On their way to two straight world championships, SK Telecom T1 haven’t had a consistent rival.
The ROX Tigers gave them a scare last spring, even handing mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok his first professional loss on one of his signature champions, Zed. And SKT did lose in a reverse sweep in last summer’s playoffs to KT Rolster. But those teams are no more. ROX disbanded as Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho joined KT in a bid to create a super team that would allow him to finally surpass Faker.
That hasn’t yet come to fruition. KT have yet to beat SKT in a series this year, despite holding multiple leads in elimination games. The Afreeca Freecs can give SKT fits during the regular season, but then SKT received their usual playoff buff a week ago and swept them aside.
The one team that has given SKT some trouble these past two years is also the one team to interrupt their reign as world champs: Samsung Galaxy. Samsung retooled following the Korean exodus in 2015, and playing around longtime Faker adversary Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong, now a jungler, they gave SKT one of their closest tests in the finals at last season’s Worlds.
Since then, they’ve become the team most able to challenge SKT. They swept SKT in both series this split after winning one series apiece. Their last regular season match win was comprehensive: They drafted the exact same team composition in both games, showing an advanced read of the meta, and thoroughly dismantled SKT. They threw the champs into such a funk that SKT went on a nearly inconceivable four-match losing streak.
Having proven themselves, many would have expected Samsung to pose a worthy challenge in the second leg of SKT’s gauntlet run in the LCK playoffs. It was unlucky that a late surge from Longzhu knocked Samsung down to third place, but odds were good that they would have to face SKT at some point anyway. This should have been a good test of Samsung’s true level in a best-of-five.
Instead they got swept. And truth be told, their fate was sealed before the broadcast even started.
The team composition Samsung used in that last regular season meeting with SKT revolved around the solo lanes. They blind-picked Camille and Taliyah both games to set up pushing lanes. More than that, by blind-picking the champions, they showed supreme confidence that they could execute regardless of what SKT brought to the table.
They completed the composition with a surprise Sejuani pick for Ambition. The whole team focused first on mid laner Lee “Crown” Min-ho’s lane, trusting that he could use Taliyah roams to set up plays on the top side. Knowing that ADC Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk would struggle, they stuck him on Varus and basically ignored him.
The strategy worked. Crown dominated both games, outplaying Faker, the best player in the world. But he didn’t do it alone. Wherever he went, the rest of Samsung followed, setting up kills for him all over the map. SKT looked like they had no answer for the power of Taliyah.
Turning the tables
Crown got Taliyah again in the playoff series, but the rest of Samsung’s draft was wildly different. Rather than a safe ADC with utility, Samsung prioritized Tristana, picking her blind. The pick was truly a surprise, as Ruler had only one game on Tristana all split, a lopsided loss to KT.
That Samsung chose to play on red side made things even worse. They grabbed Tristana and Jarvan IV in the first rotation, but gave up Zac. Moreover, SKT learned what Samsung wanted to do and, after much discussion, crafted a team composition that was meant to poke at Samsung’s weaknesses.
Faker chose Lucian, knowing that Crown loves to roam. Lucian is one of the few champions that can trade with Taliyah in the early game, and by constantly playing aggressively, Faker could keep Crown locked down. In the top lane, Park “Untara” Ui-jin chose Kennen, a great counter to the brusiers and tanks that Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin loves. And the bot lane Caitlyn would make life hell for Tristana.
That Faker solo-killed Crown in the lane phase only added insult to injury. It was an awful play from Crown—the one thing you have to avoid against mid lane Lucian is to let him snowball. But in reality, Samsung were already losing based on team compositions alone. Coaches stress that team compositions are rarely as impactful as pundits believe, but in this case, Crown must have known he was playing against the clock, that eventually, SKT’s lane pressure would take the map away from Samsung.
That’s no excuse for his misplay, but Crown was playing this game under incredible pressure that started before the teams even loaded onto the Rift.
Samsung banned Lucian in the second game, but it didn’t really solve their problems. Faker took another snowball champion with kill potential in Fizz. While Fizz doesn’t have the wave clear that Lucian provides, he does offer constant kill threat after level six. It doesn’t matter how strong Crown gets if one Fizz ult can blow him up.
And Crown did get ahead. Samsung were up nearly the entire game owing to his pressure. But once Faker started hitting those ults, it was all over. Whether it was an error on Samsung’s part by not peeling for him properly, or Crown mispositioning, SKT won several fights in a row from a deficit because a little fish hit Taliyah. It was more a victory of SKT’s execution, but the game was aided by Faker’s single-target kill threat.
By the third game, Samsung looked defeated. Subbing Ambition back in for Kang “Haru” Min-seung, they made a game out of it with Crown playing the best he had all series. But the deficit was too big and Samsung’s mentality too shaken. You could say they were tilted, but it looked more like they were overcome with dread—fear that they were overmatched before the series even started.
With one rival dispatched, SKT will face another, KT, tonight (4am ET on Aug. 19) in the next round of the playoffs. This series is huge—the winner gets an automatic berth to Worlds.