With Top Lane Week here, I spoke to Europe’s top lane titans, to discuss with them just what makes a great top laner. These points should help you get better as a toplaner yourself, and understand more about the decisions top laners are making in competitive play. The points Alphari, Vizicsacsi, Odoamne, Wunder, Expect and I will cover are:
PLAYING AROUND WITH TELEPORT
WHEN TO CARRY, WHEN TO TANK?
SPLITTING TO WIN
TRADING BLOWS IN TOP LANE
REACHING THE TOP OF THE LADDER
Playing Around With Teleport
Across the last couple of seasons, teleport has risen in popularity with it now being the staple summoner spell for any toplaner worth their salt. Its uses are varied, from returning to lane to joining a game-ending teamfight, however, it must be used judicially as Vizicsacsi notes ‘if you teleport in and end up dying it will cost you your lane.’ In the early game it can be a great tool to not fall too far behind but you must be cautious to use it too hastily. Alphari advises, ‘If you need to use it during laning pre ~10 min, use it to get back to lane after buying items or after getting forced out of lane due to a bad matchup or enemy jungler pressure.’ However, you don’t always want to be teleporting back to lane, ‘On some champions (usually tanks) it might sometimes be better to save teleport during laning’ he adds, ‘tanks will normally fall behind during laning and their teleports are really important for bot lane, (e.g. Maokai might save teleport vs Shen so that when Shen gets 6 he can match Shen’s ultimate with his teleport to bot).’
Later on in the game, the teleport wars become an entirely more complex fight. Time and time again we see teleport flanks winning the game for a team, however it doesn’t all come down to just the top lane. Odoamne explains ‘Often you will see top laners get teleport flanks off and everyone is going to go insane over how good he played. Obviously he deserves a lot of credit for it, but there's many things that can go wrong, if the other 4 misposition or they can't get a good teleport ward, then everything will come down crumbling. It's up to the entirety of the team to set up the whole play.’
When to carry, when to Tank?
Recently, the priority for top lane picks has changed dramatically. There have been two main constants, ‘Carries’ and ‘Tanks’, and there is a perpetual tug-of-war between the two. Currently, both are relevant and at times it can be tricky to choose one over the other. Vizicsacsi talks about how it’s not all about the 1v1. ‘When the carry has a good match up into the tank, having a stronger jungler counts since it means you can use your pressure to its fullest extent.’ With a pushing top lane, you open your jungler up to invade the enemy jungle and control vision around the top side river. It frees up many more opportunities for you and your team.
Each carry is unique, with the main three currently being Camille, Renekton and Rumble. Odoamne comments that ‘Camille is a ticking time-bomb, by late game Camille will be so tanky that she will just win side-lane and her contribution in teamfights will be more significant than the Tank. Rumble is just a tank-killer for the entirety of the game and Renekton is a really big lane bully and will win side-lane most of the time against the tank.’ Although the meta will change and different carries will rise to popularity, there will always be champions that fall into these three categories: The late game threat, the whole game teamfight god and the early game devastating onslaught. Find the style that suits you and your team best and pick the champion that slots into that role.
A lot of the decision making around what carry to pick comes down to draft, ‘In general a carry is riskier than a tank and has more counters, so that's why we see mostly tanks or bruisers with almost no bad matchups blind picked,’ states Wunder. For others, the decision’s a lot easier. Expect says, ‘The team never want to pick a carry so we always pick a tank! I think my team is good so we don't need a carry pick.’ Sometimes your team doesn’t need you to be able to 1v9, prioritising using you strategically later in the game. However, if you’re finding that your bot lane isn’t quite Zven and Mithy standard, and your mid-laner’s Ryze is a lot worse than you expected, make sure you weigh up when in the game you want more strength. Each carry top laner provides unique windows of opportunity to your team, but missing one can cost you dearly.
Splitting to Win
A key weapon in a top laners arsenal is the ability to split push effectively. It opens up the map and forces the enemy to respond to a consistent side lane threat. When can you split push though? Expect explains it best, ‘[you can split push] if you have teleport advantage, when you can win in a 1v1, or if you can push your lane and then go to get vision.’
These are the three questions you have to ask yourself before you decide to split:
Can I rotate if a fight starts?
Can I win a 1v1 fight?
Can I help my team shut down the enemy jungler?
Wunder delves deeper saying, ‘You want to be ahead in the “tempo game" when you split push so they don't get objectives for free when they spot you in a sidelane.’
So when you decide to split, you need to be aware of not only your strength in the 1v1, but also the objectives available on the map, and ability of the enemy team to force a fight. Alphari expands, ‘When split pushing you should always be thinking about what objectives there are on the other side of the map and whether you have teleport up or not to be able to potentially contest those objectives’ he says. ‘You should know your limits and where the enemy champions are. If you're strong enough to 1v1 anyone but not strong enough to 1v2 you always need to be looking at where the enemy team is to know when it's 1v1.’ Even when you can track the enemy jungler you can’t rest easy, as Alphari notes ‘You still need to think about certain things, e.g. Ryze or Tahm Kench ulti.’
There are many tricks to split pushing and Odoamne divulged, ‘Most of the time the most effective way of split pushing if playing Tank v Tank is to just push and disappear into a bush, it will put a lot of pressure on the map just because the enemy team is wondering where you are.’ You can stay in lane, but threaten to join other lanes at any given time with your teleport, or just by getting superior vision control.
Trading blows in lane
As much as there is a strategic element to playing top lane, the essence of the role still boils down to trying to hit the other guy harder than he can hit you. It’s an incredibly difficult balance to strike, between going ‘all-in’, trading, and farming to make sure you don’t fall behind in lane.
Wunder chimes in, ‘In general for any lane you want to punish when they go in for last hits. A lot of top lane champions at the moment are very cooldown dependent (especially tanks) so don't challenge with no cooldowns up.’ It’s a juggling act, and the very best top laners will know both their own cooldowns and the enemy’s.
Alongside that, you have to understand the enemy jungler and the pressure in your lane. ‘The most important things to think about when split pushing are pretty much thinking of enemy jungler position, your/enemy wards, roam opportunities and in the end your team's line of pressure,’ says Odoamne, ‘Most of the time if you overextend at a wrong time you will just give up a lot of pressure because of the enemy jungler killing you, but that's easily fixable by checking out your team's line of pressure. Even if you overextend in the lane and you die, if your team is in a good position then your team will most likely get something else and the trade will be worth it (e.g. a tower).’ A noble sacrifice indeed.
One of the more technical aspects of lane trading is being able to control minion waves and understanding when you can and can’t trade. Vizicsacsi says ‘Be careful when trading into big minion waves as you are usually in a disadvantage at these times.’ Especially early on in the game, the damage from just a few minions can stack up quickly.
Reaching the top of the ladder
The part you were all waiting for, how do you climb? Vizicsacsi focuses on introspection, ‘Rewatch your own games and don't over focus on your teammates.’ Odoamne on the other hand focuses on refining the basics saying, ‘Play safe over everything else, don't be a 0/5 player, just ward a lot, buy pinks and try not to die to the enemy jungler.’ Expect adopts a more single minded strategy, ‘Find a good champion and practice only them. You can easily get elo.’
On one thing I think we all agree, top lane may be an island, but when you’re playing well, it’s paradise. I hope that you’ve been able to learn some useful tips and tricks from this to help you become a better top laner. There are plenty more intricacies to playing top lane but if you master the basics you’re well on your way to challenger. Practice hard, put in the time to improving yourself, and I’ll see you at the LCS.