How to Understand the Meta in League of Legends

How to Understand the Meta in League of Legends

Apologies ahead of time for how often we’ll say “meta”! In this article we’ll explain what a meta is in League of Legends, why it’s important to understand, and how to apply knowledge of the meta to your own game. We’ll discuss recent examples from LoL as well as instances in other games and traditional sports. The point of this article isn’t to recommend that you try to break the formula too much, rather we want to help you understand what to look for and how to recognize meta shifts.

What is a “meta”?

If you play competitive games, you’ll hear the word “meta” mentioned all the time…what is it? It’s often said that the meta is the “game within the game” – basically what’s believed to be the most optimal way to play within a game’s established rules. Think about the first time you and your friends start a new multiplayer game. At the beginning, you’re all just figuring out the basic mechanics and how to play at a fundamental level.

Eventually, you understand the boundaries of the game and start to learn little tricks to gain advantages (that you may or may not share with your competition) that help you win. In turn, your friends may develop strategies to counter your little tricks, and a sort of battle begins for establishing a dominant strategy.  This is sort of the TL;DR of how metas form.

Roles: Basketball and League of Legends

For example, in basketball, the basic rules dictate that each team has 5 players on the floor at a given time. There’s no “rule” that a team must have the positions of point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. It’s just the most conventional organization of positions that has developed throughout basketball’s history.

basketball positions

Basketball’s meta has lead the five players to this organization

Similarly, League of Legends developed its own metagame for each position.  At its basic level, a match on Summoner’s Rift simply requires 5 players from each team, selecting five champions to destroy the opposing Nexus.

Remember when you were first learning League of Legends and had to play in Blind Pick mode? Players in your games likely had no idea where they were supposed to be. You probably didn’t have a Jungler, and you may have had two players at Top and Mid lane.

Positional Roles

The five roles weren’t included in the first LoL client.

Well, when League was in its early days, this was sort of how it was. There was no “right way” to play yet, you had to figure it out! Through hours of play and theorycrafting, players began to find what worked and what didn’t work. They slowly found out what worked best, and began to form the five roles that you know today.

The five roles are set as the status quo for now, but who knows? Maybe there’s a better way out there that hasn’t been discovered or refined yet. The frameworks of the five roles look like they’re here to stay for now in terms of map placement, but the nuances will tend to change over time. Check out this incredibly detailed video on the history of Top lane by Exil:

Although the video primarily focuses on Top, the main takeaway is that since the beginning of League of Legends, the individual roles have and will continue to evolve. It’s inevitable that the best players will drive discovery and innovation which other players either follow or adapt against.

To connect it back to basketball, the position of Center has greatly changed even over just the past decade. Ten years ago, big men were often the feature position with teams built around them. Your offense usually consisted of getting the ball to Centers who towered at over 7-feet tall like Shaquille O’neal, and used their strength to try to get high percentage shots near the basket.

Over the years, the pace of the game began to quicken and the meta started to shift away from big men like Shaq. A new generation of players that included 2-time MVP Steph Curry entered the League and were incredible at shooting three-pointers and pushing the pace. Teams began building strategies that enabled this play style and the big men that used to dominate were suddenly too slow to defend opposing teams. They became unable to keep up offensively since they would often be trading 2-pters for 3-pters.

Can you guess what happened next? Eventually, the old form of the Center faded away, and gave rise to the Centers you have today, such as the 2015-16 Rookie of the Year, Karl Anthony-Towns. This generation of big men has players that are often 7-footers like Shaq, but have skills that are comparable to their guard counterparts, and yes…they can shoot threes now.

The main point here is that whether it’s League of Legends, basketball, or any other game, the nature and nuances of the competition will develop and transform over time. In the following sections, we’ll explain why it’s important to follow the meta, explain the factors that contribute to its change, and help you follow the trends.

How is understanding the meta beneficial?

If you didn’t already know, League of Legends releases new patches every 2 to 3 weeks on average. The patches vary in size and impact – most involve small buffs and nerfs, but every once in a while, there are big changes such as the addition/subtraction of items, or even HUGE changes like the new rune system that launched just a bit before Season 8. Sun Tzu

The consistent and relatively quick cycles keep the game fresh, but also make it important to pay attention, especially if you are serious about climbing and improving. Here are some of the reasons why you should put in the effort to understand the meta…

It can give you a competitive edge
The meta usually represents what’s believed to be the most advantageous strategetic trends – it’s kind of like the stock market, you want to understand what’s about to rise and what’s about to fall.

For the most part, especially if you’re at lower levels of play, you may not notice the tides of the meta. But at higher levels where every little advantage matters, being more in-tune with the meta can allow you to rise above players of your skill level. Say you have two teams of equal mechanical skill and composure, the one that plays closer to the meta should have an edge because they’re playing to the best possible conditions.

It prevents you from getting blindsided
Following the meta helps you stay up-to-date on all the changes between patches. You can never know too much, but even the slightest ignorance can put you into a hairy situation. Let’s say Caitlyn’s Q was theoretically buffed. As an ADC you may have gone in for a trade that used to work, and caused yourself to be pushed out of lane or even die. If you had simply taken the time to read the patch notes before that ranked match, you could have adjusted your plans and played accordingly.

It helps direct your efforts/focus 
Understanding the meta doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re picking up champions every patch, it can also mean that you know what to prepare for with the champion pool that you have. If you’re comfortable enough with your champion, you can learn how to play even tough matchups well. But in the case that you see someone on our tier list that you’re comfortable with, you’ll likely have a better chance with them over another champion that you are equally comfortable with but isn’t meta.

Why does the meta change?

The meta is influenced by many factors, the most significant ones being gameplay changes, time, skill, and cultural perception.

Gameplay changes
The most obvious cause of change is the continual adaptation to the boundaries given within patches, buffs, and nerfs. These changes represent the laws and boundaries of the game. Players have to figure out the puzzle of what’s the best way to play within these lines. The slightest alteration to a champion’s scaling, itemization, or cooldowns can cause them to rise or fall in both popularity and/or success.

Time

Meta shifts also occur over time. Even when there aren’t major changes, meta shifts still occur due to people theorycrafting or finding advantages that were previously undiscovered from past patches. A great example of a meta forming due to time, is Super Smash Bros Melee.  Melee has been one of the longest-lasting fighting games (released on Nintendo Gamecube 2001) and it still has a vibrant esports scene today.

Despite never having patches, the game’s meta has continued to change over the years. Players have pushed the boundaries even to the point of exploiting unintended nuances within the game to open up more movement options. The most famous example of this is the wavedash, presented in the video.

The TLDR (or TLDW?) is that players discovered that if you manipulated a character’s weight while dodging, you were able to make your character slide. This innovation alone opened up new ranges of motion, combos, and maneuvers that were previously impossible to pull off. It made a huge impact on the professional scene and trickled its way as an expected technique, even at local tournaments.

These trends also hold true in League of Legends. As hard as our experts try to predict how a patch’s meta will shake out, we still make sure to revisit our lists with new thoughts and updates. Some things just take time to learn and find out. Afterall, every champion isn’t touched by buffs or nerfs within the patch notes, it takes a while to see how the big changes interact with the other factors in the game that remained unchanged.

Skill

The champions in League all have varying levels of difficulty in playing them. This causes metas to vary between tiers because lower level players simply can’t command the same control of champions that may be successful at high tiers, and champions that are good at lower levels of play may not be good at high tiers. In a study we did last year, we found that AoE compositions had a higher win rate at lower ranked tiers. This was likely due to the newer players not knowing how champion abilities worked, or how to position properly.

red bull graph

Learn more by reading the rest of our article on Red Bull Esports

Using this sort of knowledge can help you succeed if you’re a lower player because you can play to these tendencies. As you rank up however, you’ll have to adapt to the changing conditions that arise when players around you become more skilled and knowledgeable.

Perception

Despite League of Legends clients having the same patch changes for every region, we still find that there are differences in champion success and popularity depending on location.

This can widely be attributed to cultural perception. Think about when you discuss a game with your friends, you may all agree and disagree on certain things based on the different forums you visit, videos you watch, or articles you read. You may then run into a new group of people and find that their beliefs are vastly different.

Did you read our Dunning-Kruger article? Different ideas of the meta may also be formed by people not fully understanding what is actually overpowered. For example, a Bronze player may spend their draft ban on Blitzcrank because they have trouble dodging his grab and die often in lane. On the other end of the spectrum, a skilled player who has excellent mechanics may not see Blitzcrank as a threat and may look to target a champion that is abusing an overtuned build path.

Recognize and react to meta-trends

Once you understand why the meta can shift, you may begin to catch onto cycles and patterns that tend to coincide with others. There is usually a push and pull between various factors that cause some trends to fall and others to rise. You can either ride the tide or find ways to defeat it!

In general, when a champion is perceived as strong, other champions rise for various reasons:

  • Their counters become more popular
    • When strong engage champions like Zac or Sivir become popular, champs with strong disengage such as Taric or Braum see more play.
  • The matchups they’re good against become less popular
    • This is the inverse of the counter-trend. When mobile assassins run rampant, it makes it much harder for champions that rely on skillshots to succeed. Likewise, when the number of tanks begin to increase, assassins begin to decrease because its harder to find juicy targets to pick off.
  • Champs that fulfill similar roles become more popular
    • This trend occurs because the optimal champ may be getting banned and players want to fulfill a similar niche. It can also happen in an attempt to keep up with the champion, such as when Galio rises, champions that have comparable map presence like Taliyah, Corki, and Twisted Fate may see an increase.

Other major trends are connected to the popularity of items. For example, during Worlds 2017, the meta formed around Ardent Censer. Here’s a compilation by MagickarpusedFly that illustrates how central the item was to Worlds 2017:

Since the item revolved around healing and shielding, it lead to the rise of Enchanter Supports like Lulu, Soraka, and Janna. Alongside these Supports, late-scaling AD carries like Kog’Maw and Tristana rose. The empowered shields/heals provided by the Ardent Supports offered enough protection to allow the ADCs to scale into the late game to the point where teams would build their comps around their bot lane.

In regards to the general trends we mentioned earlier, poke champions such as Zyra and Jhin, that were popular during Worlds 2016 fell out of favor because their damage simply couldn’t make it through heals and shields. As a reaction to the passive Ardent bot lanes, Misfits famously brought out Leona as a counterpick against the reigning champions, SKT (and won that game!).

Another recent example of the effect of items was the Stopwatch meta. As Season 8 developed and players became more accustomed to the new runes, it became an increasingly popular choice. It got to the point where each team often had multiple players using it. It was sort of absurd…

The rune made it incredibly hard to get kills during lane phase and average game lengths began to increase. This meta made it hard for champs which excelled in the early to mid game to succeed because they were unable to snowball. If they didn’t have a dominant early laning phase, they were inevitably outscaled by champs which excelled in the late game.

Stopwatch nerf

Stopwatch’s nerf brought assassins back into the fold since they had an extra four minutes to snowball.

Fast forward to Patch 8.4 when the Stopwatch was nerfed and you see the return of assassins like LeBlanc and Fizz who could snowball more reliably again. Average game times began to decrease so champions in other roles who excelled in the early-mid game, such as Junglers like Kha’zix, Shaco, and Rek’sai solidified themselves as rising picks.

The effects of change will continue to ripple through the meta as long as the game competitively exists, so be ready!

Closing Thoughts

Remember that these tidbits regarding the meta are only useful to a certain extent. At the end of the day, having strong fundamental play and mental constitution are much more important than trying to follow the meta. If you can’t last-hit properly, it really doesn’t matter if you’re playing a meta ADC or a non-meta one.

Always keep comfort level in mind. For example, if you look at our tier list and buy an S tier champ you’ve never played before, you probably won’t be able to perform as well immediately in comparison to a champ that you have 50 games with. However, a patch arrives and you find that one of your comfort champs has suddenly risen in stock, it would probably serve you well to take advantage!

We know that it can be overwhelming to follow every buff and nerf, item tunings, and different meta champs for each lane. Focus on the big things and what’s most relevant to you. For example, if you were a Support who didn’t know Sightstone was removed, your build path was probably suboptimal and may have put you at a disadvantage. These sort of changes are the ones you want to look out for. However, as a Support, you probably don’t need to know all the nuances of the Top lane meta because it hardly affects you.

So although it’d be ideal to know every little ebb and flow, just do your best to follow the factors that are most impactful to your play on a consistent basis. Good luck summoners!

Thanks for reading! We hope you have a better grasp of how the meta works and how you can use it to help your own game. Find us in Discord for more discussion or to pick our brains.