20 minutes into the second game of the World Championship Quarter Finals BO5 between Fnatic and EDG, Fnatic’s Jungler, Reignover became unable to cast the Barrel Roll spell on the champion Gragas. The issue was unable to be resolved onstage and the game, precariously poised at the time, needed to be remade. The issue was a rare, but repeatable bug that affects champions with reactivatable abilities. Riot allowed the series (and the KOO vs KT series the next day) to continue with Gragas enabled, but subsequently announced that Gragas (along with Lux and Ziggs whom the bug effects) would be disabled for the remainder of the tournament.
At first glance, disabling but 1 commonly used champion out of 126 wouldn’t produce a pronounced shift in the pick/ban strategies of teams prepping for Semi Finals, but Gragas has an important role in the very unusual metagame that has developed around this tournament. Disabling him throws teams a wily curve ball and offers new approaches for the tournament’s remaining coaches to use to their advantage.
In the patch 5.18 meta, Gragas serves a fairly specific function. He’s the third leg in the tripod of junglers currently propped above all others. He’s flexible, offers engage, disengage with better than average wave clear and magic damage for a jungler. He sits comfortably in the equal 2nd/3rd most valued jungler spot with Rek’Sai behind Elise. Most teams at the tournament have favoured these three head and shoulders above all, with the next tier down (Lee, Eve, Nidalee) having limitations in the situations in which they are effective. Any team that obtains one while relegating the opponent to a more limited pick gains a notable advantage.
The old environment
So with Gragas gone, two top tier junglers remain. One for each team right? Well, sort of.
What spices things up is the presence of two S tier picks, Mordekaiser and Gangplank. It’s easy to forget about them because they’ve so rarely been seen in action but they dominate the ban list and the vast majority of the 95% of games they’ve eaten bans in have been delivered by the red side. Red side teams have been reluctant to let both power picks through (and letting one through is suicide) and as a result have been 2 bans down for the majority of the tournament.
There are a few reasons for this. Firstly it means you give blue the option of denying you your last ban if they see something they want to first pick after your first two bans. Say blue has a great comp prepped which revolves around Lulu. If it’s up after the first two bans, blue simply has to spend their last ban on one of GP/Mord to force red into responding with the other. This allows blue to burn a ban to get one of their key picks.
In addition, blue side also gets the option to call the red sides bluff and in doing so get first choice of the two key power picks. This will unquestionably be the one they’re most practiced with, forcing red to take whichever pick gets left over. Maybe they leave red the one they’re best with, maybe not. Taking such a risk to only trade the most powerful picks in the tournament is not something you would expect to see from a team confident of beating their opponents on merit.
Both scenarios have the red side at risk of losing complete control of the draft. The safer option is to ban GP & Mord and go into the draft on relative even footing.
Why Gragas matters
This is where Gragas comes in. In a meta where there are two theoretically optimal bans on the red side, having only two top tier junglers sharply changes calculations. If Elise or Reksai get banned by blue side, red are forced into spending their last ban on the remaining jungler, or go into the game having burned 2 bans on power picks (Mord/GP) AND being forced into jungler with weaknesses or only niche strengths. It amounts to an even bigger advantage for blue side, who now either get first option at a power jungler or face up against a team who burned all their bans to avoid straight up losing champ select before a champion has been picked.
The first thing I think we’ll see teams doing is prepping both GP and Mord (though they’ve likely done plenty of work on this already). The old paradigm is has gotten even worse for red side, so it’s much more likely that teams on red will risk leaving GP and Mord available going into the last round of bans. As blue, you have the option of picking your favoured one of the big two or having both banned and grabbing another valuable available champion. It’s easy to see the first option being taken in this situation. As red you’ll need to be able to adapt to playing on either side of the GP/Mord matchup, building all your red side comps around limited jungle picks is extremely risky.
A perfect example of a team not being ready for the power picks is the remade game between Fnatic and EDG. Playing on red side, Fnatic left both GP and Mord up going into the last round of bans. EDG called their bluff, first picked Mord and giving Fnatic GP. EDG didn’t look comfortable with Mord at all, getting minimal map pressure out of multiple dragons and generally looking confused about how to push an advantage with the champion. The plan may have been to force Huni onto a pick he was uncomfortable on in the EU regional finals but Huni had clearly put the time on GP subsequently and at 20 minutes he was happily scaling into the late game absurdity that is a fed GP. Then you have to consider whether Mord is an appropriate champion for a team with an identity like EDG. Their ADC is their most talented player, their “carry” if you will. Putting him on a one dimensional champion like Mord isn’t playing to the team’s strengths in any way.
Prepping GP/Mord will also give teams a headstart on the other side of the coin, learning how to play against them. While both champions are deadly, in a world where they’re butting heads against each other, picking options that do comparatively well against them are much more effective. GP has good matchups. Riven has been mentioned throughout the tournament as a champion who does well against GP while Fiora can be effective you’re good enough at using Lunge to dodge barrels and Riposte to dodge Parley. He can be flexed into the midlane, but this is where having versatile players capable of off-meta picks is an advantage. Fnatic/SKT come to mind as teams well placed to exploit GP, with Faker, Huni and Febiven all being notable Riven players (not to mention Marin’s proficiency on Fiora), while a team like KOO won’t have that option with Kuro. A versatile team gets an advantage on red here, as a blue GP pick will always be able to be counter picked in the mid or top lane.
On the other side, Mord is a champion that NEEDS to use his brutish early game and dragon control to snowball. If the dragon into tower pressure chain never starts, teams can stall into a late game where Mord becomes very kitable if still dangerous and durable. I actually really liked LGD’s support Brand pick into Mord. Brand has a strong laning phase, provides excellent damage all game against the tanky Mord and a Rylai’s makes him able to control Mord extremely effectively in teamfights. He’s off meta, but Rumble has an extremely hard power spike around dragon fights, so picking him with the intention of contesting early dragons is an option. Champions like Braum and Yasuo are effective at using their walls to blunt the effectiveness of the dragon against a tower if they do end up getting hold of that winged monstrosity.
None of these options are hard counters, but in a meta where you’ve traded power picks, soft/partial counters are effective enough.
So what happens now?
Unfortunately, unless you’re extremely close to the prep of the teams it’s impossible to know how viable any of these options are. Putting all the eggs into the power pick trade might be something teams won’t be comfortable doing, particularly if the champion pools of the players don’t line up for an effective counter comp. New power picks have emerged as the tournament has progressed. Tahm Kench is a the most notable, but Viegar is appearing ever earlier in drafts and it’s easy to forget what Lulu can do to a hypercarry (or fed Juggernaut) who scales into late-game. We might see blue side using their last ban on GP/Mord in exchange for whichever of these power picks is still available. Teams might even consider banning GP/Mord and the remaining top tier jungler, taking the red side hit in exchange for a meta that’s safe and comfortable. It’s easy to decry a lack of versatility, but there’s something to be said for ensuring your team is comfortable in what will be one of the biggest series of their lives.
So gets the most out of the picking of GP/Mord?
I think it swings the first semi even further into the favor of SKT. Gragas has been Amazing’s strongest champion, with Origen putting high value on the disengage he provides for their split pushing style. Lee Sin can do the same, but his reduced teamfight presence locks them into that strategy somewhat. Soaz plays an absurd Gangplank but it’s hard to see Xpeke favoring it over the control mages he’s picked so far and Marin’s Fiora has looked revolting when he’s gotten his hands on it. Mord is an ADC that seems to suit Bang better than Niels too, with Niels being relied upon to carry the team more so than his opposite number.
The second semi is much tougher to call. The Huni v Smeb matchup is one of the most dynamic and interesting ones in the whole tournament. Watching Huni’s Riven vs Smeb’s GP would be a real treat. It’s hard to see Kuro finding a good pick against GP in the midlane and his low pressure style is unlikely to do enough damage to GP before he scales into absurdity and both ADC’s are intelligent players who operate as secondary carries in a way that suits playing Mord. That said, while it might seem I’m leaning towards Fnatic, KOO have done an excellent job of navigating the draft phase in the tournament. It’s easy to imagine them doing better in the higher stakes landscape of this new pick/ban environment. I’ll give it to Fnatic, but not with a lot of confidence.
Not much more for us to do, but sit back and enjoy the show.