Tank or just Tanky?

One problem with theory in a game like League of Legends is the complication of technical terms. And to be fair, this is largely arbitrary. Why does ADC mean (Jinx/Sivir/Lucian), and not Tryndamere? Why is Tryndamere instead a Melee Carry? Are mages spellcasters? Or are they spellcasters who do primarilyl magic damage? And if so, what is Pantheon? Is Karthus’ ultimate AoE? It doesn’t really affect an area so much as 5 targets, but then again, maybe it’s an AoE, champions-only spell that affects the whole map! Obviously, it may not be programmed like an AoE spell, but it has effects like one, and isn’t that what matters?

One of the longest running arguments is over what constitutes ‘a tank’.

Anybody who played LoL before the end of Season One has probably had something like this happen:

Player 1 – We need a tank to fill out our composition

Player 2 – Mordekaiser! Huehuehuehuehuehuehue.

Of course, the immediate argument follows that Mordekaiser is not a tank, but merely has the potential to be tanky. To one side of the argument, this is laughable. What could ‘tank’ mean but ‘tanky’? To be fair, since we have a class of champions called ‘bruiser’ – or is it ‘fighter’? – we probably should exclude some tanky champions from tank. This is not for any ideological reasons, it’s simply that a champion like Mundo operates much differently than a champion like Amumu.

In my time, I’ve heard almost every champion decried as ‘not a tank’, except perhaps Galio/Rammus/Shen.

The historical drive behind this is simple: in WoW, aggro is determined mechanistically, and so any champion can cause a mob (or boss) to aggro into them. As a result, all you need to be a successful tank is tankiness (and some way to draw aggro). In League of Legends, our champions can attack whomever we please. As such, some will argue that to be a tank requires having a taunt.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Why? Because a taunt is not unique in drawing aggro. Let’s analyze what a taunt does. It aggros the target to the taunting champion, dumping all of their damage on him. If the taunting champion is out of range, the taunted champion will attempt to get in range. This is typically paired with some ability which mitigates damage. What is the overall effect?

  1. The taunted champion does less damage
  2. The taunted champion cannot choose targets.

So then, does Ahri’s charm make her a tank? A charm, afterall, behaves much like a taunt. Ahri will charm at range, and the target will walk towards her. However, even more compellingly, the target cannot attack. While taunts mitigate some of the damage of the taunted champion, charm effectively mitigates all of that damage. So if we allow taunts as ‘tank’ abilities, what reason do we have for not allowing the better version: charm. And charm isn’t the only ability which does so. Skarner’s ultimate behaves much like Ahri’s charm, except that he can change the movement of the taunted champion post-grab (this means he can be stopped from doing so, as well). Blitzcrank’s grab/hook combo surely shares similarities to the taunt/charm/Skarner category, as does Thresh’s hook; all of those abilities temporarily reduce or entirely stop the champion’s ability to deal damage to a specific target (namely the carries you are protecting), either by directing it to another target and reducing it, or stopping it entirely.

But let’s go deeper. What about stuns? Isn’t a stun simply a taunt with 100% damage reduction but no movement component? Imagine Shen suddenly got a multi-target stun, instead of a multi-target taunt. He is now strictly better at his job. It would be silly to call him ‘not a tank’, right? Unfortunately, this logic opens us up to all sorts of CC: silences, blinds, and even Sona’s W Power Chord.

If we aren’t careful, we’ll end up with every champion but Mordekaiser being a tank!

Let’s look at what every champion with a taunt has in common, but not necessarily every champion with a stun. Rammus, Galio, and Shen all have an ability that make them tankier – Galio’s and Shen’s are partially included in their taunt! – Why is this? Well, at face value, it appears to be because they are going to be attacked. And that is certainly part of it. But as well, they have to CC the right target, not just any target, and that means that their positioning will leave them open to damage. Taunting the ADC puts you in a position to be focused – hard – and so you need to be able to handle that sort of punishment.

Of course, it’s not just taunts. Amumu’s stun literally pulls him into the enemy team!

So we’ve moved on from just taunts. So why can’t we call, say, Mordekaiser a tank? Surely he reduces incoming damage. With a little bit of armor and MR, he can walk into the enemy team and “force” them to target him. Since they’re targeting the tanky target, their damage is reduced, ergo, tanking, right?

Not so fast.

First, there’s a rather fine line between ‘tanky enough to walk into the enemy team’ and ‘has so little damage as to not matter’. This is one of the things that really distinguishes a tank from a bruiser. A tank needs to items to do his job. Amumu can have literally 0 items, and at least be able to bandage toss into the fight and lock down the whole enemy team. Scared of a Mordekaiser with no items? I thought not.

Second, a tank needs to be able to heavily reduce incoming damage, not just to himself, but also for his team. This is why Mordekaiser is not a tank. Yes, he is really hard to kill, but his role depends on the enemy team attacking him, and then on his damage to enemy champions.

So if he’s not a tank, what is Mordekaiser? Well, let’s back up and define some terms.

We’ve got bruisers – think Jason Voorhees – who run at the enemy team, unstoppable and unkillable, but only able to kill one person per scene – sorry, teamfight – and typically only when they’re alone.

We’ve got tanks – think Secret Service – whose job is to protect other champions. Now, they can protect those champions in multiple ways. Sometimes, they see a shooter, and dive tackle him so that his team has time to respond: Malphite is a great example. Other times, they simply stand near the president, keeping him alive by bodyblocking, distracting, and grappling the president’s ninja assailants. Nautilus is a pretty good example: he can CC any number of targets in a short period of time with just his auto attacks.

Finally, we’ve got assassins, those dudes trying to kill the president. Now, they have to watch out for bruisers (who might just take them out before they can reach the president) and assassins (who might just bodyhug them so they can’t reach their weapon to kill the president).

Now, this whole set of terminology gets confused often because of a few champions who like to straddle those lines. Yes, I’m talking about my least favorite (from a design perspective) champions, Vi, Jarvan, Irelia, and the like.

On the one hand, Jarvan and Vi are clearly tanks. Vi has 2 hard CCs that can’t be mitigated, while Jarvan has an AoE knockup and a terrain modifier.

On the other hand, because of their double gap closers, they can dive past bruisers and assassins to kill carries. Finally, because of their good consistent damage (especially Vi’s W), they can be built as bruisers, and run constantly at the enemy team, punching first, punching later, punching some more and then when everybody’s dead trying to ask a question. With this flexibility, no wonder they’re such strong picks, and have been for a long time.

So let’s sum things up.

If your job is to run at the enemy team screaming ‘lalalalala you can’t hurt me’ while having enough damage over time to kill a carry eventually, you’re probably a bruiser.

If your job is to stick onto key targets (defensively or offensively) screaming ‘lalalala you can’t hurt my teammates’, you’re probably a tank.

If your job is to jump on a carry and immediately kill them, screaming ‘lalalalala you can’t hurt anybody because you’re dead’, you’re an assassin.

Now, plenty of champions can be built any way. Amumu can build more like a bruiser (with tanky AP items), more like a tank (CDR tank items), or more like an assassin/mage (straight AP).

Jarvan and Vi can do whatever they want with their builds.

But no amount of items can turn Mordekaiser into a tank, because he simply doesn’t have the tools to prevent damage or disrupt the enemy team. He can be a bruiser or an assassin, but there’s not much he can do to be a tank. Just the same, you’ll probably never turn Nautilus into an assassin.


Mattias “Gentleman Gustaf” Lehman is a big time nerd-gamer who has been involved in both SC2 and LoL. He has ranked as high as Diamond 1 in solo queue and Diamond 3 in arranged 5s.

You can see his other work here:

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3 Comments on “Tank or just Tanky?

    • I could just delete this comment, but it’s more fun to leave it up and know how mad it makes you that it exists 😛


      • Seems like the perfect place to go…

        Huehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehuehue… I hope he had it set to get notified of replies. 🙂


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