The Seven Minor Phases of the Game

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Credits to Rolwen for the phases image and for co-developing the theory with me

Each game of League of Legends goes through three major phases: Early game, Mid game and Late game. In the Early game, both teams focus on collecting gold and experience to get stronger, and implement pre-planned strategies to do so. In the Mid game, everything is complicated – teams collect resources and try to secure towers and neutral objectives at the same time, adapting to the specific situation that grew out of the early game. Finally, both teams become powerful, and attempt to use their power to win the game in the Late game. Most of the player-base is aware of these major shifts, and how their champion fits into the broad strokes of the game. However, the game can also be usefully divided into seven minor phases.

These minor phases correspond more to positions rather than overall goals, and make it easier to talk more specifically about situations which happen regularly in the game. Identifying which minor phase you’re in can help you figure out what objectives you should look to contest, and what tactics you should be using to contest them, in order to achieve the top level goal of the major phase. By identifying the Power Level (Items, Levels, Buffs, etc) and Map State (which objectives are up and down) of a given game, you can simplify the process of coming up with a plan to win by identifying the Priority Objective.

The process of identifying the priority objective is relatively simple. Identify all the objectives your team can take, given the current power level in the game. From that list of objectives, identify the most valuable objective. This is your priority objective. The most common mistake people make in this process is identifying the most valuable objective on the map first, without identifying what is or isn’t reasonable to contest. This leads to desperate attempts to secure objectives that are too risky to fight over.

Not every game will display every phase. In some games, depending on the team compositions and how things play out, certain phases may be so short as to practically not exist – you could skip straight from early-mid game to mid-late game off of a particularly successful play. Other times, the game will stall in a certain phase for ages (endless baron dances in late-game, I’m looking at you). In addition, if one team snowballs extremely hard, or surrenders the game before it concludes, the late game may never get a chance to play out.

Because of this, and several other reasons, it is difficult to talk about how the minor phases relate to the game timer. In the early game, players start off from a set position in the game – level one, with no items. This makes the timings of the early game fairly predictable, and often you can use the game timer to help track certain things. However, because when mid-game arrives depends on how long early-game lasts, the timing windows get larger and larger, to the point where they aren’t useful to talk about. Instead, timings become relative to certain set events in the game, like the respawns of neutral objectives. Any numbers given are ballpark estimates only, and shouldn’t be paid too much attention to.

To keep this article reasonably sized, we will focus primarily on the skill of identifying the phase that a given game is in. In the future, a separate series of articles will explain the specifics of the common tactics, timings and vision patterns of each individual phase, and give step by step instructions on how to make use of them. Think of this article as more of an overview of a typical game, than a road map to victory.

1. Opening Game

Both teams fan level one when neither believes that an invade will be useful for them
Identifying Characteristics Major Objectives Common Tactics
Lvl 1-3 Tracking Enemy Jungler Level one Invades
Starting Items Jungle Buffs (Red / Blue) Level one Fans
No Towers Taken Scuttle Crab Low Level Laning
Roughly 0:00-3:00~ First Blood First Jungle Clear

Level one, the stronger team has the option to invade the enemy jungle looking for picks and fights. If someone is out of position, they might need to blow summoners or even die, giving up first blood. If not, the stronger team will still be able to push forward into enemy territory, and place down wards. These wards are primarily intended to scout out the enemy jungler’s pathing, to prevent unexpected ganks and enable counterjungling.

In response, the weaker team usually fans out onto the map and keeps eyes on all of the entrances to their jungle. If they spot the enemy team coming in grouped, they retreat, and a member on the opposite side of the map can safely counter-invade, and place down their own scouting wards. In this way, vision information is traded rather than simply lost. If neither team feels they have a strong advantage level one, it is common to see both teams simply fan, and for no wards to go down.

Once the minions and jungle spawn, laners sometimes provide a leash for their jungler, then head to lane to collect their farm. If a laner can hit level two or three more quickly than their opponent through careful wave management, this can give them an opportunity to set the tone of the lane with an early trade or two.

Junglers watch this trading happen, and identify potential gank opportunities. If nothing arises, it is typical for junglers to fight each other for the rift scuttle at the end of a three-camp clear (the fastest way for them to secure both buffs and obtain level three). If junglers path in opposite directions, or one kills the other in the fight for scuttle crab, it is not uncommon for them to invade and steal away small camps to gain a resource lead.

2. Early Game (or Laning Phase)

In a typical laning phase, players mirror each other on the map while collecting as many resources as they can through jungle and lane farm
Identifying Characteristics Major Objectives Common Tactics
Lvl 4-7 Tracking Enemy Jungler Ganking
Components + Brown Boots Jungle Buffs (Red / Blue) Sneaky Drakes
No Towers Taken First Brick Invade Plays
Roughly 3:00 – 11:00 ~ First Drake Roam / Teleport Plays

Once people hit level three, levels four and five are typically kind of quiet. People find the time to base and spend some of their gold, and buy some early components. Jungle pathing starts to become slightly less predictable, and ganks become a real threat. Controlling vision around the ramps and river is key to enabling and preventing ganks.

An additional benefit of controlling river vision on the bottom side of the map is that some junglers are able to solo elemental drakes very early into the game (as early as level 4, if they are willing to get low to do it). If the enemy jungler is spotted on the opposite side going for a gank, a quick sweep of the pit with a vision cone revealing no wards can trigger a drake attempt. Laners may push and roam to the jungler to help secure it, depending on the situation.

All around the same time, solo laners begin to hit level six, the second round of jungle buffs spawn, junglers hit level six and finally bottom lane hits level six. Access to ultimates often dramatically changes the dynamic of lane matchups, and also who can and cannot be ganked. This is another period where a lot of action tends to happen. In some cases, teams are strong enough to invade and steal away the second round of buffs. In others, junglers simply opt to hand off blue to their mid-laners to help them take advantage of their new power.

Once everyone hits level six, the map begins to get very tense. At any time, a small skirmish in one lane could result in people roaming and teleporting in from everywhere and a giant conga-line fight happens, usually resulting in the first tower kill of the game. The more coordinated teams are, the better they get at setting up teleport plays, but in solo queue, it’s difficult to plan ahead of time. Map awareness is key, and respect for what a numbers advantage means at this point in the game. If a team doesn’t quite win the fight hard enough, they may take an elemental drake as a consolation prize instead – but eventually, the first brick falls, and lanes begin to break.

3. Early-Mid Transition

Looks like blue side’s toplaner had a rough lane – meanwhile, the red side adc has been making poor choices and red side support has had enough of it
Identifying Characteristics Major Objectives Common Tactics
Lvl 8-11 Jungle Control Bot Lane Laneswaps
One Item + Boots 2 Elemental Drakes Mid Lane Roams
Some Outers Down Rift Herald Top Lane Rift Heralds
Roughly 11:00 – 17:00 ~ Rest of the Outer Ring Dragon Fights

Once lanes begin to break, the map begins to open up. No longer is the river the ultimate dividing line between both teams’ territory. Depending on which lane first turret occurred in, and who is strong on both teams, there are a few different ways that the early-mid transition can happen.

If bottom lane won their lanes and took the turret, they will often look to swap lanes with one of their solos. This allows them to siege down the remaining outer turrets 2v1, with the help of their jungler shadowing to discourage any fights that occur. If the enemy bottom lane rotates to defend, the assumption is if they won 2v2 before they can do it again.

If Mid lane won, and took their turret, most of the time they look to shove out and roam to one of the side lanes. With the jungler’s help, the pair establish vision in the enemy jungle, rotate behind the enemy laner and dive them under turret if necessary, to take the next outer tower in one big play.

If Top lane won, they usually either shove and then coordinate a rift herald attempt with their jungler, which is then taken by the jungler and used mid or bottom to break the next tower. Alternatively, they may make a teleport play into bottom lane to swing a skirmish and go for the next tower, similar to what might have been done to end the laning phase.

Once a second tower has been taken, it is not uncommon to take over one quadrant of the enemy jungle and starve the enemy jungler of resources. This grows the already considerable gold lead that a team will likely have developed by this point in the game, through a turret lead and laning advantages. If this is the top jungle, the vision control can be used to grab rift herald (if it’s still up) for a fast mid-game. If it’s bottom jungle, you can continue to collect elemental drakes. If the enemy team contests, they’ll be walking into your vision control and you should be able to force a favorable teamfight to happen.

As the team who is behind, the name of the game is to trade rather than contest. The map is still too large to properly rotate in response to the enemy maneuvers, so the goal is to make them pay where they aren’t defending. If the enemy bot lane rotates out to a solo lane, your bottom lane gets to 2v1 someone and siege down the tower that you couldn’t get before while they’re doing that. If the enemy mid shoves and roams, your mid can roam to the other side of the map and try to get something done there. Not every attempt will be successful, but it’s often worth more than showing up to watch the tower die, unable to defend it.

Usually, once the second tower has fallen, taking the last one in the row is only a matter of time. Without a safe quadrant of the jungle to retreat to to safely defend it, most teams simply concede it and fall back to the inner ring, and a weak splitpush from some champion during down time picks it up.

4. True Mid Game

Blue side top out of position yet again – but for the moment a successful siege has been set up
Identifying Characteristics Major Objectives Common Tactics
Lvl 12-15 Jungle Vision Control Splitpushing
Two Items + Boots Elemental Drakes Picking and Skirmishing
All Outers Down, no Inners Inner Towers Teamfighting
Roughly 17:00 – 23:00 ~ Baron Sieging

With lanes fully broken and the map opened up, teams are free to decide how grouped they want to be, and what lane assignments they prefer. Depending on their strengths, teams try to set up situations where the enemy cannot defend everything at once, and are forced to take a bad fight or lose an objective. This takes a lot of maneuvering, so vision control is critical. In this stage, being able to identify the strengths of your team composition and its win conditions is a major part of understanding how the game will play out

Teams with strong duelists can opt to set them up in a side lane, while they pressure somewhere else on the map to draw away the majority of the enemy team, leaving wards in between so the duelist can see people coming to defend their push. This allows the “splitpusher” to get isolated duels with a (hopefully) weaker opponent, and take towers after winning that fight.

Teams with lots of burst damage and mobility may focus on denying the enemy vision control, and playing a guerilla style – shoving a lane out, then rotating through the jungle somewhere else. With all the movement between lanes, eventually someone squishy is caught in the crossfire, instantly deleted and a movement can be made to force a tower to fall with the resulting numbers advantage.

If teams have a lot of sustained damage, and a good frontline, they can group and threaten to take neutral objectives like dragon and potentially even baron. With proper vision control, and smart positioning, these teams can force the enemy to face-check them, or fight in a choke point, which makes landing wombo-combo abilities trivially simple, and protecting squishy carries from flanks relatively easy. Winning a decisive teamfight with an ADC surviving often means that towers fall during the medium-length death timers.

Finally, if teams have tons of long range, and enough disengage, they can simply group and walk up to turrets, turning the game into an ARAM. If the enemy cannot find a way to engage a fight, they slowly whittle the tower down with chip damage each wave, until it falls under the pressure.

The team that is behind will often need to make tough decisions about whether to contest the enemy or trade objectives and take something on the other side of the map. They will often find it difficult to get their preferred lane assignments, so often they have to rely on capitalizing on enemy mistakes rather than making proactive plays of their own. In many games, simply losing slowly enough can help a losing team gain ground and get to an item break-point that lets them fight more effectively.

5. Mid-Late Transition

Red side top has set up a strong splitpush with their stat lead, but blue side with their stronger adc has decided to go for baron.
Identifying Characteristics Major Objectives Common Tactics
Lvl 16-17 Elemental Drakes Slow-pushing
Three Items + Boots The Rest of the Inners Splitpushing
1-2 Inners Down, No Inhibs Baron Teamfighting
Roughly 23 – 27:00 ~ Inhib Towers and Inhibs Sieging

Once the inners are broken, a process somewhat similar to the early-mid transition is used to push through and take the rest of the towers using jungle control. This is another, slightly more tense down-time in the game, where people find time to clean up the last few elemental drakes, and finally begin to set up for baron.

At this point, both teams are relatively powerful, and the game typically revolves around Baron for the next few minutes. Splitpushing is used more to draw people away from baron than to take towers, Teamfights and dancing around baron are a constant, and some particularly clever players use slow-pushing to build up large minion waves that threaten towers by themselves, adding a “sixth man” to the team.

Contesting baron is an art – knowing when to bait, when to start, when to try to steal and when to just defend are all skills that will serve a player well here. If a team is particularly adept at sieging, they may ignore baron completely and try to win without contesting it, which ends up being far more risky against teams with stronger teamfights than them. Once one team secures a power level they feel comfortable sieging from, the game enters the late game as they begin to attempt to break the base.

6. True Late Game

Looks like blue team got baron – and although red side toplaner was able to take the turret, he was too low to take the inhib before the baron empowered recall transported the blue team back to base.
Identifying Characteristics Major Objectives Common Tactics
Lvl 18 Inhibitor Towers Slow pushing
Four Items + Boots Inhibitors Splitpushing
Inners Down, Inhibs Exposed Second Baron Teamfighting
Roughly 27 – 35:00 ~ Final Elemental Drake Sieging

Once one team begins to attempt to break the base, the map shrinks to just that one corner of the map. Getting all lanes pushing in at once is relatively easy, and the enemy is contained within their base for the most part. Vision control becomes significantly less important, given that it is very clear where everyone is at all times.

As teams navigate the siege, they should remember that if baron is the driving force, it is only temporary. Splitpushing becomes more difficult given the ease with which champions can rotate from one lane to another with them being so close together. Teamfights are often the deciding factor here, to attempt to break the siege, but angles are hard to find – front to back fights with well defined tank lines are often the only way forward.

Should baron run out, the game in many ways may return to something that looks similar to the early-mid transition, but with more items and potentially inhibitor pressure to deal with. A team with an inhibitor down may still be able to contest baron if their splitpusher can hold the lane and teleport into the resulting teamfight. If the game lasts long enough, people may find themselves capping out on full builds, and the game enters its final, mature stage – end game.

7. End Game

Apparently one baron wasn’t enough – red team won a teamfight under tower and stabilized long enough to contest the elder drake – and the toplaner has a sick flank. Who will win?
Identifying Characteristics Major Objectives Common Tactics
Lvl 18 on everyone Inhibitors Slow pushing
Six Items Third Baron Teamfighting
Nexus Exposed Elder Drake Sieging
40:00 and beyond Nexus Praying

At this point, the game becomes a tossup. Everything that came before melts away, and just like the early game, it’s pure PvP action, except now everyone is terrifyingly strong. People sell their boots for a sixth item. People sell that sixth item to buy a Zz’rot portal, activate it, sell it, and re-buy their sixth item. People teleport into the enemy base during neutral fights to try to end the game singlehandedly. This is where legends are made, and hearts are broken.

The strategy doesn’t change too much – the goals are straightforward, you’re tryna hit the nexus. But, the power levels continue to rise until they can’t rise any more. You’re playing against your own exhaustion, and your own ability to execute. Eventually, the death timers get so long that a single death spells the end of the game, and the next team-fight decides the winner. Forget all that came before and let your hands do the work.

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Atherton Wing
Atherton Wing is a long time League of Legends player and coach. When not initiating teamfights, he enjoys cooking, writing bulleted lists and composing video game soundtracks.

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