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The Summoner's Guidebook: Is League of Legends' grind too much for a competitive game?

Patrick Mackey

League of Legends has had one of the most meteoric ascensions of any current e-sport. From the first tournaments of season one to tomorrow's MLG Summer Arena, LoL has made a bigger splash in the e-sports community than any title launched since StarCraft II.

However, the long grind to get to summoner level 30 poses a difficult barrier of entry for players looking to someday join the pros. It isn't necessary to grind levels to unlock +3 infantry weapons in StarCraft, so gating runes and masteries behind a grind seems a bit ridiculous.

I've thought that the forced grind was excessive since I started playing LoL. I'm not opposed to having a grind at all, but I've always thought it was silly that levels and runes can't be purchased with real money. Are levels and grinds bad for a competitive game like League of Legends, or does the grind actually improve the quality of player skill at the higher levels?

Complex games need learning curves

League of Legends is a hard game to play. I nag at my poorly skilled friends a lot for being bad, but the truth is that there are so many skills needed to play the game at a base level of competency that it takes months before we start having less-than-awful games. Even expert gamers who come from the pro scenes of other games tend to have a rough time with LoL. If expert players have difficulty with League, what chance does an average gamer have of being decent before level 30?

I occasionally smurf games with my level 10 girlfriend, and my level 4 smurf with no runes absolutely destroys other players at her level. In fact, the only time I ever have trouble is against other smurfs, and most of the time they're not a problem either since the motivation for most smurfs is usually to bottom-feed on bad players. The people I smurf against are usually so bad that they make bots look like strategic geniuses. If the average level 10 player (who has been around for at least a couple of weeks) is that poorly skilled, it makes total sense to separate them from the pool of competitive players until they've "leveled up."

The time taken from level 1 to level 30 is significant enough that players have a lot of time to learn the basics. The game's matchmaking system also has some time to understand where the player can fall, and the result should be more polished high-level games. It's frustrating to play in a game where your teammates don't even know what their keyboard hotkeys do, but it's fairly common. When I was a young noob, I played in a game with a Miss Fortune who would stop for several seconds every time she used a skill. Her player was obviously using the mouse to click her skills, then clicking the game area to use them. I felt like a gaming god compared to that player.

If you're pre-30, I wouldn't worry too much about not playing the "real game" because the "real game" of LoL is mostly a skill issue, and virtually no one is playing that game prior to level 25.

The Summoner's Guidebook Is League of Legends' grind too much for a competitive game
Runes and masteries and their real impact

One of my friends said it succinctly: Runes and masteries don't contribute enough to a game to make a huge impact. What they do is allow you to get away with a few things you wouldn't otherwise be able to do. Crit chance marks let you win a lane with a lucky poke. Flat attack damage marks give you a bit of last-hitting insurance. Armor seals make you more resistant to physical damage harassment, and mana regen seals let you squeeze in an extra spell or two per minute.

This little impact won't win you games. Even big masteries like the 10% armor/magic penetration masteries don't provide a huge impact by themselves; they just let you squeeze out a little bit more damage in situations where the enemy has a lot of resistance to your damage type. If you actually want to get through a lot of armor, you need to spend the gold on a Last Whisper.

I'm not saying that runes or masteries don't matter, but a misspent rune or mastery page is rarely a huge problem except to a jungler, and some junglers can clear well even without runes or masteries.

League doesn't teach enough

There's a reason the Summoner's Guidebook focuses on low-level skills. League of Legends is a really bad teacher if you consider how hard the game is. Things like lane roles, jungling, positioning, warding, and last-hitting are so poorly taught by the game that the only way to actually learn these things without a guide is to watch lots of players who are better than you. You can do this more easily now thanks to spectator mode, but for a beginner, there's simply too much to learn even if you're watching only one role.

Although forcing players into a level-up grind does help teach basic familiarity (which is very important), there's a lot more to the game than understanding what QWERDF keys do and that killing champions and towers is a good thing. Unfortunately, most players at level 30 seem unable to understand anything more than this.

In my opinion, basic familiarity with the game comes sometime before level 20 for most players, and the grind from 20 to 30 is excessive. If League of Legends spent more time actively trying to teach players (particularly those between level 20 and 30) basic game fundamentals, Riot could smooth out the level curve a lot and make it easier to get to level 30.

Also, League of Legends makes no concessions for DotA players (or other MOBA players) who make the switch to LoL. While I didn't really start learning the game until I was level 30, DotA players already know the majority of the game mechanics and really don't need to sit through a forced grind. These players will destroy virtually every player they battle until they are at least level 20. Why can't these people pay to skip the grind?

The Summoner's Guidebook Is League of Legends' grind too much for a competitive game
Unlocking champions is OK; runes are not

I think the worst part about the grind is immediately after level 20. At level 20, you unlock Tier 3 runes, which means the real game is starting, and people who haven't bought runes at all are starting to buy them. If you're a free player or you save whatever RP you do spend on skins, runes are a huge IP tax. I had an empty quintessence slot until last Christmas (I bought holiday magic pen quints) and didn't have any AD-related runes until a few months ago when I started picking up carries.

If you like getting new champions (and who doesn't?), runes are painful to buy. I had a hard time justifying my movespeed quints to myself; I put off buying a top-tier jungler for a long time just to buy them, and I still don't have Graves (I carry as Sivir or Vayne) purely because I needed to spend IP to fill out the rest of my rune pages.

Worse yet, if you unlock a champion who needs a specific rune page, you're stuck spending even more IP on runes. My first real assassin was Akali. I gave up playing her because it costs so much IP to get the runes needed to play her. I've picked up those runes since then, but it's annoying and frustrating to unlock a champion only to find you need another 5000+ IP to play that character.

The worst thing about all this is that it is not skippable. You can buy IP boosts in the store (and a lot of hardcore people do), but those don't take away from the need to play the game to get runes you need. You can spend real cash on champions, but you can't on runes? That makes no sense at all.

The black market

Third-party sales of game data are always detrimental to a game, and the easiest way for a company to stymie third-party sales is to sell what people would buy elsewhere. I asked around on some less-reputable forums regarding the forced grind and found there is a large market for level 30 accounts. What a surprise!

I'm not sure how big this market is, but I can be sure that the fact it exists means that Riot could be making a lot more money if it sold max-level account access.

League is one of the biggest tournament e-sports ever, easily dwarfing StarCraft II in playerbase (though possibly not in fanbase), but it boggles my mind how a game with such a ridiculous forced grind can be such a big tournament game. It discourages scouting and keeps potential talent out of the top players because top players won't even see talented amateurs until they're level 30. It also hurts possible change-overs; a Heroes of Newerth veteran who is offered a contract by a pro team has to play the game for months just to practice with his teammates.

Despite all this, League holds up well as a competitive game. I still spectate high-level games regularly and often watch tournaments, but I believe the success of numerous tournaments is in spite of League's poor business model, not because of it. What do you guys think?

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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