Don’t fall for the rushed narrative; Albus NoX Luna, no matter their proximity to Europe, aren’t an EU LCS team. They’re far more dangerous than that.
But the danger isn’t a straightforward one. H2k-Gaming, in form and control, looked much stronger in their Group Stage victories. All three lanes played well, Marcin "Jankos" Jankowski and Yoo "Ryu" Sangook played off mid, allowing control to slip across the map to strong side lanes. H2K continued to pressure their leads well, extending the laning phase and closing their games slowly.
Albus NoX games were much sloppier affairs. Though they exhibited an inkling of how to play around buff invades, their coordination was limited. Jungler Alexander "PvPStejos" Glazkov’s fixation on entering the enemy jungle and securing red and blue buff at times came at the expense of securing his own camps. He appeared as a solo threat, and opponents underestimated Albus’ ability to react or Stejos’ skirmishing power with a strong jungle matchup.
Very rarely did Stejos’ invades seem completely planned. For example, against ROX Tigers, Stejos invaded wraiths, forced Yoon "Peanut" Wangho back and then ganked mid with Lee "KurO" Seohaeng over-extended. Many of Albus’ successes came from an apparent lack of respect from Group A opponents, responding to invades without perfect information or leaving key champions unbanned.
This is part of Albus’ threat, but only the surface of it. H2K likely won’t disrespect Albus, even though they are perceived as the weakest team entering the quarterfinal. In fact, because of this, H2K have to respect them more than they would normally. The cost of losing to NoX is dire, given that H2K’s reputation already hangs precariously on a group qualification many fans perceive to be incredibly easy after EDward Gaming’s flop.
H2K won’t disrespect Albus, but they don’t need to. Albus’ greatest strength isn’t their aggressive, play-making support, the fact that they force the opposing team to ban a non-meta champion in Brand, or Stejos’ risky and unpredictable pathing — it’s their indefatigable nature.
Spectators have attributed it to Albus’ underdog status. With low expectations, Albus remained mentally resilient, accepting every loss as expected and every win as a boon. But this kind of resiliency is something that NoX exhibited even in the Wildcard qualifier when they took Lyon Gaming to a full five-game set before a victory. Albus’ determination hasn’t been that of a wild card team expected to lose, willing to take matches in stride — they’re winners, and they’re disappointed they didn’t top their group.
"Our best thing in the team is that we have full-metal nerves,” PvPStejos said after Albus escaped their group. “We are calm. We had only one game with nerves in this tournament, the first game against the ROX Tigers. After that game we were like, ‘Okay, no pressure at all.’”
By contrast, H2K are an incredibly variable team. When they’re operating well, all lanes seem to win. The team cooperates. There are fewer instances of disconnected initiation between Andrei “Odoamne” Pascu and the rest of the team.
But when cracks in H2K appear, they flesh out into full wounds. “We are kind of an emotional team,” support Oskar “Vander” Bogdan admitted. “It’s even like in scrims or whatever that we start doing good and everyone will do even better, then let’s say someone will keep misplaying, then all of the teammates will start playing worse too … By doing good plays, everyone is like motivating each other. By doing bad plays, they are demotivating each other.”
It’s easy to see how Albus can turn into the team that would unsettle H2K after a single win. If something goes wrong, the fact that they are Albus NoX Luna could send H2K into a spiral faster than any of their other possible quarterfinal opponents.
But it shouldn’t happen. As long as H2K prepare, they have the right tools to defeat Albus. A strong duo lane pair can pin down Kirill "Likkrit" Malofeyev to keep him from providing PvPStejos an abrupt reinforcement. H2K’s practice in laying vision and recent changes to give Jankos more free reign in the jungle make them feel as if they operate more as a team.
That doesn’t mean H2K aren’t without flaws, even when they’re playing well. Some of their Baron calls, even in their first win of their 4-0 day against ahq e-Sports, have been disastrous. Throughout the regular season, they’ve opted into risky Baron plays without complete vision of the area or without considering the danger of taking Baron or opting into Baron fights against the enemy team’s more effective compositions.
H2K have also struggled to play more around top side, as Konstantinos "FORG1VEN" Tzortziou-Napoleon and VandeR will often still play for advantages, even if their jungler is on the opposing side of the map. As a result, H2K also often struggle to make effective mid-to-late game objective trades.
Perhaps the worst of it is H2K's reluctance to adapt over the course of a series. If they don't value a pick, they might not change their strategy effectively to ban it between games. A few of Albus' pocket picks might dart out with a vengeance and never be clamped down. Their poor best-of-five adaptation led me to rate them low in my initial power rankings.
H2K's other flaws appeared minimized in Group Stage, especially since top side didn’t require jungle pressure for Odoamne to do well against EDward Gaming’s top half. One might expect something similar against Albus’ Dmitiri “Smurf” Ivanov, but making such an assumption could prove disastrous, especially with H2K’s tendency to leave their top lane pick open for a counter.
With a few support bans and a strong jungle pick, H2K should be able to defeat ANX 3-0 simply by playing their game and looking to punish PvPStejos’ less methodical invades. ANX are less of a mystery after their group stage, and more material is available to scout their recent improvements. Tight lanes and an extended early game should be easy to secure for H2K and allow them to advance to the semifinals.
But if anything goes wrong for either H2K or Albus, ANX have easily displayed they’re the most likely team to come back. Even after a devastating 20-minute loss, they’re liable to rally with an unexpected alteration in strategy for the next game. H2K can’t let their guard down — but given the nature of their opponent, it’s almost certain that they will.
That’s exactly the circumstance that could lead to a loss for Europe's final remaining team.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.