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Never Go Full Meta

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Welcome to my short (from a relative point of view...) essay on what the LoL metagame is, and whether it needs to change or not. Some discussion on IRC (#r/leagueoflegends@QuakeNet) a few days ago motivated me to write down all our conclusions... and then make take it a step further. Basically thanks to The International we were explaining how DotA is different from LoL to some guy on the channel and we began discussing how the two games are different.

The essay is not "short" in the absolute meaning - it's just far away from exhausting the subject. I've barely scratched the surface, this could probably fill a book.

Full Meta Strategist

Metagame means "the game outside the game" and refers to unwritten set of rules that the written rules lead to. Most often it means predicting your opponent's strategy basing on your knowledge about them or popular trends, and adjusting your own strategy in anticipation of predicted moves. A good example would be using specific counter cards in collectible card games (MTG, Hearthstone). You do not want to use a card that counters a certain deck if that deck is not popular or if your deck already has a good solution against it. The phenomenon of playing around the predicted strategies in game is called metagame, the game about the game.

For the purpose of this essay we'll put aside all gimmicks that worked this one single game and "broke the meta" and stick to strategies that can win games in a consistent pattern. So no Leona Leona - Jarvan IV Jarvan IV kill lanes, for now. We will take both blind and draft pick into consideration, though.

This essay's topic is only assessing and explaining the situation, and possibly voicing some concerns and drawing comparisons to DotA 2 in order to shed some light on some people's complaints.

Death From Afar

Every MOBA game revolves around carries. Carries have insane, consistent damage (DPS) and use it to murder the enemy team and destroy their base. Problem is, in LoL it seems like only the ranged carries are viable. Yeah, you can pick a champion like Tryndamere Tryndamere, Fiora Fiora or Master Yi Master Yi, but they sure as hell won't make up for a loss of a ranged carry.

What ranged carries do in LoL that melee ones can't?

  • Siege towers
  • (some) Poke enemy champions like Ezreal Ezreal or Corki Corki
  • Provide consistent DPS in teamfights
  • Farm safely in 2v2 lanes

These are the things that melee carries simply cannot do. In 5v5, they get stunlocked and blown up way too easily. This leaves two things for the likes of Yi: splitpushing and/or cleaning up teamfights. Sure, a fed Jax is scary, but even he cannot replace the ranged carries in 100% of their role.

This is purely a "fight fire with fire" situation, especially in blind pick - you have to picka ranged carry to optimize your strategy. You can win without a ranged carry, but you have much better chances with one. This, paired with the unmatched harass/farm capabilities in 2v2 and 2v1 lanes, makes ADCs the main pillar of the metagame.

Five Commandments of Meta

1. There needs to be a ranged carry. Every team needs one Caitlyn marksman.

  • Marksmen get all the gold they can get. If there's a minion to kill, marksman kills it if he can, unless it's a blue buff.
  • You can put a marksman in a long lane, as long as they get help.

2. Every marksman is babysat by a Sona support.

  • You can cheese a non-standard support pick, but the role is the same: be in lane with carry, never get creeps.
  • Supports can get gold from gold generation items and spend it on team utility items or wards. Supports are the main source of vision control.
  • The duo lane goes bot to increase your power in Dragon Dragon fights.

3. Every team needs a Warwick jungler in order to:

  • use the jungle gold stream, leaving the lane resources
  • gank lanes, applying pressure
  • secure dragons/barons with Smite
  • A jungler starts at a big buff at 1:55. Jungling is a dedicated role. There is no possibility of laning first and jungling later.

4. You put two champions in solo lanes, the ones away from dragon.

  • Short middle lane is typically for an utility mage like Orianna Orianna who can control teamfights and output significant spell damage, or an AP/AD assassin like Twisted Fate Twisted Fate or Zed Zed who can roam to side lanes and pick up kills.
  • Midlane means safe and easy experience from solo lane, which is very important for ability-oriented champions.
  • Midlaner gets access to blue buff whatever side you play on. Sending your dedicated blue recipient to top lane is an unreliable strategy since it works only on blue side.
  • Long lane is typically for a fighter who can withstand long trades, since going back under the tower isn't as easy as in mid lane.
  • Toplaners can use Teleport to remain in a difficult lane, splitpush and/or join teamfights.

5. Types of all the three solo lanes (top, mid, jungle) are dependent on the state of the meta, and picks very from game to game.

  • Stacking a single damage type against a team that can easily itemize for a certain resistance can cause trouble. See: Thornmail item.png Thornmail, Banshee's Veil item.png Banshee's Veil.
  • Laning phase is still important; you pick champions that are strong in their lane match-ups.
  • If the items, runes or masteries favour a particular subclass, it will affect viable champion picks in all lanes (tank toplane meta, assassin midlane meta, etc.).
  • Generally, jungler is meant to initiate fights (ganks, teamfights). There was an attempt to make carry junglers viable. It didn't go well.

You can argue that you can pick almost anything (with 25% of picks being useless in competitive play), but this set of unwritten rules severely limits what and where you can play even in a low-level ranked game. 1-1-2 meta is fail-proof and set in stone.

The Devil You Know

Why try so hard to change the meta, though? Are we unhappy? Stable meta can mean ease of access to new players, but it also means you have to learn the meta in order to play properly. In a more open game, whatever you pick, you can succeed. In an "everyone plays this meta" game you need to learn how to play jungle/support/solo lane wight away, or else you will put your team at an disadvantage.

Eventually it comes down to "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". As long as it works, there is no apparent reason to change anything... or is there?

Game of Efficiency

There's a reason Starcraft became overrun by Koreans, and it's s set of factors.

  • Internet quality in Korea was way higher than anywhere else at the time of Brood War
  • The game grew insanely popular. Bigger player base and more playtime equals better and bigger pinnacle of pro gamers
  • The game became static, allowing to define all optimal strategies

The last point is the most important. When all strategies and answers are known, the only skill becomes manually performing the sequence of commands with hundreds of thousands of keystrokes and mouse clicks. And if there's someone who can spend years perfecting this technique, it's Koreans.

Is LoL endangered by one-nation domination as well? The game is already in a state where South Korea has a hermetic league of a dozen teams who can sweep the floor with foreigners at any international event and no NA team has ever won a single match in the bracket stage of season 2 or season 3 World Championship. Is this inevitable, or does the game design favour Koreans again?

The short answer is: yes. Simple and stale metagame means there is a limited number of possible strategies and team compositions. Everything eventually comes down to mechanical efficiency and some tactical maneuvers, narrowing down possibilities to "what do I pick for this role".

How different could it be, then?

The Older Brother

Dota 2 is a carbon copy (with new visuals) of Defense of the Ancients, the game that LoL was based on. It's worth noting that DotA wasn't even exactly a game - it was a map for Warcraft III, with all the benefits and drawbacks of the system it operated in. This is where all the core concepts of MOBAs originated: towers, basic attacks, abilities, ultimates and six item slots.

Before we get to "how", let's bring up some single facts: in the last two world championship tournaments, LoL has been overrun by Asian, especially Korean teams, while Dota 2's The International lived up to its name and had a much bigger diversity without dominance of any particular region. How is it possible? I see two most probable answers:

a) The Koreans haven't picked up Dota 2 yet. Once they do, they'll stomp that game as well. b) Dota 2 has more strategy elements that outmatch the mechanical proficiency.

I know it's simplifying things, but I believe it's the latter option. Dota2 allows for much, much more flexible setups, with melee carries, multiple ways of approaching the jungle (leashing to lane, moving to jungle later, etc.), viable roaming starts, etc.

A short summary of what can happen in Dota:

  • Jungle is optional
  • Trilanes (3-man kill lanes designated to make the enemy carry miserable)
  • Dedicated roaming heroes
  • Double support
  • Viable 2-1-2

Why, Nunu, Why

Why does it happen, though? Why does Dota get all those different strategies while LoL has only one? Again, it's a huge sum of factors. Let's bring up some important ones.

Different means of acquiring gold

  • You can deny your own creeps. This allows melee heroes to stay even with ranged ones (it's easier to deny against a ranged hero)
  • You lose part of unspent gold on death. This promotes cashing in small amounts of gold over saving up big money
  • It's possible to leash and stack jungle camps (you lure the group out of its camp right as the timer checks and spawns the new group since the camp is empty - then you fight two camps at once)

Reversed gold efficiency on items

  • In LoL, the more the item costs, the better its gold efficiency is. In DotA, it's quite the other way around.
  • Early items provide a lots of stats for a low price. Think Doran's items on crack
  • Finishing a big item can take a huge amount of gold
  • You can remain relevant with cheap but efficient items

Attributes: Strength, Agility, Intelligence

  • Aside from the usual damage, attack speed, health, mana and regeneration statistics, heroes have those three attributes that enhance two statistics at once (health+regen, speed+armor, mana+mana regen)
  • Primary Attribute of a hero gives him Attack Damage bonus. STR hero will gain AD from STR, AGI hero will gain AD from AGI and INT hero will gain AD from INT
  • This solves the fighter problem that LoL has - heroes scale from items differently if the're supposed to be tanks and they scale differently if they're supposed to be carries

No ability power scaling

  • In Dota, supports don't need gold generation items, because they're designed to be useful without gold
  • Mages are designed to fall off lategame, they often use support items with CC to remain relevant

Asymmetrical map

  • Side lanes are uneven, there's a short "safe lane" and a long "hard lane". One team's safe lane is another team's hard lane.
  • This, paired with denying, stronger CC etc. allows for different approaches to laning phase

Higher power level - abilities and items are more powerful in their effect

  • There's a carry item that gives you spell immunity for a short duration (think Olaf ultimate paired with Kayle's), and so on
  • All abilities are much more powerful in terms of crowd control. What is a basic ability in DotA would often be an ultimate in LoL.
  • Long durations of CC and powerful carry items allow melee carries to do their job
  • Turn rates disallow ranged carries to hit-and-run with no consequence

Hero diversity

  • The similarity between hero skillsets is very low. In comparison, LoL champions are quite generic
  • Best example of Lol champions who could pass as DotA heroes are Thresh Thresh and Braum Braum.
  • Dota 2's metagame is about combining different heroes (best parallel from LoL would be compositions centered around Yasuo Yasuo or Orianna Orianna)
  • Hero power curves are way stronger - at the beginning, "early heroes" wipe the floor with "late heroes", and likewise the other way around, to a much greater extent than in LoL

Why Can't We Have Nice Things

Up to this point, you might have come under the impression that I claim that Dota 2 is a better game than LoL. That is not correct. I merely described why it's a game with much more depth than LoL - it's not necessarily a good thing. Unreal Tournament was more complex than Counter-Strike, and we all know which game came out on the top.

For-Fun Design

There's a reason for LoL's popularity and it's not just the role of the first commercial title on the market. Riot Games has stated many times that their primary concern is the fun factor for the millions of casual players. That's why CC is shorter, that's why the mana pools are bigger and there are no obscure mechanics like mana burn, that's why you don't lose gold on death, that's why you can't forcefully move your teammates around. In Dota, it's possible to stun an enemy indefinitely. Think of a time you got stunlocked in LoL. Now imagine standing helpless for 6 seconds, unable to do anything. Congrats! You've just witnessed one single ability, Faceless Void's Chronosphere. It's an ultimate, but this tells you about the type of things you have to deal with in this game. Oh, and you get locked by Chronpshere if you're FV's ally as well as an enemy. Have fun.

That is also why Riot is content with a set-in-stone metagame. Stable metagame means the game is easy to pick up and noob-friendly, and also important, that there's not that much discrepancy between amateur and professional play. You can even build the same items as the pro players and be very successful. Even though TI4 assembled a $10 000 000 prize pool, LoL still remains the better spectator e-sport - for now.

Death of Innovation

So, the game is easy to learn, readable, enjoyable while spectating. What could go wrong?

The death of any MOBA game would be stasis. When the game reaches a state where every strategy has been thought through, only efficiency counts. That is something that I'm afraid already happened. Riot keeps the game alive by frequent patches, item changes and new content, but I'm afraid this isn't enough. Dota 2 doesn't need major changes to remain fluid and fresh - every game is different. It's apparent in the pick&ban statistics - in LoL the lane match-ups limit the champion pool, making only 33% of champions eligible for picking in more than 10% games. In DotA, about 50% of heroes were picked in more than 10% of games.

Does this mean the game is about to die? Hell no. Not yet. It's quite certain, though, that the Korean domination in the current environment will continue to grow.

What Should Be Done Then?

In my opinion, the meta needs to break.

As of now, the only viable carries are ranged. The only reasonable setup is 1-1-2 with jungle. This needs to change. Other options need to emerge and not take over, but compete with the current setup. I believe this would be the best way to prolong the game's longevity past its currently foreseeable lifespan.

Otherwise, I believe the game will lose it's freshness and eventually begin to decline. Not in a year. Not even in five. But in a decade, DotA will be growing strong celebrating twenty years from creation, while LoL might begin its inevitable end once the next genre takes over the casual playerbase. This does not need to happen.

TL;DR - Summary

LoL has a stable metagame that allows every player to follow and understand the pro scene.

It takes a while to learn how to perform in every one of those roles, as they have a strict set of unwritten rules, but once you get a grasp of it, you play every game in more or less the same way.

The possible drawback is that in a stable environment the game becomes less about strategy and innovation and more about tactics and mechanical execution. This is why Starcraft and LoL are overrun by Koreans while Dota 2 has a fairly diverse set of finalists.

Addendum

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