Teamfight Tactics: Reflections on Set Two

Teamfight Tactics Set One/Two YouTube Videos Playlist

Teamfight Tactics (TFT) is an autochess PvP online battler developed by Riot Games and first released in 2019. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the player creates a team of different pieces (using the League of Legends characters as the "chess" pieces) and duels with seven other players in a series of bouts until one player wins the overall match. Each character has two or three attributes that combine together to active different traits; for example, pairing together different tanky characters grants all of them extra armor, while grouping up a bunch of spellcasters makes all of their abilities deal more damage. Three of the same champion combine together into a stronger "2 star" version of that champion, and nine of the same champion (three 2 stars) combine into the rare 3 star version. Finding that many of the same champion doesn't happen much in TFT and 3 starring a key unit typically means victory. The champions and items that appear in TFT are random, with some limited player control over each via rerolls and item carousels, making the whole setup akin in many ways to the probability-based gameplay in FTL: Faster Than Light. The combat in TFT is completely automated once it begins and therefore this is entirely a strategy-based setup, with little room for fast mechanics. Knowing what team compositions to play and how to manage the in-game economy is much more important than being able to roll through the list of available champions quickly. TFT seemed like an ideal game to pick up and learn, to the point that I quickly found it much more appealing than standard League of Legends.

This article details some of my thoughts reflecting back on Set Two (Rise of the Elements) of TFT now that it's drawing to a close. This will inevitably involve a discussion of my experience with the ranked system in Set Two, as that ended up coloring my encounters with the game. I have highly favorable impressions of Set Two as a whole, and I think that there's a general consensus that it represented an improvement over the initial set from TFT's release period. The overall number of people playing TFT went down significantly in Set Two, but I'm pretty sure that was due to the initial surge of curious players falling off, not due to the product itself being weaker. Hopefully Riot Games will learn the correct lessons from this as they move forwards into the upcoming Set Three and the game's mobile platform release.

Improvements in Set Two

I caught the tail end of the initial set of Teamfight Tactics, starting to play the game something like three or four weeks before it wrapped up. This was a weird place to be, with the TFT playerbase full of veterans who had been playing the game for months and who were eager to move on to the next group of champions, and with me experiencing everything for the first time. I didn't get too much time to experiment with Set One and it felt as though I was just barely getting a feeling for the game when all of the rules shifted over to something new. I played a dozen ranked games in set one and finished up in Bronze II, not because I was doing poorly but because I simply ran out of time. Four days just wasn't long enough to make any kind of noteworthy climb.

Set Two of Teamfight Tactics was named "Rise of the Elements" and it used an elemental theming mechanic to tie the group of champions together. Every champion had some kind of elemental theming associated with them, whether that was Inferno for additional fire damage or Cloud to provide dodge chance or Ocean to provide extra mana generation. Each game had a particular elemental theme associated with it, fire/wind/earth/water, and this influenced the appearance of the elemental "hexes" which would appear on that map type. Place a champion on an infernal hex to grant them additional attack speed, place a champion on a mountain hex to grant them a small permanent bonus to max HP, and so on. The elemental nature of the board also influenced the traits of one champion (Qiyana) and the legendary champion Lux could appear in 10 different elemental flavors, each one counting as two champions of that type. In other words, if you wanted to activate the Light 6 trait, you could have six Light champions or four Light champions and a Light element Lux (with Lux counting as two Lights).

I would argue that the elemental theming was one of the most successful attributes of Set Two. It provided a unified structure to the set of champions that was both intuitive to newcomers and offered more strategic depth than what players experienced in Set One. Electric and poison and desert elemental attributes were simple to understand: flashes of lightning dealt extra magic damage, poison debuffed the enemy's mana costs, desert shredded away part of enemy armor, and so on. Meanwhile, Qiyana's shifting elemental nature on the four different map types allowed for different team compositions depending on the location. For example, an Ocean-based mage team normally wouldn't play Qiyana, but she would suddenly become a valuable addition to the group on an Ocean map. And the 10 different types of Luxes provided a really cool way for the gameplay to shift near the end of each match, with the (rare) discovery of an ideal Lux suddenly providing a method to pivot into a different setup. For example, a Berserkers team would typically run Poison in the lategame, but the discovery of an Electric Lux could shift it into an Electric 4 pivot and come out stronger for it. Almost any team that stumbled across a Crystal Lux would want to consider sticking Taric and Ashe into its setup to create the super-powered Crystal 4 element. This was a major improvement over Set One which had static boards in every match and no such lategame shakeups.

Another gigantic step forward in Set Two came in form of better overall gameplay balance. As Riot's developers and playtesters had more time to work on TFT, they inevitably became better at making the various tweaks necessary to balance out the different team compositions. Set One's metagame tended to be dominated by having one team setup that was clearly the best in each patch, most notably the infamous Void Assassins that crowded out everything else with their unstoppable true damage. When I was playing Set One at the tail end of its lifespan, the metagame was being dominated by Dragon and Guardian heavy teams, with Pantheon in particular clearly being overpowered. There were other frustratingly random mechanics in Set One that failed the test of good design, traits like Hextech (randomly disabled items on the other team) and Phantom (one enemy unit randomly starts the battle with 100 HP) that probably shouldn't have been part of the game at all. Too much of the Set One ranked system consisted of finding the overpowered team composition and then running that in game after game until the rest of the community caught on.

The gameplay situation was much healthier in Set Two's Rise of the Elements. The randomness associated with Hextech and Phantom and the lower levels of Noble/Imperial were removed from the game. In its place were much better balanced team compositions, with multiple different viable paths to victory. That's not to say that everything was perfect, as the long reign of the "Blender" Nocturne teams demonstrated. (This was a team based around turning Nocturne into a Blademaster with a spatula, a trait that he did not normally possess, and then exploiting the interaction with his attack to create a virtally unkillable unit. Nocturne healed on every third attack and with Blademaster 4 he would attack three times at once, thus healing infinitely - obviously not intended and overpowered.) I also had a ton of gripes with the way that Yasuo was overbuffed in the last few patches of Set Two and not fixed for unknown reasons. However, for the most part, Set Two delivered a much more balanced experience to players. There were at least half a dozen different team compositions that were viable to play at the end of Set Two, everything from Predators to Ocean/Mage to Rangers to Lights to Berserkers to Blademasters to Shadows, each of them spiking in strength at different points in time. You could win by exploiting the early strength of Predators, crushing people with the midgame Berserkers spike, or relying on the lategame potential of Rangers with Crystal and Poison synergies. Lots and lots of different options to choose from, and what to play in each game would depend on the champions and items that appeared via RNG.

As a final note on this subject, it bears mentioning that there were other under-the-hood changes to the mechanics that also resulted in these improvements to gameplay. The designers added an additional row to the battle space, going up from three rows to four, and the larger total area opened up the spacing enough to make positioning more important. I was skeptical about this change at first but now I can't imagine going back to the tightly packed initial setup. The design team similarly made changes to the item and gold drop system, minimizing the randomness that previously could grant one player a dozen gold while giving another player a single item. The designers also tinkered with the passive gold generation and the amount of damage taken from losing rounds, eventually winding up with a nicely balanced system that rewarded strength throughout the whole duration of a match. Losing a round narrowly versus losing a round by a wide margin made a huge difference in Set Two, encouraging players to avoid pushing economy too hard without being overly punishing. I think that the designers more or less got this right in Set Two, and I'm worried by the fact that they're changing things up again in Set Three. We'll see how that goes.

The Ranked Experience

Set Two was the first time that I entered into ranked play for Teamfight Tactics with any degree of seriousness. I'll include a link here to the Excel spreadsheet that I created tracking my progress for anyone who might be interested. I spent much of my time in ranked games forcing my favorite team composition in Set Two, the Ocean/Mage team of spellcasters. This setup combined together two synergistic traits: Ocean, which granted additional mana every 4 seconds to all friendly champions, and Mages, which had a 50% chance to double-cast their abilities at Mage 3 and a 100% chance to double-cast their abilities at Mage 6. There were five key champions to this particular team composition: Vladimir (Ocean/Mage), Syndra (Ocean/Mage), Thresh (Ocean/Warden), Nautilus (Ocean/Warden), and Brand (Inferno/Mage). When combined together, they would make a team of Ocean 4 / Mage 3 / Warden 2, with the Wardens holding the frontline and the Mages dealing the damage. Brand in particular was the crucial unit for this team comp, as he would be dealing almost all of the damage in the lategame and needed to have key items and be 2 starred. Failure to find Brand was the top reason for Ocean/Mage comps to fail.

Like all team compositions in Teamfight Tactics, the Ocean/Mage team could be thought of as a tree of sorts, with a core "trunk" consisting of the five units listed above, and then various different branches that shoot off in various directions depending on what champions and items might appear. Early on, it could be useful to play Woodland/Druid units and have Neeko hold the items which would eventually be transferred onto Brand. Veigar (Shadow/Mage) could also hold onto items for Brand, or serve as the carry unit in a pinch although that typically meant a low finish. Taliya (Mountain/Mage) would often be a key part of this team since she could open up the Mountain element when paired with Malphite (Mountain/Warden). Inferno was another useful option that could be swapped into this comp, with Annie (Inferno/Summoner) and Amumu (Inferno/Warden) combining with Brand for some additional frontline protection. On an Ocean map, Qiyana would become an Ocean unit and could combine with Nami (Ocean/Mystic) to unlock Ocean 6 for enormous mana generation, something that normally required high rolling an Ocean Lux to achieve. Finding a Mage Cap (the item to that turns a unit into a Mage) unlocked the potential to run Mage 6 teams, usually by putting the Mage Cap onto Malphite. Mage 6 typically wasn't viable without finding a Mage Cap or a Force of Nature (the item that increases team size by one), but if you could land it, wow, what a powerful team could result! This video was my favorite game from Set Two, an Ocean/Mage team where I found the Mage Cap early on and simply destroyed the resulting ranked lobby. It was the rare case where absolutely everything went right for the whole game. If you want one video that perfectly encapsulates the Ocean/Mage team from Set Two, this is it.

So how did this play out in practice for ranked games? At least initially, it went well. Very, very well:

That's a screenshot of my previous ten game results from Lol Chess, one of the best website that I could find dedicated to TFT statistics. I had six first place finishes and four second place finishes in my recent match history; remember that each game of TFT has eight people in the lobby. In terms of ranked play, you gain league points (LP) for finishing in the top four places and you lose points for finishing in the bottom four places. I came in first place for all four of my initial matches, and the streak of crazy good finishes didn't stop there:

There's the screenshot for my first ten matches in ranked play. I won the first *SIX* matches in a row, and aside from one bad game where I came in seventh place, I managed another first place finish along with a second and a third. While I think that I'm reasonably decent at TFT, there's no way that I was anywhere near that good, even given the fact that the players in this lower elo bracket didn't know how to manage their economies properly. I had been both playing well and getting lucky, hitting key units at exactly the moment that I most needed them. That's not something that can be relied on longterm, and I was fully aware of this as it was happening.

This winning streak had some bizarre effects on my ranked placement. League of Legends and Teamfight Tactics both use the same system for ranked play. You have an official ranking which details things like Bronze II, Gold IV, and so on, along with your "true" ranking which is based on a hidden matchmaking rating (MMR) which is never seen by the player. Your official ranking is limited in how quickly it can go up or down while your hidden MMR can move at a much faster rate. For example, I could only receive 100 LP for coming in first place in these matches and only leap up one division at a time. Now that's still really fast, and in five games I went from Iron I to Bronze I gaining 100 LP each time. But my hidden MMR was increasing much, MUCH faster than this and that was what would determine the opponents that I faced.

You would think that if I was in Bronze I for my official ranking, I would play other people who were also ranked in Bronze I. Hah! Of course not. League of Legends has long had a problem with the top players getting bored on their main accounts and creating "smurf" accounts to mess around with players who are far below their skill level. This tends to ruin the games of those players, and after ten years of League's history, Riot's developers have put in place a system that's very, very good at detecting people playing below their true skill level. The ranked system therefore raises the hidden MMR of these players extremely quickly, shooting them up to the top tiers of the ladder in rapid fashion while keeping their official ranking much lower. As it turned out, by coming in first place in my initial six games, Riot's matchmaking had decided that I was a Challenger player who had created a new smurf account, and it matched me up with other players accordingly. This would color my impressions on the rest of the ranked season.

As a result, by the time that I had finished my placement games at Bronze I, my matches were full of mostly Gold rated players. I followed up those initial six victories with the following results: 3rd, 7th, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 3rd. This was enough to promote me into Silver I for my official rating, but my hidden MMR had climbed all the way into Diamond territory. That was the top 1% of players on the North American ladder! This reached complete insanity when I ran into a Challenger and a Grandmaster player while I was still in Silver I:

This is not a Photoshopped image, this really happened in one of my ranked games. There's little old me with my Sakura Featherknight icon in Silver I up against a Challenger and a Grandmaster player. And yes, this was a ranked game, not something weird happening in a normal game. I had to top 4 this game in order to get promoted to Gold rating, which I did in fact manage to do:

I came in second place, with the Grandmaster player topping the lobby and the Challenger player coming in fourth. Oh, and the guy who came in third, Quweuwe? I checked his end-of-season placement for Set Two and he also ended up as a Grandmaster. Seriously though, what the heck?! No one should have to be defeating Grandmaster and Challenger players just to make it into Gold IV! The worst part was that things only kept getting worse with every match that I won. If I finished in the top 4, then my next game would only have even more difficult opponents, and of course I didn't want to lose the games and drop in my rating. It was a vicious Catch-22 situation that forced me to face off against the top of the ladder over and over again to improve my ranking. From the moment that I reached Gold rating, every one of my games was against all-Diamond opposition, everyone in the top 1% of the playerbase and a decent number of them in the top 0.1% of the ladder. While I appreciated the challenge, this wasn't what I was looking for!

The way that the ranking system works is that this kind of thing will sort itself out over time. I was gaining vastly more LP for winning than I was dropping for losing, and over time this would ensure that I would rise to an official rating commensurate with my hidden MMR. For example, I gained 81 LP for a second place finish in one of these matches and then lost 15 LP for a sixth place finish. As long as I was roughly winning as often as I was losing, this would bring my official ranking up to my Diamond compatriots in time. However, there was one fatal flaw to this system: it assumed that I had enough time to play the scores of TFT matches necessary for things to "even themselves out" via repeated games. That's not an issue for the teenagers and college students who form the core of the TFT and League playerbase, but I work full time and have a wife and family to think about. Playing 200 or 300 TFT games for the system to sort itself out just wasn't in the cards for me. And in the meantime I wasn't having much fun, sitting in Gold IV or Gold III and having to face off against Diamond II players in every game. To my credit, I held my own in this Elo bracket: after being promoted to Gold IV and hitting all-Diamond opposition, I managed to break-even and have slightly better than 50/50 results. In 24 games, I tallied 13 finishes in the top 4 and 11 finishes in the bottom 4 (2 firsts, 2 seconds, 6 thirds, 3 fourths, 3 fifths, 4 sixths, 2 sevenths, 2 eights). I proved that I could sit in the Diamond Elo bracket and stabilize there. I'm exceedingly proud of that even if it was a frustrating slog for much of the time.

But actually making it up to Diamond rating itself was never going to happen. I had Diamond MMR but I wasn't going to get the formal Diamond rating to go along with it. It would require too many games and I didn't have the time or the desire to attempt the climb. When I reached Platinum IV ranking (after finishing the previous game at Gold I with 99 LP!), I was more than content to stop there. This placed me in the top 8% of the playerbase and I was content with that. Note that I only played 42 ranked games, placing me in the top 45% of games played, while my ranking had me in the top 8%. Given how the system rewards playing lots and lots of total games, I had exceeded expectations in a major way. The rankings for TFT are also much tougher to reach than they are in League of Legends, with only 1.5% of the ranked players reaching Diamond and the pictured 8% of the players reaching Platinum. I never rated higher than Gold in League of Legends so this was a real milestone for me.

I do hope that Riot's developers will try to ameliorate this problem in the upcoming set, however. While I'm sympathetic to the problem of high Elo smurfs wrecking other people's games, no one should be routinely forced into ranked games with players this much higher than their formal rating. Gold players shouldn't be in games with Diamond players, full stop, much less a Silver player matched up against a Challenger. The designers have said that they're going to make some changes to tone this phenomenon down in Set Three, and I hope that things will be better going forward.

This whole issue was exacerbated by the short length of the seasons in Teamfight Tactics. League of Legends has its ranked season run for ten months, starting in January and wrapping up in November each year. Teamfight Tactics somewhat bizarrely uses a much shorter duration for each set. Set One ran for a little less than six months and then Set Two only lasted for four months, running from November 2019 to March 2020. It takes some time to learn all of the new champions and their attributes at the start of each set, and then Riot keeps releasing patches every two weeks, often with major changes in them. It felt like I needed about a month to be on solid ground in Set Two and then everything kept changing constantly with new patches. The design team had promised they would take a break over the winter holidays and then they couldn't even keep to that schedule, releasing yet another patch the week of Christmas. Sheesh, calm down you guys! Let your game breathe a little! Again, I appreciate the dedication to improving the product, but too many changes can be disorienting.

I get the feeling that a lot of these rapid changes between sets and between patches is directed towards the most vocal players of TFT, the streamers who play 20 games per day and rapidly burn themselves out on each patch. I remember looking up someone's profile on Lol Chess and seeing that they had played 200 games in the first two weeks of Set Two. I'm sure that guy was more than ready for each new set of changes, but not all of us are like that, you know? On the off chance that anyone associated with Riot would ever read this, I'd encourage slowing things down a bit more. Let your sets run for six months instead of four months. Put out new patches every three weeks instead of every two weeks. TFT is losing too much of its casual audience because it's changing too many things too fast and demanding too much attention from its players. This should be a game that people can pick up and play for fun while also having a competitive side for the dedicated fans. When the designers are changing eight champs and six traits and three items every two weeks, it simply gets too hard for anyone but the most core fans to follow, and that's a big mistake. Maybe I would have pushed for Diamond rating if I'd had another month or two before Set Two came to an early end.


Rise of the Elements was a successful second set for Teamfight Tactics that made numerous improvements over the initial group of champions. I'll be sad to see it go and I hope that the gameplay doesn't take a step back in Set Three: Galaxies. I'm concerned that using futuristic skins for all of the champions makes them look too much alike, and many of the champions don't look anything at all like their League of Legends counterparts normally do. This was already an issue for some of the champions in Set Two (why does Vladimir have Ocean element? why does Zed have Electric but not Shadow?!) and it's much worse in Set Three. Sure, people who play TFT a lot will eventually memorize everything, but the whole point is to grab casual players and if they can't tell anyone apart, that's a real problem. I'm also going to miss the elemental hexes and I think it's a mistake not to have any "terrain" to position around on the map. Even if the elemental hexes didn't influence strategy quite as much as the designers intended, removing them and replacing them with nothing feels like a step backwards. I hope something like them returns eventually because it makes the positioning much more interesting.

So we'll see what the future holds in time with Set Three. I'm enjoying Teamfight Tactics enough to continue devoting a good portion of my gaming time to it, and that means more Livestreaming and YouTube videos for the forseeable future. Thanks as always for reading, and best of luck high rolling if you try your own hand at TFT.

EDIT: El Grillo made this awesome word cloud of the different comps that I had in my ranked spreadsheet. Thanks for putting this together!