The Black Cleaver vs. Youmuu's Ghostblade


Note: this was written before the patch notes. However, the principles still apply even if the numbers are slightly off. 

We’ve seen Last Whisper vs. Black Cleaver and even Ghostblade vs. Phantom Dancer. Now it is time for Black Cleaver versus Ghostblade. Brutalizer builds into two different items, and clearly one of them, The Black Cleaver, has been heralded as the greater item. But is it always? Ghostblade sometimes might be a better choice.

Sometimes I’ll see AD Carries that aren’t Miss Fortune or Corki get Black Cleaver. Why that, and not Last Whisper? Sometimes I’ll see a basic attack champion like Xin Zhao or Nocturne get Black Cleaver, even though the only other source of physical damage might be an ad carry, and a bad one at that, and it is their only damage item. Why get Black Cleaver in that situation instead of Ghostblade?

First let’s review the pure numbers difference between the two.

The Black Cleaver: +250 health, +50 attack damage, +10% cooldown reduction. Unique: +10 armor penetration. Passive: Dealing physical damage to an enemy champion reduces their armor by 6.25% for 4 seconds. This effect stacks up to 4 times. Cost: 3000G (1,188), builds out of Brutalizer and Ruby Crystal.

Youmuu’s Ghostblade:  +30 attack damage, +15% critical strike chance, +10% cooldown reduction.  Unique: +20 armor penetration. Active: Gain +40% attack speed and +20% movement speed for 6 seconds (4 seconds for ranged champions) - 45 second cooldown. Cost: 2,700 G (563 G), builds out of Brutalizer and Avarice Blade.

Pure difference: Cleaver has 250 more health, 20 more damage, and a stacking teambuff penetration passive. Ghostblade has 15% more crit, 10 more flat penetration, 300 less gold cost (even less if you count Avarice Blade farm, of which you’ll likely get one or two hundred or even more if you work on other items first), and a movement speed/attack speed active. Both have the same 10% CDR.

On paper, Black Cleaver looks better. It certainly has more damage and it penetrates more armor, right? Let’s look at a target with 100 armor. We’ll assume the mastery Weapon Expertise is always being taken.

If it’s Ghostblade:  – 8% for 92 armor, -20 from penetration makes 72 armor for a Ghostblade user.

If it’s Black Cleaver:  the debuff is applied to everyone, and with four stacks, that leaves 75 armor for everyone, and for the BC wearer, that’s another – 8%, which takes it 69, then -10 from flat for 59. However, it not until after the third stack of Cleaver is applied that there is more armor penetrated. This means you must inflict three sources of damage before you have applied more penetration to a target.

Let’s apply it to a less armored champion, say a mid with 80 armor.

Ghostblade for 80: -8% for 73.6, -20, 53.6.

Black Cleaver for 80: 60 after all the ticks, -8% for 55.2, -10 flat to 45.2. Same caveat for needing the stacks first applies.

However, note that the difference between them shrinks the lower the armor of the target is. In the 100 armor instance, max stacks means a 13 armor pen difference. In the 80 armor difference, it’s 8.4.

This is mathematical proof of something intuitive about Black Cleaver: it is better the more armor your target has (after stacks).

To calculate the benefit of having four stacks of Black Cleaver the equation is (X  x .75)(.92) - 10. The benefit of Ghostblade is .92X -20, where X = armor. The .92 only applies if the 8% mastery is taken, which anyone equipping these items generally does. The leftover difference represents how much more armor pen there is on 4 ticks of Black Cleaver than there is from the extra 10 flat on BC.   

However, the huge caveat is that it’s only on the fourth tick. Keep in mind that it’s not until your fifth hit that you get the full benefit. On first hit, you have zero benefit and a stack is applied, then on second hit you benefit from the first stack and apply the second stack, etc. Some people you need to get most of the damage off before that happens, or they don’t have a stacker like Garen’s E or Pantheon’s E. Some are basic attack champs.

So yes, on Pantheon or Garen, where basic attacks are not the main source of damage, but casted abilities are, and the shredding occurs rapidly, go for Black Cleaver. You want to get in, blow them up quickly, and get out. If you don’t finish the job, you’re hoping someone else does fast.

But, what if you are Xin Zhao or Nocturne? Xin Xhao has 3 ways to deal damage: his charge, which is magic, his basic attack (Q and W just boost his basic attacks), and his ult. Nocturn has his ult (which has a very long cooldown), his Q, and his basic attacks. You’d have to charge in and get Three Talon Strike off, then the ult or another hit before all the stacks are on. As Noc, you’d have to get three regular hits off if you just hit with Q, and two if you use your ult, four if you don’t ult and fail to hit with Q.

Generally, as Xin and Nocturne, you want to have someone lose most of their health by the time your knockup of fear combo is over, or at least be at the point where if they stay, they’re dead, and they have to run. If they run and you can’t catch them, you didn’t benefit from all the stacks. If you want them to die quickly, you won’t have time to benefit from the stacks either. To benefit from the stacks, you’d have to get six sources of physical damage in if you have more penetration from the third stack. That’s two or three basic attacks on Xin, four to six on Nocturne.

I’m not saying never build Black Cleaver, but what kind of fights are you getting into? Will you get that many hits on a single target? Sometimes, yes. You are the bigger guy and you will be spending a lot of time on a bigger guy. But usually, you are going for squishier targets. In this case, Ghostblade is actually better. In the four to six-hit scenario, you will probably get at least one of them. More importantly, you’ll have the active, which increases your damage and your ability to stick on someone until you can get another combo off, a combo which might not occur were you to not have it. It depends on who you are chasing.  Your initial abilities like Three Talon Strike and Duskbringer will hit harder, as they are often your first hits. Ghostblade thus helps your first piece of burst more.

And again, it costs at least 450 gold less (150 gold off Avarice Blade is easily obtained even if you’re rushing Ghostblade).

Part of Season 3’s itemization is to give access to abilities that champs normally wouldn’t have. Tiamat/Hydra gives melees AOE. Runaan’s gives AD carries AOE. Sword of the Divine gives burst to non-burst champions. Twin Shadows and Shard of True Ice gives CC moves to non-cc champions. Even Mikael’s Crucible gives a heal to non-healers. Seraph’s gives a shield. Youmuu’s, perhaps less popular than even all of these, gives mobility and escapes to people who don’t have escapes. The old one was just for chasing and only lasted four seconds for running away. I finally tried one of these out on Nocturne (who has Q to help escape, but still) and let me tell you, six seconds with no conditions attached to it is a really, really long time in a chase. The cooldown is only 45 seconds, even less than Shurelya’s, which is better than the old cooldown.

Factors in favor of taking Black Cleaver:

  • There are armor stackers. The more total armor on the other team, the better Black Cleaver is
  • You aren’t carrying and tend to be getting assists
  • You have good Cleaver-stacking abilities (Garen’s E, Pantheon’s E, Wukong’s Ult)
  • There are a lot of other physical damage dealers on your team
  • The above is even more so if no one else bought a Cleaver either. If someone else has one, you can both only stack the four stacks once. If one of you has BC and the other has GB, that is more total penetration

Factors in favor of taking Ghostblade:

  • You don’t have many other physical damage dealers
  • The other team doesn’t stack armor, or only one non-crucial target does (possible, if they are simply getting a Warmog’s and damage)
  • You are a basic-attack focused champion and have poor Cleaver-Stacking Abilities
  • You are an assassin and the majority of your damage comes early, then you just need to chase to finish off.
  • You need a 6-second 20% move speed / 40% attack speed buff with 45-second cooldown to help you get in and out for higher-risk, higher-reward plays.
  • Minor: you are struggling to get 1,188 gold in one outing. The most expensive piece of Ghostblade is 563, the recipe cost, plus with Avarice Blade Gold it costs more than 300 gold less.

One note: I feel Gustaf has done tons of analysis on AD Carries, even including this item, so there’s little need to discuss it. Also this article is full. To me this item is rarely a good idea on AD Carries, partly based on already done research, but here are the brief notes. The ability is worse and you have different options than melee champions do. You should get BC if you’re MF or Corki, and you should get PD, IE, Shiv, or Sword of the Divine for crit first, and LW if you need penetration and aren’t getting BC. If you’re getting Avarice Blade early to get a little gold, it’s probably better to get Statikk Shiv. In short, I feel it’s BC vs. LW for AD Carries, and BC vs. GB for melee. 

Anyway, yes I’ll say it: Ghostblade is secret OP on the right champions.  You shouldn’t automatically buy one or the other on some champions.


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