Crocodiles, Pigs, and Jax. Oh my! - Part One
I will be the first to admit it. I am a one trick pony. I can only play one champion at my highest level and on everything else I am significantly worse. But for someone like me it isn’t an issue because I only play Solo Queue, where the opposing team doesn’t get to research who they are facing. However for professional players they get no such luxury. When they are playing a competitive match the opposing team is (hopefully) coming into the game with hours of research and planning done on what champions to pick and counterpick with. This is an obvious reason why we don’t see players like Trick2G or Cowsep in professional teams. Ignoring the fact they most likely make more money streaming they only perform at their top level on one champion, Udyr and Master Yi respectfully. This would be a glaring weakness for any team and an easy ban to force them onto a champion they are not confident on, instantly lowering their level of performance.
However there are many players at the pro level that are famous for certain off meta champions. As long as the player is not reliant solely on that single pick having a signature champion is a benefit to their team. These pocket picks can force other teams to waste a ban to deny them a comfort pick.
At the recent lan IEM Cologne the new CLG top laner ZionSpartan pulled out his signature champion Jax. In his days on Coast he frequently picked up the champion because he needed to try to hard carry his team. But now it beggars the question of why he would pick Jax on a team who he should be able to rely on. Jax as a champion was an extremely prevalent pick in the early part of the LCS Summer split. However after being nerfed he completely disappeared from the meta. In the new season Jax was not considered meta partially because of the nerfs, but was largely not popular because of his large lull in power in the now crucial mid game. The snowball ability of early dragon buffs reward mid game champions heavily and Jax needed several items until he found his stride. In addition the current heavy focus on peel heavy supports such as Janna makes Jax’s life in teamfights very difficult.
I completely understand why teams at IEM were not expecting the pick as it was not meta and his recent solo queue shows no Jax. However ZionSpartan brought three new things to the table that made the pick more successful than I anticipated it would be. The first being Jax’s synergy with the new season. With the new season a player only needs to take a single jungle camp to obtain level two. This opens up interesting opportunities for players to come into lane with an instant level advantage and when combined with teleport they can lose almost no cs. Maokai is a champion we have seen use this strategy frequently, with his saplings he can easily take a camp solo. Jax has often been an off meta jungler, occasionally seeing professional play, and that aspect of him shines in the new season. Notorious for his low early game power curve Jax can utilize his passive that grants him attack speed to clear a camp efficiently and enter lane at level two. This allows him to have an advantage over his lane opponent and grants him a much smoother ride to his stronger mid and late game. In addition to his smoother power curve, split pushing is a very strong strategy this season. Obviously if your team can secure Baron buff split pushing is incredibly strong as it allows you to empower multiple lanes of minions. But with the current obsession around dragons a Jax can easily continue to push while the opposing team sends three or four members to secure the dragon buff. As we all know if you give Jax an opening, you will lose towers.
The second thing Zion changed was an altered item build. In season four when Jax was largely popular in competitive play the standard way to build him was Trinity Force and Blade of the Ruin King then full tank. This build gave huge amounts of damage and a moderate amount of tank stats. Enough to not get bursted down and be able to output his damage. However this build had a huge lull in power because often the Jax player built Blade first to sustain and survive his weak laning phase. This lead to many teams losing the game because if their Jax got behind he would be useless for a large period of the game. Zion however used a similar build to what I have seen many Korean Irelia players use which is double or triple Dorans items into Trinity Force, then full tank. This build order does two very important things. First it grants Jax a large amount of cheap early game stats which when combined his free level two from a jungle camp allows him to trade evenly in lane and farm easier to his Trinity Force. The second is it grants Jax a significant amount of lifesteal to make up for his lack of a Blade of the Ruin King and assist him in sustaining through an extended split push. The removal of a Blade from the final build actually makes Jax a much stronger mid game front line. It allows Jax to build tank items much earlier and make him a significantly more impactful tank. If Jax builds a Blade he can be expected to lifesteal roughly 20 health per hit. In teamfight if he gets off 20 auto attacks, which would be a very long teamfight, he would heal for 400 health. Alternatively he could have 500 health from a Randiun’s Omen or 450 from Banshee’s Veil. Mathematically the lifesteal is worth less than the tank stats. Those numbers don’t even take into account the armor and magic resist that the tank items grant which make it harder to do the same damage, and as Zion demonstrated at IEM Cologne just a Trinity Force is enough damage for him to take on two or three opponents at once and be a threat to all of them. #JustJaxThings
Lastly he switched up the order in which he leveled up his skills. The old ideology was you max Empowered Strike (W) first for the highest sustained damage. Each level shortened its cooldown and allowed for more auto attack resets and in turn stacked his passive quicker which all added up to higher damage. But Zion was maxing Leap Strike (Q) first which also shortens the cooldown on the ability, by 40%. This adaptation worked well with his tankier build as it allowed him to re-position in fights more frequently, jumping to the back line to soak damage while still being a serious threat to an opposing ADC or mid laner. This ability to jump around a fight more frequently helps Jax deal with peel heavy supports and mobile ADCs as he can put himself in range to damage them much more often.
I predict Jax will find a place in the meta as a specific counter pick. If the opposing team picks a non bully top laner such as Maokai or Mundo it opens you up to picking a carry top laner such as Jax. Jax synergises well with a heavy wave clear and poke mid laner as this opens him up to split pushing while his mid can stall out tower pushes and dragon or baron takes. Jax does well with a strong skirmishing jungler to help him early and take the two versus two fights. He also is strong in a lane swap situation because of his jungling ability and how difficult it is to dive Jax. The combination of mobility, AOE stun, and his ability to avoid auto attacks makes him so difficult to kill under tower.
As long as players begin to use similar adaptations I think Jax will become a strong situational pick when a team wants to play the map with a strong split pusher who can not only duel, be a teamfight front line, but also take towers faster than almost anyone else in the game.