Sometimes we take certain things we know for granted. It's why people say League of Legends is an easy game when it's actually very difficult and complex. In the same way, I mostly assumed that people understood the basic idea of using wealth to get you ahead in the game.
However, it seems like for the most part people do not. Everyone understands the idea that getting gold gets you items and items make you stronger. However, it doesn't seem to be widely understood that because you can turn wealth into power, you want to turn it into as much power as you can right now and leverage it to put you ahead. Power now is always better than power later.
A quick recap of why Tear kinda sucks
Last week, we discussed that buying a Tear is wasting gold. There's a dispute there, clearly. Buying a Tear brings you closer to getting an Archangel's Staff (or Manamune), which are fairly good items. Archangel's Staff (or rather, its finished version, Seraph's Embrace) gives the highest amount of raw ability power in the game due to its unique passive. This ability power multiplies on Rabadon's Deathcap and gives mages a tremendous amount of magical offense.
However, as we talked about last week, a big chunk of the cost of the Tear is not helping you at all, since flat mana is not very useful except to Ryze, Singed, and Blitzcrank. You would be better off buying something that gives more power, such as a Philosopher's Stone or Spirit Stone. Philosopher's Stone can be sold later at a likely profit (since its GP/10 passive pays even after about eight minutes). Spirit Stone can be made into a wide variety of useful items, so it is not a gold loss.
The big point though, is that these items give more actual power to their holders. Someone holding a Philo can last longer in lane than someone holding a Tear. That's just a fact.
Get powered up now
Snowballing is the common mechanic where one side gains power, which allows them to gain power more easily. Buying power now -- meaning anything that will give you an advantage right now -- is better than buying something that will pay off later, or saving for something that will give you an advantage later. If you and your lane opponent both have 1000 gold, but he spent all of it on things that will help him win the lane in the next five minutes, while you spent it on things that will pay off 15 minutes from now, you might not get that payoff before your opponent gets considerably ahead on gold. You're gambling that either your opponent will make bad buys (or long-term buys) or you will outplay him.
If you buy power right now, you can use it to get ahead, which will let you buy even more power. This is why people buy Doran's items, why people buy piecemeal items instead of completing their build item by item, and why they buy consumables.
Let's get away from Tear of the Goddess for a moment and talk about health potions. Health potions are extremely powerful. They're consumables that effectively give you 150 bonus hit points. They don't increase your burst damage resistance, since they work over time, but in terms of lane survivability, you are practically buying a ruby crystal for 35 gold. That's fantastic. Health pots give a ton of power right when you need them.
At later levels they aren't very useful. Since damage goes up, mitigation becomes more important, and engagements last less than 15 seconds so someone is unlikely to get all the healing from a pot before he dies. However, in the early game, they're huge; you want to last in lane as long as possible, and if a pot lets you get three additional last-hits before you have to return to base, it more than paid for itself. If they let you get ahead in any way over your opponent by letting you win trades (forcing him to flee to base), they contribute to the snowball effect.
Almost everyone buys potions. The people who don't are probably inexperienced. Potions give so much power that they have been constantly targeted by Riot for nerfs. First, they were nerfed to 150 HP instead of 200, and then they were nerfed so you could only have five in your inventory. Pros started to realize that buying pots was so good that it was better than virtually any other item pick, so they limited the stack to five so players would be forced to at least buy something else. The same was true of Elixir of Fortitude; it was nerfed to cost more because it gave more "right now" power than many other opening options.
Because consumables are consumables, they have to give more power than other options for their cost, which inevitably makes them stronger when it comes to trying to get ahead.
Of course, if we take that to the logical extreme, it's always better to buy potions than real items, right? Fortunately, we are capped at five in the inventory so even if that was true (and in the early game it pretty much is true) we would still have to buy other items. However, prior to the potion stack nerf, people did not simply buy all potions.
For starters, there are very limited options for buying offensive power other than standard items. Elixirs give good offense for the cost, but you can't buy an Elixir of Mega Brilliance that gives 100 ability power.
Additionally, the merits of extra health (and to a lesser degree, extra mana) are limited somewhat compared to the increase in damage scaling of ranked abilities. Furthermore, buying +AD items for physical attackers helps aid in last-hitting, which is usually desirable.
So when do we buy other items? Well, first off, elixirs are a bit costly, so you probably don't want to buy an elixir unless you have a good strategy behind it. If you are losing and you need extra power for a shot at winning the next teamfight, elixirs are a good buy. Otherwise, they're kind of gambling; if they don't get you a kill they probably aren't worth it.
Second, in the early game you really can't go wrong with more potions. If you can fit more potions into your purchase, do so. Never go into any part of the laning phase without potions in your inventory. It is a good idea, generally speaking, to have at least a few until levels 10 to 13. Alternatively, if you have lifesteal or spell vamp or passive health regen that rivals 10 HP/sec, it's probably time to stop buying them.
Above all, buy power now. I'm not saying that Rod of Ages is bad (it's pretty good even before its passive kicks in), but items that give lots of power right now are preferable to items you have to wait for. This is, in a nutshell, why I'll pretty much always buy a Grail over an AA if I want mana regen.
We understand what it's like to climb the skill ladder in League of Legends. The Summoner's Guidebook teaches you the tools you need to get a competitive edge. Whether you're climbing the ranked ladder, playing Draft Dominion, or getting crushed by intermediate bots, every enemy has a weakness. And every Thursday, Patrick Mackey shows how you can improve improve on yours.