Apex Legends Meta Retrospective – A History of Balance in Apex Legends
Apex Legends is coming up on its fourth birthday in February 2023. In these past three years, the game has been through a ton of changes to characters, weapons, and even fundamental game mechanics. And with the usual live service additions constantly forced in, the Apex Legends meta looks entirely different now compared to on release.
As with most battle royales, the game is heavily casual-focused. Players provide income after all, and keeping as many of them happy as possible will lead to the biggest gains for the developer and publisher. However, Apex Legends has a specific boon that most multiplayer titles can only ever dream of: a large, dedicated, hardcore fan base that grinds the game season after season.
This is a necessity for a live service game to survive for multiple years. Casual players are easily swayed, floating to whichever hot new multiplayer title came out recently that all their friends want to try. If your game can capture the hearts of a decent amount of your player base and keep them around, the lifespan of your game is potentially limitless.
Apex Legends might have the most divided player base of any multiplayer game that I’ve ever seen. Casuals and hardcore players are constantly at each other’s throats for every reason imaginable. The development team must have very diverse opinions about the game, seeing as they hate both casual fun and high levels of skill expression, at least according to social media.
It seems that there is no way to win, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. After all, Apex Legends is the precious baby of many of these developers (and cash cow of EA, but let’s ignore that one). Tons of people love this game, and making as many good decisions as possible just makes sense. So, lets dive into the Apex Legends meta over the years and discuss what has changed, what has stayed the same, and what might be coming in the future.
A Grand Opening
Apex Legends was released on February 4, 2019. At first, there was only one map: King’s Canyon. There were also just eight Legends available, compared to the 23 we have at the time of writing. As for weapons, only 19 existed at the game’s launch. Today, there are 31. This means that we’ve seen 15 new Legends, yet only 12 new weapons.
If you wanted to be the best Apex Legends player at launch, you played Wraith. Release Wraith is arguably the most broken Legend that has ever existed. Her Tactical ability, Into the Void, was an instant-cast get-out-of-jail-free card. Her hitbox was also drastically smaller than other characters, making her much more difficult to shoot.
If that wasn’t enough, Wraith’s Ultimate, Dimensional Rift, was far and away the best rotational tool in the game. It had a low cooldown and guaranteed invulnerable passage for you and your teammates. Basically, every squad had a Wraith without fail.
The other best Legends on release were Lifeline and Pathfinder. Lifeline had the same small hitbox as Wraith and had a broken passive that let her use heals faster. While Pathfinder had a chunky hitbox, his low cooldown Grapple Hook let him get to places that no Legend could access. As players got better at moving around with Grapple Hook, Pathfinder became the favorite option of flashy mechanical players.
On the weapons front, the Wingman was by far the best gun in the game. It fired incredibly quickly, had near zero recoil, and an insane 12 bullet magazine on purple. The thing could wipe a full team in less than five seconds in the right hands. The R-99 and Peacekeeper were also big favorites, as they were easy to use and had incredible damage output.
The Early Days
Six months after the release of Apex Legends, the game was starting to take shape. Many early game-breaking bugs and the most unbalanced aspects were addressed. We also had two new characters in Octane and Wattson. Wattson in particular would make waves, as she was the final piece needed to create the ultimate team composition.
Apex Legends’s first massive esports events started happening around this time. Almost every team ran the Wraith, Pathfinder, Wattson composition. This team had everything: rotation, playmaking, anchor potential, and economy. And at the EXP Invitational at X Games and the Apex Legends Preseason Invitational, TSM piloted it flawlessly to win back-to-back tournaments.
TSM wins the Apex Legends Preseason Invitational, the biggest tournament by far up to that point.
The meta would stay focused on the same four Legends until Season 3. Crypto was released during this time, but the real star of the show was Gibraltar. Everyone’s favorite big boy got some massive buffs that pushed him straight into the meta. The Charge Rifle was also added to the game and terrorized all levels of play until it was nerfed.
Additionally, World’s Edge was added as the game’s second map. With well designed POIs, fun buildings to fight around, and much better rotation timings than King’s Canyon, World’s Edge immediately became a favorite of many players. And with ranked being added to the game in the previous season, players were starting to get very familiar with everything Apex.
Since Gibby was now a good pick, some professional teams opted to try and slot him in over Pathfinder, while some did not. In ranked however, Pathfinder was still everywhere. The meta would continue this way through the Summer of 2020. Even though the same Legends were being played, it didn’t mean that Respawn wasn’t trying to shake up the meta. And in Season 6, that’s exactly what happened.
The New Arrivals
Throughout Seasons 5 and 6, multiple huge nerfs came through onto Pathfinder and Wattson. The former had his Grapple Hook cooldown more than doubled, while the latter had her Interception Pylon duration reduced from Infinite to 90 seconds. These Legends were very clearly worse than they were when the meta comp was initially formed, but the problem was that the only other competitively suitable character was Gibraltar.
That was until Bloodhound was given a bevy of unbelievable buffs to their kit. Whenever Bloodhound was in Beast of the Hunt, their scan cooldown got reduced to just six seconds and the animation was twice as fast. Combined with the fact that the scan now tracked opponents for four seconds instead of just flashing their location, Bloodhound could essentially give near-permanent wall hacks.
These changes made Bloodhound the best Legend for trying to win games and farming in ranked. However, one last buff that allowed Bloodhound to scan Beacons for zone information, something only Pathfinder could do before, thrust the character into the competitive spotlight. With the meta shifting from slow playing in zone to rushing down enemies with Bloodhound, out went Wattson and in came Gibby on a permanent basis. Thus, the Wraith, Bloodhound, Gibraltar meta was born.
On the weapons front, the new Volt was everywhere as a versatile mid-range SMG, especially with the R-99 being put in the Care Package. Assault Rifles like the R-301 and Flatline were still popular, but with all armor being changed into the new EVO armor, damage farming became very important. As such, the G7 Scout and Charge Rifle became even more valuable options. Rounding out most loadouts was either a shotgun or a Prowler for dominance in close range.
New Ways to Play
Some new strategies using existing characters were starting to be employed around Season 6, mainly with Revenant. The unique character allowed teams to make a reckless push, then be teleported back to their Death Totem anchor. A composition involving Wraith and Crypto came around, which was very effective at closing the gap and wiping teams quickly. However, the interaction between Death Totem and Wraith’s portal was nerfed shortly after.
Then along came Season 7. Octane received another massive buff, tripling his passive regeneration rate. Combined with previous buffs to his Jump Pad, including a criminally low 60 second cooldown and much more distance and control via a double jump, Octane quickly took Wraith’s place as Revenant’s best friend, creating the Revtane combo. Octane’s prowess in play making and rotating even caused some professional teams to try him in competitive over Wraith since she had been nerfed so much.
The biggest new addition of Season 7 was Horizon. The offensive Legend was easily the best vertical fighter in the game thanks to her Gravity Lift. She could toss it down, fly up into the sky for off-angles, and mow down teams behind cover. Combined with her Black Hole ultimate that could decimate teams with grenades, Horizon was a powerful team fighter that quickly took over Ranked. As for why she didn’t make it into competitive, Bloodhound and Gibraltar were too necessary, and Horizon didn’t provide the macro rotations that Wraith or Octane could.
Apex’s third map, Olympus, was also added this season. While it wasn’t as popular as World’s Edge, the map did provide for a new experience through its circular design and new rotation tools. Out of all four current Apex maps, Olympus has been given the least ranked splits and professional play.
The Meta Renaissance
Ever since Wraith, Bloodhound, Gibraltar became the staple meta composition, no Legend was able to earn a permanent spot among the best in the game. Teams experimented with picks like Octane and Caustic, but Ol’ Reliable still reigned supreme. Little did everyone know, Apex Legends was about to change more than it ever had before.
Season 9 came with the release of Valkyrie, a new Legend who had everything required to be the best pick period. Her Jetpack passive allowed for easy off-angles and mobility. Her Skyward Dive ultimate was essentially a free portable Jump Tower that provided the best macro rotations in the game at the press of a button. On top of that, she was a Recon character that could scan Beacons for zone information.
It was very clear that Valkyrie had what it took to finally cut into the meta trio. But as with every game changing addition, it takes time to get used to. Valkyrie released in May of 2021, and the ALGS Championships were just a month later in June. Few teams were able to adjust their game plan and composition in time to play Valkyrie. The ones that did, however, were greatly rewarded.
Both the eventual EU and NA Champions, SCARZ and Kungarna, were among the few teams that managed to learn Valkyrie in time. While the former simply opted to replace Bloodhound as the Beacon scan character in the team, Kungarna pioneered a brand-new type of composition. They chose to permanently replace Wraith/Octane with Caustic, a defensive Legend who excelled at holding confined spaces. This Valkyrie, Gibraltar, Caustic comp would gain a ton of popularity in both pro play and ranked.
Kungarna NA makes the tournament winning Valk ult at the 2021 ALGS Championships.
Seer Ruins the Game (Part 1)
Season 10 launched with another game changing Legend. Seer was a Recon character who could give wall hacks, HP information, and cancel heals and rezzes using his tactical. It also did 20 damage to everyone it hit for some reason. His ultimate provided full tracking wall hacks on everybody in a large area for 30 seconds every 90 seconds. If that wasn’t enough, Seer’s passive let him detect any enemies in a large area in from of him, even those hiding and standing still.
For three weeks, Apex Legends was unplayable. Seer was in every team in both casual, ranked, and professional. He would poke you through walls, expose you and your team, and win every fight by pressing ult. Respawn did take action when it was clear that this was not okay. Seer got bashed with the biggest one-patch nerf list in the game’s history.
They did overshoot with the nerfs just a tiny bit, causing him to be one of the worst Legends for a couple of months (even if he deserved it). A later re-buff to his tactical that brought the cast delay back to its release value made him playable again, but we’ll get into that in part two.
Adjusting to the New Wave
Season 11 rolled around, adding the Legend Ash and a brand-new map, Storm Point. This was the first map that was very heavily influenced by professional players during its development. Storm Point is very large and has tons of height discrepancy. It was difficult to traverse the map without a set plan and the right characters (read: Valkyrie). While the casual opinion of the map was split, Storm Point is beloved by the pro community and was quickly added to the ALGS map rotation.
As for the Legend meta, the Valk, Gibby, Caustic comp was still very strong. It was number one in popularity, but not every squad conformed to it like they did with previous hard metas. Many teams in both pro and ranked stuck to Wraith, some experimenting with Ash as their lead character.
Japanese and Korean players found new solutions to the comp, opting to replace Wraith with Wattson or Crypto. Some meta breakers even tried picks that were much more fringe but had their merits, such as Bangalore and Loba. For the first time, it seemed like the Legend meta was starting to diversify. That was largely thanks to Valkyrie, who enabled many more playstyles than just rotating into zone and taking fights.
The ALGS Split 2 Playoffs and ALGS 2022 Championship both came and went with Reignite (turned DarkZero Esports) winning both on Valk, Gibby, Caustic. Despite being the most popular comp at Champs, other picks had their time in the spotlight. Most importantly, two Legends would have their come-up thanks to the performance of two North American teams.
The first was Newcastle, the new Legend introduced with Season 13. His mobile fortress gameplay could provide cover at any location at a moment’s notice, much like Gibraltar. Newcaste did have some weaknesses that Gibby didn’t, leading 100 Thieves to pair him with Wattson. Utilizing this versatile defensive comp, 100 Thieves were one of the most consistent teams at the tournament. They finished third place overall, cementing Newcastle as a viable option.
Seer Ruins the Game (Part 2)
Remember that re-buff to Seer’s Q that made him playable again? As it turns out, loading a character’s kit with that much utility makes it easy for him to be incredibly strong. Almost no one knew that until the underdog NA team FURIA Esports went to LAN. Armed with their Seer composition, FURIA dominated everyone in fights. Gibby was rendered useless, as Seer could cancel his resets in his Dome.
Come the end of champs, FURIA had locked in second place overall with Jacob “HisWattson” McMillin earning tournament MVP playing only Seer the entire time. Almost overnight, Seer became a staple Legend in casual and ranked play with more pro teams swapping over to the pick. This was the first time that a single instance of pro play influenced Apex Legends as a whole this much.
While Seer wasn’t nearly as broken as he was on release, his popularity spurred on a wall hack meta that infiltrated every level of the game. If you wanted to play Apex Legends, the majority of the lobby could know your exact location at all times. Dissenters of this gameplay cycle hated this, as it completely warped how fights had to be taken.
With Seer now everywhere, teams had to rethink their compositions. FURIA’s pairing of Valkyrie and Seer needed a third that could help them roll through fights. And what better team fighter was there than Horizon to fill the gap. Seer and Horizon absolutely destroyed Gibby, cancelling his heals and rezzes in Bubble then sucking them through it with Black Hole. It was adapt or be left behind, so Gibby was sidelined for the first time since Season 4.
The Modern Era
With Gibraltar finally no longer controlling the game, the Apex Legends meta was burst wide open. All of the Legends that had received buffs in the previous seasons but couldn’t be slotted into a team comp finally got their chance to shine. Even Valkyrie and Seer weren’t total necessities depending on the circumstances.
In the six months since ALGS Champs 2022, we’ve seen the most Legend diversity ever. There are legitimately more competitive viable Legends than non-viable ones. That’s crazy to think about for a game that has had three-character metas for the vast majority of its lifespan. Name almost any character, they’ve probably been played in a tier one lobby with real intent.
Even new Legends are getting their chance to shine straight away while NOT being a total broken mess on launch. Catalyst, released at the start of Season 15, is a very real presence from the top level of the game down to the casual level. For the first time, it feels like you can legitimately make any pick work with enough thought and planning behind it. No longer are players forced to conform to one of five or so characters if they don’t want to be at a big disadvantage in ranked or competitive.
Advent of the Roller
There is one major paradigm shift I would be remiss not to mention. Apex Legends has always had versions on both PC and consoles. The player bases for each were purely separate up until Season 7, when crossplay released. Before that, there were only a couple of notable controller players at the top level of the game.
As time went on, more and more players realized that controller could very easily compete with mouse and keyboard. This is due to a number of reasons, two of the main ones being that aim assist is a very powerful tool in a game like Apex and the fact that M&K’s boons weren’t able to be realistically taken advantage of most of the time.
When crossplay officially hit, the floodgates were opened for many talented controller players to start playing in the big leagues, the best of which made the full-time swap to PC in order to compete at the highest level. Only recently, however, have controller players started to make up a very significant portion of the high-level player base.
This is also due to multiple reasons. Gibraltar being permanently meta was not good for controller players, as his Bubble fight-based gameplay gave M&K players an advantage. Shotguns were incredibly meta throughout the entirety of Gibby’s time. Controller players didn’t have a notable advantage when it came to those.
With Gibby gone, and with the release of the new and powerful C.A.R. SMG in Season 11, the meta changed from shotgun secondaries in close range to SMG secondaries in mid-range. Controller is in its element as an input in these mid-range trading scenarios. The need for firepower prompted many teams to either pick up a controller player, or have someone swap onto it.
The More Things Change…
So, that is where we stand at the beginning of year four of Apex Legends. We currently have the most diverse Legend meta ever, a decent chunk of the weapons being playable, and a much closer split between M&K and controller players. As with any live service game, no meta lasts forever. Things will eventually change one way or another, whether it be in the best characters, guns, strategies, or even input.
We’ve seen sweeping changes to the game as new needs arose. A notable one was the tap-strafing debacle. The movement tech was lauded by M&K players for adding a higher skill ceiling and practical mobility, but panned by controller players for being inaccessible to them and a counter to aim-assist. In the end, Respawn found a compromise that left most people feeling alright about the situation.
No one can predict exactly what Apex Legends will look like three years from now. What we do know is that this game has truly found something special in a landscape of lackluster yearly titles and soulless cash grabs. Sure, Apex is far from perfect, as you’ll hear from any dedicated Apex player themselves. That said, the fact that they keep coming back to play their favorite FPS means that three years from now, I’ll be able to look back on the journey all over again.