With the LCS and Challenger Spring Season Playoffs drawing near, teams are busily preparing for the games that matter most. Not only do they have to study their potential opponents, but they also have to adapt to the recent gameplay changes. The last two patches have the potential to turn the whole metagame around, with various tweaks to universal gameplay elements and certain champions taking major nerfs. 4.4, the patch dictating the Super Week, seemed like a setup for 4.5, with both patches trying to fine-tune the meta without directly invalidating specific champions.
Vision is one of the points where patches 4.4 and 4.5 seem to intentionally interact. Early vision is now greatly reduced or at least requires major investments to establish, as you can no longer simply roam into the enemy jungle and place a few strategic trinket wards before the start of the laning phase. Consequently, junglers become less predictable as their initial routes are no longer inevitably scouted. This nerf in trinket ward flexibility is offset by the massive blue trinket buffs: 1000 more range and a 100% duration increase. Time will tell whether it'll be a worthy successor to the early days' must-have Clairvoyance.
The mid lane meta was stale over the course of the spring split, this can hardly be denied. You needed roaming, wave clearing and skirmishing potential if you wanted a champion to work out. Ziggs, Gragas and Lulu have all taken a hit in the last patch. LeBlanc and Nidalee notably remain untouched for now, with the latter getting reworked soon™. These nerfs reduce the minimum all-round powerlevel expected from a mid lane champion and give the more niche champions the ability to compete. Moreover, it will reduce the decisiveness of the mid lane performances and distribute its impact towards the other roles, interplaying with the shift of influence to the top lane, which is discussed below.
Combined, Nidalee, LeBlanc, Ziggs, Gragas and Lulu had no less than 68 picks and bans thrown their way over 16 games throughout the European Super Week, making an average of 4.25 per game.
Renekton became more and more dominant as the split progressed and it took a while before he got figured out and the meta slowly started shifting towards his counters. He remained overcentralizing, which likely prompted the nerf to his early game in patch 4.5. Ryze was suggested as a creative counter and seemingly the sleeper solution to top lane staleness. However, his rise (pun not intended) was largely facilitated by the substantial buffs in 4.3. Range buffs and base health buffs can completely turn around a champion's viability, as seen by the sudden increase in Ryze's popularity. While Renekton is still likely to remain the king of top lane, counterplay is slowly getting more realistic and less reliant on being able to live up to the standards he sets.
With the dominance of non-interactive and beefy top laners diminished, top lane champion variety will likely increase and it'll be more tempting for teams to go for picks that can actually make an individual impact during the laning phase. Furthermore, the appearance of a wider variety of champions in the top lane will improve the average gankability of the lane, allowing for more interesting top-jungle interaction. Ganking the top lane will be less risky as it will no longer mean inevitably surrendering a dragon, further contributing to the jungle-top lane interaction we have been missing out on throughout this split.
Renekton had 100% pick/ban rate during Intel Extreme Masters Katowice (patch 4.3), at the end of which the KT Rolster Bullets introduced Ryze as a viable counterpick.
Another thing that'll likely be heavily affected by the changes will be the traditional duo lanes. 2v1ing has remained a huge deciding factor and was an aspect of the metagame that was quite difficult to breach. The buffs to Teleport in 4.4 have changed matters. A Teleport-sporting top laner now brings a lot more control to the table, which will mean that early objective control will be harder to establish and snowball, shifting some of its impact back to the actual laning phase. This is further enhanced by the fact that it's going to be more rewarding to have an impactful solo laner duke it out 1v1.
Not only will this contribute to more interactivity in the solo lanes, but it will also have the bottom lane see more focus on counterpicking and make its gameplay more interesting than just pushing down towers. Following Corki's buff in patch 4.3, quite a few marksmen have undergone small yet impactful changes in the last two patches as Miss Fortune, Tristana, Graves, Kog'Maw and Sivir all received tweaks. Combined with the changes to Heal and Exhaust, these tweaks are likely to change the landscape of the bottom lane. 2v1 will likely remain a common strategy, but there is certainly more flexibility when it comes to strategic play and much more incentive to 2v2.
Steps were taken towards balancing the scales in the jungle, as well. Elise was nerfed in the 4.4 patch and 4.5 took away major diving utility from Kha'Zix and Lee Sin, who boasted pick/ban rates of 100% and 81% over the course of the LCS Super Weeks, respectively. As Evelynn (94% pick/ban rate in Super Week) remained untouched, we may be seeing teams heavily contest her pick or otherwise adapt their jungle picks in accordance with her presence.
Item changes will affect jungle picks as well as the long-awaited Feral Flare finally made it into the game and Spirit of the Lizard Elder received a minor nerf. Junglers are no longer limited to champions that synergize optimally with Spirit of the Lizard Elder, and we may see a resurgence of more auto attack-orientated champions like Nocturne and Xin Zhao.
Maim's damage and healing increase by 3 and 1 per stack respectively. The active's cast range is ~1000 as opposed to the 600 of Wriggle's Lantern.
Into the playoffs
The importance of these changes isn't to be underestimated. Although most of the previously dominant champions will likely continue to appear, it opens up a much greater variety of viable champions. The picks of last split were largely defined by who did or did not match up well enough against the prevailing champions. Niche counterpick champions never really grew to be more than just that and strong natural meta shifts were never really realized. The last patches force teams to recreate the meta during their scrims and will likely make for some interesting picks during the playoffs.
While the changes are a laudable and healthy decision by Riot, their timing has received a mixed critical reception. With so few substantial changes over the course of season 4, the combined effects of patches 4.4 and 4.5 would be too major to introduce right before the upcoming challenger and LCS playoffs. The issue has sparked debate on the desirability of forcing teams to adapt on relatively short notice and facilitating a highly capricious metagame.
So many game changes right before playoffs is kind of silly =(..makes it confusing for the spectators and winning play offs more luck based.
— Andy Dinh (@TSMReginald) April 2, 2014
Much as adaptability is a characteristic any aspiring competitive team ought to have, it's debatable whether the very end of the split is the optimal time to put this skill to the test. Otherwise consistent teams may find themselves struggling to adapt with due haste to this particular metagame. Teams with more time and resources will definitely have an advantage when it comes down to finding out what's what in this particular patch.