(This is a guest post and its views do not necessarily reflect upon those of Reign of Gaming staff)
If you've played League for long enough, it's a safe bet that you've encountered the cheesy goodness that is a gimmicky lane. There will always be arguments if strategies such as these are simple cheese strategies, or if there is a bit of skillful play combined with being in a contra-meta strategy being employed, but if you are concerned with winning, these must be considered overall as an attempt to gain a temporary advantage in game.
So what exactly is a gimmick lane or a gimmick team composition?
The definition of what qualifies as a gimmick will vary from individual to individual, but some general themes are generally quite common. These often revolve around crowd control, but sometimes simply involve use of AoE abilities, shield and revive mechanics, installing a champion or two somewhere unexpected, or building one or more champions in a very unconventional fashion. There are also varying degrees of this, from running an all-support composition in a blind-pick match (pretty troll-heavy), to simply abusing certain AoE wombo-combo setups in serious games. Obviously there are different applications to each of these ideas, but the goal is to destroy the opposing team's nexus first, I feel that some serious evaluation is in order.
One of the next logical questions from a theorycrafting standpoint is this:
Is it true innovation, or just novel application of a champion better known for performance elsewhere?
Because of the nature of League of Legends updates, and the influence of competitive play, blogs, and high-skill players streaming, the meta-game is going to remain an evolving entity, as evidenced by the transition from the old Ranged ADC-Mid NA strategy, to the 'EU' standard of bruiser top, AP Burst caster mid, CC jungler and ADC/Support at bottom lane, to current iterations that involve bursty AD Casters and bruisers at mid, and asian style 2v1 shutdown lanes popularized at the S2 championship. At some point a lot of these strategies would have been viewed as somewhat gimmicky, certainly watching players like AlexIch bring out an entire cast of disused champions into the mid lane fits this mold, however the disruption and destruction wrought made even casual competitive viewers want to go try AP Master Yi, or mid-lane Zilean.
Why bother trying these?
For completely un-serious play, obviously no such restriction exists, as long as the other members of your team don't mind the very real possibility of you feeding extremely hard through the entire game because you're trying something different.
More practically, however, if you view LoL as a zero-sum adversarial team game, the entire purpose of doing something unexpected is to interfere with the other team's strategy and decision making. In game theory terms, in a static case where both players are reasonably equally capable, and possess reasonable amounts of information about what strategy they feel their adversary will employ, there is statistically a distinct advantage to behaving in a unexpected manner. In military type terminology, what this does is disrupt the opposing player's OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) by acting unexpectedly, and then pressing this advantage typically with bold, aggressive maneuvers in order to impose your own will over the contested area.
In terms more relevant to League, executing a well veiled lane swap, camping and successfully 5-man ganking from a brush early, or creating early gank opportunities with a unconventional jungler are good examples of an unexpected maneuver. The next step obviously is to capitalize on whatever minor advantages were created.
Usually, these sorts of shenanigans are very gambit-y in nature, with the associated tendency of being stronger in the early game than they would be late game. Heavy single target crowd control with some burst is extremely powerful in the early game, but once squishy damage dealers itemize somewhat defensively this is less powerful. The same goes for kill lanes - if an early advantage isn't conferred by running something such as Jarvan-IV and Pantheon at bottom, the result is often a disadvantage in the mid-late game as the other team goes about scaling better with their gold income. Some can provide outright hilarious mechanics (Blitzcrank and Thresh lanes come to mind) that might completely demoralize some adversaries, but the important point to be made is this:
Is what you're attempting to do going to help win the game, and if so how? Often a two-man kill lane can be successful early, but those players might split that available farm, and don't wind up assisting other lanes as much as they could. Have a strategy in place to make the most effective use of any successes you're looking to achieve, instead of myopically focusing only on how to get there in the first place. Example - why not run a kill lane at bottom with a mobility based high damage output top lane (e.g. Jarvan and Leona, or Pantheon and Taric bottom, Nidalee or Jayce top). If the kill lane succeeds you're left with the option of making that kill lane a roving shutdown factory, or swapping out the top laner to bottom and allowing them to benefit from their early XP (levels) and from having a fairly fed support. Alternatively, turning one of those laners loose as a roving support has also been extremely effective - the key is to have some strategy of how to further press that advantage, instead of trying to ride a thin early advantage and hoping not to get caught out by an enemy play, or let that early advantage get eclipsed by the opposing team scaling better as the game goes on.
If you get an advantage, on the other hand...
At a lead of one completed gold item, a lot of mathcrafting simply goes out the window. If you're in doubt about this, just think about running AD Soraka or AD Annie - on paper they're both pretty awful choices, but adding a single Bloodthirster when an opposing ADC is thinking about completing a zeal, and the situation is entirely different. That's not to say that it's a great idea, mostly to illustrate that basically all mathcrafting is meant to be applied in cases where there is some level of parity in the gameplay. An incremental 5% improvement in DPS is relevant when you're dueling your counterpart to the death with one of you surviving with under 100 hp, and becomes an absolute waste in mental effort when one champion is so far ahead in levels and/or items that the other is going from 100-0 without being able to effectively retaliate.
In tournament play, many short games are decided by highly skilled players getting one team member with a high presence champion small advantages (small CS leads, or an early purloined buff from the jungle), and then allowing them to snowball that into an eventually insurmountable lead.
For players in the depths of where I play, this option isn't going to be as viable - bad players get caught, farm poorly despite advantages, or attempt ill advised dives and relinquish those sorts of advantages all the time. Instead, to really reliably stomp a lane, it might be more worth considering something utterly unconventional so that the opposing player(s) are left unsure to react (or continue reacting poorly) for the early minutes of a game. If you can proceed to stack a 3 or more kill lead, or spend 5 minutes completely zoning that champion out, that is the sort of lead that can carry a game even at Bronze level play.
For a case where so much play is informed by high-elo and tournament players, often mathematically inefficient champions and strategies are left completely by the wayside - but if such a strategy is close, slightly sub-optimal, or relies on being completely un-planned for by the other team, all it takes is a slight swing in relative power create game-winning advantages. AD Sona and Jungle Sona can carry games - just not with any semblance of reliability in doing so because if the confusion and novelty of picking those doesn't succeed early, champions that mathematically fill that role better on the other team are going to win every time.
What about useful gimmicks?
Obviously some cheesy ideas are just plain bad ideas. For example, Graves isn't an AP caster, and at no point will building ability power compare to the gold efficiency of building attack damage. Others have some merit.
AOE Team Compositions
Many, including myself, consider these as somewhat of a gimmick. Often single target damage, and even early game presence is reduced by selecting a team with more than two big AoE abilities, but those moments when you can trap more than half the opposing team into a nonstop barrage of crowd control and damage can make that work anyway. Whenever I play ranked and my team is able to snag Amumu, the thought enters my head. If the other team snags at least two melee champions, that sets the trigger in my mind - add Zyra, Galio, Fiddlesticks, Pantheon, Miss Fortune and such similar champions and usually the other team will have lost in champion select. I'm never alone in this - usually I snag Zyra as a support, and before I have the chance to start typing, the mid/top player has snagged Fiddlesticks, Galio, or Pantheon. True to form most of these games are even or the my team runs a slight disadvantage early, but each successful combo would result in an ace and a couple objectives.
Is it a gimmick? Yes, I feel that it is. Does it work? Often the answer is also yes.
Before the latest round of Deathfire Grasp reworks at the end of season two, the cast of viable ability power champions was actually disruptively large - DFG is supposed to be a good item for single target assassins, but even Riot felt that too frequently DFG was part of a broken kit that would let burst mages instantly delete one champion and be able to walk away without any sort of counterplay. The biggest and most obvious one recently was The Black Cleaver - when it was such a good item, you could stack them until every AD champion was a true damage dealer. Again, the level of disruption to gameplay was because of the lack of counterplay (recall any post from Hashinshin about the all-bruiser AD meta), but in current form it is still a usable item provided you have somebody who can very quickly stack up the armor reduction debuff. Multiple sightstones would seem gimmicky if the value of sight wasn't so well known, but some champions like Lee Sin work extremely well with it, and the obvious map control can pay for itself in one teamfight.
Unexpected roles/builds for champions
To a degree some supports such as Fiddlesticks, Yorick, Xerath, Veigar, and Elise fit this, and basically all non-meta AD Carries are prime examples. I've seen a jungle Fizz singlehandedly deconstruct an entire team in the first 15 minutes of a game, played a top-lane Janna and built all tank, and other times I have been absolutely destroyed early game by the likes of ADC LeBlanc and even one ADC Soraka. I openly admit that to being on the receiving end of these stompings. On paper these are seldom going to be first choice, but introducing a champion to a lane where your lane opponents may not understand their mechanics very well can be impressive enough to make up for it. Even a small lack of familiarity/comfort with that champion, or no-longer accurate expectations of how much and where a champion will cause damage can be enough to completely snowball a lane.
Responding to gimmick lanes
Whether you view these sorts of gimmicky lanes as lame stunts to try and cheese together a win, or as necessary experimentation in order to evolve the play of the game, the reality is they are out there, and will be encountered. Whatever the motivation of the other team trying this (deliberate, or if somebody just really wanted to play a character, and will settle for running them as an unconventional support in lieu of trolling), these lanes can be wildly successful if the reaction to them is even just a little bit bad.
- Use the Tab key. Keep track of items built, and CS acquired. Use the items already built to extrapolate what they're going to build next, and most importantly if you're already a bit behind, itemize for the [i]correct[/i] incoming damage. If the opposing lane is building 100% tanky, it's critical to know that and inform teammates of it, since that's probably means friendly lanes are going to be dive-bombed constantly.
- FARM. This is the most important aspect, because often the more conventional choice will simply scale better despite early disadvantages. The only reason this is listed as second, is because it's impossible to farm if the other lane is still going Shaquille O'Neal each time you return to lane. With less experienced lane partners in bottom lane, it's critical to explain this clearly enough that they keep getting those last hits, otherwise the snowball will just keep rolling.
- Be judicious about asking for help. If you've already gifted the other lane a massive lead, and they're freshly back in lane from a recent shopping spree, don't demand a gank from your jungler - at best you might get a retaliation kill and displace one of them from lane briefly, but more often than not you're exposing yourself to a double or even triple kill opportunity, with or without a countergank from their jungler. If the disadvantage is smaller, and the other lane is not going all out aggression, just farm it out and encourage your jungler (and/or mid lane) to focus attention elsewhere, as long as you can farm your lane out to a tie or only small disadvantage, one of the other three lanes will have an increased chance of winning the game. This third bit of advice really applies all the time when behind in lane, but can be often forgotten because of the added frustration of being against a gimmick lane.
Then the question becomes when you can start stomping gimmick lanes back.
Even if the friendly lane has gifted the opposing lane a couple kills and/or a lead in creep score, it's entirely possible to turn all that around. Usually when this happens, the opposing player is looking to rush expensive damage items in order to more rapidly snowball that advantage, but that is usually the opening required to retaliate. Bait them into overextending, hold summoner spells until they turret dive, and if need be bring as many friendly players as you can to in order to focus down that one target. It's possible to rotate lanes in order to counter their effectiveness - even pulling a support to a different lane and sacrificing a turret in order to triage that lane can be effective - if the opposing team's advantage gained is big enough, do not be afraid to go to drastic measures in order to restrict how much added farm they can use to press that advantage. Again, most of the time their strategy relies on getting repeated early kills to make up for differences in character scaling, so often passive measures that simply stall out the game are going to be the most effective.
Finally - staying calm is the critical part. Respect that the other players are probably very good at that particular champion, that role, or both. Until otherwise proven, be cautious about that. If you wind up at a slight disadvantage, just contain it. Self-triage in the lane, itemizing more defensively early, and most importantly keeping communication and map vision are going to be deciding factors later in the game. If you can't win fights at that juncture, avoid those fights. Wait until you can bring a numerical, positional, team composition, or character scaling advantage into the fight and start winning from there.
I am honestly looking forward to some of the discussion points this brings up, primarily about frustrations and merits of really gimmicky lanes, or ideas for some gimmick lanes to try.
A bit about TehLlama42:
After a six years in the US Marine Corps, I'm now a student at University of Maryland, and play League of Legends causally as a way of keeping in touch with all my military friends. Thanks to my limited mechanical skill, and willingness to main support, I will likely maintain a garbage ELO for the foreseeable future, however using mathematics to elucidate the value of different strategies is something that has always interested me, and the ADV blog has been one of the best sources for this information. Thanks for reading!