Right now, melee champions that rely on auto-attacks are in a bad position compared to those that have great burst abilities. Xin Zhao, Warwick, Trundle...the more important auto-attacks are, the worse it has become. I feel that if you are going jungle or top lane, if you want to win you really have to pick a certain type of champion. Today I'm going to explain how Bruisers have evolved, why some older ones have become outclassed, and my criteria for what generally makes and breaks bruisers' usability. I also explain how I think we got here and what the challenge is for Riot in breaking this.
Auto-Attack Reliance: Three Groups
Note on "bruiser": I don't know what the difference between bruiser or melee is. I'm going to leave out a few champs like Singed, Naut, Shen, and Malphite because while they may have melee abilities or buffs, they are magic-based and ability-based and don't fit into this discussion, even though they may technically fit the bill. I'm really just talking about melee champs that mainly deal physical damage. I'm just going to call them bruisers from here on out as that's all anyone says anyway.
High Reliance on Auto-Attacks, Weak Disengage
These require that you get a lot of auto-attacks to deal lots of damage. Not only that, it's really the main thing they have to offer everything else is so they can get more auto-attacks in. They have cc, but it is poor for enabling you to get a lot of auto-attacks in. You might get one or two more, but skilled players and team-comps won't let you keep going. Fiora, Master Yi, Trundle, Tryndamere, Voli, Warwick, Xin, Nasus, Nocturne, Sion.
Notes: with reluctance, I include Nocturne because his Q and E don't do much damage, are very soft for cc and chase, and are still about getting auto-attacks in. His passive and W are also auto-attack based. His ultimate was the main reason he was good. The cooldown nerf hit him hard, and this is why his popularity has declined, and his utility is much weaker. AD Sion relies on auto-attacks due to E and R. His stun is better cc than the others, but fits here more than anyone else. He, along with the rest, has have minimal/weak cc as far as disengaging and reliability goes. All of them need a lot of auto-attacks to get damage in. Worst of all, they have poor disengage skills, whereas most of the rest below do not.
Minimal Reliance on Auto-Attacks, Minimal Auto-Attack Buffs/Requirements, Moderate or Good Disengage
Others have abilities but don't really have strong attack speed buffs / auto-attack requirements. These are better, as they have bursty-abilities, can trade nicely, and most of them can get in and get out generally. Garen, Gangplank, Renekton, Hecarim, Wukong, Pantheon, Darius, Poppy, Talon, Jarvan IV, Sion.
Notes: Pantheon has poor disengage, but the rest do. Most of these champs do not greatly benefit from having auto-attacks or get their auto-attacks buffed, but all have some nice offensive and/or cc abilities. If I could be more thorough I'd have more than three groups and give those three their own, but for the sake of brevity, they are here. This group as a whole is better than the group up top, though the three assassins, Pantheon, Poppy, and Talon, are generally considered weak because again, poorer disengage and way squishier.
Minimal Reliance on Auto-Attacks, Great Auto-Attack Buffs, Great Disengage
The first group need auto-attacks to succeed, the second group needs to use abilities, but these guys can do either and succeed or both and succeed more. They also generally have much better disengage and utility on the whole (with the exception of Naut/Malph/Shen, mentioned before). These have abilities that require or encourage auto-attacks, but they can still trade or burst nicely if they can only get one or two auto-attacks in. They also generally have a nice disengage: Irelia, Jax, Riven, Rengar, Olaf, Skarner, Yorick, Nidalee, Jayce, Udyr, Lee Sin, Dr. Mundo.
Notes: These guys are crazy because they can go in and out of combat much more easily, they generally win at trades, have better auto-attack abilities/buffs than the second group, and better burst abilities than the first group. Some of them have better burst AND auto-attack abilities than both groups, on the whole. Don't be fooled--Udyr does not need lots of auto-attacks. He can bear, tiger, and run, or he can just auto-spam and win, but it's do to having 4 auto-abilities that you can cast over and over again. Dr. Mundo's E is nice if you are wailing away, but his cleavers and ultimate make him able to get in and out easily. Lee Sin can buff his attack speed constantly from his passive, Skarner can auto-you to death or just ult, e, and Q a couple times, Riven gets more damage on her auto's that get reset during Broken wings, Jax has 3 burst abilities, an attack-speed buff passive, and an ult that makes every third hit hit hard, Irelia has 3 burst abilities and one that gives her true damage to her auto-attacks...you get the idea.
How did we get here?
How old these champs are is kind of all over the map, though many in the first group are very old. Champions in the second and third group are all over the place as far as date of origin goes, and Volibear and Fiora aren't that old, so in fairness I wouldn't explain it as Riot simply releasing more and more overpowered champs.
Right now, sustain and trade-fights are what keep bruisers well and good. Sustain goes along with trade-fights ability because if you can trade well, you can escape well, and if you can escape well, you can sustain well. I didn't take note of it but generally the champions in the third group have better sustain than the second, and the second over the third. Auto-attack reliance doesn't meld well with this. So in addition to auto-attack based champs not having a good way to get in or out the way ability or ability/auto champs can, there were two other design decisions that also did not help auto-attack reliance at all.
Dodge Remake / Ninja Tabi
Dodge remake happened because it wasn't fun. That was the line they kept giving. It also was for the sake of carries, who rely heavily on auto-attacks. Remaking Tabi to decrease auto-attack damage made it so there would be still be nice armor shoes that could do something about carry damage. But by focusing on auto-attacks, it did not help out auto-attack reliant bruisers--it just changed the kind of strength Tabi has against them. In trades, if you hit once or twice, they'd hit without the damage reduction. 12-18% dodge is what you usually saw. 10% damage means all trades are guaranteed 10% reduced. The change is only beneficial if you manage to hit someone 6-10 times or whatever. This doesn't happen many times in the game. In lane, the new Tabi is better.
Tough Skin vs. Defensive Mastery and Indomitable vs. Harden Skin
In Season two, Tough Skin is on the first line instead of Defensive Mastery's third. This was to give jungler's more flexible options in mastery builds, but what happens is that non-junglers realized this would help with trades in lane. This encourages more trading and skirmishes (another thing Riot wanted), which indirectly hurts some champs and buffs others. Good traders win, bad traders lose.
Damage reduction from Season 2's Indomitable is applied after damage reduction from armor and magic resistance. This makes Indomitable comparatively more effective as champion armor and magic resist increase, and better versus Harden Skin, where the damage reduction applied before armor and magic resistance. Harden Skin also required 3 points, not two, and required all points in armor. It also (haha) did not apply to magic damage. With indomitable you can have your armor seals, take the magic resist points because of a high-magic team, and still get Indomitable for trades and the carry and the late game. Again, in favor of people that can trade, and also obviously better vs. auto-attacks rather than bursted abilities.
Right now this shifting isn't going to change much. Xin Zhao was remade and is better, and perhaps many of the others in the first group will also be remade. But there is a healthy amount of awful, acceptable, and superior champions at top lane. I eagerly await seeing how they change the defense tree in Season 3. You should too.
For now, enjoy my favorite video on auto-attacks:
Old Man Eyebrows
This week's eyebrows: