MSI Post-Mortem: TSM
After convincingly winning both IEM Katowice and the 2015 Spring NA LCS TSM looked like the strongest team in the west and one of the top teams in the entire world. While questions remained about their ability to compete with teams like EDG and SKT, neither of whom were present at IEM Katowice, most believed that TSM were head and shoulders over their western competition at least. I was unable to find a single public prediction regarding the MSI that did not include TSM at least making the playoffs, which makes their 5th place finish one of the bigger shocks in recent LoL history. Dissecting TSM's performance reveals some interesting patterns and flaws that will have to be addressed if they hope to improve upon this result in the future, particularly in events featuring round-robin qualification stages.
How They Got There:-
TSM qualified for the MSI by winning the 2015 Spring NA LCS playoffs, defeating Team Impulse and Cloud 9 by 3-1 scores to take the prize. They finished the regular season in first place overall with a record of 13-5, one win ahead of Cloud 9 and CLG. While this was a strong performance overall, it's worth noting that TSM dropped games to teams like Gravity, Team 8, and Liquid during the regular season, none of whom were playing at a level near TSM with any consistency at the time (Liquid did look much improved in the playoffs). The loss to Gravity is particularly striking because even though Bjergsen got ahead early on Zed against Keane's Urgot he was unable to snowball the game in TSM's favor. Gravity's relentless camp of Dyrus's Dr. Mundo played a large role in this (he finished an abysmal 0-6-0), hinting at future problems.
In the playoff semi-finals TSM matched up against Team Impulse who had looked imperious in brushing aside Gravity 3-1 in the previous round. In game 1 Impulse applied high pressure to both side-lanes, allowing Impact to get a significant lead on his TP/Smite Shyvana over Dyrus's Lulu while XiaoWeiXiao farmed up a storm on Orianna. Impulse's aggressive play seemed to catch TSM off guard and they were unable to adjust in game, falling behind 1-0 in the series. TSM made a pair of major changes in champ select for game 2, putting Santorin on Gragas and WildTurtle on Jinx, as opposed to Nidalee and Corki from the prior game, and they paid immediate dividends with Santorin in particular looking very strong on the Rabblerouser. Impulse were unable to exert the same level of pressure on the side-lanes and eventually their inability to deal with Bjergsen's Ahri and Turtle's Jinx grew too pronounced and TSM evened the series. At this point Impulse's jungler Rush seemed to go on tilt, making several ill-advised players early in game 3 that resulted in a huge lead for TSM that they never relinquished. Game 4 was more of the same with Rush looking like a fish out of water on Nunu and TSM taking the series fairly comfortably in the end.
The effect of early aggression combined with side-lane pressure is the biggest take away from this series for me, as TSM looked by some distance their weakest when teams forced Santorin to deviate from his normal pattern of supporting Bjergsen in the mid-lane or else risk Dyrus and WildTurtle falling too far behind to be effective. It's interesting to note that the finals against C9 did not exactly follow this pattern, as game 1 was actually very close until Meteos made an unbelievable five man flash + ult play on Sejuani and C9 snowballed the resulting teamfight into a Baron. Unperturbed, TSM flipped the usual script in games 2 and 3 by never letting Balls get off the ground and leveraging that advantage into repeated skirmish and team-fight wins. Game 4 saw TSM take the lead early on behind Santorin's strong Vi play and never let up, winning the series in impressive fashion.
TSM's performance in the playoffs was undoubtedly very impressive and formed much of the basis for the high expectations that followed the team into the MSI, but signs were there that perhaps the MSI format might not be the most kind to them. Having lost game 1 against both Impulse and Cloud 9, TSM would have been 0-2 and in a very sticky situation if the format had been a round-robin instead of best of 5 series. That being said, even allowing for that it seemed very unlikely going into the MSI that TSM would finish behind both AHQ and Fnatic. The overall dominance they showed in the NA LCS playoffs combined with the inconsistency of Fnatic and the mediocre performance AHQ had in the LMS regular season made it seem like even if TSM was still a level behind EDG and SKT they would be able to at least qualify for the playoffs.
What Went Wrong:-
TSM's first match was against EU LCS champions Fnatic, a game that would have huge implications for eventual playoff qualification for both teams. Champion select saw Fnatic throw a major curveball TSM's way by selecting Cassiopeia for Huni in the top lane after having already picked Urgot and LeBlanc. TSM responded by selecting Cho'Gath for Bjergsen in the mid-lane, giving him a safe lane matchup but not necessarily one that would make it easy for him to carry the game should the opportunity arise.
Given TSM's proficiency at lane swapping and the strange matchup for Dyrus in the top-lane as Gnar against Cassiopeia it seemed an obvious choice for them to both spare Dyrus and put Huni in an awkward spot on a champion that is both very farm dependent and vulnerable to ganks. Stunningly, TSM opted not to initiate the lane-swap, allowing standard lanes across the board and perhaps hoping for Santorin's Rek'Sai to give them early opportunities. However, Fnatic took full advantage of their top-lane matchup with Reignover ganking Dyrus very early and taking both his flash and first-blood, digging a very deep hole for TSM's top-laner. Huni exploited Santorin's complete lack of presence on the top side of the map by shoving Dyrus into his turret and poking him down at every opportunity, eventually culminating with another successful gank from Reignover that gave Huni a kill.
In the past, TSM has been able to get away with leaving Dyrus on an island with no support from Santorin because they've pushed their numbers advantage elsewhere on the map. Having elected not to lane-swap they found themselves unable to create the same opportunities with Lustboy mostly stuck in lane and Santorin seemingly confused as to what he was supposed to be doing. Bjergsen was able to get a noticeable cs lead over Febiven's LeBlanc, but the dynamics of the match ended up making that advantage irrelevant as YellowStar roamed mid and helped Febiven pick up a kill that tipped the scales even further in Fnatic's favor. Fnatic repeatedly showed throughout the EU LCS season that they are excellent at snowballing mid-game advantages and this game was no different, with TSM crumbling under the weight of Fnatic's relentless map pressure and ability to create picks.
Starting the tournament 0-1 wasn't what TSM had in mind, especially with such a flat performance, but it also wasn't crushing to their ambitions either. They did bounce back well against IWC representatives Be?ikta? e-Sports Club, evening their record at 1-1 and setting the stage for a much anticipated clash against SKT. Unfortunately, TSM were once again unable to deal with their opponents aggression in the early game. In a standard lane against MaRin's Gnar Dyrus elected to push the wave almost to Gnar's turret and got caught out by Bengi's Rek'Sai who took full advantage of Dyrus not running an escape summoner on Hecarim. In and of itself that might not have been a disaster, but Dyrus ended up dying again after an extended chase through SKT's blue side jungle. This death highlighted so many of the mistakes TSM had made in the early game. Not only was Dyrus too aggressive in lane, but Faker very intelligently cut off Bjergsen's potential route in to the jungle and Santorin was on the opposite side of the map so Dyrus was completely abandoned on the top side of the map. A disaster of a bot-lane dive by TSM ended up with a three for zero to SKT and TSM essentially collapsed from there on out, putting up only token resistance as SKT snowballed their advantages to a comfortable win.
While again, being 1-2 at the end of day 1 wasn't the result TSM had hoped for but it also wasn't a death knell. It did, however, put tremendous importance on their opening game against AHQ on day 2. Win that game and they were likely to at least force a tiebreaker for qualification for the playoffs. Lose and they were all but eliminated. This time around TSM elected to lane-swap, sending Dyrus on Hecarim to the bottom lane while moving their duo lane to the top side, sparing WildTurtle the challenge of trying to lane against Urgot and Nautilus as a Kalista. However, because Santorin opted to start on the blue side of the jungle AHQ were able to pressure him and Dyrus off of taking the full red buff camp, costing them valuable experience and setting them behind from the get go. TSM's lane-swap also cost them an early dragon, as a cheeky teleport by Ziv on Maokai combined with Mountain's Rek'Sai to take a 3.5 minute dragon.
Things looked to be going at least decently for TSM until Dyrus was again caught out after over-extending and getting trapped by Nautilus and Rek'Sai, giving up first-blood to AHQ at 6.5 minutes. AHQ then amped up the pressure on the side-lanes, sending Nautilus to roam to the top side and shove Dyrus off his turret while Mountain combined with Ziv to take down an over-extended WildTurtle in the bottom lane, giving AHQ a 2-0 kill lead and a 2-1 turret lead at 10 minutes. Bjergsen again had a large cs lead over his lane opponent, but because TSM had fallen behind everywhere else on the map he was unable to push that advantage. Shortly thereafter TSM made an ill-advised decision to wander into the river as AHQ had just finished taking their second dragon of the game, resulting in Bjergsen dying and Dyrus being forced to burn his teleport and ultimate defensively to spare TSM further casualties. AHQ continued to catch TSM out across the map, an excellent flank by Ziv ending up with a 3 for 1 exchange that gave AN a triple kill on his Urgot and allowed AHQ to take down the mid lane turret, the end result being a near 5k gold lead at 15 minutes. Much like against Fnatic the previous day, TSM failed to adapt to their opponents relentless pressure and fell apart at the seams, falling to 1-3 and more or less eliminated from playoff contention.
TSM could still technically qualify for the playoffs if they defeated EDG in their final match and Fnatic failed to win against Be?ikta?, but considering TSM's weak performances thus far defeating the Chinese juggernauts seemed very unlikely. The match played out along expected lines as EDG ruthlessly exposed TSM's lack of early game presence and ended the game in less than 26 minutes behind Clearlove's absurd 10/1/10 performance on Rek'Sai and Deft's untouchable Kalista. Entering the tournament with real hopes of competing for a finals spot, TSM crashed out at the first hurdle with a miserable 1-4 record and their flaws seemingly laid bare for all to see.
What We Learned:-
Contrary to the common immediate reaction on reddit and the like, TSM poor performances aren't as simple as “they aren't as good as their opponents”. I do think it's clear that TSM cannot match the quality of teams like EDG and SKT, but it wasn't that long ago that TSM looked like the clear best western team. Should we complete revise our opinion because of four games? To some extent, many of the things that went wrong were already known prior to the MSI. TSM had a reputation as “slow-starters” in best of series going all the way back to Season 3 (until they beat WE in game 1 of the IEM Katowice final their last game 1 win was against Vulcun in the Season 3 Summer LCS Semi-finals) and had shown an inability to adapt in-game to wrinkles opponents throw at them throughout the previous LCS split and playoffs. The main difference here was that we never even got to see them in a best of series because they failed to win their group games against opponents they were favored against.
Some of that is definitely down to quality of opposition. At IEM Katowice TSM faced WE, CJ Entus, Yoe Flash-Wolves, and then WE again. WE was playing their very first games with their new roster (Xiye instead of Ninja in the mid-lane, Mystic instead of Styz at ADC) and were ranked last in the LPL at the time (it's worth noting they finished eighth and pushed EDG without PawN to 5 games in the playoffs, so they were clearly not as weak as their ranking might have indicated), CJ Entus who were in a slight slump, and Yoe-Flash Wolves who were the top LMS team at the time. At the MSI they faced EDG who won an extremely competitive LPL playoffs, SKT who had just finished sweeping aside GE Tigers in the LCK finals, Fnatic who reclaimed their throne as the kings of EU by triumphing over H2K and UoL, and AHQ who ran the gauntlet of the LMS playoffs against HKES, TPA, and Yoe-Flash Wolves dropping only a single game. While their competition at IEM was certainly tough, I think it's clear that the teams they faced at the MSI were in another class overall. Even though TSM were favored to win against Fnatic and AHQ, losing either of those games wasn't necessarily stunning in and of itself; it was the manner in which they lost that caught everyone off guard.
The most vulnerable TSM ever looked against NA competition was in game 1 against Impulse, who used constant aggression from their jungler Rush and top laner Impact to put Dyrus in an early game hole and force Santorin to react to Rush rather than dictate the pace of the game in TSM's favor. Impulse were unable to repeat the trick in subsequent games, partially because of some excellent adjustments by TSM but also because Impulse was over-aggressive at the wrong times and gave up early advantages that nullified their attempts to put pressure on TSM. Fnatic and AHQ simply did not make those mistakes against TSM in their matches at the MSI, and due to the format there was no second chance for the NA representatives once they lost. We'll never know how a best of series featuring TSM against AHQ or Fnatic would have gone, but given that the round-robin is a common format for major international events TSM will have to do better in best of 1s if they want to show their strength in longer series.
Dyrus came in for heavy criticism for his performances at the MSI, and while some of that was definitely warranted (especially against AHQ where he repeatedly over-extended and got punished by Mountain's ganks) there were other times where he was simply hung out to dry by his teammates who did not help him or take advantage on the other side of the map. Santorin was able to be very successful in throughout the NA LCS by playing intelligently and setting up Bjergsen and his bot-lane for success while relying on Dyrus to be self-sufficient. What was different at the MSI was that teams not only picked on Dyrus but outmatched their bot-lane as well, putting Santorin in a situation where he couldn't help Bjergsen as much as he wanted to without sacrificing his bottom lane. WildTurtle was exposed against higher quality opposition, though there's no shame in losing to Deft or Bang, and Lustboy was unable to exert his will in the face of increased pressure from their opposition. Bjergsen looked very solid against top quality opposition, typically picking up big cs leads even against players like Faker, Febiven, and Westdoor, but was somewhat subdued by his teams champion selections that put him on champs like Cho'gath and Ziggs who, while strong in lane and possessing high utility, are not typical carry champions who can snowball a cs lead into much greater gains.
What It All Means:-
Simply put, if TSM want to be a top contender at international tournaments they have to become more adaptable in game. TSM came into the MSI with a defined and well-known playstyle and when that playstyle failed they didn't seem to have a plan B. Locodoco and the rest of TSM's support staff have done an outstanding job of prepping their team and setting them up for success thus far, and I have no doubt that they will have a plan as to how to get TSM into a better position to succeed in round-robin formats. However, some of their players will have to improve their response to pressure for TSM to have a chance against the better international teams. Santorin in particular looked very unnerved once things went wrong for TSM and his lack of presence seeped into the play of his teammates over time as the problems mounted. WildTurtle's ineffectiveness in 2v2 lanes was continuously punished whenever TSM didn't lane-swap, and while it's unclear what he change to rectify that it's safe to say that the better Asian teams will not let TSM continue to get away having such well defined flaws.
All of that being said, people should not overreact to these results. TSM will still be one of the favorites for the summer LCS championship, and with 70 championship points already in the bag from their spring split victory they are in a very good position to qualify for worlds. Multiple questions surround their opposition in NA, which is both a blessing and a curse. While the weaker opposition gives them a very good chance to repeat as NA LCS champions, it also puts them at risk of allowing bad habits to remain in their play because their opposition prove incapable of exploiting them. It remains to be seen what impact Cloud 9's addition of Incarnati0n in the mid-lane will have on their play, and while teams like Impulse, Liquid, and even CLG have talented players at their disposal they also have many flaws that might hold them back from being able to compete with TSM. From an outsider's perspective I would say the best bet for TSM is to be extremely critical of their own play against NA competition and accept only perfection, even as they are likely to be winning far more often then they lose.
IEM Katowice showed how far TSM has come and the MSI showed how far they still have to come in order to compete for a world championship. How TSM's players respond to this adversity will define many of their careers, and it will be fascinating to see how the team evolves throughout the summer split and beyond. The challenges they face are immense, but I wouldn't bet against Reginald, Locodoco, and Bjergsen to pull TSM through.
“The greatest test of courage on earth is bear defeat without losing heart”
~ Robert Green Ingersoll