Shifts in the meta on Patch 8.4 and 8.5 (and even earlier in the split) have made it less than ideal to play around top lane, but when this happens, community criticism often falls to the top laners themselves. ‘He cannot play tanks’ is a sentiment that has long followed Heo “Huni” Seunghoon and is now echoed by fans in the Cloud9 camp for Eric “Licorice” Ritchie.
In this 2018 Spring Split, both Echo Fox and Cloud9, at the top for the regular season, experienced unexpected losses after a switch to Patch 8.4 in Week Seven. Four of seven of Cloud9’s regular season losses happened after the shift to 8.4, and three of Echo Fox’s six losses meant that the league’s top teams suffered half their overall season losses in the last third.
When a team suffers in a meta shift away from a top lane focus, there are many nuances that have little at all to do with the top laner. Cloud9 and Echo Fox’s problems are much more systemic than individual in the effort to switch gears.
Before digging into the problems Cloud9 and Echo Fox have faced in 2018 Spring, it’s important to understand how the meta made it difficult to play within their established top lane-centric systems. Previous work has examined how both Echo Fox and Cloud9 like to play their games and some of the warning signs in more detail.
Echo Fox operated by using jungler Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett to focus the mid lane while bottom lane gave up priority in roams to top or simply held lane while the enemy team tried to influence Dardoch and Huni’s 2v2. Cloud9 used priority from mid lane (and occasionally bottom lane) to roam top and snowball Licorice.
It wasn’t uncommon to see Andy “Smoothie” Ta back on priority in the bottom lane and use tempo to roam top, then Teleport back to lane to avoid losing control of his team’s wave. Echo Fox’s bottom lane often used Teleport reactively to countergank when the enemy jungler tried to punish Huni.
As such, the first major change that impacted Cloud9 and Echo Fox occurred well before Patch 8.4 when Riot Games nerfed the cooldown reduction on the Unsealed Spellbook Keystone from 25 percent to 15 percent on Patch 8.3. That made the Keystone much less attractive for bottom lane and reduced the impact bottom lane could have on top lane without sacrificing waves of gold and experience.
While I criticized Echo Fox’s bottom lane for giving up waves to influence top, when Dardoch constantly played to the top half of the map, the duo lane at least wouldn’t expose themselves to ganks. Now, that is no longer an option, and other factors have lead to an increased attractiveness of bottom lane for jungle ganks.
In addition to the Spellbook changes limiting bottom lane taking the Keystone, players have also been less likely to take the Inspiration Tree as a primary rune tree. In addition, one can no longer opt to take both “Magical Footwear” for free bots at level ten and “Perfect Timing” for a free Zhonya’s Hourglass active. That makes bottom lane much easier to dive than before almost every player on the map ran with “Perfect Timing.”
Changes to Sightstone also exposed bottom lane to earlier ganks, and the same happened with changes to the jungler’s Tracker’s Knife for top lane, but crucially, the bottom lane has more players to gank and an easier snowball. But beyond that, teams started moving further away from top lane carry picks like Jayce.
Patch 8.4 introduced the Bone Plating mastery, which effectively allows a player to negate damage from an entire spell in an early all-in. Tank champions have an easier time taking this mastery as it resides in the Resolve tree, and it makes them safer from dives and all-ins, especially combined with the Aftershock keystone for extra damage with crowd control. It’s very difficult to trade with a tank when both Aftershock and Bone Plating are off cooldown.
A nerf to Gnar’s chasing and kiting also made it easier to just blind pick beefier tanks, though Gnar remains in the meta. Kha’Zix has an easier time in the meta with even fewer wards since his ultimate allows him to bypass control wards. Being a top laner in a low vision world is even less attractive without extra durability. As a final nail in the coffin, the bugfix on Banner of Command and the buffs to Baron made it a must buy item, and top lane tanks have an easy time purchasing it second, in time for the first Baron spawn to rush the opponent base.
Top lane has the option of defaulting to these safer champions in the wake of vision changes, but at least one member of bottom lane doesn’t–the AD carry. A change to Cloud Drake on Patch 8.5 also made every dragon worth taking. Combined with the buffs to Elder Dragon for each dragon stack, the cost of playing to bottom lane lessened if the enemy team plays to top.
A strong bottom lane also has the option of allowing support to roam with jungle, and the introduction of Skarner to the meta made clearing fast much more of a priority. With fast clear junglers roaming alongside support, mid lane vision and blue buffs are more highly contested, compounding the benefits of playing to the bottom side of the map.
A problem in adaptation
Certainly, Cloud9 and Echo Fox can identify these changes. They have access to the same patch notes and champions in their client as the rest of us. All NA LCS teams have the tools and means to adapt quickly as the meta shifts.
That, however, is a lot easier than it sounds. Once a team acquires certain habits and tendencies, it becomes more difficult to change them. Both Cloud9 and Echo Fox gain a lot from getting their top laners ahead, but inherent in playing out split-pushing top lane composition is the need for a strong bottom lane duo.
With a strong bottom lane duo, the AD carry and support can keep mid lane pushed throughout the mid and late game. As a result, the top lane is not under threat of collapse on side lane from the enemy jungler nearly as much since the opposing team will need to pull more resources to answer the mid lane push. That made Statikk Shiv champions kings in the game for most of the season because they clear quickly. Azir also became incredibly useful to teams like Echo Fox that relied a lot on Kalista or other non-Statikk Shiv AD carry picks because of how efficiently he could hold mid lane on his own.
The most successful game plans against Cloud9 and Echo Fox in recent weeks have involved targeting their bottom lanes. But subtle things go into reacting to bottom lane ganks. Against 100 Thieves, for example, Echo Fox’s bottom lane didn’t react when Yoon “Ryu” Sang-ook pushed mid aggressively and dipped to the bottom side of the map when he hadn’t been able to consistently gain mid lane pressure for most of the match. William “Meteos” went to the bottom lane for a gank, but Echo Fox’s bottom lane chose that moment to contest tribush vision, exposing themselves without reading the telegraphed signs that a gank would come soon.
Cloud9 have similarly had trouble balancing the map in the mid and late game where a recently buffed Baron punishes mistakes more heavily. Against FlyQuest, Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi and Smoothie got caught pushing out mid without side lane pressure, opening the game for FlyQuest. Also earlier in the FlyQuest game, Cloud9 reset late on tempo in bottom lane and lost an Infernal Dragon for it.
All of these subtle mistakes show a team’s inexperience in playing around bottom lane. If bottom lane is used to playing conservatively or relying on Teleports to maintain lane pressure, they won’t be as quick to contest vision or react to mid lane gaining or losing priority. If bottom lane is used to top winning, they may not expect Teleports from volatile tank matchups.
Bottom lane macro plays also change from roaming top side on back. When a duo lane is losing, but top has an advantage, it sometimes may appear ideal to initiate a lane swap and use top side tempo to make a play for Rift Herald. With a winning bottom lane, it almost always makes more sense to keep tempo on the bottom side of the map by continuing to pressure the lane and then rotate to mid if the enemy team initiates an unexpected swap to set up for either Herald or dragon in response.
Cloud9 and Echo Fox have seemed less polished in both types of plays, and against Team Liquid, for example, Cloud9 moved Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen’s Cassiopeia mid to force around their duo lane. When the force failed, he had to go back top to answer the wave, which allowed Team Liquid to get pressure and take mid turret, showing more experience catering to their AD carry and support and grouping for sieges.
It was also just a matter of enemy teams identifying these weaknesses in Cloud9 and Echo Fox’s play. For much of the split, enemy junglers tried to meet Dardoch or Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen in the top side 2v2 instead of playing to their own win conditions: a trial they easily lost. But in the final week, teams went for more punishing bottom lane 2v2 setups, further enabled by the change to Patch 8.5.
100 Thieves played Jhin against Echo Fox twice, and Team Liquid did the same against Cloud9. Jhin’s early and mid game spikes made it especially easy to rotate bottom lane pressure to impact the mid lane matchup, and Jhin also punishes low tank compositions and takes advantage of the mid game power troughs against Statikk Shiv AD carries like Caitlyn. That made the newly buffed Jhin very effective against the way the once top teams of NA LCS like to play.
Of course, Echo Fox also played with subs, but the team had been on a downward trajectory since the patch change. Cloud9 also have a long history of playing more tank-centric team fighting compositions. So it doesn’t seem that impossible for adaptation to occur.
Both Echo Fox and Cloud9 also rely a lot on their mid laners getting pressure early in the game. If their bottom lanes are used to using lane pressure to impact top, they can shift this focus to mid instead. That will open up Jensen and Echo Fox’s mid laners to continue to restrict the movements of their opponents and, in turn, make life safer for both side lanes.
Looking for more lane swap opportunities may not be ideal with the new importance of dragon on the game, but if teams are used to having tempo in top lane, it may be better to use that than expose bottom lane to ganks and dives with no recourse. If Cloud9 or Echo Fox bottom lanes back early and see that the top side has the push while they cannot get the push in the bottom lane, a lane swap can benefit them.
In mid-to-late game, both teams should remember that side lanes need to constantly watch mid priority. It’s hard to push out side lanes if the enemy team will have priority to answer, so the best option may be to continue to practice flanks if Huni or Licorice can push past river. Top laners can then become the win condition in team fights and be instrumental to their teams in that regard.
Adapting to play more around bottom lane isn’t an easy task for one or two weeks in playoffs. Cloud9 have legacy and Echo Fox need to shake off the ‘Huni stigma’. It may be hard, now, to consider them favorites to take the win. But the path to success is still open, and it’s only a matter of how far down the road they can make it after shifting gears.