A Tigers Achilles heel?
2015 was a great year for the GE Tigers, finishing Second in Champions Spring, Third in Summer, qualifying for Worlds without a gauntlet run, and finishing the World Championship as runners up to the perennial SKT T1. Despite an envious curriculum vitae of results decision making, team identity and meta shifts seemed to cast a shadow the crew of IM and Najin rejects, and they seemed to just fall short of the potential that they evidenced throughout some of their play during the regular season (we shall never speak of IEM again).
Fast forward to Champions Spring 2016, and the “hype train” has got the ROX Tigers as the number 1 team in Korea by a decent margin. Not only does the Meta allow for Top Laner Smeb to create more laning and map pressure, pushing power, carry potential and utility when needed (all of which he is incredibly skilled) but Picks and Bans seem to suit the Tigers extremely well. Every member of the team has an incredibly strong laning phase. Note that this doesn’t mean their opposition is belted and worn down into oblivion; each laner provides the whole team with the necessary pressure needed for overall success. Every member of the Tigers also has some incredibly strong individual picks available to them. In fact, every member of the Tigers has multiple ban worthy champions, which eases their pressure in Picks and Bans considerably. Team compositions are much easier to create, especially around banned or ‘picked away’ champions. Objective control for the Tigers team fight proficiency follows the old adage of “Patience and Time” and this is working to extremely good effect. Indeed, their overall team fight proficiency has improved significantly and it suits the snowball meta that has come to exist on the rift (will Ezreal be a permaban against Bang forever more?). The prevalent meta suits the Tigers very well, but moreover, the pressure from the jungle has changed how teams approach the Tigers.
Jungle is the one change to the team that started Champions Spring 2015. The passive, withdrawn (in play style) Hojin (nee Lee) has been replaced with the hyper aggressive, pathing wunderkid and “mechanically proficient” Peanut. Another wayward Najin (this time from e-Mfire, not Black Sword or White Shield), he was considered to be a risky jungler who did not understand calm and control. His collaboration with other laners during his time at Najin did not produce spectacular results and often fizzled out because pressure could not be built. Perhaps the court of popular public opinion would have said that he was too aggressive and a liability for the structured, controlled, dependent systems of Korean League of Legends. It may have also pleased the court to blame those losses on Peanut, but perhaps there was other team issues. e-Mfire results in Summer 2015 were hit and miss - mostly miss.
So how is it, that this jungler, who was such a liability for another team, bring so much success to the ROX Tigers, who were renowned in 2015 for having a very specific identity which did not involve early bravado and adverse risk?
There is no doubt that Peanut is an extremely proficient individual player. The ‘pop culture’ term ‘great mechanics’ would probably fit here, because he has shown evidence of being able to outplay his opponents in both SoloQ (middle of Challenger) and Champions for the Tigers and Najin. Improvements between last year and this year are difficult to gauge as he spent considerable time on the bench last year. The skills he has displayed recently are either a core characteristic of his play style or have been developed since leaving Najin. Ganks are quick, ruthless and efficient because he has strong understanding of what facilities the enemy laners have available, and he is able to counter them consistently. The question remains though - Why could Najin not capitalise on these skills to show similar success?
The answer is simple - the lanes could not support his roaming, farming and ganking which severely impacted his ability to provide support for the lanes. Its a two way street. However, the simplicity of the problem ends there. There is a complex process involved in supporting an incredibly aggressive jungler like Peanut, and the lanes need to co-ordinate a number of things to ensure their junglers safety. The 2 most interesting statistics I have seen is that shows that Peanut takes a huge number of enemy buffs (that is invading the enemy jungle to take their buffs) compared to Bengi (at the time). While an invade is an invade, Peanut is spending an incredible amount of time in the enemy red and blue jungles, but not being punished for it. Peanut takes 1.1 enemy buffs per game, as opposed to Bengi for example, who take 0.4.
Statistically speaking the Tigers are also the lowest Warders in the LCK, with 3.32 wpm (wards per minute). Samsung have the highest at 4.26wpm, SKT are at 3.67wpm and the average is about 3.85wpm. The Tigers also remove the least amount of wards removed per minute, at 1.44wpm, and clear only 23% of invisible wards (average for LCK is 28%). With minimal warding and minimal ward removal, vision seems to be low on the priority list for the Tigers.
As a caveat to these points, im not saying Bengi isn’t a good jungler and that the Tigers have bad vision. Statistics are just that – they are points of data that can be used to help evidence a particular point. They don’t lie, they are just either incomplete or not specific enough.
Considering the information above, the Tigers lanes are able to lock down the opposition to either not allow them to protect their own jungle, or have to give up significant CS and exp. to be able to punish him. If Peanut is in the Blue side Red jungle, Pray and Gorilla are able to aggressively push the wave either into the tower, or control it in a position that is extremely comfortable for the opposition bottom lane to continue to farm in whereby it would be detrimental to the lane for them to leave for a potential defence of their Red jungle that may or may not result in a kill. The Tigers bottom lane is a strong one, as they do not fall behind often, if ever, and can abuse a lead easily. You don’t want to just GIVE them a lead. When Peanut invades, he is not going to do so when the enemy lane is pushed into his tower, as Pray and Gorilla are not in close proximity to support his escape/kill pressure should things to awry. Further, Kuro has his enemy in a position that doesn’t allow him to just stroll out of lane without a significant downside - either he is seen leaving and it is communicated to everyone, or the laner looses CS and damage on the all important map pressuring mid tower. Again, proper wave placement and control is needed to ensure there is minimal pressure on the Tigers to protect his invade. This is almost always champion specific. Smeb locks down top lane, because the enemy top laner isn’t going to teleport bottom to possibly protect a Red Buff when a gank on the lane could be more beneficial. If the top laner chooses to do so, it is a very telegraphed move, and hence easy to counter. The only variable seems to be the enemy jungler, who the Tigers influence easily.
There is a huge amount of co-ordination needed for this to be successful, and careful planning and practice in developing this game sense has to have been a key for the Tigers pre-season. The skills and abilities that the 4 original Tigers bring to the game seem to align perfectly with Peanut’s aggressiveness and ability to invade jungles with little risk and high reward. While this may be easy to see in their first three series wins, I was most impressed with this execution in the first game loss (yes a loss) to SKT. Peanut started Gromp in his Blue jungle on the blue side. He was zoned off his Blue camp by Bang and Wolf, and proceeded to make his way down to the Wolves, Wraiths and Red camp. Peanut pinged the Wraiths while Kuro had frozen the mid wave, while GorillA was making his way down to the bottom lane, cheating slightly into the Blue SKT jungle, looking for vision and hopefully an enemy jungler. Smeb left top to help Peanut catch up (one buff down) to assist taking bottom tower, while SKT were going to move to top tower while it was open. Bengi was obviously going to follow to the open top, so regardless on which side of the jungle he started (Red or Blue), he was going to end up top side to support taking the turret. By this time, Peanut is at Red buff, and Kuro does something really interesting. At 2:56 minutes in, after having a frozen wave, Kuro rushes Faker. Faker falls back to his turret (the match up against Lulu would chunk him out) and Kuro cheats forward on the wave to get ready to push it in. It is only really short, and is over by 3:00. But the wave is then pushed in for a while, as everyone is only low levels.
At this time, SKT have jumped into top tower to take it, and the Tigers are following suit on the bottom side. Bengi is top side most likely (from Tigers perspective as they had no vision there). 3:20, and the wave is on the tower. Lissandra has minimal wave clear, looses some minor CS, but cant get the wave off tower because Lulu is threatening (mid tower damage is still happening). 3:25 and Peanut is in the tri-brush on the SKT blue and pushing in to gank, while more than half of the minion wave is still on the tower. Now, by 3:30 the SKT minion wave comes in to push the enemy wave off. Peanut backs off, continues to farm, and Lulu freezes the wave again. The game continues.
The communication and faith the Tigers have in each other is being used to great effect. The time it took for Peanut to start the previously pinged Wraith camp, Red camp and move to the SKT Blue river mid tri-brush, Kuro was able to manipulate the mid wave to keep his minions alive, push Faker back under his tower and crash his minions against the super important mid tower for damage, but more importantly, zoning. Faker is behind his tower with no way to wave clear as yet, and because he doesn’t want to fall behind in CS to Kuro (with Lulu), he isn’t going to put himself in a position to take damage. Peanut is able to move into a position to be able to potentially dive this, as the enemy jungler is most likely nowhere close (risk, but calculated), the lanes have been locked up taking a tower, and it’s a 2v1 at best. An excellent calculated risk for professional League of Legends teams.
Every gank or movement that Peanut makes on the map is closely supported by his team mates in some way, shape or form. Vision is not necessary, because Peanut chooses champions he can trade and escape with should he stumble across the enemy jungler at any time. If camps have been taken, he knows that someone has been through the area, most likely the jungler in the early game. If you know where the enemy ISN’T or HAS BEEN, you can make an educated guess as to where they are or are going to be next. Peanut is the MonteChristo adorned Fighting ward because that is precisely what he does.
Remember, Peanut’s picks are a possibility because the laners always have ban worthy champions, and if Peanut is focused in Picks and Bans, one of the laners can potentially carry. He also has what seems to be a deep champion pool that he can take advantage of in most cases we have seen. Kindred is a favorite pick for him, because it suits his playstyle and the Tigers new playstyle perfectly. At this time, Peanut has not had a problem with any enemy jungler during the laning phase and mid game. He has out-traded all of them with either damage, or zoning that pushes them away from lanes or other camps. The Tigers seem to be able to make the right decision is things to a little awry, and they have looked fairly unstoppable – they haven’t lost a series and their record stands at 8-2 right now. Every jungle pick for the Tigers has been conducive to creating win conditions that they as a whole team can capitalize on, and it doesn’t look like changing.
But this is their Achilles heel. Their greatest strength is their greatest weakness. And it is going to come down to human error. Their strategy at the moment is very very strong. But this comes down to making great decisions, using their lane advantages to good use, building on advantages and rotating very well. All of this is human decision making. When decisions made are incorrectly, when opposition teams win certain objectives that help consolidate their own strengths to the detriment of the Tigers, or someone just makes a mistake, can they come back? Can Peanut play from far behind? If teams start doing what the Tigers do, is that perfectly countering the pressure Peanut creates from always, ALWAYS being where the enemy jungler isn’t? If Peanut fails, does the rest of the team become less effectual on the Rift?
The Tigers are playing clockwork League of Legends at the moment, and it doesn’t look like stopping. But when it does, it will be because this playstyle will be countered, things won’t turn out the way they want them to or they make a bad decision. SKT started to push Peanut around early (which I think is when you need to attack him) but the team rallied and made the deficit back up and went back to their merry ways of strong laning and skilled plays. He is also a very young player, so how does he handle pressure? How does he deal with Meta shifts, and buffs and nerfs to his strongest or weakest champions? These are all questions that the Tigers will have to answer over the coming year. Working in their favor is the relationship these players have. Peanut is always smiling and laughing, the whole team sings in the booth minutes before the game. They wear pink sweaters and cats ears on stage, and they don’t care one iota. They had to move a level up in their apartment building because they make too much noise when the practice! I am not going to predict their successes this season, but I am going to say regardless the outcome, they are going to have a great time doing it.