicap yourself by establishing a stupid identity as some hipster who only plays champs who aren't cool. If you're playing to win, some of that is going to consist of playing champions that aren't your favorite. You wouldn't play an AD Carry that was just Ashe with no ultimate, or Ashe with 5% less. What lets people hold onto these illusions is that they like to think of each champion's strengths and weaknesses as balancing the game overall: sure, Morgana is good, but her cooldowns are pretty long and if she misses a binding, you can abuse that. While this may be true (that all champions have some weaknesses to abuse), that doesn't make all choices equally good.

Gentleman Gustaf, why are people such meta-sheep? I want to play the champions I like, not the same 6 champions every game.

People want to win. As such, they will pick champions they think will let them win. Often, these will be high tier champions (either because they've seen them do well consistently, or because they trust the authors of tier lists). You obviously want to win too (or you wouldn't be complaining about being unable to pick the champions you like. You also had the same chance to pick the OP champions too. So by not doing so, you effectively lost the first round of the game (champion select). You can't exactly blame the other guy for trying to win.

But the ultimate problem with the above is it puts tier lists as the scapegoats for your losses, making it hard to learn from losing. In a sense, it's the Elo Hell argument all over again, but with a different target. Everybody knows the feeling of losing to a really common, strong champion (or Black Cleaver), and thinking "I hate this high tier character! He's just a free win". And on the flip side, doesn't it feel ten times worse to lose to Karma? And thinking along those lines stunts your improvement by giving you a scapegoat (just the same as 'Elo Hell' does).

Common Complaints.

Gentleman Gustaf, what about player skill? The determining factor in games isn't champion selection, but skill!

This is an argument that gets thrown a lot, but is fundamentally flawed. For one, champion selection and knowledge of matchups is part of skill. If you're picking a champion that simply underperforms in your matchup, that reflects poorly on your skill. But more importantly, it sideskirts the issue. Yes, Azubu Blaze would probably beat Team Joe Schmoes even if they random all of their champions. But the game would be closer than if they had picked strong champions. And I'm sure that Tiger Woods could beat me even with a 10-stroke handicap and a crappy set of clubs. But without that handicap, it would be even less close. Essentially, by clinging to this mindset, you're forcing yourself to outplay your opponent every game, just to be on even footing. What's important is how you perform vs people of largely equal skill, and on that stage, champion selection is very important. Essentially, sure, you can win despite a handicap through skill, but that doesn't make it not a handicap.

Flaws

Tier Lists change all the time. First, there are nerfs and buffs which can change matchups. Second, the standard style of play can change (or people can become better acclimated to the old one). Either way, old strategies are suddenly less viable. This is not a sign that tier lists don't work, but rather a (good) sign that the game is not static.

Tier Lists are not the whole picture, of course. Tier lists are all about matchups, and of course skill comes into play. So if you're good at a low tier champion, but they would counter a pick on another team (or even be equally as good as a high-tier pick), go for it! So a champion with a 5.2-4.8 matchup with EVERY champion in the game would be a great first pick, but a terrible counter-pick most of the time.

And as well, there's a huge difference between competence with a champion and understanding of a champion. Sure, you can be competent with a champion, and be able to play them effectively. In fact, you can be competent with every champion, and then just pick whoever's Flavor of the Month at the moment. But at all levels of play, you can tell the player who really KNOWS his champion, getting every last advantage out of every situation. As well, there's champion style. Voyboy plays very aggressive, dominance based top champions, while HotshotGG is known for his farmfests. Obviously, the same champions may not suit both of their styles.

This is why we shouldn't be that shocked when low tier champion like Lux show up in tournament play; they may have been picked as a counter, or the player could just be really strong at the champion/style. It doesn't mean the tier system is broken, and it doesn't even necessarily mean the champion should be a higher tier.

So Tier Lists are a really useful tool, both as guidelines and as insight into high level play. But as with any tool, don't let it guide your play entirely: focus on improving, not on winning. In other words, there's nothing wrong with tier lists as a source of information, but don't shape your mindset around them.


 For more of my work:

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