Now before people start to crucify me, I must be very clear in mentioning that I am not doubting Riot can still make changes to the game nor that ways to make the jungle work can be discovered. Currently the jungle game is rather nerfed in direct and indirect ways - without even having to mention targon. Normally I would be able to defend jungling against people who say "jungling is useless! Two duo lanes are the way to go!" but I cannot do so this time. The jungle received some very questionable changes that were essentially disguised as "positive" buffs. There were plenty of players who recognized these changes as nerfs yet there were plenty of players who were easily mislead - intentionally or not.
Riot has a bad record of pre-season releases that's for sure. I do have hope that eventually things will be sorted out as they do have a track record of fixing pre-season woes - at some point at least. That said, it is debatable which pre-season is the worst as they all had something incredibly broken about them. Season 2 had most players severely deprived of gold (junglers especially) while Season 3 had black cleaver destruction. Season 4 currently has targon imbalance and junglers being essentially useless. In order to help this make sense to everyone, I will be detailing some information from past seasons. A lot of players look at Season 1 jungle fondly, a lot of players look at Season 2 with dread, and I look at Season 3 with love.
Jungle Threat - High
Reward - High
Reliable Gold - Low
Early Game Impact - High
Late Game Impact - High
Notable Junglers - Most anyone who jungled successfully was stupid overpowered at one point.
It is no hidden secret that Season 1 jungle was brutal. Anyone who experienced it remembers just how badly you could get destroyed by the monsters or how much having a single camp stolen could set you back. Everyone knows just how miserable it was to face a Nunu, to get your lane camped by the yet-to-be-nerfed Nocturne who shit in your heart or how almost every jungler release changed the jungle meta. The reward for a jungler was high due to a kill meaning more gold, more control, more of everything. If you killed a laner and/or a jungler, you could steal their jungle camps (or a tower) and set them (mostly the jungler) back severely as the monsters had a vastly higher respawn time.
Junglers were insanely impactful early and stayed very powerful late game. A jungler could farm their jungle and stay on par with their laning teammates in terms of strength - as long as they aren't harassed or invaded. The jungler triad of controller, farmer and ganker was at its prime here. You could effectively farm all game and be very powerful or you can focus your attention on torturing your opposing jungle opponent while hindering their ganks via counter ganks or by warding their paths. The ganker role was also present with its level 2 ganks to level 4 prime ganks which set the standard for "jungle clears." The dominant "role" rotated often depending on which jungler was currently dominating.
Season 1 had almost no reliable gold for junglers. A control jungler could utterly dominate you and you would have no way of recovering. The jungle would quickly out-scale you and you'd just be crushed by the jungle itself. Fortunately, this was fixed in subsequent seasons and I am glad. While it was a lot more difficult and skill based, it did not promote a healthy solo queue experience.
Jungle Threat - Low
Reward - Low
Reliable Gold - Moderate
Early Game Impact - Moderate/High (alone/teammate)
Late Game Impact - Low
Notable Junglers - Shyvana, Dr. Mundo, Nautilus, Skarner, Maokai, Malphite
Season 2 had one of the worst pre-seasons one could ever imagine. The jungler was deprived of more gold than ever before and they were essentially useless. The first noticeable difference between Season 1 and Season 2 was just how easy the S2 jungle was to clear but that you needed one more small camp in order to reach level 4. Gold and experience was not tuned well enough but Riot fixed that.
A bit of deviation here - before Season 2 was released, I was invited to the ptr to test out the jungle. This is how I was able to do two sandbox videos using Leblanc and Lee Sin for fun. Before Season 2 was released, the jungle was in an even worse state of affairs. You got to level 4 even slower as you needed two additional small camps and you were even slower to level 6. I provided a list of clear times and health times (along with some videos that were never released) that resulted in the Season 2 jungle being buffed - albeit it still was awful in release. At least it wasn't as catastrophically bad as it could have been.
The jungle monsters were easy to kill while providing very little rewards. This was offset by the fact that they would respawn quicker and you could just kill them again. The jungle was even easier because leashing was introduced into the game (though it was introduced at the end of Season 1). Thanks to leashing, even the most gimpy ass junglers could manage to jungle. Early game jungle impact was similar to Season 1 but you leveled slower so you were not as strong and you had to rely on teammates in order to murder laners. This trend became worse when junglers were forced to give everyone gold and itemize as pure support - the jungler choices were pretty much simply tanks with crowd control and thus had to rely on their teammates in order to get anyone killed. Late game, due to the terrible itemization, junglers would simply cast their ultimates, activate their items and throw around crowd control and then promptly die.
Junglers did not have much going for them as the Season went on as laners starting stealing their farm, itemization was extremely limited and they had to dump whatever gold they had into oracles and wards. At least they had more "reliable" gold before in that the lower spawn times meant they would at least kill "some" camps and that cloth armor/madreds was no longer a requirement on basically everyone.
Jungle Threat - Moderate
Reward - Moderate
Reliable Gold - Moderate (High with proper investments)
Early Game Impact - High
Late Game Impact - Low/Moderate
Notable Junglers - Lee Sin, Elise, Jarvan, Vi, Nasus
Season 3 jungle was essentially the Season 2 jungle with buffs to the monsters in an attempt to make them less attractive for laners to steal while at the same time introducing the first jungle items aside from madreds. The monster stealing required more fixes later on but it was step in the right direction. The jungle items were initially a terrible addition until they were buffed - which made them more gold effective...and really strong for some laners.
Riot's responses to fixing the problems of Season 3 (though sometimes slow) is what gives me hope that they will fix Season 4's problems. After they were buffed, the jungle items were an incredible addition to the game that made a jungler's life easier. There were some junglers in Season 2 that could have been strong but were a bit more gold reliant could now be played effectively. Champions such as Jarvan and Lee Sin were brought out to pasture and wrecked faces as strictly more powerful versions of the Season 2 jungler archetype.
That said, we saw a wave of champions become strong and weak whenever Riot threw in buffs and nerfs such as Volibear in the health stacking era, Riven in the black cleaver times, and fat tanks like Zac in the bulwark era. After everything was said and then though, junglers still remained as a sort of end game "fat" support and their contributions were mostly limited to crowd control and pseudo assassination.
Despite the fact that a few Season 2 junglers never saw much spotlight during Season 3 (like Maokai), Season 3 jungle showed the most variety in junglers with a higher pool of junglers remaining viable throughout the changes. Even though you had to dump some gold into jungle items (though you could do without them on some champions) the spirit line was so cost effective it would be very powerful investment and would artificially "grant" you some more gold. Junglers were still "gold-starved" but at they at least had better options and chances to properly invest it. In some sense, a jungler was a lot like they were in Season 2 but at least you could now press more buttons before you died in a team fight.
Jungle Threat - Moderate
Reward - Low
Reliable Gold - Moderate (higher with farm but lower with investments)
*Everything else is still yet to be determined - besides it is pre-season and it is bound to be a mess though admittedly it is quite a big damn mess for junglers right now.
What can I say that has not been said yet? Pre-Season 4 has a tougher jungle with much less rewards than Season 3 which frankly does not make any sense. To add to that, the jungle items were universally nerfed. Wriggles is now basically useless while the wraith and lizard were changed around a bit with an unreliable passive. The Spirit of the Ancient Golem is the only reliable jungle item currently and even that one is a farce. To put this easily, you can only take advantage of wriggles by dumping gold into it first, surviving with awful combat stats and then hopefully you can farm enough to make up for it and catch up to the rest of the players. The wraith has a sustain passive that is ultimately useless as most AP junglers have problems EARLY but not at the point where you can purchase the item thus rendering it useless. The lizard and wraith items require you to actually succeed in a few kills in order to earn their gold - though the other portion is somewhat useful when you farm the jungle and the kill portion is better when you are teamfighting.
The Spirit of the Ancient Golem has to be its own paragraph though. This is a huge misconception currently and it is a sad one. The Spirit of the Ancient Golem is by far the best jungle item to purchase and it does have the most reliable gold passive amongst them. You are basically guaranteed bonus gold as long as you make good use of the stacks you are using. At the same time you are not investing in a completely useless item like Wriggle's Lantern. That said, the reason you should not feel comfortable yet is because the item was also nerfed. Spirit of the Ancient Golem lost a wealth of stats that junglers love and need in order to balance out the gold passive (I assume) which ends up resulting in it being less cost effective early. Essentially this means you have a less cost effective item and you are now forced to spend more gold in order to make up for the reduced stats.
At the very least, the jungle items have all gained a passive, albeit Wriggle's being terrible, that make gaining gold more reliable and assured. You can at least assume you will be earning that extra gold your passive is giving you especially with Spirit of the Ancient Golem and the smaller gold gaining portion of wraith and lizard. This is where Season 4 has the advantage over Season 3 (and the past seasons) so far. No other season has had assurances this "good" (S2 gold items sucked) albeit it comes at the cost of strictly forcing junglers to purchase them and giving them less worthy investments. At the very least the new wight camp has made it so you at least have 3 camps to constantly be farming whether it is because you are losing a camp to a laning teammate or an invader. Most junglers cannot have 4 camps on farm but at least 3 tends to be somewhat "enough." Having another camp on the blue side means you can have a "bigger" small camp to farm while hovering around whatever lane is next to that portion of the jungle.
The reward for jungling is insanely low currently. Ignoring the fact that targon exists, the new trinket system is making it hell for junglers to actually do anything. There are too many wards early (more than before) and junglers can barely move. Invasion is not only more difficult but it is also vastly less rewarding. The new smite has severely nerfed invasions - along with the early wards and the wight camp. Smite has a much lower cooldown and you can use it every other camp essentially. The lower cooldown has made it so slower junglers always have that "burst" needed to finish off a camp. When it comes to invasions though, you can either use smite to clear the lone monster an invader tends to leave or use it to burst down another small camp to make up for lost time you spent clearing up the invaded camp. To add to this, the wight camp makes a viable third camp if you were invaded. Most junglers cannot farm 4 camps yet you do not need more than 3 to properly farm experience and gold. It is much easier to understand this if I paint a scenario for you.
Nunu invades the enemy Lee Sin. Nunu is able to somehow avoid all the wards placed in the river though he knows if he crossed any that his invasion would simply be nullified then and there. Nunu goes to Lee Sin's red but the lower damage of the new smite means he has to fight the lizard longer (also his weaker consume). Lee Sin catches him and can wail on him for a lot longer than before due to weaker burst steals. Nunu will not reach level 3 even if he was able to steal camp therefore not giving him an edge to duel the Lee Sin. If Nunu bothered to go take a small camp to reach level 3 then he'd give Lee Sin a chance to secure it (who would obviously go to his camp immediately in order to protect it). Either Nunu runs or he runs a severe risk of dying to Lee Sin and/or an opposing laner that comes to kill him because he took too long in fighting the red buff. Later into the game, Nunu steals Lee Sin's wraith camp and leaves a single wraith up. Lee Sin sees this and smites the small wraith (or punches it) and simply heads to the next camp with the intention of getting the wight camp (or small golems if he prefers to leave small golems alive rather than the wight camp) to make up for the stolen wraiths. To add insult to injury, the wraiths will be respawning stronger than before thus giving slightly more bonuses to Lee Sin if he is there to kill them on respawn.
TLDR: Invasion was severely nerfed due to wight camp giving junglers another camp to farm, early wards that prevent invasion and smite being much weaker.
So let's think about this a bit more. Gankers were severely nerfed because you cannot reach your power spikes quickly anymore due to reduced experience gains from monsters. To add to this, there are vastly more wards than before and laners rarely have a downtime of "no wards" now due to trinkets. In the past seasons, the laners would at least be forced to go home to purchase wards or risk farming with no security. Now the laners simply have to wait for the cooldowns on their trinkets to come back and they can give themselves some extra security. Early gankers are severely gutted though they can still at least function in some ways especially if they have ranged crowd control. It just makes ganks more clutch. Farmers received a nice buff but that's mostly because ganking was severely nerfed and there is not as much pressure to gank currently. Control junglers were insanely nerfed as they can no longer place more than 3 wards, invasions are difficult and ward clearing is no longer a plausible strategy. As far as things go in this pre-season, ignoring targon, junglers were universally nerfed in every role possible. Junglers have a much weaker early game but a "better late game at least.
Believe it or not, the only thing I think Riot really needs to do to make the jungle better is just to remove trinkets. They are perhaps one of the stupidest additions to the game. If anything, riot should make it so you have to buy the damn trinket in order to make use of it. Yes it essentially makes it into a sightstone deal again but frankly I'd rather have that (and a dedicated ward slot) than everyone having free wards from the get go. It stagnates the game into a farm fest and makes invasions pointless.
The jungle was nerfed and so were the items but junglers were very strong anyways. Wriggles is useless but it has always pretty much been so no one really cares. The jungle items were changed around but Spirit of the Ancient Golem was overpowered, the wraith item was never used and lizard was just too heavily nerfed anyways. Junglers barely got an increase in gold, the jungle hurts a bit more and the wight camp has little use aside from recovery, the monsters leveling up is basically negligible but that is all fine. What does suck massive ass is the trinkets. Just remove that and we will be fine!
Btw - the irony in the new jungle is that formerly slow junglers became better.
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