Understanding The Meta: How Flex-Picks Shape Competitive Drafting

While many of us praise the teamfight performances, the solo-kills in lane and great mechanical outplays in competitive League of Legends, too often we ignore the aspects of the game that make these plays possible.

In the last week of EU LCS, NA LCS and LCK matches, many of us will not have noticed the use of flex-picks in order to secure favourable matchups in the drafting phase.

Indeed, how many of us skip over the draft phase when watching competitive replays? How many of us give a second thought to the order in which champions are selected and the strategy that this entails?

In this article series, we’re going to try to break down some of the key picks and choices made by teams in the draft phase of recent games, with particular attention placed upon what flex-picks did for competitive teams in some of these game.

A flex-pick refers to a champion that can be played in multiple roles. With every new patch of League of Legends, a new set of champions become strong relative to the others, some of them in multiple roles. Astute teams and analysts can take advantage of this in a number of ways.

In doing so, teams are playing the meta-game, securing themselves favourable strategies before the teams get onto the rift.

Recent changes, including allowing coaches to be on stage to advise player and the addition of two extra bans in the draft phase, have made this aspect of the game significantly more important.

The current metagame offers a lot more complexity for drafting as a result of flex-picks. Simply put, in the drafting phase of the game, flex-picks offer teams the ability to conceal their intentions and thus make opponents second-guess their own choices. In order to understand why this is the case we need to consider what teams are thinking about in the draft phase itself.

In choosing both what champions to pick or ban as well as the order that champions are selected in, there are three main considerations that teams have:

  1. What champions are strongest in the current patch?
  2. What champions do we not want our opponents to have?
  3. What champions can we excel on? (i.e., what champions do we play well, and what are their counterpicks)?

Let’s break this down with an example. In every single game played this weekend (except Game 3 of Team Solo-Mid versus Team Dignitas) Gragas was picked as a jungler.

With nerfs to strong duelist junglers (Lee Sin or Graves) and buffs to tank itemization, in the current metagame Gragas is exceptionally strong, having decent clear times, being able to stay relatively healthy in the jungle and, above all, bringing huge amounts of utility to any team composition with his tankiness and crowd control.

In Game 3 of their series against Longzhu Gaming, SK Telecom T1’s jungler, Kang “Blank” Sun-gu, showed the power of the Gragas pick, using it to absolutely bully and neutralize the Zac of LZ’s rookie jungler, Moon “Cuzz” Woo-chan.

In that series Gragas was picked first in every single game because he answers all three of the questions: he’s strong at present, team’s don’t want their opponents to have him, and he has no real weak matchups in the current metagame.

Though we did not see this happen in any of the games last weekend, Gragas is also a flex-pick, who can be rotated into the top lane if more favourable junglers (like Elise) are available.

Other flex-picks seen last weekend, brought even more strategic considerations to the draft. In Game 4 of their series against Fnatic, Misfits Gaming demonstrated this beautifully, locking in Jarvan IV as their first pick.

Jarvan IV represents many things in this instance. Firstly, in the current metagame, Jarvan is a great flex-pick being strong in the jungle as well as in top lane (depending on the matchup).

After FNC showed their hand with their top lane pick of Cho’gath, MSF chose to lock in Trundle, a potential counter to the Cho’gath in that Trundle’s ability to steal away stats can make the Fnatic frontline more vulnerable.

The Trundle is being used here as yet another flex-pick, one that can be pushed into the support role in order to punish immobile carries, if FNC chooses one.

Source: lolesports

This was a great draft from MSF, one that secured them strong champions, in comfortable lanes by giving the opposing team very little certainty about what was being picked and when.

The usefulness of the flexibility of the Jarvan IV pick was also evident in Team SoloMid’s series against Team Dignitas, where he was picked in the first round of the draft in every game.

In Game 1 of that series, locking in the Jarvan flex-pick allowed DIG to get a favourable top lane matchup of Renekton versus Shen. Though they were unsuccessful in that game, DIG’s Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho was able to bully TSM’s Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell consistently in the top lane.

Source: Riot Games Flickr

The remaining games of that series would also see both teams use Maokai as a flex-pick to the same effect. Maokai represents a strong jungle threat for many of the same reasons that Gragas does, but one that excels more with the higher levels of gold earned in the top lane.

Again, choosing Maokai early in the draft offers teams the ability to pick winning matchups once the enemy team reveals their top lane or jungle pick.

There are, however, teams that didn’t use this flex-pick strategy in their games last weekend, most notably Longzhou Gaming.

Their top laner, Kim “Khan” Dong-ha, gained a reputation this year for being a hyper-aggressive hard-carrying top laner. LZ’s rookie jungler Lee “Cuzz” Woo-jin was all too willing to favour Khan with jungle pressure, snowballing leads through the top side of the map in order to carry LZ to first place at the end of the LCK 2017 Summer Split.

LZ’s drafts saw them banning out popular tank top laners like Maokai and flex-picks like Jarvan IV in order to give Khan champions like Jax or Jayce that made him a high-damage split-push threat.

This meant that in every game, LZ picked their top lane champion last in order to leave open the possibility of a counter-pick for Khan.

In situations like this the team is making a strategic choice to devote resources both on the rift (in the form of jungle pressure) and off (in the form of bans and drafting strategy) in order to get their top laner ahead. For LZ, this paid dividends as Khan was able to carry them to victory and earn himself the MVP award for the series.

It is, however, worth noting that this strategy is limited (as we saw in Game 3 of that series) and as such, if the current metagame persists, we may see LZ drafting with more flexibility at Worlds.

In sum, it is worth taking the time to reflect upon the strategic choices that enable players to do the flashy and clutch plays that we all love competitive eSports for.

Flex-picks are an integral part of the current game and will be a factor to watch for as the meta evolves going into the 2017 World Championship.

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