Ardent Censer: a competitive exploration

Joseph Edwards
15 min readAug 14, 2017

Ardent Censer has been the bane of solo queue for months, and now it’s finally making it into competitive. Just under a third of supports picked across all major regions this week are prolific Ardent Censer users, with Lulu and Janna making up the majority of those. The analytical Twitter memeing about it has already started; expect the stream of analytical content in short order.

Is it broken? I care about competitive, and in that context, I’m going to say it: I don’t care. If Ardent Censer is overpowered, underpowered, third bowl of porridge-powered, it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m not going to go as far to say as it shouldn’t matter to anyone, but for me, it’s there, I can’t change it directly, the effort to outcome ratio for screaming into the void about it to exact a change doesn’t make sense to me. I’d rather just deal with the environment we’ve got.

So, Ardent Censer is here, and it’s here in competitive play. Let’s deal with it.

If you’ve clicked on this article, I’m presuming a decent knowledge of League, and therefore a decent knowledge of what Ardent Censer is. If the former’s not true, this isn’t the article for you. If the latter’s not true, let’s very, very briefly go over that. Ardent Censer is an item aimed at supports that gives a few useful stats (AP, mana regeneration, CDR, movement speed), but the big-ticket on it is that it gives anyone who has those shields or heals applied 20–35% extra attack speed, and drains 20–35 health on-hit as bonus magic damage.

Essentially, if it can be easily procced — through a kit with natural recurrent shields, recurrent heals, or in a few cases, mastery or item-based heals (Stoneborn Pact and Knight’s Vow being the two big examples there) — the bot lane with Ardent Censer will win the 2v2 early on (primarily because of the health swing), and eventually the ADC essentially gets to the point of doing incredible DPS and healing through all teamfights. It’s the combination of the two that’s spurring the enormous praise for the item in competitive (and the former in particular that started the ball rolling for solo queue).

It’s frequently useful to start with drafts and lanes when we’re talking about this sort of meta question, because the question of “can it survive lane?” is a very strong test in terms of whether a pick is viable, and close to universal in terms of its conceptualisation by players or staff.

True enough, that’s the case with Ardent. While the meta around Ardent did change (with particular reference to top and jungle picks, the emergence of double-tank and triple-tank compositions, the ADCs that were necessary into those compositions, and so on), and provided an impetus for Ardent use, the composition argument is never sufficient in pro play on its own, or we’d see a DotA-level diversity of picks within a split.

Ardent has been unchanged as an item since patch 7.2, and the champions that make use of it have largely not seen recent buffs (Taric being the major exception). Even discounting the immediate antecedent patches on the grounds of slow adaptation, there have been plenty of patches — and plenty of metas, both globally and localised — that would seem to provide fertile ground for Ardent supports of the particular kind that have emerged to prominence.

That it didn’t stick at that point points to it being neither intrasingence nor ignorance, and suggests that when it was tried, it ran into those champions not working out in terms of surviving the early game in organised play. What brought it onto the radar was that with the Ancient Coin changes on 7.9, and the buff 7.13 — specifically the increased gold and mana restore on drops, though the new quest passive (granting movement speed to champions moving towards the Coin user when they reached 650 gold in earnings from the item) was a bonus — established a laning pattern for these picks that made them viable at that level.

That’s a good place to start — the laning pattern.

The brief of why the Coin changes made those picks viable is this: by providing what it did in the quantities that it did, it made it possible to go all-out in early trades and push efforts, retain mana for a trading or disengage combo at all times, and have enough gold to reliably get useful back almost regardless of time or circumstance.

The key part there is “go all-out early”. As defensive as they may be throughout the game, Coin picks are completely reliant on an up-tempo laning phase in terms of push. At a very basic level, they need it to collect Coin without taking huge amounts of harass as a result. If you want to affix a rule of thumb, to make that Coin laning pattern work, you want the lane to at least be a position like this:

Or, put more plainly, you need some measure of brush control. You don’t just want it; you need it. Lose it, and you can’t walk up (technically the same is true of Relic Shield supports, but they at least have the tank stats to shrug off some hits), you can’t collect coins, you’re in trouble.

Two points stand out then. The first is that if you can merely negate the push of the ADC — either through a pushing support, or by just having a better pushing ADC — then you could work from there.

This is true, but it should be said that very few teams are at this point stupid enough to make decisions in pick-ban that will lead to that. There’s already been an evolution there; Kog’Maw and Twitch, who would seem the natural users of Ardent, quickly ceded ground to Tristana and to an extent Sivir, and with Caitlyn dead and buried it’s hard to see anything outside of very unusual support picks (Sion, Brand, maybe Fiddlesticks) providing enough to push either of those under.

The second is, assuming the lane remains level then, can you punish the support’s stance? This one is a little more interesting, particularly because it’ll have further implications as we push on into the mid and late-game. Again, while the majority of supports in the majority of situations are going to want to battle for bush control in lane, what seems notable about Coin users is that they almost inexorably need it.

One of the natural solutions to shielding is to separate shielder from shieldee, and one of the weaknesses of the Coin laning pattern is that it makes it incredibly easy to isolate the support if given the tools to; the range of movement is so narrow, and the topography so unfriendly (particularly for a red-side support), that any reposition or terrain deformation is terrifying for the Coin support. Blitzcrank, Trundle, and Maokai all distinguish themselves here; Vayne is hence interesting as ADC too, though probably has too weak of a matchup into Tristana specifically to think about.

While there are tools we can use in terms of laning — and if those potential tools, and resultant drafts, kill the Ardent supports’ viability, then all the better — we need more here. After all, the item itself is not primarily a laning tool (I will put this in capitals and repeat it twice: IN COMPETITIVE, IN COMPETITIVE); it’s a concern for its late-game potential more than anything else.

So, let’s work back from there, and let’s start with dissecting the first call and response you’ll hear with regards to that. It’s a true classic of the never-ending struggle between players and staff, and it goes something like this:

Player: The enemy team is able to teamfight better, therefore there is absolutely nothing we could possibly have done.

Staff: You don’t need to teamfight against them, look to out-manouevre them on the map.

A true classic. That conversation can be heard at all competitive levels, applying to one topic or another, to greater or lesser degrees of elucidation. Of course, when this conversation is being had, there is always some degree to which each side is talking past the other, there is always some degree to which each side isn’t understanding where the other is coming from, and there is always some degree to which each side is wrong.

In this case, our strawman staff member is arguably more in the wrong, because one of the things that Ardent does is to warp side-lane interactions for ADCs against splitpushers, to the point where an ADC that has no business doing so can survive and even duel a dedicated splitpusher— because of the on-hit healing, because of the heightened DPS in general, and because of the way that the Ardent supports in general can be positioned in defensive pushing situations.

To elaborate on that last point: they’re on the backline of any fight anyway, which creates a far greater range for where they could be and still be at full or near-full efficiency when a fight begins, to the point of being able to play on two lanes, whereas most supports can only make that cross-lane threat offensively), ADCs are far more safe than they naturally should be pushing out and even defending 1v1 in a side-lane. Look at the illustration below:

With that illustration in mind, visualise the following, visualise LeBlanc jumping on Tristana, and consider:

  1. How long is it going to take Janna to get from that position to either lane? Bear in mind that the quest passive of Ancient Coin at this point in the game also gives Tristana an 8% movement speed buff moving towards Janna (or any other support) when she gets into range.
  2. At what range, and how late in the fight, can Janna be at compared to the ADC or the group at the other tower, and still be useful?
  3. Do the same exercise, but with something like a Blitzcrank or a Rakan.

If Janna makes a mistake, there’s a window wherein Tristana can still be burst down, but it is not that difficult in this setup for her to be holding the threat on shielding both lanes. The trade-off normally would be that, unlike a Blitzcrank, a Rakan, someone with hard CC, she would have less impact once she got to fights, but the Ardent boost is so significant for the ADC’s dueling that it’s negated somewhat.

Yes, there are always going to be holes that can be exploited by a sufficiently strong and skilled split-pusher. But you have to wait for or force explicit mistakes — missed rotations, low-percentage dives, that sort of thing — and while that’s something players should do, that’s not something that strategic coaches should necessary be expecting themselves.

There are approaches compositionally you can take towards that knowledge. Not all Ardent ADCs are created equally in terms of how they’ll play those fights out; a heavy crit ADC like Tristana will be able to massacre assassin-style splitpushers, but there’s a stronger route to victory for a tankier champion like Trundle or Shen. Those champions, in turn, will get destroyed by a Kog’Maw or Twitch, but our assassin picks have more potential there (in the context of the split-push specifically, of course).

But let’s assume that with how the draft is going to play out, you don’t have the tools to make that work, and let’s assume that the game is going to come down to having to go at them 5v5 eventually. Let’s set up the formation around Baron river, for the sake of argument. The fight is going to look something like this:

2–3 frontliners will lock your team, and the zone in red is roughly where the Ardent ADC is going to vomit damage onto. Ardent is sufficiently gold efficient that they will not only have a better overall composition for those fights, they should hold an artificial gold advantage too. So, how do you win that fight? One approach is to meet fire with fire, get your own Ardent support and scaling ADC, put down damage in that zone, win by having the better players. Of course, every team thinks, in 90% of situations, that they’re the better team, so that’s the answer most will give.

But, again, let’s assume we don’t want to do that. There are two main approaches we can take here. The first is what we were alluding to earlier — that we flank, and we split the support from the ADC. The theory behind this is simple — we get a flank on one, we put a substantial distance between the ADC and support, and we take both of them down.

Picking off someone is a very fundamental concept of teamfighting in League. The challenge here, though, is two-fold:

  1. We have to make a completely clean pick-off, because the frontline and the one of the ADC and support we did not ‘get’ will immediately start moving towards the picked-off target, and we end up in the same situation as before, just down some abilities and with a slightly different terrain. Most likely, we still lose.
  2. We need that reposition or terrain deformation specifically. Generally, once you get to the late-game, the distinction between ‘engage’ and ‘pick’ isn’t a particularly important one, and the two are used almost interchangeably. Here, it matters, because if we (as an example) Malphite-ult the backline and then have everyone pile on, we lose that fight; the frontline peels back, the ADC and support get out at any amount of health, and then the fight continues.

Having that knowledge, there are a couple of things we can do. From the drafting perspective, you want to draft separation — and ideally, you would actually want it from top or mid rather than support to retain the threat of a TP flank.

That’s pretty self-explanatory. The other major thing, as a medium-term adaptation, is to alter your map control and vision patterns, and we’re going to use a common, accepted, and utterly worthless cliché among coaches and analysts here to flesh that out.

Let’s start with the line: “they are [better/worse] at fighting in chokes/in jungle/etc., we should [seek/avoid] that.”

Every pro will groan if you reel that line off at them, because even if it’s true in a particular game, it does nothing for them. It’s all very well and good to say “don’t fight in that zone”, but when you’re in game, you don’t just get to pick fights like that. You can look to put pressure on certain zones, and you can alter your map movements, vision control, etc. so that you minimise the risk of hitting a fight like that, but once a fight happens, to an extent, it happens.

Even if you’re sitting there, constantly managing to keep that piece of instruction on a conscious level for 40 minutes, it’s if anything more likely to do harm than good. You’ll see a situation, call to back out, but by the time the enemy team has you in that situation, you backing out is probably going to give them what they want (probably Baron, but this can also happen for towers, dragons, vision control, whatever).

So, let’s say we’re in a fairly classic position of, for instance, defending tier 2 top and mid as blue side, and we have something like this as our ward setup:

This is a reasonably standard default (for the towers; we’d be spending extra vision on neutrals and the weak side of the map too). We’re looking to match numbers on sieges constantly, which means a) having vision just deep enough to check any possible rotation on their side, and b) preventing them from doing the same.

But there’s two considerations here. Firstly, we don’t want to match numbers anyway. We can potentially stall out with a normal defensive approach, yes, but we are almost never going to find an opportunity to create a fight that we could maybe win by matching numbers. Secondly, let’s look at those two green warding spots in particular.

If the enemy team marches into the one on the left, chances are, we’re far more scared of contesting it than the one on the right.

This hence inclines us to shift our approach from the default, horizontal pattern, to a vertical one playing around that point of strength:

You can replicate this sort of planning to offensive tower work, to Baron, to dragons, and so on. Implementing this sort of approach takes a lot of time and some consistent effort; this is intuitive but not in the sense that you can name the concept and let it go, and players have to build it habitually during and outside of scrims. But if you’re going into a patch (or even a Bo5 series) where you’re going to be facing this sort of thing time and time again, and you’re a team who have your fundamental system in play already, this is a place where you can make gains.

We said that there were two approaches to setting up against the Ardent team compositions. The second is to build explicitly to kite back, slowly knock down the frontline, and then turn — essentially, constantly move back, never be in the enemy ADC’s damage zone, and move forward at the right moment.

There’s nothing too interesting to say about the minutae of this approach. Against lower-engage variations of those Ardent compositions (think Gnar, Gragas, generic DPS mid rather than Maokai, Jarvan IV, Taliyah), you want to pack hard-disengage, while against higher-engage, the need to speed yourself up rather than to slow the enemy down on your disengage increases. You’re looking to essentially use space to negate the ADC’s damage (and therefore take the artificial gold advantage they’re getting from Ardent out of the fight). The execution is difficult, but it’s difficult in a very raw mechanical sense; there’s not much theory to be crafted out of it.

What is a little interesting is that it brings up a side-note on the absolute power of champions, and the viability of approaches. We alluded to the ‘can it survive lane’ test earlier, and that’s the most useful delineation for whether a champion can be played in competitive, but you have to accept that there’s a line wherein a champion, no matter how good is in theory, can’t be played competitively.

As it happens, a great deal of the champions with the best toolsets for kiting back could be construed as too weak. Ezreal has been at the absolute bottom among ADCs in almost all metrics for months; Caitlyn has joined him as of the last set of nerfs. Tahm Kench and Karma both have similar issues, as do solo-laners like Azir, Viktor, Lucian, Jayce, and Gragas.

Should a team even be considering that approach? Maybe. As scarce as the variations can be in general between skill at the highest level, there are so many cases where a team can perform aberrantly well with a champion or a composition because it just plays well to a team’s natural skill-sets — and, if that team has the tools to make it work, they can be the exception to the rule, very easily.

The one thing that’s important is that, if a champion or a composition is going to be used, everyone on the team needs to be at the level of an unconscious understanding of how to play around that champion, and with that composition. Should teams be looking to build kite-back comps as an Ardent response? Maybe, but you’d better have an Ezreal or a Jayce specialist somewhere, and you’d better get practice in for it.

What this article, apart from hopefully being an interesting exploration of Ardent Censer, and of the process that a strategic coach needs to follow when dealing with these questions, is that there are no absolute answers.

To prevent people from restoring to ill-judged clichés on “why did these idiots do this?” or “don’t they know X and Y?” is striking against the tide. It’s not going to happen, this article won’t change that, no amount of articles will change that.

Nonetheless, one hopes that this might adjust a few perspectives.

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Joseph Edwards

i wear a lot of hats. crypto: Head of Research for Enigma Securities (Bloomberg: NH ENI). esports: coach, LoL 2x LCS champ (TSM 17 TL 18), now Valorant w/ HONK