Defining the Meta: Top Lane

In the next 5-ish posts, I’ll be going over the current meta, in terms of lanes and objective focus. I’ll start with top lane because, for once, it’s the least complex lane in the game. Historically, top lane has always been a mixed bag, fielding AP Carries, bruisers, and tanks, not to mention some assassins and the occasional ADC. On top of that, every top laner needs to be able to handle a 1v2 lane, if need be. In this post, I want to cover the history of top lane, then move on to the current meta, listing the common champions, and champions who may be able to take advantage of them.

History of Top Lane

Long, long ago, top lane was for AP Carries. AD Carries were mid (in America, at least), while a tank was bot with a support champion. Of course, an AP Tank could also go top, and Cho’Gath was a very strong top laner at the time, with AP Carry level damage, insane sustain, heavy CC, and tankiness. Alistar and Gragas were other AP Carries who went top, first popularized by Fnatic Shushei at Dreamhack. However, people quickly realized that bruisers like Irelia or Jarvan had both the gap closers to get onto the APCs, the damage to force them out of lane, and the sustain to trade with them. Moreover, AP Carries found a stronger place mid, where their junglers could guarantee them blue buff during the laning phase, and the European meta of ADC and support bot showed its dominance at the same Dreamhack.

It is about at this point that top gained a reputation for being ‘whatever you wanted’. Just off of the top of my head, I remember playing and seeing played at high-levels the following champions top lane:

  • Cho (Hotshot GG)
  • Nidalee (Hotshot GG)
  • Swain (Hotshot GG)
  • Singed (Dyrus)
  • Akali (Westrice)
  • Irelia (Wickd)
  • Jarvan (everybody until gold item stacking went away)
  • Renekton (somewhat, although he never caught on)
  • Bruiser Nidalee (Hotshot GG)
  • AD Nidalee (Team Sypher)
  • Jayce (towards the end of S2 especially)
  • Olaf
  • Udyr

I also remember at least 3 distinct top metas:

  • Trinity Tanks
  • Gold Item spam
  • Wriggle’s

Ultimately, those 3 metas revealed one truth about top lane. You needed sustain. Why? Because top lane was largely alone for the whole laning phase, and possibly the whole game. By the middle of Season 2, players had finally figured out that Dragon was an important objective, and that going top risked giving it up! This meant that if you suffered a bad trade and got low, you needed to be able to get that health back, because help might not be coming for awhile. Note that every champion I managed to list except Jayce has natural sustain. This was also part of the reason for Philosopher’s Stone and Wriggle’s being so strong.

Current Top Lane Meta

So what’s notable about the current meta top lane?

  1. You might have to 1v2
    • Your champion should be able to farm under tower
    • Your champion should be able to sustain from heavy poke
    • Your champion should be able to spam abilities which do the above
    • Your champion should be good on a budget
  2. You might be stuck 1v1 top forever
    • You need to either never run OOM, or be able to kill your opponent before you do.
    • You need to be able to sustain in an even lane.
    • 1 or 2 ganks could determine the whole lane, so you should have good builds for snowballing and getting crushed.

Towards the end of Season 3, this meant that the ‘bar’ — you must be this tall to handle top lane — was basically Renekton. Let’s look at Renekton for a moment:

  • High health sustain
  • Manaless, so automatic resource sustain
  • Good base damage (no need for damage items)
  • Good tankiness (add a sunfire cape and a Spirit Visage and never leave lane between health sustain and manalessness)

Now, take that profile and hold onto it for a moment.

A few other notable top champions shone. First, there was Shen. Shen didn’t really win lane vs Renekton, but he had more impact in the mid-game with his ultimate (although many analysts speculated that his value was significantly overstated) allowing him to roam and help other lanes. Jax also sprung up as a Shen counter, because whenever Shen left lane, Jax took 12 towers. However, now we’re into champion and playstyle counters, and a bit off topic. So Remember that profile you were holding onto? Bring it back. Now, we’re in Season 4. Who else fits that profile?

  • Mundo (passive, health as resource, Cleavers, Ultimate)
  • Rengar (Roar, Ferocity, Savagery, Roar)

Alright, so we’ve got a new 3 champions as our ‘bar’, Mundo, Rengar, and Renekton. To go top lane, you have to deal with the fact that there’s probably a manaless sustain-bot who will push at you forever and forever until you kill them or have to leave lane. You either have to be able to hang top lane without using mana, kill them before you run out of mana/health, or spam potions all game and fall behind in gold.

So does that mean nobody else is viable top? Not quite. There are a few ways champions have remained viable top.

Extra Sustain


Season 4 masteries include Preservation, which gives everybody 3% of missing health as regen. Let’s say you’re missing 10% of your health. You now have Mundo’s passive. The more health you lose, the stronger it gets. Let’s say you have 1000 health. At 90% health, you have 3 hp5. At 80% health, you have 1.2 Rejuvenation Beads. At 50% health, you have 15hp5 (a Spirit Stone or Tiamat). At 20% health, you beat Spirit Visage’s regen, even counting the passive. Holy crap, that’s a lot of regen! If you are at 1 health, it should take you 111 seconds to reach 50% health. Wow. From there, it’ll take another 333 seconds to reach full health. This means anybody who can sit safely at low-ish health and still be tanky will be running some major sustain. This has opened up room for some naturally tanky top champions. The foremost among these is Shyvana, who is tanky, has good pushing power, and is manaless. Add in the sustain from masteries and you have a terrifying top laner. She has fallen off a bit ever since they nerfed Preservation to give 2% of missing health as regen, but she is still reasonably strong.


Ravenous Hydra is the perfect item for the top laner who needs to add spammable sustain and push power. Renekton and Rengar can make decent use of it, but other champions use it better — Riven especially. She is manaless, has good pushing power, and is reasonably tanky and damage-heavy with AD. She also can survive on a budget build of Ravenous Hydra, Brutalizer, Spirit Visage, getting good tankiness, damage, and even CC. Kha’Zix can do alright in this role, but his reliance on mana and lack of a shield makes Riven the better choice, generally


Some champions are much better at 1v2 matchups due to their ranged or AoE farming. Lissandra and Malphite both fill this role pretty decently. Lissandra can farm from range, while Malphite has good AoE farming and natural tankiness which allows him to handle 1v2 poke fine. Both of them also often run teleport to exert global pressure.


Rumble is a super strong top champion. He doesn’t necessarily win lane vs the Renekton/Rengar/Mundo triumvirate, but he contributes a lot more to teamfights with his huge ultimate. If you have a champion who has strong teamfights in the midgame, like Rumble, Kennen, or maybe Vladimir, they can play well top vs Renekton/Rengar/Mundo, so long as they have a good roam or two in between levels 6 and 11, getting dragon, a tower, or –hopefully — both.

Top Lane Meta

So what is the top lane meta?

  1. Tanky manaless sustain bots top
    • Renekton
    • Rengar
    • Dr. Mundo
    • Shyvana – no natural sustain
    • Zac – not enough sustain early, and weaker offensive builds.
    • Nasus – extreme weakness: not manaless and weak early game. But still builds mostly tanky and stays in lane forever.
    • Volibear – Also has mana, but still builds mostly tanky and stays in lane forever and pushes well.
    • Jax – mana but gets tanky and pushes harder than anybody else from this group, except sometimes Nasus.
  2. Manaless champions who can use Ravenous Hydra or BotRK but still be relatively tanky fighters.
    • Aatrox
    • Riven
    • Yasuo
    • Tryndamere
  3. Mana assassins who can burst down group 2
    • Elise
    • Kha’Zix
    • Zed
    • Jarvan
  4. 1v2 TP champions who will perform about as well 1v2 as #1, and better than #2/3, but exert global pressure with TP and have better teamfights.
    • Lissandra
    • Malphite
    • Cho’Gath
  5. Teamfight oriented champions who can stay about even in the early game, and make an impact in mid-game objective fights.
    • Rumble
    • Kennen
    • Vladimir

Champions in group 1 can fulfill 2/4/5 in a pinch, if they need to, with TP, damage builds, or roaming, so their versatility makes them the best picks.

Champions in group 2 are typically slightly stronger than champions in group 1 if they get ahead, but much weaker if they fall behind. As well, the champions in group 1 can often get Ravenous Hydra or BotRK anyway.

Champions in group 3 are best as a counter-pick to those in group 2, and even then, aren’t in a great position. Truly situational.

Champions in group 4 probably lose 1v1, so if you can’t force the 1v2 lanes, you’re at a disadvantage.

Champions in group 5 are as strong as those in group 1, but don’t have the same split-pushing power, so have to make plays with their teams, decreasing versatility.


Mattias “Gentleman Gustaf” Lehman is a big time nerd-gamer who has been involved in both SC2 and LoL. He has ranked as high as Diamond 1 in solo queue and Diamond 3 in arranged 5s.

You can see his other work here:

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One Comment on “Defining the Meta: Top Lane

  1. Not sure if you’ve noted it since posting this, but… Heimerdinger is now, post rework, a viable top laner. His mana issues are there, however proper turret placement means they become irrelevant. Ganks are at least an even trade if the player is capable, because even if your E only slows them, they take so much damage from your Q turrets that they either die to kill you, notably Kha Zix and Evelynn, or are so slowed that you can flee to lane turret before dying, and force them to eat one fatal tower hit to kill you, or leave. Because his turrets only cost mana once, he can be of use as long as he saves enough mana for his E. Either he forces top lane to stay top lane, and helps the team that way, he kills the jungler in a gank and helps that way, or he ulti turrets their tower and takes it whenever top lane leaves him alone for 10 seconds. He’s an extreme annoyance to the enemy. His ulti E and W are great in team fights, and if your team works with you, you can draw them into your turret nest. His only real counters are Ryze for the instant turret kill, Katarina and Kassadin for their safe jump turret kills, or a very well played Mundo. He can still at least keep Mundo to lane though, as soon as he gets mana regen. I’ve never seen him in high ELO play, but frankly he belongs there. Nowhere will he shine brighter than a premade 5 that’ll work with him and his turrets. I do find that mana regen runes are somewhat a necessity for his top lane, and his top lane is less powerful than his full AP mid lane, because he really does need some MR and Armor to take a few hits while he Es and runs around his turrets and the brush, but it’s viable and very fun to play.


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