Bjergsen carried TSM through regular season and playoffs to their second LCS and his MVP title. Back in Europe PowerOfEvil and Febiven had (in their rookie season) runs to the LCS final, where Fnatic (and Febiven) won the trophy. Internationally these players didn´t fail to impress either – at MSI Febiven reached the semifinals, where he played with chevalier boldness, (in some games) defeating and solokilling the best player of all time. Admittedly TSM´s MSI was disappointing and Bjergsen diverged from his successful carry playstyle, but earlier this year he managed to show his skill at IEM Katowice and win his first international title. The success story of the European midlaner has a new chapter.
This recent resurgence of greatness provides incentive to discuss and dissect why Europe has the reputation to produce great mids and which players stand at the core of its origin.
Despite Shushei´s (and xPeke´s) miracle Season 1 World Championship run in Sweden (featuring unconventional picks like AP-Alistar or Gragas) the true rise of Europe´s (first generation of) mid lane stars took place in Season 2: The colorful and charismatic Ocelote, famed for his Cassiopeia play, broke into the scene and claimed a spot among the most prolific players, while shortly later the mysterious (and often overlooked) extinct carried his team AbsoluteLegends/Curse.EU to success and made his mark as a strong individual player with extraordinary mechanics. But these were just sideshows – in reality, only two names truly embody the success and greatness of European mids: AlexIch and Froggen.
The dynamic between these two, very different, players provided one of the true rivalries in league of legends: competitors, stars of their teams, facing each other, being beaten and beating their rival. Both were victors, despite fundamentally contrastive approach and strength, which made this not only a clash of great players but of styles.
I want to shed some light on this rivalry – why it became one and why it was important and special. I will compare these competitors and try to illuminate similarities and (more interestingly) differences.
CLG.eu and Moscow 5 were the last western teams in contention to be the best in the world. Both had great success, but trod contrasting paths in achieving it:
“Chaos is a ladder.” Petyr “Little finger” Baelish
M5 was an explosive team with countless innovative picks and generally a forward mentally, they were known for contesting every objective and ruthlessly capitalizing on even small mistakes. This was made possible by instinctive brilliance in team fights and natural synergy of their members.
“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.” Sun Tzu
CLG.eu on the other hand liked to play a very slow game, trying their very best to reach a point where their late game teamcomposition was in full effect and their strength of kiting back in fights and picking the right engagements was emphasized.
As different as those teams were, the difference between their star midlaners was even more significant.
Fire and Ice
Where AlexIch was fierce and destructive, often finding the perfect moment of aggression – deciding the teamfight (or even the game) in an instance, Froggen played with the calculation and precision of an intuitive mathematical genius, constantly dwindling his opponents down and slowly building a lead which would inevitably become insurmountable. In his best moments AlexIch´s play had a martial grace, which suddenness and force would leave you in awe, while Froggen ´s subtlety and finesse was a constant reminder of his refinement and natural talent.
The Leader and the Devoted
“In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you.“ Deepak Chopra
M5 embraced the chaos, but it´s maestro was (outside his play) calm and collected, a man with the total conviction that victory is possible even in the darkest hour. Maybe Alex was not always the shotcaller, but he is the emotional leader every championship team needs: While many players falter in the face of defeat and challenge, that is when Alex performed his best: he was reliable, confident and competitive.
“We are what we repeat to do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Aristotle
Froggen showcased an endurance that is unseen in the scene, he didn´t just play, but live and breathe league of legends. His zeal and devotion have in their depth even a sociopathic quality. It’s the same trait the very best athletes in all competitive sports have, which enables them to sacrifice everything to win and go beyond any expectation. Froggen played the game more than anyone else and was fundamentally the best player of that time period. The Dane stands for a perfected and controlled playstyle, where chance has no say. Even after loses Froggen would carry on – encouraged to play even more. His display of tenacity and determination, unique in a scene mostly composed of bored teenagers, has made him one of the very few players who not only compete very long but do so at the highest level and as the star of their team.
Both players were great laners and shared the ability to seemingly effortless lasthit, this is evident in their spots of all time fastest 300 cs list. Granting this, even their conception of laning and consequently their execution was very different.
Froggen´s task in CLG.eu seemed difficult, if not impossible: His team´s goal was to reach the lategame without taking major risks, which led (against strong opponents) to pressed lanes and poor mapcontrol – still, CLG needed to compensate for their weak bot- and toplane. This challenged their star midlaner to build leads with less information and positional disadvantage compared to his opponent. He achieved this by having an extreme mindset: total risk aversion and an emphasis on building up minimal leads without exposing himself. He would get kills, when he saw an opening, but his credo was always to play save until the lategame arrived and with it CLG.eu´s strength.
Froggen was famed for winning or tying losing matchups – two core strength of his play would time and time again give him the advantage in generally unfavorable situations: First his uncanny ability to hit (even slow moving) skillshots and secondly weaving constant autoattacks into his pattern of ability usage. As an example serves his famous Anivia: The prodigy midlaner would elect to use Attack Damage Runes which allow good trades and early leads, but only if you are able to continually harass your foe, without giving him any openings.
AlexIch on the other hand was exceptional at extending his lead, often repeatedly killing his opponent, which allowed him to accelerate the game pace and pressure his opponents. It was not uncommon, that his playstyle allowed his team to assert dominance through vision- and mapcontrol and led to uncontested dragons or other objectives. Alex´s play was more balanced than his great rival´s: While he would some games stay in lane and get farm advantages, he had also good understanding, when he could leave and get an edge by roaming into the enemies jungle or in rare instances to other lanes.
The reason Alex was truly scary was his synergy with prodigy jungler Diamondprox. His high pressure style and willingness to aid his ally by leaving lane, was the perfect complement to his team mates invade and dueling mentality. In Season 2 Alex would often leave his foes sight, giving his counterpart the choice to lose gold and experience or leave his jungler in hopeless 1 vs 2 situations, which would at best lead to less mapcontrol and at worst to the death of an ally. To top this predicament, they could win almost every 2 vs 2, this was aided by Diamond´s tendency to pick strong dueling and Alex´s prowess on early game/burst champions. This natural synergy of skill- and mindset makes those players (in my eyes) the scariest and most effective mid-jungle pair till SKT´s Faker and Bengi arrived.
Froggen and AlexIch were fearsome in teamfights, oftentimes having the ability to give their team the edge in engagements – pushing leads or equalizing discrepancies. Despite their strength in fights, the difference of mindset and execution is in no other area as apparent.
“I guess everything in life is a math problem, but it can be more about an empirical route to getting the symmetry that you want.” Frank Ocean
Froggen was very good at dancing around the edges of fights, dishing out large amounts of damage from just outside the enemies range. His strength is an awareness of danger zones and an instinctive conception where to position and how to alter it. He often played the role of a true damage dealer, letting his allies initiate the fight, in order to maximize the destruction he could invoke from backline locations.
The assignment of maximizing his damage output played a crucial part in his champion selection. Generally he favored lategame mage champions, which strength relied on kiting back while dealing damage over time, but were vulnerable to being bursted when caught out of position. On the forefront of his huge championpool were Karthus, Ahri, Morgana, Orianna, Lux and of course his Anivia, which he perfected so thoroughly that he could play her successfully in unfavorable matchups or in periods, when no other player would attempt to use her. Froggen has shied away from assassin/ burst champions, but had instances (such as his Diana games in their OGN season) suggesting that his talents include playing this type of character. His reluctance to play assassins is more likely caused by conflict of mind- then skillset.
“The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.” Bruce Lee
M5 was a team, which would suddenly flip the switch, hard initiate and decent on their foes in spectacular fashion, which played right into Alex strength – finding the perfect moment. AlexIch had a natural tendency to move forward in teamfights, even entering dangerous positions in his relentless pursuit, his goal was always to do the maximum of damage in an instance, even accepting his death if necessary. On that account his championpool included engage and follow-up characters (Galio, Kassadin, Kha’zix, Zed, AP-Malphite, Evelynn), but did not lag the traditional magic damage dealers (Karthus, Orianna, Ryze). AlexIch proved to be a versatile and flexible player and achieved true metaresistance in his long career.
In comparison to his Danish rival Alex was less reserved: Where Froggens play centered on safety and staying alive to deal damage, the Russian was always willing to sacrifice himself in pursuit of his enemy.
Froggen and Alex were focal points and stars and as such the identity of their respective team was set and developed by them.
In contrast Froggen thrived in controlled environments, where he could augment his damage and rely on his ability to kite back, while AlexIch bloomed in chaos, exploiting his enemies’ confusion. Consequently the battle between Moscow 5 and CLG.eu was often to find the battlefield in which their starplayer would shine.
AlexIch and Froggen were the defining players of teams, which were among the best in the world and as such created and refined the way the game was played.
M5´s contribution to League of Legends evolution can´t be overstated: New Picks, counterjungling, lane swaps, blue buff Urgot, top lane kamikaze to sidetrack the enemy team – one of the reasons M5 in its early days was so scary, was the chaos they could bury their opponents in. AlexIch was no exception: At IEM Kiev he introduced non Meta champs like Mordekaiser, Galio and Ryze to the competitive scene and his hard shove tactic would enable him to invade the enemies jungle.
Froggen on the other hand introduced an unseen calculation and caution to the midlane meta: He popularized magic resistance as an effective stat and showcased a playstyle which does not rely on defeating your opponent in one brilliant moment but on perfected execution on the most fundamental level: last hitting, harassing, hitting skillshots.
Froggen and Alex leave their mark as the best players of an era, where the scene was more open and teams from different nations battled against each other. While Alex has an accumulation of trophies, Froggen lags in wins and can only display a string of top finishes. On the other hand Froggen has to be recognized as the sole star of his team: Alex could rely on M5s teamfight prowess and innovation, but the Dane had to go beyond all expectation to carry his team.
M5 was arguably Season 2´s most successful team, but while CLG.eu could not match them in titles and accomplishments, they would repeatedly proof to be superior in direct confrontations.
At IEM Kiev M5 burst into the scene with a bang – not only defeating their opponents, but annihilate them with unseen aggression and prowess. Later they proved that their win in Kiev wasn´t a fluke by winning the following IEM cologne with a clean sweep. A short time after Kiev CLG.eu and M5 met for the first time, alas online: In the final of the tournament “Kings of Europe”, the teams played a close Bo3 which CLG edged out 2:1. It would be the first of three online encounters, and the first of three victories for CLG.eu, in the end the CLG had score line of 8:2 against, what was back then considered the best team in the world.
“The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemies.” Napoleon Bonaparte
These clashes indicated that CLG had developed a style which restrained M5 and in some ways counteracted their aggression: For M5 a battle against CLG was often a battle against time. Whenever the Russians could not decide the game in the midgame, the mixed roster was able to get back control and M5 found their gold and experience advantages to be negligible.
M5 could not inflict the same damage on CLG, as they could on other teams, because CLG had a (to a fault) passive mindset and would often decide against contesting objectives in early and midgame, but instead try to find a balancing factor elsewhere (Such as top tower for dragon). This would often give M5 an advantage, but not to the same extend a contest and a won teamfight would. CLG´s scarce election of confrontations restricted one of M5´s biggest strength: the ability to heavily punish their enemies for mistakes.
Dreamhack Stockholm – A battle for the ages
In June both teams met offline for the first time. On the one side stood the Russians which had dominated the western scene at every LAN, on the other the team which rendered them ineffective online but had jet to perform successfully offline – the stage was set for a battle for the ages and what followed wouldn´t disappoint.
In their group stage match M5 was able to quickly accumulate a huge gold lead and it seemed that their win was inevitable. CLG.eu appeared to be just another team of gifted online players, who faltered on the big stage. What would occur next is history: M5 was unable to close the game despite an unbelievable 26 thousand Gold advantage. Froggens Anivia provided waveclear and M5 showed uncharacteristic hesitation and poor coordination. In effect CLG.eu was able to lock the Russian squad out of their base and M5 failed to take an inhibitor turrets. After a long stall out AlexIchs Karthus got caught by Froggen and died, a devastating teamfight at baron sealed M5 fate and CLG.eu was able to win a seemingly lost game.
As a disclosure on this match, I like to mention, that it was not well played: It´s not memorable because of display of skill or strategy, but because of its context and because it’s a nearly grotesque exaggeration of the nature many games between M5 and CLG.eu had – in this it exemplifies the unique dynamic between these opponents.
In the tournament´s final CLG.eu beat M5 convincingly 2:0 – at Dreamhack M5, the best team in the world, had found it´s adversary, a team which could control their aggression and defeat them in the late game.
ECC Poland – The turning point?
At the end of July the teams would fight over a LAN title once more: At ECC Poland Europe’s best competed for 40,000$. As in Sweden the rivals first met in the group stage and the impression, that CLG had M5s number, seemed to be validated: Froggen led his team with an outstanding Karthus performance, accumulating a 14/3/7 scoreline, to victory.
When both teams made the final, it seemed impossible, that M5 would defeat their great adversary, which had beaten them on every occasion (4:0 offline, 8:2 online). But the Russians rallied around their leader and showed, that they were true champions: They beat CLG 2:0, more important than the result is the fashion M5 took their foe down – relentless attacks, performed with extreme conviction and total lack of doubt. The hesitation from Dreamhack was vanished and the team which dominated two IEMs emerged.
The final at ECC Poland gave the storyline a new chapter and left us with questions to be answered: Did Moscow 5 overcome their weakness against CLG.eu? Is CLG still M5s kryptonite? Did the trip to Korea tire the mixed roster?
An unconcluded story
With the regional qualifier and worlds looming AlexIch and Froggen seemed destined to continue their rivalry and answer these questions, but the sad truth was, that ECC Poland should be their last meaningful encounter. At the qualifier, Worlds, IPL5 (later the first LCS playoff) – time and time again Froggen and Alex found themselves on different sides of the bracket and the rise of other teams such as Azubu Frost, TPA, WE or even Fnatic meant, that they wouldn´t meet in finals. The introduction of LCS and consequently the death of the open circuit condemned the rivalry to fade away and left us with nothing but nostalgia and a sense of what could have been.