Swain Build Guide by frizzy350
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.
Hey all! This my in-depth guide to Swain. Now this is much more than just a build order, this is a comprehensive guide to actually PLAYING Swain in the current Metagame. Keep in mind Swain is actually quite a versatile champion when it comes to builds and I will share what I feel are other acceptable item/rune choices and try to shed some light on when you should pursue those alternative routes. I will have tips on laning, teamfighting and even champion specific matchups as well so stick around! This guide is viable for both Ranked and Regular play, its even quite strong in Dominion as well (not sure about ranked dominion), but will be focused on Summoner's Rift.
Pros / Cons
- SUSTWAIN! Swain still has some of the strongest sustain in the game, this keeps him viable in the current Meta.
- Quite tanky for a mage.
- Powerful single target and AOE DPS.
- Great first blood potential.
- Strong CC with AOE snare and powerful slow.
- Strong champion in top, mid or bottom lane.
- Extremely difficult for certain champs to beat in lane.
- Absolutely reliant on Blue Buff. If you don't have a team comp that allows Swain total reign over Blue Buff, either don't pick him or don't use this build.
- Has a couple really rough matchups in lane.
- Weak pushing capabilities early game.
- Requires great skill at laning: Last hitting well with auto attacks, dodging skill shots, last hitting at tower, managing mana, knowing cooldowns and range of opponent abilities, etc.
- Lackluster range for an AP carry on all of his abilities (besides W) and his auto attack.
I really don't think there are any viable alternatives to Ignite and Flash. Ignite with Swains E just deals too much damage in all phases of the game to pass up, and Flash is just too good. If your top lane vs a bruiser (Irelia, J4, garen) you may be able to sub in Teleport over Flash for dragon control and such. You may end up severely gimping your killing power however.
Marks: Magic Pen, no exception.
Seals: Mana reg/lvl. Ap/lvl may actually work better, however it's only an extra 18 at level 18. In all honesty I have not tried AP/lvl seals, but they very well could be better. I like the mana reg/lvl right now as it really helps manage mana in that time period up till level 9-10 where your jungle may require blue buff.
Glyphs: AP/lvl, way too much free AP to pass up. Flat MR is a possibility as well for some of his bad matchups (explained later).
Quints: Flat AP. That AP at the start plus your AP/lvl glyphs makes you hit for obsurd amounts come level 3-4. Flat Magic Pen is very viable here as well.
Your own preferred 9/0/21. I know many people prefer that last point in Quickness, but I like that point in Greed. While he doesn't NEED that minimal extra gold, it comes out to about 1 free ward every 12 minutes, meaning 1/4 of your laning phase gets warded for free. All about personal preference here. Make absolutely sure you take Utility Mastery, keep that blue buff for longer!
0/9/21 is not that great on Swain, sorry. Even with 800 mana maxed out Strength of Spirit is giving you only 8 health every 5 seconds. The magic penetration will more than make up for this.
Start: Boots 3 pots. Theres a reason when you watch tournaments and high ELO ranked play nearly everyone starts boots 3 pots. Boots help you kite, escape, chase and position better in lane. 3 potions allow you to trade successfully. If your in a solo lane and your opponent does not also go boots 3 pots, abuse the hell out of them. If your opponent starts Dorans just make sure you dont go into a full on fight without harassing them down a bit, because they have more HP and deal more damage. Run up and whack em with a few E's and run away till lvl 3-4 and chug potions if they retaliate. At lvl 3-4 kill their foolish *** for not bringing boots to dodge your W.
Alternate Start: IF you are laning against a melee champ who is of little threat to be able to return damage to you (you can kite with your slow and snare), you can start Amplifying Tome + potions to finish your revolver quicker. The extra AP at the start will help burst them down as they are less squishy than AP/AD carries in lane as well.
Hextech Revolver/Will of Ancients: I see so many Swains rushing a catalyst. Catalyst serves a very specific purpose on Swain which I will get into, but in general you should be getting your Spellvamp ASAP. Spellvamp will heal much more effectively than the Catalyst proc, and you should be able to manage your mana in lane with your passive. Once you have WOTA, your ultimate heals you for absolutely ******ed amounts (100% of damage dealt to enemy champs, 50% to minions). It also gives you just as much AP as a ROA, plus grants spell vamp and 30 AP to your nearby teammates as well. If you had any advantage over your lane opponent before you got this, this item almost guarantees you lane dominance (especially if you get a blue buff).
Alternate Second Item: Catalyst the Protector. I know I just shot this item down but it does serve one key purpose: providing bulk HP. The proc is very good, I just feel it can't keep up with the sustain Revolver provides. Catalyst will give you nearly 300 HP + the level up proc for less than 3 doran rings. While on most AP casters I recommend getting a few doran rings, on Swain I find the Catalyst much more effective. The bulk HP is the main reason to get a catalyst. This makes it so high burst combo mages don't instagib you (Brand, Annie). Get your WOTA immediately after Catalyst. Turn your catalyst into a Veil later on, NOT a Rod of Ages. Ill explain all this in just a bit.
Sorc Shoes and Deathcap: Doesn't matter the order really, just get them both next. After you finish both of these (assuming you are level 16) you will have 350 AP, magic pen of 29 | 15%, and your ult will hit for 90 + 70 damage. Thats 160 damage per bird. Thats 480 AOE damage every SECOND. If you are hitting champions with low MR that can be 480 health regained per second as well.
Tanky AP Time/Magic Pen: After your WOTA, Boots 2 and Deathcap you are pretty free in what you want to build. You generally want to build Swain from here on out to counter the enemy team comp, so I'll try to illustrate which items are best.
Zhonya's Hourglass: Oh man this item plus a Will of the Ancients and Deathcap is just plain obsurd. I highly recommend getting this item every game as your 4th item. Get the Chain Vest portion real early (right after Revolver) to help with your laning if your having trouble with an AD champion (**HIGHLY RECOMMENDED TACTIC VS CAITLYN**). Many teams underestimate Swain's damage output and resistance to residual damage (if you don't focus him as a team, he will just heal right through the damage of a handful of champions) and pay dearly for it. If you find yourself making drastic impacts in teamfights (which you should be at this point), the enemy team has probably agreed to focus you down. The moment you start to feel the enemy team realizes this, get your zhonyas. Basically just charge into the middle of a teamfight with your ult (don't initiate though, follow your tank/initiator in), unload your kit on some poor carry, then when your health gets to about the 1/3 mark, activate your zhonya. With a WOTA you will heal back up to full health while your birds continue to pound on their champions. After Zhonya's wears off most of your cooldowns should be refreshed or close to it so unload again on whoever is still alive. With blue buff you will have enough mana to perform this but will probably be very low after your second kit combo.
Void Staff/Abyssal Scepter: Build abyssal if you need MR and the enemy team has a bit of MR. Real solid item. Get a Void Staff if you've become such a menace even the enemy carries are stacking MR to deal with you.
Banshee's Veil: If you went Catalyst early on turn it into a veil. Even though I'm a firm believer that the passive on Veil kinda sucks (good teams will pop it with a weak/spammable spell), the bulk HP and Mana is nice, and the MR is really good too. Just remember not to rely on that passive to save your butt.
Quick Silver Sash: This is what you want to rely on to save your butt. Hard CC really doesn't effect Swain too negatively because as long as you turned your ult on before you were silenced/stunned, your birds will continue to DPS and heal you up. Ignite on the other hand will eat you alive. The bonus MR is really nice on this item and the fact that it cleanses an ignite and on a much shorter cooldown makes it especially awesome for countering Swains biggest weakness. Its also super cheap. Swain will have trouble with CC if he is chain CCed AND focused to the point where you can't Zhonya when low on health due to CC. QSS solves that as you can quickly roll your fingers over the keypad to immediately remove CC then Zhonya urself back to full. Good for escaping when caught out of position as well.
Rylais Crystal Scepter: Solid AP and bulk HP. Solid item, get it if you already have 100+ armor and MR but still need to be a bit tankier. The passive on it helps you and your teams kiting ability tremendously. The slow it gives is completely useless on your snare, but will proc for the full 35% on his ult. A maxed out Q + rylais is simply ******edly strong and is extremely effective at shutting down any melee champs that are tearing your backline up (you hit udyr or trynd with this and they will have a tough time getting to your backline).
Sub-Optimal Items: These are items I often see on Swain builds that I personally find to be outclassed by what I've listed. I will explain why I feel these items are not exactly the best.
Stacking Doran Rings: This is a very viable strategy to get an early edge in your lane with MANY AP casters. Dorans ring is a great item, gives you some decent AP, 100 HP and some mana regen on the cheap side. These are really effective to get if you are afraid of being instagibbed by your opponent (Annie and Brand are especially good at this). There is nothing wrong with getting ONE dorans ring on Swain real early. If you are afraid of getting instagibbed on Swain though, a catalyst is a much better option. You get almost as much HP as 3 dorans for less. It builds into a Veil later, so you don't lose gold because you don't need to sell it. It also grants you a nice boost of sustain. The problem with stacking dorans on Swain is that the mana regen boost is pretty negligible, effectively using his passive will net you much more mana, and the catalyst proc will also reward you mana every level. The extra AP is redundant as well, Swain has more than enough killing power without ANY AP items early on. If you get ganked early or are having at rough start in your lane, getting one Dorans is not a bad idea at all.
Rod of Ages: Oh man I see this on just about every Swain build out there. I understand why so many people love this item on Swain, but let me explain why I think it's not that useful.
1: Its expensive. ROA costs over 3k gold. A will of the Ancients costs nearly 1k gold less, offers much more sustain, and the same amount of AP without having to wait 10 mins to reach max potential.
2: It lacks utility. WOTA offers sustain and 30 AP for the entire team in teamfights. Every other item I have listed either offers more overall damage or some method of defense.
3: The bulk HP won't save you. I understand being somewhat tanky is a necessity on Swain, but bulk HP can easily be blown through if you don't have solid numbers in MR and Armor. Not to mention the extra HP gained from spellvamp (even just on a revolver) will easily net you more HP than the bonus ROA provides.
4: The bulk Mana does little for your ult. Many like to argue that having a larger mana pool will make it so blue buff returns a great deal more raw Mana/second. This is absolutely true, but mana management with your ult will still be a great concern. Swains natural mana reserve is 1140 at lvl 18. A fully grown ROA will make this mana reserve be at around 1900. If you blow through your entire natural mana reserve (1140) with your ult and blue buff, that extra ~700 mana will get eaten up in under just a few seconds due to how quickly his ult ramps up its own mana cost. I actually tested this, using your ult with no mana built (1140 mana) with a blue buff will last just under 17 seconds. A fully grown ROA (just under 1900 mana) will let your ult last for 21 seconds. With the extra damage and magic pen other items offer, enemies will either be dead or severely weakened, making those last few seconds pretty insignificant.
5: Why not get a ROA and a WOTA? Well ROA isn't bad by any means on Swain, just sub optimal. In fact as long as you get an ROA anytime before the 35 minute mark you'll probably get it fully grown. The thing is that after you get your WOTA, you want to continue optimizing your ult on Swain. This means getting large amounts of AP (so your birds and abilities hit harder, stealing you more life) and getting magic pen (so your abilities get closer to dealing true damage, once again stealing you more life) is much more important than what an ROA has to offer. By getting items like deathcap, zhonyas, abyssal scepter, and void staff you make yourself stronger both offensively AND defensively.
Spirit Visage: Another item I see very often on Swain builds. Once again, it's not bad. The healing bonus it provides is kind of a joke compared to spellvamp. It only increases the heal from your ult, whereas spell vamp makes your Q,W and E all drain life. If you do the math it hardly increases your life gained as well. If you are hitting champions you are only getting and extra 15% of the 75% you are stealing. It adds almost no heal at all vs minions. The CDR is ok, but not needed on swain between his masteries, blue buff and blue pot. The HP and MR is nice too, but I'd rather have a Veil, or even just a flat out Catalyst. The price is very nice though, it offers alot of stats that Swain benefits from for a low cost, but it will always end up being the first complete item you sell if the game stretches out for too long. Bottom line is its not impactful enough to bother getting, I highly recommend getting these stats in bulk elsewhere.
Tear of the Goddess/Archangel Staff: Awful on Swain. I'm sorry but its true. Yes if you max a tear out you will get a SIGNIFICANT increase on the duration of your ult + blue buff. Problem is maxing it out. Swain doesn't have cheap, spammable spells like Ryze, Karthus, Zilean, etc. The item forces you to play against his natural laning style (kill creeps with auto attacks, save spells to kill champs) which can set you back many kills as you will be tempted to spam your spells on minions to charge your tear. Getting kills (or forcing them to blue pill) in lane with Swains abilities is much more important. You can then free farm and allow your passive to regen all your lost mana.
Merc Treads: The MR is nice but CC really doesn't cripple Swain too terribly. As long as you ult before being CCed your birds will continue to pound on the enemy. If they are absolutely dead set on chain CCing you to death getting a QSS and/or Zhonyas is really the only way to survive. The Magic Pen Sorc Shoes adds makes it so you nearly dish out true damage to champs who have yet to build MR. This means you not only kill faster but regen more life.
Lich Bane: Not really sub-optimal, more situational. The AP, mana and MR is nice but its defining feature is the proc it provides. The proc isn't the most useful in teamfights because auto attacking means you stop moving and positioning; keeping the enemy within your ult and abilities is much more important for dishing out dps. That being said this item is incredible for pushing towers. If you are playing Hotshotgg style (just pushing your lane nonstop with blue, not a bad tactic since Swain is tough to 1v1) and can't quit knock those towers down a lich bane solves that issue. With a couple hundred AP and a lich bane towers get shredded in just a few auto attacks.
Pretty sure thats all of them. If I see anymore not-so-great items commonly built on him I will add them.
Passive: Swain gains mana from landing the killing blow on enemies. Because of this passive you are able to sit in lane + harass with abilities much longer than most other champs. If you can last hit every minion in a wave, then 1 wave is pretty much equal to 1 free spell. Handy.
Q: THE LAZER BIRD! The damage on this move is deceptive, remember that the damage it shows is how much it deals/second (whereas Swain's E displays total damage). This also means that if lazer bird hits for the full duration, it has a .9 AP scaling ratio, the highest in Swains arsenal. The slow on it is real handy, making it easier to land your W. When leveled up the slow doesn't change drastically, but the difference between a lvl 1 Q and a lvl 5 Q is quite a bit. Because this move is a tether, often time enemy champs will just walk out of it's range to avoid taking the full brunt of its force, making it rather lackluster during the laning phase. This ability is more useful late game, to help with kiting, hence why it is usually maxed last.
W: Nevermove. This is how you get kills. This move does great damage, is a great AOE snare, has good range and is also great for zoning in lane. Around character level 4, landing this move will most likely net you a kill if you follow up with the rest of your arsenal. This move is usually maxed second to reduce its cooldown (its really unforgiving at level 1, but becomes really spammable at level 5). Nevermove is great both offensively and defensively. Its a solid method of initiation, a bushchecker, an escape mechanism, and a good poking tool.
E: Green fireball of face rape. I usually max this first, you don't HAVE to but you should get it to level 3 or 4 as soon as possible. The damage over time this skill does is really nice, but the kicker is that it increases the damage from everything else you do. Your other spells, ignite, auto attacks, and even damage from items (like deathfire grasp or hextech gunblade). This is easily your best ability to harass with, and once you hit level 4 and have 2 points in it, its what allows you to basically be able to take pretty much anyone from near full to nothing when releasing your full arsenal. At level 18 the damage amp and ignite alone will do 500 unmitigated damage to ANY target. Thats quite a bit and not even including the damage Torment does itself. This ability also allows you to win auto attack wars with enemy casters after both of you started a fight and all your spells are on cooldown.
R: Ravenous Flock. Swain's defining skill is his ultimate. 3 birds are released every second dealing damage and stealing 25% of that dealt damage from minions and 75% from champions. The fact that it prioritizes enemy champions make it better than ever and makes it a pretty good ability for chasing. Once you have this ability and some spellvamp you pretty much never need to leave lane, you won't die in teamfights unless they focus you, and it actually does quite a bit of damage to squishy carries. Also with this ability, there are very few champions who are capable of 1v1-ing you.
Lvl 1: Get E. Do NOT pick any spell at the beginning of the match. If the enemy team invades at level 1 or your team is invading at level 1, you need W instead. CC wins level 1 fights and Swains W is incredibly powerful for these early fights.
Lvl 2: Get W. If you started with W, get E.
Lvl 3: Get another E, or get Q. Getting Q here will make it easier for you to land your W, and it will also increase your overall burst more than a second point in E. However getting Q and using it to burst/harass will drain much more mana than the extra point in E.
Lvl 4: You should have one point in every skill and 2 points in E. Go kill whoever your laning against. At this point if ignite is up your burst is pretty much unrivaled.
Lvl 5: Get another E!
Lvl 6: Get R.
Lvl 7+: Get whatever you need. In general you will want to max E, then W, then Q (obviously get R whenever you can). Sometimes getting a few points in Q or W out of order is necessary. Use your own discretion. For instance, if you are having trouble landing your W, get a point or 2 in Q to make it easier to land from the slow. If you prefer more attempts at your W over a period of time, get a few points in W.
General Laning Advice
Here are my tips to laning with Swain. He is very reliant on the fundamentals of laning, so if you don't know what that means I will outline the key points you need to know.
- LEARN TO LAST HIT WITH AUTO ATTACKS. Pretty much all of Swains abilities are damage over time, so using them to last hit is already a **** shoot. Its pretty much luck if your DOT ability happens to tick for the last hit. Getting last hits with auto attacks not only keeps you from wasting your mana, but will regain it very quickly due to his passive. Swain has a tough auto attack to last hit with due to it having a fairly short range.
- Swain is weak vs early game pushers. Swain can't clear waves of enemies out until his W is leveled a bit and he has his ult. Early game pushers such as Malzahar can give Swain trouble by simply overwhelming him with minions. Learn to last hit at your tower effectively. You will usually gain a slight level advantage doing this. Once you hit 6 you will be able to effectively push back.
- To last hit at tower-
- Melee minions: tower hit, auto attack, tower hit, auto attack.
- Caster minions: auto attack, tower hit, auto attack.
- Learn how to freeze a lane. You generally do not want to push the minions back toward their tower. This opens you up for ganking opportunities and makes it so they don't need to run as far when you go in for the kill. Freezing a lane means you try to match the damage your opponent is putting on minions, this makes it so the minion waves always meet up in the middle, or ideally, slightly closer to your tower but far enough away to avoid tower fire.
- ****NOTE**** A good way to practice last hitting with his auto attack is to make a custom game vs a bot (I like annie or sivir bot because they push relentlessly) and use only your auto attack. This is a great way to learn how to harass with his auto attack, last hitting at towers, and freezing lanes in your favor.
- Between levels 1-3 you want to harass your opponent with E to get them low enough to go for a kill at level 4.
- Get a feel for how much damage you do at level 4, this is how you get first blood. Landing your W is key for getting this kill.
- Many Swains don't like to harass the opponent too low for fear that the opponent will blue pill and heal up, DO NOT HAVE THIS MENTALITY!!!! If you force your opponent back to base you have a huge leg up in the lane.
- In conjunction with the above statement, learn how to "reset" the lane. Basically if you get a kill or force the enemy to blue pill (assuming you have enough life to not die from the jungler) you want to intentionally push your lane (with auto attacks) to the enemy tower. You won't get much damage on the tower, but the tower will kill your minion wave so your lane opponent misses out on that experience and gold from last hitting. After the tower clears out that wave the "reset" portion kicks in, and ideally the next two waves will meet in the dead center of the lane. This is very critical because once Swain gets a slight advantage in lane (especially a level advantage) he can very easily bully people around.
- If your going to towerdive a low health enemy champion, make sure you have your ult and that there are enemy minions within range. This way you are getting the 75% spell vamp from beating on the champion, but get that extra little heal from the minions. Trust me that tiny bit of heal can be the difference between life and death.
- Learn to dodge and bait skill shots. This forces your opponent to burn mana and to have an ability on cooldown. You already have a leg up on most opponents in the mana department due to Swain's passive, this will add insult to injury. If you know they have an ability on cooldown, go engage them and trade blows. You should win the trade due to having and extra ability available.
- Just the opposite applies to you as well. If you miss your W (his only skill shot), avoid confrontation with the opponent until the cooldown is reset. This is one of the main reasons to put a few points into W before fully maxing E. You do not want to engage an opponent without your full repertoire of abilities (although you don't always need ignite). If you know what you are doing and intentionally miss W (to zone your opponent like I explain later) then it is OK to engage without it. For most players I highly recommend having at least your 4 champion abilities all available for use.
- Get good at hitting that W. More aware players know you are looking to land this move and will be ready to dodge it. The best time to cast it if you want a direct hit is to wait for the enemy to move in for a last hit. Lead them so the center of the W is at the max range of their auto attack, this makes it so even if they react in time to the ability, they have to move the maximum distance possible to avoid getting hit by it. Not only does this give you the maximum chance of hitting this ability raw (meaning without leading with your Q), but if they do successfully avoid it then you have denied them farm and possible experience, making it still in your favor.
- If you are having trouble hitting a raw W, you can lead with Q then simply lead them after they are slowed. The big issue with this is the range on Q is much smaller than W. The best way to do this is to wait for the opponent to blow an ability then charge them, leading with Q, before their cooldown is back up.
- Learn how to zone people with your W. More advanced players know how powerful this ability is in netting kills for Swain and will avoid it all costs and will even be sure to stay out of the range of your Q (actually a very smart tactic). This means however, you can dictate your opponents positioning to an extent.
- ^^^ This opens up a handful of tactics. Say your opponent has been harassed a bit (70% HPish, also make sure you have ult), you can drop a W behind them so the edge is barely touching them. They have to move towards you to avoid the snare. If snare hits... well just unload and kill them. Regardless if it hits or not, immediately start walking straight at them (dodge skill shots if needed), since they walked towards you and you are heading towards them, hit em with E then Q then ignite if you have it, turn on your ult and auto attack them. If necessary, flash at them, those birds chase a pretty far distance and Swains DOTS are surprising good at finishing off enemies after they have reached safety.
- Another tactic using W to zone is if your jungle is attempting to gank. Lets say you are mid lane and your jungler is hiding in the brush to the right, but your lane opponent is last hitting from the left area of the lane. Drop a W to his left, once again so the edge is barely under his feet, forcing him to move. Either he gets snared, allowing you and your jungler to crush him, or he walks right into your jungler, still allowing you both to crush him.
- Bush camping with Swain works surprising well. When the enemy doesn't see you directly they tend to get a little bit lazy when it comes to dodging that W. This works surprisingly well vs players with bad map awareness.
- MANAGE YOUR ULT! Believe it or not but Swains best ability for last hitting is his ult. Sometimes two or more minions are going to die at the same time but you can only auto attack one. Since Swain's ult costs hardly any mana initially it is actually really good to use on the fly to last hit creeps. Every second that ult stays up however is precious, so make sure to get the most of it and turn it off the second you don't need it.
- Do not be ashamed of calling for a lane change. Swain goes both ways, he has some extremely difficult lane matchups, but he also has some matchups he absolutely dominates. Sometimes its even a good idea to swap with the AD carry in bot lane. This is especially good if you have a Caitlyn or Corki on your team. Swain synergizes extremely well with support who have hard CCs. Taric and Janna are most effective. If Taric lands his Dazzle, its incredibly easy to hit Swains W, then follow up with everything you have. After Taric Shatters and Swains hits his E the target will take rediculous damage from both of their auto attacks. The same idea can be applied to Janna. Drop W after a tornado hits, then land all your abilities and since Jannas shield gives a massive boost to AD, Swain hits for MASSIVE amounts because of the bonus damage coupled with his E. Caitlyn and Corki are the best to swap with because they are fully capable of solo laning, and have the one thing that crushes Swain in his bad matchups, range.
Team Fighting Advice
[*] Even though Swain is really freaking hard to kill, he is by no means invincible. If you get hit by an ignite your teamfight sustain is cut in half, this is HUGE. QSS or simply running away until ignite runs out is your best way to deal with this, you can also zhonya during it to allow some of the duration to get eaten up during the invincibility.
[*] You want to avoid being target number one on your team, being the 2nd or 3rd priority target is the ideal situation for Swain. Obviously being the 4th or 5th target means that you are flat out not threatening enough damage-wise for the enemy team to care about you. Swain can definitely be focused down if the enemy team works together. Sometimes you may want to get a Zhonyas before deathcap/sorc shoes if the enemy team seems intent on taking you out of team fights immediately.
[*] One huge disadvantage Swain has compared to other AP casters is his limited range. Obviously he makes up for this with his natural tankiness. When your team is looking to fight, Swain is generally best suited to be the second guy to go in. After the fight is initiated gauge what their plan is. If the enemy immediately switches off the initiator to attempt to focus Swain down, run back towards your backline, dropping your Q and W behind you while your birds beat on them while they chase. If they continue to follow you, your backline carries should be able to burst them down before they can do any real harm to you. If you can't make it back quick enough, or are getting killed too fast, Zhonya and/or QSS and/or Flash. Do whatever you need to stay alive, especially if you have blue. You can always quickly run to minions and heal urself back up or go in for cleanup duty if the enemy team blew all their strong abilities on you.
[*] With blue buff Swain is an absolute menace when it comes to pushing towers with his team. Let your team know this and take advantage. Use your ult to kill off enemy minion waves, yet attempt to bait the enemy from leaving their tower as best you can. If one of them initiates on you, you will probably heal back to full before their backup arrives, its then up to your team to counter initiate and wipe them clear. Swains W when maxed with some AP is also great for clearing minions and its a great poking device. When maxed with blue it has about a 6 second cooldown basically allowing you to spam it at the foot of their tower. Anyone who comes to defend can get caught in it in which case your team should immediately decimate them. Abusing this tactic forces the opponent to stay behind the tower allowing your AD carry and minions pop shots on the tower, slowly whittling it away.
[*] Swain is really good at running in and absorbing a tower shot or two (with ult up of course) while the rest of the team moves in unharmed to go for the kill. This is a really cheap tactic that forces the enemy team to dedicate more champions to defend one tower than they should have to. Not only that but because the birds prioritize champions and steal an extra 50% from champions that when they add more defenders, you are able to absorb more shots safely.
[*] Do not go anywhere near an enemy tower without your ult ready. In fact don't go near anything hostile without your ult ready. Even with blue and a solid W on the enemy, you may want to back off for a second or two to let your ult cool itself down to reset the mana cost. Swain makes for a great cleanup champ in teamfights as well so this is not necessarily a bad approach to take.
[*] When you get more powerful you may want to consider playing the role of a guardian a little bit. Use E + ignite + your ult to take out the main damage dealer, then try using your Q and W on the enemy tanks/tanky dps to allow your carries to kite them and burst them down. Your birds will add a little oomph to taking them down as well.
[*] Most of these tower pushing tactics can be used equally effectively for defending towers as well. In fact Swain is hands down one of the best tower defenders in the game. His tankiness, kiting ability, minion clearing (from mid game on) and sustained DPS makes it incredible hard to take towers vs him. He can hold even the tankiest champions under a tower's fire long enough to net kills. If 2-3 enemy champions are assaulting a single tower, chances are an experienced Swain can hold them back or even kill them.
Character/Archetype Specific Matchups
I'm going to outline some of the champions you may have trouble with and a good strategy to attempt to counter them. Most of the champions you see are BAD matchups for Swain. I will try to make them manageable.
Akali: Do not go anywhere near that shroud if you see it, unless you are fairly certain you can hit a random W in it and get a kill. Many akalis will burn a huge chunk of energy from the safety of their shroud attempting to get free farm. If akali does this, beat her to a pulp when you get a chance while her cooldowns are up and her energy is low. I highly recommend letting her free farm if you may potentially give up a kill to her. Be extremely cautious when she hits 6, you can out sustain her, but she most definitely can burst you down faster than you will her.
Anivia: Dodge those skillshots. Egg is really annoying for Swain, especially since he's so good at getting early kills in lane. Help your jungler deny her blue buff (maybe even steal it for you) and do your best to deny her CS and EXP if you get screwed out of a kill from her stupid Egg.
Annie: Real tough matchup for Swain. Annie bursts super hard in all phases of the game and at 6 is definitely strong enough to go straight through your ult. Count her stun carefully and force trades when you know she absolutely cannot stun you. She can and will beat you in the mana managing department. Early catalyst and hiding at your tower is not a bad option here.
Brand: It feels like he outranges you but in all actuality his W has the same reach as your W. Brand will get a handful of Dorans rings to get an early advantage over you. Trading with brand is rarely in your favor because of his stupid passive. It's in your best interest to just avoid death until you have some form of spell vamp and your ult. Also, move constantly and don't feel like its a waste to flash to avoid his fireball. It's actually a great surprise move and can net you an early kill if followed by Q>E>W>ignite>R.
Caitlyn: God awful matchup for Swain. She can auto attack to her hearts content and get every last hit. She can trap the lane and corner you. She can Q through the minion wave for incredible early game pushing as well. Avoid this matchup if you can, if not just last hit at your tower the best you can as long as possible. Luckily she is very squishy so you can nearly take her down from full HP around level 4.
Cassiopeia: You can't match the range on her Q. You have to learn to dodge it consistently because it freaking hurts. Her auto attack range is pretty terrible so I personally feel staying in a position to punish her for last hitting is the best way to deal with her. If you can avoid getting hit with her Q you can easily win trades vs her. When she hits 6 you need to bait her ult so it either whiffs or does not stun. She is a really tough match for Swain simply due to her range, unless you are supremely confident you should probably call for a lane change.
Garen: Probably the only tanky DPS champ that will cause you problems with Swain. The main issue with Garen is that he can match your burst potential AND your sustain due to his passive and not having mana. Level up Q more than you normally would vs Garen and do not let him land a Q on you. Basically you want him to think he can do his Q then E combo, but just hit him with your Q when he comes at you with his speed boost, then snare him and E him. He will go hide in a corner to regen but take advantage of the free farm. Garen provides little in team fights.
Gragas: Immediately dodge his barrel, hit him with E and get a few auto attacks in. Be very aggressive early on. You need to force him out of lane as much as possible before his sustain kicks in.
Heimerdinger: Real tough matchup. He pushes hard which is tough against Swain, and his rockets are ******ed. Pay attention to how he is leveling up his abilities and try to find weak points (for instance if he starts with E... like an idiot... just play extremely aggressive). Baiting his rockets to hit minions instead of yourself is key. He lacks mana sustain.
Irelia: Pretty easy for Swain. She isn't tanky at all early game so if she tries her ******** close range harass, make her pay for it. Drop everything on her. Don't let her farm for free either, take pop shots with your auto attacks if you need to.
Jarvan: Same as Irelia except you don't need to worry about sustain. Deny him even harder than Irelia because his teamfight presence is still very very good.
Jax: Just don't go into leap strike range. W + E + run. Repeat forever.
Karthus: Tough **********er. Lane like you would against most AP casters. Don't go for a kill until you hit 6. When you are ready to attempt to kill ALWAYS fight Karthus in a group of minions. This increases the healing ability of your ult and diminishes the damage of his Lay Waste.
Kassadin: Abuse him. Yes its impossible to land a spell without him Qing you first, but right from the get go be aware of his cooldowns. If he Q's you, wait for silence to wear off and hit him with an E and some auto attacks. Since Kass has a melee auto attack you can bully him around real well. At level 6 his ultimate kinda sucks, if you two have been playing a fairly even match then you should be able to 1v1 him simply because of your sustain. Just remember to put your ult ON before he has a chance to silence you.
Kennen: Absolute nightmare for Swain. Kennens E makes it nearly impossible to land a W. Most Kennens rush a WOTA, and the champ doesn't need mana making it very easy for him to out sustain you. Do your best to dodge his shurikens, bait him into burning his E, and last hit like a boss. Get a lane swap if possible.
Leblanc: I don't care what Leblanc mains say. If you don't feed Leblanc kills it makes life extremely difficult for her. Never go more than 1/3 of the way from your tower to hers. Let her free farm a little bit if she dictates it, its never worth feeding Leblanc kills. Consider rushing a banshee veil, the cata sustain is OK and the negatron cloke really hinders her one hit KO ability.
Lee Sin: If he is top vs you avoid his Q like rape. Other then that zone him and deny him CS.
Lux: The trick to Lux with any champion is to ALWAYS keep minions between you and her. She only has two offensive spells in her arsenal until she hits 6. You are able to render her better of the two (her bind) completely useless by keeping minions in between. Her mana management is quite lackluster, so try to play aggressive after she has shot off a few failed skillshots.
Malzahar: I honestly consider this to be Swains worst matchup. The range on his silence is rediculous, making it very tough to harass him. His E makes him a very strong early game pusher, which is difficult for Swain to deal with in the first place, but the fact that it refunds mana makes it even worse. Since you really can't harass malz you have to wait for level 6 to be able to get at him, however Malzahar's damn ultimate is one of those that can just tear right through Swain's ult (and anyone else for that matter). Thankfully Malz isn't seen much in the current Metagame. Get a lane change or pray your opponent is a noob. Any semi compitent Malz player will crush Swain.
Morgana: Tough little ***** right now. She can out sustain you health wise but not in terms of mana without blue. You need to able to consistently dodge her Q and stay away from her W. The only way to win lane vs her is to force her out of mana. Very difficult to do. Getting a couple points in W a little earlier then usual is a fairly solid method of countering her high powered pushing that develops at level 5.
Nidalee: Dodge spears, try to land a W before she hits 6. You can out sustain her but she still bursts really hard. Keep her on her toes and she will have a difficult time.
Orianna: Been nerfed recently to be much more manageable in lane. Her weakness even when she was overpowered beyond belief was sustain. Now that her range is reduced and her mana costs increased just abuse your superior sustwain.
Ryze: The other tanky DPS mage. Luckily when Ryze goes into machine gun dps mode he becomes immobile, so retaliate with your abilities while hes doing this. Most Ryze players (smart ones at least) max Q first, which makes it so his W holds you for only a fraction of a second for most of the laning phase. Get kills on him or force him out lane before he can max his Q. You can retaliate to any of his combos quite well unless hes farmed enough to kill very fast.
Singed: Not a freaking clue what to do vs him. Just farm as much as possible and hope your team comes to kill him as a group at some point.
Talon: Real tough for Swain because of his tricky moves and silence. Your best bet is to catch him auto attacking minions and after he already blew his silence. Luckily talon has fairly rough cooldowns.
Teemo: Kill at any cost.
Udyr: Zone his ***. Let E eat though his turtle stance then smash him with anything not on cooldown.
Vayne: Bait her stupid tumbles and immediately play super aggressive. She dies easy.
Zilean: Too broke in lane for Swain. Ban him next time. Seriously though your best bet is to drop W while he comes to put bombs on you.