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At the end of a long week, game design director Stephen “Mortdog” Mortimer, wearing a black Cloud9 hoodie, loads into the first of many meetings about the next Teamfight Tactics patch, 11.24. As game designers Kent Wu and Brad Dallaire join, the three look over a list of more than a dozen high-level changes. Even though the team has three weeks to finalize the patch, this is just a fraction of what they have to work on in that time.

“Alright,” Mortdog blurts out after a deep breath. “Kent, should we start with easy stuff and get it out of the way?”

Without missing a beat, the team launches into a long series of discussions, knocking items off their list one by one. Despite the sheer amount of ground to cover, the pace is methodical and the tone lighthearted. The team talks about TFT like friends discussing their favorite game, complete with joking on the side. But after half an hour, the team comes to the last, biggest problem on their list.

“None of the Blue Buff users f***ing want Blue Buff,” Mortdog says.

Mortdog explains the problem is there aren’t any champions in Gizmos and Gadgets that can utilize the item optimally. Blue Buff is usually perfect for low-mana users, but the low-mana damage dealers in this set have prioritized damage instead of mana.

Normally low-mana utility users still want the item, but the team simply didn’t design any of those for this set. Wu suggests maybe changing a utility user into a Blue Buff user by lowering their total mana.

“Got any ideas? Because like … hell no,” Mortdog said.

“Yeah,” Wu said. “I don’t want to touch Janna, Orianna, Yuumi.”

“Right, but who’s left?” Mortdog asked. “Maybe this is a lesson for future sets to include a utility Blue Buff user.”

These kinds of issues and the discussions they spawn are part of an endless loop that repeats every two weeks or so for Mortdog, Wu and now Dallaire, who just joined the team before this cycle.

Before his arrival, Mortdog and Wu had been fully responsible for maintaining TFT’s live balance since partway through Set 5. Mortdog had previously tried distancing himself from that role to focus on his many other responsibilities, but after the team made some mistakes, he decided to dive back in.

While the duo managed from that point, Mortdog said Set 6 has required much more work to balance thanks to the inclusion of Hextech Augments on top of champions, traits and items. Another layer of complexity forces them to walk an even tighter line to keep TFT balanced, as one outlier can bring the whole patch crumbling down.

“In TFT, every piece of content is in the game at all times and throws it out of whack at all times,” Mortdog said. “Every piece of content has to be pretty well tuned.”

Katarina’s rise during the 11.23 patch in North America is a good example of this. As more people tried the team composition, the overall pool of champions that cost 2 gold thinned out. This made it easier to re-roll other two-cost champions, like Trundle or Kog’Maw.

Suddenly, the strength of one unit warped the metagame.

Discovering Problems

Academy Katarina, who was nerfed in TFT Patch 11.24
While many players bemoaned Katarina re-roll team comps this patch, the data shows it wasn’t as powerful as people thought. | Provided by Riot Games

The live balance team always has a short window to accomplish everything required to ship a patch. They must identify problems, big and small, explore solutions, test them out, lock them in and figure out how best to explain their decisions to a player base that has diverse opinions on the game’s direction.

That is a lot to do for any sized TFT patch, but Wednesday’s Patch 11.24 is Set 6’s biggest one to date. It will also be the set’s longest-lasting patch, since the holiday season pushes the next one out by two more weeks. And, when compared to the size of last year’s holiday break patch, there are far more changes to unpack. Players will be left with the consequences of the balance team’s attempts to fix TFT’s current problems for some time.

Discovering these problems in the first place, though, is a complicated matter. Mortdog said there are three pillars to identifying problems in TFT: data, designer intent and player perception. All three have equal weight in the conversation and need to be considered. While the decision often comes to personal judgment, the odd number of factors makes it easier to tiebreak when necessary.

For data, the TFT team has access to a wide array of information, which Wu often combs through to confirm the balance team’s suspicions or identify outliers. Riot can slice the data in numerous ways. Wu takes a look at how variables like unit cost, star level, items, augments, traits and more affect round and lobby win rates.

It’s also possible to look at specific unit and item build combinations. However, there are things Wu can’t quite see with the current tools, like how players fare with particular openers.

To compensate for that fact, both Mortdog and Wu said it’s important for them to play TFT often and at a high level. Mortdog played 120 games on Patch 11.23 and reached Master rank, the top 0.5% of all players. Mortdog said he feels he needs to play so much due to the unrealistic expectations he puts on himself.

“I feel like every minute I’m playing the game, I need to understand it better,” Mortdog said. “If my rank is not high enough, then players are not going to listen to me and are going to think that [a TFT pro] somehow knows more about the game.”

That data and experience helps in situations like Katarina’s in Patch 11.23, when players think part of the game is out of line but the balance team isn’t so sure. Wu can check the data to see that while Katarina was strong, Trundle actually won more often. Mortdog can think back to his many games and understand that while Katarina may deserve a nerf, they don’t need to thrash her numbers just to satisfy a handful of players who can’t see the same, big picture.

TFT data graph
A graph that show 3-star Katarina’s round win-rate when compared to other 2-cost, 3-star carries. | Provided by Riot Games

“The data shows her as high, but our intuition says no,” Mortdog said. “But even though we think it’s the long-term wrong call, we probably had to nerf Katarina.”

When in doubt, the balance team can also simply use a piece of software to simulate fights between any sort of board. Designers need only plug in the right units and items and start the round.

Then they can test across the spectrum of optimal to suboptimal items, positioning or the champions’ star levels. Wu simulates specific fights four times, making sure random outliers don’t affect the outcomes.

However, Wu stressed that the point of this process is to check whether compositions meet the team’s expectations and, if not, identifying what stands out.

“This tool isn’t good for gauging the power of a comp because it doesn’t take into account the cost of a comp or how we get into the comp,” Wu said. “The path is not clear. Some comps are harder to hit, and some are easier, but none of that is taken into account.”

Simulations are also the perfect place for the balance team to test possible solutions to the problems they identify. But to do that, the team must first decide on the right approach.

Exploring solutions

Seraphine splash art
Seraphine is a Socialite in TFT Set 6. | Provided by Riot Games

As Mortdog and Wu hack through the huge list of changes for the Patch 11.24 cycle, they often craft clever ideas to solve problems on the spot. At one point, they come to one of the set’s 140+ Hextech Augments, Duet, which does not see play in the current meta. It adds a second spotlight to the board that buffs the champion standing there when the Socialite trait is active.

“What if, as an alternative, we had three socialite hexes instead of two?” Wu asked.

“Well, let’s follow that logic line,” Mortdog said. “What if we had eight? Would that even be good?”

“Well, it would be exciting,” Wu said.

The actual change they landed on was simpler: giving a health bonus on top of the damage to ensure champions can use the special hexes without needing items. This is one way the live balance team dances around the issue of weighing fun against balance. While the game’s most vocal players cry for even consistency, developer wisdom knows what players really want.

“There is a dirty little secret here,” Mortdog said. “If you were to ask players what the most fun they ever had playing TFT is, I would bet 90% of them will name something wildly OP.”

According to Mortdog, it can feel good to be bad. Playing Warwick during the infamous “Warweek” patch gave players a great time until the hangover set in after a couple of days. However, that’s all not to say the team would let things get out of hand just for the sake of fun. The balance team has a measurement they live by.

“If this happened in the TFT finals, would we be OK with it?”

Knowing where to draw that line and what crosses it requires experience, though. Wu said the team has created staple percentages they use to adjust the game’s numbers depending on how broken it is after working through so many changes. But those adjustments wouldn’t be possible without another lesson the team now makes a priority: including balance levers on various aspects of TFT.

Like a lever in real life, these numbers exist in TFT so the balance team can push them forward or pull them back when something isn’t working. As an example, the team recently added a lever to the Gold Collector, one of Ornn’s artifacts that players can potentially obtain with a certain augment. Before, the item read, “The wearer executes enemies below 10% health on-hit. Executions during PvP rounds generate 1 gold.”

Now, even though the item hadn’t reached a problematic state when the balance team made this decision, they changed Gold Collector so it had a 100% chance to generate gold for each execution. This kept it functionally the same, but if the item became too powerful, the team could tweak that chance to get gold and bring it back in line.

The other reason levers are important is because those numbers are the only thing the balance team can adjust right up until a patch goes live. Bigger changes, ones that require rewriting tooltips, must be finalized just days after the team’s first meeting about a given patch. This is to make sure there’s time for Riot Games to localize all the text so players can enjoy it in a variety of languages.

Simply put, levers can be game saving. After all, once “localization lock” had already passed, the balance team were grateful they ended up making that change to the Gold Collector.

“Time to pull the lever on the Collector,” Mortdog said at that later balance meeting. “Thank god we put that lever in there, because holy s*** that item is insane.”

Measuring perceptions

Cho’Gath splash art. | Provided by Riot Games

Even after almost three weeks of work, with the patch notes all but finished, the live balance team can’t catch a break. With another weekend of play under their belts, and an important tournament for the Europe, Middle East and Africa region, Mortdog, Wu and Dallaire must meet one last time to discuss whether they need to make any A-patch changes before 11.24 ships.

After bandying about a couple small tweaks, Mortdog brings up something he had “the displeasure of facing” recently. He begins explaining how one of his Twitch mods had been perfecting an AD Cho’Gath comp, only for acting TFT communications lead Rodger Caudill to point out that someone is playing that exact composition in a tournament at that very second. The team immediately tunes in to watch.

“Oh shit,” Mortdog says with a small gasp. Then Wu weighs in.

“I forced this comp over the weekend like seven times, and I failed almost every single time,” Wu said. “But also, it was so much fun every single time.”

Mortdog points out that, regardless, the team is back to the same problem they faced with the other two Colossus units in the set, Sion and Galio. When itemized properly, these units auto attack for huge numbers and then do another big chunk of damage when casting their spell. It can destroy many team compositions.

“We always talk about balancing around the ceiling. I feel like this is another Clapio situation,” Mortdog says. “We shouldn’t delete it. I’m not saying f***ing cut his AD in half or anything. But oh my god, when this thing is online, it’s insane.”

Colossus units have presented the live balance team with some problems during Set 6. | Provided by Riot Games

Just then, a round starts between the Mutant board with 2-star, AD Cho’Gath and a seven Innovator board. Wu says he expects the Cho’Gath player to get destroyed, but he manages to pull off the win against one of the strongest compositions on the current patch (albeit with help from a 2-star Kai’Sa and the Titanic Force augment).

After a bit more discussion, the team decides to leave it alone for now because Cho’Gath has looked terrible in the latest slice of data. Still, they take note of the “big, cautionary flag” this potential build presents.

This sort of unexpected consequence, though, is why the balance team is always somewhat nervous when a patch comes out. Mortdog said it would be arrogant to think they nailed every change, and Wu admitted that the interconnectivity makes it hard to tell what the big picture will end up looking like.

“I feel confident in each individual change, but together I’m kind of iffy,” Wu said. “Where will things shift? What will players optimize from seeing this new thing? What will the perception be and how will that influence what they play?”

Players are already digging into Patch 11.24, testing the changes and searching for the next best team composition. Only time will tell what they’ll find over the long break, but the live balance team will probably already be working on the next slate of changes come Friday.

For Mortdog, all that matters is that he doesn’t bring to life some doomsday scenario where, for example, Orianna dominates the meta and players dub the period “Oriannamus,” ruining Christmas for TFT players around the world. Although it could come back to haunt him like a ghost, Mortdog doesn’t think he is Ebenezer Scrooge.

“I’m confident we did the best we could, and that keeps my conscience clear,” Mortdog says. “As a player, I’m also super excited because I personally like it when things change. It’s a new puzzle to solve.”

— Jason Krell contributed reporting to this story.

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