Entering the Garden: a rivalry’s feature

A feature about CLG and TSM's historical rivalry, and what to keep in mind for the final coming this Sunday.

Anaheim, California. 10th of June, 2012. The MLG Pro Circuit Spring Championship was coming to an end. From the Winner’s Bracket came TSM, having defeated the great Europeans CLG.EU and Fnatic. From the Loser’s bracket came CLG Prime, who had battled its way through NA’s best in Curse, Dignitas and Team Dynamic. In two consecutive, very close best-of-three series, TSM proclaimed themselves winners of the MLG circuit. It was the beginning of TSM’s first reign through the NA scene up until the arrival of Cloud 9, a team that would expose NA’s weaknesses and force the whole region to change the way they approached the game. It was also the confirmation of CLG’s decline, as roster changes started to plague the team, with bad results leading into a toxic environment and their reputation falling to the deepest bottom as the word “potential” became their trademark tag. But also, it was a very important moment in the history of League of Legends’ oldest rivalry, as it was the last time these two teams faced each other in a final. That is, until now.

Kings of the Hill

Claiming back NA’s throne wasn’t an easy task, and TSM had a lot to do in order for that to happen. Reginald stepping down not only allowed the team to bring a superstar player in the form of Bjergsen, but also gave Regi the chance to focus 100% on team management and lead the restoration of TSM. Locodoco’s arrival as full-time coach improved the team’s atmosphere and strategy and even facilitated the incorporation of Lustboy to the roster. After a year of drastic changes, Season 5 began and TSM had only goal set in their minds: to be the World’s best. And when Spring came to an end, it could be argued that they were at least a top team in the world. They ruled over NA without any trouble, as nobody knew how to stop Bjergsen and Lustboy was showing to be at his prime once again. They won IEM Katowice dropping a single game to Yoe Flash Wolves while sweeping dark horse Team WE by a 3-0 margin. But then MSI arrived, and with it came the harsh truth: NA’s best wasn’t enough. Losing against every team but Turkish wildcard Be?ikta?, it was the team’s worst showing since Season 3 Worlds. And even then, nothing changed, no one left the team. Instead, pressure was intensified and expectations were set higher for each and every member, either player or coaching staff. If Reginald thinks this is the team made for success, no one will change his mind.

Summer ended fast and once again, it was playoffs time. TSM’s 5th seed meant that they would have to play Quarter finals, something they’ve done every Summer Split since LCS started. Against them would be Gravity, who held the 1st place up until their three straight losses in the last week (including a tiebreaker versus Team Impulse) took them to 4th. GV’s main strength is also their main issue: their ADC Altec being the star and focus of the team. During the Regular Season, Altec’s 570 DPM represented 31.1% of the team’s damage. This meant not only that Altec is their main carry, but also that he is the only one. Keane’s 28.3% is the 2nd lowest damage share for mid laners, only behind Gate (who played just three games). His tendency to play low-damage mid laners as counterpick (or blind picking Urgot) forces Altec to play hypercarries and be the only big damage threat of the team. While this strategy proved to be effective more than once, TSM found the right solution against it: Olaf. The first three games of the series saw Dyrus play The Berserker with great success, snowballing his way through teamfights and even getting a Quadra Kill. The idea was simple: Olaf’s Ragnarok makes him immune to any type of CC. When boosted by Bjergsen’s Lulu or Orianna, he could just run to the enemy’s backline and destroy Altec first, leaving GV without big damage sources. Winning two out of three, Game 4 saw Olaf banned and Dyrus defaulting back to his beloved Gnar (he’s 8-1 on it this Summer) as the team’s carry spot was filled again by Bjergsen, who rampaged through the whole game with his 4/0/9 Ahri. TSM didn’t play the cleanest of games, but their strategy was simple and effective versus a really underwhelming Gravity squad.

Semifinals were a different story… Or so it seemed. Team Liquid came into the playoffs as NA’s 1st seed and strongest team. Their laning phase was top in the region, purely because of individual talent. Quas had been defaulting more to tanks, clearing waves as fast as possible so to force the enemy top laner to stay in lane. IWDominate had left Sejuani to go only for early pressure champions, looking to either gank or invade the enemy jungle all the time. FeniX and Piglet swapped between damage and utility-oriented roles, bringing flexibility to the team’s compositions. Xpecial was either the main engage with his Annie, Thresh and Alistar, forcing plays around the map and getting 2v2 kills; or he was the main disengage with Janna, keeping his team alive so that Kog’Maw or Kalista could get their first items and start rolling. They relied mostly on early skirmishes and snowballing games to a point where teamfights could be won regardless of how bad the engage was, and they succeeded on it.

The problem is, we never saw this Team Liquid in the playoffs. Quas had the worst series of his career, dying a total 15 times with his TP flanks ending up on 1v4 situations while Dyrus zoned the rest of his team away. Dominate went back to his farm-heavy style and had little to no presence during the first 20 minutes. Xpecial was on a completely different page, flashing forward to hook the enemy Maokai or just to end up in the middle of the enemy team with all his cooldowns blown. Despite staying relatively even with Bjergsen in the mid lane, FeniX’s teamfighting wasn’t as impressive, dealing a total 41k less damage than the Dane across all four games. Piglet, probably the team’s brightest spot, couldn’t use his early leads as well because of the slow pace, low-kill style the games were having. While it’s true that TSM was the best team during the series, a lot of it relied on TL’s mistakes both at pick and ban phase and in the Rift. Their lack of communication was exposed more than it never was, as they didn’t play around early skirmishes in any game, with 67% (70 out of 105) of the series kills happening after the 25 minute mark. With their rivals underperforming in both series so far, it’s hard to portrait TSM as the absolute favourite of the Grand Finals.

Starving for Glory

Each and every split, we hear the same words. As roster changes come and refresh the team’s environment, CLG is said to be a candidate. Their good starts throughout the seasons repeat themselves, giving fans high hopes, but so do their mid-to-late slumps. Friction starts to grow between the players, and playoffs see CLG fall apart and get swept. Spring 2015 was no exception to this. Following their relegations matches against Curse Academy, both top laner Seraph and jungler Dexter left the team, being replaced by Dignitas’ ZionSpartan and former Vulcun/XDG Xmithie. On top of this, scarra came to fill the void left by MonteCristo on the coaching role, being the first full-time coach to live in the house. The first weeks saw CLG at the top up until their match against TSM, both having a 6-1 record. But each time they faced TSM they lost, and after each loss came a slump, dropping their playoff bye the last day against Cloud 9. In the quarterfinals there was Team Liquid, who had barely qualified after winning a tiebreaker versus Team8. But CLG’s problems were stronger and TL just needed three games to get their spot in the semifinals, and the cycle repeated itself. Link stepped down, leaving us a farewell that people will never forget, while scarra left the coach position.

Finally, HotshotGG would do what had to be done. Instead of only changing players, team’s infrastructure as a whole was improved. Blurred Limes, a former college football coach, assumed as CLG’s head coach with the objective to create a strict training environment, while also having former analyst Zikz as Strategic Coach, taking care of pick and ban phase. Their new mid lane replacements were both Winterfox’s Pobelter and Fusion’s HuHi, although the latter would arrive later due to visa issues. With their new line up, CLG stormed through the start of the season with a 7-1 record, losing only to TSM. Their mid season slump of four consecutive losses seemed worrying, but the players’ mentality was different. They fixed their issues and kept a winning streak up until the very last day, where they lost the 1st place tiebreaker against Team Liquid. For the first time, CLG’s chances at playoffs weren’t based around potential.

Locking up 2nd place, CLG had secured a playoff bye to the semifinals, where they would face either Team Impulse or Team Dignitas. In great, one-sided fashion, TiP fulfilled everyone’s expectations and destroyed DIG’s squad by a 3-0 margin. Their Shen/Elise combo went through all three games, with Rush showing once again why he’s the best jungler in NA. Since XiaoWeiXiao’s suspension, TiP’s style revolved around Apollo sitting on a hypercarry, Impact and Gate playing defensive peeling roles and Rush taking care of all the early game aggression. This one-dimensional play, while effective against lesser teams, could be easily punished with good preparation, as showcased in the semifinals. CLG banned Azir, Elise and Nidalee all three games, taking away Gate’s best champion while also forcing Rush to pick overall weaker junglers in Lee Sin or Evelynn. Xmithie picking Ekko also allowed him to nullify some of Rush’s early pressure by zoning and counter-ganking with Parallel Convergence. Pobelter opted for high waveclear mages that could protect Doublelift while he demolished turrets with Tristana or Jinx. ZionSpartan’s Olaf and Gnar were enough of a threat to keep TiP’s backline busy. The road to the final was clean, and now the only thing separating CLG from their first LCS title is the same team that brought them down a long time ago, their nemesis Team SoloMid.

The Final Countdown

With so much on the line and such a long history on its shoulders, one week of preparation doesn’t seem enough for these Finals. TSM’s victories showed that the team can capitalize very well on enemy mistakes, but also reflected the team’s lack of initiative in the early-mid game. If Santorin doesn’t get Nidalee his early pressure tends to fall of, either because he goes for a scaling tank on Gragas/Rek’Sai or he picks a champion he’s not comfortable on (as seen on his Evelynn game versus TL). Ekko will probably be highly contested, as both he and Xmithie have shown great performances on The Boy Who Shattered Time. Its ability to prevent dives and countergank very safely allows them to balance their lack of initiative early on, while also bringing a great zoning tool for teamfights.

Another highly contested pick will be Olaf. Both teams’ use their top laner as the main backline threat, and that will be a huge issue in this series. TSM relies on Bjergsen’s damage as much as CLG relies on Doublelift’s, and while both teams have improved their peeling a lot in recent times, Olaf can just ignore everything thanks to Ragnarok. With Olaf in the game, Lulu and Sivir become high-priority picks too, as their move speed and health buffs serve as great tools to improve the berserker’s engage. Although if Sivir’s drawn out of the table both ADCs tend to go for long range hypercarries, being the main turret-takers of the team. In these cases CLG would have the edge of the champion pool, as WildTurtle’s rejection towards Tristana means that he can only stick with Jinx, and while her damage is equal or stronger than Tristana’s thanks to her rockets’ AoE, she lacks the mobility needed to survive an all-in to the backline. Because of this, TSM has to spend a lot in peeling resources by picking champions like Braum, Janna or the aforementioned Lulu.

The lane that could define the series though (and especially in TSM’s favour) is mid. Bjergsen has shown through each split he’s played that he’s the best player in all of NA. His ability to carry games has been put on trial many times, and either through snowballing a lead on an assassin or making clutch plays in teamfights, he’s always come ahead. He’s undefeated on Azir with a 6-0 record so far, and there’s an infinite amount of champions he can play if it gets banned. This split he’s filled more of a supportive role than he’s used to, bringing the peel that either WildTurtle or Dyrus need, but he can always fall back to his playmaking champions. Sacrificing teamwork resources could be the solution against a team whose weaker lane player is the mid laner. Pobelter’s success so far has been mixed, with better results on defensive picks or passive, scaling threats like AP Kog’Maw. His Twisted Fate has been rather disappointing, with a 2.33 KDA across four games (2w/2l), and it’s the only playmaking champion he’s played besides Azir, which CLG should prefer banning this series. If Bjergsen gets enough of an advantage, he could put the game rolling on TSM’s side by himself, as CLG’s mid laner’s impact when behind has been substantially lower.

This Sunday, a team will crown itself champion. It’s been long since the last time this rivalry was worth a title, and New York will be filling the page that was left blank so long ago in Anaheim. Every player will be hungry, as there are too many things left to be proven, too many questions yet to be answered. Are the reigning champions the truly kings of NA? Has the choking finally come to an end? Will Doublelift finally have the chance to lift a trophy, or will the Dane confirm his status as best player in the region? There’s only way to answer all these questions, but now, keep silence… cause the contenders are entering the Garden.

Thanks to lolesports for the pictures and eSportspedia for the stats and permanent help with every article.

“Rulo Mercury” is an article writer from Argentina. You can follow him on Twitter if you like.