Tallahassee Nights: potential sleeper picks at MSI
When viewers - particularly Western viewers - tune into the upcoming Mid-Season Invitation, they're going to be in for some surprises.
True, there haven't been any huge balance changes since the last time EU and NA LCS were fully in session (the finals were played on patch 5.6, and 5.7 brought only modest tweaks rather than 5.5-style meta-changing adjustments). However, it's fair to say that it took time for the dominoes to fall, and for the pros to iteratively adapt, to said game-changer, and hence there'll be some new sights on show by the time MSI rolls around next week.
This article is an attempt to highlight a few picks that could show up at MSI. It's not trying to identify power picks, per se; there's going to be some ubiquitious things that people haven't seen much of to date (why hello there, red smite -> BoRK Shyvana!), but there's a little too little interesting material, and a little too much uncertainty with clashing regional metas, to make something worthwhile and readable there.
With that in mind, here's one potential pick at each role that could make some waves at the upcoming tournament.
Of all the picks mentioned here, this is probably the one least likely to show up at MSI, purely because of its total disuse throughout the course of the season to date. Aatrox top has not shown up in high-level competitive play in season 5, and its greatest historic advocate - SK's fredy122 - will not be playing at MSI. Fredy aside, there's been little movement in terms of professional players trialling it lately.
However, that in itself is not a disqualifier. Nobody was running Shyvana top, even in solo queue, until they suddenly were. Why do I bring that particular comparison up? Because that's what Aatrox has been until recently - a low-rent Shyvana. He's a manaless attack-speed oriented bruiser with a very safe laning phase (perhaps a little better, in fact - slightly worse farming tools, but a stronger pre-6 escape via his Dark Flight), massive splitpush potential, identity issues for pro play (can't itemise pure tank, all the general issues of a melee carry) and decent, if a little underwhelming engage.
It's not quite clear why, in a world where a LCS-winning team ran red Cinderhulk Lee Sin repeatedly in a playoff series, people haven't yet tried it on Aatrox. He has the necessary pre-6 escape, the ability to farm, the ability to make something worthwhile out of that farm in terms of splitpushing and objective control, and doesn't even have to concern himself with whether or not to buy a Frozen Heart.
Aatrox has the potential to be an absolutely monstrous pick on the newly-released 5.8 patch - the addition of lifesteal to BoRK's on-hit effect will massively benefit him in 1v1 duels, perhaps even to the point of unduelability, and the new Black Cleaver has a better distribution of stats (more health, less ArPen, and a viable route to 40% CDR via Black Cleaver & Spirit Visage) and works better for bruisers in teamfights than it did before.
Unfortunately, MSI isn't being played under 5.8, and Riot are surely racing right now to nerf the red Cinderhulk top lane strategy out of competitive viability before the summer split starts. It's still not out of the realm of possibility that we'll see him crop up from a team looking for an alternative to the permanently banned Shyvana.
On the whole, it feels like teams have figured out the jungle meta right now, and that 5.7 (and then 5.8) doesn't bring too much new to that. Sejuani and Gragas will continue to reign as boar queen and boorish king, some teams will wheel out Nunu, and there'll be at least one Lee Sin.
If teams get cute with looking to ban out Gragas and Sejuani, and said teams' opponents have to look elsewhere, Olaf could be an interesting wildcard. We actually saw more of Olaf earlier in the season (particularly in EU LCS) than of late, in spite of his general inclination towards Cinderhulk and tank items.
One of the players to pioneer him was Fnatic jungler Reignover, who picked him in 3 regular season games as well as the first game of the FNC-H2K semi-final series. Reignover, and Fnatic, will be appearing at MSI, which is of course a feather in the cap of the pick.
More than that, however, what does Olaf do well? With his invulnerability to CC, and his ability to chase down and burst onto a single target, Olaf is a pick-oriented jungler. While that's not the predominant meta style right now, certain rotational-style pick comps are actually emerging as a strong response to them (after all, how else do you deal with a team looking to scale?), and Olaf suits that. He's extremely difficult to kite, can provide a real mid-game threat to scaling laners, and doesn't run into a brick wall at a certain point in the game in the same way that most early-to-mid-game picks in the current meta to.
In spite of all of that, he's unlikely to be the first alternative that most teams turn to if forced off the Gragas-Sejuani-Nunu trio - we're more likely to see another pure tank. However, with what Olaf can offer against the predominant meta compositions, we should see him wheeled out at some point, probably as a response to a Sejuani-hypercarry combination.
MID: MASTER YI
For those of you who don't want to read a full explanation of why mid Yi could be making his triumphant return to the meta, let's start with appealing to that emergent meme. If you believe that as Faker goes, so goes the meta, then you're in luck.
Sure, it's not on the level of LemonNation Nautilius spam. Nonetheless, it's a pick that's being experimented with - and when you break it down, there's a lot to like. Let's start with the big reason that Yi hasn't been played in pro play this season (one LMS jungle game asides): namely, his vulnerability to hard CC, particularly targeted. While Nautilius's popularity presents an issue, a lot of the counters to Yi currently find themselves on the outside looking in. Vi has been nerfed into oblivion. We're seeing less and less Annie as teams avoid 2v2s and load up on disengage and peel at the support position. Leona isn't in favour of the same reason. Lulu is approaching permaban status.
Yi still has to fear, say, a Sejuani Glacial Prison, but there's nowhere near as much hard CC around right now as you tend to think. Indeed, a lot of the strength of picks like Sejuani, Gragas, Ziggs, Maokai, Cassiopeia, Lulu, Janna, and so on, comes through thier ability to kite through their slows - which Yi is able to just ignore via his ultimate.
The Wuju Bladesman also stands to be a beneficiary of the evolving meta in the mid lane. While assassins will never totally leave, we're seeing a pronounced shift towards utility and control mages in the mid lane again with the continuing ascendancy of tanks (even in mid - see Urgot and Cho'Gath, to name just two) and the tendency of comps to look to accelerate to mid-game or stall out to late-game. We'll be seeing a lot of the likes of Orianna, Azir, Ziggs, and the like.
That suits competitive Yi just fine. He has poor farming tools, but with his natural sustain, Yi can cope just fine with harass; it's the threat of an all-in that concerns him, and it's a much less potent threat against the aforementioned. Top-level teams don't always need their laners to outplay and get lane kills - they just need farm, and Yi mid has just enough to be able to do that.
But why pick Yi? The short answer is that Yi is a genuinely synergistic BoRK user, and hence can scale into late game and provide a real answer to hypertanks that most mid-lane picks just don't have. Of all the roles, the slowest adaptation to the new meta situation has come in mid - assassins aren't effective anymore, and a combination of the ubiquity of dive and multiple nerfs to meta mid-laners have left pros unsure of what to do. It's why we've been seeing teams latch onto concepts like Urgot and Vladimir mid.
Yi can't be more than a situational pick because of the sheer amount of things that can just make a Yi completely useless. But there could be a legitimate place in professional play for him right now (he'll actually get stronger on 5.8 with the BoRK changes), and if SKT in particular make it to MSI, expect him to show you the path.
This isn't the first time I've talked about Tristana's role in the current meta - in fact, if you look to the box to your right, you'll see an entire article on it listed. The TL;DR of that piece is that Tristana is limited as a hyper-carry, particularly in this meta, and instead thrives on her ability to annihilate towers and split-push in the mid game.
Rather than repeating the specifics of why, let's talk about why we'd see a champion like that. The predominant meta compositions right now are based on scaling ADCs, scaling mid-laners, lots of disengage, and sometimes a splitpush threat to make use of that disengage and give an out against the other team taking the advantage.
The natural counter to a scaling composition is a composition that can put pressure on it before it scales. In theory, you'd think that'd mean picking off targets. The problem is that, with heavy use of the likes of Lulu, Morgana, Janna, and the like, there are sufficient shields and peel to make even picking off a target in the mid-game a dicey proposition.
With picks denied, teams have to fall back on out-rotating their opponents, forcing responses at pressure points (towers and dragon), and maybe attempting to siege with and against certain picks. Two picks stand out in particular as useful for enabling that counter-meta style - Sivir and Tristana. While Sivir can't take down towers as quickly as you'd like, and Tristana can't bring the mobility to a team in its totality (and can't fast-push unaided in a 2v0 or 2v1 as effectively due to her mediocre early waveclear), they on the whole have exactly what you want from a team in that rotational style.
Sivir will be a priority pick at MSI, because she brings value to hard-engage compositions as well as rotational ones. Tristana, however, won't - but if teams can grasp what she does, she might be good for an upset or two. She certainly brought Reason Gaming close enough to it in the Promotion Tournament last week, although perhaps the necessary chaos that it took for the pick to work won't be there against the world's best.
While Nami has some strengths that are just straight-up unlikely to be harnessed well with the meta being how it is (in particular, her desirability in a 2v2 and her operation in a 'bully lane'), there's still some things to like about Nami. She offers a decent amount of sustain both in lane and in teamfights, she can help kite for otherwise vulnerable carries both through her bubble and tidal wave and through the slow applied by her Tidecaller's Blessing, and so on.
Her problem is, like so many other underplayed supports, that she just doesn't fit exactly enough with what teams want to do. It'd be a surprise to not see her, though, if only on account of the priority that teams right now are given to put on disengage in the pick-ban phase. There is, after all, a reason we see certain picks like Janna time and time again, and even started seeing bans against them at points in this season - they offer extremely unique utility in their kits that is more difficult to replicate than, say, for engage supports (as evidenced by the constant experimentation by teams with oddities like Sion, Syndra, and Sejuani, and the outright slotting into the mainstream of Nautilius and Kennen).
In addition, with her rare combination of disengage on a genuine lane bully, and the favour given to ADC picks like Kalista and Urgot by certain regions (particularly Korea and China), we could see Nami reached to as a comfortable alternative when a 2v2 is unavoidable. Again: it's unlikely to be anyone's proactive choice, but we'll see it.