League of Legends

A long discussion of Aatrox’s troubled relationship with balance over the years, and some suggestions on ways to ease it

LeagueofLegends7 - A long discussion of Aatrox's troubled relationship with balance over the years, and some suggestions on ways to ease it

Disclaimer: All data collected here is from third party sites. I am a hobbyist game developer at best and I am not a statistician. Everything stated here other than the data provided are merely personal opinions and suggestions and should be treated as such. The teams at Riot are comprised of incredibly talented and skilled individuals, and I in no way believe myself better than them. I merely wish to communicate my opinion with fellow members of the community out of my love of this game and this character, and out of a genuine want to see both improve.

Section 1: Does Aatrox need a buff?

Before I begin the part of this essay where I discuss Aatrox’s issues and some theoretical solutions, let's first establish whether Aatrox has them. We will analyse Aatrox according to Riot’s own balance framework (link here: https://euw.leagueoflegends.com/en-gb/news/dev/dev-balance-framework-update/). In this framework, Riot splits all matches into four separate tiers of play named: Average (Iron IV – Gold I), Skilled (Plat IV – Grandmaster), Elite (Challenger) and Pro (Top 5 Pro regions). A champion is considered eligible for buffs if they are in the ‘underpowered’ category for all tiers. Underpowered is defined as <49% win rate in Average and Skilled play, and <5% pick/ban presence in Elite and Pro play. Solo queue stats are collected from U.gg, across all regions, with pro play stats coming from Gol.gg. Data was collected on the 12/08/2020. Links to the sites in question here: https://u.gg/ , https://gol.gg/esports/home/ .

Average play: Aatrox’s win rates across Average play are as follows: Iron 44.57%, Bronze 47.12%, Silver 47.97%, Gold 48.13%. With an average of 46.95%. This is well below the 49% threshold, with it being notable that he does not hit this threshold in any rank. Thus, we can consider Aatrox to be underpowered in average play.

Skilled play: Aatrox’s win rates across Skilled play are as follows: Platinum 48.15%, Diamond 47.37%, Master 51.99%, Grandmaster 46.52%. Note that the Masters win rate is significantly higher than all others, although this is likely due to having a low sample size to take from. The previous patches in Masters show 47.1% and 49.14% win rates respectively, so I can largely discount this as an anomaly. That said even counting the anomaly into our average still results in a win rate of 48.51%, which is within the threshold of underpowered. If I discount the anomaly using data from a previous patch for Masters (there have been no significant shifts in Aatrox’s state of balance since patch 10.13’s conqueror change) then we get an average of 47.29%.

Elite play: In Elite and pro-play, presence is used to determine balance. Aatrox has a 2.5% pick rate and a 1.2% ban rate resulting in a 3.7% presence. This is lower than the 5% presence above which a character is considered healthy. His win rate in this area is 47.01%.

Pro play: Most of league’s community is aware that for Solo-Queue and standard play Aatrox is weak. However, there is still a majority perception that Aatrox is a strong presence in pro-play, which holds him back from buffs. Aatrox has so far seen absolutely no play in 10.16 amongst top leagues. He saw one game in 10.15, and three games in 10.14. He lost all of these games. With a presence of 0%, 0.8% and 4.1% respectively. This is across the LPL, LCK, LEC, LCS, IEM, LMS, MSC, MSI and WORLDS leagues. Notably his presence jumps if you look at patch 10.13, with eight losses and one win and a 7.3% presence. This was the last patch before the nerfs to conqueror’s maximum stack amount, which was a change that hit Aatrox hard, so it’s likely that prior to that he still had some value as a pick. The remaining picks for him since then are likely teams who are having trouble adjusting to his new state. This means that Aatrox has been considered an underpowered presence in pro-play for the last three patches.

Conclusion: After looking at the data I can conclude that Aatrox is in an underpowered state and is deserving of buffs by Riot’s own standards. He has been in this weak state for three patches now. Whilst he has arguably needed buffs for longer as far as solo queue is concerned, his pro-play presence has only fallen into underpowered territory in the last three patches. Seeing a small resurgence with the death’s dance and shield healing changes on patch 10.6, before quickly fading back to obscurity. In truth, while the stat sites I could find would not go this far, from being a dedicated player of him it feels as though Aatrox has been on a downward trend since his nerfs in 9.18, and has never recovered from it. Please note that I am not saying those nerfs were unneeded, they were, and I do not believe they should be reverted. Since this major nerf, Aatrox has seen one buff in the following patch that reverted a part of that nerf and has had no direct changes since, beyond quality of life bugfixes. So why has Aatrox not received help for so long? Well there are a few possible explanations: Riot perhaps think Aatrox is fine in his current state but considering how far below their accepted levels of power he falls; I find that hard to believe. Whilst it is tempting to resort to pessimism and state that Riot has forgotten about Aatrox, this is also hard to believe. Because of the amount of care Riot shows towards their community and towards all their champions, but also because he has been receiving quality of life updates and bugfixes, with the most recent being last patch. The most likely solution, in my humble opinion, is that Riot feel that they can’t buff Aatrox, or more appropriately, that Aatrox kit in its current state is unhealthy, and that any significant buffs will cause him to have a negative impact on the meta once again. This sentiment is easy to believe, because it is one I share. With that said I do not believe that this is unsolveable, nor that there are any mechanical changes needed. Which leads us to…

Section 2: What is wrong with Aatrox?

Here I cover what I believe to be the issues with Aatrox pertaining to game health. Note that I will not be discussing issues regarding his thematic, or changing his role. This discussion is about how to make the current Aatrox a healthy champion in league, not how to transform him into something else. To that end I have identified two core issues with Aatrox’s current state. The primary issue is that Aatrox’s lane phase weaknesses only show themselves outside of professional play. The second, is that Aatrox’s general power curve weaknesses also only show themselves outside of professional play. With that said champions do exist healthily with similar power curves, so this is only a secondary issue.

Let us discuss these in order:

Subsection 1: Some observations about top lane.

Top lane is unique amongst the roles of League of Legends, as it is focused on the 1v1 instead of the overall team-play of the game. Whilst buffs to the rift herald have ensured that it is not wholly split off from the map it is still primarily the lane of 1v1s. As a result top lane is primarily composed of two types of champion. Lane bullies, and Scalers. Lane bullies vary from your short range all-in Darius / Sett types, to your long range harass based Kennen / Quinn types. But their core strategy is always to put their opponent behind by denying them farm through aggressive trading and to use that lead to transition into a stronger midgame for their team. Scalers seek to shut down interaction in the lane, usually through either sustain, range or durability, and then outvalue their opponents with their kits in the mid to late game. These champions also vary from your tanks such as Ornn and Maokai to your hyper carries such as Kayle and Jax. What links them as a group is that they do not look to establish a lead in lane, but instead to not fall behind. To those of you thinking ahead, you might have noticed that in a professional environment Aatrox fits into both categories. He can act as both a lane bully with his high damage trade combos, but also stonewall champions who seek to destroy him early game using his sustain, long range wave clear and harass. This allows him to out scale them in team fights later with his huge AOEs and frequent knock-ups. This is not inherently an issue however. There are other champions who can function both as lane bullies and as scaling champions, with Camille and Vladimir being a few examples. These champions are typically balanced out by having severe counter picks, with Vladimir being unable to deal with champions who can easily close the gap onto him in lane such as Renekton or Kled, and Camille finding it hard to deal with champions who can forcefully extend trades past her initial burst (or deny it entirely) such as Jax, Fiora and Shen.

This leads us to Aatrox’s biggest problem.

Subsection 2: Aatrox is undeniable.

One observation I have made is that top lane champions typically have two axes upon which their trades function, I shall name these range and frequency for the sake of this discussion.

Subsection 2 Part 1: Trade ranges.

A character’s trade range will hereon refer to at what ranges they can comfortably trade. For example: Garen succeeds in short range trades where he can effectively deal all his damage and negate much of his opponent's. Sion wants to primarily trade around mid-range, as this means that his opponents cannot walk behind his Q or burst down his shield before he gets the damage off. However while Garen cannot trade back at longer ranges, Sion can still trade at short or long range (especially if he has the grasp keystone to empower his melee range trades) but is less effective as at long range he cannot hit his Q or W damage, and at short range for the reasons listed earlier. Therefore, Garen’s trades are more powerful than Sion’s because they are more restricted.This is a simplification of this, as it discounts Garen’s passive sustain and both champion’s scaling as well as wave management, but at a fundamental level this is how trade ranges work. On a conceptual level, Aatrox has no issues with this. His Q’s range decrease with casts but also increase in damage. This gives a risk vs reward curve across his Q combo and a unique trading pattern that starts with low damage and low risk, and transitions into high risk, high damage. Other champions do this too. Illaoi is another example of a Juggernaut who has long range, but low damage harass, with her Q and E, who then uses it to transition (off of the slow) into big short range damage trades with her W and tentacle slams. But those of you who have played against Aatrox may be somewhat confused. I’ve been calling his long-range trades ‘weak’ and ‘low damage’ yet they usually take up the majority of his damage output. This is because the risk vs reward curve on his Q is far too moderate. Here is a table listing the damage of each cast of Aatrox’s Q as a percentage of its initial base damage and scaling:

Non – Sweet SpotSweet Spot

The algorithm at work is that Q2 and Q3 do 25% and 50% increased damage respectively. Sweet spots increase that new damage by 50%. Note that Q’s damage increase stacks additively and not multiplicatively. From this we can see that the damage difference between casts is small. Q1’s sweet spot deals equal damage to a non-sweet spot Q3. The difference between Q1 and Q3’s sweet spot is 75%. Note this is not 75% of Q3’s damage, but 75% of the initial base damage and scaling. If we were to take this difference as a percentage of Q3’s total sweet spot damage, we get a damage difference of 33.3% or 1/3rd. You can test this in game. Go to practice tool and try Q’ing a dummy as Aatrox. You will find that your Q1 sweet spot and Q3 non sweet spot will do identical damage. You will also find that your Q3 sweet spot only does a third more than your Q1 sweet spot. This means that your damage composition as Aatrox across Q is distributed thus: Q1 26.6% or 4/15ths, Q2 33.3% or 1/3rd, Q3 40% or 2/5ths. Note that this proportion is consistent between sweet spots and non-sweet spots, and because this is a percentage of its base and scaling, it is consistent all game long. From this we can see that the ranged Qs (Q1 and Q2) make up 59.9% of his full Q damage. This means that Aatrox can deal most of his damage without ever needing to go in close range. But also that he still has strong close-range trading because of his Q3 and passive. This on its own is not an awful thing for a champion. While Aatrox’s trading pattern may have no weaknesses on this axis, there is still another left. A lot of strong laning champions will only have a weakness on one axis, such as the earlier mentioned Camille who can trade at long range well with her W and E engage, but who excels in close range trades with her passive shield and Q. Her laning weakness is the frequency with which she can engage in these trades, but this is not something Aatrox shares.

Subsection 2 Part 2: Trade frequency.

While what ranges a champion can trade at are an important part of defining how they play in lane, the other major aspect is how often they can do so. This is determined either by cooldowns, or the build-ups / durations of ‘powered up states’ the character can enter (think Irelia passive). Characters with low trade frequency seek to force trades while they have their power windows, and then play passive until they can build up to another favourable trade. They typically have very good trade ranges, or ability to engage trades as a result of this. Examples of this archetype include Riven, Irelia, Kled, Jax, Renekton etc. Characters with high trade frequency, who are less reliant on cooldowns or have short enough ones that allow them to extend trades to have them come back up will typically have poor trade range or engages. Champions of this archetype include Darius, Volibear, Mordekaiser, Fiora etc. Aatrox seems belongs to the first group, as on initial inspection his trading seems focused on his Q cooldown. However, a change made to him in his mini-rework on patch 9.9 actually places Aatrox into the second category (as an aside, that mini-rework was a large step in the right direction for Aatrox and I am not suggesting it was bad, but this particular decision has perhaps aged poorly). You see Aatrox’s Q cooldown does not use the typical barrage system, in which it goes on cooldown on its first cast only. Instead it uses a unique system in which each cast of Q resets its cooldown. At a surface level this is a nice change, and one I remember being excited for. The problem it leads to however, is that it enables Aatrox to eliminate all of his windows of weakness. Aatrox’s biggest power spike in laning phase is Kindlegem and Warhammer. This is because it allows Aatrox to effectively infinite Q. Aatrox’s Q recast window is 4 seconds. His Q’s cooldown scales with ranks from 14 -> 6 decreasing by 2 seconds per rank. At max rank Q, with 20% cooldown reduction, Aatrox’s Q cooldown is 4.8 seconds. This means that if Aatrox casts a Q then waits out the recast timer, his total Q downtime will only be .8 seconds. So, if Aatrox uses his Q1 and Q2 to poke, and then simply sits on his Q3, his enemies will have a .8 second window in which to punish his trade, before he can start poking again. This is a very short window. By contrast, Riven’s Q is a flat 13 second cooldown. This punishes her for leaving her combo halfway through by giving her a longer downtime. Riven can only infinite Q if she uses all three in a row at the end of their recasts with maximum cooldown reduction. Aatrox can use his first two Qs to deal most of his damage from range at low risk, then save his last Q in case he is engaged on. He then restarts the whole process with no downtime. There is never a point in time where Aatrox is not either harassing you or denying you engage. At 40% cooldown reduction and level 13 with max rank E and Q Aatrox can Q -> E you every 3 seconds, and provided he waits 4 seconds after the second one, he always has the ability to fight back if you engage onto him. This is not accounting for his passive, which makes extended melee range trades with him unwise, or his W which allows him to extend favourable trades and go for all-ins once he has poked his enemies low enough. Laning against Aatrox’s current kit is unfair, and I say this as someone who loves playing both as and against him. He can infinitely poke you through the creep wave, whilst never offering a window to trade back. Against ranged threats he can threaten all ins with W and Q3 and go equal with them in ranged trades. Against melee threats he can poke them out with Q1 and Q2, and reserve a Q3 -> Passive -> W -> E away -> Prep Q1 combo for any time they make it onto him to easily disengage and win melee trades too. This results in a champion with almost no losing matchups when he has appropriate numbers. He has equal matchups and matchups where he cannot win, but Aatrox’s current kit loses to few champions, none of which are competitively viable. Aatrox is undeniable.

Subsection 3: Aatrox is unbeatable.


We have now established that in a professional context, Aatrox cannot be beaten in lane. But why is this an issue? While I have established that Aatrox has no losing matchups in pro-play, he also has few winning matchups. There are champions like this in other roles such as Orianna, Caitlyn and Thresh. The key difference is that these roles interact far more with the map. If the enemy mid laner locks in a champion who has no lane matchup counter picks, you can pick a champion that will out roam them, and beat them by not interacting with their lane. If the enemy support is too dominant in lane for you, you can roam to other lanes with your jungler and apply pressure that way. Top laners have no such luxuries. Their interactions with the rest of the map are limited to teleporting in every 5 minutes or so. This means that if you are stuck in a poor lane matchup, your only option is to endure it and hope to out scale. Which leads us to our next problem: Aatrox is not an early game champion. Aatrox’s power curve is like a lot of top lane Bruisers and Juggernauts. He has a good early game which transitions into a strong midgame and then begins to fall off late game. In his case though this curve is extreme. To the point where even in his nerfed state he remains powerful in his short midgame spike. When Aatrox obtains both Black Cleaver and Death’s dance and levels 9 to 13 he is dominant. All his power throughout the game’s length is packed into this short window and this is a direct result of how the scalings in his kit function. The reason is that this is the point during both his itemization and levelling that he maxes out on damage. I stated earlier that Aatrox spikes hard in laning phase around level nine with a Kindlegem and a Warhammer, and I attributed this to his cooldowns becoming low enough to engage in a trading pattern with little interactivity. While this remains true, another reason for this spike is because it is the point at which Aatrox maxes out his rank in Q, and thus gets the majority of his damage. Contrary to what a cursory glance at his kit would tell you, the damage Aatrox gets from building AD is low. At first it seems like the %AD boost on his ultimate, combined with the % scaling increases built into his Q would result in a champion who gets significant benefit from AD. But, these bonuses are best used to amplify his large base AD and AD growth, combined with his base damage. Whilst in a vacuum, a total 450% AD scaling across his three Q sweet spots may seem high, it is important to put this into context. The first thing to note is that this 450% scaling is not coming out in one go, but instead in skillshots that must be positioned properly to hit, that each have a cast time of 0.6 seconds. Meaning that realistically hitting all three of these, in an optimal scenario will take roughly three or so seconds of execution time. Another point is that this makes up a large portion of Aatrox’s damage output. Outside of these Qs Aatrox only has regular auto-attacks, a small amount of % health damage and a 40% (doubled to 80% if he hits both parts) scaling on his W. By contrast Garen, a champion who mostly scales from Attack speed instead of AD, hits 12 spins of his E at level 13 with a typical build of Triforce, Phantom Dancer, Berserker Greaves with no attack speed runes. Giving his three second duration E a total AD scaling of 600%. Ilaoi’s tentacles each have a 120% AD scaling, increased by 30% by her Q passive, up to 156%. Meaning that for Illaoi tentacles to output more damage than all of Aatrox’s sweet spots she needs to land three for 468% AD. This is easy to achieve, and her typical fight output is closer to 10 tentacle smacks. I am aware that these comparisons lack detail, such as Aatrox being able to weave auto attacks between his Qs, them being adjustable mid cast to be easier to hit and his ultimate giving him a % AD boost. Or Garen’s E dealing 25% less damage to the targets that are not the closest to him. Or Illaoi’s tentacle damage being amplified by her E. But the main point is that compared to other champions who build similarly and who also fall off towards the late game, Aatrox’s AD scalings are poor. From this we can surmise that Aatrox’s damage does not primarily come from the AD he builds. This is evident in how Aatrox’s builds have evolved, as well as how Deaths Dance’s 30 AD reduction and 30 armour and magic resistance gain did not nerf a champion whose kit seems so multiplicative, but instead was a buff. Because of this we get the odd phenomenon that by midgame Aatrox has gained almost all the damage he will have for the rest of the game. Other juggernauts or divers have mechanics in their kit that allow their damage to scale beyond their ability ranks and when they start building tanky. Darius’ passive AD, Yorick’s ghoul damage scaling with level, Illaoi’s tentacle base damage scaling with level, Camille’s true damage conversion, Mordekaiser’s passive and Q base having per level scalings and Renekton simply having all his ability ranks give him additional damage are some examples of this. Aatrox’s sole per level scaling is his passive, which deals additional % health damage based on his level. The issue with this is that his passive is primarily used to heal himself, instead of as a source of damage. This means that once Aatrox has all his Q ranks, and has purchased Cleaver, Death’s Dance and Steraks Gage, the only damage he will get the entire rest of the game is the 10 (20 if both hit) additional base damage per rank on his W, and his base AD growth per level. Even with the joint second highest base AD growth in the game (5, which Darius, Illaoi and Yorick share, who all have significant per level scalings in their kit) this is not enough. This bottlenecks Aatrox’s damage, and as his tankiness is multiplied by his damage due to his % damage healing on his E, all his power across the game is condensed into the period between levels 9 – 13. When he has acquired all the damage he will ever have, and is obtaining additional % multiplying heals on that damage with each point in E. Once his E and Q are then maxed out (at level 13) Aatrox has procured all the damage, and all the healing he will get all game long. Whilst some further item purchases such as spirit visage may give him another small multiplier on that damage, and his ultimate will give him a small AD and 10% additional healing with its third point, these boosts are insignificant before 4 other entirely dead levels. This is why the Death’s Dance change was so huge for him. In the early game, Aatrox has damage coming in from his Q, and healing coming in from conqueror and his E, but without durability these two fall apart. Healing is only useful so long as you are not bursted, and the resistances from Death’s Dance give Aatrox enough durability to not be bursted, allowing his healing to then keep him alive. This allows Aatrox to properly function as a drain tank much sooner into the game. All of this adds up to Aatrox having one of the most severe power curves in the game, with an above average early game, an incredibly powerful mid-game, and then an abysmal late game. I personally believe that extreme power curves in general lead to toxic design, this one is especially problematic due to how it hits pro-play. Professional games very rarely go into the late game. In those that do, most top laners are relegated to one of two jobs: Side laning or being a CC bot in team fights. Top lane late game hypercarries such as Kayle or Jax are too risky to be picked in pro-play unless they are overpowered, or a free matchup is involved. Note that top lane in pro-play is very counter pick heavy. Placing Aatrox in this context makes his value obvious. Here we have a champion who has no counter picks, who starts to scale off after most games are already decided. Picking Aatrox in a pro-play draft is the equivalent of passing onus onto your enemy team. It is a non-committal pick that will always result in value for your team. Why pick a champion who has a high probability of being counter-picked and thus providing little value for your team, when you can pick a champion who will always provide you good value, and cannot be denied? This also places pick back into your opponent’s hands, allowing you to potentially secure counter picks in other roles. Thus, despite being nerfed many times, Aatrox stayed as a pro-play staple for long. It was not until major changes came to the top lane that he stopped being a must-pick. What removed Aatrox from pro-play was not his nerfs, but changes to the top-lane ecosystem. As buffs to items like Blade of the Ruined king, Doran’s shield and buffs to individual bruiser and juggernaut champions happened, the amount of potential value you could get from putting priority on a top lane champion started to outweigh the guaranteed value a safe pick like Aatrox could afford you. It is no coincidence that as ranged champions fell out of favour in top lane, so too did Aatrox. Aatrox still stayed as a niche pick, to be used against certain matchups to neutralize them. Because while he was no longer an automatic choice anytime he was available to guarantee value, his ability to bully / stonewall other champions and then provide value in mid-game teamfights was still good against champions who scaled poorly and could not get paste Aatrox’s harass, or ranged champions who scaled well, but were highly vulnerable to Aatrox’s bullying and all-in. That is until the most recent conqueror nerfs hit him. The change from 10 to 12 stacks was a slap on the wrist to other conqueror users. But it heavily hit Aatrox. This change took Aatrox from a niche pick in Pro-Play, to being useless in all situations. For Aatrox this change meant that he could not proc Conqueror in an all-in with his first combo. Without weaving Auto-attacks in, Aatrox cannot proc Conqueror before the last Q of his second combo now. This killed the rune for him, but as an AD scaling sustained damage ability-caster, there are no other suitable runes for him. This change kills Aatrox’s mid game value, and with previous nerfs ensuring that his laning phase is now only passable, Aatrox is now a champion with a safe laning phase, who then becomes useless.

Section 3: Attempting to fix it.

To start this section, I would like to give you all a brief reminder of the disclaimer at the start. I am not a professional game designer and I understand that game design especially for a multiplayer game with such a range of player skill is complicated and difficult. I personally find attempting to solve game design issues to be a fun hypothetical and am not insinuating my suggestions are ‘correct’ or would necessarily work in practice. In addition, I do not have access to any testing environment to be able to appropriately test any numbers stated here. As such any numbers are merely estimates, and if you wish to take-away anything from this essay it should be the concepts put forth.

With that said, let us get to it.

Subsection 1: The revive.

Before I get to the actual suggestions, I need to get this out of the way. Aatrox’s revive was one of the coolest mechanics both visually, thematically and in terms of general game-feel ever implemented into League of Legends. With that said, a revive is an incredibly powerful mechanic to have on a champion. While I do believe there is potentially a world where Aatrox is in a healthy state in both solo-queue and competitive play, and he has room for the revive to be added back, we are currently very far from that world. Let it be known that I do not think his revive was problematic after his initial mini-rework in patch 9.9, as its removal did not affect his solo-queue of pro-play dominance in any meaningful way. With that said it would still take up a notable amount of power budget and if implemented poorly could break Aatrox’s balance. To that end I believe it would be foolish for Riot to attempt to reintroduce the mechanic prior to getting Aatrox into a healthy state without it. Even then, it is debatable whether the mechanic is worth the risk to Aatrox’s overall game health. I would much rather have a revive-less, but playable and healthy Aatrox than a gimped toxic Aatrox with a revive. Because of this I will not be discussing giving Aatrox back his revive in this post and instead focus on making his kit healthier with what is currently in it. To this end, other frequently requested mechanics like attack speed scalings on Q, or armour penetration on sweet spots, or % max health healing unrelated to his damage output will also not be considered. I am not trying to make Aatrox into something different in this post, but instead making what he currently is healthier for the game. Another restriction I will add is that there can be no significant mechanical changes, and no changes that would require additional art to be made, as that would be adding a large amount of work where there does not need to be. In section two I identified two key issues that prevent Aatrox from co-existing healthily in top lane. Those being his incredible lane prowess, and his very extreme and pro-centred power curve. I will be discussing steps to adjust these in separate parts, starting with:

Subsection 2: Making Aatrox deniable.

Earlier I named two different axes upon which trading can be measured: trade range and trade frequency. I also discussed how Aatrox can be considered to have weaknesses in neither area, resulting in a toxic laning phase. Here we will discuss a solution to both axes.

Subsection 2 Part 1: Sharpening the Darkin Blade's risk reward curve.

Firstly I’ll try to tackle making Aatrox trade ranges more intuitive. To do this we’ll take his current pattern, where he’s strong at both long, mid and short range, and make the differences between the reward on his Qs more extreme, to give him strengths at certain ranges and weaknesses in others. As Aatrox embraces a juggernaut play pattern to some degree (even if I would primarily categorize him as a diver) I believe the most appropriate range to focus on making strong would be close range. To this end I would change the formula used to calculate the different damage for his Qs to be something closer to this:

Non – Sweet SpotSweet Spot

Note that the total % damage across the three Qs remains the same as it was previously in both cases. Aatrox does not gain any damage here, it is simply distributed differently. Our new algorithm is a 50% base damage increase per Q cast but starting at 75% instead of 100%. Sweet spots still increase total damage by 50%. Whilst this would undoubtedly be a nerf, as Aatrox is not gaining damage, but dealing the majority of his damage now depends on him going into close range and actually engaging with his laner. Nonetheless it is my belief that the increased interaction would open up room to give his Q additional damage (more on that in a later section). With this change Aatrox’s damage distribution between Q’s is now: Q1 20% or 1/5th, Q2 33.3% or 1/3rd and Q3 46.6% or 7/15ths. Meaning that you are missing out on almost half your overall Q damage if you do not cast the third Q. This encourages Aatrox to aggressively cast his 3rd Q in order to gain access to his bonus damage, by reducing the effectiveness of his harass. Now that Aatrox needs to engage in melee range with his opponents to output his damage, his general lane interaction is increased. This also reduces the mobility burden of his opponents. Previously only characters with enough mobility to dodge every Q cast and stick to Aatrox could deal with him, but now more emphasis is placed upon the Q3. This means that characters who may only have enough mobility to ensure they dodge one Q can now focus on avoiding Aatrox’s Q3. Aatrox can of course use his E to also semi-ensure his Q3 hits, giving both champions in the matchup a skill test during trades that is genuinely impactful. It also helps toward the goal of letting Aatrox scale, as his Q1 is less useful during team fights due to its small area, making his Q3 a far more impactful ability in the later stages of the game.

Subsection 2 Part 2: Adding windows of weakness back.

Now that Aatrox has a weaker long-range trade, and a stronger short-range trade, we can look to fix his other issue. While making his long-range poke less threatening is a positive change, if he still has no windows of weakness to exploit, all this would do is add a few more poke trades before Aatrox eventually all-ins. To that end Aatrox’s Q will once again be using the barrage cooldown system. As such its cooldown will need to be adjusted. My guess would be that 14 -> 10 may be appropriate, but this would require playtesting and development tools to truly figure out. The point of such a change would be to discourage Aatrox from ending his combo on Q2, and reward Aatrox for casting his Q3. With his current cooldown paradigm, Aatrox gains more total Q uptime from abandoning his combo early. By changing back to a barrage system, we ensure that Aatrox leaving his combo unfinished instead penalises him with less Q uptime. This ensures that if Aatrox attempts to trade with only his long-range Qs, he has a sizeable time penalty in which his opponents can exploit his inability to cast Q and force a positive trade. Once Aatrox casts Q1 and Q2 if he lets his Q3 recast window expire he will have to wait out the rest of the cooldown, then cast Q1 and Q2 again before he has access to his Q3 again to help him in a melee trade. This means that enemies will have a solid five or six second window to breathe and potentially all-in between harass. This also means that in mid – late game team fights, Aatrox has less cooldown between full Q rotations, allowing him to better function as a team fight drain tank, as his Q3 no longer resets his cooldown.

Subsection 3: Making Aatrox beatable.

Now that Aatrox’s laning phase has been made more palatable, I will take a stab at making his overall power curve less harsh. I alluded to this earlier, but the primary reason for why his curve is this way is his damage capping early into the game. My solution to this has already been found and implemented on many similar champions, and it is to give Aatrox’s Q additional per level Base damage (and possibly AD scaling but this would require extensive testing before being dedicated to) scaling. This ensures that Aatrox’s main damage tool stays relevant all game, instead of awkwardly spiking mid game and then entirely falling off. It still maintains a mid-game spike as that is when Aatrox claims all the damage from ranks in his Q but relegating some of this damage to be based on level smooths this spike out. I would estimate something like 4 -> 55 (starting at 4 and increasing by 3 each level) with a potential additional 0.5 -> 9% scaling (0.5 per level). These numbers may seem small, but Aatrox’s Q damage value goes through many multipliers (shown by the earlier table) so this ends up being a large increase in damage especially later into the game. One thing this might result in is a necessary nerf to the amount of healing his ultimate generates. This multiplier is deceptively large and often results in Aatrox healing for more than 100% of the damage he deals and is a large part of why his midgame when he has decent damage is so strong. In my experience his healing is the one element of his kit that still holds up in the late game, and so if we are giving him threatening late game damage it is only appropriate to soften the multiplier on his healing from it. Perhaps 50 -> 55 -> 60% would be enough but this would require playtesting to truly know. As a final aside, it’s also likely a good idea to either allow both parts of his W to proc Conqueror, make his sweet spots count for two procs, or some combination of the two to allow him to successfully make use of the rune again. Conqueror as a rune suits his playstyle and the goals of the champion design perfectly, and is the healthiest rune for a healthy Aatrox to take (Electrocute tends to enforce an assassin playstyle that Aatrox’s kit isn’t designed to support, and Grasp takes focus away from the skill expressive parts of his kit and makes his laning phase less interactive as a result) and so encouraging him to dedicate to it is likely a good idea.

Section 4: Conclusion.

To conclude, Aatrox has had a troubled recent history. With the results of some of the nuances of the particular way his kit’s numbers interact leading to very degenerate playstyles that make him a far too reliable and dominant pick in pro-play, where reliability is highly valued, which forced a slew of nerfs that pushed him out of viability for the average player.I believe that by adjusting his strengths and weaknesses both as a laner and in general across the duration of a game to be more and less extreme respectively, Aatrox can be pushed to be far easier to balance, and would result in a more fun, interactive and thematic experience for both those who play him and those who play against him, whilst retaining a niche as an AOE team fight drain-tank.

Small Aside:

As I’m finishing up this post, it’s come to my attention that Riot plan to buff Aatrox in patch 10.17 by changing his ultimate’s AD bonus from 20 -> 30 to 20 -> 40. While I believe that the general direction of this buff, attempting to give Aatrox more late game power, is solid, I do not think it addresses any of the core problems with Aatrox’s state. I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but I think it is most likely that these changes will have little impact on Aatrox’s late game power.

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© Post "A long discussion of Aatrox’s troubled relationship with balance over the years, and some suggestions on ways to ease it" for game League of Legends.

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