The Road less traveled: I MAY's unconventional playstyle

by theScore Staff Sep 20 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of 刘一村's album / LPL

If you aren’t particularly good in lane, why bother to stay there? The League of Legends Pro League’s I MAY have yet to come up with a reason why facing your opponents head-on in 2v2s or 1v1s is a necessity, even in a post-patch 6.15 world where the importance of laning phase and direct matchups has been emphasized by players and commentators globally.

That doesn’t mean they lane swap. In fact, I MAY haven't yet experimented very much with post-five minute lane swaps like many other teams attending Worlds. Prior to Patch 6.15, they didn’t have a particularly high lane swap rate either, having only started with a different number of players in the bottom and top lane after three minutes in 30 percent of their regular season games.

I MAY just don’t stay in lane if they can trade an advantage on one side of the map for a loss on another. A mixture of a roaming-oriented style and generally poor laning phase skill has made top laner Shek "AmazingJ" Waiho the only player on the team aside from support Yun "Road" Hangil to average a CS lead over his opponent at 10 minutes, and it’s a modest lead of 0.7. With the exception of AD carry Xie "jinjiao" Jinshan, who averages a deficit of 6.6 CS at 10 minutes, I MAY’s players remain even enough in lane that they can push the wave out and look for opportunities to find picks between lanes.

Following I MAY’s 3-2 victory over Team WE in the 2016 LPL Regional Final, Coach Son "Kezman" Daeyoung proclaimed, "When I first came to China and joined the LSPL team, having just started to look at these players, I thought that bringing them up would be very hard. Later, when we took the LSPL Championship, upon accepting our trophy, [AmazingJ] said our goal was to make it to the World Championship. I asked myself isn't this person a bit abnormal?"

A characterization of AmazingJ as slightly insane for making an emotional speech about returning to the World Championship after they had to struggle to beat out LSPL team Young Miracles isn’t out of line. I MAY’s form under the banner of EDward Esports was less than ideal. They made mistakes in lane that allowed Young Miracles to get massive leads and only managed to come back as a result of YM’s poor Baron play. Given similar circumstances in the fifth game of I MAY’s World Championship qualifying series against WE, it appears not everything changes — but certainly a lot has.

Two of I MAY’s players, Kang "BaeMe" Yanghyun and jinjiao, transferred to EDward Gaming’s substitute roster after AD Gaming, EDward Gaming’s sister team, failed to qualify for the LPL in 2015 LPL Spring. They and now-Apex Gaming-top laner Jeon “Ray” Jiwon were shuttled to the main squad in hopes that they would gain experience and supplement the EDG roster before returning to the LSPL.

In the meantime, AD Gaming managed to get itself relegated at the end of 2015 LSPL Summer. After multiple roster changes, they had only started to improve with the addition of Road near the end of the split, and even then AD Gaming were a sinking ship. Only the ex-Xenics support remained to try to perform feats of strength to get ADG to win any games. That's when Road first won his identity as I MAY's carry, an identity he has retained since.

Photo: 刘一村

When BaeMe and jinjiao returned to LSPL after EDward Gaming purchased a replacement spot under the banner of EDward Esports, they had lost star top laner Ray to the North American LCS. jinjiao and BaeMe focused primarily on holding their lanes while Ray played glass cannon Jarvan IV or Ryze to drag the team to wins. The team's new talent, Road, roamed frequently and assisted the jungler to gank other lanes, but EDE didn’t have a star yet.

RELATED: A blinding Ray: A look at Ray's history as he transitions to Apex Gaming​

AmazingJ was a dubious choice, especially after a depressing World Championship performance earned him a spot on the fanbase’s all-bei guo (literally pot-back, meaning the player bears the burden of blame for the team’s loss and acts as a scapegoat) team as the top laner who performed the worst of the three LPL teams attending Worlds. Prior to AmazingJ’s unfortunate international disgrace, he had a lot of support as Energy Pacemaker’s main carry. His flaws largely came down to not playing well without a lot of jungle attention, something he had grown accustomed to on EP. Ming "clearlove" Kai, never known for ganking the top lane, spent most of his time on the bottom side of the map while AmazingJ continued to play aggressively, as if his jungler were nearby, and he was punished for it against SK Telecom T1’s top and jungle combination.

To make this transition easier, AmazingJ was joined by an old teammate from his days on Hong Kong's You Can’t Stop Me in late 2013. Fan "Avoidless" Jun Wei had strong synergy with AmazingJ almost immediately, in particular because Avoidless wasn’t initially comfortable speaking Mandarin Chinese over Cantonese, and he could allegedly communicate with AmazingJ more easily. Over time, Avoidless fell in line with the rest of the team and even conducted a few post-match interviews in Mandarin.

Avoidless was a prized asset on the new lineup. He transferred from another high-ranked LSPL team, Legend Dragon, comprised almost entirely of Hong Kong and Taiwanese players. Over time, the creative pathing of Avoidless made him the starting jungler of I MAY, though he competed with the likes of Wang "BayBay" Youchun — who was loaned to EDE from ahq e-Sports Club while they were in LSPL as part of the close relationship between the two organizations. Avoidless also competed with EDG's substitute Zhao “Mitty” Zhiming, previously known as Firelol or Blackloli, who was dubbed "clearlove's student" due to the lessons he received on stream from EDG's famous starting jungler.

Finding creative solutions in weak jungle matchups or assuming his laners will lose to minimize loss make Avoidless shrewd. He more often looks for counterganks than moments to initiate, in part because he has struggled to react to the LPL’s more deadly countergankers like clearlove or Choi “DanDy” Inkyu when he's the one taking initiative. Avoidless demonstrated his ability to adapt well in series throughout the LPL playoffs in particular, starting wolves camp to maintain vision and taking opportunities to apply pressure to top side, which allowed AmazingJ to play aggressively.

It may seem strange to call I MAY’s main laning carry their top laner when the only champions AmazingJ played more than five times this split are all tanks: Ekko, Shen and Trundle. But AmazingJ carries primarily through flanking in fights and locking down targets as part of I MAY’s pick style — as the team more often than not will avoid straight 5v5s unless they can find a creative Teleport flank or are far ahead of their opponents.

After I MAY qualified for the LPL, two of EDward Gaming’s substitutes joined the roster. One was Mitty, who only played a handful of games before being permanently benched for Avoidless and becoming something of an interview personality doing content with a third-party media. The other was ex-Ever mid laner, Kang "Athena" Hawoon, who had played two series in the LPL with EDward Gaming the previous split.

Photo: 刘一村

The addition of Athena created an interesting dynamic for I MAY. With the exception of the Regional final against Team WE, I May continued to rotate their mid laners throughout the split, and over time, though their two mid laners began with a great deal of similarities in style, Athena and BaeMe began to develop distinct identities. When Viktor and Azir were most popular, BaeMe and Avoidless played a similar style of staying confined to mid lane and constantly pushing the wave, but BaeMe’s champion pool worked in more aggressive picks with a heavier roam focus like Twisted Fate and LeBlanc.

Athena remained a more stable player who simply played lane to shove, giving I MAY a constant point in games, while BaeMe complemented I MAY’s higher mobility playstyle. Perhaps one of I MAY’s most interesting games was their Game 3, third-place match against Team WE in the LPL playoffs. BaeMe picked the second Aurelion Sol of the summer split to complement jinjiao’s Kog’Maw.

Every time AmazingJ’s Ekko had Chronobreak, he could Teleport to a location, and both BaeMe and Avoidless’ Rek’Sai could assist in the dive. This allowed I MAY to pick up an early lead bottom and build their control.

This kind of early dive approach is not atypical of I MAY. In publicly acknowledging, “with our individual strength, we are not the best,” Coach Kezman admitted that I MAY cannot look for a standard approach toward winning the game. They can overload on globals, rely upon roaming opportunities, or wait for their opponents to make a mistake.

One of I MAY’s favorite strategies is in using Road to facilitate mid lane action. If Athena plays in the mid lane, Road will look to roam mid before Level 6. If he accomplishes a successful gank, he can nullify a disadvantageous matchup. This allows Athena to play within a more limited champion pool and suffer less of a punishment if he gets counterpicked. As a result, I MAY will usually save their counterpick on red side for a different role, bucking the general LPL trend.

Because of Road's frequent roams, it’s hard to judge jinjiao based on his apparent poor laning phase performance. When he plays Sivir, he will either look to rapidly push out the wave to give Road a roaming opportunity, or he will play Jhin and hug his turret or roam with Road as well.

This makes I MAY’s early game somewhat readable when Athena plays. In the second game between I MAY and WE in the 2016 LPL Regional final, WE support Yoon “Zero” Kyungsup read Road’s roam attempt, and the two supports spent nearly two minutes trading wards in river and staking out the lane before returning to the bottom lane.

Photo: 刘一村

When Road does lane with jinjiao, they usually allow the wave to be pushed into them or push out when they coordinate a dive on bottom lane with their team. When BaeMe plays, I MAY will organize more dives and teamfights early in the bottom lane for dragon control. I MAY get most of their bottom lane advantages by punishing over-aggression. Road is good at reacting to dives and punishing aggressive bottom lanes, but if he initiates a play in the 2v2, he more often than not will put himself out of position. In this way, he tends to be more suited toward roaming.

Part of the reason AmazingJ has stuck more to tank tops is the heavy crowd control they bring. Even picks like Nautilus, a champion AmazingJ played five times throughout the regular season, provide a lot of lockdown and make successful top lane ganks easier. It also makes the threat of a Teleport much stronger in the bottom lane. AmazingJ can play his matchup more aggressively if the opponent knows his jungler is lurking, and he has the crowd control to lock them down and punish them.

I MAY’s greatest strength is in how these pieces work together in the early game for them to create opportunities to gain advantages with creative plays. Of all the teams at Worlds, I MAY are more likely to give up or trade advantages in one lane for another. This can actually turn out to be a productive strategy if it means they give up pressure in one lane for a surprise gank in the bottom lane and manage to come away with first turret gold. This will create an advantageous trade in their favor and allow them to snowball.

For this reason, I MAY averaged a gold lead at ten minutes of 450, above LPL champions EDward Gaming. Despite this, I MAY seem unsure what to do with their advantages. When turrets fall and the enemy team starts grouping, I MAY lose their surprise advantage. In dragon fights, jinjiao becomes more of a liability, as he’ll often just step forward and misposition. Coordination also appears to be lacking between solo laners, and the team has often joked that at least one of their mid laners doesn’t seem to like talking. I MAY’s teamfighting on an even footing, despite the LPL stereotype, is not particularly spectacular.

But because of their tendency to lose control of mid game, their late game resilience is the other impressive part of I MAY. The team’s sense for creative warding and Teleport flanks gives them the ability to create interesting comebacks. As long as they draft a high quantity of wave clear champions (as in the Regional Final with Sivir, Nautilus, and Malzahar), I MAY can stall a game out long enough to capitalize on a mistake. This means setting up wards in side lanes or behind the Baron pit to look for collapses from AmazingJ.

Even with a poor individual laning phase and inability to execute in the midgame, however, I MAY’s greatest failing is their predictability. Attempts to diverge from an early pick strategy lead to more losses for I MAY in the regular season, and they triggered their upswing with the re-introduction of Alistar into the LPL meta. Road’s ability to get a pick on the champion, especially around Baron, allowed I MAY to maintain momentum and close games more completely, despite also giving their bottom lane 2v2 matchup more weaknesses.

I MAY’s greatest variability comes from the mid laner they choose to run, but whether they run Athena or BaeMe only determines whether their mid laner will look to hold the lane or create more dives around the map. As a result, more pressure goes to Avoidless to try to make unpredictable moves. His ability to outmaneuver Royal Never Give Up’s Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu and WE’s Xiang "Condi" Renjie increased as the season progressed, suggesting an increase in Avoidless’ comfort in the jungle as well as his ability to read his opponents.

Photo: 刘一村

But for their quirky playstyle, what truly makes I MAY unique are their moderate expectations. In the history of LPL teams attending the World Championship, none of them have touched down with more conservative expectations than I MAY. Following the Regional Final, I MAY Coach Kezman and both AmazingJ and jinjiao told journalists that they were merely aiming to escape groups. This was before the team had even seen the draw.

Aside from AmazingJ, team analyst Huang "FireFox" Tinghsiang is the only other I MAY member to have previously attended a World Championship. As a novice coach for LGD Gaming, he bore a great deal of blame for LGD’s confusing drafts, earning the title of the all-bei guo Coach among 2015 World Championship attendees. His words left the deepest impression at I MAY’s final press conference.

“If we lost," FireFox said, "it just means that our strength was not enough, if we win, it also means I want to continue to encourage them, because our play in this best-of-five had a lot of deficiencies. As the coach said, we don't just rely on our individual strength to win. So, if we will represent the LPL at Worlds, we must improve our ability in order to bring greater honor to the LPL.”

I MAY’s drafts and patch adaptation have been an unsung positive for the team. Despite having limited champion pools and strategies in many instances, they seem to understand meta priorities quickly. I MAY have a very composition-focused approach to drafting, choosing champions that complement each other, such as Shen and Kog’Maw or multiple globals, even if it also means choosing losing lane matchups. FireFox receives a fair amount of credit from the team for such compositions.

From FireFox’s words, it’s clear he’s focused on redemption. Failing to respond to meta swings this time around isn’t an option. I MAY know they’re underdogs, which means that they share the perhaps unique distinction of a team coming to Worlds from the LPL primarily to learn from foreign teams without expecting to escape Groups as a foregone conclusion.

I MAY are dangerous because they’re unconventional, but they’re even more dangerous because of how far they’ve come in a short time and the improvements they've made since their scattered squeak into the LPL against Young Miracles. Given the steep competition in Group B, they aren’t expected to make it to quarterfinals, but if they did — well, it certainly wouldn’t be the strangest thing about them.

Header image credited to 刘一村's album.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter to tell her her puns are bad.