The Meta and Why it is the Way it Is
Mon 10th Dec 2012 - 6:32pm: League of Legends
Presumably you, dear reader, are aware of what the so-called 'meta' of League of Legends calls for you. You, therefore, know that the 'meta' says that a team will have an AP carry mid lane, an AD carry and a support bot lane, a bruiser top lane, and a jungler surprisingly in the jungle. If you didn't know that, well... now you do.
But surely you, being the inquisitive person that you no doubt are, have wondered long and hard about why this all-knowing 'meta' has decided what goes where and how on Earth it ever figured it out. Perhaps you even lose sleep at night, contemplating the deep mysteries of the universe, such as why the hell does my team want me to play a babysitter support and do nothing all game so this know-nothing AD can get fed.
If that's you, than worry no longer, for I have come to allay those concerns! I will explain to you exactly what the meta is and why it is that way; it actually does, contrary to your suspicions, exist the way it does for very good reasons, albeit reasons that are not exactly apparent. If in fact you don't lose sleep at night wondering about the theory behind some video game you play, then...well, please don't leave me. I like you.
Now, to explain the meta and figure out why it says what it says, it seems prudent to first examine exactly what 'meta' means. You are surely aware that the term 'meta' is simply a shortening of the slightly longer term 'metagame,' a term which itself is simply the word 'game' with the Greek prefix 'meta' attached to it. Presumably you know what a game is already, and thus in order to examine what 'meta' means, we have to examine what 'meta' means.
As it turns out, the prefix 'meta' is a Greek term, and it translates roughly to 'after' or 'beyond.' It shows up in such technical terms as metaphysics, which is the study of that which is beyond the physics (meaning the physical – thus referring to such things as the spiritual realm and whatnot); metacognition, which is [thinking] beyond thinking – thus referring to thinking about thinking; and Metaknight, who is a spam happy character for noobs and a pain in the ass to fight.
Therefore, given what we now know about 'meta' (and having put that Metaknight in his place), we can extrapolate that 'metagame' refers to 'beyond game.' Specifically, this means anything done outside the game to gain an advantage within the game. This does mean that such things as exercising to enter peak mental condition for ranked games or studying the playing habits of your likely opponents qualifies as metagaming. However the term is typically used within the context of League of Legends to refer to a very specific aspect of metagaming, that aspect being theory crafting – and even to a particular aspect of theory crafting (theory crafting itself being more or less the application of the scientific method to video games – some people get real serious about their games, yo).
To get extremely specific, and finally answer this damn question that I managed to drag out really long for no real reason other than that I like being cheeky and also writing a lot and also explaining stuff, 'meta' refers to that aspect of theory crafting that designs the optimal team setup.
Thus! If the meta promises to give you the optimal team setup, it certainly does seem like something worth listening to. And, as it turns out, it typically is. The meta is developed by a collaborative effort of people who know very well what they're doing, and it typically exists the way it does for very good reasons – reasons that are worth knowing, especially if you, dear reader, ever plan to break, challenge, master, or expand on the meta.
Now, League of Legends is in many respects a game of economy. Winning a game of LoL relies heavily on properly building up and spending gold, thus any optimal team setup will take optimal advantage of the in-game gold sources. The vast majority of the gold in the game is gained from killing minions and monsters, and thus these are considered the primary economic resource of the game.
A quick look at the game (something you have hopefully taken by now, and if you haven't, then thanks for sticking with me and reading a bunch of stuff you probably don't understand I guess) will reveal that the game supports four primary income sources via minions and monsters: the three lanes, and the jungle. However, you should be perfectly aware that a LoL team actually has five members. Four income sources, five members. Ah ha, and now we see a potential conflict. We have five champions who presumably want to gain economic strength from the primary economic resources, but there are only four of those to go around for a team.
Now, there are actually a number of ways to solve this disparity (the number is two). The first is to simply divide one of the resources between two members – this is the tactic often taken by low level players, and the one that the bots opt for. As it happens, this first method typically results in having two champions that are considerably weaker than everyone else in the game; as many of you are well aware, their combined strength is often barely comparable to the strength of a champion who had the entirety of an economic resource to himself (how often has the mid lane in a low level game 1v2'd your top lane with apparent ease, after all, despite your yelling at said top lane to stop being feeder noobs and your astute observation that said mid laner was just a lucker).
The second way to solve the aforementioned disparity is to somehow find a type of champion that can preform adequately without taking advantage of one of the economic resources. This seems counter intuitive, as, after all, I just said that a big part of the game is economy and why would it be a good idea to have a champion ignore the economy entirely? The reason is because League of Legends, intentionally or not, supports a decent sized grouping of champions who not only perform adequately with low gold gain, they can actually thrive in such a setting.
Enter the support. The support is the ideal solution to the whole “4 isn't 5” issue here. Supports are champions who are, for some reason or another, only slightly less powerful without gold as they are with gold. This most typically means champions that have abilities that are devastating for some reason other than damage, or champions that have high base numbers on their abilities but low scaling on those abilities – frequently both are true. Alistar, for example, is a giant threat to his enemies not because of the damage he does but because his crowd control is so potent. And, as it happens, Alistar's crowd control does not get any more effective if he gets a lot of items quickly – the only that changes is his damage and healing go up, but his damage and healing are not his primary strengths, they're secondary at best.
As another example Taric, no matter how many items he gets, will always provide the same stun length, the same armor buff/debuff, and the same stats on his ult – he only does more damage and heals for more if he gets more items, but his scaling is low enough that the increases are not all that phenomenal; it's really the things that don't change about Taric that make him so strong, not the things that can be increased with items.
Thus, the very first thing we realize in order study of the meta is that a team would do very well to have a champion that does take minions or monsters, and that this champion needs to be one who is nearly as strong starved for gold as he is bathing in it. Thus, a team needs a support, and that support combined with a champion taking full advantage of a primary gold source needs to be more powerful than two enemy champions splitting a gold source (hint: they are).
Now, we have settled on one of our team members, so what shall we do with the rest? Well, we have a fairly easy one to solve here, and that is the odd man out. Recall that there are four primary gold sources in the game, but there are only three lanes in the game. That fourth gold source is the neutral monsters of the jungle, and thus, to maximize the strength of our team, we want a champion who is dedicated to getting the gold from the jungle.
There arises the jungler. Now, the jungle is actually a much more demanding role than any of the laning roles, with the exception of support (that's right, f*ck you ADCs, APs, and top laners). Ignoring my parenthetical there, what I actually mean is that champions require rather specific qualities in order to succeed in the jungle, just as supports require other specific qualities to succeed as supports. These qualities, namely the ability to survive the jungle unaided in the levels 1-4 area (which itself implies certain qualities that I for once don't care to explain in the most long-winded way possible), result in junglers typically being bruisers of some sort. Such is simply a matter of necessity. Note that sometimes more carry-oriented champions are able to succeed at the first jungle clear, such as Fiora, Tryndamere, and Master Yi, which means that those champions are indeed able to jungle without being bruisers, but it does not mean that these champions are the best pick for the role.
Thus, at this point in our analysis, we have assignments for two of our roster: a support, and a jungler. We have left three lanes to deal with, and three champions to assign to some role. Now the first, most obvious thing we want to ask ourselves is what difference these three lanes have. What jumps out at us right away is that mid lane is the shortest, while bot lane and top lane are identical in length. Looking a bit farther, we see that the primary difference between the bot and top lanes are their proximity to important secondary objectives – namely, bot lane is very close to the Dragon, while top lane is very close to Baron Nashor. Now, don't forget this, it will be important later.
Now then, we have three champion spots to fill. Currently we have a support and a jungler, with that jungler most likely being a bruiser of some sort. What we need now are damage-dealers, since a support won't do all that much damage and a bruiser usually can't afford to build pure damage and still be a bruiser. Basic knowledge of the game reveals that there are two primary damage types in the game: physical, and magical. Further, we see that many champions tend to specialize on one or the other of these damage types. Therefore, in order to maximize the damage our team is able to put out, it makes logical sense to recruit two new types of champions to our team: one focused on physical damage, and one focused on magical damage.
Congratulations, dear reader, you have just been introduced to the Attack Damage Carry and the Ability Power Carry, each so called for the type of damaging items they like to build (in case you haven't figured it out, ADCs like to build Attack Damage, I know that one isn't very obvious). Now then, these two types of champions seem decently similar in some respects. Namely, their general weaknesses are nearly identical: they have weak early games, but extraordinary late game strength. Therefore, in order to ensure our damage dealers survive and are able to do their job, we need to take extra measures to make sure they stay safe.
To achieve this safety, we've already discovered two awesome tools we can use. Can you remember them? Yeah, that's right! We still have that support from early, the one who can go into any of the lanes and paired with any of our other champions, and we noted just a bit ago that mid lane is shorter than all the rest. Therefore, in order to give safety to our carries, we assign a support to help and protect one, and we shove the other in mid lane so his scrawny weak-ass legs don't have to run so far to keep him from facing his problems (like that big guy with axe and the murderous look in his eye running straight at him, look at that carry run away).
Now, how do you know which carry to give what? Well, as it happens, AP carries want to level up as fast as they can – this is because since the vast majority of their damage comes from their abilities, they get a lot more mileage out of leveling up quickly than any other champion type in the game. Therefore, it makes the most sense to give our AP carry a solo lane, that way he can get all the gold from that lane, and he doesn't have to share that lane experience with any one else, thus allowing him to level up quickly and get the items he needs to deal damage.
Given that we now know we want our AP carry to have a solo lane, and we want that lane to be mid lane, the process of elimination means that we want our support to lane with our AD carry, and these two will go to either top or bot lane. But how do we know which lane to put them in? Well, remember what I asked you to not forget a short a while ago? About the secondary objectives? And how bot is closer to dragon? And top is closer to baron? You do? Good, because I wasn't about to spell it out to you, that'd be a waste of space. Well, one of those two objectives is a lot more likely to be fought over early on in the game, therefore it would make the most sense to have the most number of champions readily on hand to get to that objective at a moment's notice. Which objective is that, though? Well, it's the dragon: the dragon spawns earlier in the game, and is more easily fought by a small number of champions, in addition to having smaller rewards than Baron does. Therefore, it is logical to put our only duo lane in the bot lane, so those two can be ready to get to dragon when needed.
Now, we just have top lane left to decide. We know that top lane will end up being a solo lane, and we know that whichever champion that goes in that lane will be the only one that we haven't assigned some safety mechanism to (the jungler's mechanism is playing hide-and-seek). Therefore, we want our top laner to be one who can handle sticky situations by himself, and one who has his own safety mechanism, since he is, again, the only one we haven't assigned one to. In practice, this means that a relatively large variety of champions are able to go top according to the meta. Most typically, it will be a bruiser of some sort, though the less common AP bruiser is able to go top as well (Vlad, Diana), and you will occasionally see an AP carry go top lane (Kennen, Fizz sometimes).
AD carries are also able to top lane safely, though you will typically only see the melee variety try to go top lane (Master Yi, Fiora, Tryndamere), largely because melee AD carries suck in the bottom lane (they lose hard to ranged ad carries, simply due to the fact that melee is not ranged).
And, just like that, we now understand The Meta and Why it is the Way it Is. We now know that we put a jungler in the jungle because we have to, we put an AP carry in mid lane because he doesn't want to share a lane and he wants the shortest lane, we put a support and an AD carry bot lane because want to give our carries all the gold in the lane and we want them to be safe and we want those two ready for dragon, and we put a real man (read: whatever we want, though usually bruisers) top lane mostly just because it's the only one left.
Congratulations again, dear reader, you have now read entirely more than was necessary to learn something you probably already knew! Woohoo! And you can now say that you have studied the meta, and you know how it function and why it functions that way. Even better, if you didn't already feel nerdy enough for spending all your time playing video games, you can now say you've read articles about the video games, and even the philosophy and science that really isn't actually in the game at all but still a part of it because that makes perfect sense. Woo!