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Bending the Mold
Lots of League’s champions have their roots in common archetypes, from the fallen angel tropes behind Morgana, Barbarian characters behind Tryndamere, and the super popular armor-dillos behind Rammus. As League’s champion roster grew, the number of archetypes left to explore shrank. Newer champions have become more and more niche as devs have tried to reimagine the archetypes or abandoned them altogether, resulting in characters like Kled and Camille.
But back in 2012, there were still a few character archetypes left to explore, one of which was the samurai. While Master Yi had been around for a while, his curious goggles and run-at-you playstyle didn’t really fulfill the fantasy of playing a blade-dancing warrior. “Master Yi was more of an off-to-the-side take on a samurai,” says game designer Brad “CertainlyT” Wenban. “We wanted to make an elevated version—someone who felt like a samurai but was more than just, ‘Dude with a sword.’”
The Road to Ruin is Shorter Than You Think
The most common representation of samurai in video games and films features a swordsman who devotes his life to his master. If his master dies or casts him out of his house, the samurai is dishonored and left with an existential crisis. His life has been defined by his servitude and identity as a warrior, but now he’s lost both. This leaves him alone, wandering the lands in search of new meaning (while often drinking heavily).
These masterless samurai are known as Rōnin.
“We decided to embrace the Rōnin fantasy,” says senior community specialist Rob “Ransom” Lo, “because it was a different take on the genre and felt more relatable.” In other words, most people have probably felt lost or confused at some point in their lives, but not everyone has experienced the level of discipline and servitude required of traditional samurai.
Yasuo’s story is one of a talented—yet hot-headed—samurai who is forced to flee Ionia after making a fatal mistake.
As the first student in a generation to master the legendary wind technique, Yasuo is tasked with guarding his master during the Noxian invasion. However, he naively believes his skills alone will turn the tide of battle, so he abandons his master to fight.
Upon returning, Yasuo finds his master has been slain…by a wind technique.
His peers accuse him of the crime, so Yasuo fights his way out of Ionia, set on bringing the true murderer to justice. When Yasuo’s brother Yone tracks him down, Yasuo is faced with a choice: Should he lay down his blade and let his brother bring him in, where he faces dishonor and a likely death, or should he fight his brother? Knowing the only way the killer will be found is if he lives, Yasuo decides to fight Yone, who is killed at Yasuo’s hand.
In the first version of this story, the two brothers actually never fought. Instead, when Yone learns of Yasuo’s innocence, he chooses to end his life by his own blade rather than fight his falsely accused brother. “We ended up going in a different direction,” says QA Lead Joe “ManWolfAxeBoss” Lansford, “because we didn’t think this ending would be as understandable and appealing to players all over the world.” This story mirrored seppuku stories of Japan, but it wasn’t a particularly common or relatable tale for all audiences. Plus, the fight scene offered a more climactic ending than suicide.
When concept artist Trevor “TrevolverOcelot” Claxton started creating concept art for the Rōnin, he clearly depicted Yasuo’s rough journey in his appearance. The team working on Yasuo loved it, but when the crew started showing the art to people outside their team, the reactions weren’t as favorable as expected: Without really understanding Yasuo’s backstory, the ragged character didn’t leave others with a great first impression. The art reflected his journey, but newcomers didn’t exactly feel excited about the run-down samurai.
In the next rounds of drawings, Trevor lightened the tone a bit (no more ankle chains) and tried to create a more traditional-looking samurai. “I basically went back and made the coolest samurai I could,” he says, “And it ended up feeling more natural for the character.”
Yasuo’s original voiceover faced a similar conundrum. The first recording sounded like an older dude with whiskey-worn vocal cords, which again made sense for the storyline but wasn’t too compelling if you weren’t familiar with Yasuo’s past. The whole recording session was redone (more than once) to make the lines feel less grim and the character more approachable.
When a design team gets super excited about a champion, like they were with Yasuo, they often spend bonus time (sometimes even outside of work) thinking about the character, imagining even the tiniest of details. Yet it can be tough to get that depth across to everyone playing the game. A handful of people will dig in deep, so they’ll get the whole story, but that isn’t the norm. “A lot of what devs do is try to bring these details to the surface,” Brad says, “Or we pivot our direction if it’s not worth it, such as with Yasuo’s appearance.”
Bonus: Yasuo’s name almost wasn’t Yasuo. The name “Yasuo” was quite popular in Japan about fifty years ago, so some people thought the name didn’t feel epic enough to be a master samurai (examples of badass samurai names from other games include Mitsurugi and Yoshimitsu). “One of the reasons I went for Yasuo was because Yasuo was given his name at sword school, in the hopes of calming his wild spirit,” Joe says, “It roughly translates to ‘peaceful one’ in Japanese.” Other names considered include: Porah, Sho, Tachikaze, Hayate, Fuujin, Ken, Doc, Fen, and Seb.
Death is Like the Wind
About a year before Yasuo entered development, game designer Joe “Ziegler” Ziegler worked on an exploratory kit for a samurai character. This kit revolved around a mark mechanic where auto attacks applied a mark on opponents and abilities used on them resulted in extra effects (like a bleed). This samurai’s ult was a linear dash where everyone in the path would be stunned, then when he sheathed his sword at the end, all of the damage would come through.
The feeling of being a nimble longswordsman who sheathed and unsheathed his blade carried over to Yasuo’s kit design…but that’s about it. The old kit was dropped for two main reasons:
1. The main goal for Yasuo was to create a melee carry who felt skillful to play (he is a talented samurai) and who builds damage (samurai kill people). Having an ultimate with a lot of CC usually means you can initiate fights well, and the ability to initiate fights well usually means you build bruiser-y—so bye bye, IE.
2. At first glance, “wind samurai” can feel like two words shoved together. Even though the connection is there—Yasuo either moves his blade in a way that manipulates the air or uses a windblade—this relationship needed to really shine in gameplay. It was important to have as much open design space as possible to help the two elements feel cohesive and believable together.
Yasuo’s Q was always designed to rev up with each cast. In the first version, Yasuo would strike forward in a thin line, followed by a cone, then a 360° circle of wind; another iteration had Yasuo strike from side-to-side with each cast. Having a stacking mechanic was important because it created clear windows of opportunity for Yasuo to play aggressively and moments where he’s forced on the back foot.
Having a Q that builds up also means that Yasuo’s damage ramps up throughout a fight. He’s not a ninja who can shadow in, pop someone, and disappear, so he needs a way to survive teamfights while he dishes out his damage. In the past, this was accomplished with some kind of invulnerability: Tryndamere’s Undying Rage, (old) Fiora’s ultimate, Fizz’s troll pole. But Yasuo has something a little different: a wind wall.
Brad says, “I thought there might be richer gameplay with spatial invulnerability—where anybody beyond this line can’t hurt you.” This also gave Yasuo a way to deal with marksman damage in a fight, which is one of the biggest threats to melee carries because it’s usually reliable and unavoidable. With a wind wall (which is also quite thematic), Yasuo was able to participate in teamfights without having to instantly blow someone up.
And, believe it or not, Yasuo was originally designed to be a melee fighter who was also great at teamfighting. His knock-up-oriented ultimate was intended to give Yasuo a way to interact meaningfully with his allies during big brawls, while also showing off his command of the wind. “We definitely didn’t see him as a split-pusher,” Brad says, “And for a while after his launch, he was one of the first melee characters we really saw teamfight, even in pro play.”
So what happened?
No Cure For Fools
These days, Yasuo is the memelord of the Rift and one of the most banned champions in the game. He’s gone from, “Let’s build a knock-up team for Yasuo!” to, “Oh great, Yasuo’s just gonna 1v5 split push all game.”
Part of the problem is that Yasuo was intentionally designed to be a mid laner, not a top laner, because devs thought top lane Yasuo wasn’t as healthy for the game. Yasuo usually has distinct opportunities to play aggressively against ranged characters (his Q is stacked, his Wind Wall is ready), but when those tools are down, he’s forced on the defensive. Against melee characters, it doesn’t matter as much if those abilities are up or down, so he’s able to play more offensively all the time…and most top lane champions are melee characters.
Plus when Yasuo was released, he generally maxed Q. This gave him the damage needed for decent waveclear mid lane, and it also meant he was not maxing E. But because of a slew of balance changes, Yasuo players typically max E first these days. This makes him much more mobile—so he’s more comfortable splitting in longer side lanes—and even though he gives up the waveclear obtained by maxing Q, it doesn’t matter as much as a top laner. This shift, coupled with the changes to Phantom Dancer and other AD items, has made Yasuo a monster of a dueler.
Even though these changes probably made sense individually, they’ve collectively pushed Yasuo away from a wombo-combo-friendly mid laner towards a solo-splitting top. Yasuo’s designer Brad says, “I personally don’t like Yasuo as a top laner, and I don’t think it’s as healthy for League.” Future changes to Yasuo will likely be focused on giving opponents more clear opportunities to play aggressively while maintaining the fantasy of playing the agile wind samurai Yasuo was designed to be.