It’s bad news whenever you tune into a professional League of Legends match and see Azir vs. Corki in the mid lane.
It’s not that those two are bad champions or that they’re not fun to watch. But you know you’re going to get absolutely nothing out of that lane. Those two will clear wave after wave of minions under no duress and without inclination to go beyond that role.
It’s boring, and it’s the way the League meta has been for months now. And one of League’s most outspoken personalities, LCK caster Nick “LS” De Cesare, has had enough. He’s gone off on Riot on both social media and on his YouTube channel about the state of the meta.
The thing is, LS is right. The League meta sucks right now and it doesn’t look like it will change for the better anytime soon.
Why not Azir?
Azir is one of the most polarizing champions in the game. Useless in solo queue, he’s a menace in pro play whenever he’s viable because top players have the mechanics to pilot him well. From a balancing perspective, the key is to make him just viable enough in certain situations but prevent him from becoming someone that teams can pick blind.
And that’s exactly what’s wrong with the meta. Teams are picking him blind and they aren’t getting punished for it. Traditional counters, such as long-range mages with poke like Veigar and Vel’Koz, are far outside of the meta, unless you’re Song “Fly” Jong-jun. The most common answer is just to match his safe wave clear with someone like Corki.
The Azir vs. Corki lane makes the early game incredibly boring. Junglers can’t really visit mid lane or use that as a point of pressure from which to control the rest of the map. Even if a player somehow does lose lane, they can just recall and teleport back, scarcely facing much punishment. Teams become passive and predictable, and you get games where nothing happens for 20 minutes.
And it’s not just mid lane where this is the case. How long are bot lanes going to be run by some combination of Xayah, Kai’Sa, Ezreal, and Sivir? Sivir is a bit new to that mix, if new means since MSI, but Xayah and Kai’Sa have literally been S-tier for a year. G2 bot laner Luka “Perkz” Perkovic couldn’t have said it better when he said that “AD carry is really useless, only one champion is really good and that’s Xayah.”
Perkz and his team are some of the few both bold and good enough to try different things and make them work. In 16 games this year, he’s picked a traditional ADC in only nine of them. And his most-played champion is Yasuo. So why don’t more teams follow that example?
Is it coaching?
For a while, they did. After G2 won MSI, teams all over the world committed to playing a more hectic style with more champions in their pool, just like the way they saw G2 play. The problem is, copying someone else can only take you to second place. By copying G2, they ignored the very thing that made G2 special: catering to the strengths of their players.
After that experiment failed, teams almost uniformly started defaulting to more standard stuff. And that’s why we have Azir and Corki every game, Karma nearly perma-banned still, and Sylas being played in all sorts of roles despite Riot’s latest efforts to stymie him.
The drafting in leagues all over the world has been pretty sad. Some coaches have been too focused on the individual matchups and not taking a broader look at their composition as a whole. But that’s been an issue for a long time. And while teams have reverted to drafting too cautiously, that’s been the case for a while, too. Champions can be secretly good for a while before they’re discovered because players are reticent to try things that are too outside the box. Sometimes, those discoveries happen because of minor buffs that crack open the door to experimentation.
But the last few patches haven’t delivered that. For much of the season, Riot has purposefully tuned back a lot of champions and made them useless. This isn’t bad in a vacuum. If many champions become too powerful, it makes balancing difficult because small changes can have wild impacts. But there hasn’t been an exciting move in months. Most of the big tweaks in recent patches have been the continuous changes to problem champions like Akali and Sylas. And that’s prevented more substantive work elsewhere.
The problem with the long game
Patch 9.14 was supposed to be the update that broke that pattern. And in a way, it did—it broke big mechanical changes like shield breaking and nerfs to ranged top laners. Forget the fact that those nerfs weren’t actually nerfs, but Riot got the idea.
Riot’s approach to that patch opened up some new problems, however. Because of how late in the season the patch came and how game-breaking some of the mechanics were, Riot purposefully took it lightly and tried to play the long game. But too light can be bad, too. The only competitive champions really affected were Kled, Renekton, and LeBlanc.
Going forward, Riot will have to walk a thin line between an extremely light touch, which could result in more of the boring meta, or larger-scale changes right before Worlds. Even waiting until next season has risks. The patch system is iterative, which means a series of bad changes could erode the foundation of the competitive game over a long period of time. And then when something breaks that foundation, it won’t be easy to figure out why. As bad as the Ardent Censer meta of 2017 was—and it was bad—at least you could point that back to a single source.
Historically, it’s been unclear how much input Riot takes from analysts, casters, coaches, and players about the competitive meta when it makes patch changes. From the comments made by LS, Perkz, and others, it seems like there isn’t that much flow of information, at least during the season. That could be an effort to promote competitive balance. But theoretically, if Riot is listening to all parties, no single voice could skew things in their favor. And it might be time for Riot to start listening a little more. Either that or find some nice elevator music to play for the first 20 minutes of professional matches.