Three Magic Design Lessons from League of Legends

After over a year of resisting, I finally broke down and started playing League of Legends.

Almost all of my Magic friends play LoL. Judging by all the MTG-related usernames I’ve seen on LoL servers, the fan-made League of Legends Magic set, and the people I’ve seen streaming videos of both Cube Drafts and solo queues, the two games share quite a few players.

At a glance, it's difficult to see much reason for this overlap—they're from completely unrelated genres in largely separate mediums. So, what do they have in common to attract so many of the same people?

Today, I'll put on my game designer hat and talk about what we can learn from the similarities between two very different games.

Lesson 1 — Customization Builds Communities

Sidebar Rant: Terminology
Communication is important for both designers and players. It's important to have resonant and distinct terminology so that people can both remember and understand terminology, which is why it annoys me to no end that LoL's primary statistics are ability power and attack damage. The single most important distinction in game involves two blandly multisyllabic terms that are consistently abbreviated to the verbally indistinguishable AD and AP.This may seem like a nitpick, but it really does hinder discussion with newer players. Even worse, the two statistics are often categorized as “attack” and “magic” despite the fact that there are attacks that deal physical damage based on AP and magic damage based on AD. So an enemy champion can be building AP “magic damage,” but the specific details of the character's abilities mean that you're supposed to be using “armor” to defend rather than “magic resist.” It's an unintuitive nightmare.

Magic’s biggest asset is its potential for customization and personalization. People love designing and building decks. From the Commander player trying to create a unique and outlandish hundred-card mess to the Pro Tour Qualifier grinder tweaking two slots in his sideboard, the potential for customization allows us to innovate both creatively and strategically.

While League of Legends does not offer nearly the same level of customization as Magic, it includes far more than other games of its genre. You pick a character, select a collection of runes with which to outfit it, assign points into masteries, and choose summoner spells from a list before the game even begins. After that, you still have the ability to adapt your build over the course of the game with ability and item selection. While the in-game adaptation is a key component of the genre, the pregame customization is a major innovation that sets LoL apart from its competitors.

But where customization really shines is in creating community discussion. Magic players occasionally talk about gameplay, but they will spend hours arguing over the theoretical merits of a single card. Deck-building theory is argued from kitchen tables to the Pro Tour to hundred-page threads in Internet forums.

Similarly, LoL's potential for customization allows for a much greater amount of discussion than other games in the genre. Go to a major site, and you'll find dozens of build guides for each of the more than ninety characters, with in-depth discussions of runes, masteries, spell lists, ability orders, and possible item builds.

The ability to personalize our decks and characters makes us more invested in the game and more likely to discuss the game with friends and argue about it on the Internet.

Lesson 2 – Use Power to Reward Fun

Sinkhole
One of the first things I did when I started seriously considering League of Legends from a design perspective was to watch through their list of patch preview videos. It was fascinating to learn about the goals and considerations behind each gameplay change.

At every turn, they seek to make the fun option the right option. They try to reward interactive gameplay, they nerf tactics that are frustrating to play against, and they empower as diverse a range of strategies as possible.

I was strongly reminded of the ways that Magic has changed over the last ten years. Creatures, the most interactive and popular type, have been powered up to be the primary focus of the game. Frustrating and oppressive strategies such as land destruction and counterspells have been substantially depowered. Mana fixing has improved to allow a greater diversity of decks.

There will always be a subset of players who gravitate to certain play styles regardless of power level, and it's important to have options for them. But there are also players who will use whatever tactics are the most powerful and effective, and you should push them toward the strategies that lead to the best gameplay.

Lesson 3 – Monetization is Important

Icatian Moneychanger
Many game designers and players see monetization as a necessary evil: You have to make a profit to keep your doors open, but anything beyond that is corporate greed defiling the purity of the game.

But the effective use of monetization can add cool experiences to the game. Think about how satisfying it was when you finally acquired that hard-to-find foil. Look at the middle-school kids who spend their weekly allowance on booster packs for the satisfaction of cracking them open. Few will admit it, but the materialist high of acquiring new cards is part of what makes Magic fun.

Both LoL and Magic use collections to evoke an RPG-like sense of advancement and progress. You feel a sense of accomplishment when you “level up” by acquiring a new deck or champion. Spending money becomes a part of the game rather than just a prerequisite.

League of Legends has turned this into a way to make a game both completely free and immensely profitable. You can play as much as you want, using whatever champions are free that week, and slowly earning credit to buy more. But a bit of money can buy you whatever champions you want or custom skins to customize your character. As the Magic players with all-foil decks demonstrate, some people will put a lot of money into cosmetic customization when they’re invested in a game. Meanwhile, their more thrifty friends can still play the game, become involved in the community, and effectively advertise for you without spending a cent.

Wrapping Up

I hope you've enjoyed my attempt at something a little bit different this week. Let me know what you think, and say “hi” if you see me on Summoner's Rift!