Shadow of a Doubt: Teamfight Tactics Set Five

Teamfight Tactics Set Five YouTube Videos Playlist

Set Four was the most popular set in the history of Teamfight Tactics and led to a huge surge in the international playerbase for the game. The set made use of the wildly successful Chosen mechanic which redefined how TFT was played for a new generation of fans. Set Four was followed up by Set 4.5 which shuffled around the traits and units while retaining the same Chosen mechanic. Although Set 4.5 wasn't as popular or successful as the initial version of the set, that was entirely expected since it was the midset update for Set Four. There's never going to be quite as much excitement or interest in the second half of a six month cycle as there will be in the first half when everything is still new and fresh. Set 4.5 was a bit of a letdown but still led to entertaining and engaging gameplay based around the use of the Chosen mechanic.

The TFT designers at Riot Games had a serious problem hanging over their heads, however: how do you follow up on the most popular set in TFT history? Teamfight Tactics is a free-to-play game that relies on players constantly going through new content and purchasing new cosmetic doodads. It's not enough to make a good product one time and then stop there as it would have been for traditional standalone games in the past. There always has to be a followup product in the form of a new set every few months and that meant coming up with something fresh for TFT Set Five. (Side note: I've repeatedly argued that TFT's development cycles are much too short and this would be readily apparent yet again in Set Five.) The design team ultimately came up with a set named Reckoning, which sounds like something out of a bad direct-to-video horror film sequel, based around a "good versus evil" theme and the use of shadow items. For various reasons that we'll look at below, Set Five was largely a failure and the design team completely abandoned the shadow item concept for the midset update. The designers blatantly wrote off Set Five as a lost cause and jumped ship to devote their development time to Set Six, leaving Set 5.5 in a virtual no-man's-land that received little in the way of content updates. On this page, we're going to look at what went wrong with Set Five and see what lessons can be applied for future sets.

The Good

The main mechanic which was implemented for Set Five was the creation of shadow items. These shadow items were a completely separate collection of items that operated in parallel with the normal items. Players could find a normal Chain Vest or a shadow version of a Chain Vest; a normal item component plus a shadow item component would make the shadow version of the item (as would two shadow components combined together). There are 36 normal items in TFT plus another 8 spatula items that make 44 items in total. With the addition of shadow components, Set Five had a parallel set of 36 additional shadow items plus another 8 completely different spatula items for a grand total of 88 completed items. This was a much larger number of items that players had to track and one of the biggest criticisms of Set Five was the difficulty of keeping all of these items straight. I know that I had a lot of trouble with this even as someone who was spending a significant amount of time playing the game.

The shadow versions of the TFT items were almost always more powerful versions of the normal items that also contained some kind of drawback. For example, the shadow version of Rageblade stacked up attack speed even faster at the cost of causing a small amount of self-damage on each attack. The shadow version of Frozen Heart had a larger attack speed slow that hit more of the board but also slowed the attack speed of your own units standing next to the item's user. The designers of TFT tried to help out players by making the shadow version of each item similar to the normal version but with some kind of unique negative property to balance out its increased power. Remembering all of these negative properies could be tricky and wasn't helped by the way that they kept changing from patch to patch. Set Five seemed to be designed for the players who were running half a dozen games every day and intently following the metagame discussions on Livestreams and Reddit.

The best aspect of Set Five was the skill expression required by players to make use of the shadow items effectively. There was a massive difference between players who used the shadow items intelligently and those who used them poorly since an incorrect usage of the shadow items could easily result in crippling your own team. A classic example of this was slapping a shadow Jeweled Gauntlet onto Karma who would immediately kill herself with its reflected self-damage. Confusingly, the normal Jeweled Gauntlet was great on Karma, and the shadow version was also great if combined with a Gunblade for healing, but the shadow Jeweled Gauntlet alone would torpedo your own game. I don't think the skill gap has ever been larger between players who knew how to use the shadow items and those who didn't. I won entire games thanks to good positioning for the shadow Shroud of Stillness (which massively increased the mana costs of any units caught in its effects: both friendly and enemy units). Players had to think very carefully about what items they should make from their normal and shadow components because the wrong decision could absolutely kill their game. This was both the best aspect and one of the worst aspects of Set Five.

The other notable change in Set Five was the introduction of the armory, a mechanic whereby the player would get to pick between several item components offered to them at random. In its original form, the armory would offer two item components on Stage 2-2, then another two item components on Stage 3-2, and then a choice between four item components on Stage 4-2. I thought that the armory was a positive change, generally speaking, as it allowed for a bit more control over which item components the player wanted to use to build out their team composition. This was especially useful in terms of picking between normal and shadow components to allow players to work around the negative effects of the shadow items. The problem with the armory is that the designers took it way too far, adding more and more armories as the set continued and replacing item components in the armories with completed items. By the end of the set, the minion rounds were dropping almost no item components at all because they had all been shifted over to the armory rounds and players were getting as many completed items from the armories as they were building themselves from components. This was bad for game balance because the choice of which items to build from components is one of the major forms of skill expression in TFT's gameplay, and devaluing the item carousels in favor of random drops from armories toned down the biggest comeback mechanic of getting to pick first. The armories were effectively like a form of alcohol consumption: enjoyable in moderation but problematic when abused and over-consumed.

As far as other things which were good about the set, well, I have to reach a bit. I liked the trait design in the specific way that Set Five had many different tiers of Mystic and Ironclad. Players could run Mystic 2, or Mystic 3, or Mystic 4, and so on with additional magic resistance granted for each unit added. Set Five forced some interesting tradeoffs in terms of how many Mystic and Ironclad units to run in order to provide their team-wide magic resistance and armor benefits. One of the downsides of trait design was that the set lacked other similar splashable traits and instead had lots of vertically scaling traits; I think that Invoker and maybe Dragonslayer were about the only other traits that worked in this regard. (I think Verdant was supposed to function in this fashion and simply didn't.) And, uh, I guess that the "good versus evil" concept was OK as a theming mechanism? It wasn't great and the whole Garen vs Darius thing was pretty much a dud but I guess it could have been worse. I'm struggling to come up with more things that I liked about this set beyond the strategic aspects of using the shadow items. They were the big concept at the core of Set Five and the set largely had to sink or swim based on their performance.

Spoiler alert: Set Five sank.

The Bad

One of the best ways to highlight how Set Five's shadow items failed to work as a mechanic is by comparing them to the better implemented Chosen mechanic from Set Four. As a refresher on Chosen units, these were two star versions of the same units that appeared in the shop with additional stats above and beyond the norm. To stop the game from being a race to collect as many of these units as possible, each player would only be able to have one Chosen unit on their team at a time, and the shop would not offer any more Chosen units if there was already a current one in use. The whole concept was therefore both extremely simple and also full of interesting strategic decisions for the player to make. Should you play a Chosen that appears in the store even if it isn't a great fit for the current team composition, or consider pivoting into an entirely different setup to utilize a tasty Chosen? How long should the player hold onto an early game Chosen versus selling it and searching for a more expensive and powerful lategame Chosen? Furthermore, Chosen units also counted for two versions of one of their traits in the same fashion that Lux had counted for two versions of an elemental trait in Set Two. This created an immense amount of replayability on top of all the other good things added by this mechanic as every game the player would be given different Chosen options and the opportunity to play different team compositions. The mechanic was easy to understand and had a lot of depth, making it highly popular with players and helping Set Four become the most widely played set of TFT.

Set Five removed the Chosen units and replaced them with shadow items which just didn't work as well. The shadow items lacked the flexibility and replayability that players came to expect when making use of the Chosen units. While it was important to know how all of the shadow items functioned to work around their drawbacks, in many cases there wasn't that big of a difference in terms of how individual champions would be itemized. Vel'koz would be perfectly happy with either a normal Deathcap or a shadow Deathcap, for example, and Aphelios might be better with a shadow Bloodthirster than a normal Bloodthister but would still be pretty good with either one. The Chosen mechanic was a success because it naturally encouraged players to switch up their team compositions instead of running the exact same units in game after game. Shadow items did no such thing; getting different shadow items typically didn't cause players to run different team compositions, only to make use of the item components as best they could. Set Five felt a lot more like earlier sets where players would pick a team composition in the first few rounds and then never deviate from it ("me mech") and the shadow items did little to discourage this style of gameplay.

More importantly though, shadow items were inherently less interesting as a mechanic for players. It felt amazing in Set Four to get that high roll moment when a Chosen Aurelion Sol would appear in the shop while playing a Mages team, or even starting out with a Warlord Garen Chosen and finding a Warlord's Banner to play a normally-unreachable Warlords 9 team. This was replaced in Set Five with the excitement of... combining together a shadow Chain Vest with a normal Giant's Belt to make a shadow Sunfire Cape. Ummm, yay? Again, it's not that the shadow items were unimportant to the outcome of the matches as a gameplay mechanic, they simply lacked the fun factor that came from hitting a poweful unit in the store and adding it to your team. Combining item components together has consistently been rated as the least fun and most stressful part of TFT's gameplay by newcomer players; it's the reason why low Elo streams for TFT always have everyone sitting with half a dozen unused item components on their benches. It was therefore a weird design choice by the TFT developers to lean into itemization as the big mechanic for Set Five, something that worked OK for expert players while leaving most of the playerbase confused and unhappy.

Speaking of confusion, this was another major problem with shadow items as a gameplay mechanic: they were much too complicated for most players. I mentioned above that it's tricky enough to keep track of the 44 normal items in TFT and much, much worse to add another 44 parallel items on top of them. Remember that all of the shadow items had negative side effects and failing to understand the specific drawbacks of these items would cause players to destroy their own teams. I definitely saw newcomer players slap shadow Rageblade and shadow Infinity Edge together on their ranged carries which would almost instantly cause the unit to kill itself with reflected damage. Items are supposed to be a good thing - it was not fun at all when this happened! By contrast, the Chosen mechanic was incredibly easy to understand: a better version of the same units used to play the game. The shadow items required far too much time investment to use them properly and the negative effects were a classic example of an anti-fun mechanic. (I've mentioned before that Civ3 originally had dark ages to pair with its introduction of the golden age mechanic and they were scrapped in development because it wasn't fun to play through an era where your civ was worse at doing everything. Prospective game developers, stay away from these ideas even if they sound cool.)

Set Five also seemed to lack the "wow" factor in terms of its unit and trait design. The set lacked big flashy units like Sett's pushups and dunks or Lee Sin's ability to kick units off the board. Many of the legendary units like Darius and Garen were effective synergy units designed to debuff the enemy team; while they were powerful and important units, they weren't flashy and did little to interest more casual players. Amongst the other legendary units, Volibear was a frontline tank, Kindred was typically a support unit, Viego only affected one unit at a time, Teemo's mushrooms hit a small portion of the board, and Kayle was an unplayably broken mess for most of the set. Heimerdinger is about the only legendary unit that worked the way players expected, shooting out a big cone of fire across the whole map. Amongst the traits, Set Five also felt as though it had a lot of stat-boosting traits that didn't have much in the way of unique effects; Hellions and maybe Coven were the only real exceptions. Draconic in paticular was a far less interesting version of Fortune that was entirely passive in nature. This is a bit more subjective as a criticism but the top-end champion and trait design felt lackluster in Set Five and didn't do enough to attract new players.

For more expert players, Set Five also struggled with serious balancing problems which were tied to the trait design. The set heavily focused on vertically scaling team compositions and lacked more of the splashable traits that characterized previous sets. Most of the viable team compositions were built around a single trait: Dawnbringer, Forgotten, Hellions, Nightbringer, Skirmishers, etc. It's inherently more difficult to balance these kind of vertical setups because the strength of the teams are so heavily tied to the trait itself. I'm a strong believer that the overall gameplay is healthier in TFT when more of the power is situated in the champions themselves, not in the traits, as this allows for more flexibility in putting teams together. This was very much the case in Set Four and then the TFT designer restrospective for Set Four stated that they thought they had gone too far in this respect and wanted to move away from it. (It's the part near the bottom under the heading "Power of Champs Relative to Cost.") Set Five was the result and it was clearly much worse as vertically scaling traits were dominant from start to finish. There was less room for adaptation and much more "swinginess" from patch to patch as the traits were tweaked by the design team. I continue to believe that this is the wrong design philosophy and hope that Set Six will move back towards the balance in Set Four where champions have more of the emphasis and traits are (relatively) less important.

All of these problems were exacerbated by a very poor patching process throughout Set Five's lifespan. I've repeatedly mentioned over the last two years that I think TFT releases far too many patches and this tendency was taken to a new height during Set Five. Not only were there patches released every two weeks for TFT, more than half of those patches had an additional "B" patch released as well! Set Five released along with the 11.9 patch of League of Legends and there were "B" patches during 11.9, 11.11, 11.13, 11.15, 11.16, 11.17, and 11.18. That's ten total patches and *SEVEN* of them had additional "B" patches of some kind! This didn't get any better during the latter portions of Set Five, typically when the early balance has been sorted out and things settle down a bit. Instead the pace of patching actually got worse: there were patches released for TFT on July 20, July 28, August 10, August 18, August 24, September 01, September 08, September 16, and September 21. That's nine patches in 63 days - yeesh!

And as usual for the TFT balance team, it's not as though these patches were changing a couple of minor things here and there. No, each new patch made dozens and dozens of changes, to the point where every new patch was like playing a completely new game. Here are the patch notes for Patch 11.13 which I grabbed at random as a representative sample of the degree of alterations taking place. I counted 70 different line items in the patch notes and that wasn't even including the bug fixes. The TFT design team could not stop themselves from endless tinkering of everything under the sun and they wound up doing much more harm than good. I have to go all the way back to the beginning of Set Three to remember a period where the balancing was consistently worse than it was in Set Five. First one trait would be overpowered, then it would eat seven different nerfs and become useless, and then it would get eight more buffs and become overpowered again. Around and around and around again the balance carousel would go, freshly scrambled with every new patch.

It just wasn't possible to keep track of all this nonsense and all but the most diehard players started to tune out on the set. I was actually enjoying the gameplay in Set Five and I ultimately stepped away because the endless patches were eating up too much of my time. There's nothing fun about having to learn a new game every seven days; I guess this was nice for the tiny number of players who play 10 hours a day on Livestream but it sure wasn't entertaining for everyone else. Teamfight Tactics is supposed to be a laid-back game and asking your playerbase to absorb dozens of patch note changes on a weekly basis was bound to be off-putting. It shouldn't be a job in its own right understanding what the heck is going on. The TFT design team referred to this as "balance thrashing" when they wrote their retrospective for Set Five and I sincerely hope that they learned their lesson. The claim is that they will use a "lighter touch" in future patches - I'll believe it when I see it. The designers did an embarassingly bad job in terms of balance with Set Five and burned a lot of trust that their players had invested in them.

The irony is that I probably played more of Set Five than any other individual set of Teamfight Tactics. Drawing on my experience from the last few sets, I improved as a player and I think that I was playing better in this set than I had ever done previously. I wasn't just holding my own in Diamond lobbies, I was routinely claiming top four finishes by playing mostly Karma-based Dawnbringer comps. I'm confident that I could have made my way to Diamond ranking but I just don't enjoy grinding out ranked games and had more fun in Normal lobbies instead. (I made Platinum II in less than 30 games before I lost a few matches and lacked interest to continue further.) Amongst our local TFT group, antisocialmunky and ksasaki both reached Challenger in Set Five while Headwinder made Master and Grillo was his usual Diamond self. But all of the more casual players in our group dropped out over time because Set Five was too complicated and unfriendly for anyone who wasn't playing dozens of games each week. I found myself stuck in weekly games where everyone else was either high Diamond or Master/Grandmaster tier and they were so punishing that it wasn't much fun playing in them. I improved a lot as a player during this set while also finding that I wasn't having as much fun as in Set Four and Set 4.5. This was the main reason why I stopped playing further games once the midset update came out. So with that in mind, let's finish this page by looking briefly at Set 5.5:

The Reckoning

Starting with Set Three, the pattern for Teamfight Tactics has been to release a midset update that covers the second half of a set's lifespan. Back in Set 4.5, this had meant changing out about a third of the champions and introducing half a dozen new traits along with additional gameplay mechanics like the Lucky Lantern. As the release for Set 5.5 approached, it quickly became clear that this midset update would be significantly smaller in scope. Set 5.5 only introduced 12 new champions and a significant number of them were rehashed champions from previous sets like Lucian and and Pyke. The only champions that brought something genuinely new and interesting were Akshan and Gwen as legendary units. The new traits were a similar disappointment, with only two of them getting added for the midset update (not counting Gwen's Inanimate trait since no other units shared it). These were Sentinel and Cannoneer, with Cannoneer being a complementary trait and Sentinel yet another big vertical trait. Set 5.5 even dropped Coven and Dragonslayer which were two of the most interesting traits from Set Five. This was a notably smaller and less ambitious midset update than what TFT had done in the past.

Set 5.5 operated on a smaller scale because it dropped the core mechanic of Set Five: shadow items were completely removed from the game. Needless to say, this was a pretty damning indictment for Set Five that its most central gameplay function was dropped in the midset update! The shadow items were replaced with radiant items instead, with each player getting to pick a single radiant item (later two radiant items in the final patches) from an armory on Stage 3-6. Players were offered a choice of five different radiant items and picked whichever one they preferred in a more elaborate version of the same armory mechanic. Unlike shadow items, radiant items were always beneficial in their effects and operated as a super-powered version of the underlying base item. This was a significantly less complicated version of the mechanic and the lack of downsides made the radiant items much more popular with the community.

I have mixed feelings about the switch from shadow items over to radiant items. I don't particularly care for the way in which the radiant items were assigned to players, popping up randomly in the armory and then letting players choose which one they wanted from a limited list of options. The problem is that this armory mechanic was fundamentally passive in nature; unlike the shadow items where players would find components and then have to plan and choose which finished items to build, the radiant items never came as components and were always finished items when handed out. The shadow items were something that players made happen whereas radiant items were something that happened to them. It's the same longstanding critique that I made comparing Civ4 versus Civ5, where the former game relied on players taking their own actions while the latter game was all about things happening to the player. The radiant items were unquestionaly a simplified version of the item mechanic; I could be uncharitable and say that this was "dumbed down" but I think that's being a bit too unfair. What was striking about the whole change was how central shadow items had been to the design of the entire set. It was legitimately shocking that they were removed entirely and replaced with... a single radiant armory that appeared halfway through the game? Set 5.5 felt hollow to me with its core mechanic removed and replaced with a patchwork band-aid.

I'm being critical here but I actually think this was the right call by the design team. Shadow items were too complicated and their negative properties made them unfun for most of the player base. The radiant items were much more positively received by the community and especially at the lower tiers of skill level that make up most of the player base. These passive "pick something good from a list" mechanics aren't very satisfying for expert players but less obsessive players love them (there's a reason why Civ5 is the top-selling game in the Civilization series even though it's mediocre at best for expert players). The number of people playing TFT was able to stabilize in Set 5.5 after plummeting catastrophically towards the end of Set Five. By no means was the game in a healthy state, with many popular TFT streamers moving to other games thanks to the minimal amount of new content in the midset update, but things would have been even worse without moving away from the unpopular shadow items. The TFT design team tried to fill the gap in actual content by throwing out endless amounts of in-game goodies (more armories, more emblems, a second radiant item, etc.) which were lousy for game balance purposes but kept at least some people playing the game. As harsh as I've been here, I understand that they were trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Between the short list of new champions, lack of new traits, and slapped-together nature of radiant items in place of shadow items, our small TFT group quickly came to a surprising conclusion: the TFT development team was abandoning Set Five to work on Set Six. They clearly saw the set as a lost cause and weren't going to waste more of their limited development resources on putting more work into the midset update. Set 5.5 was a sunk cost and they were avoiding the fallacy of chasing after it any longer. Set 5.5 would receive balancing patches and the various titillating goodies described above but wouldn't receive much of anything in terms of genuine content. I'm writing this at the tail end of the set and we now have the list of features that are going to be included in Set Six. The huge amount of new champions, traits, item reworks, and the big new set mechanic of hextech augments has made it more clear than ever that Set 5.5 was an egregious mail-in performance. We sniffed this out in our little group right away and if the developers didn't care enough to bother with Set 5.5 then I certainly wasn't going to invest my own time either. We'll see what Set Six brings, which looks positive on paper but could prove to be something entirely different in practice.


Despite how much time I spent playing it, Set Five has to be considered an embarassing misstep for Teamfight Tactics and a major failure from a financial perspective. The core mechanic was abandoned halfway through the set and the design team barely even bothered with the midset update, cutting their losses to spend more time working on Set Six. I've repeatedly argued that Riot Games needs to stop working on a three month development cycle and allocate more development time for each set to avoid mistakes like this. It was inevitable that the quality of TFT was going to suffer with the parent company insisting that four sets release each year (two full sets and two midset updates). We know from some behind the scenes interviews that shadow items were not the original planned concept for Set Five (it seems that they wanted to do something with a day/night cycle) and they had to be slapped together at the last minute when the designers couldn't get their first idea to work properly. In other words, shadow items felt like an incomplete concept that hadn't been fully tested because that's exactly what they were. Set Five lacked enough development time, it was pushed out the door before it was ready, and the result was a train wreck that damaged the reputation of TFT. This doesn't exactly fill me with confidence for the future of this game.

I think that Set Six will probably be pretty good because the design team sacrificed time that would have gone to Set Five by writing it off as dead weight. This gave them more time to prepare Set Six and everyone on the design team has to be aware that another dud set could mean the termination of the whole game. So we'll likely get another quality set of content in the short run but I don't think this pace is sustainable in the long term. It's not possible to keep turning out a good product when the timetables are this short. Either Riot will learn this lesson or they'll ride TFT into the ground with more rushed releases of poor quality; I think we all know which path is more likely. Thanks as always for reading - I hope that's not too depressing of a conclusion!