The 2016 Copenhagen Wolves: LCS-bound?
A warm welcome once again to the Promotion Tournament kings.
The Copenhagen Wolves have been involved in relegations in every single split of the EU LCS, and if not for the existence of auto-relegation in 2015, would have played in every promotion tournament. They were a qualifying team in spring S3, re-qualified in S3 summer, qualified with a new roster from challenger in S4 spring, re-qualified in S4 summer, re-qualified again in S5 spring, and picked up the ex-LowLandLions.White roster immediately after their tournament qualification in S5 summer.
The full history of the love affair of the Wolves with the promotion tournament is one for another time, but it is amusing to note, particularly when we consider just how unfavoured they were to make it this time. Expectations were modest coming into the season; following relegation, the team rebuilt around veteran mid-laner Soren, and the lineup they eventually put out did boast LCS veterans at all three carry roles (Soren, Wickd, and P1noy) as well as the #1 EUW solo queue player for much of S5 (SirNukesALot). In an unusually strong Challenger Series field, this roster checked out but did not stand out; between the sheer raw talent of teams like Huma and Inspire, and the teamplay of Millenium most prominently, most placed them as a fringe playoff team at best.
Roster courtesy of esportspedia.
In the regular season, these expectations largely proved founded; they handily beat CS whipping boys SK Gaming, went 1-5 against the aforementioned three teams in the next three weeks, and only secured their 4th-placed spot with their week 5 victories against the disappointing mousesports lineup. Their reward was a matchup with the aforementioned Millenium, almost ubiquitously considered the best team in the EU Challenger scene, and one whom had handily beaten them in 31 and 28-minute affairs a few weeks earlier.
Table courtesy of esportspedia.
The Wolves did make a couple of roster swaps mid-season - replacing jungler Trowen with k0u (most recently of LCS's Giants Gaming) for week 5 onwards, and Soren with Renegades: Banditos' Caedrel on loan for the playoffs - but expectations were that Millenium would win easily. While fan votes don't always reflect sober analysis, the 91% for Millenium in game 1 was probably not far off with regards to community perceptions.
In the event, Copenhagen Wolves not only won, but they 3-0ed Millenium. While there are mitigations than can be attached regarding both Millenium's hype in general and their performance on the day (particularly in pick-ban), this isn't the place to talk about them. In all three games, the Wolves played solidly, gave up very little in the early game, and were able to rotate as an unit and crush Millenium at every tower they desired. Hence, while it's very easy to say that Millenium underperformed, it's worth asking: why were the Wolves able to exploit that underperformance so viciously?
Strength and Weaknesses
First things first: in terms of pure skill, this is a strong laning team in most respects. While Wickd is an easy target for criticism in terms of his ability to play in 2016, it's not been the early game that's been his issue; he actually averaged a 5.2 CS lead at 10 minutes across the split, ahead of all top laners and behind only Hans sama and Djoko of Millenium overall. Soren similarly had the highest lead among all mids at 3.5; Caedrel is admittedly a less lane-dominant player. P1noy's lead was more slight at 0.8, but that was still 3rd (significantly ahead of three other ADCs, but significantly behind Hans sama and Huma's HolyPhoenix).
Their early game in terms of laning has correspondingly always been to seek a 1v1 and 2v2, and let their laners' abilities do the rest; they actually held an average lead of 779 gold at 15 minutes in the regular season games (again, while finishing 5-5), and were ahead at 10 in all of their non-Millenium losses. While the LCS lacks laners of the lack of calibre of beansu or Vardags, they would most nonetheless likely be wise to continue that policy in general; no potential promotion tournament top or bot lane combination should scare either Wickd or P1noy/SirNukesALot in terms of a pure 1v1 or 2v2, and the latter in particular might actually be the best of all potential combinations they could face.
This is a nice advantage to have, and it's a fundamental precondition to Promotion Tournament success. However, there's also good reasons why CW did struggle so much at times. Some of those problems should conceptually be gone now; for instance, one of the biggest weaknesses of CW's early game was lazy and seemingly rudderless jungle pathing from Trowen at times, which should and has been less of a problem both practically and thematically with k0u anyway.
Yet, concerns remain. One of the most worrying things - and the reason that while, despite an overall mechanical advantage, CW hit mid-game and got aced in a fight in most of their losses - is their vision control. CW actually put down the most wards per minute of any EUCS team (3.41), but they have problems in all phases of the game with regards to their usage. In the early game, they ward extremely conservatively, essentially only using vision as a direct anti-dive tool, over-saturating wards, warding excessively in no-longer-relevant areas, and so on - yes, it befits how they like to play the game to an extent, but it's very much punishable for any team that's done its homework on it.
In the mid game, CW's vision control goes from defensive to useless. The question that should have come into the readers' head earlier when reading their strengths is: "if they're so great at laning, and hence so good at skirmishing, and they weren't getting crushed by laneswaps or anything like that, why have they lost so many games?" While there were some problems to be raised with 5v5 positioning and split fights in unfavourable areas, a big part of it was simply that warding was not properly adapted to shifting defensive frontiers once towers started going down, particularly regarding mid tier 1.
A fairly characteristic example of poor CW warding from MIL-CW game 2 in the regular season; mid T1 is up, but low, here.
It's likely not without correlation that CW has the second-lowest wards cleared per minute in the EUCS (at 1.15). While one would expect the addition of k0u to help, this has to be CW's biggest concern going into the tournament, particularly given that there's no easy fix available here; vision control is one of those problems that is easy to criticise but extremely difficult to fix because it requires so much concerted effort via non-ideal tools (scrims and solo queue) and with non-ideal repercussions (worse immediate results in terms of win-loss) to get up to a competitive-level standard.
One interesting question is that of versatility - a weakness that might turn into something of a strength. While Wickd can play anything as he has proven too many times, the other four players on this team have reputations for 'only' playing in a certain style. When CW go into the Promotion Tournament, the book will be open on them - P1noy will be the main carry, k0u will play a carry jungler, and so on. Teams will know exactly what they're facing; there'll be no Celaver Tristana-esque shenanigan games. Yet, at the same time, that sort of framework can be liberating for a team and coach; they can train and scheme around that plan and its counter-plans. CW will be telegraphed (if they try to get more 'creative' owing to the relative newness of Caedrel and k0u to the team, one would expect only poor things), but there's just enough ability on this lineup that opponents may not be able to stop what's coming even if they know it.
The X-factor: Caedrel
The move to replace Trowen with k0u ahead of week 5 attracted very little comment; ultimately, Trowen remains an unknown for most fans, and while k0u is known for mostly the wrong reasons, he's still a player with considerable CS and a little LCS experience. Soren for Caedrel, on the other hand, was an eyebrow-raiser. Apart from the genesis of the roster itself, few had too many bad words to say about Soren in the regular season; on a 5-5 team, he had the most kills, most CS per minute, and most damage per minute among all EUCS mid-laners; while 11/0/4 and 7/0/6 performances in the wins over mousesports had inflated his numbers somewhat, it would be difficult to put any current EUCS mid definitively above him in terms of skill.
So, who is Caedrel? After making his competitive debut in the Spanish LVP last year (winning in offline finals in seasons 8 and 9 with xPerience and Giants Underdoges respectively), he was a part of the heavily-hyped Renegades: Banditos roster (along with ex-LCS stars Impaler and Tabzz) that most expected to easily qualify for the current EUCS split. In the event, this didn't happen; the bracket draw controversially saw RNB matched up against Millenium in a single-elimination Bo5 for the spot, and they fell 3-1.
Image courtesy of LoL Esports.
Caedrel was disappointing in that series, notably going 2/10/6 across the three losses - results that had hit harder after he'd attracted a decent amount of hype, particularly after a very strong preceding series against E-corp Gaming. Between that loss and the 0-3 of RNB at Lyon e-Sport 9 by Millenium, there were a lot of jokes circulating on social media about Caedrel's masochism in agreeing to play for CW against Millenium.
Nobody could accuse Caedrel of being spectacular in this series; his game 1 in particular was very shaky (to the point of giving a 20 CS deficit at 10 minutes - while in fairness he was Twisted Fate vs Corki, his roams produced very little pressure too). A lot of what let CW win happened essentially without him. Yet, there were glimpses - not of brilliance, but of...well, utility. He appeared to manipulate the lane well, was on-time with rotations, respected his limits in team-fights, and most importantly, skirmished beautifully, showing off great synergy with both k0u and SirNukesALot over and over, even though in reality he has barely any experience playing alongside either player outside of solo queue.
In spite of his youth and relative inexperience, and the lack of flash in his game, Caedrel is a greater asset to a competitive team now than almost any other young challenger EU mid purely because he brings sufficient mechanical ability, an advanced understanding of lane dynamics, and an exceptional instinct for protective play. For this Copenhagen Wolves lineup, he's perfect. That seems insane on the surface given that this was a team built around an aggressive carry mid; yet, with the importance of protection for P1noy (and to a lesser extent Wickd), the strengths of all five members in the skirmish game anyway, and the swap of Trowen for k0u effectively making the jungler the team's #2 carry, Caedrel over Soren is absolutely a win-now move.
The burden of carrying in the EUCS finals and promotion tournament won't be on Caedrel in the conventional sense, but his existence and presence are so important to how this CW lineup will work, and it'll be interesting to see if the team will plan accordingly and hold their nerve when they need to with regards to his role.
Here's the shocking truth: the Copenhagen Wolves can come through this promotion tournament. Based on 1v1 and 2v2 matchups across the map, there's almost nowhere you can say they're outclassed by any of the four LCS teams who could realistically be involved. At no position is there a serious talent deficit; in the context of the tournament, any weaknesses they have (Caedrel and SirNukesALot's experience shortcomings, for instance) are things that can be potentially be masked beyond reasonable exploitation by the lineups they'll be facing, with the possible exception of Giants should xPePii find his form at the right moment.
Make no mistake: if the tournament were held today, it'd be a different matter, and indeed in spite of having some positive qualities over Huma they will come into next week's EUCS finals as distinct underdogs. The Wolves have issues that they need to solve - both individually and as a team - and they're issues that will take time. Yet, this is a team with just enough time to spare, and just enough maturity to make it happen.
All stats from OraclesElixir.com.