One errant wave of magic is all it took to transform a peaceful tree into a massive, murderous wooden gladiator.
We kick off the Lore Library podcast by taking a look at the awesome story and weird motivations of Maokai, the treant champion in League of Legends. I love his current lore, which Riot says they may change in the future to tie closer to recent changes they’ve made to the zone he was born in, Twisted Treeline.
Without further ado, let’s jump into the story of the scariest tree in League of Legends!
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Maokai, The Twisted Treant
- Champion: #70
- Released: February 2011
- Designer: David “Volty” Abecassis
- Official Biography
- Species: Tree
- Age: ~2 years old (post-sentience)
- Profession: Tree, but he’s basically an indentured servant to the Council
- City-state: Fields of Justice
- Strengths: Ability to control and manipulate nature, immense strength, and wild magic
- Weaknesses: No knowledge of the world, and very little motivation — his biggest objective is to stop fighting and become inanimate again
Maokai was one of the ancient trees in the forest in the Shadow Isle, in the section that the League created its new arena, the Twisted Treeline. During an official match in the arena, a Nexus went haywire for a moment and surged magical energies into the treeline. That energy brought Maokai to life, and also made him completely pissed off that he’d been ripped from “his natural state.”
In his rage, he killed both teams on the field (that’s right, he’s the first champion I know of to ever get a HEXa-kill, winning a 6-on-1 fight) and spectating summoners had to leap onto the field from the stands to restrain him. A Noxian summoner wanted to kill him immediately, but the crowd stopped him and Maokai was instead sent to the League Council.
Why He Fights in the League
Maokai really only wants two things:
1. To be turned back into a normal, non-talking tree
2. A promise from the League Council that they won’t animate any other plant life in the Fields of Justice
Maokai has no experience with the outside world, so he has no idea how ice cream tastes, how to dance, or (more relevant and depressing) how humans tend to lie and manipulate others. So he trusted the Council when they offered him a deal that seemed to give him what he wanted.
Their arrangement is simple: Maokai will continue to fight in the league (thus securing the Council a new fighter and fans). In return, the Council is supposedly pursuing a way to strip the magic from him and make him a regular tree again–inanimate, rooted, and happy to block the paths of all champions.
Now the sad part: It seems pretty clear from the official lore written by Riot that the League has no intention of actually helping Maokai. And even if Maokai suspects this, which he likely does as he seems pretty naturally suspicious of everyone involved with the League (which he hates), he can’t think of a better alternative at this point. So he’s playing along and hoping against his better judgment that they’re not lying to him.
It’s important to reiterate that distinction: Maokai isn’t a naive tree who’s being suckered in by the cruel Council. He’s bitter, angry, and distrustful of pretty much everyone. But while he’s a force to reckon with in actual combat, he knows he’s completely powerless in the political and social arena. He’s forced to play by their rules.
But there’s a silver lining to Maokai’s predicament, even if he’s not exactly enthusiastic about it. Maokai is unbelievably angry at everyone in the League for being so reckless with magic, which is what brought him to life in this weird, almost-corrupted way. Being in the league gives him the opportunity to make them all pay for what they’ve done to him and his fellow nature-y plant things– by killing them repeatedly.
Who He Fights For
The trees of the forests are his friends, and he defends them first and foremost.
Maokai has only one ally in the League: Malphite. It might seem likely that a giant rock and a giant tree could become BFFs, but they’re brought together by their hatred more than their shared-natureyness. They share a common enemy: chaotic magic
Both of them were ripped from peaceful, happy existences by wayward magic and forced to fight in Runeterra’s Violent world. Their alliance only goes so far, though. Malphite wants to create perfect order and harmony in the world, and Maokai just wants to peace out and go back to being a normal tree.
Malphite describes Maokai with sadness, saying:
“Yes. Maokai. We bear the same burden… the longing for peace. But Maokai lets his rage consume him. He sees only the curse of life, not its gift. With a curse, we are doomed to pain and torment. With a gift, we gain the power to fight for peace. Nonetheless… I am proud to call the Twisted Treant my ally.”
A very optimistic interpretation of his situation make justify thinking that Maokai also currently considers the League Council to be an ally, if he believes they’re actually trying to help him discharge the magic from himself. This is unlikely, and even if it is the case, this friendship will likely deteriorate over time, as he discovers that they have no intention of helping him. It would likely grow slowly into a feeling of betrayal and rage, making them his inevitable enemy.
Nature, with a side of slight sympathy for any innocents that have been wronged by magic, or stronger forces.
Who He Fights Against
There’s not much officially written about this, but Maokai does see Zyra as a bit of a rival. Zyra is a plant that took over a human’s body willingly, and Maokai certainly would not understand that decision. He’d dislike her constant creation of seemingly sentient plant life, which she then callously allows to be killed.
Likewise, he wouldn’t approve of her decision to willingly leave her plant form behind to take over a human body, and would especially dislike the way she relishes in the human form, which she pursued because it fuels her thirst for power and ambition beyond the plant world. But at the same time he’d also probably respect her slightly for her affinity to nature.
It’s also worth noting that the runes on Maokai’s ultimate are the very similar to the rune on Xerath’s chest, visually. This has been noticed by several players, and was supposedly placed onto Maokai by ancient mages. No connection has been officially made between the two champions, but there might be a connection between the two of them, which most definitely be at least a rivalry considering Maokai’s hatred of magic.
Maokai would consider everyone that has ever used any form of magic to be his enemy. On top of that, anyone that has ever participated in a League arena match–which is what caused the magic to find him–would earn even more ire from the massive tree. If that’s not enough, add everyone that has ever been human to his kill-list–he especially hates them.
So Maokai pretty much considers everyone his enemy, except maybe Urf the Manatee, that guy might be able to weasel his way through Maokai’s checklist.
Wielders of chaotic magic like Annie, Ryze, Fiddlesticks, Kassadin, Malzahar, Xerath, Veigar, Syndra, and LeBlanc are especially offensive to him. He shouldn’t even be able to stand in the same room with them without pummeling them, teammate or not.
How He Fights
All that motivation and history is fine, but what matters most is how all of this backstory and personality feeds into the way Maokai plays, and how his abilities work in-game. (Here is Maokai’s full ability list, in case you need a refresher.)
Sapling Toss: He animates little saplings (tiny little plant bulb people), and throws them around the battlefield to act as his spies and little nature bombs. That seems right in line with his lore, even the obscure parts.
Arcane Smash: He punches people with his giant tree-trunk arm, dealing magic damage around him. Approved!
Twisted Advance: This one’s my favorite, lore-wise. Maokai rushes at people and plants his roots into the ground all around them, locking them in place. I love this because it’s such sweet poetic justice for Maokai when he gets a kill this way. “You want to turn me into a humanoid? That’s cool, I’ll turn you into a tree and them smash your face in. How do you like that, jerk?”
Sap Magic (passive): His passive adds an interesting element to Maokai’s story. The ability causes him to involuntarily draw energy from champions casting spells near him and uses it to heal himself. This passive seems to indicate that he seems to be embracing his magical tendencies, at least temporarily, even though he claims to hate them.
Alternatively, you could try to interpret the passive as him getting mad whenever people use magic near him–even his allies–so that he rages and gets stronger, healing himself and fueling himself to keep fighting against the people casting magic, which he hates.
Vengeful Maelstrom: His ultimate plays off this same tension. Maokai lays down wards around an area and reduces all damage dealt to his allies inside of it. When he breaks the ward, he lashes out, dealing magical damage to every enemy in the area, based on how much damage was absorbed.
It works so well with his lore. He reduces everyone’s damage, gets super angry that they’re all fighting, and then throws their magic back in their faces–it is magic damage that Maokai deals back at them–and makes them pay for casting their spells or hurting each other.
This is perfect for Maokai, the tree that just wants everyone to stop fighting, chill out, and live peaceful lives so that he can go back to being a non-sentient tree in a happy forest.
- He’s currently the only champion who was created on the fields of justice
- He’s also considered to be one of the toughest champions in the whole league, his armor level being matched only by Poppy, who wears full armor and carries a shield larger than her.
- From the lore, it appears that Maokai has accepted a role as caretaker for the dead. He absorbs their blood and creates the saplings from it, in order to give them fallen “a second chance at life”. I know that sounds weird, I definitely hadn’t heard that before, but he mentions it several time during his judgement, and at one point even places roots on a pile of blood from a dying child and turns it into a sapling, describing is as the blood’s “second chance at life”
My Made-Up Mission
I want to play a Diablo/DarkSpore-style Action-RPG with LoL’s champions that has a campaign for each champion that tells a story in their world before it ties into the larger story of the shared campaign. That game doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t stop me from dreaming! Here’s how I think Maokai’s lore could be turned into a cool mission.
I really like the part of Maokai’s lore that focuses on him wanting to use his temporary sentience to help the abused gain vengeance. In my mission, you’d start off as a completely immobile tree and watch people killing each other. A child is murdered and left near the treeline. His blood spills and moves toward the tree, where it clumps with the roots and a group of saplings emerge.
You have to use the saplings to get vengeance on the boy’s killers. Ranged enemies will kill the saprolings from a distance, but every kill you get creates more saplings from the blood. You beat the first mission when you destroy the boy’s killer.
The second mission is the fateful day on Twisted Treeline that Maokai is created. The league comes and sets up the bubble around the area — which according to the lore, they do every time they establish a new battlefield — and then they introduce the champions. Everyone fights and Xerath hits Maokai’s tree with lightning while trying to kill other champions.
Player takes control of Maokai immediately, is given a huge buff and is told to kill all 6 champions in 30 seconds. After that, more champions jump in from the audience and you fight wave after wave.
You finally break out of the Twisted Treeline bubble and make your way through a forest map, before getting captured by the League and shuttled back to their HQ for judgment.
Random Development Story
Champions are usually implemented in-game long before art is finalized, so that the devs can test the champion’s skills to make sure they’re fun, balanced, and all that good stuff. I was able to play Maokai way before release when I was working at PC Gamer, because we were revealing him, Caitlyn, and Jarvan in our magazine.
Maokai didn’t have any art yet, but there obviously needed to be something to represent the little sapling minions he was throwing out. So instead of tiny seeds, the devs used a tiny Soraka model.
She’s just be standing there in the forest, completely still. Then if you aggro her, she runs at you and explodes. It was hilarious and kind of confusing when there was a real Soraka on the field too.
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