Santorin - A look at how TSM's jungler is starring in a supportive role
When Amazing decided to leave Team SoloMid in favor of brighter pastures in Europe, it was seemed as if Reginald and his staff would struggle in replacing the mechanically talented German jungler. TSM's eventually decision to take Santorin seemed much more like settling than going for the best option - due to the LCS's new "foreigner cap, " TSM's options were limited to either North American talent or grandfathered players.
A quick look at Santorin's career thus far showed a very mediocre jungler. While he was always touted as great talent, his inability to qualify for the LCS prior to joining TSM rightfully left many fans worried for his prospects. While his brief stints substituting for H2k/C9E was admittedly a very unfair test, as he had joined a team only weeks before the promotion tournament, his time on Team Coast largely served to confuse fans even further. While he was able to establish himself as a Challenger scene star, Coast's implosion at the end of the second Challenger split left many fans with a sour taste in their mouths. After Santorin joined TSM, it looked like the team would need time to train their new prospect, and a very underwhelming performance at IEM all but confirmed these fears.
However, the results have been wildly different. Santorin is currently leading all junglers in both KDA and Kill Participation, and his team has been equally successful - TSM is currently leading the league with a scorching 7-1 record, their one loss coming in an upset against Team8. How exactly has Santorin both finally delivered on the promise of own career while catapulting his teammates to the top?
Whatever it takes to win
A quick glance at TSM's game shows a fairly one-dimensional team. The squad is very dependent on snowballing star mid laner Bjergsen and (as a secondary strategy) rotating AD Carry WildTurtle around the map to both receive empty lane farm and push down towers uncontested. This has forced TSM's other players to adopt supportive roles. Fortunately for TSM, both Dyrus and Lustboy's experience have fallen neatly into these roles. TSM's historical dependence on the carry potential mid and AD Carry roles means that Dyrus is comfortable safely farming up in lane swaps and playing reliable champions. Likewise, Lustboy spent much of his career protecting mediocre laner Cpt Jack on Azubu Blaze.
In spite of these prior experiences, it's been Santorin's play that has transformed this TSM squad into a juggernaut. When teams run one-dimensional strategies, it's extremely important that all the team's players are onboard with this style. The old TSM squad boasted mechanically talented players, but there was an inherent lack of synergy between their mid and jungler. Last season, TSM had also attempted to play lineups revolving around Bjergsen's individual strength and WT's brilliant teamfighting. However, the natural style of TSM jungler Amazing often involved farming up and dueling the other team's jungler. A big part of his infamous "dependence" on Lee Sin and Elise (and to a lesser degree, Nunu) was oftentimes simply because those champions were the only ones that could successfully duel and invade with low team support. With the addition of coach Locodoco, Amazing's style was modified to simply camping the mid lane. While this strategy unleashed Bjergsen's carry power and led to a regional championship, Amazing cited his discomfort playing a supportive style in his Facebook post after leaving TSM.
Compared to Amazing's desire to carry, Santorin's gameplay has been night and day. As of Week 5 of the LCS, Santorin currently boasts a 3-0 record on Jarvan 4 and a 2-0 record on Vi (he also has a single win on Lee Sin and Rek'Sai as well as a loss on his signature Rengar.) Although J4's strength has been obvious over the last month of competitive play Vi has generally been one of the less common champions worldwide. (Stats here.) What differentiates these champions is their strong engage potential and ability to camp various lanes, especially bursty champions. Bjergsen's incredible laning potential oftentimes will burn Flash on his opponents, meaning that the gap closers of Santorin's main two picks will often lead to fatal results. A quick glance at TSM's gameplay affirms these results. Santorin spends the vast majority of his time in the mid lane while serving as his team's primary engagers. Santorin clearly knows his job. By adopting a smaller and relatively simple role as well as identifying the champions that lead to team success, Santorin has played a big part in TSM's recent success.
However, it's unfair to suggest that Santorin's success lies solely in a reduced role. In both traditional sports and e-sports, there is often a strange disdain for role players, suggesting that they are somehow less important or less skilled than a team's stars. The truth is that Santorin has many deep strengths that only show themselves as multiple re-watching of TSM's gameplay.
An imperceptible strength
A quick look at Santorin's playstyle and his actual statistics will reveal a startling dichotomy. Currently, Santorin is leading all NA LCS junglers in kill participation and KDA while coming in third for gold per minute. (Santorin's 315.5 GPM is only 8 gold behind league leader Meteos, or about one jungle minion a minute.) Santorin's high kill potential is quite understandable; TSM plays two fairly passive lanes in top and bottom, so it's natural that the vast majority of their kills come from Santorin's actions mid lane and grouped up teamfights. However, his high KDA and GPM statistics implies that many of Santorin's strengths aren't immediately revealed by the eye test. In addition, while he does have fair mechanics, Santorin rarely makes the great eye-catching mechanical outplays that would come from a supposed star player.
While Santorin does indeed focus his efforts on camping the mid lane, he is often able to maintain very high CS counts, often even out-farming his opponents when TSM has the occasional poor early game. This has to do with Santorin's intelligent jungler rotations, particularly his ability to farm jungle camps during the mid game while remaining in the vicinity to quickly engage teamfights or provide support. His understanding of the maximum distance he can be from his team while still remaining helpful is why he has thus far led nearly all of his opponents junglers in both presence and individual strength.
Similarly, his role as essentially an engage-bot would imply a very high death count. Indeed, Santorin has often proved extremely willing to die for his teammates, adopting a "first man in, last man out" strategy. In several of TSM's flubbed teamfights, Santorin will go back in to lock up the opposition and allowing his teammates to escape. However, Santorin makes up for this but almost never dying unnecessarily. His aforementioned good map awareness and propensity to group with his team means that he rarely gets caught out.
Above all however, one of the key aspects of Santorin's gameplay is his intelligent teamfighting. While Santorin does engage almost all of TSM's teamfights, what distinguishes him from most other engage-bots is his understanding of when to escape the fight and when to peel backwards for his carries. Nowhere is this more apparent than his great play on Jarvan. His understanding of Jarvan's ultimate seems to be on another level when compared to other NA junglers; his use of Cataclysm to group up the other team and control terrain has led to multiple turned teamfights for TSM, and he oftentimes will save his "flag-and-drag" combo not to gain extra engage distance but to either escape his own Cataclysm or to peel for WildTurtle.
What's coming next?
In his Thoorin's Thoughts video, Thoorin explains why Bjergsen's heavy carry burden on TSM is both very impressive yet unlikely to succeed in the international scene. While Santorin's current jungle picks fit perfectly into TSM's wheel-house, his own individual play can prove very important in diversifying TSM's strategies. Fans of Santorin's gameplay on Team Coast will remember that his preferred champions were often Nunu, Rengar, and Lee Sin. Somewhat like TSM, Coast was dependent on snowballing a star lane to carry the game, but in this case it was their bottom lane. These champions specialize in bottom lane support (the longer lane and higher amount of crowd control in bot lane means that ganks bottom are much more effective on Rengar) and if WildTurtle is able to rediscover his former lane dominance, TSM will be able to debut other potent strategies in their own right.
In addition, one of the reasons Santorin rarely dies is actually a mixed bag that needs to be improved on. His relatively high farm means he is often able to attain powerful tank items, particularly Randuin's Omen, before the second or third dragon fight. This advantage means that Santorin is able to both tank up the other team without dying and successfully duel the other team's jungler or even AD Carry in side skirmishes. The drawback to this is that Santorin will rarely purchase the Sightstone, even when playing a champion such as Jarvan where the Sightstone is considered a key buy. While TSM's propensity to group up means that warding is less important, a team with good understanding of flanking/engages can get the drop on Santorin and his teammates. One way for Santorin to improve his gameplay would be to train under Lustboy to achieve better vision control.
Finally, while Santorin could improve his own supportive aspects, he is already extremely competent in that area. Santorin's former signature champion before joining TSM was carry jungler Rengar, and his ability to play Rek'Sai is also apparent. Although he has less practice in this area, he does have the mechanics and jungle pathing knowledge to begin adopting more of a carry-oriented position. While TSM has somewhat struggled historically with a carry jungler, Santorin's hypothesized champion pool of Rengar and Rek'Sai would still be able to engage teamfights and counter gank the mid lane, performing the key roles that have led to TSM's current success.
Santorin's willingness to play under TSM's system has played a big part in catapulting his team to the top of the North American standings. While some may dismiss Santorin's accomplishments as that of a role player, his unique strengths have meant that he is able to star from a supportive position. Already one of TSM's most important players, his great potential also may hold the keys to even further dominance.