Hardest champions to balance in League of Legends

by Zoran
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To balance League of Legends champions is one of the hardest jobs for Riot Games patch after patch. With the number of champions continuously increasing, it definitely won’t get easier in the future. However, no matter the effort, some champions will always be seen as overpowered or broken.

A big reason for that is subjectivity. If you ask two different people about the state of a certain champion, you might get two opposite answers. The difference in skill and tier as well as roles people main add even more to the subjectivity.
For example, a silver Riven main will tell you that Volibear is absolutely broken, and a Diamond Volibear main will tell you that it sucks and needs a rework. It is all about perspective. However, stats like win rates and ban rates in soloq and competitive play are quite a good indicator to determine which champion is objectively better than others at a certain moment. And, of course, the eye test never fails.

The champions that are hardest to balance are those whose kits are so good and overloaded that simple “numbers nerf” can do two things. If the nerf is small, it probably won’t do too much, and if the nerf is huge, it can bury the champion into the ground. Middle ground is very hard to achieve. That’s why these champions are on this list.
Another key aspect is trying to keep a champion in a good spot for both soloq and pro play. This is very challenging with high skill champions, and it can be hard to keep both worlds satisfied.

Disclaimer

Before we start with the list, let’s clear some things up. Firstly, I didn’t include any champions that were released in 2019. Even though there are potential candidates among them, Sylas, Yummi, Qiyana, and Senna won’t be on the list due to the sample size being too small and should be given more time to balance.
Also, at some points in LoL’s 10-year history, some champions have been considered broken but haven’t been consistently problematic. (Jax and TF in beta, Darius and Mordekaiser on Juggernaut rework, etc…)
Furthermore, there have been times where champions were overpowered because of a certain item, like LeBlanc, Veigar, and Ahri with Deathfire Grasp, Black Cleaver abusers, etc. Those champions won’t be included as well. 
The champions on this list have been a consistent problem and gave the most headache to Riot’s balance team throughout the years.

Honorable Mentions

There are many champions in League of Legends that had balance problems throughout the past ten years. However, not all of them can make the list of the biggest balance nightmares. As I already mentioned, balance in League of legends can be very subjective, and perhaps it wouldn’t be a mistake to include other champions to the list.
Those who jump to mind are Tryndamere, Yasuo, Mordekaiser, Rakan, Xayah, Aatrox, Ekko, and Galio.
If this was a tier list, let’s say these champions would be S or A+ tier. Out of the mentioned ones, Ekko, Aatrox, and Galio are the closest to making the list but weren’t as problematic in my eyes.
Now let’s continue to the S+ tier of the hardest champions to balance in League of Legends.

Kalista

Kalista splash art

Kalista was released as a part of the preseason 5 patch back in late 2014. She was instantly very interesting because of the jumping technique on her passive. However, it took some time for players to get comfortable with her and figure out the right build. Even Riot’s Champion spotlight had the wrong idea, as they recommended building the regular ADC crit build with Infinity Edge. When people figured out Kalista’s optimal build was Blade of the Ruined King into Runaan’s Hurricane into Last Whisper, she became the single most powerful marksman in the game.

Throughout season 5, she dominated the competitive scene. Across all regions, Kalista had a 70.5% presence and a whopping 58.4% win ratio. She had a very few unfavorable matchups, as she essentially only lost lane to pre-reworked Urgot. Kalista was particularly deadly when paired with Thresh, her old favorite support.
Back then, she used to have more distance on her passive when jumping backwards, plus the distance and the speed wasn’t interrupted by attack speed slows. Kalista’s W passive did up to 20% max hp and her auto-attacks did 100% total AD just like any normal champion.

Riot figured she was too strong and released a series of big nerfs throughout season 5 and early season 6.

All those huge nerfs (on top of Runaan’s Hurricane update where it lost 30% attack speed) unquestionably hit Kalista hard. But someway, somehow, she was still very much viable. The change where Kalista loses attack speed without her Oathsworn near her hit her like a truck in soloq. However, she was still good in competitive play due to the synergy players have. Her Ultimate was still powerful, so she received another nerf on 7.18(R cooldown increased). Despite all of that, Kalista was banned every single game during the 2017 World Championship. It was due to Ardent Censer being overpowered, but that’s a story for another day.

After that, she vanished from Summoner’s Rift. She went from the best champion in the game to one of the worst. She was nerfed to the point that she never recovered, to this day. Her soloq win rate is continuously in mid-40-s and Kalista is being completely ignored. Even though Kalista isn’t that old, newer released marksmen and mages in the bot lane just keep her out.

However, coming into season 10, we might see some love for her. She got some buffs over some time and there is hope we see her rise a bit in season 10.

Irelia

Irelia splash art

In the early days of League of Legends, meta was much much different than it is now. Melee champions had a lot of problems in dealing with ranged ones, especially in lane. They didn’t have much sustain or help from runes like we have today. Therefore, in November of 2010, Riot released their solution to the problem: Irelia, a viable melee carry that could keep up with the ranged champions. She had a decent showing in season 1, but it took some time until people mastered the champion and figured out the right build path. People used to build a lot of different stuff until Trinity Force into tank proved to be the best by a mile. 

In season 2, Irelia became a top tier toplaner. That is the time when people mastered the champion. Also, jungle changes sent a lot of tanky champions like Warwick and Maokai to the jungle, and she was one of the best at abusing “Atmogs” (Atma’s Impaler and Warmog’s Armor) as well. She was considered broken for quite some time.

Better nerf Irelia

Better nerf Irelia meme

People who’ve play League of Legends for years definitely remember this meme. Back in 2012/2013, Irelia players kept complaining about how Irelia always gets nerfed, no matter what. Morekaiser is strong? Better nerf Irelia. There are assassins that have silence. Better nerf Irelia.
At the time, champions like Mordekaiser were considered broken, but Irelia who wasn’t as strong got nerfed. The community caught up with it, and the meme was born. However, when we look back at Irelia pre-rework, she wasn’t even getting nerfed as bad as one would think.

Irelia was relevant for years. With true damage and healing on her W, she was very strong on level 9, around the time she gets Tri-Force, her biggest power spike. Irelia would just snowball the mid game more often than not. Top-Jungle 2v2 with early game junglers like Lee Sin made the opponent’s life a living hell if played correctly.

In season 5, the meta in the midlane was long-range hyper scaling champions like Azir, Viktor and even Varus. However, there was a guy in Korea that figured that Irelia could perform very well against them. Of course, it was Faker. He pulled the mid lane Irelia in week 3 of 2015 LCK summer split vs their rivals, the KOO Tigers.

In season 6, Irelia fell in priority in competitive LoL. She was picked occasionally as a counter pick, but that was about it. By the time season 7 came, she was practically dead in both competitive and soloq. New champions did what she does but much better, and it was obvious she was ready for a rework. There was a brief period in 2017 where she rose in popularity when Duskblade of Draktharr got reworked, but that ended the next patch.

The rework in 2018

If Irelia didn’t have enough balance problems until then, now she has plenty more. The original “Nerf Queen” got her crown back. In her style, she got nerfed less than 24 hours after rework has been released, plus the patch after. The new kit Irelia got with her makeover is much stronger than before. This rework made her one of the hardest champions to balance in League’s history.
Soon enough, players figured she is even stronger as a mid laner, meaning her priority rose even more due to her being a flex pick.

A series of nerfs was about to hit Irelia once again. This time, however, they were really hard, and there were many. As late as 9.12, she is still getting nerfs.

This champion had a TFT style disarm on her Ultimate, damage reduction on W, as well as extreme mobility and damage. I think it’s safe to say that’s overpowered. The fact that Irelia is still good after all the nerfs gives us the idea of how incredibly strong she was. Her kit is amazing, and that’s a fact. She will probably continue to be a balance problem in the future, and it will be interesting to see how Riot handles Irelia.

Azir

Azir splash art

During the first couple of patches after Azir’s release on 4.16., he had almost 20 big fixes. That makes him one of the champions with most bugs on release. Although buggy, Azir was very strong right from the start.
His kit is very unique. He had a huge range and safety of his E. Also, he scaled incredibly well and could carry “1v9” in late game teamfights. He was great at sieging with his long-range poke, damage to towers with his W, as well as protecting his team’s back with his passive.
On top of that, Azir’s ultimate can be game-changing. He can use it to kite and protect the backline or dive in and “Shurima shuffle” the entire enemy team. Oh, did I mention that he gained attack speed with cooldown reduction? He was so versatile that it felt unfair to play against him when piloted well. Azir is a high skill champion even to this day, and he takes a lot of time to master.

Throughout season 5, Azir ruled the “control mage” meta alongside Viktor. Until patch 5.14, Azir was indeed broken. He was basically picked or banned in every game. However, when he lost the passive that converts CDR into AS, he fell back a bit in popularity but was still top tier pick.
More nerfs and about a thousand more bugfixes later, Azir just fell on his face when it comes to presence. Nerfs to his ultimate, Fervor of battle hotfix, removing the ability to use W on towers, etc. were just too much for Azir. He went from 57% presence on 6.13 to 5% on 6.14. The champion fell out of priority so hard that he needed a mini rework on patch 7.19 to recover. Azir’s popularity in soloq was between 2% and 3%, and in competitive he was basically dead.

Azir was in a very bad spot for a long time, and something needed to be done. After more bugfixes, patch 7.19 finally showed some love to “the emperor”. Riot said it best themselves in the very first sentence of Azir’s changes explanation: “Azir has been a League balance problem for awhile.” Yes, Riot. He was indeed.
They decided to lower the range on his Q and W by quite a bit as well as lowering the ratio on his Q. In return, Azir got higher base damage and a huge attack speed buff when 3 soldiers are on the map at the same time.
With those changes, Azir lost a lot of his laning power and was made much more vulnerable in the early game. However, they made him scale insanely well with attack speed, especially with Lethal tempo keystone rune.

Those changes were two years ago, and Azir is nowhere near his glory days. As of today, Azir is on an abysmal 1.8% presence and 44.46% win rate in soloq. He isn’t very contested in competitive play, either.
Coming into season 10, Azir is in a bad spot yet again. A champion with such a unique kit is (unironically) suffering from his own success. We don’t know what the future holds for Azir, but it’s pretty clear that he will give a lot of headaches to the Riot balance team.

Kassadin

Kassadin splash art

If some of you guys started playing League of Legends after season 4, you missed out on a very interesting period in the game’s history. What if I told you there was a champion that basically wasn’t allowed to be picked in ranked? He was so strong that he was just banned every single game. From bronze to challenger, in every region. First, let’s get back to the very beginning of the story.
Kassadin was released in 2009, making him one of the oldest champions in League of Legends. Right off the bat, he was overpowered, as his W stole mana from the opponent, TFT style. However, he was tuned down the very next patch, followed by multiple nerfs later on.

Kassadin was designed as a scaling champion that was primarily good into mages. Meta back then was very weird and there were a lot of ADC champions being played mid. Since those matchups were terrible for him, Kassadin wasn’t very contested throughout season 1. Also, the nerfs still stuck to him, and it wasn’t until season 3 that Kassadin got more playing time.
He got some straight-up number buffs. On top of that, Crystalline Flask was added to the game. It is very similar to today’s Corrupting Potion, but it cost less, and you could buy 3 potions on top on level 1. That helped Kassadin to overcome the laning phase, which was by far his biggest weakness.

In the early season 3, on an IEM tournament, Fnatic’s xPeke pulled off arguably the greatest play in the history of the game. That legendary Kassadin backdoor spiked the champion’s popularity across the world, and many more players picked the champion up. Many players became very good with him, and Riot had to do something about it before it completely terrorized the soloq.

The patch that “broke” Kassadin

Patch 3.13. saw changes to Kassadin. Riot intended to adjust him, not nerf him. They wanted to shift his power to different mechanics. Well… they failed very hard.
Riot explained their intent in the patch notes:

Kassadin changes on patch 3.3
patch 3.3

As you see, they took some damage from his Null Sphere, but they buffed the silence early game. However, his ult got one of the biggest buffs ever that a champion of his caliber did not need.

KassaWin

He instantly rose in popularity on all levels. Shortly after, people realized how OP Kassadin really was and started to ban him more often. That trend became so extreme that Kassadin became almost impossible to play. He was banned in 95% of all games across all ranks and all servers. That is a record I highly doubt will ever be broken. Kassadin was so strong that it was considered a free win.
His 1.5-second silence at LVL 1 helped him get out of even the worst matchups. And once he got to level 6, he would be safe enough to farm up to level 11 and 16 where he would just “1v9” with ease. The competitive scene wasn’t any different. Kassadin was permabanned, and no one had a chance to play him.
Riot finally realized they need to fix the biggest mistake they ever made. And patches 4.3 and 4.4. delivered the changes. A quote from the 4.3. patch notes described the situation well: “Maybe, someone, somewhere, will get to play him in a ranked game.”

Post-rework Kassadin

In patch 4.4., we pretty much got the champion we have today. There were many more changes to Kassadin in the meantime, but that is, essentially, the champ we have in 9.23. He was supposed to get a visual update together with his rework, but it came almost a year later as the balance changes were so urgent.
He lost his silence, got a magic damage shield, got W completely reworked as well as lost 200 range on his R along with a lot of numbers changes.
That spelled the end of KassaWin. He went from the most overpowered champion in the game to quite a bad one.

Kassadin is a surprisingly balanced champion today. He has clear strengths and weaknesses and can be very useful in certain situations and team comps. He is an anti-mage as he was always intended to be. Maybe his early game is not the best, but he can still snowball out of control as well as kill everyone at level 16.

Akali

Akali splash art

When it comes to Akali, I won’t discuss much about her pre-reworked version. She had her ups and downs regarding soloq. She didn’t have the best early game but scaled quite well. However, if she got ahead, she could make your day a living hell and kill you over and over. Akali is an old champion, though; she was released in 2010, but since her rework in August 2018, she has been a balancing nightmare. 

Regarding competitive play, old Akali was basically nonexistent. According to gol.lol, from season 3 until the end of season 7, Akali was picked just 21 times and banned 10 across all regions. In comparison, she was banned in 2040 games and played 1033 times in just 2 seasons since then. 

Like a lot of old champions, she definitely needed a new look to keep up with the new ones, and let’s just say Riot did it.

New sheriff in town

As soon as the rework hit the live servers, her popularity skyrocketed. She went from a champion on the sidelines to the most contested champion in the game. Her popularity in soloq went from less than 5% to over 80%.

New Akali got an amazing kit. Overtuned, yes, but really great. She got extreme mobility, invisibility, sustain and much more. She could now effectively trade in the lane and once she got her Hextech Gunblade, Akali had the potential to 1v1 anybody. Due to her passive and low cooldown on base spells, Akali had a very good DPS, so she’s great in long fights as well. So not only does she blow up your ADC, she also kills your tank. And what made her completely broken was her Twilight Shroud. On release, her W worked under tower as well.

Even though her popularity went up, Akali’s winrate in soloq dropped well under 50%, and it stayed there ever since. At the time this article is written, Akali has one of the worst win rates out of all champions: 45.85%. However, if we look high elo, Akali is doing very well despite all of the nerfs she got since her release. In Master, GrandMaster and Challenger, Akali has over 51% win rate. In Iron, she is at 37.96%.
The reason for such a large discrepancy is Akali being one of the most skill-dependent champions in League of Legends. She is very hard to master, but once you do, she is a nightmare to play against. A couple of months after the rework’s release, Riot revealed a Mastery Curve chart on Akali. Mastery curve is a representation of how much more effective a player becomes on a champion as they play them more.

Akali champion Mastery Curve

In competitive play, Akali ruled the back end of season 8 and the most of season 9. She got a big nerf just before Worlds 2019, but she still had a 74.2% Pick and Ban ratio. Akali, when put in the right hands, can be an utter terror for the enemy team. She is a very powerful flex pick, and that only adds to her value in competitive play. Since Akali is such a flashy champion with extreme mobility, it is such a pleasure to watch her being played by the best players in the world like Faker, Chovy or Caps.

In about 16 months since her rework, Akali had 44 balance changes and appeared in 12 patches. Evelynn, in comparison, had been reworked 15 months before and appeared in 9 patches but had only 18 balance changes. Not to mention some of Akali’s changes have been heavy nerfs to multiple of her abilities.
After some numbers and cooldowns nerfs, she got her first significant nerf in patch 8.24b. Her W was tuned down a bit, but Akali didn’t even feel the nerf.
Another big nerf came her way in patch 9.3 where she lost the heal on her Q if she had over 180 energy. Also, she was no longer un-targetable to towers while inside her shroud.
By the end of season 9, Akali got hit multiple times more with patches 9.14 and 9.18 being the biggest ones. She lost full stealth on her W and stun on the first part of her ultimate.

Riot is dealing with a huge problem with Akali. They keep nerfing a 45% winrate champion because she is overpowered in high elo and pro play.
Her companion ninja Shen has a line: “Balance in all things”. It doesn’t look like Akali will be balanced any time soon.

Kai’Sa

Kai'Sa splash art

Remember the times when Vladimir and Swain were ordinary bot lane picks in League of Legends? What was the cause of that? The answer is pretty simple. Marksmen were bad.
For years, ADCs felt like being very underpowered. That’s what an ADC main would tell you, at least. For an entire split, Ezreal, Varus and Lucian were the only viable marksmen, because they didn’t use critical strike items.
Kai’Sa was Riot’s answer to the outburst of the ADC community, a brand new champion designed as a high skill and mechanically-challenging hybrid ADC. While that is true, she is doing much better in lower elo than previously mentioned Akali.
Also, Kai’Sa is one of the most contested champions in the game. In the past month, she is the fourth most played champion across all ranks and all servers.
Even though she is a high skill champion, her kit is so overloaded that she does well in low elo too for a champion that is supposed to be hard to pick up.

Despite being a 2018 release, Kai’Sa dominated the competitive scene. The fact that she was the most played champion in both Worlds 2018 and 2019 tells you all you need to know. Alongside Xayah, she dominated the bot lane around the world, and no other marksmen even came close with the exception, maybe, of Ezreal with “Double Tear build”.

Why is Kai’Sa so good?

As I already mentioned, her kit is just way too overloaded. When the team is assessing a team composition, they always look to have mixed damage threats. Most of the time, you want to have physical and magic damage on your team so the opponent has a hard time itemizing against you. This is where Kai’Sa thrives more than any other marksmen and probably more than any other champion in the game. She can itemize both AP or AD and be very effective.
Since her release, there have been times where she was better with Stormrazor rush full AD build where you go for maximum Q and auto-attack damage, and times where Rageblade into full AP was the way to go. With that build, you would have great poke with your W as well as massive damage with your passive.
When people realized that every bolt from Kai’Sa’s Icathian Rain applies Muramana, she became even stronger. She also became even more versatile, as you can adapt your build path on the fly after your Manamune and Rageblade. Whatever you build on her, it is useful.

She has mechanics that no other marksmen have. She is good at everything. Her laning phase is not the best, but it’s far from awful. Kai’Sa can play front to back team fights very well but can dive in with her Killer Instinct and delete your entire backline. And yeah, did I mention she has a stealth mechanic as well?

Kai'Sa meme

Kai’Sa became the new face of League of Legends. Her skins are selling so well that Riot maybe wants to keep her broken just enough so she is popular but not too much that she is banned in every single game. In fact, Kai’Sa was nerfed multiple times, but her kit was pretty much kept intact. Unlike champions like Akali who lost her heal or Azir that lost a lot of his range, Kai’Sa still has all of her mechanics. Some numbers are significantly down compared to her release, for sure, but that is not enough.

So what is Riot’s approach here? Do they just let her wreck everyone and sell skins, or do they seriously think about slowing her down a bit? Maybe they buff other marksmen. All in all, it seems that a few numbers nerfs won’t stop “The Daughter of The Void” anytime soon.

Ryze

Ryze splash art

Ryze is, without a doubt, the hardest champion to balance for Riot. He has been reworked 6 times since Alpha, as he was the part of the original champions on the game release. Some reworks were larger than others, but the point is that Riot just can’t find the right balance for Ryze. 

The core issue with Ryze is that he’s very powerful in competitive play but mediocre for the most soloq players. His winrate in soloq has been notoriously low for almost a decade now, and Riot is trying to bring it up a little without making him completely broken for pro play. 

The following tweet shows a conversation of Riot Jatt with his balance team colleagues about Ryze after his 9.12 rework. 

Notice how they are talking about trying to get Ryze to 47% or 48% win ratio. Not even mentioning 50+ for poor Ryze. His winrate has been so low throughout the years that 47% seems more than acceptable to them.

So why is there such a difference between pro play and soloq? Even though he seems like a very straightforward champion, Ryze relies on team effort to be successful, especially since his Ultimate rework in season 6. He can set up ganks very effectively with his Rune Prison as well relentlessly shove in with his famous EQ combo. With his two scaling items Archangel’s Staff and Rod of Ages fully stacked, he becomes a terror in a side lane. However, playing the side lane correctly also requires team coordination.

Broken > terrible > broken…

Ryze was broken from day one. His ultimate back then, Desperate Power, gave him AoE on his all abilities as well as spell vamp. At that time, his Spell Flux bounced between Ryze and his target, reducing their magic resist. Furthermore, he would build tanky and self sustain himself with his spell vamp and low cooldown abilities, rooting his enemies in the meantime.
Soon enough, he got nerfed to the ground, and Riot decided to rework him. Ryze got increased movement and projectile speed to compensate for his lowered damage. However, the AoE from his R was still too much, so Ryze got nerfed again.
Flash forward to 2015, and we got the first big rework. And this one was a complete failure. This was the famous iteration of Ryze that felt like you were playing URF mode, not the classic League of Legends.
Since his new passive is a bit complicated to explain, this video sums up what it did.

A little over a year later, Riot released yet another rework, since the last one was a disaster. Did they get it right this time? Well… not really. They did solve some big issues by removing his old Ultimate and old E. However, now he has a semi-global teleport for his entire team, and his E empowers the following abilities. E into W combo gives a longer root as well as empowering the Overload’s damage. However, if you used E on an already marked target, the mark would spread to nearby enemies, making Ryze a waveclear monster. Of course, Ryze was broken yet again and nerfed multiple more times. Also, a shield from his passive was seriously OP when managed correctly.

And finally we come to season 9 rework, his last to date. Ryze lost his shield in favor of his Spell Flux spreading immediately on the first cast. Also, to root the enemy, Ryze needs to hit his E first, since his W only slows the target by itself. And yeah, his Q resets his E cooldown, cause why not.
The last rework wasn’t received the best by pro and high elo players since they knew how to utilize his shield very well. However, by the end of the season, Ryze came back to his usual spot in priority and dominated Worlds once again.
Although Ryze got a couple of percentage points on his winrate, he seems a bit of a “braindead” champion now. The double E cast and shield mechanics he had made him a hard champion to play, because it needed to be utilized correctly to be effective.

It has been a long journey for Ryze. Maybe this time Riot really found the balance for him, even though not everyone liked the change. One way or another, Ryze is by far the toughest champion to balance in League of Legends history, and it will take at least 3 to 4 reworks for anyone to surpass him.

Which champion is the hardest to balance in your opinion, and what would you do to fix the problem?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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