How to actually get better at League of Legends

When people ask how to get better at League of Legends, they usually get advice like “cs better, ward better, play safe”. No player in the history of League of Legends has ever gotten better with such advice.

The actual, best way to get better at League of Legends is correctly identifying opportunities (game knowledge) and executing on them (mechanics).

The clearest way to explain this concept is this six-year-old clip of Froggen playing Vladimir against Orianna mid:

The clip is outdated, but it remains the perfect encapsulation of what League of Legends is all about: Froggen identified an opportunity and executed on it. He saw that given the minimap, his and Orianna’s items, and his and Orianna’s cooldowns, that he not only had the damage to kill Orianna, but also escape alive. Orianna did not recognize this. She made a mistake — admittedly, a mistake that goes unpunished by 99% of players — and Froggen had both the game knowledge to identify the mistake and the mechanics to punish it.

At low elo, these opportunities are everywhere. Low elo players are constantly making horrific mistakes that routinely go unpunished:

  • A half-health top laner stays in lane against Garen who just hit 6 - and doesn’t die, because Garen didn’t realize Flash-Q-E-R combo is enough damage to get the kill
  • Lee Sin ganks bottom level 2 — but still gets to farm his topside jungle, because the opposing jungler didn’t think to cross over and take it all.
  • Zed uses W every time it’s up to harass his lane opponent — but doesn’t die, because neither his opposing mid laner nor the opposing jungler punishes the W cooldown.
  • Tristana relies on her W to escape Thresh — because Thresh doesn’t realize that he needs to be saving his E to cancel Tristana’s W.
  • Sona freely uses Q to slowly whittle down Leona’s health — because Leona doesn’t realize she needs to be engaging to win that lane.

It’s why the advice “play safe” is one of the worst pieces of advice you can give to a newer player. The intention is good —don’t feed and be conscious of your opponents — but often the consequence is that you end up with a player too afraid to identify and punish mistakes. League of Legends is not something that just happens to you. You have to proactively do things in order to consistently win games.

When you play Garen, for instance, and you are in range to Flash-Q-E-R combo an enemy, you need to know at a glance 1) whether that will kill them, 2) whether you will end up dying, and 3) whether your team will win the ensuing teamfight. Then you can properly make the decision whether to go for it. But if you’re just “playing safe”, and you don’t take those opportunities even when they present themselves, you never gain that underlying game knowledge. And when you lack such knowledge to identify oppportunities and make educated decisions, you aren’t really playing League at that point - League is just something that happens to you.

You’ll notice in my examples above that the errors committed are almost all game knowledge errors. At low elo, I think game knowledge errors are much more important to fix than mechanics errors, because how well you execute on opportunities is mostly irrelevant unless you identify them in the first place.

But of course, this is different for every player. Some players' mechanics are truly terrible and they have to improve them before they can really hope to play the game meaningfully: if you can never dodge Blitzcrank hooks or Lux bindings, you’re going to have a miserable time no matter what.

As you get to higher elo, players naturally make fewer mistakes because they’ve repeatedly been punished for them. For example, I expect each of the mistakes above to be consistently punished by Gold opponents, and so by Platinum people don’t usually make those mistakes any more. So at that point, improving your mechanical skill becomes increasingly important, because as your mechanical skill improves, you unlock more and more opportunities.

Go back and watch the Froggen clip again. The opportunity exists only because Froggen has the mechanical skill to execute it: he hits his full combo, drops turret aggro with W, stays in range for one more E, and makes sure to Flash Orianna’s Shockwave, ensuring he doesn’t take any more tower shots. A player with subpar mechanics (who can’t Flash Orianna’s Shockwave, for example) doesn’t have that opportunity like Froggen does.

Critically, however, the best way to develop and apply such mechanics is still game knowledge. You need to know what to do before you can practice how to do it. Froggen didn’t react to the Orianna Shockwave so much as he anticipated it: he knew she was going to try to Shockwave him as soon as he came out of pool, and he knew he would die if he didn’t Flash it. He still needs mechanics to be able to do so, but those mechanics are built on a foundation of game knowledge.

In short, therefore, the best way to improve at League of Legends is learning to identify opportunities (game knowledge) and execute on them (mechanics). Both arise only out of deliberative practice:

  • First, you must gather data about the game state (such as enemy positions, wave states, summoner timers, item spikes, objective timers, etc.) through moving your camera, wards, and scoreboards.
    • You’re jungling on red side as Elise and starting top side. As you’re finishing your red buff, you see the enemy Graves ganking bot lane with a red buff and 4 cs. Meanwhile your Renekton top is getting good trades off against a Darius.
  • Second, you must synthesize that data internally with your game knowledge to identify opportunities.
    • Because the Graves had only 4 cs, you know he only took red before going bot. Because Graves is a farming jungler, he’s likely going to stop and clear his bot jungle before coming to blue, so you have time to counterjungle.
    • You know that Darius can be killed by Elise/Renekton on a properly-executed dive.
    • Based on the wave state of top, you can tell that Renekton is crashing a large wave into top tower in a little bit - enough time for you to do two camps.
    • You know you’ll get level 3 from your red + Graves blue + Graves gromp.
  • Third, you must execute on those opportunities you identify.
    • You take Graves’s blue and gromp, then dive top as the wave crashes. You run through what skills you need to watch out for - Darius is level 2, you saw him use Q and W before, so you know you don’t have to worry about his E if you dive in time. You open the dive to ensure you draw aggro from the tower. You make sure to avoid Darius W->outer Q, which will give him a big heal and potentially let him 1v2. You and Renekton chain your cc and don’t overlap your E and his W. You calculate how many turret shots you can take (keeping in mind Darius’s Hemorrhage stacks) and Rappel once the kill is secured or once you can’t take another turret shot.

Developing these skills is not trivial. Those skills don’t come to you just by spamming games. They require you to identify missed opportunities that, by definition, you aren’t aware of. They require you to push outside of your comfort zone, because what you are comfortable with are bad habits. They require you to limit test to learn champion limits and what you and your enemies are capable of.

And when you inevitably die in those limit tests, they require difficult introspection into your own mistakes. Where did your heuristics fail you? Was it a good decision spoiled by poor mechanics? Was it a good decision with the limited data you had, but you lacked critical data that would have changed the decision? Or was it simply a bad decision, because the opportunity was not actually there?

Answering those questions is how you improve at League of Legends. And as you get better and better at identifying and executing on opportunities, you will see more and more of them in your game, and it will feel like your opponents are constantly inting into you. But nothing about them has changed - only you and your knowledge.