After what seems like far too long, the top lane has become one of the most important parts of the map again. Season 5 has fostered the growth of these players worldwide, as players such as Huni, Ziv, Zz1tai, and Koro1 have all garnered attention from international audiences for their stellar play. However, each of these players, with the exception of Koro1, have been forced to be merely the predecessors to the main acts performing on each of the Korean teams. This season, Marin, Smeb, and Ssumday have all played at a high enough level to warrant discussion about each one as being the best top laner in the world. Thankfully, the powers that be stopped Jin Air’s miracle run through the Korean gauntlet, giving viewers the chance to evaluate all three players on the Worlds stage together.
This season, the back and forth competitive play between these teams has been remarkable: Smeb and the GE Tigers dominated Korea during the spring split until getting bodied by Marin’s SKT T1 in the Spring Finals. SKT T1 then went to MSI, with Marin asserting to the Daily Dot that winning the tournament would make him the best top laner in the world. And after all that, SKT T1 finished second to Edward Gaming. Bringing with them a chip on their shoulders larger than Faker’s champion pool, SKT T1 went on to dominate the summer season. All this time, Ssumday was trying his absolute hardest to carry KT Rolster by his lonesome as they struggled to tread water in the LCK. With the arrival of Piccaboo during the summer split, Ssumday was unleashed on the map, slowly raising speculation as to his candidacy as the best top laner in Korea. Matched up against Smeb in the LCK Summer Split semifinal, Ssumday managed to best his opponent in the closest best-of domestic series this season, defeating the now Koo Tigers in a game 5 blind pick to advance 3-2. Waiting for him in the finals was Marin and SKT T1, who managed to outmaneuver KT Rolster and pick off Piccaboo countless times in their march for the #1 seed. These three players were so closely matched in the tournament, that Marin, Ssumday, and Smeb each claimed the top three spots in the tournament’s KDA with values of 5.0, 4.7, and 4.4 respectively.
Tasked with demolishing their international opponents in Worlds, each of the three players had a field day in the group stage. While Smeb performed well for Koo in a group where his stiffest competition was Zionspartan, Ssumday went toe-to-toe with Acorn, Flame, Soaz, and Dyrus, only dropping one game in the process to Soaz’s Origen. Despite facing the stiffest competition in the tournament in group D, Ssumday’s outstanding performance was overlooked as Marin absolutely barreled through every top laner in group C, making mincemeat out of his opponents. As the bracket stage was drawn, Koo and KT were forced to play each other in the first round in a summer semifinal rematch. Although KT won a few months prior, Koo came out and won in convincing 3-1 fashion, with Smeb carrying on Fiora throughout the series. SKT T1, drawn into the opposite side of the bracket, now face Koo and Smeb in the finals after they easily ran through Huni and Fnatic.
While all three players are currently the best carry top laners in the world, this was far from the case earlier in each of these players’ careers. Marin began his career playing for the most boring team in the history of League of Legends, SKT T1 S, during the Ziggs meta. While they finished as high as 4th in the 2014 OGN Summer season, only his Kayle play truly stood out, and the rest of his champion pool could be described as mediocre at best. Meanwhile, Ssumday was considered to be the weakest link on KT Rolster Arrows just behind the support Hachani and leagues behind Kakao and Rookie. Although they won the OGN Summer season, Ssumday and the Arrows failed to qualify for the 2014 World Championship. With the departure of Kakao and Rookie for greener pastures in China, KT Rolster became an organization of questions rather than answers. The most forgettable of the three in 2014, Smeb found himself stuck on IM #1, the perennial free win on the schedules of other Korean teams. He produced a mere 1.54 KDA that summer season, leaving the IM organization afterwards.
Even if they only became average Korean top laners, their improvement would have been astounding. Instead, they have peaked their heads through clouds and entered a kingdom formerly belonging only to Flame as he played for CJ Entus Blaze. All three are now stellar players, bodying their competition regardless of region. However, how can we determine which one of the three stand above his peers as Flame’s true heir?
While the argument could be made that the player whose team wins Worlds will receive the title as the best top laner, such criteria is inherently flawed. Although Samsung White won Worlds last year, Faker was still a better player than Pawn. Similarly, in Season 2 Flame was unquestionably a better top laner than Stanley. Furthermore, such an argument discredits any claim that Ssumday has, which is unfair to his achievement and growth throughout the season. While the head-to-head will provide insight in comparing Marin to Smeb, it is irrelevant to the evaluation of Ssumday, other than his comparison by association to Smeb for having lost to him two rounds prior. However, as proved time and time again in sports, just because player A defeated player B, who had beaten player C, it is no guarantee that A could defeat C. Therefore, although we will be looking into game analysis later on in this article, we begin with statistics.
Statistical Comparison of Marin, Smeb, and Ssumday
Since Worlds is a relatively small sample size of games considering these players performed in over 41 games during the LCK Summer split alone, our evaluation of the three will begin with their domestic early game numbers. For looking at the three of them comparatively through the early game, competitive statistics can paint a detailed picture of their comparative performance. First among the three in CS difference at 10 minutes, Marin leads the pack at a difference of +7.6 to Smeb’s +5.1 and Ssumday’s +2.4. However, if we look at gold difference minus CS, we get a picture of who was being aided by their team more than by themselves. Considering that the average gold value of a minion wave in the first ten minutes is roughly 119 gold while the average wave consists of 6.3 minions, we can take their gold differential numbers, separate their CS, and locate their average gold differential acquired via CS.
If we put these statistics into percentage form, we can see what percent of each player’s gold advantage came from their lane dominance in CS.
One of those numbers doesn’t look like the other. While this statistic fails to account for gold acquired via kills and assists in lane, Smeb received little to no gold advantage through means other than his own CS. Yet, the 107.4 gold differential Smeb gained during the first ten minutes of a game was second in the entire LCK to Marin. The gold gained through CS by Marin may have been larger than Smeb’s total, but one can easily connect that to the stellar early game play of SKT T1 during LCK summer compared to the slow to start Koo Tigers.
What this tells us is that, through the game’s laning phase, Smeb gained over 90% of his lane advantage via his dominance and CS differential, with Marin and Ssumday trailing far behind. Smeb created nearly any advantage in lane by his own work, showing that he was nearly entirely accountable for his own success, whereas Marin and Ssumday gained more help through their teams in gaining early game advantages.
Transitioning to the mid and late game duties of each player and evaluating their performance, the role each player was put into during the summer split is quite clearly shown in their champion picks. In this pre-Worlds and pre-juggernaut patch, where Maokai, Rumble, Shen, and Gnar reigned supreme, the role of the top laner was to set the rest of the team up in teamfights rather than taking on the role of a main damage dealer. While each player has plenty of games on Maokai due to the Twisted Treant’s dominance, Ssumday was called upon to play many more games than his contemporaries in which his job was to hard carry games. Ssumday played 14 different games on six different carry champions in the LCK Summer Split, compared to 7 games for Smeb on four unique champions and only 5 games for Marin on two champions. While it cannot be underestimated that Smeb and Marin had key roles for their teams and performed admirably, Ssumday’s play was paramount to deciding if KT Rolster would win or lose games. Furthermore, when comparing the three top laners on their Maokai play, a champion on which all three played in at least eleven games, Ssumday lead all three with a 7.45 KDA to Marin’s 7.20 and Smeb’s significantly lower 3.87. While Ssumday embraced his role as a carry before the meta forced other top laners onto such champions, he simultaneously performed the best on the dominant, classic top lane tank that everyone played.
However, some data conflicts with Ssumday’s presumed role on KT Rolster, particularly when comparing the team share of damage compared to the team share of gold that each of these players received. Ssumday, while earning 21.5% of his team’s gold and playing more carry top laners than Smeb and Marin, only dealt 19.84% of his team’s damage. Similarly, Smeb, while earning 23.4% of his team’s gold, dealt 22.2% of the Koo Tiger’s damage. Now, it would in no way be farfetched to blame the lesser damage dealt on the fact that top laners typically build like a tank or bruiser, prioritizing defensive stats over damage output. However, if this line of thought did not have to deal with the conflicting point of Ssumday often trying to carry and putting out less damage, Marin’s role on SKT T1 and his statistics would still counter that point. While receiving 22.1% of his team’s gold share, Marin, playing just under half of his games on Maokai and Gnar, dealt 24.9% of SKT T1’s damage.
One explanation to this phenomenon is that Marin’s most played champion with fourteen games was Rumble, a mid game champion, and that SKT T1 typically won games in 35.9 minutes, the fastest of the LCK teams. This means that SKT T1 was typically winning both fights and games during Rumble’s most powerful stage in the game, where dropping a well-placed equalizer could decimate an opposing team. However, Smeb played Rumble twelve times, and although Ssumday only played him three times, the fact is he played carry top laners fourteen different times anyways. Marin simply managed to deal significantly more damage with the resources given to him through his impressive teamfighting abilities.
What the facts appear to establish so far is that Smeb is the more dominant player during the laning phase while Marin seems to perform the best during the mid and late game. The only shining mark it seems that Ssumday has the largest champion pool out of the lot. However, numbers are meaningless if they cannot manifest themselves in games. Luckily for us, the head-to-head match-ups between these players do demonstrate the crunched numbers.
Smeb vs. Ssumday – World Championship Quarterfinals, Game 3
The most recent best-of-five between any of these players was thankfully only two weeks ago, granting us a fresh perspective into Smeb’s early game lane dominance. In a much less thrilling series than their LCK Summer Split semifinal, Smeb and the Koo Tigers rolled through KT Rolster 3-1, only dropping the first game. Throughout the series, Smeb performed exceptionally well on Fiora, dominating Ssumday in lane and prompting many to wonder why it was never banned away from him. However, the issue was never the Fiora, but rather the superb play of Smeb, illustrated particularly well in game 3.
During the pick-ban phase, the Koo Tigers on red side blind picked Fiora for Smeb in their first rotation, gifting KT Rolster the opportunity to pick into her. Opting for a Malphite for Ssumday, the game commenced with Score on Rek’Sai giving Ssumday the first blue buff. As the two of them went to their own 1v1 lane in top because neither team opted to lane swap, Ssumday began to heavily bully Smeb’s Fiora. Shortly after the four minute mark, Smeb found himself struggling in lane at half health while Ssumday’s Malphite continuously applied heavy pressure because of his ability to spam Q due to his blue buff. However, Smeb goes back to base and teleports back to top lane around when the blue buff expires. Upon Smeb’s return to lane, Ssumday backs as well, but opts not to match Smeb’s teleport back to lane. He likely does so in order to have the threat of a Malphite teleport ultimate should the Koo Tigers decide to make a play on dragon. During his walk back to lane, Smeb begins to push hard with Fiora, driving the wave into Ssumday’s turret. As Ssumday returns to lane, he is forced, now without the blue buff, to immediately expend nearly half of his mana to clear the wave built up. Smeb continues to push the lane and constantly hits vitals on Ssumday, poking him hard. While Smeb pushes, Hojin litters the top side river with wards, helping to spot out any type of movement top by Score or Nagne should they decide to try and punish Smeb for his aggressive play. Then, around 8:30, Hojin moves in and places a deep ward to give Smeb more information on what he can do. Pushed deep into his own turret, should Ssumday decide to teleport in for a play anywhere, Smeb could immediately take KT Rolster’s top turret and could put some good damage onto their second tier turret.
What this essentially does is neutralize any threat of a Ssumday teleport, negates the advantage potential that Ssumday had for holding onto his teleport, and allows for Smeb to start pulling away in CS. Ssumday is forced to stay in lane as Smeb’s CS lead begins to balloon upwards. At as the nine minute mark nears, Smeb’s teleport comes off of cooldown while he holds a lead in CS ranging from 17 to 19 minions, or an average of 322.9 gold. When the first fight breaks out at 14:27 in front of the dragon pit, Smeb has backed and cashed in on his advantage. When both top laners teleport into the fight, Smeb had already accrued a 30 CS lead over Ssumday. Due to the threat Smeb is already bringing, Piccaboo is forced to immediately exhaust him, potentially saving Piccaboo’s own life. The Koo Tigers then are able to force KT Rolster away and claim their first dragon of the game. The rest of the game is a snowball off of Smeb’s play in the top lane, as his Fiora becomes nigh unstoppable and Ssumday finds himself being of not much use other than being an ultimate bot.
This sequence of events also highlights how Smeb gains his gold leads from CS within the first ten minutes of games as discussed earlier. His smart and strategic decisions enable him to consistently win trades. While he opted to teleport back to lane, Ssumday walked down in order to potentially make a play. Smeb then came in and negated the advantage by pushing hard and having his team acquire ward control. In this top lane game of chess, Smeb found himself being able to think one move ahead of his opponent. As a result, Smeb is able to snowball his advantage and win his team the game.
Marin vs. Ssumday – LCK 2015 Summer Grand Finals, Game 2
In the LCK Summer Grand Finals, where SKT T1 bulldozed KT Rolster 3-0 in a best-of-five series, the ability for Marin’s to dominate a teamfight really shines. After putting Ssumday on Gnar in game 1 to little effect, KT Rolster makes a bold decision and puts him on Fizz, blindly first picking it. In response, SKT T1 pick Malphite for Marin, a new matchup that hadn’t appeared prior to that game in the LCK Summer Season. Going into a 1v1 lane against each other down in the bottom lane, Marin just bullies Ssumday. By the six minute mark, Marin gained a constant 8 CS lead over Ssumday, and it continues to grow. Only two minutes later, Marin is leading by 20 CS. At this time, nearly spot on the 8:00 mark, Faker is caught out of position and hooked by Piccaboo just south of the mid lane, creating a 3v2 in favor of KT Rolster. Immediately both Ssumday and Marin teleport into the fray and Arrow on Ashe roams up to the brawl. Just as Faker dies, making it a 5v2, Marin hits an incredible four man ultimate with Malphite, buying just enough time for Bang and Bengi to come in and clean up all five members of KT Rolster for the ace at only 8:46 into the game, essentially ending it right there and then.
What this shows once again is the presence of mind that Marin has. Overlooked in this discussion so far is the fact that out of these three top laners, Marin is the only one who is the captain and shot caller of his team. Seeing his teammates coming in late, he sees the opportunity to delay and turn this fight around, and does so by setting up his teammates with an amazing ultimate. Earlier we discussed that Marin dealt a larger share of his team’s damage compared to his share of SKT T1’s gold in comparison to Smeb and Ssumday. As proven here, the numbers are so because of his monster teamfighting abilities. Other than accumulating a gold deficit being behind Marin in CS, Ssumday never did anything blatantly wrong in this situation. He teleported into the fight first to help his team, but he was simply outshined by his counterpart.
Now, although this analysis knocks Ssumday down a peg in comparison to Smeb and Marin, keep in mind that this has been the season of the top lane, and these three players are the absolute best at their position. However, only one of these players can be the best in the world, and Ssumday has recently been outperformed in head-to-head matchups against both Smeb and Marin. Considering how both Smeb and Marin have recently outperformed Ssumday in best-of-five matches, we can in fact turn our attention to the Worlds Championship Finals. Ultimately, when SKT T1 face off against the Koo Tigers in the Mercedes-Benz Arena in this top lane focused meta, the title of the best top laner in the world will invariably be linked to the title of World Champion.
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Photo credit to: lolesports, Daily Esports. Video credit to r/LoLeventVoDs.
Statistic credit: oracleselixir.com, lol.gamepedia.com