Rob Haines, January 31, 2017

How LoL's new lane pressure meta is putting a squeeze on the Spring Split

Objective control is at the heart of professional League of Legends strategy. As much as kills contribute towards a team's effectiveness, ultimately the only thing that matters is making the opposing team's Nexus explode. With 2016's divisive lane-swap meta no longer a viable strategy, and in the wake of a disruptive Preseason which shifted the balance of power away from the bottom lane and towards re-energised assassins and tanks, the first two weeks of 2017 competitive play have revealed a new meta.

Gone are the days of high-powered duelists and mid-game bot lane bullies. This meta's all about lane pressure, so here's what to bear in mind when placing your LoL bets this Spring Split.

Immediately prior to Worlds 2016, Riot clamped down on lane-swapping – the predominant professional strategy of picking late-game AD carries and supports, then shoving the lane 2v1 on the opposite side of the map from their opponents duo lane – a state of affairs which was widely criticised as overly technical and dull to watch. As of patch 6.15, the top and mid-lane towers were reinforced for the first five minutes of the game, while the bot lane tower was weakened, and early tower kills were further incentivised with a bounty of 400 gold for the first tower kill. While the timing of these changes was controversial due to their release just prior to the largest tournament of the year, they had the desired effect of forcing bot lane duos to fight each other again, or risk giving over an easy tower to the enemy team.

What Riot didn't seem to fully predict, however, was the effect of these changes on competitive play being compounded by the 2017 Preseason. Significant reworks were made to high-impact assassins including Katarina, Leblanc and Rengar, their new toolkits giving them a steeper learning curve but also more opportunity to meaningfully impact the game and assassinate AD carries with gleeful abandon. It's little surprise that Leblanc and Rengar have been banned in almost every competitive game played in 2017 thus far.

Also, while changes to the Masteries system were relatively limited compared to previous years, a new tank-focused Keystone mastery was introduced. Courage of the Colossus grants champions such as Nautilus, Shen, Maokai and Poppy an additional shield upon landing their suffocating suite of crowd-control abilities, further fortifying these already near-unkillable tanks.

As if things weren't already bad enough for AD carries, with a fresh suite of assassins leaping out of every bush and reinforced tanks chasing them out of the fight, the 2017 Preseason also directly nerfed one of their core stats. Flat Armor Penetration – which guaranteed early-game punch to paper over the period in which AD carries are traditionally weakest – was replaced with the underwhelming Lethality stat, a level-dependent armor reduction lacking much of the front-end burst damage it was being built for.

Forced to fight for every scrap of gold, with AD carries now seeking three or four completed items before they become truly relevant in teamfights, 2017 risked the bot lane becoming increasingly irrelevant, if not for the temptation of early-game gold present in the newly weakened bot lane tower. Instead of shifting the action away from the bot lane, it's become the focal point, as high impact mid-laners and junglers converge to assist their utility-focused AD carries in brutal ganks and quick tower kills in hope of turning that immediate advantage into an unstoppable snowball.

So what does this new meta look like in action? While teams are still testing out the ideal strategies and counter-moves, an ideal strategy has very quickly codified across the Korean, North American and European leagues, with only minor variations depending on the intricacies of the new 10-ban champion select phase.

The primary role of the bot lane is now to shove the minion wave harder than their opponents, while applying as much incidental harrassment to the enemy champions as possible. In comparison to previous 2v2 bot lane metas, kill pressure is significantly reduced; the goal is to push opponents out of lane, or at least back under their tower. The first two weeks of professional play have been dominated by a handful of AD carries: the archers Ashe and Varus, and the sniper Jhin, with Caitlyn coming a distant fourth. These champions all share an aptitude for long-range sieging to shove the minion wave, combined with long-range crowd control abilities to lock down enemy champions for the inevitable three- or four-man gank.

On five occasions so far Korean LCK teams have even chosen not to pick a traditional physical damage carry at all - a break from tradition rarely seen since the bot lane meta first stabilised at the Season 1 Championship back in 2011 - instead picking Ziggs in the bot lane carry role for his exceptional wave-clear and tower-demolishing satchel charge. While replacing an AD carry with a mage in this manner risks late game effectiveness, the Ziggs pick is a gamble that the resulting snowball will be decisive enough not to need a late game at all.

Considering that Ziggs has a 1-4 win-loss record in the LCK over the past two weeks – that solitary win in the hands of SK Telecom T1 against a lackluster Jin Air Greenwings (3.00) who face a tough match against Afreeca Freecs (1.36) this week – it seems to be a gamble which works better in the anarchy of solo queue than highly coordinated professional play.

With AD carries less concerned with constant skirmishing the support role has been freed up to focus on damage output, with Malzahar, Zyra and Miss Fortune dominating competitive picks and bans. It's no longer unusual to see a support champion doing more damage in a teamfight than their teammates, and these three picks excel at both shoving lanes and applying constant harrassment to enemy laners.

Providing the AD carry and support can sufficiently out-push their opponents, this sets the scene for the jungle and/or mid-laner to collapse towards bot lane. Strong early-game ganking junglers - Lee Sin, Rengar, Khazix and Olaf - excel at executing tower dives and getting out alive, while Rek'sai's omnipresence forces opponents to reconsider even trying to defend their tower without additional support from their teammates.

While Europe and North America have mostly relied on traditional control mages like Orianna, Syndra and Cassiopeia to maintain control over the mid-lane and scale towards late game teamfights, many teams in the LCK have been fighting over Ryze and Taliyah for their aptitude at shoving the mid-lane before using their ultimates to instantly join any bot lane skirmish. Kills are a nice bonus, but it is the objective control which matters: even a double kill is worth less than the objective gold for killing the first tower.

In ideal circumstances, once the first tower falls, the team can simply flip the map and repeat the same exercise with the AD carry and support in the top lane. Either their opponents choose to match the rotation – forcing them to commit to a similar defensive position to the one they just lost, but with the added disadvantage of being at an item deficit – or continue pushing for the remaining bot lane outer tower, resulting in trading towers and maintaining the winning team's advantage.

Once the top lane tower falls, the AD carry and support can then be rotated mid to soak up enough gold to become fully relevant, while giving their team the flexibility to apply a 1-3-1 pushing strategy, apply pressure to the Dragon or Baron, or simply use their gold lead to brute-force their way up mid lane.

Chances are we may have to get accustomed to watching Ashe and Varus sling arrows at each other across Summoner's Rift for the immediate future, but with LoL Patch 7.2 on the horizon there's plenty of room for the meta to grow. The overbearing shield of Courage of the Colossus is being nerfed, and Lethality's early-game damage is receiving a significant boost; it remains to be seen whether this will simply tip the scales in Jhin's favour over Ashe and Varus, or whether the AD carry role will once again be opened to Lucian and the other mid-game bullies who dominated early 2016.

Rob Haines

Rob takes time out from writing novels and programming statistical analysis to write articles about statistically analysing League of Legends. It's a bit of a busman's holiday but he enjoys it. You can see what else he gets up to at twitter.com/rob_haines