Season 11 has been one of the most turbulent times in League of Legends’ history. With so many item changes, it can be hard to tell who’s going to emerge from the fiery chaos of a brand-new meta. Akali is one of those picks that took a few patches to see play, but now she dominates. The pick/ban phase seems to be entirely built around her in most regions, and she’s been a high priority for most of pro play’s best teams.
However, the buffs that made Akali so strong in the current meta came on patch 11.6. MSI was played on patch 11.9, and yet, Akali was only picked a total of 5 times at the event with only 1 win. Meanwhile, Akali’s pick/ban rate in the LEC is currently 88.6% with a win rate of 83.3%. There’s clearly something going on with Akali. Something changed, and it wasn’t specific to Akali. What brought her from a solo queue menace to a force of nature in pro play?
Where it all started
Akali’s patch 11.6 changes are too numerous to list, but the gist is that Riot wanted to take some power off of Akali’s (Q) Five Point Strike and load damage onto her (E) Shuriken Flip. Her early game HP also got brought down in favor of better health scaling, and her ultimate gained some AP scaling and base damage on the first cast. Akali’s (W) Twilight Shroud now increases her maximum energy by 80, allowing for big playmaking around her stealth. Essentially, if you miss Akali’s E, your damage output gets severely reduced. That said, the payoff for landing every ability and retreating mid-fight into Twilight Shroud is massive.
Pros who have enough mechanical skill to take advantage of Akali’s strengths have taken advantage of her raw power, both in top lane and mid. Akali’s big break into the meta feels very similar to Lee Sin’s. The pure damage output and flexibility of both champions makes them strong for drawn-out fights and mid game skirmishes, both of which are fairly common in the current metagame. However, Akali has a level of burst that can be excruciating to play into, especially from behind.
Doing her own thing
Akali’s stealth combined with her mobility puts her in a unique position. Her kit allows her to do things in pro play that most other champions would get punished for. Some of the best pros play Akali like a true assassin; entirely separated from their team and terrorizing the enemy backline.
Here’s KT Rolster’s Doran on the flank in KT’s set against Fredit Brion. His team is still in the process of pushing Baron buffed minions in while he’s waiting for any of BRO’s members to step out of position. His mere presence scared BRO enough to give up their T2 tower, but Doran maintained his flank and pressured mid while his team pushed in.
Doran was able to simultaneously keep Gwen occupied and was able to find a quick pick onto Rakan. Patient and calculated play is the key to success on Akali, and Doran’s ability to weave in and out of fights was a huge part of their dominant victory over Fredit Brion in Game 2 of their set. To add insult to injury, Doran isn’t the only player on KT Rolster that can run though the enemy team as Akali.
In KT Rolster’s absolute stomp of a 2-0 set against DWG KIA, Dove’s Akali looked even better than Doran’s. Ghost’s Varus had almost no impact, and it was largely due to Dove’s oppressive backline pressure. Karma’s good at neutralizing strong backline divers like Akali, but Dove was so far ahead of Showmaker that any attempt to stop Dove’s rampage felt pointless. This was the set that KT stomped hard enough for DWG KIA to make some bizarre role swaps just to put Ghost on the bench.
Building a draft and finding a counter
With a champion like Akali, it says a lot that she can do well in multiple roles. KT Rolster have used this champion as a way to catapult themselves into a respected and feared roster in the LCK, but other teams are just starting to figure out how Akali fits into their lineup. Some teams only run her top lane (Team Liquid’s Jenkins has found success on the pick in Alphari’s absence), some teams only put her in mid, but the prevailing commonality is that it isn’t hard to find another frontliner. Lee Sin, Xin Zhao, Volibear, and Sett are all picks that can frontline for Akali. Drafting Akali in top lane with Rumble in the jungle? Put Sett mid to give your team reliable initiation. Akali in mid with Jayce top? Put a tanky Xin Zhao in the jungle to buff up your teamfight.
There are just too many options to ban around Akali. So, the solution seems to be either A). Ban Akali, or B). find a direct lane counter. That’s the thing about Akali, though; bad matchups don’t look that bad. She can easily just stall the lane, take a hit farm-wise, and play passively until a potential skirmish. Lee Sin has historically been a counter pick due to his high early burst and the vision on his E, but Lee Sin’s high value makes him unavailable as a niche counter-pick. There has to be another champion that can do well into Akali, and it doesn’t seem like it seems like the perfect Akali counter would be a champion that can match her.
Enter Leblanc, a champion that’s been slowly trickling back into competitive League over the course of the Summer Split. Akali is all about staying in fights for much longer than her health bar would indicate, whereas Leblanc’s strength comes from putting out heavy burst damage and getting out of the fight just as quickly as she entered.
Lava’s quick follow-up onto Hoya’s hard engage ended any potential DWG KIA had to bring back this teamfight, and ShowMaker was desperate enough to Flash for a kill on him only to land a Varus arrow on the Leblanc clone rather than the real one.
In this game-ending fight, Lava managed to find a quick pick onto BeryL followed by a risky kill on ShowMaker. His ability to dismantle DWG KIA’s defense won Fredit Brion Game 3 of their set against DWG KIA. BRO played well across the board here, and, while Leblanc wasn’t the sole reason they won this game, Lava had a performance that earned him Player of the Game.
While Canyon’s K/D didn’t look bad at the end of the game, his team was so behind that he wasn’t able to do anything to stem the bleeding. Normally, sidelaning is the way to go with Akali when your team is behind. Unfortunately for Akali, Leblanc has the capability of matching Akali’s sidelaning, a feat very few champions can pull off. It’s not a direct counter, but Leblanc’s performance into Akali seems strong for a lot of reasons.
DWG KIA’s draft looked intimidating, but Fredit Brion came in as the underdogs and emerged victorious at the end of the day. Lava’s Leblanc was a huge part of that win, and she seemed like a great answer to one of the current meta’s strongest champions.
TSM’s PowerofEvil also had success with Leblanc into Akali in their set against CLG. Granted, it was before CLG’s recent resurgence, but it’s hard to deny how well PoE played the matchup.
CLG had a pretty hefty advantage going into this teamfight. However, Finn and Pobelter’s attempt to hit TSM’s backline was met with a Senna ult to the face. PoE used his (R) Mimic to get an extra (W) Distortion so he could easily reach the fight. He then chased the remaining members of CLG by investing flash to get over the dragon pit and used another Distortion to finish the fight.
Clearly, there’s something to this matchup. Leblanc fills a similar role to Akali, but she also has less versatility and requires a bit more skill to use properly. So far, it seems like the best Akali counter-matchup is more of a skill matchup where the better player wins. And, even then, there are so few strong Leblanc players that it’s hard to gamble on skill. That’s starting to change as more players experiment with Leblanc, but it’ll take time. As it turns out, time is something Akali may not have much more of.
The beginning of the end
With Akali having so many strengths and so few weaknesses, it’s no surprise that nerfs are coming. The style of nerf reflects Akali’s range of effectiveness, too. Rather than drastically decreasing Akali’s damage numbers, her ability to Q while in the E animation was removed. This takes away a massive amount of burst and utility from Akali’s kit, and removes some of the skill expression from her kit.
It’s always a shame to take away some of what makes a mechanically skill player stand out, but it’s also hard to argue that Akali’s Q and E damage hitting at the same time isn’t a little much. Especially since the tip of Akali’s Q slows, meaning that players who know how to time both abilities will wind up slowing on top of substantial burst damage. It’s hard to oversell just how much damage this combo does.
Let’s say Akali has Hextech Rocketbelt, a Zhonya’s Hourglass, and an unstacked Dark Seal for an even 200 power.
This is a fairly normal mid-game loadout with defensive itemization. Akali isn’t ahead here, and these items aren’t the highest damage for their cost. So, with these items, Akali’s Q E combo with a passive auto mixed in would hit for over 1400 damage at level 13. In less than a second. This doesn’t include using ultimate or dropping shroud and landing another Q. Her damage output is nuclear, and, for players who know how to time it, the ability for Akali to Q during her E gives her a level of burst that’s near impossible to react to. The precious tenths of a second this nerf will give pro players may give them enough time to respond to Akali in ways that aren’t currently possible.
Is Akali dead as a champion as a result of these nerfs? No, not at all. She’ll probably get played less, but Akali’s strengths are still numerous. However, we may see Leblanc take up the mantle as the premier backline bursty assassin. She’s been seeing a lot more play recently, and she fills a similar role to Akali with a slight variation on strengths and weaknesses. It’s unclear if Akali’s will retain her strong position in the meta post-nerf, but it seems like the heavy backline dive/bruiser meta is here to stay.