17th June 2020 – 10:32pm
Since Valorant is available, most Agents have grown in popularity. It took a few weeks for Breach to find his place in the hearts of the players, while Viper is only beginning to be played regularly in the various tournaments. However, there is one that has remained unbeatable since the very first day: Sage.
Today we're going to examine the reasons for such popularity, wonder if this is a problem, and if so, how to solve it.
There are two settings that make Sage the Agent that everyone wants to have on their team: their uniqueness and their efficiency.
Every Agent is unique in their own way, which is why it's important to choose which ones to play in a game. But what Sage brings is absolutely incomparable to what others bring. Several Agents have smoke bombs or flashes, but no one other than Sage has an ability able to heal an ally and an ability that can create a physical obstacle. Because she's the only one to offer these tools, it becomes the mandatory choice for any team wishing to benefit from a heal or a barrier. But being unique isn't enough, if abilities are not useful. Cypher is also relatively unique in his gameplay, and while he's extremely popular, he isn't as much as Sage. This is where efficiency comes in.
Rather than thinking in terms of players in a game, we can think in terms of health. A game of Valorant opposing two teams of 5 players is equivalent to two entities having 500 health. But with a Sage on their side, the team has virtually 798 health (two heals of 99 health in one round, and 100 health with a resurrection). So, of course, the benefit is never as great, but it remains significant. Imagine a fight between two identical Agents, but one of which has more health than the other; the match becomes unbalanced, and that's what Sage heals create.
Another point that is generally underestimated regarding Sage is the consistency of her abilities. Some Agents like Raze can very easily miss their abilities and have little impact in a round. This isn't the case of Sage who can very easily use her abilities. A heal or resurrection will always be successful and will change the balance of power. A Barrier Orb also imposes a durable obstacle that can be used in many circumstances. As long as Sage is careful and doesn't die, she can use all of her abilities in most rounds.
Sage is the very definition of meta: she's effective and unmatched, so everyone plays her. That isn't necessary a problem; at least, not yet. The lack of diversity can give a bad image of the game and its balance, but not with such a small number of Agents. There are relatively few Agents in the game at the moment, so it's not shocking to see one imposing themself. It would be different if there were 30 Agents available, including several healers, and Sage was still present at each game.
The imbalance caused by Sage is lessened by the absence of a Pick & Ban system. Since both teams can play Sage simultaneously, the balance is maintained. Besides, she's not literally a powerful Agent but a useful one. She has no particular advantage in combat, she must know how to aim like any other Agent and she can die as easily as another. This is a very important point to take into account when talking about balancing. If an Agent is unbalanced and too powerful in combat, the winning team of the round would be the one successfully killing them first.
However, the omnipresence of an Agent remains something to keep an eye on. This Agent can't determine the way the game is played. Ideally, each character should offer different strategic opportunities, with positive and negative sides. The only negative side of Sage is that taking a slot for her in your team prevents you from picking another Agent and benefiting from their abilities, which could change your strategies.
To make Sage less popular, you have to tackle the three points mentioned at the beginning of this article.
Since the beginning of the closed beta, Sage is the only Agent to have received nerfs at each patch. This is the easiest and fastest way to make the character less interesting in a team composition. There are many aspects of Sage that could be affected. You can adjust the raw values of your abilities, such as reducing her healing to 50 health. These are direct changes, but which are rarely appropriate. It's important that the Agents keep an identity and that their abilities seem significant in a game.
We generally prefer to modify additional values. One way is to increase the cooldown between two uses of an ability. Reducing its range is another. These are two methods already used by Riot Games in previous patches. To go further, we can imagine the need for Sage to physically touch her ally to heal them or her ally to remain motionless during the treatment. This would not remove any usefulness to the ability, only from its practicality. Both cases slow down the action of the team (which is important when the rounds are played in less than 2 minutes) and create moments of weakness.
You have to be extremely careful when nerfing an Agent. One handicap too many and the Agent will no longer be played at all. It's also a sign of weakness on the part of the game's balancing team to have to make an Agent so weak and useless that they might no longer exist any more. This is why Riot Games prefers going slowly, little by little, rather than reducing her viability to zero before buffing her, little by little.
Another way to decrease Sage's popularity is to create another Agent who can heal allies. On paper, this is an effective method that brings variety. However, you have to be very careful.
In the event of a new Agent capable of healing, this Agent should not have abilities similar to Sage's. In this case, players may prefer the more effective Agent of the two and abandon the other one. This is called Power Creeping : creating a new option superior to the previous ones, which makes the latter useless.
An Agent with an utility comparable to Sage, but with different abilities, could be based on shields. Applied temporarily to an ally, it would offer a brief advantage in combat, capable of making healing obsolete.
But the real risk is that a new Support Agent might only accentuate the original problem. Rather than seeing Sage in all of the games, we would then see the duo Sage AND this other Agent in each team. This is a problem well known by Overwatch players that has prompted Blizzard to create restrictions within the selection of heroes in game (inability to play more than two tanks, or predefined pool of heroes in competition).
In the end, the most interesting way to reduce the impact of an Agent is not necessarily to change them, but to create opportunities to thwart it. The creation of an Agent that would be a direct counter to Sage can make her much less interesting. Imagine an Agent capable of re-opening wounds, redirecting enemy abilities, or causing damage that cannot be healed. Adding characters capable of directly countering another will solve balancing issues while offering different strategic options.
The last solution, the most extreme, would be to completely review this Agent and remove one of her abilities, to give her a less unique one instead. The Barrier Orb could become the skill of a brand new Agent. The mechanic would therefore not be lost, and we would have to make a choice between Sage and this other Agent. This practice is difficult for players to accept, especially after the game is out of beta. However, this is something that we have already seen in other FPS like Paladins.
If all eyes are on Sage, Reyna's case may become the most problematic in the future. Reyna is the only Agent capable of effectively improve her performance in direct combat. She can also affect the team's total health by healing and increasing her own maximum health. In her own way, Reyna plays on the same string as Sage, but also has formidable snowball potential, especially at high level. Fortunately, it's compensated by the need to make a first kill, but a good player will not have much trouble getting it. This is probably the reason why we can see a lot of players complaining about this brand new character.
Sage is without a doubt an Agent to keep an eye on, but she's not yet problematic enough to have a negative impact on Valorant's health. She's one of the very first Agents of Valorant, so we can legitimately think that Riot Games was well aware of what she brought to the game. The developers probably have plans for the medium and long term regarding the ecosystem between the different Agents. For now, we'll just have to deal with Sage's omnipresence.