Top Lane has a regularly shifting meta, which seemingly always has a top 3, defined by some specific qualities. The meta shifts have been pronounced, and tend to follow a set pattern.
From Season 3, the meta has shifted from bruisers to fighters to mages to tanks, and now may just shift again. What can history tell us about the future of the meta?
Our story begins in late Season 3. The meta is defined around Jax, Renekton, and Shen, and the 2013 World Championship has just ended. Season 4 brings with it a bevy of changes, including a rework to runes and masteries. The defensive tree got a huge buff to resistances and health regen, stats Jax simply didn’t benefit as much from as Renekton. Doran’s Shield became an extremely strong start, and new bruisers arose top. Eventually, Shyvana and Dr. Mundo arose as the clear frontrunners, along with Renekton. Renekton was the lane bully, with a strong early game that led into a dominant mid-game due to gold advantages. Dr. Mundo, on the other hand, was the hardest scaling of the three, but cursed with an extremely weak early game. Shyvana, of course, sat firmly in the middle of the two. These Giants of Top Lane seemed unstoppable, surviving even nerfs to the health regen in the defensive masteries. They simply were impossible for AD Carries to bring down quickly, and could make a huge impact simply by walking into the backline.
Two counter-picks arose quickly: Warwick and Trundle. They both had heavy % health damage, making them strong against these tanks, while bringing higher damage and utility. Trundle ended up being the winner, and he quickly rose into the meta as a counterpick, especially in Europe. His ability to steal health and resistances from tanks made him a monster late-game, essentially having two champions’ worth of stats.
Riot identified Doran’s Shield as the crux of the issues of top lane. Doran’s Shield (and the regeneration from the Perseverance mastery) were indeed part of the reason that these tanks were dominant: 9/21/0 combined with Doran’s Shield were simply the best way to stay in lane forever. They nerfed Doran’s Shield and the Perseverance mastery, hoping to increase diversity. However, it was another change that actually made the biggest difference: the buff to Teleport. Teleport received a huge cooldown decrees on towers, allowing it to be used early in the laning phase, then used shortly thereafter for a dragon fight. Doran’s Shield stopped being the dominant item, and the top laners changed accordingly.
Once teleport entered the meta, you could take a late-game champion like Jax, force a 4v0 lane swap to avoid the early game matchup, or simply just survive the laning phase thanks to teleport, and out-scale Renekton. Renekton became the bar, Jax could challenge the bar, and all of a sudden, the meta was Jax and champions like him (late-scaling tanky dps champions).
Doran’s Shield and Doran’s Blade both were viable purchases, but ironically, it was the auto-attacking fighters like Aatrox, Jax, and Irelia who were picking up Doran’s Shield (to survive lane), while it was the bruiser Renekton who was picking up Doran’s Blade.
Teams learned how to play safer and safer with Teleport to actually survive the Renekton matchup, and he became less and less popular. However, while Irelia, Aatrox, and Jax were dominating in Europe, only Jax had made it over to North America. Soon, Jax was the clear best champion, with Aatrox being played largely by Fredy122 and Irelia by Wickd. A new strategy was needed to force Jax out of range.
After awhile, teams started to realize that auto-attacking simply would never beat Jax. Early game auto-attackers failed to out-scale him, late-game auto-attackers lost to his counter-strike. The nerfs to Doran’s Blade were the last nail in the coffin. However, champions like Lulu and Kayle, with their ranged harass, were able to set him behind enough to outscale him. Nerfs to Kayle and changes to the meta returned 1v1 laning, and with that came strong AP laners who could bully Jax out. Gragas soon replaced Kayle, Ryze replaced Jax as the dominant late-game sustained damage-dealer.
However, with champions whose primary abilities were CC, and secondary abilities were damage, the meta shifted to champions with naturally higher base damage, lower scaling, and high base damage. The most recent top lane meta can best be described as concentrated hyper-tanks: just add water to never die. All of them, regardless of how naturally tanky they are, become hyper-tanky for a brief moment. This meta could best be seen in the European LCS Summer Playoffs, where Maokai, Lulu, and Alistar dominated. All three of these champions provide similar things.
Other champions were seen as well, of course: Ryze, Dr. Mundo, Kayle, and Swain. Ryze, Kayle, and Dr. Mundo have been in and out of the meta for some time. However, Swain was a relative newcomers. Swain was an interesting pick, can be compared easily to Ryze as a tanky damage dealer. Kayle, however, brings uncharacteristically high damage. Could she be the trend of carry top laners squeaking their way back into the meta in the hands of players like Koro1, Save, and Balls? Ryze would certainly fit the bill, so I look to see him stay in the meta. But the damage dealer I’ve been seeing on the fringes of competitive play is Kassadin. Save played him in Najin White Shield’s push through the Korean Regional Qualifiers, and I would be unsurprised to see him enter the top lane meta. With damage-dealing top laners of course comes Rumble as well.
And then there’s Nidalee. Nidalee is an extremely strong lane dominant champion, and a number of the above champions have weak laning phases and limited split-push potential. This puts Nidalee at a premium for counter-pick purposes.
Going into Worlds, the top lane meta is flux, and that makes everything even more exciting!