Pack Hunters: Unity and Playmaking, Flash Wolves’ Road to Worlds

by Clement Chu Sep 28 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Garena eSports flickr

“The key to success is keeping a happy heart.” - Karsa, on the Analyst desk at the LMS Regional Qualifiers

Down two-to-zero in the semifinals vs ahq e-Sports, the Flash Wolves sat on the brink of elimination. In the crucial moments of the game, Westdoor fired off an array of Wild Cards into the Baron pit, sealing the game with tip of his cards. Karsa, in a critical lapse of judgement, had has smite unused. The pack looked flustered and shell shocked. Steak, now coach of Flash Wolves, headed toward his players after the game. Compared to the stern looks of Backstairs on the opposite side of the stage, the ex-top laner with the afro laner was all smiles. When I asked Steak what he said to Karsa that day, he said, “I just told him that it was fine, there were more games to play, and it to me it didn’t seem like we were losing.”

The Flash Wolves would go on to reverse sweep ahq to advance to the finals. Karsa would go on to even the score with a Baron steal of his own in Game 3. Even when the pressure should have been on their shoulders, their calls and shouts would drown out the opponents. The team’s target calling and cheers for each other were so loud that I could hear them past our casters and into the broadcasting room. “Our battle with ahq definitely felt more like the finals.” Karsa would recall in the post game interview after defeating Jay Team a week later. “That was the crucial moment for me,” said Cyo, ex-top laner for the Flash Wolves B team and now Team Mist Coach. “Steak has really matured as a coach, and they have bonds that have been there for so long between him and his players, it feels like they can make it through anything.”

The Wolf Pack

I’ve found it at times difficult to explain the strengths of the Flash Wolves. When you put them into a position-by-position line-up, they don’t pop out immediately as clear favorites. Maple certainly can hang with the very best of the best, and I expect him to trade blows with the likes of Faker and Bjergsen if given the chance. But even when you get to Karsa, I feel like it’s difficult to say with confidence that they will win games at worlds solely because of him. This is not to say they’re a weak team, on the contrary I believe them to be a very strong one. But the Flash Wolves have been underrated many times, simply because it is difficult to describe a whole without delving into its parts. Teams shouldn’t be able to comeback from mismatches like Steak vs. Smeb, or NL vs. Bang. But Flash Wolves have done so, and they have done so twice on each occasion, being the only team in the world to face top Korean teams and remain undefeated. To really understand the the Flash Wolves, they have to be understood as a pack.

The Flash Wolves we know today was born in another reverse sweep of the then juggernaut TPA at IEM Taipei. Before, they were a team that failed to continue the TPA legacy at S3 Worlds and then went on to miss the GPL. After that series, they would be undefeated with their starting roster in Spring of 2015. At the core of the team is the bond between players that has lasted over three years. The Flash Wolves has fielded a remarkably stable roster. Maple, SwordArT and NL have played together for over 3 years, going way back to the Gamia Bears, while Karsa and MMD have been on the team for the past four splits. The players are close-knit and commonly refer to each other as family. In times of extreme stakes, this bond would emerge to hold them together through the toughest adversaries.

Also, they’re just kinda adorable together. NL? Was a frequent meme targeted at NL’s often incomprehensible teamfight positioning. Now it is limited edition T-Shirt and the best selling esports item of the year in Taiwan. When it was suggested that MMD’s actual job on the team was to post on Facebook due to bad performances as the top laner, he happily referred to himself as a “FW community coordinator” in post game interviews. Brotherhood takes many forms. In contrast to the hyper-macho seriousness portrayed in Nike commercials, the Flash Wolves are a unit of anime loving geeks with self-deprecating humor. This combination of success and character has led them to become the most loved team in the LMS scene.

On the teamplay side of things, Flash Wolves have retained the title as the most disciplined and the best macro -focused team. Key to their success is playing the transition between laning phase and teamfighting. The Flash Wolves remained the best play-setting team in the LMS, with an average 1.5K gold difference created between 10 and 20 minutes. They would often end the laning phase early by initiating swaps of their bot lane to the top side, rushing down turrets or creating 4v2s. Drake control has also improved massively for this team from Spring, as they took 79 percent of all dragons. The success in the dragon pit largely stems from their preparation and the resulting ability to create picks off enemy blind zones. Karsa especially pointed out SwordArT’s vision control of the enemy jungle, and considered him to be the MVP of the series against J Team in the post-game interview.They do suffer from a sluggish laning phase, with an abysmal 7th place First Blood rate of 39 percent in regular season.

Prodigies Collide

The Flash Wolves’ regular season was promising at first, but slowed down later in the split. They showed few signs of fatigue coming back from MSI, they dominated the first four weeks of the summer split, once again sweeping rivals ahq. If the split would have ended in the first round, Karsa certainly would have taken MVP. Stringing together six Key-Player awards (LMS equivalent of game MVPs). He was the undisputed best jungler in the league, and was perhaps becoming the best player on his team. His Thunderlord Graves and Tiamat Lee Sin would destroy opponents in style with immaculate mechanical play. Karsa alone would take up 40 percent of enemy bans in the regular season, with the standard procedure being taking out Nidalee and Graves for most of the split.

The Flash Wolves were on route to a perfect first round, until they met a rising J Team. Formerly known as TPA, J Team was having a renaissance led by veterans like BeBe (the last active player of the S2 TPA squad). JT mid laner FoFo would prove a worthy contender to Maple, nullifying most of his map pressure, and the side lanes would outperform FW’s counterparts. In the end, J Team took the head-to-head 3-1, and FoFo would go on to win the Split MVP over Maple.

In part due to the psychological hit of being dethroned and the changes in the meta, the second round would prove to be much more of a struggle for the Flash Wolves. MMD took a clear dip in performance, being solo killed by every opposing top laner in the first two weeks. The switch back to tank junglers like Gragas and Rek’sai took a toll on Karsa’s game, as he experimented with Kha’Zix until finally paying his dues to the Rabble Rouser. While the bottom half of the LMS was still too far away to threaten Flash Wolves, they only managed to split even(LMS is played in BO2s) with the rest of the playoff teams. Heading into playoffs itself, the Flash Wolves looked like the weakest candidate to make worlds out of the trifecta of JT, ahq and themselves.

Ekkos of Spring

MMD’s woes seemed to continue straight into playoffs. Their first opponents would be ahq who were hot off dismantling HKE the night before. The first games would see MMD making multiple mistakes in skirmishes and being altogether outclassed by Ziv. Things were compounded by Westdoor’s playmaking ability on one of his best champions, Twisted Fate. Game 2’s opener would see MMD accidently take Karsa’s small lizards, and to make things worse Ziv would take part in three kills off a beautiful mid-transformation Gnar ult at the start of the game. Things looked grim for the Wolves. After Steak’s intervention though, the team would refocus on a different approach. Ziv was clearly too good to be dealt with on even ground, and with Westdoor’s TF, he was getting too much help. Flash Wolves would play the rest of the series heavily camping Ziv in the lane, while banning TF. MMD would also prioritise Ekko, a champion that can get through laning phase playing purely PvE. Maple’s dominance in the lane would start to show, and in the most important teamfight, MMD’s Ekko would snag a triple kill with fancy ult usages leading him rewinding him back into the battlefield. Game 4 would follow much of the same pattern, but with an even larger lead of Maple mid with his Karma. By game five, ahq was out of steam.

The Finals played in Hong Kong were far less exciting. While Flash Wolves still heavily banned out the enemy top laner in Morning, the games themselves went smoothly the Wolves were never seriously challenged. Once again J Team had mentally checked out on the big stage, with the most imbalanced matchup Karsa over REFRA1N. The Flash Wolves would be the first team in the LMS to stay champions for an entire season with the sweep.

The Last Hunt

The Flash Wolves have played with no substitutes at all for the first time since the LMS was created. It represents not only a gamble on player health, but also sends ominous signals for future seasons. The Flash Wolves organization, like all moderately successful Taiwanese enterprises, is facing tough competition living on the edge of the vortex known as the Chinese market. Many LMS talents have already gone over and attraction from the West still exists as well. People should pay attention to the Wolves even if they’re not especially fond of the team, for they’ll likely shed light on how organizations and their players maneuver in an era of global competition.

The last question for the team on many Taiwanese minds is how they will perform knowing that a breakup is coming. Karsa has stated at this MSI that he will likely leave at the end of season to “see the world” in an interview with theScore esports. While a group that includes some of the less notable junglers of the tournament in Blank, Meteos and Avoidless might prompt some monster performances from Karsa, it might also be the last chance for this team to enjoy the game together.

Image credits: Garena eSports

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