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A basic attack is a term for a single target attack ability, which has no Cooldown associate with it. Many strong attack-related abilities (such as Swarm and Split) only trigger off of basic attacks, and not attacks in general. It is easy to tell if an attack is basic or not -- if it is a basic attack, it will say "basic attack" in it's description.

Most champions have a basic attack of one or more damage types, such as Attack: Frost

If the ability description simply says "attack", and not "basic attack", then it is not a basic attack .  Many special attacks, such as Stab, the attacks made by Manic, and the attack from Heavy Crossbow are not basic attacks, even though they appear to be similar.

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