Karthus Build Guide by Kyrooo
Not Updated For Current Season
This guide has not yet been updated for the current season. Please keep this in mind while reading. You can see the most recently updated guides on the browse guides page.
Not Updated For Current Season
The masteries shown here are not yet updated for the current season, the guide author needs to set up the new masteries. As such, they will be different than the masteries you see in-game.
If you're looking at this guide, you're probably thinking one of two things: A) "More than just an "R " button? GUFFAW! Karthus is nothing more than a skill-less scrub-stomper!" or B) "Hey, maybe this guy is onto something. Maybe there's more than one key on my keyboard." If you picked choice A, the back arrow beckons from the top-left corner of your browser. This guide isn't for you. Hopefully you picked choice B, to which I say, "Congratulations, chap! You've made your first step toward becoming a Karthus worthy of the title Lich King."
While it's true that Karthus is quite strong against players who don't know how to counter him, not everybody enemy you encounter will cry OP every time your ultimate strikes down. Sometimes, you'll encounter a rare breed of players. One with experience. Luckily, Karthus has much more to him than what newbies like to believe. In my experience with Karthus, I've discovered him to be a very effective and rewarding champ when played correctly. Unfortunately, there are many Karthuses (Karthi?) who...well, don't play him correctly. This guide will explain all that I've learned in my time with the Deathsinger. Although it's geared mostly towards people who are relatively new to Karthus and still picking him up, there's something for everyone in here, so long as you're interested in improving your game with our good ol' lich. So sit tight, grab your amp tomes and take some notes, because this is gonna be a long one.
Summary + Pros/Cons
Karthus is a champion with a wide variety of uses. He provides many things to a team, including good utility and a massive damage output.
-One of the best and most efficient farmers in the game
-One of the best non-ult AoE CC abilities in the game
-High damage output in team fights
-Fun, active gameplay that rewards good positioning, placement and timing
-Requires good mouse skills
-Must be smart about conserving mana, particularly with Defile
Masteries + Runes
For masteries, you have two choices. You can run the usual 9/0/21 with a point in the magic penetration mastery in the offensive tree as well as improved Flash and/or Clairvoyance, or you can run with 0/8/22. That may seem odd, but Strength of Spirit in the defensive tree is too good to pass up. It actually helps a lot in the laning phase, so it's a solid pick for a good early game. However, after its nerf, I've been rolling 9/0/21 more often. Both are great choices, so the choice is up to you.
Karthus uses very standard caster runes. Magic penetration marks, some mana regeneration (these are not mandatory and can be subbed for other seals of your preference, such as dodge seals), ability power per level (they surpass the flat AP glyphs pretty quickly), and HP quints (you can also use flat AP or movement speed).
As Karthus, you ALWAYS wants to put a point in Lay Waste when it is available. It is your highest priority besides your ultimate. As for Wall of Pain and Defile, it depends on the game situation. If you find yourself using the wall often for chasing or escaping, it makes sense to upgrade it. If you feel that you just need some more damage output and aren't using your wall often, Defile is a better choice. Keep in mind that upgrading Defile also increases the amount of mana that you get for killing a unit. When in doubt, I like to put the point in Defile.
However, regardless of how you choose between those two, your first 7 skills will always be the same: Q-- > E --> Q --> W --> Q --> R --Q. Skills 8 - 18 in the order given in this guide are a typical order of what you might use in a standard game.
Flash: Standard pick for a defensive spell. Use it to get out of sticky situations. It can also help you get into the middle of your enemies for the suicide tactic.
Clairvoyance: This one is a personal preference. Not only is it good for scouting potential targets for Requiem if they leave your line of sight and you want to make sure that your ult isn't wasted, but it's also useful for checking enemy positions and keeping tabs on certain areas. If someone's unsure about a bush or moving too far up a lane and you're worried about a gank, casting Clairvoyance can check to see if any trouble is lurking around. It's also worthwhile to check the dragon or other parts of the jungle occasionally. Any spotted enemies will usually stop what they're doing if they're caught in the spotlight, and if not, your team can move in to interrupt them and ruin their day.
Other great choices:
Ghost: Great spell all-around for both offensive and defensive purposes.
Teleport: Sometimes even the Deathsinger needs to go back to base to heal up. You'll be glad you brought Teleport if this happens, because you don't want to leave your lane for very long. It's also useful for crossing the map to areas of distress quickly if Requiem alone won't cut it.
Exhaust: A nice spell overall. Not the greatest for Karthus, but it works.
Ignite: I feel a bit iffy about this because Karthus is great at killing runners anyway. Lay Waste has quite an impressive range and can easily finish foes that flee, and in an emergency, you can use Requiem. Ignite is a good spell that a lot of people are in love with though, and it does serve its purpose.
Cleanse: Nice spell, but people don't typically focus their CC on Karthus.
Choices that will force me to reprimand you with a stick:
Fortify: Not on Karthus.
Clarity: I see a lot of people run this on Karthus, but mana issues can easily be avoided on Karthus. Good management of Lay Waste, skillful last-hitting to gain the bonus from Defile, mana regeneration seals, items like Doran's Ring and Catalyst the Protector, and even the golem buff (when available) can all ease the issue. Clarity on Karthus is a wasted slot.
Karthus' passive ability. It is without a doubt one of the most useful passives in the game, and comes in handy very often. You can easily score revenge kills with it, and if you die in a team fight, you can still dish out heavy damage while being untargetable for 8 seconds. You can really put a beating on opponents who don't move out of the way or are too distracted by your teammates who are still alive to do so. In fact, there's a common tactic among Karthus players called the "Suicide Bomb", which consists of Karthus dying on purpose amidst the enemies and decimating them with Defile + Wall of Pain and constant Lay Waste drops, with Requiem in case anyone escapes. During this time, the rest of your team will have a field day with the severely weakened enemies, and can gain some ground if an ace is scored. It may be a bit of a bummer to rush to your own death, but it is often worth it to allow your team to push. However, be careful. If you have a lot of stacks and/or will give your killer a HUGE gold bonus for slaying you, you should weigh your options a bit more carefully, especially if you aren't sure how reliable your team will be. After all, you don't want to sacrifice yourself for nothing!
Easily one of my favorite abilities on any champ. With proper aim and leading, this one will make your opponent /dance/. It takes some time to master the placement, but becoming proficient with Lay Waste is a must if you want to maximize your potential with Karthus. It's often the difference between "pssh, Karthus" and "Aww phooey, it's Karthus!" More about this move will be explained in the Early Game section.
Wall of Pain
A very useful ability that can work well for chasing or escaping, or simply messing up your opponents when they're clustered together. The slow on Wall of Pain is MASSIVE and hard to avoid because of the size of the wall. The armor and magic resist reduction is another useful part of the spell, especially when you plop it down in the middle of a team fight. If your opponents are standing still, simply place it right on top of as many as you can hit (enemies don't need to "pass through" the wall for the debuff to apply as long as they are touching it). If they are running, place it as close as you can in front of them so that there's no chance that they can avoid it. Just don't try too hard by placing it behind them - that would be bad!
Another move that separates a true lich from a scrub. If used correctly, it can melt your opponents' health bars like popsicles in the sun. If not used smartly, however, it can be your own undoing. More on this in the Early Game section.
Ah, Requiem. The defining move of the Deathsinger. Who doesn't appreciate being able to strike enemies down on any part of the map? You could even be sitting in your own spawn sipping Earl Grey and enjoying a good book, and then BANG, triple kill! And rage ensues. Proper use of this will be explained later, because no you silly goose, you cannot just jam your "R" button as you see the cooldown approaching zero.
Now for the controversial part. I don't build Karthus like most people do, and I will explain why as I go through the item order. It can be summed up by the following 4 words:
GLASS CANNONS ARE SILLY.
Yes, you might hit like a Howitzer when you stack Archangel's Staff and Rabadon's Deathcap. Good luck dishing a ton of damage when you're dead.
"But what about my passive! And the suicide bombing! Wouldn't it be better to maximize my damage output?"
There are two reasons why that isn't as smart as it sounds. The first is that although it's a nifty trick in certain scenarios, you shouldn't be actively seeking death just because you can melt your enemies' faces off. That strategy only works if you keep them within your range. It's hard to even get that close when you're paper-thin. Take one step near them and OOPS- you got stunned and two-shotted. Now you're hovering between both teams doing squat, and you gave their carry a free kill. The realization dawns on you that you have done nothing of value, and you curse this cruel world as your team proceeds to lose the 4v5.
You, sir, are a weenie.
The second reason why this doesn't work is that if your opponents are even the least bit competent, they won't LET you get away with your devious little plan when you're building no survivability whatsoever. Making yourself too fragile is an invitation for people to roflstomp you and prevent you from ever getting fed enough to make this strategy worthwhile.
"But I can cast Lay Waste every second! Archangels stacking is practically DESIGNED for Karthus!"
Have fun feeding.
Now, on to the build!
Karthus can actually be built with a bit of variety because there are many items that work well for him. However, certain items are staples for him:
-Rod of Ages
-Rylai's Crystal Scepter
Yes, you NEED these. Building a Catalyst the Protector early provides a lot of help for staying in your lane and will become your Rod of Ages, which provides everything you need (Health, Mana, AP). Sorcerer's Shoes should be an obvious choice for the magic penetration, and Rylai's give you some more beef while also applying a handy slow to all of your spells. A slow every second with Lay Waste? Don't mind if I do!
These three items should be the core for almost every caster, and Karthus is no exception. However, you may want to grab a Mejai's Soulstealer if you're confident that you can rack up some early kills with it, usually when you're giving the opponent(s) in your lane a lot of trouble. Karthus gets stacks VERY easily with his ultimate, so coordinate with teammates when someone in their lane is escaping with low health.
After your core build, you have a lot of choices. Typically, you'll want to build Rabadon's Deathcap, as it's a great item on any caster for some amazing damage output. This works particularly well if you're getting a lot of stacks on your Soulstealer. After that, you can explore the various choices:
- Zhonya's Hourglass: If the other team is almost entirely physical
- Abyssal Scepter: If the other team is almost entirely AP-based
- Will of the Ancients: If your own team is almost entirely AP-based (alternatively, you can ask a teammate to fetch this)
- Lich Bane: If you can end the game quickly with a push
- Banshee's Veil: If the other team has absurd amounts of CC
- Void Staff: If the other team is building up a lot of magic resistance
- Guardian Angel: For the cautious lich! Don't be turned off by its entirely defensive nature; it's a great late-game item on anyone, regardless of whether they're a tank or not.
- Rabadon's Deathcap: Yes, another of these. This is only if you're ABSOLUTELY SURE that you will not die. Or if you just want to have fun watching Requiem blow half of your opponents' bars away. I'll elaborate on this shortly.
EDIT: Per recommendation of player daniferrito, I'm adding Archangel's Staff to the list as a possibility for late-game ONLY. It provides some nice AP while also giving you massive mana regeneration. This could be an option if you have trouble with mana, although this will hardly ever be the case, especially if your team is smart/generous enough to let you have a blue buff (which they always should, with only a few exceptions such as Anivia). If you want to go with this option, I suggest buying a Tear of the Goddess after your Rod of Ages, then upgrading it later. Another alternative is to get it instead of a Catalyst. I only recommend this if you feel really comfortable in your lane and you're sure that the extra survivability won't be as helpful as the increased mana pool. Then, proceed to work towards Rod of Ages, and finish your Archangel's Staff later.
When in doubt, go with the hourglass. Stasis is the most lovely UNIQUE Active on an item ever. The hefty AP and a bit of extra meat on your bones with that armor can't hurt, either.
Additionally, having mentioned a second deathcap, I should explain that late-game when you're not worried at all about losing and have a full build (although this is uncommon), it /is/ permissible to sell something to make room for another deathcap. This will usually be your boots. Mobility isn't really a factor when your team is annihilating everything it passes by, so if you want to go crazy with your damage output (I'm looking at you, Archangels stackers), then I'll let it slide. Don't be careless, though. Without your shoes, you'll need to make sure that you don't get caught in a sticky situation where your team can't help you and you really need the movespeed.
NOTE: It is also important to periodically buy Elixir of Brilliance. Those things help A LOT. A significant boost to your AP and a bit of cooldown reduction is always welcome, as long as you don't blow ALL of your hard-earned gold on them. Good times to buy elixirs are when you're about to commence a major push, or when you're about to defend against one. You can also buy one if you aren't doing so hot and need a boost to get you back up on your feet (although you kind of float anyway...)
UPDATE 6/19/11 : A note about Hextech Revolver. I've been experimenting with this item lately and I must say, getting it earlier is pretty appealing. Purchasing it will push back some of your key items, but I find that it lets you stay alive a LOT longer. I've survived many encounters in which I would've otherwise died by kiting and healing with Lay Waste (and constant Defile damage), or simply walking past a minion wave. I suggest playing around with it and seeing what you think.
Playing as Karthus
Now, on to the actual gameplay. Pay attention chaps, because it is here that I will give more in-depth descriptions of how to use your skills effectively, how to control a lane, and how to function well in your team. The bulk of the guide is in here. Let's get started, shall we?
As Karthus, you will almost always want to take the middle lane. Your ultimate is an EXCELLENT asset to the team and you want it as soon as you can have it. If you have a stubborn teammate who demands mid, then so be it. Karthus works fine when thrust into a side lane as well. However, since the middle lane is his natural habitat, I will assume for this guide that you are there.
Buy your Sapphire Crystaland Health Potions and head to the lane. Check the opposite fountain with Clairvoyance to scout out who's going where, and wait until minions spawn. When your opponent waltzes into the lane, begin the harassing game immediately with Lay Waste. However, your primary focus is to get to level 2 quickly so that you acquire the mana gain from Defile. Defile helps you stay in the lane without running out of mana, as the mana you gain is about equal to the cost of one Lay Waste. DO NOT attack minions except to last-hit them. You don't want to push the lane more than necessary, and it's important for you to get the mana gain from Defile as often as possible, as well as the gold.
When trying to hit a target with Lay Waste, make sure that you can read their movements accurately. If you notice a pattern, exploit it. Is that Pantheon running back and forth behind his minions, and periodically dashing forward to throw a spear at you? Place a Lay Waste slightly in front of him when you see him start to run forward. Some people can be very predictable, and will succumb very quickly. Others won't be so easy to get the upper hand on. You just have to play smart, and predict.
A really important point to stress is that you MUST take advantage of the fact that Lay Waste deals double damage to lone targets. Proper positioning is key to being successful with this skill. Always set it in an area where it would not hit any enemy minions. This can be difficult if the enemy if standing amongst them often. Wait until they approach to make a move against you, and pop one under them. Even if they never move away, you can still place it underneath to pester them while ALSO farming their minions at the same time. But make sure that you don't push too far if you don't feel safe on the other side of the lane, especially when the other team has a jungler. Also keep an eye on your mana!
Lay Waste is also a great farming and pushing skill. A few casts under a group of minions is enough to kill them. Make sure that the number of minions that you kill in this way is at least equal to how many Lay Wastes you casted, so that your mana losses and mana gains even out.
Another use of Lay Waste is for zoning. This means keeping your opponent away from your minions to deny them experience. When your opponent is getting bruised up, they'll usually be more cautious and back off a tad. Use this to your advantage by inching closer to their minions than usual (without drawing aggro from them). If your enemy attempts to move closer, lead them into a Lay Waste, and quickly duck back to avoid the attacks of their minions. Then, move back up to threaten your opponent again, rinse and repeat. If you pull it off successfully, they'll be forced to stay away from the minions and won't be able to get any gold or XP, while you can farm all you like.
Once you get your Wall of Pain, you can go in for the kill when your opponent is weak enough. Cast it over them or just behind them to cut off their escape route, and dash in with Defile toggled on. Cast Lay Waste on them repeatedly, and make sure that you can stay close enough for Defile to sap their health. If you think it's clear that they are getting away, don't keep up the chase, because you'll just be draining your mana by keeping Defile turned on.
Now, a note about Defile. You NEVER want to turn it on before level 6 unless you're going in for a kill or your opponent makes a foolish move and comes too close, allowing you to punish them heavily. Be patient. You don't need to waste valuable mana. I've even seen some Karthus players turn Defile on for nothing more than farming minions. This is fine under a few circumstances: you have the blue buff, you're going to blue pill afterward anyway, or the game has progressed quite a while and you have no mana issues whatsoever. Please don't do this before level 6. I will be sad.
Now, for the glorious part: What to do when you reach level 6 and acquire Requiem.
Level 6 is a nice time for Karthus. You suddenly feel empowered...The power to kill anyone from anywhere gives you a certain sense of satisfaction. But of course, such an opportunity must not be wasted! There aren't many feelings worse than the one you get after a failed Requiem that killed nobody, and didn't even score an assist. How did this happen? Well, there are a number of possible reasons:
1. Miscalculation. This is the big one. At rank 1, Requiem does 250 damage, with 0.7 per AP. However, just because you see an enemy below 250 HP does not mean that you can kill them. You have to factor in magic resistance. Even if your enemies don't have any items with MR yet, champions still have a natural base MR that you have to take into account. I don't feel safe using using Requiem at rank 1 unless my intended target's HP is below 200, maybe even below 180 - 190 to be safe. It's usually not a guaranteed kill until they're below that range, depending on your AP and magic penetration. This can often be hard to calculate quickly, especially during mid-late game when the numbers get higher and you have to factor items in.
(Note: If you didn't see exactly how much health your opponent had, don't guess. It usually isn't worth it unless their health bar was literally invisible. This is where Clairvoyance is a life saver (or life ender, whichever way you like to think about it)).
2. Healing/shielding spells. Champs like Morgana, Shen, Sivir, Gangplank, and Garen are Karthus' worst nightmare. You MUST make sure that you factor in abilities like Black Shield and Feint in your calculations. For champions like these, you may want to hold off on Requiem until they're REALLY low. The number isn't the same for different champions, so it helps to remember specific number for heals/shields/blocks to judge when you can kill an enemy who has one of these skills. You should also be careful of people with the Heal summoner spell or Health Potions.
3. Your target recalled. Don't be silly and cast Requiem 5 seconds after your opponent exited your line of sight. If it's just about to go off cooldown, don't always count on it to strike in time, because you might have just put it back on its extremely long cooldown for nothing. Be smart about when you can cast it in time. Clairvoyance helps here too.
4. Elixir of Fortitude. This is a nasty trick that some players will use against Karthus if they're desperate to counter him. Players gain a nice chunk of health from these, which makes it easy to protect yourself from Requiem. Simply wait until you see the red energy forming above your dead, and drink the potion. You are saved. Preposterous! This item makes Karthus cry bitter tears. Later in the game, items like the Hexdrinker and Banshee's Veil work similarly.
5. Spell popping/invulns. This is the least common one, and only applies to a select few champions, notably Vlad, Shaco, Kayle, and Tryndamere. Vladimir can avoid Requiem by going into Sanguine Pool when it strikes, so wait until after you've seen him use his pool so that it is on cooldown. Then, cast Requiem and punish him. Shaco can "pop" Requiem by using Hallucinate to clone himself at the exact moment that the damage strikes, so there's really not much that you can do about it unless he has already used his clone. As for Kayle and Tryndamere, wait until their invulnerabilities wear off to cast it. Karthus can actually be a nice counter to Tryndamere if you can do enough damage to kill him after Undying Rage wears off and he consumes his Bloodlust stacks.
Make sure that your team tells you when there's an ideal target for Requiem. Working together with your team can net you a lot of kills, and therefore, stacks. But don't steal any! Often it may seem like there's an opportunity to score a kill, but your teammates might be able to get it by themselves. Wait until you're sure that the opponent will escape. Not only will it spare you from your teammates' complaints, but it will also ensure that you don't use Requiem when it's not necessary, and you can save it for another time when it is.
One final note for early - mid game is ganking. It may seem fun to stay in mid gathering creep kills after you kill your lane enemy. After all, you can just help your team with Requiem! But sometimes your side lanes may need more than just that. If the fights there are pushed toward your side of the map, go ahead and swoop in to assist your team. Place a Wall of Pain to cut off your opponents' escape route and begin spamming your Lay Waste, coming in at an angle so that they must not only run through your wall, but they have to go through YOU too. When you're close enough, turn on Defile if you have mana to spare, and pursue your targets by running alongside them, keeping up the Q spam as well. You may not want to get too close if there's a risk that you can die, however. It's not always a good idea to trail right between champs like Olaf and Garen, so judge the situation and decide what you want to do. Is Lay Waste enough? Do they have low enough HP that I can kill them quickly enough to not be in danger? Ask yourself questions this like this when going in.
Karthus' gameplay doesn't change much from his early game to the middle and end of the match. The only real difference is that you can be a lot more liberal with using Defile. Wall of Pain will also begin to shine more when team fights start to break out. Wait for your team to initiate, because even with some extra bulk, you'll still go down pretty quickly if the other team focuses on you. Even if you want to try the suicide trick, it's best to wait for someone else to make the first move to ensure that you can get close enough to the action without dying on the way. Often you will be the other team's primary target, so don't be reckless; sometimes it's best to wait. After a teammate or an opponent has made a move, slam your wall down right in the middle of the enemy champions. Turn Defile on and make sure that it's hitting as many opponents as you can get close to, but be careful that you aren't in immediate danger. You aren't a front-line fighter, so you can't risk being smack in the middle of the fray if you don't plan on dying. An ideal time to approach is when your targets are disabled or distracted, or running away (as long as you can't be killed if they turn around and resume the fight). Know when it's safe to get close with Defile and you won't die needlessly! Continuously set Lay Waste under whichever enemy your team is focusing. If somebody is trying to run away with low health, you know what to do. Press R and...DENIED! Enjoy your ace.
NEW! : Opponents to Beware of
Even the Lich King has rivals that give him some trouble. There are some champions that simply overpower Karthus in mid on most occasions. While it isn't impossible to outplay them, a good player of these champions will make things difficult for you. Try to avoid laning against them when possible.
Kassadin: Despite having the disadvantage of being a melee caster, Kassadin can do very well against Karthus because of his long silence and bursting abilities. Early on, his Null Sphere is a huge bother, but nothing that you can't handle. You simply play more passively. The real trouble starts when he reaches level 6. Kassadin's burst puts the hurt on soft champions like Karthus, and he can chase really well. Your Wall of Pain won't scare him because he can Riftwalk right over it. If he kills you, he can blink away to avoid staying close to your Death Defied, and if he fails to kill you, he can blink away to save himself. His passive also softens the blow that your spells have on him.
LeBlanc: LeBlanc is troublesome for many of the same reasons as Kassadin. Her silence leaves you defenseless while her fearsome burst damage obliterates your health bar. Also similar to Kassadin is her Distortion, which she can use to get over your wall. Because she is ranged and does not need to be as close to you to do most of her damage, she is even more safe from you than Kassadin is.
Caitlyn: Caitlyn's long range is enough to make Karthus cry. You can try to fight back by planting Lay Waste in front of her when she's running up to auto-attack you or fire her Piltover Peacemaker, but I find that I often end up losing more health when I try to fight back. However, running too much will ensure that you can't farm properly. While she can't kill you as easily as some other champions, she forces Karthus to be much more defensive and can put the heat on you very easily. It's a good idea to avoid facing her when possible.
If you've made it this far, I commend your dedication, and thank you for your time. Karthus is a very entertaining champion and it makes him a sad little lich that so many people aren't doing it right. I hope that you learned something from this guide and can apply it in-game! If you need any help or have any questions, go ahead and ask, or add me on League of Legends: Kyrooo.
Thanks for reading, and have fun with those quadra-kills!