Because of the unpopularity of the support position (in North America, I cannot speak for any other region, but I would assume this holds true in other Western regions), the art of supporting is one of the least understood skills in Solo Queue. Because those who play support competitively are those who have risen through the ranks of Solo Queue, there is a shortage of true support players, and we often hear of people being forced to fill the support role. What’s more, at all levels of play there is a certain disrespect for, and underestimation of, supports and what they do, which ultimately gives the supports an edge.
In this Curse vs. TSM match, Saint dies to TSM because he, Voyboy, and Cop underestimate Xpecial’s Thresh, even though it is clear that he is baiting for a gank (he wouldn’t be trying to stay near the tower unless he had help coming).
Let’s look at exactly how supports are designed, and why they are the most influential position in a team game.
Let’s start by looking at someone who can be played as a support and in other positions. Janna, for example, can be played as an AP mid with tremendous split-push potential, late-game power, and team fighting prowess, but she is much more often seen as a support. Why? Every character has a certain level of what I call “Item Independence.” Item Independence is the degree to which a champion can do their job without having items. While Janna can absolutely have a large impact with a high AP build, she can also do a lot without items (She is one of the few characters in the game that has both high Item Independence and high Item Maximization). Her passive is 100% Item Independent, and her tornadoes, slows, and ultimate can be used for their sheer utility, which is not affected by items. Because there are a limited number of resources to be split among the team, some people have to make themselves useful without getting much/any resources. This is where Item Independence comes in, and viable supports are the most item-independent champions, because they are able to do their job without items.
When it comes to supports, Item Independence is most often measured by the amount of utility they provide (Utility is measured by decreased control of enemy champions, and conversely, increased control of allied champions). For example, Janna’s shield is very item-dependent. The AD bonus it gives is not affected by items, but it has relatively low base stats, with a 90% AP ratio, which means it takes items to maximize, and finds itself lacking without those items. However, because her other skills have a high degree of utility that is unaffected by itemization (as discussed above) she is able to thrive in the support role.
Let’s contrast Janna, with her extremely high Item Independence, with another typical support: Sona. Sona’s Q and W are her core abilities during the early game, and are very powerful then, but they offer no utility (except, arguably, her W powerchord). Despite the fact that these skills offer virtually no utility, they have very strong base statistics, and don’t need items to be effective. This is the second way that supports can be Item Independent. Leblanc, for example, makes for an excellent support in many aspects because she has both high base damages giving her Item Independence, as well as utility that is Item Independent. With Item Independence being the most important factor for a support, and Leblanc having so much of it, why is she not seen in this role more often? To answer that question, we must first understand the types of supports, and how they interact with each other.
There are 3 dimensions to each support champion: brawling, poking, and peeling. As a rule of thumb, brawling counters poking (imagine a Leona turning on a Sona that went in to poke), poking counters peeling (Sona can freely poke Janna or her ADC, targeting the one that is not shielded), and peeling counters brawling (Janna’s tornado can interrupt Leona’s gapcloser). In order for the support to be viable, they must be versatile, meaning they are able to do more than one of these things (brawl, poke, peel). Leona is a great fight starter/diver, but she can also use her CC to peel well, allowing for counterplay because she can adapt to different situations instead of being forced to act the same way every time, and making the summoner playing her think about what end he/she should be working towards. On the other hand, if a support does all of these things exceptionally, they are OP, which some people would argue is this case Thresh, but this is mostly untrue.
While Thresh can both peel and dive exceptionally, he cannot do them simultaneously. His chief peeling tool that causes so much anguish for those playing against him is his lantern re-position. If he is diving into the enemy team, that re-position will not be favorable as a peeling tool. The same idea holds true of his other peeling abilities, if he is using his abilities in a brawling manner, he will not be positioned to peel. The same holds true of his poking power. When he first came out and his auto-attack buildup was linked with his hook, he could poke with the hook/auto attack combination, going in for the kill if he wanted, or simply using the hook for harass, which gave him a bit too much power. By moving the buildup to his flay however, Thresh can’t use his hook for poking efficiently, unless he divert resources there from other areas. In other words, before he could poke strongly at no loss to his brawling potential, whereas now Thresh players have to choose between these options.
Okay, Thresh has to think carefully about how he should use his kit, but the extra versatility to do extremely well in all 3 aspects of supporting make him OP, right? Wrong. Let’s return to Leblanc, she has the damage, CC, and mobility to decimate enemies in brawls, poke enemies down substantially, and peel fairly well. That’s a pretty loaded package as well, so by the same logic (that Thresh excels in too many roles), support Leblanc is also OP. She has been played as a support in competitive play, so it’s not like support Leblanc hasn’t been thought of, so why isn’t she played much in the support role? To answer this question, we must understand not only what makes a support, and how they work individually, but how they function within the framework of a team.
In a 1v1 scenario, utility is insignificant compared to damage output, which is why supports will lose almost any 1v1. However, utility multiplies with damage to create kill potential, so when you pair someone who is primarily focused on dealing damage (like an ADC) with someone who is primarily focused on providing utility (like a support), you get create very high kill potential. What’s more, utility multiplies well with the number of players involved from either team. Take a Sona ult for example, in a 1v1 it would almost be a waste to use it much of the time, a Taric stun would often be just as effective. However, in a 2v2 the potential it does on it’s own doubles (twice as much damage, twice as much stun) AND there is someone else who can follow up on it to attack the afflicted targets. In a 5v5, it’s one of the most impacting abilities there is, and can make or break a teamfight.
This example is representative of all utility, the more people there are involved, the more impacting it is. Even a single-target Taric stun is 5 times as useful in a 5v5 as it is in a 1v1, because 5 people can follow up on it instead of 1. Damage on the other hand, does not necessarily scale with the number of players in a fight, in fact, the typical primary damage dealer for a team, the ADC, overwhelmingly relies on single-target damage, with few exceptions. Because, generally speaking, utility is more impacting in big fights than damage, and supports are the biggest providers of utility, supports are the kings of 5v5s, and this is where they perform best.
This is where supports like Leblanc and Elise find themselves lacking. What they gain in damage for small engagements they lose in team fighting potential, where they are severely outclassed by traditional supports like Janna, Sona, and Taric. While Leblanc has sufficient CC to peel off a single target, she doesn’t contribute to the fight as a whole the way Taric would with his auras, Sona would with a 3+ champion Crescendo, or Janna would by getting 3 divers out of position while healing her team. What’s more, they are unable to acquire items needed to perform the roles they can in lane, limiting their ability to brawl in a team fight, so they are relegated to a single function, and it’s the function that they are least suited for. Support Elise and Leblanc can maximize their skirmishing power in full split push compositions, but these are rare for numerous reasons.
Because supports are designed to work with and through others, it’s extremely difficult to assess how well they are performing (and how well they do their job is usually only assessed when they do it poorly). What’s more, they don’t get as much reinforcement from doing things right because they don’t directly profit from their actions most of the time. Add to that the fact that they are always reliant on others to work with them, and it’s both a challenging and often unrewarding role. However, in contestable games, how utility skills are used will largely determine how fights turn out, which means supports have incredible power over how those fights play out. It’s not a glorious job, but somebody’s got to do it. On their own, supports are weak, but when coupled with others they become a force to be reckoned with, amplifying team power exponentially.
There is obviously much more to supporting, but this provides a foundation for everything that makes supports and influences how they function at every level.
As always, I encourage you to ask, add, argue, etc. in the comments.