Rising Above: Fixing Weaknesses is the key to winning the NA LCS Gauntlet
Unlike Origen’s expected domination ofthe EU LCS gauntlet, North America has no definitive favorite to take the region’s third World Championship seed. All four of the gauntlet teams fell out of the play-offs due their major weaknesses. Although Cloud9’s “Hai line-up” managed to score decisive wins against TSM and Team8 to save their world chances, they also lost to TDK and finished with an uninspiring 4-5 record. In their series against GV, TSM exploited their one carry system and poor understanding of lane swaps with an Olaf pick. Team Impulse lacked the backline damage to win teamfights, and their attempts to make Apollo (on Kog’Maw) or Gate (on Diana) their primary carries failed. Liquid’s teamfighting woes were apparent against TSM, as they repeatedly threw 4-5k gold leads. Although these teams won't be able to fix their flaws with roster swaps before the gauntlet, to come out on top, they will need to fix these weaknesses with gameplay adjustments. To conquer the gauntlet, these teams need to first conquer themselves.
Biggest Weakness: Lane Swaps
Gravity's most evident problem is that Altec is their only reliable damage source.This lack of threats, however, is only a symptom of the team's greatest issue - their inability to play lane swaps. Despite this, Gravity loves to lane swap because they want to make sure that Altec enters the teamfighting phase with enough gold to carry them. As a result, they will frequently rotate Altec into large minion waves, even from the 3 minute mark. Altec will then shove these waves into the tower before basing to rotate into the other side lane.
It's great that Gravity have identified their best player and are taking the appropriate in-game steps to get him ahead. Unfortunately, this hamfisted approach to lane swapping frequently puts, top laner, Hauntzer into unwinnable positions. Against TSM, Hauntzer swapped his Shen into Dyrus's Olaf down 1.5 levels and nearly 2 full creep waves in Game 1. In Game 3, Hauntzer played Maokai and again swapped into a bad matchup with Dyrus's Olaf, this time down a kill and a full level, in part due to a botched GV tower dive. Because they have no idea how to play around both side lanes at once, Hauntzer's, once top 2 in the NA LCS in damage dealt to champions, has been neutralized as a damage threat due to the team's poor lane swaps.
As much as Gravity need Altec to get ahead, they can't afford to have Hauntzer fall behind to such an extent - he's the team's best playmaker. While Bunny is a master at finding picks, Hauntzer brings comparable play in pick situations while also engaging teamfights. He's also the only player on the roster who is good at playing around and peeling for Altec and one of the best Teleport players in the region. So many of GV's teamfights start with Hauntzer engaging the fight and and then promptly running back through the frontline to begin peeling for Altec. Gravity's Game 2 against TSM was a particularly powerful demonstration of Hauntzer's skill. After GV successfully lane swapped Hauntzer into Dyrus without having him fall too far behind, Hauntzer was able to lead Gravity to victory by repeatedly making Teleport plays on Shen. Hauntzer finished the game with near 100% kill participation and a game winning Flash-Taunt. Hauntzer is also capable of playing high damage champions such as Rumble or even Ekko, which could go a long ways to solving Gravity’s solo-carry issue.
CLG’s NA LCS title victory, mostly off the back of a side lane carry system, shows that it’s possible to win games with 2 powerful side lanes if a team has a strong understanding of lane swaps. If Gravity have improved their lane swaps, they should be able to keep Altec in safe lanes while still giving Hauntzer the farm he needs to succeed. If Gravity’s lane swaps haven’t improved, they should consider just playing the 1v1 and 2v2 match-ups. Not only were they were able to find success with standard lanes at the middle of the season, but they will be facing Cloud9 in their first round match-up. Hauntzer is much better than Balls, and Gravity may win the series just off of the large skill difference in the 1v1 lane. As it stands, Cloud9 is a team well-known for their preparation, and they’ve likely seen the obvious flaws that TSM exposed in their Gravity series. To get past the gauntlet, Gravity need to they'll unlock their best playmaker and a scary secondary damage threat to pair with superstar AD Altec.
Biggest Weakness: Inconsistency
There's a good reason many fans expect Cloud9 to win the gauntlet. Cloud9 not only has the strongest history out of all gauntlet teams, but they also boast a very high skill ceiling. Cloud9 begun unleashing Incarnati0n in the second half of the split by finally giving him his signature champions - his Ahri and Lulu were particularly terrifying. Despite a faltering team, Sneaky remains one of the best AD players in North America. Finally, Hai is already one of the better junglers in North America. In spite of his damage heavy playstyle on champions like Shyvana or Nidalee, Hai still manages to output loads of early game pressure. This trio’s talent could be enough for Cloud9 to pass through the gauntlet, but the fan favorite squad's biggest issue throughout the season was always their inconsistency. They’ve had a month to make adjustments before the gauntlet - if we see Cloud9 in peak form, they could very well win all 3 series to make it to worlds.
Under Hai, Cloud9 are making the same types of calls they used to, but they've been repeatedly punished by picks because of information asymmetry. Their warding this season has been atrocious, so it's natural that Hai doesn't have the information he needs to make great calls. Balls and Hai both place the least wards out of all NA players in their position, and Hai is a whole .25 wards per minute behind the infamously ward-averse Rush. LemonNation is in the bottom four alongside Bodydrop, aphromoo, and KiWiKiD. Meteos and Hai were once, by far, the best vision duo in the league. Without them, Cloud9 is playing a dangerous game on rotations. When Cloud9 successfully rotate without getting caught out, Cloud9 look a lot like the Cloud9 of old. But because their vision control is so weak, the team often get caught out and throw games off of overaggressive rotations.
Another big issue has been the individual play of top laner Balls. Balls was once one of the premier carry top laners in the West. But this split he has dealt less damage than any other top, even though he has played over half of his games on carry picks like Fizz, Rumble, and Ryze. The other big problem with C9's consistency has been that they only succeed when Balls plays supportive top laners, because Balls is simply nowhere near good enough to carry games anymore, as shown by his terrible damage stats. Unfortunately, Balls isn’t yet comfortable playing a supportive role, and he has been adjusting all season long. Ball’s biggest issue on supportive picks is his overaggression. He will make plays like he still has the majority of the team’s gold, but will get punished for his positioning because his champions are no longer nearly as strong as they used to be. When Balls succeeds in a supportive role, Cloud9 finally have the strong frontline to compliment their skilled backline damage.
It's important to remember that against TSM, Balls was able to land a game-winning Gnar ultimate against the Baron wall. He followed it up by capitalizing on Nien's poor positioning to lock him down in the tie-breaker. In addition, Ball’s Teleport play, which was awful all season long, greatly improved when Hai returned to the team, presumably because Balls needs Hai to think for him. If Balls can solve his individual issues, it will go a long way to fixing Cloud9’s overall teamfighting.
Biggest Weakness: Lack of Carry Potential
I explained in my TL vs. TiP series preview why Team Impulse keep putting Apollo on hypercarries - after the XiaoWeiXiao suspension, they simply don't have the damage threats needed to win teamfights. In many of Impulse's games, their opponents banned Azir, Gate's only damage-centric champion. To make matters worse, Impact, although a very strong top laner, is awful when it comes to Teleport. Impact will frequently Teleport-Homeguard onto far away wards and completely fail to land a flank. Because TiP can no longer zero out the opponent's carries before a fight begins, they have to play around their own carries. Unfortunately, the duo of Apollo and Gate is the weakest backline at this tournament. Without consistent damage coming from the backline, Impulse will simply lose every extended teamfight. For Impulse to win, they will need to go against their fundamentally aggressive nature. Apollo and Gate aren't self-sufficient enough to position aggressively and carry games. Instead, Impact, Rush, and Adrian will have to focus on babysitting their two carries in teamfights to ensure that they can output the necessary damage.
This kind of defensive play goes against Impulse's fundamental playstyle, and they showed an alarming tendency to overengage against strong opponents like CLG or TL. Against weaker teams, such as Team Dignitas or a slumping Gravity, TiP were able to maintain their composure and play around Apollo's Kog'Maw. To get through the gauntlet, however, Impulse will have to start making up for their lack of carry potential by kiting back and playing around Apollo and Gate.
A more fitting alternative could see Impulse going entirely in the other direction and building compositions entirely centered around Impact and Rush carrying. Impact was one of NA's first Yasuo top players, and a Yasuo comp, with champions like Lulu mid, would fit well into Gate's champion pool while facilitating an Impact carry. Other possible Impact carry champions include Rumble, who was one of his signature champions in the spring split and early summer split, or Gnar. Even if Impulse choose to give Apollo a hypercarry, these champions could still fit very well into the team's compositions. Putting Impact on Shen or Maokai puts too many of their eggs in one basket. Two recent popular tops, Olaf and Gangplank, could also give Impulse the top lane punch they need to win the gauntlet, but Impact hasn't played either champion thus far. Impulse have been extremely reluctant thus far to put their eggs into an Impulse carry, but none of the other teams in the gauntlet consistently focus on their top laners. Balls is Cloud9’s biggest weakness, and although Hauntzer and Quas are both skilled players, their teams don't consistently support them. If Impact can exploit this, he may be able to carry TiP through the gauntlet. After their loss to TL, it's clear that they need a new look.
Biggest Weakness: Teamfighting
This season, TL has built up an unfortunate reputation for throwing leads in spite of massive gold leads, and the biggest reason why is their extremely poor teamfighting. Team Liquid are poor teamfighters because they simply don't have very many good teamfighting players. Quas is a well-rounded player, but he struggles with Teleport flanks, a top laner's strongest tool in the current meta. FeniX was brought on as a lane bully, and hasn't been a strong teamfighter without Azir. Piglet, bestknown as a split-pusher/pick playmaker in Korea, is a more than capable teamfighter in the secondary carry role. Team Liquid, however, often uses him as their primary carry, and his overzealous positioning has cost them several late game fights. Finally, IWillDominate and Xpecial have both fallen off individually- Xpecial has had particularly poor engages this season. This poor teamfighting is a big part of why TL was so reliant on FeniX getting Azir. With Azir, TL has a player in FeniX that they can play around and focus on peeling for. In addition, Azir's poke-oriented kit forces opponents to engage onto TL, removing one of Liquid's weakest teamfighting aspects from the equation. This pick has brought TL an undefeated 6-0 record. Without it, however they sit at a fairly pedestrian 12-9 this split,including play-offs.)
To get around this weakness, TL have a few options. Liquid have built their leads off of fantastic laning and early game pressure. Quas, Piglet, and FeniX are all strong 1v1 players, and TL should look to simply push this advantage through split pushing. By avoiding teamfights and running 1-3-1 compositions, TL can avoid their poor teamfighting until they have built up insurmountable advantages. If they want to commit to split pushing, TL need to resist the pressure to group for the first or second dragon. Too often, TL will take an early dragon fight and throw their gold lead, when they could have just traded dragons for towers and built up a further advantage.
For some reason, TL have been reluctant to adopt a split pushing strategy. If they want to try a different approach to teamfights, they can try giving Quas a chance to carry teamfights. One of the most disappointing trends in TL's history has been their tendency to dump Quas on supportive picks in the play-offs, even though their most memorable wins, such as Curse’s's 3-0 against CLG in Season 4, have came off the back of Quas's great individual play on champions such as Nidalee or Hecarim.. In contrast, his play on tanks, particularly when using Teleport, has been one of the team's biggest issues. Carry picks like Gangplank have much less impact off of a Teleport then picks like Maokai. But because Quas isn't very good at Teleport, TL won't be giving up much and will be gaining a strong teamfight damage threat. Piglet and Fenix are both great at cleaning up teamfights, but struggle in a primary carry role. Because of this, it might be worth giving Quas a chance.
The key to winning the gauntlet is solving weaknesses. All of the gauntlet teams are here for a reason - these weaknesses are what kept them for qualifying for worlds in the first place. The first team to solve their problems will be the North America's third team to qualify for the World Championships.