Breaking the Meta: AD Carry Builds (Pt. 1; AD Caster-Carries)



Breaking the Meta: AD Carry builds

For a long time, AD carry builds have been relatively cemented: you get your IE, you get your PD, you get your LW, and you get your BT. Articles about AD Carry builds take this for granted: it’s not ‘what are my item options?’, it’s ‘why do I get LW over BT?’. If you look at most guides on, the variation in builds comes down to ‘how early do I get my LW, after Zeal, or after Phantom Dancer?’

And how was this trinity of AD Carry items (IE/PD/LW) determined to be optimal? Through average AD Carry stats. If you look at all of the AD Carry stats, the items that consistently give the most damage are those three. All the other items are too specific.

To an extent, this makes sense. In solo queue, it’s hard to build teams on the fly, so you deal in approximations: we need magic damage and burst, so we get an AP carry. We need tower damage and steady team fight damage, so we get an AD Carry. We need an initiator, so grab a tank. But obviously, these are not general rules. Ashe can initiate, and so can Gragas or Morgana. Cassiopeia and Ryze have sustained damage, while Graves has a ton of burst (then again, Graves has a ton of everything).

So with respect to builds, this means everybody builds the same. If you need to know 4 or 5 AD Carries, having to think about multiple builds and how they rely on your enemies’ builds is stressful and complicated. But IE/PD/LW? That’s easy.

And simple variations are easy. Morgana and Kennen have ults that keep going when they Zhonya’s, so Zhonya’s is good. But how do you know when BC might beat LW? On what champions? Against what champions? When is BT a better choice earlier? When is Trinity Force good? Is it good on anybody with a low cooldown ability? Then why not Vayne?

Over this and my next couple of posts, I will go over some alternative AD Carry builds that are superior to IE/PD/LW -here’s the key part- on SPECIFIC champions.


First, I want to go through the viable AD items. I think it is reasonable to narrow the pool down to: Infinity Edge, Last Whisper, Black Cleaver, Bloodthirster, Trinity Force, Youmuu’s Ghostblade. I’ve excluded Maw of Malmortius, because on AD carries, it is more of a defensive item than an offensive one, since its passive won’t get much use. On the AS side, there’s basically Phantom Dancer. Why does Phantom Dancer hold the privileged spot among AS items? First, most of the other items which give attack speed give either AP, or some sort of magic-damage on-hit effect. Second, Phantom Dancer gives Movement Speed, which helps with kiting.

Oh, and a warning. This post is long. Really, really long. I've put the math in spoilers, and even then, it's not so much the math as the results. The math is relatively easy, though, although it took some research to figure out what level I'd be when I had enough gold for various benchmarks, which was important for knowing what level each skill was, as well as AD/AS stats and average enemy armor.

As well, I have limited this post to three champions: 2 AD carries with heavy AD caster elements, and one with no AD scaling aside from auto attacks (to serve as a spoiler for the next post). Had I included all of the champions, it would have been even more ludicrously long.

Tristana - The Mobile Artillery

Tristana is a very interesting champion. If you max her W and E early, she has very high burst. However, if you don’t snowball, her lack of AD scaling on her abilities gives her weak mid-game damage, especially since her W is no longer safe to use offensively. Finally, Tristana’s late game is ridiculous, as she becomes untouchable. Not only is her late game range 703 (only beaten by Kog’Maw’s 710), but she has a jump which resets on a kill or an assist (you WILL notice this), and an AoE knockback. With even a little bit of protection, she can stay alive through most team fights, and she has the best AS steroid of any AD Carry, to boot. Her late game damage is almost on par with Vayne’s or Kog’Maw’s, and she is far safer than either of them. In my opinion, the only things that hold Tristana back from being supremely overpowered is having her DoT/Heal Reduction and one of her nukes be the same, and having no AD ratios. Even with these things being considered, she is supremely powerful.

This gives me two ideas, item-wise. First, I immediately feel that anything which boosts her early/middle game is beneficial. Second, I feel that her range, jump, and ult make Move speed less important. So if there are any mid-game damage items, I want to consider incorporating them into her build.

Here's the math:

So, let’s assume you’re a Tristana with Doran’s and Berserker’s Greaves. What’s your first big purchase Typically, that will be B.F. Sword. Assuming you’re not building Trinity Force (cooldowns to long), that means that given the items above, you should be starting with either the standard B.F. Sword, or a Brutalizer. How do they stack up in dps?

It turns out that Brutalizer, despite being cheaper, actually gives you about the same dps as BF (if you add another half of a long sword to make up the gold difference, they are even), and that’s not even counting the CDR. If it seems wrong that an auto attack with Brutalizer does only 5 damage less than one with BF Sword, don’t forget the Armor Pen.

Now that you have your BF Sword or Brutalizer, what are you building next? In a standard AD Carry build, you’ll get your pickaxe, bringing your build cost up to 2625 (discounting Doran’s/boots). Two readily accessible items cost about that much: Youmuu’s Ghostblade and Black Cleaver. Finally, you could start on Ghostblade once you have B.F. Sword.

As you can see, the best DPS items are Black Cleaver (if you manage to maintain 2 or 3 stacks) and Youmuu’s Ghostblade. Beyond that, at the level of Black Cleaver (with 0 or 1 stacks) are BF + Brutalizer and BF + Pickaxe (building towards IE).

Hold on, Gentleman Gustaf, are you saying the best first item on Tristana is Black Cleaver or Youmuu’s Ghostblade?  But nobody builds those!

Black Cleaver is rather uniquely powerful on Tristana and a few other champions. The weakness of Black Cleaver is that most abilities do not apply the armor debuff. As such, champions with abilities want to hold their abilities until after they’ve auto attacked multiple times. Worse, champions with AoE abilities have no reasonable way to spread out the debuff before their skill-use. Tristana has no physical damage skills, and as such, does not suffer from this problem.

Youmuu’s Ghostblade, on the other hand, is just a really strong item. It gives 30 AD (1100 gold), 20 Armor Pen (560 gold), 15 Crit Strike (692 gold), and 15 CDR (501 gold), for a sum total of 2853. The active gives you 50 Attack Speed (1312 gold) and 20 Move Speed (696 gold), or 2008 gold. For comparison, Phantom Dancer gives 55 AS (1443 gold), 30 Crit Strike (1383 gold), and 12 Movement Speed (418 gold), for a total of 3245 gold. Youmuu’s Ghostblade almost beats Phantom Dancer just from its basic stats, and gives a very strong active (almost as strong as Phantom Dancer itself, minus the Crit Strike).

As well, because they offer flat Armor Pen, Youmuu’s Ghostblade and Black Cleaver are very good mid-game items, offsetting Tristana’s mid-game weakness. But how do they scale into the late game? Very well, it turns out. Assuming IE, and choosing two of Black Cleaver, Last Whisper, Phantom Dancer, and Youmuu’s Ghostblade, we get the following 6 options (accounting for # of BC stacks and Armor, 45 options):

At 100 armor, the strongest combinations are: 1 stack BC+YG, 2 stack BC+PD, and PD+YG, with LW+YG trailing shortly behind with 3 stack BC+LW. So by replacing LW with BC, PD with YG, or both, or by replacing LW with YG, we get more damage than IE+PD+LW, at basically all numbers of stacks above 0, with one exception for BC+PD, which requires at least one stack to beat IE+PD+LW, and for BC+LW, which requires 2 just to be even..

At 150 armor, the same items prevail, with PD+YG, LW+YG, BC+YG (1+ stacks), BC+PD (2+stacks), or BC+LW (3 stacks) beating out PD+LW. At 200 armor, BC+LW requires 3 stacks, while BC+YG requires 2+ stacks, while PD+YG is still even with PD+LW, and LW+YG beats it. That’s a lot of acronyms, but basically, there are a lot of builds out there which beat PD+LW, for Tristana.

If you want a build that strictly dominates IE+PD+LW, go for IE+YG+LW, as it beats it at every level of armor. On the other hand, if you have more freedom to focus down targets, IE+YG+BC is an insanely strong build, and YG and BC are really strong mid-game items, so you could even rush one of them for mid-game/laning strength. As long as you keep it at 1 stack half of the time (that is, you attack each target twice) on targets above 150 Armor, or, at 2 stacks half of the time (that is, you attack each target thrice) on targets above 200 Armor, it is about the same as IE+PD+LW. Any extra stacks are just bonus damage at that point. IE+BC+PD requires an average of one more stack to beat out IE+PD+LW; this seems a bit excessive, confirming our previous math that you can’t just replace LW with Black Cleaver.


So what do I recommend? Build standard on Tristana, with 2 caveats. One, exchange your PD for a YG every game where you don’t think fights will last ages. Since damage early in a team fight is more valuable than damage later, the extra damage you’ll get in the first 4 seconds of the team-fight will benefit you greatly (potentially killing somebody). As such, I find that this makes Black Cleaver a VERY reasonable choice, as with fewer people trying to kill you, it’s easier to focus one target. However, LW is still excellent at this point, and often better. The lack of the constant Movement Speed should not be a problem in sacrificing PD, either, because your range, jump, and ult already are a lot of protection with good positioning, and you have its active for the beginning of a fight (when you most need mobility).

Finally, I think the way that YG puts out damage is much more like a team fight. In team fights, you spend part of the fight kiting but not attacking much (and thus not needing much attack speed), and a short window of a few seconds COMPLETELY UNLOADING on everybody. This is even more exaggerated by Tristana’s jump, which allows her to get enough distance to not have to worry about kiting for a time.

One caveat:

By getting BC or YG early over IE, you are buying slightly earlier power at the expense of slightly later power. Given the following numbers, you may still want to rush IE,  if you don't think you could abuse your early game strength to get an advantage.


Caitlyn - The Ranged Bumblebee

Caitlyn, on the other hand, is just an automatic sniper all game. She is aggressive, dominant, and in your face. I would avoid Black Cleaver on her because her spell damage would not benefit much from the debuffs. I would also avoid Trinity Force, because of cooldowns. This leaves us with IE, LW, PD, and YG.

Time for more math!

Since Cait is all about poke and spell damage, not extended engages, I’ll ignore PD as a first item. So at the 1650 gold level, we once again have B.F. Sword or Brutalizer:

These items are (again) about even, and Caitlyn’s cooldowns are long enough that the CDR won’t really mean anything but slightly faster ults. From there, we have several options. We can (from Brutalizer) build a BF/Pickaxe (for IE), or we can finish Youmuu’s and get a Pickaxe. From B.F. Sword, we can either finish IE, or buy a Last Whisper.

LW+BF and BF+Pickaxe+Brutalizer are about the same, although LW will pull ahead with the natural increase of armor, while the other build will get IE first. There are benefits to both, but unless you see a lot of early armor, the faster IE is better. Speaking of IE, IE does about 125 less damage in burst, but 30 more in dps. So if you’re doing a lot of poking, go with one of the above builds. If you want the dps, though, you can’t go wrong with IE, because Crits are OP, but Youmuu’s Ghostblade has higher burst and higher DPS (with your active). With the active down, your DPS is much lower, but since most of Caitlyn’s damage is poke, this shouldn’t hurt too much.

Whichever route you take to get there, which late game build is best?

At 100 Armor,

In sheer poke and burst, LW+YG wins. Your auto attacks, Q, and R all do much more.
In a short fight (4 seconds), PD+YG wins, by almost 100 dps. However, this will only just make up the burst difference on LW+YG (by about 60), and will beat LW+PD’s short-fight dps by about 200.
In a longer, extended fight, PD+YG will continue to beat out LW+YG, and will only start to lose to LW+PD after another 16 seconds.

At 150 Armor,

LW+YG wins in poke/burst again.
In a short fight (4 seconds), PD+YG may have the higher dps, but not enough to beat out LW+YG’s burst. It will, however, beat LW+PD.
In a longer, extended fight, PD+YG will beat out LW+YG given another 2 seconds (6 seconds total). However, LW/PD will start to beat out PD+YG after another 1 second (5 seconds total).

At 200 armor,

LW+YG wins in poke/burst again.
In a short fight (4 seconds), LW+YG holds its burst advantage vs both other builds.
In longer fights, it will take PD+YG 8 more seconds (12 seconds total) to beat LW+YG. It will take LW+PD only 2 seconds more (6 seconds total).

All in all, it is really hard to make a judgment call between these two. If you are poking a lot and having many short skirmishes, it seems that LW+YG will win out. Vs low armor targets, PD+YG wins every team-fight, but vs medium armor targets, it loses once the team-fights drag on for too long. Vs mid-high targets, LW+PD beats out both over time. This choice will depend a lot of compositions. I tend to play Caitlyn as more of an AD caster who specializes in forcing a target away or killing them, to secure several early dragons. As such, I prefer burst items over dps items. I will always get IE+LW, and then decide between sustained damage (PD) and burst damage (YG).

Since the late game builds are a bit hard to distinguish, how are the mid-game builds?

Assuming 100 armor,

For burst, LW wins by over 125 over YG, and 300 over PD

It takes PD 4-5 seconds to beat LW, and it takes YG 1-2 seconds to beat PD.

Unless the fight goes on past 10 seconds, YG beats PD at 100 armor. It takes PD

It seems that YG has the advantage, losing only slightly in burst, and quickly making it up in any fight.

Assuming 150 armor,

For burst, LW beats PD by about 300, and YG by about 170

YG surpasses LW in about 3 seconds of dps, and then LW passes YG back after a total of 7-8 seconds.

It takes PD about 8 seconds to beat LW and YG.


YG seems to be the clear victor here, having more up front damage against squishy and tanky targets alike, and only getting beaten by the others if the fight runs really long. LW wins burst, and PD wins over long periods. As such, I recommend getting IE + YG and one of either LW or PD, preferably LW.

Graves - Up Close and Personal

Graves may not play at all like Caitlyn; if Caitlyn is the ranged aspect of Tristana, Graves is the early game of Tristana, in your face, bursting you down, and not caring. Unlike Tristana, his burst doesn't scale into the late game. However, Graves' abilities are much like Caitlyn's in that he has a lot of AD caster abilities. As such, I will ignore BC on him, as well.

Who has two thumbs and likes math? Gentleman Gustaf!

As before, we start off by comparing Brutalizer and B.F. Sword:

Brutalizer doesn't just break even, it actually gives you (slightly) better burst, and is cheaper.

From there, we can go with Youmuu's, BF + Brutalizer, or BF + Pickaxe:

BF+Brut wins in burst, Youmuu's wins if the fight is longer than 2 seconds and shorter than 19 seconds, and BF + Pickaxe gets you a faster IE. As long as you avoid extended trades, Youmuu's gives you an advantage, and with a champion like Graves who really wants to go for the kill, Youmuu's can pay off a lot. If you're in a poke lane, and not a kill lane, BF + Brutalizer may be better.

The next major checkpoint compares IE, Youmuu's + Pickaxe, and Brutalizer + BF + Pickaxe:


Once again, Brutalizer + AD seems to really dominate the burst graph. However, Youmuu's beats it after 1 second of auto attacking. IE loses to Youmuu's in burst and in 4 second dps, but passes Youmuu's after about 6 seconds of dps.

So there are a number of routes, depending on whether you want more burst or sustained damage.

Next comes mid-game builds. IE is listed first, but as we saw above, Youmuu's could come first. However, IE is a necessity for AD Carry builds.


IE + LW has the highest burst, but it only takes one second of auto attacking for YG to pass it.

And while IE + PD has the highest sustained damage, it takes a 9-10 second fight for that to beat out IE+YG. Extra damage 10 seconds into a team-fight isn't worth the extra burst it may take to kill somebody.

Looking at late game builds, we can also see the superiority of YG.

At 100 Armor,

IE+PD+YG may have the lowest burst, but compared with IE+LW+PD, makes that up in one second of auto attacking, and gains an additional 270 damage over the next 3 seconds. It also makes up the burst advantage IE+LW+YG has, and continues to have stellar dps after YGs active ends.

IE+LW+YG has the highest burst, and also high early dps; LW+PD doesn't beat it until 7 seconds into the fight. Again, a little extra damage after the fight is mostly over isn't worth the burst you get.

At 150 Armor,

IE+PD+YG has the lowest burst , and doesn't make it up until 7 seconds into the fight, compared with IE+LW+YG. It is always lower than IE+LW+PD.

IE+LW+YG has better burst than IE+LW+PD, but loses in damage after 6 seconds.

Moreover, in each of these calculations have overlooked one important thing; CDR. At level 18, the cooldown on Graves' Q is 8 seconds. The builds which have PD in them tend to pass IE+LW+YG at some point AFTER 6 seconds into the fight. With 20% CDR, this is right when Graves will be getting his Q back up early. This adds at least another 2 seconds to the strength of IE+LW+YG. Moreover, Graves E will be up more consistently, allowing it to be used more for repositioning, as opposed to just for the buff.


So on Graves, I recommend getting IE+YG, with either LW or PD (Preferably LW). The order is really flexible, as long as you get IE first or second. Why YG so good on him? Compare PD/YG. YG has Armor Pen and AD, so everything you do will hit harder. You chunk somebody for ludicrous burst, and get to attacking. But PD has higher AS than you do. No fear, hit that active, and now you're doing more DPS than PD could dream of (with your AD/Pen). You pull even farther ahead, and then the active wears off. Now your dps is lower, so PD starts to catch up. After 2 seconds, PD is really starting to pull close. But wait! Your Q is up early because of CDR. Right when PD was starting to catch up, you lay on more AoE hurt, and you can probably afford to get up even closer for more damage, since most people are dead by now. Not only that, but you're getting your second dash a whole second earlier, and maybe, just maybe, when it's down to the last two people and their last man standing is diving on you to kill you, you'll have an extra smokescreen to juke him for the kill.

But Gentleman Gustaf, that was way too long!

If that was too long for you even with the spoiler, here's a super TL;DR, just this once.

Ghostblade is better than PD on any champion who has a lot of AD scaling abilities.

Black Cleaver is better than LW on any champion who doesn't have any AD scaling abilities (and relies mostly on auto attacks). This spoiler isn't just math; it's an actual spoiler for my next article.

So given that Black Cleaver is better than LW on any champion who doesn't have any AD scaling abilities, who else may benefit from BC over LW? Two such champions will be featured in my next post, and will build similarly to Tristana.


Ghostblade + BC combine well to stop high armor targets from ignoring your damage. As such, champions who like BC may also like Ghostblade in combination with BC, even if they don't like it separately. This build is similar, at least in penetration, to the Haunting Guise/Abyssal Scepter/Sorc Shoes build. Oh, and it's even better with Armor Pen runes, so for extra damage, turn your marks into Pen instead of AD and just get better at last-hitting already.

However, if these choices are too radically different from standard builds for your liking, I offer similar, but more standard builds. If your champion has a lot of AD scaling abilities or already has AS buffs and mobility, LW is better as your second item over PD. Otherwise, PD is the better choice.

Here's this post in video form!

And here's the song of the day:



  • To post a comment, please or register a new account.
Posts Quoted:
Clear All Quotes