General Guide by Jebus McAzn
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Picture the following scenario. You're Katarina. Reveling in the buff to Death Lotus that now lets it scale off of both AD and AP, you have decided to build a hybrid build centered around Mejai's Soulstealer and Sword of the Occult. You conclude that you'll destroy the entire enemy team.
And sure, you pick up three or four kills. You get around 8 Mejai's stacks and 6 Sword stacks, so that's pretty good. They're paying for themselves now, and you're feeling like a baller.
The first big 5-man team fight starts. Your teammates have initiated. Feeling invincible, you jump in with Shunpo and throw down your Death Lotus. Boom. Malphite just cast his Unstoppable Force and disrupted you. You try to run from the focus fire of five enemies, but you've been Taunted by Rammus.
You play the next few minutes more defensively. You've lost some stacks and you're now concerned about protecting whatever stacks you have. After successfully ganking their Nidalee who overextended a little bit, you retreat as you notice their entire team coming down mid. Your friends are screaming at you over Vent: "Come on and fight! We outnumber them!" But you know that if you go in, you'll be focused down in seconds. You retreat, you keep your stacks, and your teammates are wiped.
Late-game, you're defending your inhibitor turret in mid lane. The fight starts - you're trying to take down their team, when suddenly, you get hit with Unstoppable Force and a Death Lotus from their own Katarina. You look at your death summary and see that 80% of the damage was caused by Death Lotus and Bouncing Blades. As they round on your Nexus after scoring an ace on your team, you ask yourself, "What did she have that I didn't?"
This will be a guide meant to dissuade the common player from buying stacking items. This will not be a guide explaining why stacking items are terrible in every scenario, all the time. Quite the contrary. Snowball items do have occasional uses (hence the five builds up top that use them) - these will also be discussed at a later point in the guide.
It is my firmest hope that after reading this guide, you have learned something about snowballing and the scenarios in which to use it.
We need to start off by defining what a snowball item is. A snowball item (also referred to as a stacking item) is one of the three following: Mejai's Soulstealer, Sword of the Occult, and Leviathan (these will be referred to from now as Mejai's, SotO, and Leviathan). Each costs a rather small amount (under 1500 gold) and provides a small bonus when bought. Items such as The Bloodthirster and Warmog's Armor are not considered stacking items because they power up only slightly, and can be fueled by minion kills.
The main benefit to buying any stacking item is that they reward you for getting kills/assists and not dying. Every kill you score will add two stacks to your snowball item and every assist you score will add one. Every time you die, you lose a third of all your stacks. These should be familiar mechanics for everyone, but it doesn't hurt to repeat them.
At full stacks, snowball items are absolutely the most cost-efficient items in the game. SotO gives 110 damage and 15% movement speed, Mejai's gives 180 AP and 15% CDR, and Leviathan gives 840 health and 15% damage reduction. Most people approach snowball items with these final goals in mind, realizing that they can get a ton of stats for only a small price.
I argue differently. There are several reasons to not go down the path of stacking items - I will be discussing my top 5 right here.
Reason 1 - The Kill Me Champion Spotlight
This has happened to everyone before. Pantheon man-drops you with his ultimate and scores a triple kill. Your team has noted his exceptional early-game performance and that he's now a huge threat in mid-game, especially with his 12 SotO stacks. What do you do now?
YOU FOCUS THE LIVING **** OUT OF THAT BASTARD.
Any half-decent team will focus the enemy champion that has a reasonable amount of stacks. They will make you regret buying Mejai's. Overall, your damage won't be nearly as high as it would be if you had just went for a normal item build and not turned yourself into a priority target. Champions like Fiddlesticks and Kennen aren't meant to tank - they're meant to wreak as much havoc as possible to the enemy team while they're preoccupied with whatever target they're focusing on at the moment. By getting a Mejai's Soulstealer, you have effectively turned yourself into that target.
"But Jebus," you argue, "Won't that give your allies more time to cause havoc with their own skills?"
Not if you're a champion like Fiddle or Kennen. Consider that most champions that actually buy SotO or Mejai's are squishy as hell to begin with, and probably won't occupy enemies for all that long in the first place.
"But Jebus," you argue again, "What about tanks getting Leviathan to stall longer? Won't they protect the team?"
That's actually a perfect segue into reason two.
Reason 2 - Snowballing Promotes a Passive Playstyle
This applies not only to tanks, but to any champion getting stacking items. When you've got a reasonably high number of stacks, you play like you want to protect them. This is described, as Trojan995 rather accurately puts it, as the "I totally could've helped my team and sacrificed myself for an assist or two, maybe even a kill, but my stacks are too important" effect.
In the hypothetical example I proposed above, Katarina decides to avoid the massive confrontation because she knows that she'll be CC'd and focused to death the instant she dives into battle. This is a phenomenon described by reason one - you've created a massive "FOCUS ME" beacon right above your head by grabbing those stacking items.
Now what's the downside to this? You play great against any solo champion that you feel comfortable engaging against, since you can feed your stacks that way and snowball up more. But any smart team will be moving out as a group, remembering to save their CC and main damage skills for you. Against any reasonably good team, you will be forced to play more defensively not because of their pressure, but because of your own mentality.
At a certain point, keeping your stacks high becomes the primary focus that many snowballers have. They're not nearly as willing to sacrifice their lives for a few kills or even a possible ace from their team, because it means losing those hard-earned stacks. And while this is fine and dandy when engaging enemy groups of 1, 2, or 3, it starts losing its practicality in team fights, when everyone knows to focus you down. League of Legends inevitably turns into a 5-man slugfest at some deciding point during the game, and those will be the times that you wish you had invested a little more in survivability or utility instead of the raw power of stacking items.
This applies to tanks as well, although not nearly as much. Tanks follow a different philosophy than their carries.
A ranged carry like Miss Fortune should always be telling herself, "I need to deal as much damage as possible without dying, and if I do die, I need to make sure that we win the fight."
On the other hand, a tank like Amumu should always be saying, "I need to protect my carry. If I die protecting her, so be it, because her life is worth more than mine."
While this isn't always true if you have a fantastic team, a tank's job is to die for his carry. As a tank, there will hopefully be plenty of scenarios where both you and your carry can escape with their lives. However, if it comes down to your life or hers, tanks need to jump in there without hesitation and take one for the team.
So why get Leviathan on a character that is, more or less, meant to die? Tanks thrive on assists, not kills, so first off, you'll be getting your stacks slower. Second of all, you'll be losing them faster, since tanks typically die a bit more often. Now, some of you can see an obvious flaw in this reasoning.
What if your team is good enough that you, as a tank, never really have to die and are always able to escape with the rest of the team?
Yet again, another great transition into the next point.