SK Telecom T1 kept their LCK title hopes alive today after grinding out a hard-fought victory against the young Afreeca Freecs in the wildcard playoffs.
A carry performance from star mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok’s Qiyana in game three helped SKT take the series. It also makes a return to the World Championship for the three-time champs much more likely because now a Griffin victory will also allow SKT to qualify for Worlds. SKT will now look to their match against Sandbox Gaming in two days as the next obstacle between them and their eighth LCK championship.
With the best-of-three format of the wildcard playoffs denying SKT their renowned ability to adapt during series, the mechanically-talented Afreeca Freecs only had to put together enough unorthodox picks to win two games and the series. That took the form of Qiyana, which Son “Ucal” Woo-hyeon used to pick up first blood in a mid lane brawl. Faker locked in Renekton and the early game was silent until just past 10 minutes when we saw the aforementioned first blood.
But SKT dictated the pace of the game with exemplary teamfight control and macro, which Afreeca Freecs couldn’t match. Kim “Khan” Dong-ha was an absolute menace on Vladimir and quickly outscaled Kim “Kiin” Gi-in’s Gangplank to help the rest of the team lock down pick after pick thanks to the Impale from Kim “Clid” Tae-min’s Skarner. While Afreeca picked up kills here and there in the melee, the result was never in doubt after SKT established an early gold lead. A Vladimir flank at 36 minutes put the final nail in the coffin in game one.
Faker was still locked out from his undefeated Azir in game two, but he chose to use his also undefeated Neeko against Ucal’s surprise Yasuo. With Yasuo and a Draven for Kim “Aiming” Ha-ram, an early lead for Afreeca could snowball the game out of control.
But a focus on the top side gave Afreeca their lead. They showed excellent coordination to make Khan’s life hell on Kennen. A sneaky Baron take at 25 minutes completely changed the tone of the otherwise silent game and Draven finally cashed in for over 2,000 gold as Afreeca used the buff to lay waste to SKT’s base. An underwhelming Neeko ultimate from Faker paved the way for Afreeca to roll over SKT in one final teamfight and force a decisive third game.
With red side winning both games, SKT used this to their advantage in the final match of the series. They drafted Qiyana for Faker and Jax for Khan in the second round of picks to go up against Ucal’s Lissandra and Kiin’s Camille. This game was always going to be a bloodbath. A four-man gank in the bot lane handed SKT first blood and added two more kills after Faker’s pixel-perfect ultimate locked down Kiin and Lee “Dread” Jin-hyeok.
SKT continued to steamroll the early game. Teddy’s Kai’Sa nullified the repeat Draven pick from Aiming thanks to the early visit from the rest of his team. The game seemed to be done and dusted with inhibitors broken and Afreeca reeling, but a greedy SKT took one engage too many and the six-item Draven turned around and fended them off. A decisive Baron call went Afreeca’s way after SKT couldn’t defend the purple worm with their low health bars. But it only served to stall the game out since a fight around the Elder Drake erupted when Faker isolated Kiin and stunned the rest of Afreeca to allow Clid to steal the Drake, the teamfight, and the game from the jaws of defeat.
Afreeca came so close to pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the year, but the veteran SKT squad had too much experience on the day and will advance to face Sandbox Gaming. The journey for Afreeca isn’t over just yet, however. They can still make it to Worlds when they square off against KingZone Dragon-X in the first round of the LCK Gauntlet next week.