Understanding Meta (and Off-Meta) Picks

It’s pretty official by this point — early season 7 will, among other things, be remembered for its off-meta picks, specifically mages in the bot lane. But for many players, this wasn’t so much a development or a realization so much as an update, almost like reading patch notes. They found out by logging onto Reddit one day, or tuning into their favorite streamer, or in my case, getting on op.gg and seeing Malzahar appear 2nd in win rate seemingly overnight. And you say to yourself “Oh, well apparently this is the meta now.” And then cycle starts over. But these picks, whether it be the current bot lane Ziggs, or when Trundle was a common support, or the infamous Cinderhulk Shyvana top lane, these picks come from somewhere. The pros can spot these trends, and identify what works.


But there’s a certain thought process that goes into it. Certain conditions must often be met, and specific questions have to be answered. Being able to know what to look for, how to answer these questions and solve the problems associated, isa unique quality. But knowing why something works in League of Legends is a skill that separates great players from the mediocre ones.


What do the most recent changes to certain items/champions allow them to do differently?


Obviously, the first step in being ahead of the meta changes is staying up-to-date with balance changes as they roll out. Even when considering completely common picks, changes in each patch still heavily influence which champions are strong in their respective roles. These conclusions can seem obvious when you read them, but if you don’t read them, then you’ll never know that.


But of course it goes beyond that. For example, the turret-slaying changes to Ziggs’ passive and W took effect back in patch 6.9 (or the 2016 mid-year mage update). So why are just now seeing him in the bot lane? The answer is simple: he wasn’t the best choice for that at the time. It was great to have that pushing power in the mid-lane when someone picked him, but there was no reason to bring him into the bot lane, because he wasn’t better than marksmen at anything else. However, with the Fervor of Battle nerfs and the changes to how armor penetration (now lethality) worked, marksmen lost some of their early to mid-game power. But Ziggs’ early strength as a mage was left untouched, and though he often was outclassed by other mages, he outclassed most marksmen in this category, while still being able to shred objectives.

Note: this is not an endorsement to try “Actually AD Ziggs”.


This is why it’s so hard to see these things: because sometimes you have to tie information back to changes that occurred ages ago. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t even an ADC main that popularized this example. How much else have we missed out on?


What characteristics are necessary for the goal I’m trying to accomplish?


Perhaps an ADC main might have stumbled on Ziggs bot lane himself (or herself) if he’d asked this question. So often we get caught up in what we “should” play, that we forget what it is our role in the game even is. You can relate to this if you’ve ever played Brand support and been called a troll for it. People had gotten so used to the idea that a support champion ought to play bodyguard for their marksman that they forgot that a support primarily needs to be impactful without a significant amount of gold. High base damage can work as well as crowd control for this purpose, and that amount of damage can create a safe zone for their marksman in much the same way as crowd control.

“Death is the best CC.” -Anonymous Brand Support, without Sightstone

This method of thinking is why Malzahar support is common, and identifying turret-taking as an objective for bot-lane was a step toward realizing that Ziggs accomplishes that goal. It is important to remember that you always have a win condition, and that meeting that condition is the only thing that matters.


What is effective in the meta right now, and more importantly, what would counter it effectively?


Think about some junglers that are popular right now in solo queue. You might have come up with examples like Kha’zix, Rengar, Hecarim, or Vi. It ought to be easy to see why — the first two benefitted directly from the assassin update, the last two from the newest keystone mastery. But see what support have grown in popularity simultaneously: Janna, Nautilus, Malzahar,  and even Thresh in solo queue at least. Sure you can attribute the same keystone to some of these, as well as the addition of Redemption. But the common denominator is near-instant crowd control, especially when positioned near a damage-dealer.


That example might be easy to see, but it’s important to see regardless. Because knowing what is strong, and what works against it is key to improving. If you do, you’ll know that some of the most popular marksmen in competitive play are prioritized for the exact same reason: the utility and safety they offer. It’s the reason Jhin and Ashe have been locked in as early as the first rotation in the draft. Seeing these chains of cause-and-effect are a fundamental skill in being able play at a higher level.


The meta is what it is because it works very effectively. But the meta also changes on a regular basis. Knowing how it will change will give an edge on your competition. More importantly, knowing why the meta works is key, even if it doesn’t always matter in solo queue, because that knowledge will enhance your ability to see the proper decisions in your own play. That is the key to improvement after all. Now get out there and turn the meta on its head.

Photos provided by Riot Games.

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Mr Fidori

Obsesses over League of Legends a little too much. Writes for Break the Game. In that order.