It should have crushed them.
Royal Never Give Up started the final game of the first day of the 2016 World Championship Group Stage by banning three jungle picks on red side. Team SoloMid responded with a first pick Nami, and, as the draft progressed, Royal revealed their hand. They wanted to take an aggressive Lee Sin and force Team SoloMid onto a less proactive pick.
When the Aurelion Sol bug emerged, the game had to be remade. Royal started with the same red side ban strategy, but TSM changed their first pick; they denied the Lee Sin they knew Royal had wanted.
No one can blame TSM for using the extra information they had — even if it does feel slightly unsavory — but not only did Royal lose their opportunity to play their mid laner of choice, they also lost some of the effectiveness of their jungle ban strategy. Many teams would have scattered, lost focus, and come up with a less cohesive draft in the remake. They would have tilted and blamed a loss on bad luck.
Instead, Royal Never Give Up completely altered their strategy. They went from a Rumble-Lee Sin-Aurelion Sol-Sivir-Karma bottom lane dive composition to the kind of Royal we haven’t seen in a long time. This put Cho “Mata” Sehyeong on a hard engage Alistar pick with Li "xiaohu" Yuanhao playing to chain lockdown with Cassiopeia. This kind of setup brought Royal success in the spring season, especially with Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu ganking and playing confidently, looking to impact the map with risky Level 2 to 3 mid lane ganks.
“The Jhin-Nami is devastating to the Alistar-Sivir,” North American LCS caster Joshua "Jatt" Leesman said, commenting on the superior laning prowess of Team SoloMid’s duo lane picks. “And it’s not like Mlxg can provide a lot of early jungle pressure on the Hecarim.”
Mlxg once again surprised with an early gank on Hecarim, a champion not usually considered a lane pressure pick. Though the engage appeared to go even with TSM's jungler counterganking and both mid laners burning their summoner spells, the key was Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen’s burnt flash. His predictable pathing made him vulnerable for Mata’s roam at the wraith camp, something Royal took advantage of twice in the early game to stay competitive. These invades slowed down some of the damage Svenskeren could do by invading on the top side with both of TSM’s solo laners ahead.
The game truly got going, however, when Royal lost their Tier 1 turrets and were able to begin executing teamfights. Engages from Mata came with xiaohu laying down Miasma and Mlxg collapsing with Onslaught of Shadows. Aside from extra damage, Jian “Uzi” Zihao’s contributions were his ability to survive 1v2 with Mata roaming and the use of Sivir’s On the Hunt.
For the first time in months, Royal Never Give Up looked like the RNG that came first in Group Stage at the Mid-Season Invitational. They primarily dealt with their opponents by coordinating forward movement with Mata, xiaohu, and Mlxg, then followed up with a side flank from Jang "Looper" Hyeongseok.
Though Mata shone the most, the oft-absent coordination between him and his young Chinese player protégés returned after a split of toiling as if separated by thick cloth, slipping through the sands of the rift. This style of play emphasized synergy between Mata and the previous Mlxg and xiaohu core with roams and jungle control, something especially favored in the jungle-centric World Championship meta.
The composition that took down TSM was an Mlxg and Mata composition, not an Uzi and Mata composition.
With a remake, the focus of Royal’s strategy had changed completely. Though there’s no way of seeing how the first game would have played out, one can imagine both Mlxg and xiaohu roaming to the bottom lane early with Lee Sin and Aurelion Sol to dive the first tier turret. Likely, Royal had some plans to target Svenskeren’s pathing, but their composition, even with a more aggressive jungle pick, facilitated Mata’s involvement less.
If the regular season has been any indication for Royal, placing Mata more on the bottom side of the map has fragmented the existing core of the roster. It allowed their bottom lane to improve considerably in laning phase, but not enough to compensate for Mlxg’s decreasing daring. In the playoffs, Mlxg’s initiative in ganks declined a great deal, and his invades weren’t as potent without the power of Mata’s warding and roaming in conjunction with his plays.
In turn, Uzi and Mata couldn’t maximize their effectiveness because their synergy constantly lacked. Uzi would retreat as Mata would charge forward. If Uzi traded, Mata would leave to ward. Mata sometimes got caught alone in the jungle after Uzi backed away. Their unity didn’t seem as strong as the synergy between Mata and Royal’s 2016 spring split roster.
Until spectators see a more polished 2v2 focused composition from Royal, they can only speculate that a Mlxg-centric tactic is not only better for the meta, but better for RNG.
There's only one problem — this isn’t the composition RNG intended to play.
It seems ridiculous to suggest that the bug and the remake that removed RNG’s preferred strategy actually helped them succeed. This leaves three possibilities, and one doesn’t bode well at all for China’s second seed.
Royal may have considerably improved their bottom lane synergy and their ability to play 2v2-centric compositions with the top side of the map roaming independently. Banning out Svenskeren may have originally served the purpose of hampering his ability to interfere in the bottom lane. This seems unlikely, given the strength and the importance of supports and mid laners connecting with the jungler to make plays, so it’s more likely Mata would have intended to roam with xiaohu and Mlxg in the first composition as well.
Given Karma’s frailty as a roamer and her strength in lane to push waves and facilitate the 2v2, this also seems like a questionable strategy. Instead, Royal would have likely telegraphed a bottom lane dive composition that went all-in on Uzi succeeding and carrying with the power of Karma and Sivir to kite. To an extent, Royal still piled in the bottom lane with Alistar, but this was mostly after tracking Svenskeren’s attempts to gank bottom and contest the dragon.
So that only leaves the disconcerting third option — Royal didn’t want to show that they could still play the Alistar-centric composition unless it was an emergency. If MSI is anything to go by, teams learned quickly to ban Mata’s roaming picks, especially Alistar. Showing Alistar and Uzi’s ability to 1v2 in the first game may be an act of desperation more than anything and leave Royal vulnerable to more strategic targeting.
Before jumping to conclusions, it’s prudent to watch Royal play more games. In the regular season, Royal’s high average gold lead at 15 minutes topped any team in the five major regions, but they got sloppy later on, tunneling onto Baron with a seeming inability to control side waves well. While many criticized Royal for sending Mlxg to the bottom lane early, this actually was only common for Royal against other bottom-centric teams like EDward Gaming. Mlxg had a highly diverse range of camp starts, and his pathing, while not always logical, varied widely.
The real fault that hampered Royal and a major reason for Uzi’s high gold distribution in the regular season was his tendency to choose a side lane to freeze. This prevented Royal from executing split-push strategies like 1-3-1 or 1-4 and was a massive restriction.
With Royal’s engage and collapse composition and TSM’s apparent willingness to funnel into confined spaces, none of these concerns showed themselves. There are still ways to stretch Royal that TSM didn’t use, but now the entire tournament has been reminded of Alistar, a pick considered slightly less favorable because of his laning weaknesses.
As for Team SoloMid, they weren’t prepared for a Royal that played more around jungle, and they weren’t prepared for the Alistar. Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng Tweeted about Mata’s surprise factor shortly after the match.
This is something North American support Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black expressed at MSI when he said that "All the supports [at MSI] know how to hit the go button ... in NA, not so much." But CLG also quickly adapted and dispatched the Alistar pick later in the tournament.
Royal Never Give Up were underestimated or TSM were over-estimated, but we’ve only seen a glimpse, and now every team in the tournament knows. Mata made it clear — the roaming support meta is still here, but at the end of the group stage, I'm not sure if RNG will be.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.