If you pick Orianna because you’re good at her, you’re gaming. If you pick Orianna because you think your opponents are likely to pick her and you don’t want him to have her, you’re meta-gaming. If you pick Syndra because you think she counters Orianna and you think your opponent is likely to pick Orianna, you’re *really* meta-gaming. In a nutshell, that’s what a meta is: basing your play off of what you expect other players to do. Gaming is playing the game: metagaming is playing your opponents. So what is a meta? A meta is the general set of metagaming assumptions that go into *most* games. Banning Syndra because you’re against a Syndra main is target-banning: you’re targeting that player. Banning Syndra because you’re worried players as a whole might pick her? Now you understand the meta.
Not really. The meta is much more complicated than that, of course, but what it comes down to is simple. The meta is the combination of assumptions we have about what is good in the game, and what people are likely to play. Syndra is probably the best example: she’s been quite strong for 9 months with no major buffs or nerfs. We can speculate as to the reasons she wasn’t played until we’re blue in the face, but what matters is that she was rarely played. You would not have banned Syndra, as such, even if you *knew* she was strong, because it simply wasn’t likely that you’d face her. Then, a few LCS players dominated on her, and the collective unconscious of LoL players realized “yes, we are scared of Syndra. And now that other people know she’s strong, we should probably start banning her because people will be playing her”.
Gaming is playing the game: metagaming is playing your opponents.
But here’s where meta shifts get complicated. Zilean has been a non-factor for over a season. However, he counters Syndra nicely: she destroys a target, Zilean resurrects them, and now the appeal of Syndra’s “blow one target up instantly” style is lessened. Zilean received no changes, and yet the “meta” changed, and he became a viable pick. That’s not to say that Syndra being strong made Zilean strong. A number of factors were at play.
So it’s important not to confuse the meta for what’s strong. The meta is what people currently play. Something can be strong, but unnoticed, and escape being part of the meta. Something can be strong, but countered by the meta, and thus not be a good pick in the meta. Udyr is probably one of the biggest examples of a champion who has been left behind by the meta. Almost every meta since Season 2 has had a decent element of disengage, poke, and kite, all things Udyr is not well-equipped to deal with.
This doesn’t mean that you should only play in the meta, though. It just means that breaking the meta should be for a reason. For example, Amumu has fallen out of the meta in part due to Lee Sin and other strong counter-junglers being “in” the meta. That means if your opponents have already locked in a jungler with a weak early game who can’t counter-jungle? Go ahead and lock in Amumu. Let’s even take Udyr! If their team is low on kite potential, or doesn’t have somebody who can 1v1 you against a split-push, you might just want to pick Udyr!
Historically, Trundle may be the best example of a meta-induced pick. By early Season 4, tanks were dominating top lane. Dr. Mundo, Renekton, and Shyvana were considered the only champions you could play top lane, and they were built pure tank. And then a few people realized hey, if I’m going to be surrounded by these tanky champions, why not take their tankiness? This didn’t stop people from playing those champions, but Trundle was a steady pick for much of the season as a result, despite being a non-factor for most of the history of competitive LoL.
All of this is to say that pro players play the champions they play for a reason, but that reason is very specific and liable to change. Thus, understanding the meta can help you understand professional play better, but on top of that, a good understanding of the meta can give you a head start at innovating your own play in solo queue.
Over my next few articles, I’ll be laying down the current meta going into the World Championship, including a lane-by-lane breakdown, comparisons of regional styles, and comparison of different team strategies.