The empire strikes again: SKT wins another LCK split

SKT is the first seed heading into playoffs, but they can still learn from their mistakes.

The Korean hype train continues to roll as SK Telecom T1 finished another split atop the LCK rankings. They are in first place for the first time since summer 2015, and head into the playoffs looking as dominant as ever. After all, they lost the regular season crown for both 2016 splits and still took down the ROX Tigers when it mattered.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and hand over the Summoner’s Cup. As strong as SKT has been this split—and they’ve beaten top rivals KT Rolster twice—there are things that this team can get better at. Recent stumbles against Samsung Galaxy and those pesky Tigers showed some areas where T1 can still improve.

SKT is clearly the best team in the world, but dynasties require a lot of work to maintain.

A revolving door in the top lane

SKT’s head coach, Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun, has made a name for his expertise with the roster. He has helped SKT continually replenish its players, making the new pieces fit. He can also be given credit for his creative use of substitutes. After all, how many coaches would have the gall to bench Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, the best player in the history of League, at the World Championship? KkOma did, and to devastating effect.

With that background, perhaps his greatest coaching achievement is SKT’s record this spring. They lost a strong top laner in Lee “Duke” Ho-seong, but losing a top laner is nothing new for T1. The team signed Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon from the LCS, and he has had a fantastic split. Sure, his lane numbers have plummeted from his days in Europe and NA, but the man deals damage. In a region of fantastic top laners, he is one of the boldest teamfighters around. The team has gotten better and better at following Huni’s engages, and he’s helped them continue the SKT tradition of indomitable mid-game teamfighting.

Despite Huni’s success, kkOma has also rotated in Kim “Profit” Jun-hyung depending on the matchup. When the team played Samsung Galaxy a few days ago, kkOma opted for Profit, the split push specialist, to match Samsung’s propensity for split pushing. SKT’s issues in that series were myriad, but one of them was Profit’s inability to stand up to Samsung top laner Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin.

Overall, SKT looked uncomfortable against Samsung’s style, forced to trade sides of the map so as to not fall behind, but then losing out on the neutral objectives due being on the weak side. If SKT wants to use Profit as a real change-of-pace weapon, they need to enable him more as a split-pusher and prove they can play that style. Instead, as SKT opted into fights, he looked like a less-effective version of Huni. His timing to fights was subpar and he didn’t create as much chaos as the team can typically expect from Huni.

Uncertainty in the jungle

KkOma’s lineup management techniques have extended into the jungle as well. After stalwart veteran Bae “Bengi” Seong-un departed for China, SKT signed precocious former Tiger, Yoon “Peanut” Wang-ho. With so many resource-hungry players on the roster, SKT is still trying to find the optimal fit for their young star. Samsung’s Kang “Haru” Min-seung absolutely bodied Peanut in that series, starting from the first clear of game one. Peanut is known for crafting pathing and reading the opposing jungler, but this time it was Haru who read him.

Still, you can see why SKT has hope in him. He and Faker both thrive in chaotic teamfights, when they can dash in and out to assassinate carries. But that is a high-risk style that can fall apart if there are no squishy targets to find. A damage jungler requires synergy from the support and top laner to peel, lest the team be run down. Peanut hasn’t died a lot, but many of his deaths come either on solo missions in to the enemy jungle or teamfights where nobody follows up.

While the team develops that synergy, kkOma has put in substitute jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu in key moments, just like he did with Bengi. It’s ironic that Blank is in this role now, when last summer he was the starter being taken out. The effects have been ridiculous. Blank boasts a 100-percent win rate in just six games, many of them match-deciding wins. He’s laid down good vision for Faker to work around and his kill participation is off the charts. He’s a great change of pace to Peanut, especially when Peanut’s pocket Lee Sin is under threat of being banned out. And that should be a frequent ban for SKT foes—Peanut is 9-0 on the champion with a KDA north of 17.

But when Peanut is at his best, it’s easy to see why he is the man they chose. In game two of their last series with ROX, he tracked the opposing jungler perfectly, combining with his duo lane to ambush Kim “Mightybear” Min-su in his own jungle. But the mistakes can be glaring as well. SKT gave back all of that momentum when Peanut was caught away from his team.

Peanut’s synergy with Faker and Huni is still improving, and he has been good at giving resources over. When this team operates as a unit, they’re still incredibly hard to beat.

The veteran mainstays

While the team has rotated players at top and mid, Faker, Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, and Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan have provided stability on the mid and bottom sides of the map. Bang and Wolf are still dominating the lane phase. The one criticism for this duo is that they need to be better at setting up the rest of the team. A lot of the time, the team works through mid to bring power plays to the bot lane. That certainly works with an ADC of Bang’s caliber.

But the team can be more creative with the way it moves these two around. Wolf’s ward control, never a strength, has stayed near the bottom of the table. As a whole, the team have the lowest wards-per-minute of any LCK team, after posting middling numbers through all of last year. Both Samsung and ROX punished SKT for poor vision control of Dragon and Baron, sneaking free objectives that swung games. SKT’s overall dragon and baron control is still tops in the league, but much of that happens when SKT either already has a lead or fights the objective more effectively. When the map is split and SKT aren’t together, they have to be wary of the consequences of poor vision control.

Faker is his usual self: He requires resources, but draws even more from the enemy team. He was magnificent in the closing game against ROX, keeping Son “Mickey” Young-min (second in MVP points this split) controlled. With SKT grouped in the mid lane, you could see why this team is still the best in the LCK. They had perfect macro control, setting up problematic side lane pushes that made it impossible for ROX to fight.

ROX tried a split push comp that game, with Renekton in the top lane, and SKT responded not by trying to match, but by ramming straight through. Huni and Blank were fine in that game, but the key still was Faker.

It’s incredible that after four years of dominating the sport, Faker is still the star that his team relies on. KkOma’s changes should be celebrated—the man is a genius—but the key to victory is still the man in the mid lane.