Getting Outpicked: A Short Guide to the Drafting Phase

Analysts, casters and players alike are fascinated by the Pick/Ban phase (also known as the drafting phase) of games, convinced that teams can stomp just by out-picking their opponents– or  lose wildly as a result of bad drafting. This week, I’d like to break down the process I use for analyzing pick/ban phases in the NA LCS. Most of the principles will be transferable to other regions, but NA is my speciality so we’ll be focussed there. Also a note, I will be lifting some of these concepts from other analysts such as Montecristo and GentlemanGustaf, so definitely check out their stuff if you like the direction. I agree with Monte specifically about the generalities of his pick/ban categories, so I’ll be elaborating based on that framework. If you’ve never heard Monte’s take on the drafting phase, this is his view on the subject.

The Types of Picks

In my analysis, there are five different kinds of picks: Power picks, counter picks, option picks, pocket picks and combo picks. Power picks are champions that are strong in the meta game, generally grabbed in the first round of draft. Counter picks are taken specifically in reaction to what the opponent is doing, or might do. Option picks have the ability to work in multiple roles and typically allow teams the option of swapping them around as the drafting phase closes. Pocket picks are champions that certain players might specialize in, and combo picks are generally champions you only pick up to complement other champions.

In general, there are different philosophies coming from different places as to the types of picks. Players tend to see blind picks (champions they will take into any matchup) and counter picks (which they choose to specifically shut down an enemy champion.) They generally have the best understanding of these specifics because they are the players practicing the champions in scrims and solo queue. Coaches/Analysts are more likely to see power picks (champions that are conceptually strong in the current metagame) and combo picks, as they’re seeing the larger picture of strategy and strong compositions.

Power Picks: Picking the meta

Unsurprisingly, power picks bring the most raw ability, strength and flexibility to a team. These are the picks that define comps, set win conditions for your teams, and drive your fundamental strategic goals. These champions tend to be bigger than the laning phase, where they tend to split the lane, not dominate. Picks like Nidalee, Sivir and Shyvana are all power picks at their core. With Nidalee, you set yourself up for the poke/siege game, and once she’s locked you want to give yourself a powerful set of sieging teammates. Sivir wants to create unescapable engages, so make sure you lock other diving, teamfighting champions with her.

Power picks and counter picks tend to be fundamentally opposed, but there are definitely champions that blur the lines. Leblanc was originally picked up as a counterpick to ranged mages such as Ziggs and Orianna, but as players reached her skill ceiling, she became more of a roaming power assassin, rather than a domineering burst bully.

Counter Picks: Keeping your Opponent Down

Where power picks are taken to add to add power to your team, counter picks are taken to remove it from your opponents. Counterpicks force your opponent into rougher lane matchups, keep them from choosing comfort champions, or, at best, counter the entirety of an enemy’s composition. Most counterpicks come at the end of the draft, typically with the most power in a solo lane, but sometimes from support or jungle as well. Additionally, there are lane counters, such as Caitlyn countering Sivir in lane, and comp counters, such as Leona’s hard CC and stickiness countering Nidalee’s poke.

Some of the greatest counterpicks, however, come early in the draft, such as Lulu and Renekton. These are picks that don’t shape the game as much as they shape the comp of the enemy team. Renekton can absolutely dumpster most of the b tier top laners like Jax, Yasuo or Lee Sin, so an early Renekton lock is vital in keeping those kinds of shenanigans away from more creative enemy top laners. Lulu hard counters most mid assassins (all except Leblanc, really) with Whimsy and Wild Growth, so locking an early Lulu is intrumental in keeping an adept Zed, Fizz or Kha’zix from snowballing out of the midlane. 

Pocket Picks: The element of Surprise

Pocket picks are one of the most interesting aspects of League of Legends, and one of the best ways for teams to out pick their opponents. Pocket picks are champions that players specialize in, put hours of practice into, and can bring out in certain situations to create new, interesting team compositions or dramatically change the nature of a lane. ZionSpartan’s Lee Sin, for instance, or Doublelift’s Vayne are good examples of specific champions that aren’t necessarily powerful in the metagame, but the combination of the player’s specific skills and/or an opponent’s unease in facing an irregular champion can get a player or team the leg up they need to win.

Pocket picks are generally used by lower-tier teams to slingshot victories against their higher skilled counterparts. Team Solomid, for instance, is most likely the highest mechanically skilled team in the game, with every player except for TheOddOne in contention for MVP of their role in North America. When teams go up against TSM, picking the meta won’t get them the win, because TSM will consistently outplay the champions and comps that they see all the time. But when players bring out their pocket picks, they put their opponents on the back foot and take initiative in the game. Teemo is likely the most famous example of this from TSM vs Cloud 9 in week one of the 2014 NA LCS Spring Split. TSM wins games off of Bjergsen’s excellent roaming, but he’s also so mechanically skilled in lane that few mids can go toe to toe with him. Hai knew he couldn’t face down Bjergsen in that 1v1 matchup, so he picked literally the only champion that can punish constant roaming and rotation: Teemo. Each mushroom chunked not only Bjergsen, but the entirety of TSM every time they tried to take an objective, and with that power, Cloud Nine were able to suffocate out a victory for themselves. Evil Geniuses is another team that’s used pocket picks such as Soraka/Urgot and Yasuo top to take games away from their opponents. They were able to fake out Scarra by locking an early Gragas, then countering his Ziggs with a Zed/Pantheon mid/jungle combination. Scarra locked Ziggs because he assumed the Gragas was headed mid, but Innox’s pocket top lane Gragas was able to propel EG to a snowballed victory.

It’s important to note that cross pollination of champions happens all the time in the highest levels of esports play, and that top teams’ pocket picks tend to become power picks very quickly.  When Dignitas was at the top of the standings in early season 3, Scarra’s pocket Diana quickly became a contested power pick between himself and other mid laners, such as Reginald and Jintae. In more recent times, Leblanc, who was popularized by Shiphtur in the NACL, very quickly became a top tier power pick in the NA LCS. Pocket picks also have one more advantage: they draw bans. Getting your opponents to ban pocket champions leaves more power picks on the table, which should give your team more flexibility to play the champions and comps that take advantage of the more banned power picks.

Option Picks: Room to Grow

When a champion can jungle or top, mid or support, play in either solo lane, or just generally fill out a comp by playing a different role, there’s an option pick on the table. Less of these exist in the current meta, but when option picks are strong they tend to bring flexibility to the table that makes your team much harder to read. Lulu is the easiest example of an option pick in the current meta, as her ability to both mid and support is certainly powerful, but the nature of her team comp changes with either role. Gragas and Nidalee are two other examples, as either can reasonable play in the long lane top or the short lane in mid. Option picks give your team flexibility and the option of dodging enemy counterpicks, setting up another layer to the mind games of the draft phase. The danger with option picks comes from their unreliablity. While champions can function outside of their typical role, they rarely do at the highest levels. Lee Sin top, for instance, is decidedly weaker than Lee Sin in the jungle, while Lulu support tends to be overshadowed by some of the other common support picks.

 Combo Picks: The Root of a Composition

A combo pick is a champion that is only really strong enough to pick because of the synergy it has with other champions that have or will be locked. These picks tend to be the less-played champion in a situation where they happen to shine purely as a part of the team composition. The return of Submarine Shen/Twitch in recent Korean games would be a great example, as well as the new Vayne-centric dive compositions. Yasuo, specifically, is a spectacular example of this sort of pick, as adding a Yasuo/Wukong to your team, for instance, instantly raises the power of each champion. In the end, combo picks can be extremely dangerous however, as they are fairly predictable by smart opponents. Evil Geniuses, specifically, tends to run obvious bot lane combinations like Morgana/Jinx or Soraka/Urgot. When one of these champions is locked, the other is guaranteed to come with it, which gives your opponent the foresight and time to preemptively counterpick.

Putting it all together: The Drafting Phase

No one champion pick or ban will fall into one category. The different aspects to each champion pick change for the team and player picking them. Doublelift’s Vayne, a hard-farming, split pushing pocket pick is very different than Piglet’s, which is a combo pick with Thresh, Renekton and other diving champions. Gragas is a power pick for most mid laners, but on Scarra the champion is so terrifying that his pocket Gragas tends to be banned out. These kinds of nuances aren’t set in stone, and statistics only help a little due to small sample sizes. Evaluating the different kinds of picks/bans for teams and understanding how they function at a core level is a very instinctual science. It’s an understanding you get from watching enough games, understanding enough about the game, and having a good enough background into specific players and teams. I’m much better at reading NA LCS pick/bans than I am OGN, but I’m sure Kyrie could explain a lot of the nuances I’m missing. In the end, the most important aspect of pick/ban analysis is really getting into players’ heads to explain what they were thinking about, looking for, and building at the time.

Teams made of all power picks get countered, but teams made of all counterpicks aren’t a composition. Teams learn to play around pocket picks quickly, the best of them adapting in the game to win. Teams made with all option picks forego the strengths of their roles, and teams built on all combo picks can never compete when their champions are apart. In this way, teams need to pick a little of everything, make sure that they’ve got all their bases covered. They need to play the right mindgames out psych out their opponents, without failing to read them at the same time.

Feel fee to comment or tweet me some interesting pick/bans you see. You can follow me @ggTonric and I do read all the comments on my articles. In my next blog, I’ll be going through the core team compositions that professional League players use.

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An esports enthusiast currently working for Square Enix, Buddy "Tonric" Sola is a Gold Mid/Top main whose favorite champions include Jax, Master Yi, Zed and Volibear. He loves to analyze the high level strategy in professional league, with a particular focus on pick/bans, champion synergies and team compositions.

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