Summoner spells have the longest cooldowns in the game, making them the highest cost and by extension the most impactful abilities there are. A core component of any jungler is that they take Smite as one of these spells- a fact that merits inspection.
When it comes right down to it, the reason why smite will always be chosen is because of the overwhelming advantage it would give if one side had it and the other didn’t- Dragons and Barons would be nearly incontestable. Because this power is vested in the jungler, as well as their general equipage for battling monsters (from masteries/items/abilities, etc.), and most importantly their freedom to roam, the jungler has the most control over Dragon by far. When determining the viability of taking Dragon, I find it helpful to assess the risk by thinking of Dragon as ~1 champion.
In other words, if the enemy jungler is top and I want to take Dragon quickly, unless my laners are able to push their opponents out, taking Dragon is a 3v3 or 4v4 depending on the state of mid lane. If bot has been winning, then (we’ll exclude mid from these example for simplicity) it’s probably a safe 3v3, and Dragon is worth the risk since you have the stronger 3v3. If they’ve been going even, then it’s all about who has the better 3v3 matchup from picks. However, If they’ve been losing, you’re not going to have the strong end of the matchup and taking Dragon might get you dragon gold, but is almost certain to cost you a kill or two, so it’s not worth the risk.
But what about when the enemy jungler is there? Still follow the rule of calculating Dragon as a member for the other team- if you kill one bot laner, going for Dragon will still mean a 3v3, and if you don’t get a kill before starting, then it’s a 3v4. The big difference here is that this usually means a 50/50 Dragon- the enemy can go for a smite steal and anything can happen. However, one jungler will have a distinct advantage- whichever one has a higher burst through their abilities. When going for a smite steal, smite isn’t the only ability a jungler will use- they will also use a high-damage burst ability. When a jungler is attempting to steal Dragon from the enemy team, they are often more willing to use an ultimate than the jungler who is burning through Dragon, which is part of why steals have good success rates. Let’s say for example that a Malphite is burning through Dragon, while the enemy Fiddlesticks is watching. If Fiddlesticks ults correctly, he can get that damage plus his smite down at the right moment, while Malphite only has his smite-it’s easy to see how this outplay happens. If however, Malphite ult-smite combos at the right time (because he has vision of Fiddle), he has the slight advantage. An overwhelming amount of junglers have burst abilities that give them a huge boost for stealing Dragons, Nunu and Cho’Gath being the most notorious, but these are easy to spot, and recognize that a 50/50 Dragon is more like an 20/80 dragon. The champions that get the most steals aren’t those with a double smite- they just intimidate people away- but rather those with sneaky burst, generally in the form of execute damage- Lee Sin and Elise being the prime examples that come to mind. Be aware of each jungler’s burst combos when taking Dragon, and make sure you have an advantage (or at least an equal chance) before you follow through on finishing a Dragon.
All of these scenarios assume both sides have full vision, which is not entirely realistic, but at the same time, lack of vision doesn’t change things as much as you might think. Aside from a few junglers who can solo Dragon, it’s a huge tell when a bot/mid lane leave to do Dragon, and from there most of the challenge is getting vision on Dragon, which is usually possible somehow through wards, abilities, or positioning. However, the ability to control Dragon throughout the game correlates with your consistency in timing it.
While League has yet to implement a timing system, there is plenty of opportunity to use the chat as your timer, not to mention less scrupulous methods. Timing important respawns is mundane, yet highly impactful, so if you don’t do it yet, I highly encourage you do so. However, simply timing respawns does nothing- you must plan around them. Regardless of who gets the first Dragon, knowing the exact second that it will respawn can allow you to put your team in position at that second, and take it with little to no contest. All you have to do is keep that timer on your mind, and let your team know 2 minutes and 1 minute before it respawns to get ready. Since everyone benefits from Dragon, people are usually willing to join in, they just need proper reminders so they can plan for it as well, and react when the time is right.
But as a jungler, timing is not limited to Dragon. If you can figure out which buff the enemy jungler started (and there are many ways to do so), you can reliably assume that that buff spawns 5 minutes after he started clearing the jungle, and unless there were extended level 1 shenanigans (which can be calculated) that he was a part of, that’s going to be at the 7 minute mark, with the other buff being 1-2 minutes later depending on what type of clear path he took. Depending on what jungler you have, you can either plan to kill him at his buff, smite steal and run, or simply take it before he gets there, but you have to plan your clearing and ganking around this. By being aware of timers you can set the enemy jungler into the stone age by doing this repeatedly, and if you’re a particularly strong counterjungler you can do this with small camps as well- it’s all about successful timing and map awareness. See this for the list of jungle timers if you are unfamiliar with them.
Smite is flat out the most misused summoner spell there is. Just because it is taken for Dragon/Baron doesn’t mean those are the only places it’s useful, or that it’s a good idea to use it to clear faster whenever it’s off cooldown. You wouldn’t use Ghost to get back to lane, or Flash to get a creep, so don’t use Smite for simple jungle clear. You never know when a Dragon fight is going to break out, when you’re going to be counterjungled, or when a good opportunity to counterjungle will arise, or when you will need to Smite a minion that is blocking a skillshot. If it’s on cooldown because you used it on the wolf camp, you won’t have it when you want/need to make a play with it.
This doesn’t mean that Smite should be saved exclusively for bosses, any more than Sona’s flash should be saved at the cost of her life for a flash-ult initiate when she respawns. As a rule of thumb, I would say that you should use Smite if it allows you to do something you couldn’t do otherwise. If you’re clearing Golems, you’re going to be able to clear them without Smite. If you want to snipe a camp while the enemy jungler is unable to respond, then Smite guarantees that you will get the major creep, and also makes it faster, reducing the odds that an enemy teammate stumbles on you, stacking the risk/reward factor heavily in your favor. For ideas directed towards creating opportunities where Smite has the chance to shine, see this.
Controlling the outcome of Dragon fights can be greatly enhanced by taking simple headcounts and monitoring the progress of lanes, things a good jungler does, but after the first one it’s often easy to take free Dragons (and buffs) simply by having some presence of mind when it comes to timing and using Smite wisely. By controlling objectives in this manner, you will be far more threatening than the opposing jungler (as discussed in jungling 102) which in turn leads to more successful ganks/counterganks, discussed in jungling 101 and jungling 201. I hope you look forward to Jungling 301, when I will return to ganking and address the stereotypical jungler’s complaint “I can’t carry because my lanes keep feeding!”
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