Zig Zag - How CaliTrlolz's move to an old meta has transformed T8
When CaliTrloz first qualified for the LCS, he promised to "innovate the rather boring lane into the most exciting lane to watch in the LCS." A quick glance at his current champions plays shows only minimal innovation. With two games each on Maokai, Jax and Irelia as well as one-of Sion and Malphite picks, fans of CaliTrlolz's top lane carry style must surely be disappointed. Cali's stint in the Challenger scene saw creative AP champions top lane such as Fizz or Katarina. With AP top lane champions like Rumble or Lissandra actively becoming part of the meta and innovative top lane champs like Fizz or Morgana cropping up worldwide, it seems baffling that Team8's top lane star would turn to these seemingly boring champions. Top lane has never been more diverse, but one of the most creative top laners to ever play the game is sticking to tanks and bruisers.
However, these fans have simply tunneled too hard on the individual champions. Not only has Cali's current playstyle been a sharp change from both his past career, it's a notable change from the current metagame. His propensity for repeatedly picking these champions seems to suggest that Cali believes he's discovered a metagame trend that his rivals haven't caught up on. It's important to note that Cali's surprising decision to exclusively play these champions does not stem from a bizarre refusal to play the metagame (a la soAz) but a crucial change that has transformed Team8 into a threatening LCS team. Team8 is a team that always plays what they consider ideal for their skillsets while disregarding the meta. By moving back towards older meta champions, Team8 have gone from Challenger squad to LCS playoff team.
It's time to duel
It's no secret that I didn't have a very high opinion of Team8's gameplay heading into the LCS season. (Goldper10 writer Superbian wrote a great breakdown of Team 8 here.) One of the biggest limits with Team8 heading into the LCS stemmed from their inability to play around CaliTrlolz's unusual top lane champion pool. CaliTrlolz's constant carry picks provided a critical threat to a Team8 squad with inconsistent players in the mid and AD Carry positions, but came at the expense of several macro level issues. The main reason top lane champions are tanky and take Teleport has to do with the need for top laners to split push and manage minions. Because Cali's picks (usually AP champions) lack strong auto-attack damage, require mana to rapidly clear waves, and struggle in duels against tanks, Team8 had an extremely difficult time against teams with strong split pushers.
To add in an additional danger, Cali's roll as the team's main teamfighting carry meant that he could not stay away from the team for long - if he didn't have Teleport he could not leave the team at risk of a devastating teamfight loss. Team8 often tried to deal with this by sending maplestreet to split push on strong duelists such as Graves or Lucian, but unless he was significantly ahead, it was difficult for him to survive against tankier (and often stronger) champions. To make matters worse, intelligent teams could force 5v4 teamfights, especially because maple's AD Carry picks were unable to stop Teleports. Team8 did a great job playing around these weaknesses, they were a top Challenger team for two splits for very good reason. Their Teleport usage was extremely intelligent and Cali's mastery of many top lane champions drew bans away from Team8's other carries, who had somewhat small champion pools. However, when confronted with the significantly stronger and better coordinated LCS teams, it wasn't unreasonable to assume that Team8 would struggle.
It's possible that this shift his simply the result of meta changes, but seeing as many of his old AP champions actually boast favorable match-ups against the current top lane picks, it's more likely that Cali's shift to playing tanks and bruisers is the result of successfully identifying his team's weaknesses. Cali has accomplished this by applying his old carry style to these bruiser picks. His best performances have been on Jax, Irelia, and Malphite (this game was lost on an unfortunate late-game ward throw) but rather than building conventional builds, he rushes multiple damage items to continue applying constant damage. These champions both are capable of split-pushing against opponent top laners while also dealing the damage Team8 needs to successfully win teamfights. Team8's Teleport usage and teamfighting has always been great - Cali's new ability to split push adds a threatening new dimension to their game and allows them Team8 to match their opponents blow for blow.
It's simple, they're Team8s
The other key to Team8's fairly strong results has been their ability to play intelligently around Cali's transformation. Although it would be inaccurate to suggest that Team8 is a one-dimensional team because of their versatile strategic play, the truth is that many of Team8's other players have historically struggled when placed outside of their comfort zones. Both maple and Slooshi have somewhat narrow champion pools, and the duo of Porpoise and Dodo8 struggle when placed outside of their engaging comfort zones. The interesting thing behind many of Team8's play in the Challenger scene was their ability to weave together players with quite disparate games into a cohesive unit. Once again, Team8 have adjusted their strategies to accommodate a changed teammate.
The players who have adjusted their games the least are maplestreet and Porpoise. Porpoise remains a very engage-focused player - his champion pool thus far has consisted entirely of champions that focus on starting teamfights. (J4, Vi, Nocturne, Rek'Sai) A big part of this has to do with the current metagame, those champions are what is popular right now. Likewise, maple continues to focus on playing lane bully champions with strong split-pushing and dueling potential. The one change is that maple has begun generally grouping with his team more often when Cali gets one of his split-pushing champions. This is a change that bodes well for Team8 - maple has thus far largely failed to successfully snowball his lane against LCS opponents but has shown several bright moments in teamfights.
However, Dodo8 and Slooshi have both diversified their own games, often at the expense of their individual play. Although Cali's top lane carry stye had several fatal flaws, one of the key aspects of his play was his ability to draw bans and give his teammates their preferred champions. With Cali now focusing on only a few champions, it's natural that his pick-ban pressure would be somewhat alleviated. The players who have sacrificed the most champion pool wise are Dodo and Slooshi.
Slooshi isn't an inconsistent performer in the traditional sense of the word. On his comfort champions, notably Orianna and Yasuo, Slooshi is actually one of the biggest threats on Team8 and a very consistent player. Unfortunately, he has somewhat struggled to diversify his champion pool thus far in his career, and his performance on other champions are very hit or miss. Team8 needs Slooshi to provide another consistent carry threat, especially when maplestreet is sent to split-push. Prior to her rework, Slooshi was a very strong Nidalee player, so her return to the mid lane may bode well for him. Likewise, his strong Lissandra play gave another hopeful sign that he can soon become a bigger threat on other champions.
Dodo currently looks like one of the worst supports in the LCS, but a big part of this has to do with how his preferred engaging support champs (notably Leona and have become redundant because Cali is now able to start teamfights off of Teleports. Dodo has never been a great mage support player, the height of his career came as an engage bot in the Annie-Leona-Thresh meta of early Season 4. Sadly, this meta has returned but Team8 as a whole are unlikely to find success in that context. Even though this he has largely struggled in a new role to focus on peel, and his improvement will be one of the aspects to determining if Team8 can make the playoffs.
What's next, other than pharmacy school?
The chief issue with this current strategy is that it only works on a select few champions. Team8's performance when using picks like Maokai or Sion has been extremely disappointing - those picks simply don't bring enough damage or split pushing prowess to serve as credible threats. Using Cali in a simple tank role also isn't a good distribution of the team's mechanical talents. For this strategy to continue working, Team8 needs to successfully identify other champions that can both duel opponents while dealing significant teamfight damage. One of the biggest problems is Cali's seeming inability to play Gnar, a champ that, on the surface, boasts the damage and laning prowess that Team8 needs in the top lane. It also wouldn't be out of line to see Cali return to his innovative roots either pull out a bizarre champion like Darius or return to an old favorite in Fizz. Occasionally pulling out games with the old top lane carry style with a fifth pick would add another interesting pick-ban wrinkle and keep Team8's opponents on their toes.
One of Team8's other problems when executing their newfound strategy has been their poor vision control. As a whole, Team8 does a fairly mediocre job of warding and contest vision. This has led to several notable miscues during their LCS matches. While Cali's infamous "ward throw" on Malphite stands as the most obvious example of a vision contest gone wrong, the truth is that sending their carry to split push is still a dangerous proposition. Cali playing picks that can reliably solo-kill opposing tanks and bruisers has indeed given the team much greater pressure but intelligent flanks have led to many a surprising 4v5 teamfight loss for Team8. A team that relies on two of their carries to split-push needs to be twice as careful.
By turning to an old meta strategy, Team8 have risen anew as a dangerous LCS underdog. Their ability to gain further success is reliant on both individual and team-wide improvements, but if Team8 can continue growing on this path, even some top teams should be reluctant to meet them in the play-offs.