4 Key Questions for TiP vs. TL
1. Why does TiP keep giving Apollo hyper carries?
After TiP's 3-0 loss to CLG, the number one question on fan's minds concerned TiP's dramatic playstyle change. Most fans and analysts have always associated TiP with a very jungle/solo-lane centric style, and Apollo spent most of Season 5 playing Sivir and Graves. Between Rush's sudden shift to Nunu and Sejuani last season and Apollo's sudden love for Kog'Maw, fans began joking that it was just Impulse's style to try out new strategies in the playoffs. However, a closer look reveals that TiP's new Apollo-centric playstyle is a necessary adaptation forced by XiaoWeiXiao's suspension.
Rush deals far more damage than any other jungler in the league, and although XiaoWeiXiao was frequently criticized for his inconsistency, his strong play on assassins like LeBlanc and Ahri meant that he was usually a perfect compliment to Rush's forward style. Although Impact did occasionally bring out carry picks like Rumble or Yasuo, he actually spent most of his time on picks such as Maokai or Shen which could support TiP's brawling playstyle. With XiaoWeiXiao replacing Gate, Team Impulse simply don't have enough damage in the mid lane to keep Apollo on supportive AD picks. Gate has a fairly limited champion pool, and CLG banned Azir in all three games, which is his highest damage champion. This forces Gate to play either the supportive Lulu/Orianna, or Viktor, which he isn't super comfortable on. As a result, Apollo needs to play hyper carry picks like Kog'Maw if he wants his team to succeed. (Vayne was an awful pick for them due to her short range, they should look to Jinx or Tristana instead.)
It's important to note that TiP not only can play a hypercarry style, they can play it quite well. Before the CLG series, TiP beat GV in the tie-breaker and swept Dignitas using a hypercarry style. The same style also nearly led them to an hour-long comeback against TL. In fact, Apollo has only played Sivir once since Gate joined the team. In that game, Impact still played Shen, the difference-maker was Gate on Azir. That's not to say that Impact should always play supportive picks (in fact, an Impact Olaf would synergize very well with a Lulu pick from Gate) or that Impulse is perfect at the hyper-carry style. Impulse frequently falls back to old habits and overdove to throw twice against CLG in Game 1. In this series, TiP's players will have to trust the system and kite back, a strategy which can definitely punish poor engage teams like TL. On the other hand, Apollo struggle in lane against the lane dominant Doublelift in their CLG series, especially because his picks were weak against Doublelift's. For TiP's hyper carry strategy to work, Apollo needs to make it to the teamfight phase in good shape. Against TL and Piglet, Apollo has another difficult road ahead of him.
2. What has changed since their last series? (a TL 3-2 over TiP)
On a most basic level, fans might expect a TL win simply because TL won their last series in the Spring Split and have since lost XiaoWeiXiao, who was one of their best players. The suspension of XiaoWeiXiao is a significant for TiP, especially against TL. Although Gate is a good supportive teamfighter, his biggest weakness is his laning phase, which is Fenix's greatest strength. In addition, XiaoWeiXiao was a consistent playoff clutch performer who frequently played his best games in the play-offs, particularly against Curse/TL. XWX was a huge factor in LMQ's reverse sweep in Season 4, and he nearly carried TiP past TL in last year's third place decider. But although the loss of XiaoWeiXiao is indeed the most notable change since last split's playoff series, it isn't the only one. In fact, several critical factors have swung in Team Impulse's favor.
Sejuani has fallen out of the meta -
Last split's play-off series was heavily centered around Sejuani. Sejuani went picked/banned in every single game of that series except for Game 1, and was a huge burden on Team Impulse in all 5 games. Simply put, Dominate was the best Sejuani in the West, and Rush couldn't play Sejuani to save his life. Game 1, TL picked Rek'Sai instead of Sej for Dominate, and TiP won. In Game 2, Dominate hard carried TiP on his Sej and drew bans for Games 3 and 4. In Game 5, Rush's disastrous Sejuani gave Liquid the win. This play-off series, the meta has fallen into Rush's favor. Rush drew Elise and Nidalee bans against CLG, and he can still play old favorites like Lee Sin or Evelynn.
Xpecial's decline and Adrian's rise -
Adrian began the Spring Split as a fairly mediocre player, but he was able to quickly improve in nearly all aspects of his game to become the best support by the middle of this split. This split, Adrian has the highest kill participation and warding out of all NA LCS support players, and his play on Alistar and Janna have been particularly threatening. On the other hand, Xpecial's play, once easily the best in North America, has sharply declined. Although Xpecial is still quite good in lane, his engaging, once his calling card, has completely fallen off. TL has a big problem with starting teamfights, and Adrian is a master at engaging and disengaging.
The loss of XiaoWeiXiao will hurt TiP, but they've developed new weapons and are coming into this series a very different team. It's hard to say whether a favorable meta for Rush or Adrian's improvement is enough to off-set XiaoWeiXiao's strong play, but its important to reiterate that Gate is a stable teamfighter. If TL want to take advantage of XiaoWeiXiao's absence, they will need to punish him in the laning phase.
3. Why does TL need FeniX to play Azir?
In my TSM vs. TL series, I covered why TL seems to perform so much better when Fenix gets to play Azir. In this particular match-up, it bears repeating. Analysts frequently criticized TL for their poor teamfighting, but never discussed the core reason behind it - TL simply doesn't have any good teamfighting players! Quas and Fenix are both strong laners who struggle in teamfights. Quas has very poor Teleport play and frequently overextends without realizing that his team is unable to follow up on his engage. On the other hand, Fenix seemingly doesn't understand how to maximize the cooldown windows of his AoE abilities. He will hastily use high damage spells such as the Viktor laser on a single target (oftentimes even a tank) and find himself unable to punish grouped-up opponents. Piglet was a strong secondary teamfight carry for SKT, but his biggest strengths were always his split pushing or playmaking on champions like Twitch or Vayne. On TL, his teamfighting has declined further. Finally, Dom and Xpecial were once great teamfighters (and especially engagers), but meta shifts and individual decline have made them both, Xpecial particularly, much less potent.
This all changes when FeniX plays Azir. FeniX can play well in lane on almost any champion, but he only knows how to teamfight properly on the Emperor of the Sands. When FeniX gets Azir, TL have a player to rally around and peel for, and Piglet is able to comfortably fall into the secondary carry role. As mentioned earlier, Azir is also the only high damage champion Gate has felt comfortable playing so far during his time in the NA LCS. Expect Azir to be picked or banned every single game.
4. Who keeps telling Quas to play supports in the playoffs?
A team with strong laners but poor teamfighting, such as Team Liquid, should look to split-push. The weird thing about TL (and even Curse) is that although they have one of the best split pushing players in the region on their team, they almost never give him split-push carry champions in the playoffs. In Season 4, Crs was able to upset CLG 3-0 in the quarter finals off the back of Quas's Bloodthirster + Frozen Mallet Nidalee. Even though that Curse team was a much better teamfighting squad (Dom + Xpecial still in their primes as engagers, and another teamfight playmaker in Voyboy) they saw the most success from using Quas as a split pusher. Unfortunately, during their subsequent series, C9's 3-0 sweep and LMQ's reverse sweep, Crs instead kept giving Quas supportive champions like Lulu. Last split saw similar results. TL would alternate between giving Quas carry picks like Hecarim and shunting him onto engage tanks like Maokai or supports like the aforementioned Lulu. Once again, the same thing happened in their series against TSM, as Quas repeatedly tried to force ineffective teamfights on champions like Maokai.
It's not a particularly controversial statement to suggest that teams should play around their best players and their strengths, and this is particularly true in the playoffs. When FeniX isn't on Azir, TL just isn't a good teamfighting team. They managed to find one game of success against TSM by giving Piglet Vayne and letting him snowball off of split pushing and catching opponents in transition when they tried to answer his split push. They have another player just like that in the top lane in Quas. If TL gives Quas the champions and the support he needs to get past Impact, they will have a big performance.
I think this series is a lot closer than most expect, but I'm still going to go with a TL 3-1 win. I don't think TL will finally decide to shake up a 2 year pattern to consistently put Quas on carries, nor do I think they will solve their teamfighting problems without Azir. If TL is able to improve on either of these factors, they should be able to propel themselves into a much more comfortable win over Impulse. As it currently stands, this will be a close series because TL hasn't solved their identity crisis. I think TL will be able to get the win not based on their own play, but through Impulse's discomfort playing into a new style. Look for Impulse to repeatedly engage fights onto a fed TL coming out of the laning phase.
Impulse has significantly improved since last split, and their young trio of Rush, Adrian, and Apollo are all better players than they were 3 months ago. The main problem for Impulse is their sudden identity shift. It's clear that Impulse is not comfortable playing a kiting style against superior opposition. Even though Impulse was able to beat CLG in teamfights in Games 1 and 3 whenever they kited back, they would still force bad fights and they just don't have the firepower to win those fights without XiaoWeiXiao and his assassins. I predicted a 3-1 win for Impulse over CLG, and I would predict another Team Impulse win if they play a kite style (as this takes advantage of TL's poor engage, a weakness they share with CLG) but I just don't think TiP have the discipline to stick to their newfound playstyle after watching the CLG series.