Requiem for a #dream: Echo Fox vs Dignitas
Saturday's game between Echo Fox and Dignitas was supposed to be a quiet affair. If not quite a dead rubber, it was certainly at least an ailing one; the final game of the day on the NA LCS schedule, a clash between two lower-half teams with only vague hopes of a #6 seed on Echo Fox's part really to play for. It was precisely the type of game that viewer and organiser alike seem generally quite happy to have shunted to the league's worst timeslot.
In the event, it attracted more buzz by the end than perhaps any other NA LCS game this season. At the very least, its post-game thread was the most upvoted on Reddit of any (at the time of writing edging out IMT-CLG by around 3950 to 3800). Its qualification for this status? Well, it ended with several spectacular teamfights and a chaotic backdoor-turned-frontdoor, and with FOX mid Froggen setting a new world record in high-level competitive play, but it was mostly that...well, it was long. 67 minutes long, to be not-quite precise.
The play we saw from both teams was messy, flawed, and for long periods not even particularly interesting from a spectator perspective. Yet, by crossing over into that 65+ minute territory, it ensured it would engrain itself in League of Legends history by simple virtue of the shared experience that viewing it constituted.
Hence, to analyse FOX-DIG is in some ways absurd, because while people are interested in it and care about it, that interest and care has very little to do with the gameplay side (as usual, Thorin had a notably strong opinion on the matter). Like compLexity vs Curse or (in DOTA) Cloud 9 vs ScaryFaceZZZ, it'll be remembered in as little detail as possible. Nonetheless, it's worth doing, if for no other reason than to understand how such a stalemate can rise in what is still very high-level competition.
Hence, the following is an analysis of the game, with our main question here being: how did Dignitas lose this one? Let's make no mistake here: as well as Echo Fox played this one out both with regards to the process and the end-game fights, like coL and SFZ, they were beneficiaries of a terrible performance from their opponents. That part of the narrative is accepted; what might be more surprising is just where this loss came from. 'Dignitoss' is the memeable phrase; yet, it's not as accurate as it may seem in this case.
Compositions and win conditions
There are things that can be said about both teams' drafts and priority picks and so on, but those things are hackneyed and monotonous, so we'll set our starting point on looking at both team's completed compositions and asking this: from a theoretical standpoint, what should both teams have started building towards when they arrived in the nexus fountain?
For Echo Fox, while there surely must be a temptation to seek 1v1 and 2v2 lanes with Nautilus and Kalista's power over Poppy and Jhin respectively, and to snowball from there, the call here has to be to look for a laneswap and quick push, and to accelerate the game as much as possible. Barring a complete shutdown of their enemies, Echo Fox are going to start running into trouble by the 20-minute mark with regards to fighting against Dignitas - the two-item spikes of Poppy and Corki and the comparative weakness of Gangplank in particular are likely to make major fights difficult, and Dignitas will be in a position to force fights with their engage (coupled with Corki poke). In addition, early tower trades will be of significant benefit to Nidalee thanks to her strengths and weaknesses against Elise (with Elise naturally favouring more static lane setups, and Nidalee looking for as open a jungle landscape as possible), and arguably even a slightly negative overall trade of map control could be of benefit to Gangplank in his quest to scale to three items and beyond.
On the other side, Dignitas's composition raises some rather difficult questions. As mentioned, their side lanes have concerns in conventional lanes (Jhin-Braum is a particularly quixotic setup), and their team overall wants to outscale, which means they probably need to accept the tower pushes even at the expense of opportunities for Kirei's Elise. Once that's done, the playbook seems clear: they will start out-scaling Echo Fox once the carries can get their necessary items. However, even with the terrifying power of a late-game Jhin, the nuances of their 5v5 mean that this isn't simply a matter of infinite scaling; between their reliance on the one-shot-esque nature of Jhin and the existence of items like Guardian Angel (and to a lesser extent Echo Fox's healing mechanics), played perfectly this team runs into issues with executing a six-item 5v5. In addition, with the sheer lack of range and auto-atacking in general on this team, it's hard to imagine a team that is helped less by the five-dragon buff, or has much more trouble sneaking Baron for that matter. While winning hyper-late isn't impossible, this is a team that needs to be ready to rotate and siege aggressively when Corki and Jhin spike (and, as a related point, get those two in particular online as quickly as possible).
The perfect 10 (minutes)
Surprisingly, in spite of the case arguably being stronger in both cases for a laneswap, this game starts out with conventional lanes - this does come largely at the behest of Dignitas (who invade for the laneswap wards). To their credit, Dignitas play this out effectively, with Kirei transitioning from a very vanilla clear into a bot-centric approach that then turns into an early kill onto Alistar for Braum - a huge win for Dignitas that significantly undermines the natural laning advantage that Kalista should have over Jhin in the situation, and one that now sets them up well for a slower early game into an explosive mid-game spike. While there are definite questions to be asked of the extremity of Hard's non-confrontational Nidalee routing and approach in this instance, Dignitas nonetheless take the early lead off some fine proactive jungle play.
For the first 10 minutes or so, Dignitas are as in control of the tempo of the game as it is possible to be in a conventional lane setup; it takes about that long before Nidalee and Alistar are able to start regaining enough control in the bottom side of the map to push Elise out for any relevant length of time. Poppy actually ekes out a slight lead over Nautilus in top, which is unexpected; Corki's lead over Gangplank is more expected, but still nice to have. Nidalee does have a substantial farm lead over Elise from power-farming her alloted side of the map, but is ineffective.
At 13 minutes, Echo Fox give up their second kill of the game - Nidalee is taken down at her own blue buff on a well-timed invade from Elise and Poppy, arguably as a result of very predictable pathing on her part. This in turn means Gangplank is forced to recall and Dignitas are able to take mid tower. While it somewhat rankles to call a kill and a tower take 'bad', this actually is at best a very slight boost for Dignitas, and arguably actually harmful.
Why? The micro-details asides (double buffs on Poppy), there's a number of reasons why losing mid tier 1 arguably helps Echo Fox more than it hurts them. It allows Gangplank to farm with barrels without significant pressure from Corki poke, does little to disrupt Nidalee in her farming process in reality thanks to her vastly superior mobility, and puts pressure on the side-lane carries when they remain very much unready to fight (Poppy and Jhin both in fact don't have an item completed yet thanks to disparate and expensive build paths respectively). With all of that coupled with Corki's utter ineffectiveness as a roamer (no CC, 'ganks' reliant on the telegraphed Package), this is a mistake from Dignitas, and it's one that will cost them.
Mid game and the failed transition
With mid tier 1 down, but Dignitas not yet able to make much in the way of proactive plays elsewhere on the map, the game settles back down into farming for a while (the one 'gank' attempt - a 2v2 that grows into a TP-fueled duel - is actually initiated by Echo Fox, but is easily disengaged thanks to Poppy ult). Nonetheless, Dignitas do erode down the side-lane towers slowly, and eventually get them in quiet fashion at 20 and 21 minutes respectively.
While they may have misplayed the T1 take in mid, and indeed would have likely preferred to take the T1s in a somewhat more violent manner in order to not leave Echo Fox with an undented defensive line, this still leaves Dignitas broadly-speaking where they need to be at this point of the game - superior map control, everyone relevant hitting their power spikes, and ready to act.
Yet, the comp's moment doesn't seem to come. After the two tower takes, they have a 3.1k gold lead. At 30 minutes, they have the exact same lead, have traded one tower for one tower, and lost a dragon to boot.
What happened? If we want a pithy way of saying it, we can say that they played the position, not the role. If we want to actually explain it usefully, it's a question primarily of lane assignments. The following two screenshots are fairly typical examples of what Dignitas were up to before and after they took down the top T2 respectively:
To understand what's going on here, first, let's divorce the champions that Dignitas are playing from our brain entirely - just think of where they're assigning people in terms of top, mid, and bot (in terms of roles).
In that context, their lane assignments are pretty standard and sensible, right? The mid laner pressures mid, the side-lanes are occupied by top (who can happily push up on his own) and bot (a duo or trio deal for the safety of the ADC). Once the top T2 is down, bot goes mid lane because you can't possibly push up that far safely, top goes bot lane because he's got teleport and can safely split, and mid roams between top and mid lanes because he presumably has the tools to 1v1 or escape as necessary.
Their setup is, hence, fairly standard. It's actually probably not optimal here (because with their dive potential you'd rather see them orienting towards a stricter 4-1 of some description than the 1-3-1-ish thing they seem to fumble towards), but it's standard. The fundamental problem is that question of role versus position. Poppy, Corki, and Jhin do not fit into the given configuration at all. Poppy's waveclear is borderline worthless, and if she has serious splitpush pressure outside of a team pounding on multiple inhibitor turrets, things have gone very wrong somewhere. Jhin does very little to towers, and is actually outclassed by Corki in terms of all of waveclear, tower damage, and escapes.
The Dignitas assignments in this game are solo queue muscle memory - nothing more, nothing less. Correspondingly, they're utterly ineffective. The Jhin-Braum combo do actually get the T2, but Poppy is stuck pounding away in bottom for minutes at a time, only for Nautilus to wander down and remove all her progress with a single riptide. Utterly devoted to morally supporting Poppy in her splitpush quest (and not even going to the length of, say, using Braum to establish vision in blue bottom jungle), Dignitas wander ineffectively around Baron - an utterly vacuous threat when their ADC is Jhin - and execute to it at one point (because of course).
Throughout all this, Echo Fox are doing little more than farming out, abusing their superior mobility to ward and control a far greater portion of the map than would really be expected given their tower situation. We've not said much about them, because there's not much to be said - it's not that they're playing out some perfect game or anything, but they're just not being challenged in any facet of the game by Dignitas at this point.
A somewhat interesting example of Echo Fox exploiting Dignitas's extremely simplistic vision control.
At 37 minutes - with Dignitas's gold lead down to less than 1k - Echo Fox finally get impetuous, picking a fight at 4th dragon (or, as it turns out to be, Echo Fox's 2nd) with Gangplank patently not there and losing two in the process. They immediately turn on Baron rather than chasing either tier 2 turret still up - they could get at least one, possibly two, although it's unlikely they could take down an inhibitor turret as you can see from the timers:
In most situations, this would of course be completely the correct call; Baron is the more valuable objective, and Baron is more likely to enable a T2 take than the other way around. The problems are four-item Gangplank and four-item Kalista. The Baron buff simply does not do enough at this point to enable an effective siege - the minions are cleared too quickly to get poke on the turret, and as mentioned earlier, there are too many forms of sustain (three heals plus Nautilus shield) to effectively poke down Echo Fox champions at this stage of the game. Baron is the flashy play here, but it just doesn't do as much as the potential knock-on control that could come from taking down the T2s.
With the first Baron buff up and no towers taken as a result, this is the moment where the game gets extremely ugly. Dignitas from here on out start getting a steady supply of picks, dragons, and Barons, but they are utterly unable to do anything with it - Echo Fox's frontline is now so big that they have no fear of anything when moving as an unit, and they no longer have any leverage on the map.
This isn't to say that they're 'losing' per se. Ultimately, they do have the privileged position with regards to the map in general, and they're still able to force fights on Echo Fox's side of the map which means they can still potentially capitalise. The problem is finding the right pick; full-build Gangplank and Kalista are both big-time clutch threats, after all.
In the next ten minutes, they actually do edge closer and closer. Attrition takes the tier 2s down, and after a few meaningless kills they get a good enough pick - on Alistar inside his own base (courtesy of Jhin ult) - to break the base and take two inhibitors. The problem is they can never pick off Gangplank (or even pop his Guardian Angel), and hence never have the certainty they feel they need to finish.
At this point, there's not much to say other than this boils down to an issue of mindset. Dignitas have led this game from the get-go, and while they've missed chances and seen their lead erode, they were still up in every metric until the absolute end, to the point that they actually finished the game with a tower lead. The spectre of the throw haunts them to the point that, at 56 minutes, having traded Elise for Kalista and Nidalee, they choose to Baron rather than attempting to go for the win. That's not even a macro play question at that point; that's something for a sports psychologist to fix.
The last seven or eight minutes of this game are beyond reasonable analysis, at least from a macro perspective. If you want a summary, here it is: the team with the better six-item composition won teamfights, and there's no reasonable expectations that can be put on players with regards to the decision-making in the situations that occurred.
What's key to understand with regards to this stall-out is that this was neither a case of Dignitas not being able to do anything (their draft phase in this game has been heavily criticised by the community), nor is it a case of Dignitas throwing the game directly. This is a case of a team that missed a few direct opportunities, but failed to create far more such opportunities.
This game was a mess, but hey: at least Dignitas didn't throw it.
All screenshots taken from the VoD here.