The pick and ban phase in League of Legends is an intricate dance. It sets the tone for the entire match, deciding how both teams need to play to earn victory. It’s a game of cat and mouse, of strategy and deceit, where a week of preparation and planning come crashing down after one creative pick.
The final weekend of the League Championship Series (LCS) regular season kicked off with a bout featuring one such game-within-a-game. Gravity Gaming needed a win over Cloud9 to outpace Team Liquid and Team 8 in the standings, and they came prepared.
Cloud9 jungler William “Meteos” Hartman identified picks and bans as one area that’s caused some of the team’s inconsistency this year. Against Gravity Gaming, he said, “We were caught off guard.”
Against Gravity Gaming that’s not uncommon because many don’t anticipate their oddball champion picks. Mid laner Lae-young “Keane” Jang is famous for his his off meta and trendy selections, like taking Urgot into the LCS for the first time this year last week against Team SoloMid.
But Cloud9 didn’t want to take a chance. They banned out Urgot and Vladimir.
“We know Keane is pretty well-known for his weird picks mid,” Meteos said. Recently, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, the SK Telecom T1 mid lane who serves as inspiration for players like Keane the world over, pulled Vladimir out in the mid lane. Cloud9 believed that Keane or top laner Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell might play him.
“We scrimmed them two weeks ago and they were spamming a lot of Vlad,” Meteos said. “He’s just an annoying champion. He’s almost Kassadin-esque where you have to punish him early game or he just becomes a monster.”
Last week, Team 8 upset Cloud9 in large part thanks to the Vladimir play of top laner Steven “CaliTrlolz” Kim, who said in an interview that they wouldn’t have won the game without the champions. Meteos said it gave Cloud9 tons of trouble.
“When you try to kill the front line and you have someone going invulnerable for five seconds it makes it a lot harder,” he said. “We figured it’d be easier for us if that was off the table.”
That makes sense, as long as you’re ready for Gravity’s contingency plan. Gravity first picked Rumble, a team fight monster and potential carry in the hands of Hauntzer. Cloud9 responded with Sejuani and Zed, grabbing one of the strongest junglers after the recent Cinderhulk patch in Sejuani and mid laner Hai Lam’s best champion. Gravity’s next rotation added Morgana and Nunu, standard fare for their jungle and support positions. Cloud9 responded with Nautilus, support player Daerek “LemonNation” Hart’s favorite new toy, and Kennen for top laner Ahn “Balls” Le, a counter pick against the Rumble, who fares well against some of Ball’s favorite current champs like Maokai.
Then in their final rotation, Gravity hovered Irelia. “It’s kind of funny actually,” Meteos said, relating the team’s comms while awaiting Gravity’s picks.
“Is that going to be Irelia mid versus Zed?” they wondered. A reasonable deduction, considering Gravity already had top lane champion Rumble. Irelia, traditionally played top, has also seen play at mid and even support in other regions this year.
Then Balls piped up: “Oh yeah by the way, Keane plays a lot of Rumble mid.”
“What the hell, Balls?” the team replied. “Why are you telling us this now? Why didn’t you tell us this during preparations?”
“Oh. I just remembered.” Woops.
If Cloud9 had read our interview with Keane last week, then they may not have been so surprised. “I really like Rumble mid,” he said. “I play him solo queue a lot. If there is a good matchup that comes out in LCS, I might pick it.”
This was the perfect time. Rumble is solid against Zed in the mid lane and it left Balls in a poor lane matchup on one of his least comfortable champions. That gets Irelia into a good matchup so she can get fed and stop the Zed split push.
“It turned out to be a pretty strong pick from them,” Hartman said, but he didn’t feel like they were “super behind on picks-bans.”
“I wasn’t really too worried about our draft,” Hartman said. “I was comfortable with my pick. I think our team comp was good, we were all on comfort champions except Balls. He’s not the biggest Kennen player. It was sort of a counter pick to the Rumble but it ended up not even being that matchup. So it was hard for him that game. But I think otherwise our team comp was good.”
Hartman particular liked his Sejuani, noting that the matchup against Nunu is “interesting.”
“Nunu is a little bit stronger in the very early levels before Sejuani gets her ult,” he said. “He’s got more vision control than her. But basically I was just trying to not let Nunu make so many plays. Try to keep track of him, keep track of where he wards so I can avoid them to put pressure on the map that way and eventually look to outscale him.”
The match started quickly with Cloud9 scoring a pair of kills on Rumble in the mid lane thanks to ganks by Meteos. A Gravity counter-gank evened things up a few minutes later.
But one of the bigger early plays in the game didn’t involve the junglers. Cloud9’s bottom lane duo, LemonNation and Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi, managed to kill their lane foes and take their tower with “no interference whatsoever” from Hartman.
“That was really good,” he said. That opened up bottom lane for a gank just minutes later.
“When we killed them the next time they were getting wards our top side so the response is getting wards bottom side if you don’t want to fight them. We got the wards up. We saw they were pushed out from their turrets.”
It was a “free kill,” Hartman said. He thought they’d get both Caitlyn and Morgana again, so he used his ultimate to freeze Caitlyn to guarantee one. “Sneaky said I got this, so me and Lemon started to get ready to give him the kill then he got hit by a [Dark Binding] and got away. Overall we still killed the Caitlyn, which is what matters.”
Before this week, Gravity Gaming marksman David “Cop” Roberson featured the highest kill share of any players in the NA LCS. No team is as reliant on their AD carry to carry them in the late game, but that works out well for Gravity because Cop is incredibly consistent. Today was a rare poor performance for the player, starting with getting wiped in the two-on-two matchup. After dying in the gank, he buried his face in his hands in frustration. Later, during a split push to secure an extra tower after the teams traded objectives, Cop surrendered a kill to Hai’s Zed in a two-on-one situation, as his Nunu looked on helpless. The AD carry finished the match with a 1/5/5 KDA.
Cloud9 didn’t enter the match with a strategy to shut down Cop, but they certainly punished him when he made mistakes. That’s also how they managed to grab victory.
Cloud9 had a 2.8k gold lead at the 20 minute mark but Gravity swung things back in their favor with a fight at Dragon just minutes later. Gravity scored two kills and a tower from the fight, with another kill and tower during cleanup. Hartman managed to pull off a clutch play and out-smite Brandon “SaintVicious” DiMarco and his consume combo to at least mitigate the damage.
“It happens,” Hartman said. “It’s kind of embarrassing for him because he was Nunu and he has the consume smite combo, but it happens all the time. I get out-smited too. I don’t think too much about it. I was happy I got it but I wasn’t laughing at him or anything, it’s just part of the game.”
A few minutes later, with the next Dragon about to spawn, Cloud9 was in a pickle.
“We were in the mindset we shouldn’t be team-fighting these guys,” Hartman said. “They had a super fed Irelia. They had a Rumble mid, and Rumble is just a god Dragon fighter. So we were like okay, let’s avoid team fights at all costs.”
Gravity started setting up for Dragon. Cloud9 had just cleared wards on Baron. So Meteos made a call: “We can do Baron when they go for Dragon.” But Hai and Sneaky both recalled when Gravity started their objective.
“I was like ‘Huh. I guess we don’t get Baron,’” Meteos said. “But we could set up here and look for a pick, because sometimes teams that are worried about Baron will send one dude scurrying towards it to ward it. We can pick him off.”
Hai and Sneaky started heading over to Baron to set up the trap. But then Gravity gave them a gift—they showed multiple players in the bottom lane. “We were like okay, I guess we’ll take the free baron,” Hartman said, almost apologetic it was so easy.
Securing the Baron swung the game massively in Cloud9’s favor. A 1.5k gold lead at 26 minutes ballooned to 4.3k just two minutes later. Instead of being forced into iffy team fights at Dragon, with their lanes pushed in and Hai struggling to split push against Irelia, Cloud9 was now on the offensive. Gravity would nearly pull off a comeback after winning a team fight thanks to some sloppy play from Cloud9, but the former American champions eventually closed out the match.
After the match, Meteos said Gravity shot caller SaintVicious told him their call after taking that Dragon was a mistake. “Man, I should have expected that Baron,” he said. “You guys do it all the time to us in scrims.”
“It worked out. It was a little bit of a misplay on their part,” Meteos said. “I know what they were going for. They wanted the bot turrets because they could have taken two and they were strong right then so it wasn’t the worst thought process by them, but it was an oversight to forget about Baron. Getting a Baron will definitely swing any game.”
In the grand scheme of things, the loss means little for Gravity. At 9-8, they’re tied with Team 8 for fifth place in the league. Both teams currently hold playoff spots, and they face each other on Sunday. Win, and you’re in. Lose, and you may have to face a tiebreaker with Team Liquid to secure playoff hopes. While they lost to Cloud9 thanks to a big mistake and some misplays, they still showed off some strengths: a top-notch pick and ban phase that keeps any opponent guessing, solid team fighting, and good shot calling save for that critical mistake.
For Cloud9, the win changes their fate little. After their loss to Team 8 last week, any hope of making a charge to the top of the standings ended. They likely won’t secure a playoff bye, even if they beat Team SoloMid tomorrow, though they could end up in a tiebreak scenario with Counter Logic Gaming. Whatever happens, Hartman isn’t holding his breath.
“If we win it’ll be nice, but we’re getting into the playoffs no matter what,” he said. “I don’t think the bye matters too much, because if we’re good enough to win all of playoffs, we can do it with or without a bye. We should be better than any team there if we’re going to win and get to the Midseason Invitational. I don’t care too much about seeding.”
That’s not a sentiment some share, considering a bye week gives you one extra week to prepare for your opponents, and a chance to watch them in a best-of-five series while keeping your own strategies secret. But for Cloud9, that may not matter much. If they play their game, anything is possible.
Playing Team SoloMid will be a “hard game,” he says, but Cloud9 is playing well in scrims since returning from the Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice, Poland.
“Obviously scrim results mean nothing because scrims are always super troll, but I think we’re playing better as a team than we have in the past,” he says. “Maybe that’s enough to beat TSM. Maybe they’ll have an off day. I guess we’ll see how it goes. I don’t have too many predictions.”