A Quiet Return: ahq’s road to Worlds

by Clement Chu Sep 21 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Garena eSports

On paper, things looked like they have stayed the same for LMS. Once again, FW and ahq will represent the region, with the latter even returning with the same roster. But numerous changes have happened on ahq’s front. First, the effective “Blue Westdoor, Red Chawy” rotation mid was dismantled. Sorry to spoil your Legends Rising episode, but Wong "Chawy" Xing Lei did not play a single game in summer. The Singaporean hero had always had a streak of bad luck, and fate has struck him again, as family matters and visa issues kept Chawy flying between Taipei and Singapore for most of the split. Perhaps as a bittersweet consolation prize for sitting the bench, Chawy will embark on his first trip to Worlds, marking the end to a drought that has lasted since his Singaporean Sentinel days. It is, however, unlikely that he will be fielded at Worlds.

Credit: Garena eSports

Second, Xue "Mountain" Zhao-Hong's position as a starting jungler wasn’t secured until the post-season. Mountain took the brunt of the blame for ahq’s spring split failures against Flash Wolves, and at the start of the season it did not appear that he could shake away the lingering issues. By Week 4, ahq started to field Wang "Baybay" You-Chun, previously an I May jungler and Taiwanese native. Individually speaking, Baybay posted some of the most impressive stats for a jungler, a 19.3 percent damage share and 413 GD@10 lead over 10 games. But as a team, ahq often looked lost without Mountain’s aggressive calls. Mountain would later come back into the starting position for the entire post-season. In the Regional Finals against M17, he would take the series MVP on hyper aggressive Gragas play.

Out of Bounds

The regular season for ahq was unspectacular. With Mountain still in a slump and utility marksmen taking the driver’s seat in the bot lane, ahq was noticeably lacking in their early aggression. In the first four weeks of regular split, ahq was actually in the negative come GD and CSD before 20 minutes as a team. Especially worrisome was Mountain’s -8.9 CSD@10, a clear sign that he was still reeling from the defeat at Spring. Mountain was previously noted as the LMS’ premier pathing jungler and a heavy farmer, but this would not be the case for the early season. The first round closed on some fairly grim notes for ahq. While they held the rest of the LMS at bay, they were winless against the top two teams in the league: Flash Wolves and J Team. For the first time in a three splits, ahq found themselves outside of Worlds range.

All was not lost, though. Even when ahq’s usual strengths were noticeably absent, such as Chen "Ziv" Yi and Chou "AN" Chun-An's dominance in the lanes, they made strides in other departments. Liu "Westdoor" Shu-Wei has probably posted his most diverse champion pool this split, with a ban-worthy Malzahar, Swain and Lissandra, while still holding on to his famed Twisted Fate, forcing opponents to ban this champion in 46 percent of games in the split. Kang "Albis" Chia-Wei, the quiet support, also stepped into the spotlight. Known as a one of the greatest “auto-fills” in professional league, Albis played four positions before finally landing on the support role. He was initially considered a weak link, but this is the second consecutive split where teams have voted him into the LMS first team support role, beating out better known competitors like Hu "SwordArT" Shuo-Jie. He is most noted for a keen sense of sniffing out enemy wards (0.5 WKPM) and his Tahm Kench play, which he pioneered at Worlds in 2015.

The Fixer Upper

Ahq and Edward Gaming have always been close organizations, with personal ties between Ji "Aaron" Xing and Chen "Backstairs" Yan-fu going back for earlier than the LPL itself and back to the days of the StarsWar Leagues. The teams practiced together throughout the split and during the offseason ahq would travel to Shanghai, while EDG would visit Taipei to scrim. Though the world might perceive them as rivals due to ahq’s incredible comeback in S4 Worlds against EDG, the truth is ahq has more often than not been a younger brother to its more successful sibling. It wasn’t much of a surprise that Aaron himself would visit in Week 7 of the LMS, what was surprising to him was the state ahq was in.

“We’ve always been close teams…so when the meta changes we get together and exchange ideas,” Aaron said in a special post-game interview after ahq was defeated by an MSE squad hanging around fifth place.

“I didn’t expect on doing a lot of exchanges[of ideas]. But after a while here, I discovered ahq to be, well, in a bit of a mess.” Latter in the same interview Aaron would point out Mountain as the more experienced and steady of the junglers, and also the need for a central shot caller on the team.

EDG coach Ji "Aaron" Xing speaks at the LMS. Credit: Garena eSports

It’s difficult to say exactly how Aaron’s trip affected ahq — though the would latter thank Aaron for improving their team communication — but two tangible changes did come afterwards. Ahq would solidify their bans of Jhin and Vladimir throughout the regular season and into the post-season, and Mountain would make his return back into the starting lineup. Ahq would go on to split series with both Flash Wolves and J Team, but still be unable to advance further than third place in the standings.

Raid Boss Down

The first five games of playoffs were the Ziv show. Two-split MVP of the LMS, Ziv would demolish the opposing top laner in the laning phase and take control of side lanes with Gnar and Ekko, brandishing a 1.1K GD@20 vs. HKE. Yang "MapleSnow" Yu-Wei was smashed three games in a row, either being out right solo killed or dove every time his health bar was depleted. Mountain also exploited Xue "Dinter" Hong-Wei mechanically to enhance Ziv’s lead. Though the games themselves were a messy bloodbath that actually seemed closer than many expected, the top side advantage would win out for ahq, and Ziv would go on to win the series MVP.

The first two games against Flash Wolves followed the same pattern, Ziv beat Yau "MMD" Li-Hung both in the laning phase and in teamfights. The mismatch seemed too much to overcome. The stadium was in a frenzy for Ziv, with the casters dubbing him the “Raid Boss Chen.” Just when the sweep seemed certain, Flash Wolves switched up their strategy. They would let Ziv pick whatever champion he desired, but they would never let him play 1v1 in the lane. Also, Westdoor’s Twisted Fate would enter the ban list, and be forbidden to influence Ziv’s situation. It was a very all-in strategy that nearly failed, as Hung "Karsa" Hau-Hsuan gave up two deaths early in the game trying to establish top side vision. But the third try sealed the deal, and then Karsa came the the fourth and fifth times. Westdoor’s champions were also constantly pushed in by Huang "Maple" Yi-Tang, who then roamed top to take out Ziv.

By the end of Game 4, Ziv was clearly flustered. Ahq narrowly missed out on finishing off the nexus, and lost the game in the counterattack. Ziv was seen lashing out into his microphone, and perhaps unsurprisingly Game 5 saw the collapse of ahq’s fighting spirits. Ahq was reverse swept by the Flash Wolves in the closest series the two teams had played yet. For ahq, it revealed a host of deep flaws. Westdoor’s laning abilities were questioned, as Maple took mid turret all five times against him. The team also clearly needed another difference maker when Ziv was kept down, with many pointing to Mountain who was unable to counteract Karsa's pressure.

Lessons Learned

There were little doubts coming into the Regional Finals that ahq would take the second ticket. J Team had suffered yet another colossal breakdown in playoffs, vapors were already being spotted as HKE’s internal feud reached a boiling point, and Machi had simply not been the same caliber team as ahq for the entire season. The significance in ahq’s qualifier run would be their determination in fixing problems, both on the and off the Rift.

Looking back at playoffs, Mountain shares the most important lesson learned in a video detailing the team’s struggles: “No matter who the player is, no matter what mistakes you make in game, you always tell them that it will be fine, you always want to be encouraging, that is our biggest improvement.” In the end, ahq fell apart form within against FW in the finals, they would not let that mistake happen again.

Ahq would brush aside HKE in the first round, stretching their historical head-to-head to 12-0 against HKE in the post-season. Westdoor would show a much improved Taliyah compared to playoffs, and also act as the core of Malzahar pick composition. Key to the series is that Westdoor demonstrated he could play champions with more wave-pushing abilities, patching up a long noted weakness in his game. With a 20.5 KDA throughout three games, he would go on to snag the MVP of the series. Mountain would also get his redemption as well against M17 in the finals. Running a campaign that specialized in destroying the bot lane of Chen "Dee" Jun-Dee and Ceng "Dreamer" Jian-Hong, Mountain showcased an ability to create openings by himself. ahq exploited the enemy bot lanes' level one, routes taken when entering skirmishes and much of their warding habits to utterly lockdown the victory.

Looking Ahead

Credit: Garena eSports

To most outside the region, ahq looks unproven. They’ve had a lackluster regular split, were dispatched by the Flash Wolves, and then met little resistance in their road to a second ticket. While this narrative is true to events, it fails to account the massive changes ahq underwent in Shanghai between the regular split and playoffs.

Ahq was actually impressively good in playoffs and was one game away from taking the Championship; they only failed to a team that had battled them for years and understood a very specific strategy. While they didn’t face the hardest opponents at the qualifiers, it's important to note how they solved structural issues facing them in playoffs (Westdoor’s pool and forcing openings in the bot lane).

From a certain perspective, ahq actually emerges as the strongest contender out of LMS. Though they’ve faced harsh setbacks throughout the season, namely the Flash Wolves, they’re definitely the more well-rounded team. The sum of their individual talents are higher, their ban and picks more fluid, and their teamfighting still one of the best I’ve ever witnessed. This is a team that is coming into Worlds with the same roster, but with marked improvements in the mid and support role. As Mountain said in the post game interview after winning the regionals, "Last year we made it quarters, this year, we’re eyeing at least for semis."

Clement Chu is a Garena LMS caster. You can follow him on Twitter.