In an unbelievably stale bot lane meta, Kai’Sa has managed to find her way back into prominence. Her AP build has been the driving force behind her comeback, and it’s brought Kai’Sa to more lanes than one. The ability to flex her into the mid lane and mix up the draft makes her a fantastic choice for the first pick phase. She has a lot going for her, but is she OP?
Inven Global asked professional players competing in the LCS and compiled some global data to take a look at just how strong Kai’Sa can be.
Death by a thousand cuts
Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok’s Kai’Sa mid game is a large part of what put her on the map recently. She’d been seeing some play here and there, and she was a somewhat popular pick in Korean solo queue for a brief period before she got thrust into pro play.
But is she actually good in mid? The answer, like with most things, is that it really depends. That said, there’s no denying that AP Kai’Sa can be monstrous if she gets out of the lane phase.
Faker’s the sort of player that can really showcase her range, as well as her ability to make big plays at a moment’s notice. Her situational range and mobility are exceptionally strong, but there are a lot of caveats that come along with her near unrivaled ability to poke the enemy down. CLG’s Cristian “Palafox” Palafox had this to say about Kai’Sa in mid:
“Generally, I think AP Kai’Sa is drafted against specific mid laners. Right now in mid, there are mid laners that can hit the wave and hit you at the same time. And there’s some mid laners that can’t do that. They can only choose to hit you or hit the wave.
Mid laners like that generally have a lot less pressure against Kai’Sa mid, and she’s a big threat to them. So, now that a lot of mid laners like that are coming into the meta, it seems like she can be flexed into a lot of situations. Playing with Kai’Sa mid is just — You get to a point where Kai’Sa is popping Ws, hitting 1k on someone from halfway across the map, it’s just… Yeah...”
Palafox's opinion on when and why she’s being drafted in mid right now is very important. Kai’Sa’s lane phase has always been less than stellar. Decent wave clear and range come with time and items. Her W doesn’t have that strong poke power until she gets 100 AP and evolves it.
Before Kai’Sa’s first item or two, her ability to clear waves and pressure the map is near non-existent. Ideally, you’ll see Kai’Sa players try to force as few fights as possible in the early game so that they can scale. But, even then, Kai’Sa still has her fair share of weaknesses.
Finding the right situation
Kai’Sa is the sort of Champion that is very strong. Sometimes.
She’s a very particular pick meant to thwart the current meta. Her poor laning phase and almost complete lack of CC are some big issues, especially after her numbers got nerfed post-MSI in 2021. But, with Jinx and Aphelios being such prominent Champs in the meta, Kai’Sa is getting picked almost solely as a backline diver. Whether it’s in mid or as an ADC. She doesn’t have the same sustained damage as many meta Marksman Champs, but her burst damage is extremely high.
In extended teamfights, AP Kai’Sa gets severely out-DPSed if the enemy ADC can stay in auto attack range for an extended period of time. Even with Golden Guardians AD carry Lawrence "Lost" Hui having a huge advantage over 100 Thieves’ Victor "FBI" Huang in this clip, he wasn’t able to outdamage the enemy Jinx in an extended engagement. Playing AP Kai’Sa properly requires you to play around her burst damage, poke, and dive potential.
Victory Five, the best team in China currently, is a great example of what it looks like when Kai’Sa’s being utilized to the fullest.
When you’ve got a Champion whose biggest downside is a poor lane phase, why not just 4 man invade and force a fight on red buff? This is a pretty normal sight in the LPL, and a player like V5’s Photic knows how to hit the backline hard and fast. V5’s all-in playstyle puts them a step above a team like Golden Guardians, and it shows how strong she can be in the hands of a player that’s wholly dedicated to fighting at every opportunity.
Team Liquid top laner Gabriël "Bwipo" Rau had plenty of thoughts to share about Kai'Sa, particularly about her build path.
“[Kai’Sa is] very strong. I think I would prefer her with Nashor’s Tooth because it allows her to pivot into other builds," said Bwipo. "I actually theorycrafted a build earlier today when I was watching the CLG game where [CLG AD carry Fatih "Luger" Güven] went Kraken Slayer, and I realized, ‘If you go Kraken Slayer and Guinsoo’s, you can probably really kill tanks.’ So, something to consider.
I think you can pivot your build into an AP on-hit build, which is quite interesting for Kai’Sa. Always has been very powerful. You can pivot your build into AP poke with Luden’s Tempest and whatnot. You can always play AD Kai’Sa if necessary.”
AP Kai’Sa’s build is particularly hard to nail down. Manamune is a must for most of her builds, but all bets are off otherwise. Some players opt for Luden’s second item, while others go straight for Nashor’s. Finding a way to fit AP into the build can be really hard, and it requires a lot more build awareness than AD Kai’Sa. Actually, why aren’t players going AD Kai’Sa in the first place?
Tried and true
Kai’Sa’s AP hybrid W reset build and playstyle are what brought her back into the meta, but it isn’t like the strength of one build entirely mitigates the viability of another. And, in China, we’re seeing both builds being utilized, but she’s almost exclusively played in bot rather than as a mid laner.
One of the most (and least) successful players with AD Kai’Sa is Rare Atom’s Hu “iBoy” Xian-Zhao. He’s been playing Kai’Sa the old fashioned way ever since she came back into the meta, and he’s managed to show the best and worst of the Champion’s AD build.
Despite Weibo Gaming stealing away Baron, iBoy’s patient and calculated play allowed him to hit the backline hard and shred Weibo’s tanky, engage-heavy team comp because he built Kraken Slayer. iBoy played Kai’Sa two games in a row against Weibo, and managed to carry Rare Atom to a 2-0 victory over one of China’s best teams.
Meanwhile, against 2021 World Champions EDG, RA got absolutely slaughtered due to getting caught in a bad choke point. Despite Kai’Sa being a common counterpick for Jinx, she by no means has a guaranteed advantage. And, in their game against EDG, iBoy probably should have gone AP. Going AD requires you to go in and be up close and personal to do damage. Meanwhile, going AP may have allowed him to poke down EDG and find an advantage.
Kai’Sa is a counterpick Champion that needs a specific team comp to work and differing build paths to function depending on the opposing team comp. In other words, Kai’Sa is far from being figured out. A player building and playing her perfectly with full awareness of her strengths and weaknesses could make her look completely broken, but there doesn’t seem to be any player that knows how to get the absolute most out of this Champion.
Not even Faker. He’s had some strong moments on Kai’Sa, but a fair few bad ones as well. The fact that she’s so far from being perfected is exciting, as is the possibility of seeing players from every region do their best to make Kai’Sa survive past the Jinx/Aphelios meta.
Carver is an esports journalist and analyst who specializes in Eastern League of Legends.