Dreamweaving: The No-Tank Gambit

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Rumble 3
(Photo: Riot Games)

Before I took the dive into competitive esports, I had a very different hobby, Magic: the Gathering. Magic is the world's most popular trading card game, and I like to think that I was a strong player at it -- my limited rating would indicate that I would be correct to think so. Thus, I brought quite a few of the concepts that I learned from Magic to my career as a League of Legends analyst, and you would be surprised how many other people that's true for. I often like to think of team compositions in much the same way I do a deck in Magic, with the individual champions playing roles similar to the cards that I choose for my deck. Like Magic, some champions get picked just because they're too powerful to ignore, while others are selected to counter specific strategies.

One of the most important concepts I learned in Magic, however, was that of inevitability. Inevitability is a simple concept that has more depth that you might expect. It simply refers to which player has the advantage if the game goes on indefinitely. I tended to play mostly control-style decks, which is a strategy that tends to plan for the long game and thus has inevitability on its side in most matchups. The same concept is very, very applicable to League of Legends, and perhaps even more so than it is in Magic. 

Frankly, if it were possible to assure that every game would end at the 25-minute mark, we would live in a world where everyone would be rushing to play Pantheon, Elise, and other champions that are known for their early game power and for being miserable in the late-game. The very fact that such champions are considered niche or straight up not viable is due to the idea of inevitability. No one wants to pick a team composition that must win the game in the first half hour or get horrifically outscaled. In a game where it's often quite easy to stall, picking an early-game centric composition would clearly be a strategy that would be dismissed by the finest analytical minds, correct?

Apparently not. One of the easiest ways to throw the late game right out the window is to run what I call the no-tank gambit. The name is self-explanatory and is a phenomenon that you can see quite often in this new carry-centric metagame, and it almost always goes poorly for the team that chooses to take said gambit. See, tanks are more than just massive stacks of HP, they're the champions that can dictate when and how engagements will be fought. Sacrificing the ability to push the enemy team around when you so choose is a huge sacrifice. With no tanks, who will take the enemy backline's damage? Who will lock down priority targets? Who will tank dragons? Towers? Barons?

This last weekend's Cloud9 vs. Team SoloMid match showed off the problems with this strategy beautifully and was such a classic example that I honestly cannot comprehend how any coach would think that electing to have no tank could possibly be a winning strategy. Over the course of the series, each team elected to take a carry top laner in one game and was utterly devastated as a result. In both cases, that carry top laner was Rumble, who technically brings engage to a team, but in a very weak, easily avoided fashion. When you need to control a fight, however, The Equalizer is a poor comparison to Depth Charge, a brilliant use of which completely turned Game 2 around, allowing Cloud9 to take the series to a third game. In that third game, Cloud9 immediately opted to take the Rumble themselves and, just like TSM before them, found themselves unable to force favorable engagements and lost as a result, despite having an early game gold lead. 

It's easy to understand why teams think they need their top laner to be a damage source. An AP top laner has long been the answer to the woes that picking an AD mid laner inflict on a team composition. In season's past, Rumble, Kennen, and even Swain have all proven popular choices in the top lane because they compensated for the lack of magic damage from champions like Varus and Zed, but there was a huge difference between those seasons and this one: the jungle.

In a world where the jungle is full of initators like Olaf, Elise, Lee Sin, and even Sejuani, it's easy to justify an AP top laner, especially when supports like Alistar were popular back then as well. The important thing is simply to have a source of engage and teamfight control somewhere on the team, and in seasons past it's fallen upon the jungle and support to provide that when the top lane carry picks come out. At the moment, however, both jungle and supports simply don't have the tools to be primary initators. Melee supports, the ones with the proactive crowd control, have been pushed out of the meta entirely with the exception of Tahm Kench, who's hardly an initiator. The jungle has become te domain of assassins and carry picks these days, with Zac proving to be the only initiating tank who's managed to maintain any level of viability. Thus, the only location where it's easy to pick up consistent and powerful initiation is in the top lane. It's much more difficult to sacrifice that control when you know you're not going to get it back anywhere else.

To me, then, the arithmetic is clear. AD mid lane picks like Zed and Jayce may well be very powerful at the moment, but the opportunity cost to deploying them is extreme. If you opt into a tank of your own in the top lane and the enemy does as well, you'll eventually find yourself wondering how you're going to take down the 800 armor Maokai in front of you. If you opt instead to split your damage sources and run a Rumble, you'll instead be wondering how you're going to lock down the Ashe in the backline who is tearing a whole in your team. The answer seems clear. As powerful as these AD picks are, they're a trap that will, on the whole, make your team compositions worse, and the sooner competitive teams realize this, the better off they'll be.

James Bates

A wanna-be novelist turned coach turned journalist, James is living proof that you never know where you'll end up. He's in love with narrative-heavy games, which he proves by spending his days writing about a game with less lore than Doom. His greatest regret in life is not having his name in the credits of Life is Strange, and it's galvanized him to truly pursue developing games that don't begin in packed taverns and use D20s.

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