Nilah is putting a twist on League of Legends’ bot lane. The melee skirmisher is adding diversity to the game’s meta, and is ultimately a big experiment for Riot to test out the limits of the role in the future. Here’s how the Joy Unbound fulfills that dream.
Nilah is League of Legends’ 161st champion. That’s a lot by any calculation, and it’s hard to innovate when you reach a critical mass like that. Riot have found a way though with the Joy Unbound set to revolutionize the bot lane meta.
She is a skirmisher, and the developer’s first melee carry intended to be played down south on Summoner’s Rift since the game’s 2009 release.
Her kit isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary. Her Q, Formless Blade, is her primary waveclear and trading tool. She can dash in and out of combat with her E, Slipstream, and dodge attacks on her way in thanks to her W, Jubilant Veil.
However, she does enable a new style of play through two factors. The first is, obviously, being a melee bot lane carry. Riot described her as being “similar to a Yasuo, Fiora, Irelia type character”. The second is how she enables allies on her team with her passive, Joy Unending, by boosting healing and shields on herself and making her the star of the show.
It’s a far cry from the long-ranged marksmen bot lane mains are used to, and that knowledge gap is going to be a tough one to bridge, developers admit. However, Nilah is the first step in potentially unlocking the full potential of League of Legends and its dozens of champions.
“What we intended to do with the way her kit is designed is to make an experience that is pretty familiar to bot lane AD carry players,” Nilah’s lead designer Blake ‘Squad5’ Smite told press.
“We wanted to have similar goals for her in mind, including the way she fights being more kiting back and auto attacking, not necessarily fighting like a melee champion.
“We had to focus on her trades, making sure she was reliant on her teammates, and at the end of the day we wanted to say ‘even though this is a skirmisher in the bot lane there’s a lot of elements that are going to be familiar to you if you are a bot lane carry player that you should be able to transfer over.’”
Bot lane mains might be the official terminology, but AD carry mains is a more apt description. Innovation in the bot lane space has been hard to come by given mains have gotten comfortable on a certain archetype of picks over more than a decade.
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However, that hasn’t stopped some combos from cropping up. Sona-Lux saw the power of mages in the bot lane, and that’s been continued with the likes of Seraphine bot lane being potent. Ziggs and Syndra were pro play staples in Season 11. Even Yasuo has seen some play down there.
Players have been trying to innovate in the space, and Riot wants to enable that innovation by giving them something that fits the needs and desires a bit more clearly — and perhaps act as a bridge for further experimentation.
“We’ve seen people trying to play skirmishers in the bot lane, so our high-level goal was to do a champion that was designed for the bot lane from the ground up and supported in that role,” lead gameplay producer Ryan Mireles said.
“She’s intended to fulfill a new role for a class, similar to Senna and Pyke in granting players a new experience,” Smith added. “Nilah is going to be that bridge between skirmisher players and AD carry players and their ability to play bot lane and have a new experience and potentially lead players into trying other champions similar to that.”
At first glance, Nilah might appear quite similar to Yasuo or Samira. Dodge? Check. Plenty of dashes? Check. AOE farming ability with engage potential? Check. The kit has all the checkmarks of two bot lane picks, but creating her as a melee carry from the ground up has set her apart from both while also complementing options already available to players.
“It’s something we’re trying to tie into the game,” Smith said. “Those experiences we have, we want to offer more of them and more of an opportunity to have that.
“Even though those champions have a similar idea we thought there was an opportunity to have a character who was very specifically designed with that in mind. Yasuo can do this and Samira is the opposite who is an AD carry who has a skirmisher bit to her. We wanted to create a skirmisher who had the AD carry twist.”
Nilah is meant to be a late-game hypercarry beast, much like other bot lane carries. However, she can push ahead of the curve thanks to her experience-sharing passive, as well as boosting team sustain.
It leads to this fantasy with the Joy Unbound that Mireles compared to Kog’Maw. You are meant to be the star of the show — enchanters doing everything in their power to keep you alive as you carve through enemies like a hot knife through butter. That fantasy element is baked into Nilah for a reason, and is also indicative of a change in Riot’s champion design philosophies.
“When I first came to Riot on the champion team, that [feeling of feeling like a God] was something I implemented into the discovery and ideation process of a champion,” Mireles explained. “Conceptually wise I think it’s important a champion has that one moment that makes you say ‘oh my God that was so sick I have to press play again on this champion.’
“Even if you get that moment once every 10-20 games, the fact you know that moment exists and you can have that moment makes League addicting in a way and that’s exciting.
“For Nilah, that moment where you get to the late game and you have 1-2 enchanters spamming shields and heals on you which are being shared and you’re ripping through the entire team because you’re an unstoppable killing machine — that moment where she’s the star and she’s joyfully killing everyone, it’s similar to Kog’Maw in a way except a more visceral, melee, flashy way.”
That obviously creates its own set of problems for players to solve. With the support meta being dominated by tanks at the pro level but enchanters in solo queue, would Nilah just end up being a ranked demon without any pro play presence? Not necessarily, Riot believes.
The Joy Unbound does open up supports to be a bit creative with their pairings — and there’ll undoubtedly be some broken combos akin to Lucian-Nami that prevail. Whether it leads to a wider meta shift is the golden question not even Riot has the answer to.
“It’s hard to say whether she individually would be able to push that much change, but we do hope that when players see Nilah get picked, that will be an exciting moment for supports who want to play an enchanter,” Smith said.
“When I see a Yasuo or Samira get picked, I know the really good thing here is to get a support with knockups. For Nilah it’s like ‘I can play this enchanter and feel really good about that’.
“From our perspective, she will be the best with enchanters, but tanks do a very good job to enable her to attack enemies by locking them down. Her W and her experience passive are aimed at the tank pairing more than the enchanter pairing. We’re hoping her other elements that aren’t explicitly focused on enchanters will make her more viable with tanks and buoy that up.
“We also hope mages will like the experience passive and shore up her range weaknesses by harassing and pushing enemies away from her. We do see paths for her to succeed with all support groups.
“If any of them were way higher than another group, we would make changes to bring them closer together. We’re okay if one of them is a little better though, and we expect enchanters to be a little better, but we don’t want her to be non-viable with the other ones though.”
However, just having an entirely new archetype of champion breaking into the bot lane meta deliberately could open up innovation beyond just one champion, and that could have long-term ramifications for the way League of Legends is approached.
“It’s a space that the design team looks at often, like ‘what’s a unique thing we can do there?’ There’s going to be several types of variants but if someone finds something that’s very compelling we will explore it,” Smith concluded.