A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Picks and Bans in Professional League of Legends

A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Picks and Bans in Professional League of Legends

It’s been a while since we wrote an eSports related article so we’ve decided to have a little session of Picks and Bans 101.

Our Mobalytics team goes to the NA LCS as often as we can and we get the privilege of having the pick and bans explained by our analyst, Hewitt “prohibit” Benson. The following lesson comes from what I’ve learned with him as we watched the matches, in-house explanations from our Challenger coach, Adam “Moriarty“, and some additional things they wanted me to teach you, our readers.

This article is geared toward newer players and pro-play viewers who want to have a deeper understanding of pro team strategy and strategic intentions in the battle before the battle. 

P&B pop quiz!

To gauge your knowledge, let’s take a look at this P&B for FNC vs TSM from Rift Rivals 2017.

From first glance and as an untrained viewer, it may appear that FNC managed to grab all their comfort picks, such as the often banned Shen of Soaz, and the signature Kennen of Rekkles. It would seem that FNC were able to get all the pieces they wanted while Bjergsen ends up with Galio, a pick that had been controversial at the time for being a suboptimal pick for the TSM mid laner.

Despite FNC getting their picks (and even grabbing First Blood on Hauntzer), TSM were able to completely dismantle their opponents. If you were able to recognize all the factors that contributed to the stomp, this article may not be for you. However, if you’d like to understand the strategies and nuances of P&B at a deeper level, stick around!

The basics

To begin, let’s refresh our memory on the fundamental rules and structure of picks and bans. Blue and red side are predetermined by scheduling – every LCS team is given an equal amount of games where they start Game 1 as Red or Blue. The teams switch for Game 2 and revert back if there is a Game 3.

Here’s the process:

Riot pick and bans

Pick and bans illustrated by Riot

  • Ban phase 1
    • Starting with Blue, the two teams alternate banning champions until 3 bans are made by each team.
  • Pick Phase 1
    • Blue team chooses a champion first, followed by two picks by Red, two picks by Blue, and then a single Red pick.
  • Ban Phase 2
    • Starting with Red, the two teams alternate banning champions until 2 bans are made by each team.
  • Pick Phase 2
    • Red team chooses a champion, followed by two picks by Blue, and ending with a final Red pick.

While the basic structure is simple enough, the strategy that goes into each pick/ban is complex and intricate.

Things to watch for

As teams make their choices in P&B, there are many factors to consider. Some of these factors are premeditated while others are reactionary and occur during the draft process.

For example, during the draft, teams are trying to build a winning strategy. This is a balancing act between trying to predict/react to the strategies of their opponents, while playing to the strengths of their team compositions.

Tons of work also goes into scouting opponents and considering information from sources such as scrimmages and new patches. This contextual knowledge requires a mix of knowing player tendencies, understanding the nuances of the meta, and mind games.

Win Conditions

Creating win conditions is the foundation of a team’s approach to P&B because winning is the core goal of their efforts. Win conditions are derived from the tool sets of champions and the synergies of a team composition. They are usually conceived going into drafting but can change on the fly during the P&B in reaction to the choices of opponents.

There are 3 main types of win conditions according to our experts: Early game laning, 5v5 team fight strategy, and split push capabilities.

  • Early game laning
    • This refers to your team’s ability to succeed in lane phase in order to snowball a lead for mid game.
    • This can be achieved by prioritizing dominant laners and champions with powerful early game power-spikes.
  • 5v5 Team fighting strategy
    • Every team should have a plan in regards to composition and synergies between the champions for large scale fights.
    • This can be accomplished in multiple ways, revisit Teamplay if you need to review.
    • The biggest tells are a team’s engage options and their damage sources:
      • Do they plan on using picks by their carries (such as with an Ahri charm or Ashe arrow)? Or do they plan to create fights with their tanks (Jarvan IV or Kled)?
      • For damage sources, do they appear to emphasize AOE?  Or are they looking to win long battles of attrition through poke or kite?
  • Split push
    • Split push capabilities offer your team map control and mobility in pushing multiple lanes at once.
    • This is most potent in the mid to late game when teams fight for wave control and have to make big decisions between choosing objectives.
    • Having a potent split pusher can put intense pressure on a team that cannot respond and can force them to abandon their 5v5 strategies.

The optimal draft has all three of these conditions but it is very hard to pull off. Good drafts usually have two, while poor drafts may only have one (or potentially none).

Contextual knowledge: meta and scouting

Contextual knowledge is defined as the information that can be considered before the pick and ban begins. It combines research, scouting, and understanding the state of the game.

Patch and meta

The pool of champions which are selected in trying to create win conditions is most strongly influenced by knowledge from before the fight. Similar to Solo Queue, this requires being up to date with the nuances of the meta and current patch. It relies on knowing the powerful picks and optimal builds, and how to use or counter them.

Scouting and reputation

Teams also consider player and team dependent intel as they draft. This dimension involves understanding who are a team’s best and worst players, their play styles, and how they play according to their personnel options.

For many teams (SKT included), having substitutes can create an dynamic forcing opposing teams to prepare for multiple champ pools at different positions.

A great example of this is Cloud 9’s Top-laner duo, Ray and Impact. The two players are almost opposite in their “sword and shield”  styles, giving them a dimension of versatility where Impact can play tanky or utility oriented, or Ray can provide an additional carry/damage source.

Teams usually also have an understanding of player tendencies according to their reputations. For example, some teams strategize in order to take advantage of cocky/overconfident players (I won’t name names!) who play greedy or unsafe, pushing their lanes without vision etc. This type of player may be vulnerable to well-timed early ganks since they’re focused on dominating their lane opponent 1v1.

Strategies and approaches

Once team’s have their win conditions in mind and consider contextual knowledge, they must make immediate choices during the actual P&B.

Super OP picks first

With every patch, there tends to be a few champions that rise to the top as being extremely powerful due to meta and item conditions. Being able to grab one of these champs can singlehandedly increase your chances for a victory.

Zac Stage.gg

Data and image from Stage.gg

  • In the example above, you can see that Zac has had a 66.7% win rate and a 4.0% pick rate in the NA LCS. He has a 99.3% rate of being either picked or banned.
  • If teams don’t take or ban these OP picks, they better have a counter strategy prepared. Otherwise, they’ll likely be in for a tough time.

Good early choices

If OP picks aren’t unavailable, teams usually prioritize solid early choices that are low risk or versatile. These choices allow some wiggle room for adjustments on the fly, and are resistant to hard countering.

Safe picks
  • Safe picks are champions that do not have glaring weaknesses, or have multiple play styles they can rely on. These picks can adapt to different win conditions and a variety of team comps.
Safe Thresh/Cait

Safe early picks for FNC and C9

  • In the P&B above, Thresh and Cait are very safe early picks.
    • Thresh is a safe choice because he has value in all three phases of the game. He can create an early lead with a potential First Blood due to a hook, or he can play safe by protecting his ADC with his lantern. In later phases of the game, he can transition to a pick or peel role.
    • Cait can thrive in lane and can often bully her opponents into giving up First Turret. However, if she doesn’t dominate the early game, she can transition to the mid and late game by offering siege potential and map control utility through her traps.
Flex picks

Flex picks are champions that can viably play multiple positions. They’re great early choices because it’s hard to counter a champion if you don’t know the lane they’ll be going to.

Gragas Flex

Flex Gragas for CLG

  • Here’s a recent example from a CLG vs C9 match.
    • CLG chooses Gragas as their first pick. The champ can be effectively flexed as a choice for Dardoch (Jungle) or Darshan (Top).
  • These picks reward Versatile teams with large champ pools by giving them both unpredictability and safety.

Comfort picks

Comfort picks are champs that players have built a reputation for performing well with. These picks can often overlap with powerful meta choices but can also be unconventional or rarely used by others.

Comfort picks

  • For example, in the same previously mentioned CLG vs C9 draft:
    • Sneaky grabs his Pocket Pick Jhin, a champion that is a regular in the competitive scene but especially deadly when played by the C9 ADC.
    • Huhi chooses his Aurelion Sol, a champion that basically only he only plays in professional worldwide. CLG hides the choice for as long as possible to maintain the element of surprise.
  • Failing to be prepared for comfort picks can be catastrophic due to the sheer prowess of players wielding them.
    • To deal with these picks, teams have to either outright ban to deny them, or have a specific plan to deal with them (more on this later!).

Save late picks for your best players

If team’s don’t grab an OP champ, the earlier picks in a draft are usually safer picks that are flexible or difficult to counter. Team’s may try to save the later picks for their best laners to try to create a situation where they can counter their opposition and snowball the team to victory.

Jensen later pick

Cloud9 saving the last pick for Jensen

  • Saving these picks for later makes it harder for the enemy team to build a strategy around countering your best player, and also allows your best player to pick a champ that plays well into the enemy’s composition.

Targeting limited champion pools

Some players have champion repertoires so large, it’d be a waste of bans to try to limit their choices. An often-used tactic is targeting players with smaller pools in order to force them out of their comfort zone.

TSM uses 3 bans on MikeYeung

TSM uses three bans on P1’s MikeYeung

  • TSM bans Nidalee, Elise, and Lee Sin, champions that rookie MikeYeung has consistently leaned on.
    • Their bans not only take away his best champions, but they also force Mike into playing Sejuani, a champion that he hadn’t played in a professional match, for the first time.

Surprise/risky picks

Sometimes also known as “cheese”, choosing unconventional champions can occasionally bring an advantage by playing against an opponent’s lack of experience/knowledge in how to play against it.

FLY locks in Mordekaiser, a surprise pick

FLY locks in a surprise pick Mordekaiser

  • This option is high risk high reward as it requires secrecy and less scrim practice. It relies on your execution and the enemy team’s inability to react. If they aren’t able to adjust, however, the surprise may lead to a crafty victory.

Finally, let’s review

Take a quick rewatch to see how much you’ve learned – has your perception of the FNC vs TSM draft changed?

  • Here are the main factors that lead to FNC’s defeat:
    • TSM has done their homework. They go into the match knowing FNC’s comfort picks and intentionally leave them open.
      • FNC takes the bait, they lose any elements of surprise or unpredictability.
    • Galio
      • Choosing Galio gives TSM a flex pick for Top and Mid.
      • Bjergsen is given the opportunity to counter Caps with an anti-mage champ by having the later pick.
      • Galio’s ultimate, Hero’s entrance, gives TSM another map control option for dealing with split (in addition to two Teleports.
    • Kennen and Camille
      • Due to nerfs, Kennen is at a weaker state than the weeks leading up to Rift Rivals. Rekkles opts to ignore the new patch and contextual knowledge, choosing to rely on his prowess with the comfort pick even though he’s picking into Doublelift’s Caitlyn, a very strong lane opponent.
      • Camille (especially as a Support), relies on building early game to mid game leads in order to become a strong skirmisher, duelist, or pick engager. Biofrost’s counter-pick Lulu allows TSM to play safe with shields and disengage, nullifying the early game all-in potential by the FNC bot lane.
    • Win conditions
      • FNC’s “animal style” thrives on winning in the early game and defeating their opponents through mid game skirmish outplays, and late game split-push pressure.
        • FNC’s comp must dominate in the first 20 minutes.
      • TSM prepares a safe lane phase, a team fighting composition, and multiple options to deal with split-pushes.
        • If TSM doesn’t get smashed in the early game, they’ll have the edge in 5v5 team fights.
    • The verdict
      • Due to proper scouting and preparation, TSM successfully achieves their win condition strategies while FNC’s signature play style is nullified and countered by the P&B.

That’s all for today folks. Did you find this article to be helpful? In the future we may dive further into more advanced strategies for P&B. We’d love to hear your thoughts on our Discord channel.