Powercreep is an undeniable part of League of Legends. Older champions often get left by the wayside, and items have to be updated and changed to keep things both balanced and competitive for LoL’s massive champion roster. Many of LoL’s mechanics don’t age well, and they get powercrept out of the game. By comparison, Zhonya’s Hourglass and its Stasis active have aged like fine wine.
Zhonya’s has a long and complicated history in League of Legends. It’s been over a decade since Zhonya’s Stasis active got introduced, and it’s only gotten better over the years. The stats are nice to have, sure, but it’s all about the active. Champions like Jarvan IV that have next to no AP scaling are buying Zhonya’s purely for the active, something that was by no means intended for this item.
As League evolves, so do the players. And right now, the way pros and high-level players think about their build paths is shifting. Is that a good thing?
Living in a one-shot world
In LoL’s current state, there are a lot of ways to die very, very quickly. The amount of damage that some champs can do with just a few items is ludicrous.
For instance, here’s KDF’s Park “Teddy” Jin-seong getting almost one-shot by Akali. Granted, DRX’s Kim “Zeka” Geon-woo played Akali very well here; he managed to get an auto attack in so fast that you can’t even see the animation in a play that shows his mechanical prowess. But it’s hard not to feel bad for Teddy.
Meanwhile, in that same match, Teddy showed how much damage Aphelios can do with the press of a single button. Obviously, how players use that damage matters, and KDF didn’t end up doing much with Teddy’s burst of damage in that clip. If that high, one-shot damage potential can exist for either team, then there’s balance to be found.
Problems arise when tanks know full well that their initiations will end in a swift death. Bruiser items that give both tank stats and damage like Goredrinker are an effective way to keep yourself alive in theory, but in practice, bruisers will often get shredded. An ADC with Kraken Slayer combined with a mid mage like Viktor with an item or two will dismantle most tanks before they get to interact with the fight beyond starting it.
However, every problem has a solution.
Creating an objective definition of what’s overpowered is very difficult. For instance, gathering win rate data is a huge part of champion balance. But Ryze got nerfed recently despite having a win rate hovering around 40% in solo queue at the time of writing. His ultimate value is hard to quantify, and its value in pro play combined with his tank build gives him good reason to be nerfed despite such an abysmal overall win rate.
Zhonya’s Hourglass and Stopwatch have a similar issue when it comes to quantifying their value, but one thing’s for certain: both are very, very strong items. Let’s try to explain why.
Stopwatch is the sort of item that can change the course of a game. It has no benefit other than a single active use and a discounted build path toward other items. Yet one good stasis in a teamfight to throw off the enemy team can wield value that literal thousands of gold in tank stats wouldn’t.
TES' Zhuo “knight” Ding picked up Stopwatch and Zhonya’s for himself, which bought him five whole seconds of complete immunity. That 3250 gold investment in “defense” won TES this fight, and made it that much easier for them to win the game. The amount of time knight bought voided out the five-minute CD passive on Huang “Karsa” Hao-Hsuan’s Guardian Angel, as well as Song “Rookie” Eui-jin’s Zhonya’s. Both sides invested in survivability, but knight used his items much better.
There is inherent skill involved with using Zhonya’s, making the item less of an inherent balance problem than an item that’s overpowered based on pure stat gain alone. But it’s hard to dispute just how effective that immunity can be at high-level play. Coordinated teams can flip a forced engagement on its head with the press of a button with effective stasis usage.
We’re at the point where many pros value this stasis active enough to purchase Zhonya’s on champions that don’t scale all that well with AP. It’s just that good.
For the sake of narrowing the scope, let’s use Jarvan IV as an example. Pros have been almost exclusively running Chemtank > Zhonya’s rather than going for a bruiser build. Jarvan has virtually no use for the AP on the item, and yet, Zhonya’s second is a popular build path in pro play.
In comparison to Goredrinker, an item with an active that serves a similar purpose to Zhonya’s when it comes to surviving an all-in initiation, Zhonya’s on Jarvan is incredibly inefficient on paper.
The gold difference between these two items is clear, but since junglers often build Chemtank first for clear and engage, let’s talk purely stats. Goredrinker gives health, AD, Omnivamp, and 10 more ability haste along with a passive that grants scaling ability haste and an active that both heals you and damages enemies.
Mythic items are built to be gold efficient. Goredrinker isn’t cheap, but you certainly get your money’s worth out of the item. However, Zhonya’s stasis active can pull its weight in tank stats and then some.
In this clip, we see both Team Liquid’s Lucas "Santorin" Larsen and 100 Thieves’ Can "Closer" Çelik try to force fights with an ult followed promptly by a Stopwatch activation. While Santorin bought some time, Closer’s initiation and overall usage were far superior. And with how important it is for the jungler to be alive for Baron, the overall popularity of Stopwatch on hard-engage junglers is no surprise.
If Closer opted to buy Goredrinker instead, this game may have looked very different, and 100T could have ended up getting 3-0'd by Team Liquid. Itemization really is that important. The recent popularity boost of Zhonya’s being bought almost solely for its active has raised a lot of questions about how we view items in League of Legends. How much are item actives really worth?
Thinking outside the shop
Zhonya’s isn’t the only item that’s been picked up for the strength of its active as of late. It’s a very popular outlier in comparison to Zhonya’s J4, but there are players using their game sense to purchase items purely for their very powerful actives, or for the stats they provide.
Outside of pro play, Veigarv2 has been innovating with Veigar builds. Since Veigar’s passive gives him so much AP, why not build tank items? Is there really much of a difference between doing 2000 damage and 4000 damage when the enemy ADC has 1800 HP? Damage only means something as long as you’re alive to deal it.
EG's Kacper "Inspired" Słoma has adopted a similar mentality when it comes to build path. For every game of their 3-0 set against Cloud9, Inspired's bulky Nocturne builds were especially of note. Against heavy CC, he purchased Mikael’s to give himself the ability to cleanse his carries if they get CC'd. Meanwhile, he went Knight’s Vow in the first game of their set to provide some much-needed CC.
Nocturne is a very powerful champion somewhat limited to very single-target damage and CC, but Inspired builds in ways that actively augment his ability to engage and CC multiple targets in order to mold his Champion into the engage tool EG needed to win. Any time I’ve personally talked to Inspired, he had a lot to say about the way League of Legends is played. It’s easy to see where all that comes from considering he’s innovating in ways no other player has been.
Purchasing items purely for a strong active isn’t a foreign concept, either in League of Legends or other MOBAs. Broken actives like that of Banner of Command come as clear standouts in LoL, but one of Dota 2’s most iconic items is purchased purely for the active.
Unlike items in LoL, Blink Dagger requires a substantial gold investment for an item that gives no stats, just the active effect. LoL and Dota are incredibly different when it comes to game balance and design philosophy, but build paths similar Inspired's have shown us that purchasing an item for a high-impact active effect is just as viable in LoL.
Hopefully inventive build paths and active usage will help push League of Legends forward and demand that pros work to innovate their build paths and really think about what their team needs. Items like Anathema’s Chains, Gargoyle’s Stoneplate, Knight’s Vow, and Mikael’s Crucible all have potential to get value similar to Zhonya’s if purchased in the right situation.
There are a lot of items in League of Legends, many of which go unnoticed in favor of stat-efficient, high gold value items that are the best option on paper. In reality, there’s near limitless potential in what strong active items can do for certain Champs. This Zhonya’s trend is leading pros to think about their build paths in brand new ways, and I hope we continue to see the world’s best innovate upon what is broadly considered the “best build” for their champion.
Carver is an esports journalist and analyst who specializes in Eastern League of Legends.