What Balls and WildTurtle could learn from Xmithie
Introduction - Examining Xmithie
Fans are reeling at the recent news that Xmithie likely won't be attend the Season 5 World Championships. After a season of inconsistent performance, the veteran jungler had become a key part of CLG's game plan. In particular, his sturdy play-off performance (78.3% kill participation, behind only Rush) played a key role in the team's surprising undefeated run to win the summer tournament.
It wasn't always like this. Even in the week before play-offs, CLG fans were bracing themselves for a poor performance. While Xmithie was once one of the most exciting junglers in North America, his Season 3 glory days were seemingly far behind him. Season 5 Xmithie looked like one of the weakest junglers in the league - his early game play, once keyed supporting Vulcun co-star mancloud, had become extremely indecisive. To make matters worse, Xmithie frequently tried too hard to force teamfights, or made basic mechanical errors leading to jokes about his inability to land his ultimates. Xmithie was a poor fit for CLG, because not only had his once notable mechanical prowess significantly diminished, his preferred playstyle didn't fit into how CLG approached the game.
Over the course of the season, Xmithie worked on finding a new way to fit into CLG. While his Nautilus pick may have seemed comical, it was also a creative way to work around his inconsistent mechanics while providing easy engage for a CLG team that struggled to start fights all season. His use of Ekko and improved play on Gragas in the play-offs was simply a natural evolution of this process. Both of these champions excel in ganking the mid lane, and he was able to hoover around mid for counterganks as Pobelter repeatedly shoved in the mid wave on champions like Viktor or Orianna. This mid lane pressure helped pin down their enemies and detract attention from CLG's strong side lane rotations, and by the time that teams finally got around to trying to stop Doublelift and Zion, they had already accrued large gold advantages. Overall, Xmithie was able to find comfortable picks that both accounted for his weaker mechanics and helped assimilate his mid-game oriented style into CLG's overall play. Xmithie's improvements weren't mechanical. Instead, he improved his decision-making and played around his decreased mechanical play.
Xmithie's story is a great example of a weakened veteran acknowledging his diminished skill and finding ways to fit into a new team. By the time CLG swept the play-offs, it was clear that they were a team of 5. While TSM and C9 were both able to follow CLG to Worlds, a closer look at their team's performance suggests that neither team has a system which successfully uses all 5 of their members. Balls and WildTurtle were once two of the best players in North America, but their mechanical decline has made it impossible for them to play like they used to. As a result, both players looked like Xmithie did for much of the season. Their inability to adjust to low economy roles even though their play no longer merited carry status hindered their teams.
One of the most difficult adjustments for players is changing how they approach the game to better fit alongside changed team dynamics. It's unlikely that either Balls or WildTurtle will rediscover their old form. The key to their team's success and their success as individuals will be acknowledging that and working around it. Xmithie helped his team win NA by identifying his weaknesses and working around it. Let's take a look at what made these two once great players decline and what they can do to adjust.
Balls has not had a good Season 5. To understand why we have to examine Ball's own individual playstyle as well as what his career playstyle has been. One of the most common misconceptions I've seen surrounding Balls is that his decline only began in Season 5. In reality, we could already see some of the cracks begin to show in the Summer Split of Season 4, when he began falling behind rivals like Dyrus and ackerman. A big part of Ball's success in Season 3 was his carry-oriented playstyle and fantastic teamfighting. In the Summer Split of Season 4, Cloud9 began playing around Sneaky more often, and although Balls still received the lion's share of Cloud9's farm, he struggled to lane without Meteos's jungle pressure. However, a return to a top-centric playstyle is the exact opposite of what Cloud9 needs. In the beginning of Season 5, Cloud9 returned to playing a Balls-centric playstyle, and used favorable lane swaps to give Balls a 221 gold advantage at 10 minutes, ahead of every top laner other than Quas. Unfortunately, Balls did very little to reward his team's faith in him. He repeatedly lost split push duels and finished the season with an average 311 damage per minute - higher only than the frequently criticized Avalon.
It's clear that Balls is no longer capable of being a carry-oriented top laner, and given Cloud9's powerful backline duo of Sneaky and Incarnati0n, the team probably shouldn't continue trying to play around him. What Cloud9 needs out of Balls right now is stability. Balls is currently trying to make the transition into playing as a low economy top laner, but there's still some key aspects that Balls struggles on. Oftentimes, Cloud9 is still able to spot him large advantages through lane swaps, but he plays too recklessly with these advantages. Simply put, Balls isn't the same mechanical player he once was. Even when Balls is ahead, he should try to play more conservatively so he doesn't get outplayed, which was a consistent trend during the gauntlet. To make matters worse, Ball's prospective aggression is further hindered by his team's bot lane focus. The jungler is rarely there to countergank for Balls, and because he places the least wards out of all top laners in the league, he is extremely susceptible to ganks.
In addition, Ball's poor Teleport decision-making (once even Teleporting right in front of Impact during the gauntlet) was an issue all season long. Although Hai's return (and presumably his ability to think for Balls) has helped him on Teleports, his TP usage is nowhere near where it has to be for C9 to succeed at a global level. Overall, Balls should focus on conservative play and improving his Teleports if he wants to become a serviceable top laner in time for C9's very challenging group stage. It's unlikely that his mechanics will return, but mental adjustments could go a long way.
WildTurtle and Balls both have similar issues. Both players have done a poor job of acknowledging their weakened states, and have hurt their teams by making decisions that would have worked in their peaks, but now result in failure. However, not only does TSM still need Turtle to be a carry, the root core of Turtle's issues are different from those of Balls. Whereas Balls is simply getting outplayed because of his poor mechanics, WildTurtle has only slightly declined in terms of raw mechanics from his peak in Season 3. Turtle's issues have been a combination of his inability to understand the laning phase and his difficulty moving away from a sub-optimal "flash in" playstyle.
Turtle's main issue is that the "flash in" playstyle he frequently used in Seasons 3 and 4 no longer works due to meta shifts. Back in those seasons, Turtle was able to pick bursty champions like Twitch, Draven, or Corki, and simply flash in to burst down his opponents. Although his forward style was extremely susceptible to crowd control, he was usually able to catch opponents off guard and his ability to quickly calculate burst damage was very impressive. This style was also heavily predicated off of winning the lane phase, so that his burst champions were fed enough to immediately kill his opponents before they could return fire. All three of those fundamental tenets (burst ADC meta, strong laning phase, the element of surprise) has seen fallen off. The AD Carry meta has always been based on sustained damage, but at this point, there are simply no true burst AD Carries anymore due to repeated nerfs. (Perhaps it's telling that the only champion Turtle has succeeded on since S4 is Tristana, who rewards aggressive positioning and has burst in lane.) In addition, nobody is surprised anymore when Turtle frontlines. In fact, teams have grown to expect it and simply catch him out for free.
Turtle's struggles in lane deserve a paragraph on their own. While he is still good mechanically, his lane struggles actually almost entirely come from the result of awful decision making. The laning phase has changed a lot since WildTurtle's prime, and the meta has also changed such that there are very few lane dominant bot lane champions. He refuses to play safe when Lustboy roams, which has resulted in Lustboy simply staying in the bot lane, a decision which has hurt TSM's vision game as well as Santorin's performance, as he doesn't have Lustboy to guide him in the 2v2. TSM originally got around this issue by sacrificing Dyrus and repeatedly rotating Turtle towards free minion waves. Their struggles against FNC at MSI made the team realize that this style simply did not work, and although the team's adjustments this split led to a mini-resurgence for the veteran top laner, it further exposed Turtle's poor laning phase. A big part of TSM's weaknesses are tied to Turtle's poor laning phase, which restricts Lustboy and Santorin. If Turtle can improve his laning phase decision making and stop taking risks when Lustboy isn't around, it'll go a long way to bringing TSM back up to their "IEM form."
Although Turtle has been criticized for his weak teamfighting all season long, his teamfight play in the play-offs was actually quite good, especially in comparison to his regular season. Taking a look at his damage statistics, he dealt a healthy 539 damage per minute, a mark that would have placed him in the middle of the pack during the regular season, and a huge improvement from his regular season bottom 2 standing. Turtle's positioning, outside of a fatally poor base attempt leading into Double's game winning Ashe arrow, had gradually improved all season long. His play during the playoffs still weren't enough for TSM to get out of groups - average in NA isn't acceptable at the world level. But that being said, it's important to remember that for TSM to win teamfights, they don't need Turtle to be their main carry. If he can move back up to his spring split level teamfighting, when he took advantage of team's focus on Bjergsen to deal the second most damage in the league, the team will be more than happy.
Balls and Turtle no longer merit leading roles on their team. Neither player is good enough to act as a primary carry, and their teams have acted accordingly by moving them to lesser roles. However, both players have so far struggled to adjust. Xmithie was similarly once one of the region's best players, but he was able to move into a more supportive role and help his team win the league. If Balls and Turtle can similarly acknowledge their weaknesses and make better decisions around them, their teams may surprise at the World Championships.