What should have been an exciting rematch between Giants Gaming and the Unicorns of Love, a chance for one band of mythical creatures to redeem themselves against the other, will likely feel more like a chore for each team to get through.
Both Giants and Unicorns have been cast from the final run at scrims, Giants allegedly due to internal difficulties within the team and the Unicorns simply because they’re the odd man out. Under these undesirable circumstances, their upcoming match isn’t the most exciting one to open Europe’s final World Championship qualifying gauntlet.
Normally, I would discuss the last time these teams played against each other, the ingenuity Unicorns exhibited, and how Giants can compensate to provide a better showing – and that’s still important, but the broader difficulty at hand warrants more discussion. The crux of the issue in preparing for the European Gauntlet, according to Splyce Coach Jakob “YamatoCannon” Mebdi, is that “Giants are not scrimming.” As all non-Gauntlet teams have gone to train in Korea or to take a vacation, this leaves one odd man out
So yes, we talkin' 'bout practice man.
Ignoring the inexcusable travesty that Giants Gaming — the EU LCS' third place team — may not even be able to keep it together enough to scrim for the final gauntlet, this depicts a cutthroat European LCS where only the quick-thinking can lock down scrim partners. Most of the solutions proposed to counteract this idea involve Unicorns of Love, Splyce, and Fnatic coming to an agreement that ensures each of them receives scrim time. One solution includes setting up three scrim blocks a day so that each team has a break while the other two teams scrim.
Though sportsmanship and competitive integrity are important in League of Legends, Splyce and Fnatic have no incentive to make this kind of schedule a reality. If the assumption made is that Fnatic, Unicorns of Love, and Splyce will all offer comparable experiences as practice partners, then sitting out for a theoretical block of practice to give Unicorns of Love a turn will only be incentivized if you’re afraid you yourself will miss out on some practice time. If Fnatic and Splyce can both ensure that they will be able to practice for all possible scrim blocks, blocking out UoL is the more preferable choice. Add in the fact that the Unicorns of Love pose a threat to Fnatic and Splyce and it's pretty obvious why they've been locked out of scrims.
If I were to assess the Unicorns of Love, Splyce, Fnatic, and Giants Gaming based upon their playoffs performances, Unicorns of Love’s unpredictable nature makes them the most threatening to Splyce, the gauntlet's top team. They benefited considerably from the patch change, and they came into the playoffs with a smart approach of grouping top with an advantage after a back.
Jonas "Trashy" Andersen doesn’t receive the same lane farm that allowed Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski to get extremely far ahead of Kang “Move” Minsu in the third place match. Though Splyce have been strong in the late game in terms of their coordination and map movements, their early game pressure has not been as consistent, which in turn can give Unicorns openings.
If Fnatic and Unicorns both provide opportunities to test strategies and prepare Splyce well for the gauntlet, they’re likely the most prized scrim partner, and have an incentive to create plans with Fnatic over the Unicorns. Practicing with Fnatic will also give Fnatic some benefit, making them more likely to take out the Unicorns in the second round. Following that, Splyce only have to face the opponent with which they are most familiar and who play the most like Splyce in that they aren’t extremely aggressive early on.
Fnatic are also more incentivized to create a partnership with Splyce. If Fnatic assume Splyce are the stronger team, why wouldn't they want to hone their skills against the yellow snakes.
It’s worth noting that the Unicorns have a reputation for throwing slightly more curveballs in scrims and not always playing what other teams will play. Even in professional matches, Unicorns don’t always play the same picks as other teams. On the off-chance that Giants end up defeating Unicorns in the first round, if Fnatic spend a lot of time practicing against UOL then they will not be as prepared to play a team that goes for more standard choices which one assumes both Giants and Splyce will.
In this way, though, the Unicorns may be the second strongest team in the gauntlet bracket. Solutions that suggest that both Fnatic and Splyce should take breaks in order to allow Unicorns into the scrim rotation only work if one assumes that Fnatic and Splyce believe there is an added benefit to scrimming against the Unicorns that they cannot obtain from Fnatic. Based on the results, we can safely assume that this is not the case.
Given that H2k-Gaming and G2 Esports are unwilling to sacrifice their own vacation or their opportunity to get to Korea earlier to train with other Worlds teams leaves very few alternatives. Unicorns could have attempted to fly to another region to train, but with short notice, and budget or visa restrictions, this simply isn't feasible. Perhaps with more notice, they could have found a way to convince other teams to come back from break, but that also seems off the table.
The only solution is to be able to find an argument that suggests Splyce or Fnatic have something to lose from not scrimming the Unicorns. If one can argue that scrimming the Unicorns of Love, even if it means sacrificing a block of practice, is worth the tradeoff, then Splyce, Fnatic, and Unicorns could have come to a more mutually beneficial agreement.
From this perspective, Unicorns certainly have something to offer, but to make the case, one has to subscribe to an important assumption. Unicorns will play these scrims as an important practice for the gauntlet, and what they bring to the table there is also what they will bring to the table during the tournament. This is no direct criticism of the Unicorns, as I have no way of knowing whether they treat their scrims in the same way they treat professional matches, but this seems to be a problem for a lot of professional teams. When it gets down to the wire, teams may feel nervous and try to hide things for the gauntlet, but if Unicorns truly want to convince other teams of their value as scrim partners, they have to treat scrims as they would a live match.
With this assumption and observing the Unicorns' gameplay, it’s clear that they have value as scrim partners because of what distinguishes them from EU's other gauntlet teams. This benefit isn't something that will necessarily help them in Europe against other gauntlet participants, but it may be useful for the international stage. This regular season, the Unicorns of Love were tied with Team ROCCAT for having the highest combined kills per minute. As soon as the Unicorns get into the game, they attempt to lean on the gas pedal and they don’t let up until it ends.
This kind of tenacity and relentless play is something that few European teams have, and it’s indeed something you can criticize every other remaining gauntlet team for, Splyce included. Though Splyce have the second highest combined kills per minute at .70, their gold lead at 15 minutes during the regular season is surprisingly low for a Top 2 team at 239. That’s because, in many instances, Splyce won games from behind. Their early games had several holes, and they came back through persistence and map control.
Fnatic are the polar opposites of Unicorns of Love. While UoL had the largest positive difference between non-lane swap and lane swap games in terms of gold leads at ten minutes, Fnatic had the largest negative difference. Fnatic often have very minimal lane pressure and only succeed by team fighting in the late game with Lee “Spirit” Dayoon and Martin “Rekkles” Larsson. To say the direct stylistic clash with Unicorns couldn’t provide some benefit for Fnatic in practice matches that they cannot get from Splyce doesn’t make any sense.
That said, ultimately, one is left wondering how fundamental these two days of canceled scrims will be for the Unicorns of Love. H2K, a team already qualified for the World Championship, expressed their joy when they succeeded after not practicing with Konstantinos-Napoleon “FORG1VEN” Tzortziou at all. Other miracle stories have echoed similar sentiments in the past, but it seems it depends on the team.
I’d hazard to guess that, for Unicorns, it’s dire. When they came to the 2016 EU LCS quarterfinals, they threw Giants Gaming completely off and surprised spectators by how quickly they adapted to the new patch. The intelligence of the bottom lane back and pressure to the top lane wasn’t something that is easily executed through theory crafting without practice, and it’s perhaps something they even learned from another team in scrims.
Unicorns also look for ways around player weaknesses. The Taric pick arose early for Unicorns, likely as a means of adding extra durability to their rookies. Lately, Fabian “Exileh” Schubert has suffered under mid lane bans with a shift in the meta, and more ability to test out mid lane picks in scrims could have helped Unicorns compensate for some of these problems in the last minute.
What has made Unicorns successful this year has been the surprise factor, the tenacity with which they persistently gank mid lane. They don’t have the raw talent needed to tussle with teams like Splyce and G2 Esports, but they have shocked teams with greater talent by getting a one up in the meta or trying something entirely different.
It would indeed be an upset for any team other than Splyce to advance to the World Championship through the gauntlet, and upon arriving at Worlds, it’s unlikely any remaining team could perform better than them but Unicorns had the greatest chance to add more variety. Now, without scrims to help prepare them, it feels like the Unicorns lost the opportunity for their true, once in a lifetime, Unicorn year.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.