The term “meta” is used frequently, from the highest levels of League play to the lowest, but is often misunderstood and misused. This is due to the fact that (like many words) it can vary in meaning depending on the context and use. Typically, “meta” refers to the unwritten expectations and assumptions that players have for each other.
Think of it like this: Millions of people who don’t know each other play League, get paired with each other randomly, and have a relatively short time in champion select to organize themselves, so everyone needs to implicitly agree on a rough plan before being matched up without having to discuss it. Meta gives a basic framework to structure their team for optimal performance. For example, most people in ranked matches assume there will be a ranged, physical damage DPS “Marksman” and a utility-based “Support” going to the bottom lane. There aren’t any rules saying this is the best or only way to play bottom lane, but the meta points to this being a strong strategy that is well tested.
This set of expectations, has a broad range of applications, and impacts several levels of decision making. For example, it is currently in meta to have the jungler be a tanky, utility champion, such as Jarvan or Nautilus, as opposed to someone primarily focused on DPS like Master Yi or Evelynn. It is also meta for champions to itemize very specifically, in other words the DPS champions will get at most one defensive item, while the tanky champions will get at most one or two offensive items, as opposed to everyone getting a mix of offense and defense. What’s more, it’s meta to give kills to the most DPS-focused champion (usually a Marksman) when possible. As these examples illustrate, the effects of the meta are felt in just about every scenario imaginable.
One area of the meta that is overlooked, yet extremely important, is champion roles. When deciding what champion to pick, people usually consider position, but don’t think about role (A position is where your champion goes, such as mid or top, and a role is the type of champion you pick, such as Tank or Carry). In the current meta, there are essentially five basic roles which champions can be classified by: Carry, Support, Frontline Tank, Midline Tank, and Assassin. Each role is designed to perform a certain function, and the degree to which a champion can perform that function determines the degree which they fulfill that role.
The functions of each role in a team fight setting are as follows:
Carry: “I wanna shoot things!” Being a Carry does not mean that they do any more than anyone else or that they are more important. “Carry” is a title attributed to people who pump out high amounts of Damage Per Second (DPS). A carry focuses on putting out as much damage as they can however they can; they are the chief offensive component of the team. Kog’Maw, who is 100% focused on dishing out extreme damage (without having any serious breaks where they would lack it, such as waiting on a cooldown), is a good example of this.
Support: “Defense wins championships.” While a Carry is the chief offensive component for a team, a support is the chief defensive component for a team. Their goal is to defend and protect, to repel and negate the offensive elements of the enemy team, so their team can perform their function without being impeded. A good support makes their team look good. Janna, who can single-handedly repel a 5-man dive, while giving an AD shield, movement, and CC to aid the counterattack is a good example of this.
Frontline Tank: “I zoned 6 people.” Frontline tanks prioritize becoming indestructible above all else and then making themselves nuisances that have to be dealt with so that their tankiness is put to maximum use. They often have a single gap-closer to initate with, from which point they focus priority targets (the Carries) and make them ineffective. Malphite is a good example of this, being able to gap close, neutralize and negate the threat of the carries (particularly AD marksmen), and provide a persistent threat that demands their focus.
Midline Tank: “Even Allstate can’t save you from mayhem like me.” Midline tanks want to disrupt the function of the enemy team as a whole, creating a persistent threat that has to be dealt with to multiple targets. They are very similar in function to a Front-line tank, except that they are focused on disrupting a whole team, being the bull in their china shop, rather than focusing one or two priority targets. Because they don’t have to go as deep into the enemy team, they itemize slightly less for tankiness and slightly more for damage. Gragas, Cho’Gath, and Sejuani, who all have powerful AOE disruption abilities are good examples of Midline Tanks.
Assassin: Assassins say nothing because they are sneaky and kill you first, often being ninjas. Assassins want to eliminate a priority target immediately, which means being mobile enough to get to that target and bursty enough to take it out immediately. If they die while still killing their target, they say “worth.” If not dead, they continue putting out high DPS, second only to a carry (what they gain in burst damage, they sacrifice in sustained damage). Zed is the perfect example of an assassin, having multiple gapclosers, extremely high burst, and the ability to contribute high DPS if he survives his assassination of the Carry.
These roles can (and usually do) hybridize, meaning a champion can fulfill more than one of these roles to some extent. Mages, for example, are a sub-role hybrid between Assassin and Carry, having less burst or mobility than an Assassin, and less sustained damage than a Carry. Someone like Zac can use his kit to zone a single target like a Frontline Tank, cause mayhem among the general populace as a Midline Tank, or help peel off divers as a Support. So how should he decide which is best to do? Here is a list of counters applicable for teamfight settings, using the above classifications.
If, for example, the enemy team’s Assassin(s) are being too successful (your carries are dying too fast), Zac should probably try to Initiate onto them, and remain on them until they are a non-factor, or if his team is imitated on, focus on peeling them until they are a non-factor (essentially turning him into a second support). If however, it’s the enemy Carry that is the biggest problem, he can zone them as a frontline tank. In other words, someone who is flexible in role needs to be dealing with the most effective person on the other team that their role allows for.
Why We Don’t “Break” the Meta
As previously stated, the meta is something that players adopt because everyone else is doing it, and it’s more successful to cooperate with the rest of the team, even if that means individual sacrifice. However, there has been (and always will be) enormous amounts of people trying to “break” the meta. The reason most of these attempts fall short is due in large part to the fact that people try to “break” the meta in solo queue. While they may adapt to their non-meta role successfully, they don’t take into account how that adaptation affects the dynamic of their team.
Let’s say, for example, that a duo decides to run Heimer Jungle and Caitlyn Mid, with the Heimer devoting most of his time to staying mid and pushing, spending little time clearing his jungle, and not ganking the side lanes. In a ranked 5s team, this could be coordinated successfully, but in solo queue, it runs numerous risks.
First, because the jungler will not be a tank, everyone on the team will need to itemize more defensively, or your team will be unable to initiate, and die easily when initiated on. This change in itemization is because there is a lack of initiation power on the team, and without general survivability from rest of the team, they can be initiated on freely and lose too much (probably an entire team member) before they can react. What’s more, the strength of a Heimer/Cait is the ability to push towers quickly, losing out on team fight potential given by a traditional Mage and utility jungler (for an explanation on why utility is better for team fights see this and compare the utility of a Mage such as Morgana to Caitlyn).
Secondly, such a niche selection will force your team to into a full split push until you reach the Nexus turrets, which both gives the opposing team a very simple set of problems to react to, and locks your team into working from a strategy that they most likely aren’t accustomed to. This will mean they will have to pick very strong dueling champions, while also being pressured to push their lanes quickly to be in about the same area of the map. If the side lanes don’t win, which is likely since they will have to deal with an enemy jungler, while not getting one themselve), the split push will fail, and the game will end miserably. In other words, changing the team dynamic away from the meta forces your team to perform well in situations they aren’t familiar with (often with champions they either aren’t familiar with or aren’t suited for the situation), using builds that they aren’t familiar with or aren’t suited for the situation, and strategies that they either aren’t familiar with or aren’t suited for the situation. While there’s nothing wrong with doing off-meta strategies with people that agree to it, expecting strangers to conform to your idea will not consistently yield positive results.
How the Meta Can Be Overrated
While changing some aspects of your team to be “non-meta” can change the dynamic drastically, others don’t. Analyzing exactly how you are deviating from the meta, and what you lose as well as gain by doing so, will allow you to make good decisions in any given situation (e.g. you may not always need a Frontline Tank). For example, in one of my recent games, the enemy team replaced a traditional AD Marksman with an AP Nidalee, using Soraka as the Support. Soraka’s MR shred became lethal, and combined with her heals, their post-6 laning became a nightmare for our botlane, since they were able to take advantage of Nidalee’s cougar form much more than a traditional Midlane Nidalee would. In this instance, Nidalee was largely filling the same role as an ADM, and since they had a full split push composition with Twisted Fate and Shen, they were able to do so better than many ADMs would. With the wide range of champions available, a ranged APM/Mage can go bottom, while having AD champions in other places (e.g. mid lane Quinn), and damage diversification can still be achieved, while roles stay largely the same. What’s more, with the wide range of penetration items available, full AD/AP comps are much more viable at present than they have previously as players are able to make better use of Abyssal Scepter/Black Cleaver and Zeke’s Herald/Will of the Ancients than a standard team composition would.
So what non-meta changes can be easily and successfully incorporated into solo queue, and which can’t? Feel free to discuss below!