How snipers' manuals can teach us about poke comps
League of Legends is a very complicated game with many nuances that can take even the most studious of players and analysts months or years to fully grasp. However, for all the time put into understanding the finer aspects of vision control, teamfighting, or objective prioritization, there's still a lot to learn about every aspect of the game. Understanding the basic mechanics of a poke comp is something that a team has to be able to do to be considered competent.
With the use of American military officer John Plaster's magnum opus book, The Ultimate Sniper, we can find a massive reserve of knowledge that is easily applied to League of Legends. By drawing on a much longer, richer knowledge-base than any that exists on League, we can clarify and improve our knowledge of even "basic" ideas like the use of poke compositions. We will discover that stealth, motion, patience, and team cohesion are the keys to this strategy.
Training for poke champions and compositions
Though less applicable to your standard solo-queue game, hard practice is a normal part of a professional gamer's daily routine. When training their skills, the most important thing for snipers is to be able to use equipment like they would in the field. Similarly, using the same champions with the same amount of CDR as you would have in a game increases the effectiveness of practice time. Once this basic set-up is intact, about half of training time should be spent on a visible, known target. This perfects rote skills like leading the target, predicting their movement, and spacing out spell usage unpredictably. The other half of training time should be spent in more realistic "tactical drills", which in League of Legends would more likely equate to a scrimmage (in the case of a professional) or a normal game (for the typical solo-queue player). Practicing a poke champion in a more realistic environment teaches you to use proper set-up and positioning, as well as use practiced skills under pressure.
When practicing, improvement can only be made by focusing on the actions at hand. Plaster suggests that "slowed cognition" is a great asset to a sniper, allowing them to really pay attention to their accuracy, rather than fall into a rhythmic "firing pattern" that won't help them to improve. Special attention should be paid to keeping steady hands while "firing"; though it is tempting to quickly move the hand after firing to take another action, the benefits of this are generally outweighed by the chance of flubbing the shot.
Key concepts and the set-up
The most important thing about a poke composition, especially when we think about from a sniper's perspective, is that poke champions don't work well alone. Unlike most bruisers, CC-heavy tanks, or versatile supports, a poke champion cannot be slotted into any given team composition and expected to succeed. They require a very certain type of map movement and vision control, and this requires the whole team's buy-in to work well. For this reason, it is uncommon to see a single poke-heavy champion in a composition that otherwise does not support it. The five hardest-hitting poke champions don't make for the best poke composition, though.
Like the escort-HVU relationship in naval warfare, an offensively potent "sniper" needs accompaniment and support, which we in this case call the "spotter". Typically in real-world sniping, the spotter directs a scoped-in sniper to more accurately hit her target, and helps the sniper correct her aim after a missed shot. The spotter also carries a potent, shorter-ranged weapon to dispatch threats to their sniper. Because scopes aren't a factor in League, the responsibilities of the spotter change somewhat, but their core purpose remains the same: to remove all pressure from the sniper by protecting and observing for them, thereby allowing the sniper to focus entirely on taking a good shot. Whether it's a single high-impact shot like a Jayce Shock Blast or a barrage of weaker ones like Ezreal's Mystic Shot, aim can be greatly improved by having the spotter remove other drains on attention.
When trying to hit a target, some key concepts hold true regardless of position, damage, or ability. If a target is bound to be well-protected, no matter what other factors may be at play, the sniper and spotter must set up as much of their strike as they can ahead of time. Given that the target is likely to only be in the open for a fleeting moment, the sniper and spotter must be at the ready as soon as the opportunity presents. Time can't be afforded to set up vision or position on the fly.
Conversely, there are also instances where the enemy, and not the sniper, must take special precautions. After hitting a power-spike or if using an unorthodox champion, the enemy may be unaware of (or actively underestimating) your power. In these cases, you have a great deal of control over your next strike. Whatever that strike is, though, it must be made to count. It is often worth paying attention to the enemies best paths of retreat, so that you can continue to fire on them even as they flee the initial assault. Again, regardless of other circumstances, this strategy holds hard and fast.
An enormous part of hitting a target is where you're trying to hit them from. Knowing how to move and where to set up to maximize the damage you deal to the enemy (and minimize your losses in return) is perhaps the most important part of the poke composition. Plaster notes three main ways to set up an assault of the enemy.
Snipers and spotters can focus on a single avenue of enemy approach or retreat. This is a great way of taking control around objectives, since it severely harms the enemy before they even reach their destination. Alternatively, one or two snipers and spotters can kill an entire team if they can head off the retreat route of an injured team. However, this requires significant vision dominance, often inside the enemy's jungle. Especially in more competitive games, this type of attack can take a long time to set up and can still be risky. For this reason, a poke composition must have a clear grasp of how much they value each objective coming into the game, so as to know whether it is worth that kind of risk and set-up.
Snipers and their spotters can also group up inside a single strong area, using it as a base from which to fire on the enemies. If it is concealed from enemies, well-protected by allied vision, and provides good angles of attack on a contested objective, this strategy can be easy and effective. However, it limits the use of stealth and mobility, which are two of the strongest tools in a snipers arsenal to get angles on targets and avoid death. It is also easy for enemies to avoid and rotate around once they are aware that all of the team's threat is centered on one area. This is the discount option for poke comp set ups: it's easy and fast, but it's also simple to counter and often doesn't achieve much.
Finally, duos with a sniper and spotter can be dispersed to pursue their own goals. Moving in smaller groups, they are less likely to be seen and can move around more easily, quickly, and cohesively. These duos can, however, find themselves caught out with lazy map movement or poor vision control. Due to their smaller numbers, they are less likely to be able to defeat or disengage a larger group of enemies. This is probably the least resource intensive way to play as a mobile poke team.
Vision control and stealth
Vision control is mentioned a lot in the above paragraphs, and for good reason. Plaster lists one single point as the most fundamental, all around, to being a good sniper: "see without being seen". Stealth is the only way to get good shots on a target, and seeing a target is the only way to aim at them properly. If there is one thing that every analytical examination (including this one) supports, it is that ward purchases and good sweeper use are vital to in-game success.
Vision of the enemy can be applied not only to find them, but to avoid them. An unplanned or unhelpful encounter with an enemy can cost anyone their life, not least of all the usually-squishy snipers. If the enemy knows your location, even if they don't kill you, it reduces the threat that you pose. Because of this, it is important to stay well away from the enemy team and the areas which they tightly control.
There are two ways to help steer clear of an unwanted enemy encounter. Avoiding valuable objectives may seem intuitive, but it is vastly preferable to rushing towards them only to be slain. Keep eyes on these objectives, as they are often a good place to target enemies, but don't engage your opponents unwisely out of fear that they will get the objective. Another useful concept is the "line of drift". Lines of drift are basically paths of least resistances, or the paths that most people will be inclined to follow. By dashing over walls, coordinating eccentric routes between parts of the map, and using altogether unusual pathing, snipers can move across the map with minimal risk of running into enemies that might be able to kill them. Any time the sniper is moving across the map, their spotter should be leading in front of them.
With the knowledge of how to avoid enemies and the value of stealth and vision, Viet Cong soldiers in the Vietnam War used a tactic called "jackalling" to great effect. Knowing their targets could not see them, they would follow the path of their targets, but move parallel to them so as to avoid a turnaround or ambush. Then, every so often, they would approach much closer to get a clean shot, targeting and taking down a single enemy before retreating. These soldier inspired fear in American soldiers because they were so difficult to detect and so lethal. By following a larger group of enemies with only a couple champions of your own, a large amount of damage can still be done to a single target at little cost to the poking team.
Taking a shot
After understanding where you should be, the next step is knowing what to do once you get there. Whether in motion or staying in one place, snipers are following a pattern. Patience within this pattern is the best way to maximize the chances of a good shot coming along. Keep moving, or stay still, until it is no longer useful. Then, find a more useful pattern or path and follow it. Deviating from a patient approach to move towards the enemy is trading both safety and the chance of a great shot, in exchange for a chance at a mediocre one.
Once a target comes along, consciously identify and prioritize them. Even things that may be obvious can be passed over in your head if you aren't actively thinking about them. Is the enemy alone or in a group? If they are in a group, which target is the most valuable? Which would be easiest to hit? Take all of these factors into account when you select a target, keeping in mind that it is often up to you to eliminate the enemy sniper, who should always be considered a major threat.
Every sniper should always select a target when they shoot, rather than aiming for a group of enemies or a general area. Aim to specifically hit a target or zone away from a specific area. If multiple snipers are shooting, they should name their targets to each other and count off before firing to ensure they fire in unison. This heightens coordination and makes it more difficult for targets to dodge all fire at once.
To summarize and expand on the ideas so far, there's a pattern to follow in getting a good shot:
1. Note targets. Figure out which people you want to get a shot at. Prioritize which ones you want to hurt the most.
2. Find good position. Avoid dangerous enemies and try to use areas where your team controls vision. You can be moving as you pass through the ideal position, as long as that is where you shoot from.
3. Figure aiming mechanics. Where are they coming from? How fast are they, and how much do you need to lead them with the skillshot? Lead less if they are moving diagonally relative to you.
4. Clarify target selection. Now the target is in sight and you have the chance to shoot at them. Make sure of who it is you want to shoot, think through the shot and its aftermath.
5. Aim and fire. Focus and take the shot. Keep the mouse steady for a split second after firing to make sure you don't ruin the shot by flinching it.
6. Note impact. Your spotter can do this if you prefer to snap back to view your champion. See if your shot hit the intended target, another target, or no target. Take note if any of your aiming estimations were flawed, and think about how you can correct them next time.
7. React to other targets. If you can finish someone off or get some free damage down, do so. If you are set upon, try to kill the attackers or peel them off. Deal with the unavoidable aftermath of the shot.
8. Disengage. Get away from the target and any hostiles, and try to return to a safer position. Be especially wary if your position is one that becomes much more dangerous if revealed, because enemies may be carrying Scrying Orbs. If pursued, use any abilities you can to create space, putting you at a more advantageous range from the enemy.
For as long as there have been snipers, people have looked for a way to stop them. Against a sniper who can deter approach, via kiting or other methods, a poke comp of your own is the best way to fight back. If the enemy can't deter approach, though, the strategy becomes much more interesting.
In any fight against a sniper, awareness and communication are the best tools. Know where the sniper is, or estimate as much, and then communicate that information to your team. When the enemy does fire, your team can be better prepared to evade or counter-engage, and their line of fire will reveal their location.
Rushing in the general location of a poke champion is a sure way to get kited or caught out. Try to evade and use stealth for as long as possible to get the best fix possible on where the enemy is, how they use skillshots, and where they feel comfortable retreating to. Once you know enough to approach the enemy, you will have already spent a lot of time in the fog of war, moving around. Use this movement pattern to mislead the enemy. Move one way through their vision, then loop back around in the fog of war. By being somewhere they don't expect you to be, you can win an engagement even if you have already taken some poke damage.
In a typical counter-engagement, the ideal approach would be to one-shot the sniper. However, this is not always possible. Given the temperamental nature of poke compositions and champions, a solid burst of damage may be enough to force them away, even if it isn't lethal. In order to survive these engagements after presumably already having taken some poke damage, building tank stats is very useful.
There's a great deal to learn about League of Legends from books and manuals, not just on sniping but on all disciplines. Poke compositions are already a strong tool for teams, and with a more formulaic and well-tested approach, they will only become more formidable. Knowing the value of vision, prioritizing the value of objectives and enemies, practicing skillshots better, and having better map movement will empower professional and solo-queue players alike.