The Fallacies of Item Efficiency
It's come to my attention in recent months that the theories of "item efficiency" and "gold efficiency" are making a resurgence in popularity among League of Legends fans as well as theorycrafters. With this tick in interest, I've also seen many new problems rise in the system, which is what I want to talk about today. A lot of people are using the system (as I see it) incorrectly, and thats leading to many misleading assumptions in itemization theorycraft. No graphs, no charts, just a discussion of what I think are the merits and flaws of this system.
First, let's hit a quick review of the history of theorycrafting and gold efficiency. Strategizing the best way to play a game, also known as theorycrafting, has been in existence as long as games have existed, whether it be finding the fastest way to beat Super Mario Bros. or how to stay alive playing Pac-Man. But that was just the beginning -- the game that became best known for in-depth theorycrafting was World of Warcraft -- from its reputation, calculations in League of Legends don't even come close to the math needed to calculate DPS output in WoW. Despite it being complex, we should give credit to Warcraft for making it possible for having sites with dedicated theorycraft -- such as Reign of Gaming -- be popular in the present day. Theorycrafting, since that time, has grown from a niche interest to a word commonly used in gaming lexicon.
When theorycrafting first emerged in League of Legends during Open Beta and Preseason One, most players at the time had no idea what was going on, and the only way that people could agree with each other on the 'overpowered' status of items was using gold efficiency and item efficiency, which is where my Item Efficiency Spreadsheet came in. For the first time, people had a way to discuss items, and some key items such as Zhonya's (Rabadon's) and Rod of Ages quickly got nerfed or reworked. Through that time to the present day, many people, including much of the Riot balance team, has used gold efficiency as a metric in balancing items, both new and old.
But history isn't really what I wanted to talk about today. Since the beginning of item efficiency to the present day, the meaning and the usage of efficiency has changed from a metric of power to the holy grail of design balance in the eyes of the community. And that's not what it is. It's an effective balancing system, but it is heavily flawed in its approach to looking at items -- its one-dimensional, and really, you can only get an idea of whether an item is overpowered, underpowered, or balanced. Item efficiency is best used as an indicator of intermediate items, as it is extremely hard to value the power of a unique passive such as Infinity Edge's unique passive. Such things are better calculated through damage-per-second analysis because the gold worth of such a passive would be variable depending on the stage of the game and number of items you have.
In order to get a sense of whether is strong or not, you have to look at the big picture. In its original form, item efficiency only took into account primary variables. Secondary variables (regen, penetration, cdr, etc.) weren't included. Now, many people take total efficiency (primary and secondary) variables, look at the results, and get erroneous conclusions. A recently popular speculation that has been going around discussion forums is that Spirit of the Spectral Wraith is an overpowered item because it has a ridiculously strong gold efficiency, when in reality much of its gold efficiency stats are secondary (spell vamp and mana regeneration). Even Athene's Unholy Grail, a common rush items on many casters, is extremely overpowered from an efficiency standpoint but this doesn't necessarily transition to in-game superiority. These items are balanced; just because they seem strong in one system doesn't mean they are overpowered in the waking world.
I'm tired of people putting item efficiency on a pedestal. Item efficiency is an inherently flawed system in design, yet we still use it as a metric because it's the best and easiest way you can approximate variables and the strength of items outside of the game, without actually playing it. At one point in time, it was the only thing theorycrafters used as a basis of analysis; now, the game has evolved so that we take many things into account and not just efficiency. Sadly, much of the community has not kept up in the changes and with the recent surge in 'item efficiency' theorycrafters, I see a lot of these problems coming back into the spotlight.
While charts such as this one valuing masteries are applaudable in the effort undertaken to try to define masteries, gold efficiency isn't bulletproof enough of a system to do this correctly. For example, the offensive mastery Frenzy is valued at less than 50 gold, but in the end-game it is one of the most powerful offensive options available to AD Carries. Similarly, it's pretty hard to value how long reduced death timers are or the power of extra ward vision. People are taking a niche system and overestimating its capabilities, when in reality we should be just using item efficiency for a "Fun Fact: X is pretty strong" type of analysis.
The Brutalizer's 10 flat armor penetration must be valued at 15g for this item to be gold efficient.
With the rise of new theorycrafters, we've also seen a warping of the current system. Some people have the concept of "item efficiency" in their head, but it's often the wrong idea. If you look at different items on the LoL Wiki, you'll find that generally the item efficiency explanations don't make a whole lot of sense, and in many cases they're even wrong.
Item efficiency is an imperfect system, and it's become even more imperfect as time has gone on. It's best used for estimating what items might be overpowered and what isn't; it's not really a great indicator of what item to rush first or whatever, because oftentimes "gold efficient" items aren't giving you the right items. It's not to be used to calculate how great every single element of the game is. You can't solve the mysteries of the League of Legends universe with one set of calculations, let alone one that is based off the base cost of a Negatron Cloak. In order to theorycraft, you have to look at every factor, not just the gold cost and stats.
What can we do to improve the problems encountered by item efficiency? The solution is not to abandon it, but to integrate it into your research. If League were balanced on a one-dimensional metric such as this, the game would be extremely imbalanced. As such, when we look at items we should consider: Is this item actually strong ingame? If not, is that why the item is so efficient? Questions such as these should guide your research in itemization instead of relying wholly upon one system. Efficiency has its merits in approximating value, but it cannot be used to pinpoint precision in actual usability. Use common sense, make good judgments, and you will be able to see why the game is balanced as it is.
For more of my work:
- #VVinning (RoG blogs): reignofgaming.net/tag/vvinrar
- Item Efficiency Spreadsheet: bit.ly/s3items
- ADC Damage Interactive Model: bit.ly/VVinrarADC
To contact me, come to the "A DIFFerent View" chatroom (NA) or drop a line at VVinrar@ReignOfGaming.net