The cow has exploded onto the top-lane meta, just in time for regionals. Alistar was picked over five times in NLB after it was introduced by Trace of the Jin Air Stealths in the semi-finals.
In the NLB Finals, SK Telecom T1 K’s Impact played it in two out of three games, and in at least one of those games, was almost single-handedly responsible for his team’s victory.
There is one question that rests at the core of the discussion surrounding top lane Alistar: Was he overbuffed? Is top Alistar simply a patch-specific anomaly, doomed to extinction after some nerfs?
I believe the answer is no. Alistar’s pre-buff mana costs were some of the most oppressive in the game and had to be toned down to simply balance him.
The buff to Alistar’s ultimate was very significant, and indeed, makes it one of the best ultimates in the game, but it does not make Alistar overpowered. Rather, it simply gives him the ability to join the class of tanks that are currently favored in the meta. That is, hypertanks who temporarily, through the use of their ultimate, have the ability to become HYPER hypertanks.
“The team that has the hypertank in the top lane, they will always win the late game.”
– CLG Dexter at OGN Summer Finals
The top lane meta is currently dominated by Maokai and Mundo, tanks who can use their ultimates to become practically unkillable in late-game teamfights. Lulu, the other meta top laner, despite not being a tank, offers through her ultimate something to a similar effect, a burst of tankiness needed for 5v5 teamfights.
There are two schools of thought as to what led to the current top-lane meta. The first is the: “Everyone else got nerfed” school, which argues that with heavy nerfs to Gragas and Kayle the best AP dps top laners are simply no longer viable and had to be replaced by those who were previously second tier. This being coupled with a Maokai rework and Alistar buffs, what we are faced with is simply a shift of power levels between champions.
I disagree with this thinking. There is a general over-emphasis on buffs and nerfs when explaining the meta. Instead, I believe that the shift in the top-lane meta is a general reaction to the shift of the meta in the other lanes. One of these shifts is the dominance of late-game hypercarry ADCs as the primary damage threats of teams. They deal tons of single-target damage and are all, except Tristana, extremely immobile.
Kog’Maw, Twitch and Tristana have a throttling grip on the AD-carry meta. 90% of the time that we see another ADC is when these are not available. The difference in damage potential between these three ADCs and the others (except Vayne, who has actually been making a niche resurgence through Uzi and Piglet) is vast.
I believe hypertanks are entering the meta only because hypercarries have been dominating it for a while. Only a late-game hypertank has the potential to contest a late-game hypercarry such as Tristana, Kog’Maw or Vayne ripping through your team.
But, Anadi, you say we are used to the league of tanks.
Who can forget the days (what am I saying, MONTHS) where nothing was picked in top lane except for Renekton and Shyvana? Sure, Alistar and Maokai are more tanky, but that’s not to say that a late-game Shyvana can’t stand up to an ADC. This is the other reason for the shift in the top-lane meta, the change in role of top laners.
The only reason Renekton and Shyvana stood head and shoulders above the other top laners was that in those days, top lane was an island, and all about dueling and meeting nobody else for 20 minutes. More than anything, it was their resourceless ability casting and sustain that made them so dominant, because it is these qualities that allowed them to stay in lane (in a game without teleports) for so long.
Now, with the rise of the teleport meta, the focus has shifted to high-impact top laners, top laners that dominate teamfights. Now that teleport is universal, the ability to hang in lane until doomsday is not as highly valued as versatility, i.e., 1v1 potential and high impact in teamfights.
AD Alistar (aka The Weirdest Tank Build Ever)
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Alistar is that his ult gives him such good damage reduction that stacking resistances on top of it is very gold inefficient. When one already has 70% damage reduction, the weak damage reduction offered by armor and magic resistance items is paltry. A good top Alistar will therefore rely on his ult for tanking in teamfights and build damage items.
Trinity Force is the core and first item on Alistar’s AD build. The Sheen damage proc works very well on him as his trading relies on all-ins and burst rather than sustained DPS. The phage movement speed buff on autoattacks also does wonders for him in teamfights, as it is his only tool after using W + Q for initiation to stick to a kiting ADC.
Frozen Heart is the core and 2nd (when behind) or 3rd (when ahead) item in all of Alistar’s builds. Up front tankiness doesn’t do a whole lot for Ali in team fights, as I mentioned earlier, but the Frozen Heart aura is a good compensation that has a significant impact when Ali is in the midst of the enemy backline. Plus, like Sheen, it is one of the sneaky ways to add a bit of mana to the build, something lane Alistar thirstily needs.
Shiv is the second and usually last damage item on top Ali’s AD build. Building Shiv continues Sheen’s trend of stacking as much potential on-hit damage as possible. When Alistar uses his W (Headbutt), he has the ability to autoattack the enemy champion once in the air before they go out of reach. This is amazing for trading and in teamfights, and with the Sheen and Shiv damage, a headbutt can pack a surprising amount of burst.
Rod of Ages is the core and 1st item on Alistar’s AP build, like Impact demonstrated in game 3 of the NLB finals. If you decide to go AP as top Alistar, do NOT build any AD items such as Triforce of Shiv because there is no good synergy. Alistar’s AP build always has RoA, into an Abyssal Scepter and Lichbane when ahead or an Abyssal Scepter into Banshee’s Veil when behind.
The AP build is a much safer option than the AD build. It gives Ali some tankiness outside of his ultimate and better prepares him for team fights with RoA’s soft stacking. Crucially, it also empowers his heal. What Ali sacrifices for this safety, increased teamfight tankiness and increased utility, is the ability to outduel his opponent in lane, kill pressure for jungle ganks and damage potential in teamfights.
In terms of “efficiency” in itemization, the AD build is superior. If one has the ability to time his ult perfectly, getting the game-changing tankiness when it is needed, and being squishy at other times, the AD build is better. This is particularly significant with the change in the top-lane meta favoring teamfight compositions.
It is just so hard to manage being a hypertank for seven seconds when the ult is on, and being squishy with ADC items when the ult is off. For those who have a hard time managing the ult so perfectly, or in games when teamfights are not instant frenzies, but long drawn out poke-kite dances, then the AP build is superior.
Top Lane Counters
Alistar is a horrible laner. So the match-ups are almost exclusively all tough lanes – Thus, discussing them is about which is more catastrophic than the other. However, Ali is a decent second jungler and an incredible ganker from Level 2, so he fits perfectly in the lane-swap situation.
This is probably the worst lane match-up for Alistar among the current meta tops. Nidalee has amazing poke and kite. Poking Ali can weaken him enough to discourage all-ins, while kiting him can make an all-in difficult. And if that’s not enough, Nidalee escapes easily even when he manages an all-in. She is relatively safe from jungle ganks, partially negating Ali’s kill pressure in lane. Nidalee should be able to completely dominate Alistar in the lane CS-wise and provide more map pressure.
After the laning phase, the match-up is hard to categorize because it reflects two completely different team goals and roles that the champions fill. If Nidalee’s team is ahead then she will have the luxury of always split pushing. This forces Alistar to counter her push to save towers, where she will always best him in the 1v1.
However, if Alistar’s team is ahead his team will be grouping early and roaming, making it too dangerous for Nidalee to split push alone. The less Alistar is forced to be alone the better: he excels in large skirmishes and teamfights. Simply putting him in another lane does not take away from his quintessential supportive style.
Maokai OP. I’m not exactly sure how significant his rather large ult nerf will be in competitive play, but the nerf was simply a balancing mechanism and Maokai should definitely still be viable. Unfortunately for Alistar, Maokai fills exactly the same role as him in the team, but manages to do everything a bit better.
Maokai is safer in lane as he has more tools to farm and harass. As we saw in the match-up between Duke and Impact in the NLB finals, Maokai, though not a strong laner, can easily dominate Alistar in lane. He is a little more susceptible to jungle ganks, but that is a small advantage and one that Alistar must really exploit to go even.
In team fights, Alistar is more about burst and immediate high impact whereas Mao is more about sustained tankiness and crowd control. Though Alistar may be better at times, I would say that due to his versatility Maokai comes out on top here as well. His ult is on a much shorter cooldown, he has more slows and hence more ways to stick to an ADC, and he is significantly more tanky owing to his item build.
Alistar again has one small, yet significant advantage over Maokai in team fights – Because of his item build and Q/W combo, Alistar has incredible burst and pick potential. He is able to make plays and with the support of his team is capable of picking someone off right before a teamfight.
In the SHC vs MIL battle for 5th in Europe, we saw Zac get the dust cleared off him as he was pulled out after a full year of inactivity. The reason? An Alistar counterpick and the latest addition to the category of hypertanks. Zac counters Alistar differently from Maokai, he does it through safer laning and sustain.
Zac counts on going even in lane with Ali in the early stages and slowly but definitively edging out because of resourceless sustain. For this reason, the longer the laning phase goes, the better it is for Zac and the worse for Alistar. What really makes Zac a counter to Ali, however, is his equal if not greater contribution in team fights.
Zac’s E/R combo is more predictable and takes longer, but if landed properly, offers equal disruptability as Alistar’s W/Q combo. Although Zac is not as tanky as an Alistar, who uses his ultimate well, in extended team fights, he can actually edge out in terms of tankiness due to his passive. In Zac we see, like Mao, yet another champion who plays the same role as Alistar, but just seems to do it better in every way.
Expect Alistar to come roaring (No, mooing?) onto the scene as a meta pick in the next few patches. I believe that his rise has not been the result of his recent buffs, but rather the domination of late-game hypercarries and the general role of top laners in the teleport meta.
However, I do not expect him to enter the super-tier picks, or even to be a top-lane mainstay. Personally, I think that top Alistar is quite weak, and recently, pros have been jumping the bandwagon. Picking him in a 1v1 scenario is risky, especially with the extended laning phases we now see often with late-game champions in both bot and mid lanes. Most importantly, he does not have a reliable way to stick to kiting ADCs.
Ali is probably seeing so much play right now because of the desperate need of hypertanks. With Maokai being permabanned and Mundo predictably needing to scale to the late game, Alistar is a good middle ground with mid-game and late-game options. His burst with his AD build and ultimate is terrifying and he has always notoriously offered a mini-Unstoppable Force (Malphite ultimate) by chaining two of his basic abilities.
Currently, Alistar is a very viable top-laner in the meta. However, I believe that because he has very glaring and exploitable weaknesses he will be countered and eventually driven out of the meta by more reliable picks.
Thanks Denise for the sick art.