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Meta and Innovation: Are You Playing The Game The ‘Right’ Way?


Introduction

‘Meta’ is a word that has been tossed around a lot recently in the League of Legends community.  Outside of the elite in our community (those playing the game, and those directly involved in strategy, at the highest levels), we as a community haven’t had a conversation about meta without the assumption that both parties know what ‘meta’ even is.

How many times has someone told you, “this team plays to the meta,” when the only thing that’s happened in the game so far is Champion Select? In this article, I hope to convey my understanding of what ‘meta’ is, as well as discuss the term’s shortcomings, but more importantly, begin an open conversation with the community started about what meta really is.

So What Is Meta, Bonk?

Literally, meta is a theoretical analysis of something at a higher level. For League though, it’s come to be interpreted as the most optimal way to play the game. This definition isn’t fulfilling to me because there needs to be clarification of both context and constraints to how the game can be played in an optimal fashion.

Here’s an example of what I mean, as demonstrated in a heated twitter conversation between Montecristo and Last Shadow. Last Shadow, coming from the beautiful infrastructure of  South Korean eSports, is used to a meta where teams can practice champions undetected. Montecristo informs LS that, in the West, teams need revenue from playing their primary roles on streams.

Therefore, because of these infrastructural differences,Western meta is different than Korean meta because of the availability of scouting information in the West. We can see that this statement is true, simply from the amount of pocket-picks used by underdog teams in Korea, such as IM #2’s Lux and Blitzcrank picks against Samsung Blue, and in stark contrast, the lack-there-of from Western teams.

Of course, that’s only one way the Western meta is different than the Korean meta. A sister team, a more competitive Solo Queue environment, and many other things can determine and affect how the competitive meta operates.

Before diving into more detail concerning meta, I’d like to take a moment and delve into some League of Legends history.

Shaping A Style

For those who’ve stuck with League of Legends since Beta, they knew back in the day when people, for the most part, played what they wanted to. Eventually, teams began to create ‘styles,’ differentiating themselves from the pack by playing a specific type of composition – And playing it well.

I’ve only heard tales of the Season 1 World Champion Fnatic bot-lane duo, creating grounds for a somewhat stable Solo Queue meta. Eventually, we would see a variety of different styles; TSM and their early teamfight compositions to contest early dragons, CLG and their split-pushing AD Carry, Fnatic’s use of multiple teleports, Helios sacrificing himself for Lord Flame on CJ Blaze, Cloud 9’s use of Ashe/Zyra bot lane and Meteos carry…The list goes on.

Season1-Fnatic

Let’s compare this to League of Legends in NA, present day. The old sense of ‘styles’ are out of date for top teams. They have evolved so much that they can identify weaknesses of a composition, despite how good an enemy team may be at it, and play/pick around it. Bottom teams, however, rely on styles to hide their varietal weaknesses, in hopes to compete with top teams.

Montecristo made a comparison on Summoning Insight Episode 16 between Complexity and SKT T1 S. They’re teams both able to play safe early-game champions, such as Renekton and Lee Sin, as well as strong late-game champions, such as Ziggs, to stall the game out to the point where if either team makes a single mistake, the game is over.

The problem arises as this style not only exposes these team’s inability to close games, as seen in the tragedy that was Curse vs Complexity this split, but also makes it hard to work on the problems holding the team back. ‘Styles’ have short-term results but can create long-term crutches.

Granted, it’s probably better for lower level teams to focus on their strengths in the present instead of trying to work on their weaknesses, because that’s the only chance they have to win games and stay in the LCS in the short term. But for higher level teams, they need to transition to understanding the ‘meta’ to achieve consistent improvement.

CLG is a good team to look at in terms of consistent improvement in playing the meta over time, as not long ago, they played for their LCS spot against the Azure Cats, a Challenger level team, only to now become a mere game behind the Number #1 team in North America.

Innovation and Scouting

Now you’re probably thinking, “if top teams consistently improve playing meta, why do you have beef with it?” Well, maybe in a Best of 1 format where individual games seemingly hold less weight and you have to prepare for a multitude of games in only a week’s time, meta is good for a ‘cover all’ strategy. But in a more competitive, Best of 5 format, teams need to rely on innovation and scouting their opponent, more than blanket meta strategies. This rule is especially true when the team is considered an ‘underdog,’ or has less mechanical prowess than the opposition.

A perfect example of this could be seen within the OGN Spring 2013 finals, when MVP Ozone (currently Samsung White), the underdog, upset CJ Entus Blaze, who were undefeated during the playoffs with a 3-0 Bo5. Blaze was able to come into the finals in such a manner due to their strategy of deep freezing and allowing for Flame to get extremely fed (relative to the enemy top lamer), and this strategy was left unanswered.

MVP Ozone scouted their opponents successfully and made innovative leaps in rotational play, which negated Blaze’s ability to utilize their strategy effectively. Because Blaze held onto this meta strategy so closely, didn’t research Ozone, and were unable to be quickly innovative within matches, they fell in a humiliating 3-0 manner.

It’s also important to note that there wasn’t a Patch change during the OGN Playoffs. There are two forces of innovation in League of Legends – From teams and from Riot. Riot implemented innovation catches quickly, which is pretty apparent from buffs, nerfs and scrimming other teams.

Team-based innovation is what keeps top teams at bay and what allows young teams to climb the ranks. I think the question top teams need to be able to answer is, “What do I do if I encounter something I didn’t practice against?” Well, this is a bit of a ‘Catch 22.’ On one hand, if you play what you’ve practiced, you run into the enemy teams innovation trap; you’re playing what they want you to play.

On the other hand, if you try to play something that would do well against their composition, they have successfully forced you off of what you’re used to playing, and as a result, you may lose to due to inexperience or lack of comfort. Either way, the advantage goes to those who innovate. Innovations become and replace the current meta, and it’s a cycle that feeds upon itself. So how is playing ‘to the meta’ a good idea if your strategy is constantly at risk of being figured out?

Well.. change is good.

Conclusion

So to summarize what you’ve just read:

  • Meta is thought to be the most optimal way to play the game.
    • Meta has context (example: regional) and constraints (innovation).
    • Innovation pushes the meta – Stagnant teams suffer.
      • Teams with good infrastructure – Specifically Analysts – will have more information to work with, and a better chance to succeed in the LoL information war.
  • Styles’ were prevalent back in the old days of LoL.
    • Teams focused on a specific and defining strategy.
    • Styles became outdated as teams began to play more compositions at a higher level.
    • Transitioning to focus on meta makes teams perform better more consistently, but thus leaves them susceptible to those willing to innovate.

 

Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this article, feel free to drop a comment below and discuss your thoughts on meta!


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BonkCushy

I am currently a color caster for NESL, and write blog posts for Cloth 5, with a focus on analysis and strategy. I also play Super Smash Bros. Melee competitively, going to weekly tournaments in the greater Boston area. Currently, I am enrolled at Boston College, with a Communications major. To get in contact with me, follow me on Twitter @BonkCushy.

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