Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
Rakan and Xayah have brought a new level of synergy to the League: their abilities explicitly reference each other by name for an additional effect. This has never happened to the same degree, and it raises a lot of questions about balance. But before those, we have to address some definitions: what exactly is synergy? How can we categorize it? What makes Rakan/Xayah’s synergy different from any other pair, and how can this distinction help us understand League’s design?
Kit Synergy Versus Explicit Synergy
In this essay, I want to focus on teammate synergy, not enemy synergy, which would include topics such as hard counters or specific matchups. Rengar and Kha’Zix have a unique interaction through their hunting minigame, but I won’t be covering that. Instead, I will be primarily looking at botlane pairings with an ADC and support (or whatever substitutes for an ADC, like Mordekaiser).
The two Vastayan lovers are completely different champions, but each of them has a basic ability that becomes enhanced when cast with the other. Rakan’s ally-targeted dash almost doubles in range when he uses it on Xayah, and Xayah’s basic attack buff also applies to Rakan if he is nearby when she uses it. Additionally, they both have Lover’s Leap which enables them to synchronize their recalls if one of them starts before the other.
My gut reaction is to be suspicious. Not only does explicit synergy open a can of worms for balance, it also feels like a cheap workaround. It’s like hardcoding, but for design instead of programming. If two champions are meant to work well together, they should do so through the way that their kits work, not because they get a special external bonus from each other.
On a more philosophical level, it undermines the player’s ability to creatively mix and match. Instead of experimenting with different configurations and crafting new strategies, they can just use the combination that the game tells them to use.
But kit synergy and explicit synergy do not exist in a vacuum. If kit synergy is defined as “two champions that work well together,” that’s just too broad to provide any meaningful contribution to the discussion. If explicit synergy is defined as “identifying a specific champion by name,” then what about the synergy between Malphite and Yasuo? If Malphite’s ultimate were to stun enemies instead of knocking them airborne, this synergy would be completely lost, and yet Malphite’s play style would remain relatively unchanged (although slightly nerfed).
What is the keyword “airborne”? Does any champion with a knockup instantly share explicit synergy with Yasuo? Or is it a unique enough mechanic that it stands on its own? How about the Cassiopeia synergy with poison coming from Teemo, Singed, or Twitch?
Card games like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering struggle with this all the time. A new expansion introduces a special keyword which doesn’t interact with any cards outside of the set. Then, the next expansion has another keyword which counters the previous one. Formats are an attempt to solve the problem externally, but one wonders if the confusion couldn’t have been solved from the start with more clever design.
But at the same time, we don’t want to just abolish keywords and explicit synergies, because they can add a lot to the game. Even if they’re hard to balance, they can add flavor or contribute to a specific fantasy. And synergy can easily become a slippery slope if we don’t establish a clear taxonomy. Do we draw the line at keywords? What about CC-chain teams like Amumu/Bard?
Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics
In order to clearly define the spectrum of kit synergy and explicit synergy, I want to draw upon the mechanics-dynamics-aesthetics model (MDA). Mechanics are the rules of the game, the actions the player takes and the corresponding result. Dynamics are the decisions made during run-time, combining the mechanics in ways that would not happen in isolation. Aesthetics are the emotional responses, which I will discard for now since they are not needed in this case.
My basic proposal is that pure explicit synergy operates through mechanics. Pure kit synergy operates through dynamics. The spectrum in between describes situations where one champion’s mechanics synergizes with the other one’s dynamics.
Rakan’s mechanic synergizes with Xayah’s mechanic, because it’s written in the most basic actions that they can take. If I cast this spell on Xayah, it does something different than if I were to cast it on anyone else. These are their mechanics and they will remain that way no matter how the player approaches their dynamics.
Sivir’s dynamic synergizes with Karma’s dynamic. Nothing about either of them seems as though it would be particularly beneficial to the other if you looked at their abilities on paper. But in game, they both want to have lots of movement speed, which enables Sivir to maintain her assault and lets Karma apply CC. Likewise, they both have ways of boosting the movement speed of not only themselves, but others. For this reason, they were the dominant botlane duo during the 2016 NALCS summer split (before lethality ADCs became meta).
Admittedly, this is a weak example because the Sivir/Karma pair is not meta anymore. A more modern example would be Lucian and Thresh, who also share a good amount of dynamics synergy. They both thrive in close-mid range brawls, even though their mechanics do not synergize to a stronger degree than they would with any other pair. Someone like Caitlyn can follow up Thresh’s CC with traps. In this way, Thresh can be said to have dynamics synergy with Lucian, and mechanics synergy with Caitlyn. All of these pairings have synergy, but they are different styles of synergy.
Kalista’s mechanic synergizes with Alistar’s dynamic: she can send him into the enemy team, he wants to be in the enemy team. Kog’Maw’s dynamic synergizes with Lulu’s mechanic: he doesn’t like enemies in his face, she can punish enemies who get too close. Jhin’s dynamic synergizes with Zyra’s mechanic: he wants his enemies to stand still, she can make them stand still. All of these relationships can shift with the flow of the laning phase (sometimes Jhin is the one who roots so that Zyra can deal her damage) to make the interplay between mechanics and dynamics all the more interesting.
What about anti-synergy? Ezreal’s dynamic is to stay back, poke, and have a nice safe laning phase until his mid game power spike. Leona’s dynamic is to go aggressive and fight early. They don’t synergize very well, neither with their mechanics nor their dynamics. Certainly, it can still work if played right, and it can be a decision to take a weak early game in exchange for a late game benefit. But purely speaking in terms of laning synergy, Ezreal and Leona don’t go particularly well together.
In this context, a dynamic is when a champion says, “I want to be in this situation.” A mechanic is when they say, “I can make this situation happen.” By talking about synergy in terms of mechanics and dynamics, we can clarify what we mean in specific cases. So what can this insight provide in the specific case of Rakan and Xayah?
Rakan and Xayah have stronger mechanical synergy than any other pair in the game. However, they also have one of the weakest pairs of dynamics synergy. He wants to be mobile and aggressive whereas she wants to be passive and reactive. If it were not for the special cases built directly into their abilities, they would have very little reason to ever be together.
It can be argued that they have dynamics synergy through their alley-oop rhythm (he sets up the play, she delivers the killing blow). But this still works against their mechanics. If Xayah wants someone to be a distraction so that she can spread her feathers, Zyra or Soraka can do the same job while also matching her playstyle. The same thing goes for Rakan and a more mobile ADC such as Lucian. Even though they won’t have explicit mechanical synergy with a different partner, they will have greater dynamics synergy, which might be valuable enough to make up for the loss.
Rather than thinking of synergy as a single axis from good to bad, we can plot out synergy on two axes: mechanics and dynamics. Some bot lane duos have a lot of both. Others specialize heavily in one direction or the other. Rakan and Xayah represent one of the most extreme cases by having the highest mechanical synergy while also arguably the lowest dynamics synergy.