Riding Low on Cloud 9- A look at North America's band of brothers
Now that Cloud 9 has finally undergone their long-anticipated roster change, there are many questions and concerns by people in the League of Legends community as to whether this team is taking the right approach toward improving. For those who don't know yet, one of the most dominant teams in North American League history has swapped out their team captain and Mid laner Hai for European Solo Queue star Incarnati0n after a disappointing (considering their track record and how far the gap was between them and 1st place Team SoloMid) 2nd place finish in the Spring split. There have been mixed opinions on this topic so I would like to address some of the concerns with the team's performance so far and consider how Cloud 9 can take steps forward to move forward.
Was switching Hai out for Incarnati0n the correct move by Cloud 9?
I would say yes, it was. The entire Spring split was an example of why C9, a team who claims to want to win the World Championship title, cannot afford to keep Hai if they are going to meet that goal. Hai is a world-renowned shot caller who has pulled his team back into countless games through superior leadership and game knowledge. His style was selfless in that he would sacrifice his own gold and creep score to place wards for his teammates. His success with that style has decreased gradually as his career progressed. One of his major problems was that he was vulnerable to being killed multiple times in the Mid lane, as we have seen over and over throughout the past year or so. On top of that, he has a very specific play-style, mainly split-pushing, that leaves him with a small amount of champions he could play.
Some would argue that Hai could have improved on all of that, and that he could learn more champions and diversify his play-style to fix these problems. This is all easier said than done, and it's not like Hai hasn't tried this. Ever since he started to degrade as a player, he has been trying to play more champions and learn more ways to play the game, but still Cloud 9 remains with the same problem. On top of all of this, Hai was health issues that made it difficult to play for long periods of time. With all of this considered, it is clear that Hai could not remain on the team without dragging them down.
As for his replacement, Incarnati0n is a mechanically talented player with no competitive experience. As a result of that, he isn't cant be expected to fill Hai's role perfectly. He has no experience in leading a team or anything like that. He will very likely never reach the level of leadership and intelligence Hai had in his role of team captain. Still though, with him Cloud 9 has fresh talent that can hopefully be molded to do what the team needs him to do.
So does this mean that in time Incarnati0n will make the team better?
I've given a lot of thought to what this will do to the team and seeing their recent games has made me wary of thinking the team will be as good as they were at their peak, at least not very soon. Specifically, one of my problems with Cloud 9 is that they seem to be warding significantly less in the early to mid-game, and hardly ever make an aggressive move or ward deep in the enemy jungle level 1. This is to be expected since Hai did a lot of the early warding when he was on the team, but one would also expect that Cloud 9 would pick up on that and make up for it with more warding from LemonNation or Meteos. This decrease in vision coverage has led to several deaths in the Mid lane from Incarnati0n as well as in other lanes. Also, Meteos ganks for Incarnati0n in the early game about as much as he did for Hai- which was almost never. Meteos tends to farm for much of the early-game, even when hes playing a strong early ganker like Gragas against a Nunu, then he exerts some pressure on the lanes who are winning, usually Bot and Mid. This leads to junglers who like to be active in lanes early taking advantage of Meteos' absence and preying on his teammates.
Another side effect of not having Hai is that the team is often indecisive, leading to them being very slow to pull the trigger when time is of the essence and they have to go big or bust. This was actually one of their biggest strengths with Hai, but now they have issues with it. Not only that, but their overall focus in skirmishes and teamfights isn't as coordinated as it used to be.
With all of that considered, I will say that Incarnati0n has shown strong teamfight presence in some of their games, especially on Azir. Despite this, though, I do think some of the Cloud 9 members are not playing up to the level we expect from them.
Have Sneaky/Balls/Meteos/LemonNation been playing poorly?
I've seen too many people in post-game threads on the League subreddit talking about how a player is playing badly, and it tends to change after every game. I'd like to start with the one that irritates me the most, which are the accusations thrown in the way of Sneaky that say he has gotten worse. I see him as a victim of the poor ward control displayed by this new Cloud 9. In their game against Team Liquid, we would often see Sneaky die in the beginning of fights, or before a fight could even start. This was mainly due to C9 moving toward objectives and not clearing their jungle of enemy wards, which left Quas on Hecarim free to teleport behind Sneaky and kill him instantly with no room for counter-play for the squishy Lucian.
On the topic of Balls, there is some truth to the criticism he receives. He was already not playing great last split. So far in the 6 games C9 has played this split, he has lost lane in 5 of them. But still, not playing as well as he used to doesn't mean he's playing badly; he was considered the best Top laner in the region back then. And still, to be fair to him, sometimes him losing was because of C9 losing the lane swap and him being doven while his team gets nothing in return. Still though, the 1v1's he has played have mostly gone against him, which prompts some people to blame him for C9 falling short in these games. What people aren't considering, though, is that with Hai gone there is more priority on the Mid lane once Meteos does start ganking. Sneaky and LemonNation are usually doing well or at least going even in the Bot lane, therefore Meteos tries to bolster them. Balls has arguably the least priority lane in these games, especially when he's playing something like Maokai, which he does often.
As for Meteos, the only real issue i have with him individually, albeit a big one that has been exposed by world class opponents, is his jungling has become kind of linear. He farms for the first few minutes, places some wards in the river, and then goes for ganks. A lot of times he walks into a lane and waits for a full minute or two and leaves, which sets him back pretty hard. His linear play-style shows when he plays Nunu, a Jungler who excels at controlling dragons (which he rarely goes for alone even when the enemy team has no coverage or manpower around it), is great at invading the enemy Jungler and giving them a hard time, and is fairly weak in early ganks. Despite this, we haven't seen very much of Meteos using the strengths of this champion simply because it goes outside the linear style I mentioned. C9 seems to prioritize running the Nunu + Azir combo, but if you use Nunu for nothing other than Blood Boil, you're not using him correctly.
Incarnati0n individually has been picking champions that don't necessarily win lane, particularly Kog'Maw, but has been a strong point in a lot of their teamfights. We also have seen him be a lot more confident this week compared to the 2 weeks prior; he went from safely poking as Kog'Maw to diving into the enemy team and knocking them back toward his with Emperor's Divide, or flash onto a lone target with Chain of Corruption. I like his improvement, and individually he hasn't been shown up by anyone, with the exception of Bjergsen. However, even that was a losing match-up.
As for LemonNation, he is the same player today as he was last year. He does his job with warding, protecting his carries and sometimes engaging. The only major qualm I have with him is sometimes he doesn't focus on what's best for the team. For example, in their game against Team Liquid, he often would be on the front lines as Nautilus, leaving Sneaky in the back defenseless and vulnerable to flanks, which is exactly what happened to him multiple times. Other than those kinds of mistakes, he isn't spectacular nor is he a weak support. Cloud 9 could benefit in having a stronger support, and they could have their pick of the litter if they really wanted to. They can still import a foreign support, but I don't see it as being completely necessary. Still though, maybe C9 would benefit more from LemonNation on the support staff rather than the Support role. He and Sneaky are probably the smartest Bot lane in the league in that they hardly ever really fall behind, and they are very good at knowing when to aggress and when to play passively. The problem is that C9 might need more than that to be world class; a support who is confident in his own play and has superior mechanics might pair well with an AD Carry like Sneaky who has mechanical prowess but doesn't often get to display it. I see it as a very similar situation to the Rekkles + Yellowstar lane in that Sneaky and Rekkles are fairly similar, and with a Yellowstar type player Sneaky could be bolstered even more.
How can they improve?
We've seen C9 in many of their games so far gain early leads only to lose them on the back of a bad teamfight or getting caught out of sorts, which is extremely uncharacteristic for one reason: they used to be the team that if you let them have even a minuscule lead, the game was over for you. They would take that lead and ram it down your throat every time.
Still, the team as a whole still plays the macro game properly overall. They do, however, falter heavily on smaller things like who to focus in fights, when to disengage, and they have on several occasions misjudged whether they can take an objective and have been punished for it. Watching their games, I get the feeling that they are used to having somebody telling them what to do at all times. The players have said that they are used to feeding information to Hai and following his call, but now they have to all be more adept at making decisions and being more unified, as that singular voice of leadership they all trusted is no longer there.
These things are not easy to fix. What they need is to condition themselves- with the help of their coaching staff- to fix these small things little by little. Each player has to learn to be more decisive, because we cannot reasonably expect Meteos to just jump in and become as good a shotcaller as Hai was; that's simply not feasible. It's unlikely he will develop to be even close to it- but with his teammates' contribution and the right mindset, I do believe Cloud 9 will continue to improve.
Sadly for them, the World Championship is right around the corner and i'm not sure they can do it in such a short amount of time. They might squeeze in through circuit points or by running the gauntlet for 3rd place, which would be a great opportunity for this team to practice against some of the best teams in the world. Either way, expect them to keep getting better. Even if they don't make it to worlds or do well if they make it, with the right approach they will have everything they need to become a great team.
Photo credit: Riot Games & lolesports