In the small world of Legends of Runeterra, Riot Games’ League of Legends-inspired digital card game, a couple of names dominate the popularity billboards. On Twitch, the likes of Evil Geniuses Sean “swim” Huguenard and Team Liquid’s Mateusz “Alanzq” Jasiński are among the most watched names and instantly recognized celebrities in Runeterra’s neighborhood. And when it comes to defining meta trends, the name of former Dota Underlords and Eternal master Calhoun "BruisedByGod" Mathis takes to the headlines.
Yet on ladder, one of the ultimate tests of endurance, persistence, consistency, and adaptability in the game, another player reigns supreme.
At the time of our interview, Belgian Alessio “Ultraman” Boukou stands as the single best Legends of Runeterra ladder player in the world. In terms of Ladder Points — the number by which a player’s position in the leaderboards is measured — he is unmatched, standing at whopping 4300+. And the competition is lagging well behind.
“The only one close to me was J01 on the Asia server, with around 4.1K, actually,” Ultraman tells Inven Global.
But while today Ultraman is pushing the limits of how high you can climb on Runeterra’s ladder by redefining the leaderboards’ peaks, a year ago he was stuck in another game, another universe, and a disheartening routine that was grinding him down.
“It was like having to go to a job you don’t like”
After wandering around collectible card games (CCG) for a couple of years, Ultraman landed in GWENT, a game based on The Witcher series, but towards the end of 2019, he had stopped enjoying it altogether.
“I was feeling a bit trapped in the corner with my last card game,” Ultraman explains. “The game was in a rougher spot and I was not liking the metagame at the time. It was like having to go to a job you don't like with, at the same time, no hope for future improvements. Part of the problem was my mentality too, as I was heavily burnt out at the time, so I really needed some fresh air and some hype.”
Riot Games delivered that hype Ultraman craved as Legends of Runeterra released in 2020. For most card game players, Runeterra was a clever amalgam between Magic: The Gathering’s intricate effect stacking and combat interaction, and Hearthstone’s modern card game design and intuitive learning curve. Therefore, for many who went on to try Runeterra, the transition came naturally. For Ultraman, that wasn’t the case.
GWENT is a drastically different card game from its cousins. Instead of having health pools you have to protect and mana with which to play cards, GWENT uses an army point system, through which players win rounds (needing two out of three rounds to win the match). In some ways, therefore, it is less of a traditional card game like Hearthstone or Magic, and more like a complex math equation a player has to solve, knowing the amount of points played (and remaining) in both decks.
All this, Ultraman says, took some getting used to, but once he was over the hump, the gears just clicked. And the thirst for excelling returned.
“When Runeterra came out, I was just genuinely interested in having some new stuff and freshness. […] It took some time to adapt again to an HP/mana environment after my time on GWENT, but once it was done and the collection built up, I felt free to play multiple archetypes and had a load of fun at first.
I’ve been basically hooked on competition for as long as I can remember, so the first good results awakened the competitor in me and I just started wanting more and more.”
Ultraman kept up pace with his peers as best as he could, but for the first few months of Runeterra’s release, other names stole the spotlight. Between Runeterra’s low popularity on Twitch, the closed-off nature of the French/Belgian esports scene, and the content market being cornered by the likes of Swim, Ultraman was not really someone people noticed. That is, until Patch 1.4 reset the ranked ladder and gave everyone a fresh chance. As he pioneered the now top-tier Ezreal/TF tempo/combo deck, the age of Ultraman’s reign began.
In the nearly two months since the reset took place, he has rarely surrendered the #1 position on the European ladder. The price of excellence: unrelenting, restless dedication to the game, especially when there are new things to be figured out.
“When I understand a meta well, I play around 6-7 hours a day, which is just my stream and videos. When I don't, I try to change that and have to play more to compensate for my lack of understanding. It can go up to 11-12 hours a day, but I try keeping it "sane" (not saying I succeed all the time [laughs]).”
In these hours, Ultraman tries to fit as many elements of improving as he can, all at the same time. For him, there is no day to just play this control deck, or test this particular match-up. Instead, it’s an all-in-one experience.
“I try to play multiple decks, so I usually chose 5-6 interesting decks that I want to master specifically, then I switch from one to the other quite often — not specifically to counter people, but to learn more about the match-ups and interactions, including abnormal gameplans or mulligans that might be a bit hidden at first sight.
I guess this counts as kind of everything! I climb, study, and polish decks simultaneously this way [laughs]. I only start try-harding a list when I feel "bad" in a meta, like if I feel out of options or outplay possibilities and just start jamming games, hoping to find an idea.”
“People tend to separate players in groups: as if we only want to win, or we only want to have fun, and nothing else”
With so many hours of gameplay behind him, it is impossible to not see Ultraman as a metagame expert, even if he doesn’t carry the “metagame influencer” badge other players with larger followings do. When asked to comment on one strong argument from Riot developer Dovagedys, responding to a Reddit thread about how big streamers like Swim or Miguel "Mogwai" Guerrero, together with deck websites like Mobalytics, help shape — and, in fact, inaccurately portray — the Runeterra meta, Ultraman says:
“[Dovagedys] is absolutely right. Most "forgotten" archetypes were actually good all along, and just saw a drop in play rate as they were not reported as meta anymore. There are also multiple good archetypes people are sleeping on most of the time. There are usually more options than what is being used by the players,” he explained.
As an example, Ultraman mentions the Lux/Thresh Control deck that has recently come back; the Elusives that are a counter to the Frostbite Midrange meta king and could become a great deck again any day now; and the Ezreal/TF Combo he popularized.
"No, you don't have to only play tier 1 decks. But no, you can't have amazing results with the terrible deck you just built because you liked a combo."
So, it’s not the narrow, uninventive, unfun, rock-paper-scissors-esque world as many have argued it to be? For Ultraman, this kind of stipulation — and the complaints that follow — comes from an unnecessary categorization of players and the decks they like to play.
“A CCG will always have a meta and good decks will always be played more. People tend to separate players in groups as if we only want to win, or we only want to have fun and nothing else. Many players want both at the same time. They want to win, but they also want to have fun, sometimes to win with their own deck, or to play something different every day to not get bored. But in the end, people still want to win and will do what's needed to win.
LoR is a very diverse game compared to other CCGs. People are just bound to the idea that you can't play tier 2/3 decks and win, and that they must somehow tryhard the absolute top decks. [...]
I think people would have more fun if they were less extreme on both ideas. No, you don't have to only play tier 1 decks. But no, you can't have amazing results with the terrible deck you just built because you liked a combo.”
That said, Ultraman admits that the meta is not perfect. When asked what the number one problem with the game is, in his opinion, he brings up the cyclical nature of the meta — an obvious event to seasoned players like him. “Pure ‘innovation’ is a bit lacking,” Ultraman said, even if it might seem not the case for some.
For Legends of Runeterra’s meta, time is a flat circle.
“Discard disappears for months, but comes back this patch. It is more diversity, but not an actual "new deck". I wish we would find totally new ideas more often. I think you could fix that by buffing more individual cards from different regions, as a tad bit too much are unplayable as of now to my taste, and some archetypes could definitively use the support! It'd give more options to players, and potentially would we see more absolute innovation.”
“A card game without an esport is like football without championships”
As we approach the tail end of our interview, Ultraman and I tackle one other are where Runeterra is lacking. For all its redeeming qualities and the almost perfect blend of game mechanics taken from genre leaders, the Runeterra has been struggling for recognition. Its viewership on Twitch has plummeted. On any given day, less than 3,000 people tune to watch. Major patch changes bring the occasional spike, but it dissipates immediately, often within a day. Broadcasted competition almost does not exist, and the competitive scene lies on the few grassroots tournaments, ran by community enthusiasts. A spectator mode is still lacking, which also makes having an esport circuit difficult.
For Ultraman, however, popularity on Twitch doesn’t necessarily correlate with success:
“Twitch viewership is not bound to game's popularity, and I think sadly CCGs are not the most interesting thing to watch. Trends come and go. Keep faith, card boys, our time will come again! [laughs]”
"I think any game will benefit of a well handled esport circuit, and they're easy to build for card games: Most formats are known and optimized, and you "only" have to put two individuals face to face."
Yet when it comes to the esport question, both of us are in agreement: Runeterra needs it. Esports helped its predecessor flourish, even if today it might not be the core of the game. The father of the genre, Magic, owns its worldwide popularity much to the grassroots, card shop competitions, which established its core community. In Hearthstone, early 2014-2015 invitationals helped establish many of the household names which are synonymous with the game nowadays.
“Esports is a spectacle,” Ultraman adds. “A card game without an esport is like football without championships. Having an esport circuit helps build up rivalries and narratives, it's a huge part in hyping people.
I think any game will benefit of a well handled esport circuit, and they're easy to build for card games: Most formats are known and optimized, and you "only" have to put two individuals face to face. I can't wait to hear Riot's ambition on the matter, but I think from my past experience that they're right to be patient before announcing one. As a wise person said, a delayed game will eventually be good, while a bad game will be bad forever. The same applies to esports.”
But what if we never get it? What if Runeterra remains Riot’s side card game project that is just there to fill the void between long League of Legends queue times or keep you busy on the subway? What if something in community’s reception discourages the developer from ever investing in an esport circuit — a venture known for being a financial black hole? Can the game survive?
“Survive? Yes. Thrive? That’s the question,” Ultraman says.
Esports editor and journalist of 10+ years. Lives on black tea and corgi love.