Apr 24 2015 - 1:39 am
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Hecarim: the anatomy of a pick-ban champion

Let’s talk about Hecarim.
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Let’s talk about Hecarim. There’s a case to be made that the Shadow of War has emerged as the single highest priority pick in the game in most regions on recent patches: 

  • The recent NA LCS playoffs saw the champion either banned or picked in the first rotation in 21 out of 25 games.
  • In Europe, Hecarim was banned or picked (in any rotation) in 21 out of 27 games, including 14 bans and 1 first-pick in the semi-finals and finals (SK vs UoL, FNC vs H2K, UoL vs FNC).
  • At this week’s International Wildcard Invitational, it has been banned or picked in the first rotation in 20 out of 21 group stage games (with #21 being a third-rotation pick).
  • China has yet to embrace it, with priority there tending towards the Maokai among top-lane picks, but it was picked by both winning teams in at least one game in the semi-finals (and banned in two more), so that may be changing.
  • Korea’s gauntlet playoff system gives us a limited pool to consider, but it was picked or banned in all three of CJ’s games against Jin Air (going 2-0 in that time). 

The reasons why this has come to be are interesting, because they essentially form a case study in how teams now think about picks and bans, versus how teams tended to think about them in the past.

The first-pick Hecarim defies our traditional conventions with how we think about priority picks. First off, there's nothing particularly game-breaking or mind-blowing about Hecarim's numbers. He's been a recipient of minor buffs in 5.1 that mostly served to make him viable in lane (a slight cut to his early Q mana costs, and an increase in healing on his W), and then minor nerfs on 5.7 (HP and mana regen both reduced), but nothing on his kit is or has been obviously overpowered.

In terms of solo queue numbers, his win rate has been hovering a sight over 53% for the last few patches, slipping below that mark on this patch. That seems significant, and it does put him in the top handful of top-laners - but it's roughly the same rate that Sion has been hitting at, and that's a pick that has proven to only be situationally useful in pro play. To borrow a term from conventional sports analytics, his 'counting stats' are all fairly unremarkable outside of his pick/win/ban rates. 

However, the thing that's really out there with Hecarim, in terms of his status as a priority pick, is that he's about as far from a safe laner as you can get. While not pure-melee on the level of Irelia and all the solo queue top laners that don't see competitive play, he doesn't have a real ranged farming tool on his kit, and thus really struggles in a 1v2 scenario. Even in the 1v1, he has major problems against anyone who can put down consistent ranged harass or punish him for coming in to CS - Lulu, Vladimir, Sion, and Rumble should all be losing matchups for him, and all four are popular meta picks right now.

Beyond the laning phase: the Hecaflex

So, given that he's easily countered in lane, and doesn't boast the numbers we associated with an 'OP' pick, why are teams consistently putting such a high priority on Hecarim?

The basic reason is this: Hecarim is the ultimate flex pick right now. Now, on the surface, that seems counterintuitive. First off, he can only go in one lane (jungle Hecarim has been found wanting when tried, and mid Hecarim remains an untested relic of the Challenger scene right now, even with Keane's elevation to the LCS); we're used to thinking of the confusion sown by potential two- or three-lane picks like Morgana and Lulu when we think about that, and Hecarim just isn't that.

In addition, Hecarim's power spike, and what he wants to do, are two of the most obvious things in League of Legends. He wants to get Trinity Force, and then he wants to murder the backline, right? Shouldn't a Hecarim first pick hence be a massive tell to a team's style and intentions? This isn't the case for two primary reasons.

Team compositions in the tank meta

The first is a question of meta. Right now, all the things that Hecarim doesn't like doing are off the table anyway. Hecarim hates siegeing - he brings precisely nothing to that and is effectively forced into a splitpush scenario (while not a bad splitpusher with his Trinity Force and escapes, there are too many champions who can outduel him 1v1 to make him the 1 in a 4-1). He's also not too hot on counter-siege, though he provides enough in terms of CC to prevent dives that it's more a matter of compensating in terms of waveclear. He also has issues as a primary tank (too squishy for too long), and struggles against pre-6 pressure.

Right now, none of these things are a particular concern. Siege and poke comps are practically non-existent thanks to the prevalance of teams running one or even two hypertanks; it isn't a coincidence that the Unicorns of Love's poke comps have frequently featured Kog'Maw, and then Varus in Game 1 of the finals, in the mid-lane role (and even in those cases were careful to wait it out before committing to that style), given both champions' % health damage on their kits. Junglers get sufficient gold efficiency via Cinderhulk to become a primary tank on their team (to say nothing of relatively tanky picks in mid and even ADC), hence lifting that burder from the top lane.

All the things that a Hecarim pick locks you out of aren't things that most teams will or should be looking to do anyway. By contrast, look at what Hecarim can bring to the predominant comps:

  • To protection comps, he can scale well into the late-game, has engage and a measure of peel, and provides a secondary damage source (which means that he can fit even in the likes of the Juggermaw, alongside something like Lulu mid)
  • To pick comps, he brings the Triforce (and homeguard boots) power spike, chasedown tools with the long-range dash and AoE CC on his ultimate, and the speed boost and targeted CC on his E. 
  • He presents enough damage and engage at relevant windows to assist ‘dragon’ and ‘wombo’ team-fight comps, and his wave-push ability and damage to towers makes him a splitpush threat.

Itemisation: no longer just Triforce

 The second point is that, with Cinderhulk's inclusion in the game, and the inevitable application of a jungle item to lane needs, Hecarim actually boasts one of the most versatile itemisation trees in the game right now, and can adapt well to most comps and any game situation he finds his team in. 

The option between rushing homeguard boots (as an antidote to heavy harass lanes, and a way to exert extremely early pressure through TP ganks) and Trinity Force (to better tailor strength towards fights in the immediate wake of the loss of a bot lane tower – think second dragon, or rotations towards mid lane) still exists, as it has since the pick's advent. 

However, there is now another option – rushing Cinderhulk before Trinity Force. This entirely turns Hecarim’s standard play-style on its head. Instead of seeking mid-game fights, the aim can instead to be to prevent mid-game fights and rotations. A Cinderhulk Hecarim is an extremely risky dive proposition, and with his ability to get to any tier 2 tower at over 1000 movement speed, you can single-handedly protect every lane at once. This lessens the impact of the Trinity Force spike in terms of damage, but, in addition to the aforementioned, also somewhat improves scaling into late-game due to the health bonus from items like Spirit Visage and Warmog's Armour.

This stall-style Hecarim has yet to be seen in the West, but was employed effectively by EDG in Game 1 of their series against Invictus Gaming. Faced with a Bloodthirster-into-Runaan's Kalista, a farmed Gnar, an Azir who had already given up two kills to Pawn's LeBlanc, and with Deft's Jinx needing time to scale, Koro opted to go Cinderhulk, bait out an extended laning phase by being unkillable in top (and carrying the threat of a teleport or recall-homeguard against mid or bot),, and thereby allow bot to farm, mid to farm and bully, and to let the comp in general outscale.

Additionally, there has even been some experimentation with running Hecarim as a full-on tank, forgoing damage entirely in favour of reaching 40% CDR and double-resistances early (e.g. Cinderhulk -> Frozen Heart -> Spirit Visage, or vice-versa on the latter two), as used by Koro against WE and Vici Gaming's Carry against iG - while underwhelming in those games, it does seem to be an option.

Scarcity: the pick comp carry top

The other big reason that Hecarim has assumed such a priority is that he is an indispensable pick to a certain type of comp right now - namely, pick-oriented, mid-game centric comps. For all our talk of Cinderhulk and his late-game scaling, the reason that Hecarim came into popular play in the first place was nothing to do with how he scaled. It was because he combined what can only be described as 'enough' CC with a huge amount of damage at his Trinity Force spike and major chase-down ability through his speed-up and 1000-range dash. 

While at first a strong pick, he has grown to be an unrivalled one. No other common competitive pick right now can fill that role from top lane in a pick comp. Irelia, another Trinity Force user, just has too weak a laning phase to realistically use. Gnar has fallen out of favour since his nerfs, and isn't mobile enough given the amount of disengage most teams have looked to run recently. The handful of traditional carries who see play in toplane like Jax and Fizz need to scale up.

Hecarim works uniquely well in that comp. That, in itself, can be reason to remove him - teams have been banning out Lulu against any team remotely suspected of having Juggermaw aspirations, for very good cause. It's particularly an issue when that comp is not only still popular in its own right, but is the closest thing to a hard counter to the protection and Juggermaw comps that we've seen. A well-executed pick comp with Hecarim can essentially allow an ADC to never farm again - and, while picks like Irelia can offer a threat, they don't carry the constant global map pressure that a Hecarim can.

The death of a pick: when will it go?

All things in League of Legends must come to an end, and Hecarim will fall from grace too. What's worth noting is that it probably won't be at the hands of a Hecarim nerf. Unless you find a way to torpedo his mid-game damage to the point of uselessness, Hecarim's kit will find a way to make him viable with the way the current meta stands. Small nerfs in 5.7 to his regen did nothing to his competitive viability, after all.

Instead, Hecarim's deprioritisation will come with one of two things: either players figure out an alternative to Hecarim that does many of the same things, or they start looking collectively towards playing comps that Hecarim can't deal with. 

In the first instance, there are two picks in particular that could be interesting in that regard if picked up by the pro scene:

  • Between the E-Q combo, his ultimate, and flash, Jarvan IV has few problems chasing down champions, and does enough damage early on to be relevant in those teamfights that Hecarim cleans up. His issue is that he doesn't quite do enough, and that his optimal itemisation remains somewhat unclear as an orthodox top laner (he could be a beneficiary of the reworked Phage-Black Cleaver path, however).
  • While Wukong suffers from the common issue of having real trouble with laneswap scenarios, his decoy should theoretically be enough to save him from Darius-levels of obsolence, and he brings very considerable damage and engage to mid-game fights.

In the second instance, this simply means a return to siege as a viable, regular option for teams. Several things could lead towards this, but the key point is that tanks cannot remain as strong as they currently are. Cinderhulk nerfs should absolutely be an inevitability now that it's being taken into lanes, but it may take a little longer for that to follow through to a return of siege (though actions like buffs to Ziggs certainly seem to portend it). At that point, while Hecarim will still be an useful pick, he should return to closer to his pre-5.5 status as a situational pick for mid-game pick comps, rather than being a safe first pick.

Conclusion

What's interesting about the ubiquity of Hecarim right now is that his popularity stems not from his position as a laner, but instead due to his desirability in essentially every available team comp, as well as the problems that he can cause for certian popular comps when given over to the other team. Traditionally, as fans, we tend to think of bans and priority picks as a way to pick up and pick away comfort champions - we can't let Faker have his LeBlanc, or FORG1VEN have his Graves, or seemingly any mid-laner ever have their Zed, and so on - or remove incredibly blatantly strong picks from play.

However, with the general acceptance of coaches as at least a necessary presence in all regions at this point, and the construction on many top teams of a dedicated analytical support staff, there's now more logic put behind the pick and ban phase, and we see priority pick-bans like Hecarim, or Lulu, or Gragas, emerge. Instead of taking a metaphorical bludgeon to their opponents, teams are now asking: "how can we shut down as much of what they could potentially do in three bans and a couple of picks?"

That's not to say that targeted bans will ever leave professional League. They can't, and they won't. But, on the whole, there's a little more caution, and a lot more logic, behind most pick-ban decisions compared to even a year ago.

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