For a long time, League of Legends has had a consistent metagame. But the competitive environment and the individual and team strategies that result have recently changed at a rapid pace, leading to earlier fights, faster games, and a wild shift in the way players try to out-pick and out-play each other.
League is one of the most prominent games of its genre; it's the MOBA that essentially coined the term. For a long time, it has adhered to one basic team composition: a five-player lineup with one in the top lane, one in the mid lane, two in the bottom lane, and a jungler who roams the space in between.
Each of these roles has had their own twists and turns, with middle lane players fluctuating between deft assassins or boon-tossing "support mages," top laners looking to bruisers or more niche picks (like good ol' captain Teemo), and junglers working through a variety of champions.
In the bottom lane, it's been largely stable. One player is the attack damage (AD) carry, and one is the support. The AD starts out weak but builds up strength over the course of the game, while the support stays by their side and makes sure they can get the room they need to grow.
Recent patch changes have made the items that AD carries usually buy to shred tanky bruisers much more expensive, and that combined with the sped-up pace of games has made the "weak now, strong later" carry less tempting of an investment. It's forced AD carry players to change up their game, which has in turn forced the entire team to reevaluate what role they should play, and it's fascinating to watch.
Take Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, one of the most well-known players in competitive League of Legends. Faker is known for his play on mechanically complex champions, making his opponents look amateur with performances on fighters like Zed. Here he is playing Taric in last week's LCK matches.
Unlike Zed or Syndra, two common mid champions, Taric is generally considered a support. He has heals, a passive armour boost, a stun, and a momentary invincibility buff for nearby allies.
Pretty standard kit for a back-up support, but the star mid is playing him, backing up his jungle player's Master Yi. On the other side of the match, Gen.G is running a Braum mid — another coded support — backing up his own Camille in the jungle.
This game could easily just be an outlier, two teams experimenting early on in the season. But flip over to the European League league, and you'll find this madness: a Heimerdinger-Fiddlesticks duo lane, played by the young bucks of Vitality.
There are many reasons as to why this would be absurd until now, but broadly, these two champions have not been considered "competitive" for a while. Fiddlesticks has had a few appearances as support, Heimderdinger has rarely made an appearance in pro games and certainly more rarely as a bottom lane carry, and put together, it seems like a fever dream.
Check out the North American league, and you'll find pros running Brand-Nautilus against Vlad and Morgana. This isn't even a regional thing; a change of pace, combined with the increased cost of items, means the typical carries are spiking way later — too late, in most cases — in the game.
This isn't to say all carries are now rendered obsolete. Many teams have still stuck to the old style of composition by incorporating quicker scaling champions that can rumble in the 10-to-20 minute range.
Ezreal, Lucian, Draven, and Kai'Sa are all still fine picks. But the hypercarries, the late-game kings and queens like Caitlyn, Tristana, and Kog'Maw are suddenly left out in the frigid cold.
Consequently, League of Legends is the most exciting it's been to watch in years. What lane could that Taric go to? Which player is the lineup going to rely on? Teams are breaking out new and bizarre strategies, ranging from four-protect-one (one player is the main damage dealer, while everyone else works to back them up) to multi-carry lineups and absurd lane assignments, and it's extremely fun.
Some of the players thrown into this new world don't like it. In a video translated by InvenGlobal, SKT T1's Bae "Bang" Jun-sik says Riot Games has "nerfed too much on this patch."
"I always thought they were doing a great job on their patches. But this time, they went too far," said Bae. "After playing the game for about a week, I found some big mistakes. As a pro gamer, this season, I feel dumbfounded."
Bae notes how most players are now gravitating towards different champions, that his team has to "research on counter picks" and "make a new pick ban strategy." His own role, as AD carry, has shifted dramatically.
"Let's say an [AD carry] is a forward," said Bae. "This patch is like forcing a forward to play as a midfielder." In an interview with InvenGlobal, Kingzone DragonX's Kim "PraY" Jong-in, another AD carry in the Korean league, said bot lane is "like hell."
Other players able to joke about it. In an interview with Travis Gafford, Echo Fox's jungler Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett joked about the new meta. "I've been thinking about role swapping for a really long time, so it's good that Riot just kinda let it happen in-game naturally, so I don't have to ruin my career by swapping to AD carry," said Hartnett.
His team, Echo Fox, spent the first week swapping players between roles, with the jungler, top lane, and AD carry all swapping around to suit the needs of the lineup.
Rarely is a major patch both so extreme and so effective. They will be under pressure to smooth out, but really, I hope they lean into it.