Thorin's Threads - 10 Story-lines for the Mid Season Invitational
As exciting as matches and tournaments are on their own, I always find the context surrounding matches to be a key factor in enhancing the experience of watching the matches unfold. Knowing the historical component of the impact, a win or loss can have on a player's or team's career heightens the excitement. Seeing how individual performances can shape the way we think of players, make the big pressure moment they rise to or fall from only more intense. Thorin's threads picks out key story-lines to follow, with their historical and cultural context explained.
The Mid Season Invitational is upon us and the representatives of five different regions are ready to do battle. Here are the 10 story-lines I find most interesting surrounding the tournament.
1. Team SoloMid's judgment day
TSM come into the MSI riding an overall high that no Western team has reached in many years, having won the last international tournament and comprehensively won their domestic league. TSM look polished, with solid laning, a reliable star player, good team-fighting and much improved shot-calling. Their win in Poland, taking the IEM IX World Championship, saw them taking the title at an event which also featured GE Tigers, then monsters of the Korean league (LCK); SK Gaming, who were at the top of the EU LCS; and C9, the best NA team of the past year and a half, overall.
TSM's problem stems from that victory, in as much as the only international teams they faced were a CJ who made some strange pick/ban choices, and subsequently failed to progress from the group, and Team WE, who would not be considered a top four team in LPL even now. In many ways, WE and yoE's upset wins robbed TSM of their chance to legitimately show they were an elite international team, denying them opportunities to potentially score wins off SK and GE.
As great as the title looks, TSM still haven't beaten an elite Korean or Chinese team in a Bo3 or Bo5 series. At the MSI, TSM will not only get the chance to face all of the teams in attendance, but the likelihood is very high that their seemingly inevitable semi-final appearance will see them facing the best Chinese or Korean team. These are not just top Asian teams, but the best in their regions. Winning a Bo1 over them would be impressive, but a Bo5 series win would be an emphatic statement.
2. EDG's chance to take the world number one title for China
The dominance of Korean teams means it has been almost two and a half years since a team representing a different region could legitimately be considered the best in the world. The last team to claim that title was China's World Elite, featuring the legendary WeiXiao and Misaya, who rode their comprehensive IPL5 victory into an unbelievable run of domestic dominance. Now, an EDG line-up featuring a member of that WE team (ClearLove), is poised to legitimately have a real shot at taking back the crown from the Koreans and making a Chinese team the best in the world.
Admittedly, the star player of this EDG team is the Korean ADC master Deft and having PawN, one of the most dangerous one-on-one Mid laners in the world, as a luxury option, chilling in the Mid lane and rarely required to carry, shows that the return of China to contention for best in the world is not just a representation of the improvement of the region, but also their importation of Korean talent and the Korean teams losing said star names.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that EDG enters the MSI as a legitimate favourite to leave with the title. This is a highly polished team, featuring the most talented line-up in the competition, excellent synergy between the supportive roles and carries and showcasing a style of play which has worked from the beginning of the domestic season right through to the championship. SKT has the hot form, the meta and Faker, but EDG has everything else on their side.
3. SKT's return to the top
SK Telecom were the best team in history and the world in early 2014, but were never again be considered the top team from the following season onwards, with their All-Stars victory not changing that. Now, with three members changed a rotating door line-up which even sees Faker, the game's best ever player, not always starting, kkOma's men are potentially back at the top of the world.
In truth, this line-up is more SKT S than SKT K and that is reflected in the strengths of the team. Where the secondary carry of SKT K was the ADC Piglet, it's Top laner MaRin who SKT looks to as the next map to pull them over the finishing line now. In the old SKT, Top laner Impact was expected to be solid and go even as often as possible, something that Bang and his more conservative style of ADC play has shown himself very capable of, even throwing in the occasional carry game, as Impact himself would.
SKT faced a tough test in the penultimate round of the LCK play-offs, fielding their subs (T0M and Easyhoon) going 0:2 to CJ, but bringing in Faker and Bengi to ride the reverse sweep into the final. In said final, they again put in the back-ups, but this time the under-studies took care of business and crushed GE, the team who had dominated the regular portion of the season, in a clean sweep.
SKT's biggest strengths lie first and foremost in having the best player of all-time (Faker) and with him back in prime form. Beyond that, they have a luxury no other team can truly boast, being as they can insert Easyhoon into the line-up and force their opponents to battle an entirely different style of SKT, yet without massively compromising their chances of victory. That's because Easyhoon is legitimately a top tier Korean Mid laner, albeit not the best and not close to Faker's overall level. SKT may choose not to use that option, but if they do then they can throw a curveball to the preparation of all the other teams.
Even with the strength of the Mid lane talent in this tournament, Faker is still Faker, and should be expected to reign imperious in the Mid lane over anyone he faces in a series. That advantage, should it be used, means SKT have a good chance of beating every single team in the competition in series play. Faker's skill is not his only strength, as he is a primary carry and yet is impossible to ban out. Sometimes he will do teams a favour himself, electing for a Xerath pick, but beyond that his pool is always deep and sees his mastery of champions extending beyond anything any other Mid laner can boast, relative to the international level of play.
If SKT can win the MSI title, it would not only put Faker's men back at the top of the world, but go some way to helping erase the embarrassment GE caused at IEM, showing that Korea has not slipped from being the best region as a result of the departure of so many of their stars.
4. FNATIC play the underdog role
Never before has the European champion come into a significant international competition, such as this, with lower expectations surrounding them. Not only has Europe as a region failed to produce any international results of note in the last year, beyond winning some Bo1 games at Worlds, but this FNATIC line-up is composed almost entirely of rookies to even the top level of domestic play. Everything seems aligned to put the champions of Europe as massive underdogs, with practically everything counting them out of having any chance to leave with the title.
Such expectations are not unfounded either, as FNATIC were not the best team during the regular portion of the EU LCS split, had to battle through two full length Bo5 series to claim their title and have more inexperience than any other team in this tournament. SKT are bringing a number of players lacking international experience, but those players at least have experience of playing against Koreans, so that puts them ahead of FNATIC's group still.
It seems likely that FNATIC will be shooting for at most a semi-final finish, with perhaps a game taken off a better team, but anything more would be considered an upset. Western teams have always been underdogs, in the LCS era, but never quite to this degree, when speaking about the team titled as the best from a region.
5. Korean-on-Korean crime
An upside of the Korean exodus to China and other regions is that we get to see those exports battling the players who remained behind in competitions such as these. We already got a little taste of that at Worlds, with SHRC reaching the final with inSec and Zero, but those players were not of the calibre of the likes of Pawn and Deft. The latter two are legitimately some of the best players in the world, with Deft being an outright contender for best player in the world at any position.
Beyond seeing an elite Chinese team equipped with top Korean talent facing a team of all Koreans, there is the curiosity of FNATIC's Koreans having to face SKT. Huni is a rookie in the purest sense of the word, playing in his first competitive season and only just old enough to even begin to compete. Facing a carry player like MaRin poses quite the initimidating mission for the FNATIC youngster, who was a relevation in Europe and won the rookie award.
ReignOver must no doubt remember his past as "Game Over", when he was playing in OGN. Now he must face up with a team who are the champions of OGN and once more contending to be the best in the world. Will his vastly improved level of play from European competition carry over to the tournament realm in Florida or will he wilt under the pressure?
Finally, the forgotten Korean in this equation is TSM's Lustboy. More experienced than any other Korean player in this competition, his play has time and time again been crucial to TSM winning their biggest games of the last year. Lustboy finds himself in the unusual position of legitimately being able to contend for the title of the best Support in the competition and could prove as much with a stellar performance this week.
6. Faker's kryptonite
Faker is not just the best player of all-time in LoL, he is the best player right now and looks as good as ever. Still, one name haunts even the god of League of Legends: PawN. When Faker was coming off having back-to-back won OGN Summer, the Korean regional qualifier and S3 Worlds, he ran into Samsung Blue at the WCG qualifier and found himself shown up by the upstart Mid lane star of that team, PawN.
It is often forgotten that Faker got his revenge in the next OGN season, eliminating Blue and PawN in the quarter-finals, but that is largely because PawN then swapped over to SSW and would again wreck the greatest of all-time. While it was largely SSW who beat Faker in the two OGN seasons of 2015, the regional qualifier for S4 was another matter, as Pawn again put on a masterclass of one-on-one play against the SKT ace and Faker, for the first time, seemed legitimately tilted and frustrated at his inability to get the better of the Samsung Mid.
Now, Pawn returns to face Faker at a time when both players' teams are legitimately top two in the world and the best in their regions. Now, the playing field seems a lot more even, as Pawn is no longer flanked by top 20 all-time players on all sides in a monster all-star calibre line-up, as he was in SSW. Pawn is still not the focal point of his team or required to carry, as has and always will be the case with Faker, but now the battle seems a little fairer on all sides. One cannot doubt that Faker remembers the man who embarrassed him and awaits his chance to face him against across the Mid lane.
As ever, one must be reminded that just because Kryptonite beat Superman, doesn't make Kryptonite better than Superman. Were PawN able to deal with other Mids the way he has Faker, at times, then he would himself be considered one of the gods of LoL and up there with Faker and Dade on the all-time list. The reason he is not, is that he seems to be some kind of finely tuned special counter for Faker, in particular. Against others, he has his favourable match-ups, as evidenced by the semi-final of LPL against Rookie, and less favourable, as can be seen in the final against LDG's We1less.
It has been some time since there was as exciting an international Mid lane match-up as this, even if it doesn't carry the same international context, for Westerners, as Froggen vs. Faker or Bjergsen vs. Faker.
7. Bjergsen's true test
Bjergsen has all the makings of a truly great LoL career, by any standards. He has begun to build a legacy of domestic dominance, he has won an international competition and the eye test tells us he is a great European Mid laner. What holds young Bjergsen back is his lack of international accomplishments and top performances. At S4 Worlds he was good but not spectacular. Froggen, Alex Ich and xPeke all have their major performances at big international competition which showed their greatness and Europe's ability, in the Mid lane at least, to compete with the world's best.
Bjergsen will get multiple chances to show his mettle at the MSI. Not only will he face the greatest of all-time at his position, in Faker, but PawN poses a very dangerous threat in his own right, especially with his propensity for Mid lane out-plays. Beyond that, Febiven will be looking to prove that Bjergsen may look like a god in NA, but he is still just another talented European Mid laner, and westdoor has champions on which he can pose a threat to the TSM Mid.
Either Bjergsen joins the lineage of the great European Mids of all-time or has his initiation delayed again. The talent of all tiers is set around him, it is up to him to show his ability.
8. Mid lanes stacked with talent
The position which stands head and shoulders above all others at this competition, in terms of quality, is undoubtedly the Mid lane. Faker is the best to ever play that position, PawN is a semi-star who is on the road to becoming an all-time great, Bjergsen is the master of NA and westdoor is cited as the most dangerous LMS Mid. Even two of the subs, Easyhoon and U, have at times been considered top level players in their regions.
Teams and other positions aside, the MSI will be a festival of great Mid lane play, with many opportunities for the different Mids to jostle for position and take scalps. It's not quite IPL5, but this tournament boasts a tasty line-up in the middle of the map. The format also ensures all of those players should battle each other, without worries about who gets out of a group or passes to a specific stage.
9. ClearLove's class
After outlining the strength of the Mid lane, it is necessary to point to the weakest position in the tournament: Jungle. Santorin's reputation as a team-orientated supportive Jungler continues to be built off solid performances, both at IEM and in the LCS play-offs, but he is far from a name such as DanDy, KaKAO or even Svenskeren, the latter of which was still a major carry threat in his recent play-off run.
bengi is not the bengi of Season 3, but he is also not the bengi of Season 4, thankfully. The meta seems to have arrived just in time to shore up some of his weaknesses, meaning he will be relied upon simply to service his Mid laner and ward the map, which he seems capable of doing. ReignOver has a troubled past and has thusfar only shown good form in Europe and synergising with his Korean Top laner.
It is no exaggeration to say that ClearLove comes into the MSI as the best Jungler in the pack and should be expected to dominate his position. Not only is the Chinese player a legend of his region, a three-time LPL champion and member of three of the most dominant domestic line-ups in his country's history, but his level looks better than ever. During the LPL season, ClearLove had games where he was able to embrace the early pressure style of Jungling and outright help in carry games on strong individual champions. With the tank meta shift, he seems to have shifted to a more farm-orientated approach, but his versatility was noted.
At this tournament, ClearLove not only does not face the monster Korean Junglers of the last few years, but he also finds himself in a meta primed for his farming style, set to emerge from the Jungle late and join team-fights as a threat himself, where his skills at fighting will exceed all of the other Junglers in the competition. If EDG can get to those post-20 minute situations, then the stage is set for ClearLove to show his class. If the Chinese player cannot put on an impressive performance against this field, though, it will cause questions to be asked about his significance as an individual player.
10. The meeting of the masterminds
A story-line which has gone almost entirely unnoticed about MSI is that it will see a battle between the two greatest League of Legends coaches in history. Aaron was the original coaching success, playing a role in both the WE and EDG dynasties which ruled China. Now, his hybrid Chinese-Korean line-up has added another LPL title and placed him in position to once more be directing the actions of the best team in the world.
kkOma is the most successful coach in history, having helped his sides to three OGN titles, a World Championship, an All-Stars title and four OGN top four finishes. He has had the best player in histroy and was the first to be given the chance to directly build from a line-up from scratch, made up of soloq talent, but nobody has matched his run of titles and continued success.
WE fell off as S3 continued, which is when SKT rose up to the crown. EDG grew in strength as S4 progressed, while SKT took a back-seat to the Samsung teams. Never before did the two coaches go head-to-head in a tournament. Now, at the MSI, we will see them battle, most likely over the trophy. A match-up of two of the best current coaches and the two best in history.
Photo credit: OGN, ESL, Riot Games, FOMOS