The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of the Mid-Season Invitational Group Stage
The 2016 Mid-Season Invitational group stage has drawn to a close, and Royal Never Give Up, Counter Logic Gaming, Flash Wolves, and SK Telecom T1 are the four teams moving on to the bracket stage of the Shanghai tournament. With the difference between the top team and the number four team being only two games - Royal Never Give Up going 8-2 and SK Telecom T1 going 6-4 - the group stage was filled to the brim with exciting, quality matches. Through the five day group stage Counter Logic Gaming sported a surprising second place showing, and G2 Esports flopped in fifth place, flipping the perception fans previously had about the narrative of both North America and Europe. Taiwan’s Flash Wolves met the high expectations analysts had regarding the side, going 2-0 against the top Korean roster SK Telecom T1 and securing third place. With 30 total matches in the double round robin, there are plenty of triumphs and blunders to unpack before we head into the bracket stage, where SK Telecom T1 meets Royal Never Give Up and Counter Logic Gaming squares off against Flash Wolves.
Royal Never Give Up’s
With a result no one foresaw, LPL’s Royal Never Give Up took home first place in the group stage. Kicking the tournament off with a disgustingly sloppy 43 minute slap fight against Counter Logic Gaming that ended in a “win-that-didn’t-feel-like-a-win”, it initially appeared as if the LPL had sent yet another poor representative for international play. By day three, however, the LPL champions were the only team in the tournament to secure a spot in the bracket stage. Powered by impressive performances from both mid laner Li ‘Xiaohu’ Yuan-Hao and support Cho ‘Mata’ Se-hyoung, the Chinese side only dropped matches to SK Telecom T1 and Counter Logic Gaming, both of which they even had gold leads whenever the games ended.
Individual play across the board for RNG - aside from AD carry Wang ‘Wuxx’ Cheng - was stellar, but it was their much improved map play that left analysts pleasantly surprised. The typical scouting report for RNG entering the event included strong individual play with weak macro knowledge and a fetishization for Baron and Rift Herald. Their play in the event showed a markedly improved early game, improving upon their abysmal lane swap understanding at IEM Katowice earlier in the year. In Katowice, they consistently failed to react properly during the early game and it netted them a -1,044 average gold deficit at 15 minutes. At the Mid-Season Invitational that number has swung the opposite direction, now sitting at an average of +699. This improvement is a recipe for success when combined with the team’s obvious individual strengths through late game team fighting.
Dominating performances by Xiaohu on Azir, Ryze, and Leblanc against stacked mid lane competition thrust the budding star into the spotlight. Picking up first blood participation in half of their games, Xiaohu proceeded to record a mid lane best +6.8 average CS differential at ten minutes. In tandem with timely ganks from jungler Liu ‘Mlxg’ Shi-yu, Xiaohu recorded the strongest laning phase at his position and consistently snowballed the gained advantage into helping his side lanes. Mlxg was on fire throughout the group stage and recorded first blood participation in nearly every game, eight of the ten matches. With strong tank and engage play from top lane Jang ‘Looper’ Hyeong-seok, RNG seemed to be firing on nearly all cylinders.
Their greatest trait displayed in the group stage, however, was their unbelievably stout vision control. Anchored by the greatest support of all time in Mata, RNG almost always had the map lit up where and when it needed to be in accordance to make opportune picks or to set the stage for crisp team fights. With Mata dropping the most wards per minute of any player in the tourney, 1.47, and the team itself clearing out the most visible enemy wards, 85.4%, RNG appropriately controlled the map through the vast majority of their games.
Counter Logic Gaming and Stixxay’s Development
Entering the event, Counter Logic Gaming were universally expected to take the lowly fifth place and drop North America from number one seed status at the World Championship. Instead, CLG showed up well prepared, in contrast to European champions G2 Esports, and shockingly took home second place in groups at 7-3. Living up to their namesake, CLG dropped a match in disappointing fashion to International Wild Card Supermassive; but they turned right around and knocked off SK Telecom T1, giving the North American region its first and only win against the Korean powerhouse in nine tries.
CLG knows their team identity better than any other team in the tournament. Identifying their weak early game control from the mid lane and inconsistent team fighting throughout regional play, the North American champions showed adaptation to patch these question marks up. In nearly every match, the bot lane would transition into the mid lane roughly 15 minutes into the game and stay there while mid laner Choi ‘HuHi’ Jae-hyun would swap into a side lane to solo farm. This is a smart lane assignment by funneling more gold into AD carry Trevor ‘Stixxay’ Hayes, the most of any AD carry at the event with 27.2% of his team’s gold, but without teleport on the mid laner this could be punished in the bracket stages by more proactivity and aggression. Their map play was smooth as they maneuvered around the map to tear down towers, but their lane assignments felt a bit predictable as the group stage wore on.
Their pick and ban strategies through the group stage were excellent and indicative of the coaching staff identifying their weaknesses. Highlights of their pick and ban include breaking out an intelligent Aurelion Sol pick and forcing opposing teams to ban away a Caitlyn pick rarely used in other regions. Aurelion Sol shores up HuHi’s primary weakness in lack of mid control and being able to incessantly shove to the enemy tower while looking for swift roam opportunities means the star forger is right in HuHi’s wheelhouse. Stixxay took up the mantle of carry duties for CLG despite being both the most overrated and underrated player at the tournament. After two impressive games on Caitlyn to start the group stage off - displaying phenomenal use of her trap placement and long range - she was banned out in all but one of the remaining matches. Stixxay’s progression as a carry throughout the tournament has been remarkable. While he is not without error, the young marksman has silenced more than a few critics.
CLG matches up against the Flash Wolves, the LMS side they recorded two close wins against. Seeing stout, consistent performances from top laner Darshan ‘Darshan’ Upadhyaya, jungler Jake ‘Xmithie’ Puchero, and support Zaqueri ‘Aphromoo’ Black, it’s on Stixxay and HuHi to continue to step up as damage carries. Smart pick and ban along with needed adaptation is paramount to success in a best of five setting and from what we’ve seen out of CLG they should be the favorites heading into the semifinal match up.
Opposite to Counter Logic Gaming, European champions G2 Esports entered this event with high expectations of a second place finish. Unlike Counter Logic Gaming they neglected to prepare for the premier international tournament. After a pathetic showing all throughout group stage, Europe’s best finished 2-8 and only took games off of wild card Supermassive. Kicking the event off with their patented snowball heavy laning phase against Flash Wolves, they completely collapsed as the game wore on. Poor pick and ban choices left G2 with very narrow win conditions which they failed to meet. For the rest of the group stage after that match they were unsuccessful in their attempts to look remotely competitive. Admittedly taking zero time to practice and rumors of imminent bottom lane roster swaps appear to have taken their toll on the once promising squad. Most notably AD carry Kim ‘Emperor’ Jin-hyun looked out of sorts all tournament long and his horrid positioning in every game led to countless avoidable deaths. The abhorrent team performance was an unexpected result, but reports of vacationing prior to the event and potential roster swaps show that G2 have their eyes set on Summer rather than the Mid-Season Invitational.
SK Telecom's Day 2 and 3
It had been 615 days since the last time the Lee ‘Faker’ Sang-hyeok led SK Telecom T1 lost more than two games consecutively. At the Mid-Season Invitational they lost four in a row and went winless on both days two and three. After the first day against Supermassive and G2 Esports it appeared as though SK Telecom T1 were going to stampede through the tournament. After the third day, however, it was a question of if they could even hobble into the bracket stage and put up a fight against the presumed number one seed Royal Never Give Up.
Losing to Royal Never Give Up, Flash Wolves, Counter Logic Gaming, and then Flash Wolves for a second time, SK Telecom T1 looked utterly lost. Faker failed to stand up against Xiaohu or Flash Wolves’ mid laner Huang ‘Maple’ Yi-tang, displaying the worst game of his career while playing Azir against Xiaohu. Recording a -5.8 average CS deficit and a -218 average gold deficit at ten minutes throughout the group stage, it was during these two days where Faker looked startlingly miserable as he was down -14 CS on average at ten minutes.
The SK Telecom T1 early game looked especially poor as jungler Kang ‘Blank’ Sun-gu failed to create plays or force pressure on the map. On the pick and ban front, the team was pulverized by a tier one Alistar pick from supports Mata and Hu ‘Swordart’ Shuo-Jie. Exceptional engages coming out of those two supports, along with SK Telecom T1’s own crisis when attempting to engage fights, allowed RNG and FW to dictate the pace of each match. Versus CLG, the Korean champions fell victim to poor team fighting and decision making around baron.
Entering the tournament they cleanly defeated the Jin Air Green Wings, dominated KT Rolster, and edged out the ROX Tigers to claim their spot at the Mid-Season Invitational. It was expected that they were to win the tournament without breaking a sweat.
Wuxx and NL
RNG were firing on nearly all cylinders during the group stage. Nearly. The key component missing on their quest to go undefeated during groups was a lack of stable play from the AD carry role. Wuxx was surprisingly a mess during groups and his greatest contribution may have been forcing a ban for his pocket Twitch pick in six of the ten matches. Team fighting gaffes through terrible positioning and poor decision making, such as opting into being dove by three people while playing Twitch, spell out how rough his group stage was. Still, he delivered strong performances on the high priority Sivir and has pocket Jhin and Twitch picks if he wants to break either out. There is some hope that Wuxx can regain the level of play he displayed prior to the Mid-Season Invitational, as he put up more than a few standout performances through the Spring season of LPL. RNG will need Wuxx in solid form if they want to topple SK Telecom T1 in a best of five.
The Flash Wolves deal with a similar scenario in Hsiung ‘NL’ Wen-An. The AD carry, who seemingly cannot be replaced by any means, had an expected weak showing during the group stage. Like RNG, the other members of FW performed exceptionally through the group stage. Support Swordart and mid laner Maple had yet another standout international showing, top laner Yu ‘MMD’ Li-Hung brought strong and consistent follow up engage, and jungler Hung ‘Karsa’ Hau-Hsuan competed with Mlxg for top jungler in the group stage. And so here lies NL, only positively affecting the match for Flash Wolves when placed on the very safe and secure Ezreal. When given multiple escapes after making crucial positioning errors he’s a serviceable AD carry. When taken off the champ he fails to deliver even a passable performance, having a rough Kalista performance against G2 Esports and being outperformed by the competition when on Caitlyn and Lucian. Unlike Wuxx, there’s very little hope that NL hits another level of skill as he hasn’t shown it in the past.
All in all, these two marksmen contributed around a quarter of their team’s total deaths. They failed to position properly and paid for it on countless occasions. Their individual play was the very definition of ugly.
With the Korean participant in SK Telecom T1 failing to live up to expectations, this group stage turned out to be one of the most competitive we’ve seen since 2012. Sitting in lowly fourth place, they now have the task of knocking off Royal Never Give Up in the semifinal bracket stage. In the past three years only two Korean teams have lost a best of five to a non-Korean roster. The two sides split one and one during the group stage with two excellently played matches, and right now it’s impossible to say who the favorite is. In the other semifinal, it’s a duel between two teams fighting their hardest to mask their most dire weakness; Mid control failure for Counter Logic Gaming and NL’s woes for Flash Wolves. CLG took both games off the Flash Wolves during group stage and given their recent play it’s expected that the North American champions reach the finals.