The Summoner's Guidebook: Why last-hitting is important

Patrick Mackey
P. Mackey|06.15.12

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The Summoner's Guidebook: Why last-hitting is important
The Summoner's Guidebook Why lasthitting is important
We've covered last-hitting quite a bit in previous editions of the Summoner's Guidebook. However, a lot of people new to the MOBA scene don't understand the importance of last-hitting. I don't mean that they don't understand the importance of the action within the game; I'm sure we all understand that getting gold is a good thing. But last-hitting is important from a design perspective too. I think League of Legends (and MOBA games in general) are better because last-hitting is a part of the game.

I didn't always feel this way, of course. When I was a MOBA nooblet, I thought last-hitting was an unnecessary PvE element in a competitive PvP game, and it took away from the game's clear objective: taking enemy turrets. When I really sank my teeth into LoL, last-hitting finally clicked. It's a really critical element of the genre, and this week, I'll explain why.

Better game vs. "more fun"

Value judgments are important if we want to enjoy ourselves while we play games. "I like this mechanic" and "I think this part of the game is fun" are really important questions for designers to ask themselves. However, these kinds of things are subjective. Some people like different things, so we need to separate what we like from what is good for a game.

Last-hitting is annoying when you're first learning it; it feels hard and stupid. You feel bad when you screw it up and feel even worse when you get punished by the enemy for doing it well. It feels terrible when your lanemate screws with your last-hitting by pushing the lane. It's a fun mechanic for some people, especially once you hit your stride and it's second-nature. The gold pop-ups that you see and hear reinforce that you're doing a good job. Other people don't find it fun and never will. If you're still interested in the MOBA genre despite this, I recommend playing Dominion rather than the Classic gametype. This isn't an argument about whether or not the laning phase is good or not; that's a value judgment. If you don't enjoy that element of the game, though, there is a mode that doesn't have it.

The Summoner's Guidebook Why lasthitting is important
Laning phase goals and the requirements to meet them

The Classic gametype has a goal that's not explicitly spelled out in any tutorial to date: The goal in the laning phase is to get more gold and experience than your opponents. Attacking turrets in the laning phase is nice if you can get away with it, but there are a lot of things that can go wrong there. Eventually, one lane is "won" enough that the enemy turret does go down. This generally signifies the end of the laning phase and begins the midgame. If turrets stay up, the laning phase can continue indefinitely, especially if no team has a decisive advantage. However, one team does eventually get the advantage and pushes into the midgame, where the losing team has a shot at turning the game around. Often games end there, but a close match can go into the endgame where team composition, skill, and control over neutral buffs are more important than gold.

League of Legends, and really the MOBA genre in general, is built around this basic premise: You start fairly weak and power up to become strong enough to take the enemy down. At the same time, your opponents are also trying to power up, and denying them the ability to do so makes you comparatively stronger, as long as you're not hurting yourself in the process.

The goal of the laning phase -- getting stronger -- is directly related to last-hitting. Gold makes you items, and items make you stronger. The team that can get more gold gains the lead! However, all of the interesting interactions in the laning phase come from the interplay between heroes. Mechanics that encourage players to interact with each other (by harassing, ganking, getting aggressive in lane, etc.) are positive. No one wants to see two teams sitting back doing nothing in the laning phase.

Last-hitting encourages interaction between players by forcing them to perform an activity that puts characters at risk. While last-hitting from a distance is a relatively safe act, simply being required to step forward and shoot an autoattack to get a finishing blow forces you into an action that your opponent can punish. This creates drama and interplay in the lanes.

Newer MOBA games that remove last-hitting discourage this drama. When gold is simply something you get when minions die near you, the incentive to step in and push or harass is simply lessened. You are given a lot more flexibility in positioning if you simply have to be "near" an enemy when he dies. The enemy cannot cut you off or predict what you want to do; this decreases his incentive to be aggressive, especially if you're playing passively. It's risky for him to engage you when he has no reason to. He'd be better off just being passive too and getting gold as your minions die to his minions.

Last-hitting forces action, and forcing that action gives characters an opportunity to be aggressive. If you're forced away from getting last-hits because of enemy aggression, your foes are taking the lead while you're stuck licking your wounds. You might need some assistance from your jungler or one of your other allies to get back into the fight, which is yet another form of interplay that last-hitting allows. If there were no last-hitting, being very aggressive would be almost impossible, as pushing past the wave to force you back inevitably exposes the enemy to your minions, drawing their aggro on him and giving you an advantage. It's hard to force people out of experience range in LoL, but it's very easy to deny last-hits.

Also consider the actual genre term "denying," which is actually a WarCraft III term that got absorbed into DotA. Denying is the act of killing your own units in order to deny the enemy the rewards for killing it. This is impossible to do in League of Legends. Denying is very unintuitive, even more so than last-hitting. It didn't occur to War3 players overnight to start killing their own units, and it's a difficult mechanic for a novice to discover on her own. I think it's a decent mechanic (it adds a bit of depth), but the increase in learning curve in an already difficult genre is probably not OK. Overall, I agree with the removal of the denying mechanic in LoL for this reason.

The Summoner's Guidebook Why lasthitting is important
Difficult things are sometimes good, sometimes not

I'm on the fence about hard things in games. There are a lot of ways to demonstrate skill in games, either with good strategic thinking, good decision-making, or quick reflexes. Adding mechanical skills without reason to a game is generally bad design. However, there's another view on mechanical skills. Hard skills tax the player's mental resources, which then make exercising the other skills in the game more challenging. Last-hitting is a mechanical skill, and therefore it has some good and bad things about it.

Last-hitting is probably the worst kind of hard skill. Competitive game designer David Sirlin once said that if you added juggling as a mechanic to chess, it'd make chess a worse game. Last-hitting is essentially doing just that. The strategic positioning and harassment game gets tangled up when you also have to juggle minion health bars.

However, as I mentioned above, the laning phase is kind of boring without it. There's nothing to do if there's no incentive to engage the enemy, so there needs to be something encouraging us to harass them. Forcing the enemy out of lane is a good incentive, but it's hard to do that if your enemy is playing very defensively. Because last-hitting forces the enemy to take risks, it's a little better than simply juggling inbetween chess turns. Juggling implies that the activity adds nothing other than difficulty, but last-hitting forces actual in-game actions to occur that can be countered, making it a more worthwhile activity to include.

Aside from that, there is some value in testing the brain's ability to multitask. Juggling may be a difficult skill for the average chess player, but for a practiced juggler, it requires little effort, and she can think about her next move in the chess game without being at risk of dropping whatever objects she's juggling. Last-hitting is the same way. Practicing last-hitting lets you multitask last-hitting and harassment or other forms of defensive positioning. It encourages you to use just the right amount of counter-push to halt a minion wave while avoiding enemy attacks. If you're better at this skill than your enemy, it should be an advantage, and it is. Removing last-hitting takes skill out of the game, in a very literal sense.

Above all, last-hitting is an important mechanic, and if you agree with the idea of having a laning phase at all, it should be included in any MOBA game. Removing last-hitting makes the laning phase very mundane and one-dimensional, and it literally takes some of the skill out of the game. If you don't find last-hitting fun or rewarding, that's a value judgment and that's fine too; there is a League of Legends gametype just for you. If you enjoy the Classic gametype, there's a big reason to practice last-hitting: It's the critical skill that lets you enter the midgame with the advantages you need to win.

We understand what it's like to climb the skill ladder in League of Legends. The Summoner's Guidebook teaches you the tools you need to get a competitive edge. Whether you're climbing the ranked ladder, playing Draft Dominion, or getting crushed by intermediate bots, every enemy has a weakness. And every Thursday, Patrick Mackey shows how you can improve improve on yours.
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