The Ever-Changing Meta, Where Its Been, and Where It can Go
Intro and Context
Currently offering 123 different champs to chose from, each with their own role and play style, LoL is developing more and more variety of play, not only for the average player in infamous solo queue, but also for the pros.
Using the term "meta" when talking about League of Legends, one is usually talking about the champions/play styles that are currently prevalent amongst solo queue and the professional scene. Over the years, there have been several metas, ranging from the AD mid, AP top, double support bottoms of early League competitive play, to the ultra tank wet-noodle fights of late Season 3 and early Season 4.
Meta helps bring definition to each season of professional League. Usually, each season and some times even a single split will see a change in the popular meta game. Each season so far has had at least one if not more defining meta choices that has made each different than the last.
Early Competitive Play - Season 2
Early competitive play of League saw a primary focus on cc champions while at the same time giving your solo laners the best opportunity to acquire gold and levels. One of the first examples of this was an ADC in the mid lane and a cc mid laner in the top, the team would also include a jungler and usually cc champs in the bottom lane focusing on the late game and creating an annoying laning phase for their opponents. During the qualifiers for the Season 1 Championship, a support roam meta began to take shape. This lead to pretty much 3 solo laners, a jungler, and a cc heavy support that was equipped with 2-3 gp10 items, mobos and wards. Shortly after the tournament and the end of Season 1, one of the most prominent meta shifts occurred, the change from the solo lane-exp/gold focus, to what we know today as the "protect the AD" comp. Europe first began to use this composition while the pros over in North America were still running the (what now seemed primitive) AP top, AD mid comp. This composition loved the mid to late game, with a focus on carry laners advancement, mostly the ADC in the bottom lane, now accompanied by a support to insure their success. Once the NA pros discovered the glory of this new composition, they quickly deemed it the best way to play the game. But this new fangled "super comp" was not perfect, at least not at first, supports could no longer successfully roam, and they also had to fork over all of their precious cs to the ADC. Don't forget that the gp10 items were not as efficient as they are today, so what we see is a heavy farm focused sustain early game, gone were the days of the support ganks and team fight focused early games. Riot soon realized that this cautious, late game focused play was not much fun to watch. So in Season 2, Riot introduced what could be argued the most important champion in the game up to that point, Graves. Graves was implemented into League to combat the farm heavy sustain game that had become so popular and to help find the perfect balance between sustain and exciting gameplay. With Graves' release there was an immediate interest in this new damage/burst ADC champion that could now bully anyone who was dumb enough to try to out sustain his burst. With the addition of Graves to the LoL roster, Riot had crafted what they believed to be a fun balance for both the player and the viewer which would last until another shift took place in Season 3.
Heading into Season 3 and after role swap by the majority of junglers from carries to tanyk bruisers/supports, it seemed that the now standard comp created by the Europeans at the end of Season 1 was going to be around forever and that it wasn't likely to change. Then we see a change in the top lane, the pros began to move away from sustain focused top lane champs and move towards bruisers to add another carry to the team, mainly because the jungler was now the tank of the team. Soon professional League saw the entrance of damage bruisers (Renekton) and and even jungle champs in the top lane (Elise and Kha'zix). Now the top laner had a lot more to offer to team comps and team fights other than just being the meat shield of the team. This meta lasted for the majority of Season 3 and into the first couple of weeks in Season 4.
Season 4 is personally my favorite, it saw the rise of the so-called "super tanks" in the top lane with gank heavy, early-game, damage junglers to snowball the mid and bottom lanes. With this new focus on early game ganks, professional League was exciting right off the bat, no longer did you have to wait for 35 min mark to get some real action. The bottom lane, as you can imagine, was effected pretty heavily by this new meta game, sure you would see a 2v2 every now and then but for the most part it was still a farm fest. But now with increased jungler support, bottom lanes felt that could take bigger risks because their jungler had their back if anything went wrong. In the top lane, however, it was the opposite. With the increased focus on the bottom lane, top lane reverted back into the sustain heavy tank tops of Season 2 with more of a farm focus. Now that the top laners' main priority was farming and getting their tank items, people started to see the likes of Shyvana, Moaki and Renekton become the bread and butter of the top lane. After becoming popular as a damage carry top in Season 3, Renekton's role changed to a "super tank" that also had a great kit and good enough damage to bully out most others. Often the top lane was referred to as a "wet noodle" fight, even if the tanks fought each other solo, these fights could last upwards of 5 sec without doing any real damage, the best example of this was when TSM's top laner Dyrus played Shyvana and it was estimated by one of the casters that it would take a total of 15k damage to take him down. Even though it was farm focused, the top lane still played a big role in team fights even more so with a focused shift on dragon control. In Season 4, there was a new found love for dragon control and almost always the first team fight would center around who would get the first dragon and subsequently the first gold lead and power spike. I assume that either the professional top laners either got tired of playing these "super tanks" or they were tired of getting bullied around by Renekton if they weren't playing him, and so begins the ryze (#punsofdamage) of the champ that would once again, change the meta. Ryze was the answer to Renketon's dominance, and became popular because he is the equivalent of an anti- tank missile, he's ranged, he can still have damage even with a majority of tank items, and he comes with cc and decent burst against squishy carries. Ryze quickly showed that even though he had a much weaker early game, he would easily out scale and contribute more than Renekton ever would. And so ended the reign of the "super tanks" in the top and the meta was again changed.
Season 5 Current Meta
With the ryze of Ryze (yea I did it again) we also saw that AP top laners were becoming more and more popular. At the end of Season 4 and the begging of Season 5 Ryze and Renekton's battle for dominance over the top lane was still waging until the arrival of the lane swap. For more on the lane swap go here. Basically, a lane swap is a strategy involving the ADC/Support of one team laning against the top laner of the opposing team in order to shut down the top laner or avoid a bad bottom lane match up. The lane swap created an even tougher environment for Renekton and an annoying one for Ryze. With the addition of the lane swap to the current meta game, we've seen once again a change in the top lane. Maoki has risen to prominence but also a champ that is really being used in a way that has not been popular before, Lissandra. Lissandra's importance as a champion has been higher than most because of her ability as a flex pick. Lissandra's kit is good for both the mid lane and the top lane, her mobility and damage are on par with most of the mid lane champions that are popular right now and her kit is probably the best for farming in a 2v1 lane out of all of the top laners. Lissandra helped reinforce the whole idea that lane swaps can work, as long as you have Lissandra on your team you can survive, if not succeed in a 2v1. This champion is really the first ever meta flex pick, the only real use of a flex pick before was in Europe in late Season 3 with Kayle would be in the comp solely to ult the ADC. Once again the meta has shifted mainly due to the new lane swap strategy and the strength of Lissandra and the meta tanks.
With so many champions, players, coaches, and analysts there are endless possibilities for people to play the game. League of Legends is so dynamic because even though its played on the same map with (for the most part) the same champions, the way the players use them and the strategies they use are what really makes League of Legends so unique as a game. Even though there is always a popular way to play, never be afraid to try your own thing and break the meta.