Hey, it’s Patrick. I’m trying out a short blog series about character design in competitive video games! Simple format — five things I like about a character, and one thing I’d like to fix. Check it out and let me know if it’s a thing you’d want to read more of! Also read: Pharah and Chipp.
I worked at Riot Games on League of Legends in various publishing roles for two years. During that time, I played a little bit of Ranked (didn’t get past Silver), and I competed in two internal competitive leagues (“Riot Rumble”), carrying my team to victory one year in the “Definitely Not Bronze” finals (it’s a long story).
During those two years, if anyone ever asked me what role I played in League, I’d tell them that I didn’t play League, I just played Thresh. This was an exaggeration (I almost never got to play Thresh in competitive, alas) but it’s how my heart felt about my relationship to League.
Thresh is an aggressive, playmaking support character who creates unfair fights via abilities that slow his targets down, pull them out of position, and transport his teammates to his position.
Note that while I work at Riot Games, I had nothing to do with Thresh, and nothing in this essay should be taken as behind-the-scenes insight into how he was made. These observations are based on my experiences as a player and a (not-League) game designer, not as someone who actually did work on him.
(Example GIFs courtesy of this rad MadLife montage by The Carry.)
— — -
#1: Thresh wins by reading your mind.
If you’ve read any of the prior installments of this series, you’ll know that I’m a big sucker for characters who win because they can read their opponents’ minds. Thresh’s abilities are pretty much all about that.
League is a 5v5 game that heavily emphasizes intelligent map positioning; being able to dish out and soak up damage is always useful, but if you find yourself isolated from your teammates and ambushed by multiple enemies, you’re likely going to lose that fight even if your character generally excels at combat.
Thresh’s abilities include:
- Death Sentence: A medium-range, long-windup linear attack that, if it makes contact, stuns the enemy, pulls them toward Thresh a little bit, and allows Thresh to pull himself even closer to the enemy;
- Flay: A short-range, quick area-of-effect swiping attack that slows any enemy hit and pushes any enemy hit in the direction of the attack;
- Dark Passage: A medium-range quick area-of-effect projectile that a teammate can walk to and activate to quickly transport himself next to Thresh (and offers a small shield to help protect Thresh and said passenger);
- The Box: A short-range, quick area-of-effect barrier that heavily slows any enemy who walks through it.
While Thresh’s abilities do have a little damage built into them, that’s not where they get their effectiveness from. Rather, his abilities are all built around making reads about the opponents’ intended behavior and paying out correct reads by creating temporary positional advantages. If I think you’re running to chase my teammate down, I’ll throw a lantern to a nearby teammate, throw a hook timed to catch you taking the fastest possible route to my vulnerable teammate, and use the hook followup to pull both of us right on top of you, turning a 1v1 into a 3v1. Thresh’s abilities may inflict minimal damage, but they’ve got a lot of power.
Even cooler: Death Sentence (the pull move) and Flay (the slow/push move) complement each other quite well. Death Sentence is for reads that require an accurate lead time of a second or two; Flay is a bit quicker to activate, but much shorter range, so it’s useful as a reactive counter to enemy dashes or interruptible abilities.
The end result is that an effective Thresh player is constantly reading a situation and looking for cues that yield hunches as to what the enemy players want to do, finding applications for Flay from second to second (quick, stuff that escape attempt!) and looking for bigger hook + lantern combos in 5-to-10 second snapshots. There aren’t many characters in League that emphasize this skill so heavily, and the overall effect is that a Thresh player feels like a god damn mind-reading YOLO genius when one of their plans comes together. It’s a beautiful thing.
#2: Holistic design so cohesive it’s actually kind of scary. (Because he’s scary.)
It’s kind of weird for a sadistic Grim Reaper-looking revenant thing to be a support character, but it actually ends up working out at a surprisingly deep level.
Like I said earlier, Thresh wins by reading your mind. Due to the speed and range of his attacks, he is simply unable to heavily influence game outcomes if he isn’t making predictions about his enemies’ behavior and committing to decisions accordingly.
As it turns out, one of the most powerful things Thresh can do is just walk forward at you and…do nothing. If you’re worried about getting hooked, you’ll zig-zag to avoid it preemptively, and he can just walk over to you, Flay you to slow you down, then get a hook that’s pretty much guaranteed. If you’re not worried about getting hooked, you’re either not moving or you’re running away in a rather predictable path, which will get you hooked. If you’re playing against Thresh, you will find moments of ever-growing dread where you simply can’t seem to get away from him. And when you get caught, you know that he was in your head the whole time.
But what’s it like playing alongside the supporting Grim Reaper? Well, since most of his contributions come from godlike reads, if he’s on point, you’re grateful that the spectre of Death is on your side, feeding you sacrifices; if he’s missing his hooks and trying to make ill-advised plays (YOLO hook-lantern combos that lead you both to suicide missions deep in enemy territory, for example) then you’re reminded that maybe a complete sadist isn’t really the most reliable ally.
In my mind, this amazing character imprint mostly comes from the following details:
- Excellent gameplay kit cohesion that emphasizes anticipation + reads
- Writing and VO that communicate sadistic and unreliable personality elements
- Weapon and character themes (kusarigama + lantern, character is a jailer + torturer) that plays off of his kit. It makes sense that a sadistic psychopath jailer would scare you, predict your reaction, and trap you!
Perhaps the biggest win here is that Thresh is a support character who makes you feel like a total aggressive badass carry, and that’s definitely not an easy thing to do in the support role. (Also see: Ana from Overwatch.)
#3: Build flexibility allows for a moderate amount of variation without changing core character identity.
It’s worth noting here that League allows players to customize their character’s gameplay effects in certain ways, both in-game (items + ability levels) and out of game (Runes and Masteries). Often I find that characters with very strong identities don’t get much mileage out of these systems, because their kits reward min-maxing specific stats or hitting certain inflection points for maximum efficacy. Thresh isn’t the most customizable champion, but you can certainly build him to be more of a greedy aggressive carry vs. more of a team player, and that range makes it easier to play him over and over again because you don’t feel railroaded into specific functions.
#4: The sound of his hook is SO FUCKING SATISFYING.
Honestly, this probably could have gone under #2, but it’s so good it deserves a special shoutout. I’ve written earlier about how my favorite character abilities are always tempting me to use them; with Thresh, it’s the sound effect that does it for me. At first it builds anticipation, then delivers a sweet, juicy payoff.
#5: Great characters come in pairs.
Want some quick and easy character building? Take two characters. One of them now hates the other. Boom.
In this case, evil undead jailer Thresh got goody-two-shoes-gun-kata nerd Lucian all tilted by killing Lucian’s wife and trapping her soul in his lantern. That short story instantly adds just a little flavor to both characters whenever they clash in a League match. (It also lends itself to a wacky buddy cop side story when they’re working bot lane together, which is a little weird but I also adore in my own private headcanon.)
We may have sacrificed Lucian’s wife at the altar of character development, but what we got out of it were some simple, quickly understandable personality hooks that make it easy to understand WTF Their Deal Is. #worth.
Thing that needs fixing: Soul collecting mini-game.
Thresh doesn’t gain the same stats that normal League characters do upon leveling up. Instead, he has a special passive that causes the enemies that die near him to drop souls, which he can walk over to gain permanent stat bonuses.
In theory, this could be cool! Just like how Thresh preys on people who make their intentions clear, chasing souls can tempt Thresh to move toward positions he shouldn’t be taking, which the enemy can use as bait. The potential for thematic connection is rad.
In practice, a single soul is very rarely worth taking any kind of additional risk for. Thresh isn’t really a stats monster, so his effectiveness doesn’t scale dramatically with the numbers he gets from a single soul. One could boost the per-soul bonus and lower the drop rate to make an individual soul more valuable, but souls just don’t drop often enough in positions that are exploitable by the other team enough to make that really a compelling play, either.
It’d be kind of fun to let Thresh collect souls only from slain enemy champions (as opposed to random minions and stuff) and perhaps give them higher stat bonuses if Thresh is getting kills/assists in quick succession, thereby incentivizing Thresh players to go for Big Plays (and thus making it easier to bait his team into overextending). Plus, if the souls don’t have to replace his regular stat growth, then maybe you could give him stats that actually matter for his gameplay effectiveness (cooldown reduction, please).
But hey, soul-chasing did get us this rad Inkinesss illustration, though.