I am delaying the next part of the learning junglers mini-series in order to post an article about a topic that has been cropping up in my social media networks. Wukong and Pantheon have seen a rise in play, even more than before, ever since the latest spirit line changes. They were being used off and on in pro-player matches and having sporadic use in solo queue games. Their powers were boosted thanks to the Spirit of the Elder Lizard damage buffs and the general changes to the jungle. However, the had sustain and clearing issues that some players, including pro-players, were uncomfortable with.
The latest sustain changes to the jungle items have made sustain basically trivial for most junglers in the game. Plenty of junglers whose only "true" weakness was sustain have become much stronger picks as a result. Both Wukong and Pantheon's sustain issues have been essentially made negligible and thus they can now be justified as sure-fire (instead of potentially risky) picks. However, as awesome as it is that these champions see competitive play and join the jungler pool, they present quite a problem towards jungler champion balance and perhaps solo queue health. Please note that I am not calling for the champions to be nerfed. The last paragraphs do contain potential solutions and/or balance points that will have to be made.
It is easier to argue about Pantheon's power levels rather than Wukong's so the firs t portion will cover him. Essentially put, no champion should be allowed to have a point and click hard stun without any weaknesses. Yes there are champions with hard crowd control but they usually have a drawback or some gimmick to them. Udyr's Bear Stance is pure melee and he has only a movement speed buff (no gap closer) to attempt to use it with. Elise's cocoon is a skillshot that can be blocked by minions and has a long cooldown. Fiddlesticks's fear has a low range and his movement speed is abysmal.
Pantheon's sustain and clearing issues were so vast that his incredible ganking was seen as a trade off. You could pick him and expect deadly, powerful ganks but you run the risk of suffering in the jungle. The first wave of jungle item changes helped him maintain his clear speed (and damage) and then the sustain buff fixed his sustain issues. His massive drawback no longer exists beyond his first clear. You are now left with a champion that has a strong gap closer, high damage, incredible ganking (especially post 6) and can be difficult to kill thanks to his passive.
Nocturne can be compared to Pantheon actually but they differ greatly in the areas that they are similar in. Nocturne has hard cc (a fear) but it has a channel time and low range. Nocturne has high damage but he is pure melee and has no gap closer aside from gliding in shadows for a movement speed buff. He has a pseudo-global ultimate that has a much shorter range than Pantheon's and it gives a much more clear warning sign. Nocturne's spell shield can block one spell if used properly while Pantheon's can refresh several times in a fight and takes no interaction from the player to activate.
If you can recall, Nocturne was considered incredibly overpowered upon release and even after a few nerfs came his way. His abilities and power did have conditions but they were made very trivial such as his fear having a longer leash and some leeway before it broke or his ultimate being much longer range and faster. He is now considered to be at a reasonable power level thanks to the fact that all the tools have conditions and weaknesses, which without they would make any jungler overpowered.
Pantheon does not have any of these checks and conditions. He is very straightforward with his abilities and damage. He is currently a much better version of Nocturne thanks to the spirit stone changes. He can build tank and still deal damage or he can snowball out of control with offensive items the same way but will be better due to his reliable abilities. He has a global ultimate as well which in itself is ridiculous for a jungler. Junglers do not have a lane and thus cannot be prepared for. He is basically a Twisted Fate that can jungle thanks to his on-demand stun and global ultimate.
Wukong presents a different type of balance point. Admittedly I see him as less of a problem than what Pantheon could be as he still has weaknesses and a rev-up time. However, his team fighting dwarfs most other jungler's team fighting currently. He deals a great deal of damage, can potentially knock up an entire team while gaining free stats thanks to his passive and having initiation potentially with very little time to react thanks to his stealth.
Wukong has been one of my guilty jungle pleasures since he was released. He always felt average in most aspects with a glaring weakness at sustain. However, he always had that incredible initiation power that absolutely melts teams. I would use him just so I could stealth in and destroy the backline. I always acknowledged his sustain issue as what kept him from being seen as a potentially strong jungler. The first wave of jungle item changes come increase Wukong's damage tremendously while boosting his clearing speed. They did not rectify his sustain issues but his strong clearing along with the promise of a strong team fight gave him some limelight in competitive games and higher level games. But, like explained much earlier in this article, he was still seen as a risk by plenty of players. The latest sustain changes removed that risk and made him a very strong pick.
To be perfectly fair, there are plenty of junglers in the game that are far better initiators than Wukong. Malphite and Sejuani are arguably two of the best (if not the best) jungle initiators in the game. They are straight forward and near instantaneous with reasonable damage. That's the thing though! Malphite and Sejuani have moderate damage accompanying them while Wukong has much higher damage than them and potentially crippling damage thanks to what items he may build. Not only that but Wukong can screw up his ultimate and still make it work since he can reposition himself while his ultimate is activate and still get the knock up. Every other jungle initiator in the game has one chance to make sure their initiation works properly.
Wukong's ultimate works with Spirit of the Elder Lizard and Black Cleaver which leads to interesting team fight situations. He can burn everyone with his ultimate or he can obliterate their armor or he can purchase both and annihilate people. He still gets free stats from his passive so he does not have to invest too much into defensive items. If he takes defensive masteries then he just becomes ridiculously tanky for free. To put this very bluntly, Wukong has a lot of stuff going on for him and it is unfair. He is too tanky for free, his team fight initiation is too strong and it brings with it a lot of damage while being unchecked thanks to stealth vision being destroyed. He is a much better choice as an initiator/bruiser than most other junglers currently.
Nerf or Buff?
Now I am not calling for nerfs on these champions. I think the only thing that should be nerfed from Wukong should be his passive and maybe the Black Cleavers synergy with his ultimate. I do enjoy seeing the jungle roster increase but these champions have become ridiculous with the latest spirit changes. Junglers who were held back due to sustain issues are now being thrust into the jungle (except Sejuani) in order to exploit some of their ridiculous strengths that normally would not be achievable in a lane.
The spirit items gave them too much power. The Spirit of the Elder Lizard's damage boost made them deadlier and powered up their clear speed but it alone did not fix all their problems. The sustain removed their sustain issues. In combination, they enabled these junglers to melt camps, farming quickly as a result, while always being ready for combat. It would be unwise to demand a nerf on the sustain portion as it really helped other junglers who are not as crazy so this makes nerfing the Elder Lizard a much better choice. Simply weakening the butcher portion of it or the true damage will make this item more reasonable and weaken these outlier junglers.
The other route is to simply BUFF other champions or items to the point where more champions are brought to the level that Pantheon and Wukong are at. Riot is introducing more buffs to the spirit items as in they plan to remove the AoE penalty. This could potentially make junglers like Sejuani and Nautilus much stronger and make them better choices.
The point still stands though. Pantheon and Wukong currently present a point where a balance decision must be made. Pantheon overshadows too many junglers thanks to his point and click stun and play making potential while Wukong's team fighting dwarfs lots of other initiators. This was made possible thanks to the spirit item changes especially the damage and sustain buffs. Riot can choose to nerf these champions, nerf the items or buff other things to match the outliers.
Vi was not mentioned in this article as her balance issues need their own article to be fully explained and explored.
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