4 Key Questions for CLG vs. TSM
Ever since the LCS era (and arguably before it, after CLG lost star jungler Saintvicious) TSM has always beaten CLG. Although TSM vs. CLG is considered one of LoL's greatest rivalries, its becoming harder and harder to consider it a rivalry at all. In the Season 3 Summer Split and Season 4 Spring Split (when the two teams met in the play-offs) CLG went into the series with hopeful signs (a 4-0 record against TSM in the regular season in the first case, and a very strong close to the season under dexter in the latter) but still lost the NA's most popular team. On one very simple level, CLG have never beaten TSM because TSM has always been a very mid-focused team and CLG have never had an ace mid laner who could control his counterpart. Perhaps it's telling that CLG's unlucky streak against TSM came after the decline of star mid laner bigfatlp.
This season, CLG are once again entering the play-offs in no position to contend with TSM's star mid laner. While TSM made some attempts to diversify their strategies in the playoffs, they are still a very Bjergsen centric team (he dealt a whopping 41% of his team's damage in the series against Team Liquid, and in spite of all the noise from Turtle fans about his performance against Liquid, his much improved 463 damage per minute would still rank him as only the 8th best AD Carry in the NA LCS regular season even though half the play-off games his team has played were stomps.) On the other hand, while CLG's Pobelter is a great teamfight damage dealer, his laning phase is mediocre. Pobelter was not only able to punish LCS rookie Gate in their semi-final matchup, but was outroamed and outpressured in Game 1. If Pobelter can't dominate an LCS rookie, what will happen against a stronger mid laner like Bjergsen? CLG's other historic problem is that they are also rarely able to control TSM's mid laner in teamfights. In their Season 3 series, their inability to lock down Reginald's reckless Zed led to a disappointing 2-0 defeat. In their Season 4 series, CLG were able to repeatedly outrotate TSM, a clutch pick from Xpecial and a Dyrus solo-kill onto Nien brought both teams into Game 3, where Bjergsen's Karma scored a pentakill to close out the series. Unfortunately for CLG, the team once again is entering the play-offs in no position to control Bjergsen. CLG still struggles with their engages, their strengths come from their rotational and great kiting in teamfights. If Bjergsen plays a poke style and forces CLG to engage onto him, it will put a serious damper onto CLG's play-off hopes.
2. Who will engage? (And who will poke?)
In both of CLG's match-ups against TSM, Pobelter's struggles against Bjergsen in lane played a large role in the team's losses. Although Pobelter isn't CLG's weakest player, the large skill disparity between him and his counterpart will make him the team's biggest liability. But in spite of this, Pobelter also has a chance to be CLG's greatest weapon. To understand why, we have to look at the dynamic between these two teams. When CLG forces other teams to engage onto them, they will almost always win the teamfight. In an engage situation, only aphromoo is a skilled engager. But when it comes to re-engaging, Zion and even the much-maligned Xmithie are able to join aphromoo in turning a teamfight around. A big part of CLG's excellence in kiting stems from the play of their star AD Carry Doublelift. Ever since the middle half of the season, Doublelift has been playing out of his mind. At the beginning of the playoffs, I wrote about NA's "hypercarry by default" meta. Because teams are unable to Teleport flank, dominant teamfighters can single handedly carry games on hypercarry picks. At the beginning of the play-offs, I considered only Altec and Bjergsen hypercarries by default - Doublelift has joined them. Doublelift's improvement means that if CLG can force TSM to engage onto them, they'll be in a great position to win the series. On the other hand, CLG's hamfisted engages often involve sacrificing one of their teammates (usually Pobelter or Xmithie) in the hopes that their gold leads will allow them to win a 4v5. This strategy almost never works and because TSM has a great teamfight disruptor in Dyrus, an overeager engage from CLG could prove fatal. CLG must force TSM to engage onto them. That's where Pobelter comes in.
Pobelter excels at dealing damage in teamfights, and his play on scaling poke champions such as Kog'Maw or Azir have been fantastic all season long. If Pobelter gets to play a poke champion that outscales Bjergsen's, CLG will be able to simply siege TSM and force them to engage onto them. (CLG will sometimes decide to tower dive instead of sieging, a decision which has rarely paid off this season. They should be careful to avoid over-eager tower dives which could throw the game.) In both of CLG's losses to TSM, Pobelter played poke champions like Azir and Kog, and his inability to control Bjergsen put his team behind. However, his play in teamfights wasn't the problem. The main problem was CLG repeatedly forcing bad fights. With a much improved Doublelift and a hopefully more disciplined team, Pobelter's play on poke champions may force TSM to engage and therefore the game. This series will be a game of chicken, and the first team to give up the poke war and engage will likely lose the map. As it stands, TSM and Bjergsen are favored to win. If Pobelter turns it around with creative picks (CLG should strongly consider AP Kog'Maw or Ziggs, two champions which can outpoke TSM and stall out possible deficits from Bjergsen winning lane) or stellar teamfighting, CLG will win the series. Because both mid laners are good Azir players, and it perfectly fits the poke/re-engage role, except him to be picked or banned in every single game.
3. How far ahead can CLG get ahead off of lane swaps?
The first key questions, whether CLG can control Bjergsen and whether or not Pobelter can force TSM into engaging, will likely decide the series. CLG is just too good when they are kiting back, and too bad when they are trying to engage. Likewise, although Dyrus has significantly improved his Teleport and carry game this season, TSM's engages just won't be enough to take on CLG's kiting abilities. In addition, although TSM's have diversified their damage in the play-offs, they are still a very Bjergsen-centric team. But even though the poke battle between the mid laners, which favors TSM, will be the most dominant factor behind who wins the series, CLG does have an alternate win condition - rotational play.
CLG has been the best early game rotation team in the league ever since Season 4, and this year is no different. Not only does CLG have strong rotations, they also have extremely lane dominant side lanes in ZionSpartan and Doublelift/aphromoo who can take advantage of small creep or experience leads to snowball the game. One of CLG's bigger problems against TSM was that their previous top laners, Nien and Seraph, were nowhere near the level of Dyrus. On the other hand, Zion exceeds Dyrus in several key areas such as laning and individual dueling, and his split pushing will be particularly important to finding towers. If Zion can force TSM to choose between a rushed engage or sending multiple members to deal with him, he will push the match into CLG's favor. One particularly important top lane pick will be Olaf. Zion was the first Olaf player in NA but Dyrus also showed a very strong Olaf in the play-offs against Gravity. If Olaf gets a little bit ahead of the current tanky top laners seen in the meta, he can abuse this advantage to snowball the game completely. In addition, Olaf can get onto the backline without using a Teleport flank due to his ultimate, which ignores CC. The top laner who gets Olaf and gets ahead will give his team a massive advantage in the mid-to-late game teamfights.
The bot lane matchup will be just as important, as both teams are very reliant on their supports to make plays. aphromoo is one of their premier ganking supports in the West, and CLG often further snowballs their strong rotational play by having him make picks on players in transition between lanes. A very underdiscussed part of CLG's win over TiP was aphromoo's repeated ability to catch out Adrian when he was trying to ward or look for a flank. On the other hand, TSM will frequently send Lustboy to partner up with Santorin and disrupt jungler clears. This will be particularly effective against Xmithie, who struggles with his early jungle pathing and is considered the weakest player on CLG. Because both teams prioritize having a strong AD in teamfights, if CLG or TSM are able to get their AD opponents behind, they'll be able to nail Lustboy/aphromoo to their lane partners and stop them from accumulating teamwide advantages.
CLG is heavily favored to win the side lanes, both through rotations and individual play. If they don't force TSM to engage onto them, they have to be so far ahead that they can just sacrifice a team member and win a fight anyways. TSM fell far behind the strong laners of TL, but were able to claw back from 3-4k gold leads. Against a slightly better teamfighting team with much better rotations, will TSM be able to stem the bleeding before the 20-minute mark?
4. Will Santorin punish Xmithie?
TSM has two ways to stop CLG from taking over the early game. We already covered the first and most important one, Bjergsen's individual advantage over Pobelter. Bjergsen needs to snowball his lane and get his side lanes rolling, perhaps with picks like Ahri or Diana. While this matchup will certainly swing in TSM's favor, it's tough to say if it'll be enough to mitigate CLG's early game leads, especially because aphromoo and to a lesser extent Doublelift are so good at picking people off in transition. The other area TSM needs to punish CLG is in the jungle. Xmithie has shown a pretty limited champion pool thus far, and although his Ekko play against TiP was very strong, it's quite possible that if Ekko/Gragas are both banned he will default to Nautilus, who has a particularly fragile early game. CLG doesn't need Xmithie to be a dominant lane ganker, but they do need him to perform in teamfights. Many of the teams that beat CLG this season exploited Xmithie's poor early game. Expect Gragas bans from TSM and a focus on Ekko from both teams - Xmithie looks like a completely different player on that champion and Santorin also showed some fairly strong Ekko play in their series against TL.
The match-up between Santorin and Xmithie is particularly interesting. CLG banned Nidalee 3x against TiP, and will most likely do so again against Santorin, as CLG hates playing against poke champions like Nidalee. TSM frequently pairs up Lustboy with Santorin to roam the jungle, but if CLG is able to nail Lustboy to WildTurtle, Santorin will have to go on his own. The "invisible Santorin" jokes this season have been justified. Santorin just hasn't had a lot of early game presence, and his improved play in the play-offs have mostly come from playing teamfight damage champions rather than an improved early game. Santorin just hasn't shown that he's capable of punishing Xmithie this season. If he doesn't get Lustboy's help, TSM may be in trouble. Santorin will surely come out of the jungle ahead of Xmithie, but that won't be enough for TSM to win the early game if both junglers simply farm. Although Xmithie's Nautilus pick has been mocked, it'll actually be quite scary against TSM because Nautilus's ultimate allows him to guarantee a lock-down onto Bjergsen.
This series is hard to call for me, because I think that although TSM still wins the mid lane matchup, CLG has never looked comparatively stronger in the other roles. Even CLG's biggest weakness, the jungle, comes in a position where it'll be extremely hard for TSM to punish. I'm calling a TSM 3-0 win over CLG, but it's not because I think TSM is the much better team, in fact I think every single game will be extremely close.
The main deciding factor for me is that I just don't think CLG's engage issues will be overcome by the time they face TSM. Zion and Xmithie have very slowly improved their engaging throughout the season but it just hasn't been enough, as seen in their multiple botched engages against TiP. With aphro as the only solid engager, Bjergsen will just run rampant on CLG. I foresee multiple games where CLG enters a mid-game teamfight up 5k gold and barely loses the fight because they aren't able to get onto Bjergsen. I also don't think CLG's early game rotations will be enough to completely snowball the game, especially with Bjerg roaming around from the mid lane. With these factors in mind, the reason I predict a 3-0 is that I just don't see how CLG can win a game under these circumstances, and they haven't able to adapt to their core weakness all season long. They might be able to steal a game if TSM misplays the first mid-game fight (perhaps WildTurtle gets picked off early or CLG is able to dive into TSM while Lust/Santorin are away roaming for vision.)
For CLG to win this series, we have to see them adopt the "kite back" playstyle and allow Doublelift to carry. They have two possible options. Either Pobelter needs to play poke champions to force TSM into engages or Zion needs to play a dominant split-pushing champion who can either draw opponents up to his lane or force TSM to engage a fight to avoid losing multiple towers. Another alternate strategy could be to simply 1-3-1 with Doublelift playng a split-pushing champion like his beloved Vayne. The reason I'm predicting a TSM win is because of match-ups, not because TSM is a vastly superior team. If CLG can make some critical changes to their playstyle and play to their strengths over TSM, they can definitely take this series.