Games like Heroes of the Storm, League of Legends and DOTA2 can have dozens of characters to pick from, and the class system ensures that we don’t fall into total chaos. Classes, labels and archetypes help us easily understand characters and figure out how to use them in a game.
But what about flex picks? Some tricky characters don’t fit into an easy classification, or manage to fit more than one. These edge cases are a challenge for developers. Some games, like League of Legends, try to temper their power. Other titles, like Blizzard’s array of competitive games, are embracing the flex. How do these tricky characters defy convention? Are they good for competitive gaming, or should flex be put to rest?
What exactly is a flex pick?
The exact definition of a flex pick varies from game to game. Each popular MOBA (League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm and DOTA 2) all have unique class systems, with a handful of classifications to refer to different kinds of characters. Because each game has its own quirks, the definition is difficult to nail down, but the main classification is being able to step outside their intended role and fulfill another. This secondary role needs to be competitively viable and at least close in strength, if not as strong or stronger, than the original role.
Sorry, ADhri and Crittlestick players.
Here are some examples: League of Legends’s Lulu was designed as a Support, but her damage combined with utility meant that she’s often played Mid or Top. Karma, with a healthy dose of both damage and team utility, can be played Mid or Support. Graves, an all-rounder bruiser of a champ, has seen play in nearly every role since his rework. In DOTA 2, a game where supports are less utility based and more about map pressure, Phantom Assassin (who is, fittingly, an assassin), became a strong support pick. In Heroes of the Storm, the new character Varian is a Multiclass hero. His choice of Ultimate ability at level 10 allows him to become a warrior, a bruiser or an all-out assassin, allowing him to pivot to the role his team needs most at the time.
Some characters are elegantly designed to do one thing, and they serve that purpose well. These characters are built to specialize in just one thing. Flex picks, due to the versatile nature of their abilities, can wiggle out of their original role.
To flex or not to flex
Flexibility is important. It’s a crucial part of Overwatch’s play, built into the core concept of hero switching. Being able to have a player who can pick up Roadhog or Genji during the course of the game is important. In MOBA games, hero drafting is crucial to a team’s strategy. Flex picks allow teams the opportunity to wait and see before dedicating a hero to a lane. If you first pick a Lulu, you give your team time to wait and see what the enemy solo lanes are before you make a decision.
Let’s take a moment to remember that while flex picks need to be able to fill more than one role "at once." Characters like Morgana and Gragas are sometimes mentioned as part of this category, but it’s a bit of a misnomer. They were both mid laners at one point before, but have found new homes elsewhere on the Rift: Morgana moved into the bot lane, where her binding and Black Shield made her top tier at support, and Gragas’s AP burst was changed into a more disruptive kit, suitable for the jungle. These wouldn’t necessarily be flex picks; they’re characters who transitioned as the meta changed.
A flex pick who can fill multiple roles is one of two things. The first is that some of these champions are just too strong across the board, and need part of their kit to be pared down or tweaked. Graves, mentioned above, has been hit with the nerf bat several times after his multi-lane dominance, with his damage and attack animation getting hit to make him less of a powerhouse. DOTA 2’s Phantom Assassin, the short-lived support craze, also got significantly nerfed.
The second category of flex picks are characters who sacrifice dominance in one area to be able to carry out multiple tasks. Karma, for instance, doesn’t have sustained damage; her utility means that her burst all comes from Mantra’d Qs. While she works in the mid lane, a traditional control mage can bully her out and pick up advantages if played correctly. The drawback behind a flex pick is simple: A jack of all trades can fall before a master of one.
Embracing the flex
What makes Heroes of the Storm’s multiclass mechanic is so interesting is that it negates the problem above. Giving Varian a choice between Warrior or Assassin means that he can fill the role of both without having to sacrifice efficiency in either. Unlocking the true power of a flex pick requires both teams to be competitive minded. For instance, first picking a Karma or Malphite in League is a bold statement that allows for some clever mind games as both teams try to draft around the flex pick to answer the possibility of either composition. Meanwhile, anyone can pick up Varian and figure out how a flex champion works and make a choice that suits their team.
Heroes of the Storm has always been the MOBA that tries new things, and they’ve recently embraced that as their marketing pitch. Some of these experiments, like the array of maps with individual mechanics and win conditions, will continue on in Heroes for years to come. Varian’s class-switching mechanic, where he’s designed as a flex pick from the ground up, may be interesting to see in other games. It’s an elegant, easy-to-understand solution that gets players on board with the concept of a flex pick, regardless of their level of experience.
Flex picks will never go away, thanks to their strategic importance in draft games. They add a fun element for viewers, and allow teams to make some clever plays and build cool comps (protect the Kog, anyone?) They’re not perfect, though, and their niche strength or across the board dominance can be problematic for players. Heroes of the Storm is looking to solve the problem by putting the power in players’ hands — but it remains to be seen whether the experiment will work, or make it into other games.