H2k-Gaming, Europe’s second seed, ended their run at the World Championship in near embarrassment. They escaped first in the only group without a Korean team, climbing over a Chinese first seed whose top laner's mentality had been called into question. Their path to semifinals was through a wildcard team that advanced over the first seed from their own region.
Then they fell out of the semifinals without a single win.
There’s no point arguing that H2K were magic, that they defied the status quo for the EU LCS. There are many ways that H2K were actually a bad team, despite their Top 4 finish. They ultimately didn’t belong next to Samsung, ROX Tigers or SK Telecom T1, either because they lacked the mental fortitude or cohesiveness of play.
That doesn't mean that H2K didn’t surprise us. Going into the tournament, they set low expectations: they weren’t a team and wouldn’t play like one. Commentators irreverently brandished the words “inconsistent” and “unstable.”
H2K corrected false assumptions, and some of that will stick even if the team splits up ahead of 2017. Andrei “Odoamne” Pascu showed greater depth and versatility, Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski developed as a jungler who works collaboratively with his lanes, and Konstantinos-Napoleon "FORG1VEN" Tzortziou demonstrated that, in his own way, he’s a team player. These were all qualities that EU fans could see hints of in the regular season, but were fully exposed in their run at Worlds.
None of this excuses the transgressions H2K made in drafting, mid lane control, poor adaptation or failed collapses in teamfights. But it does give us a better idea of who this team was, so that when we discuss them in the coming season, we won't pretend they were something else.
The laner, not the role-player
Prior to the World Championship, Odoamne told me “I'm not confident enough to demand it as much, but that's been something I've been working on lately — to demand more resources and get the team to play off of me,” he said.
These qualms had apparently vanished by the time quarterfinal against Albus NoX Luna began. Perhaps because of Odoamne’s success in Group Stage, he was given pick priority more often, and the team played strategies around Jayce. EDward Gaming, in their first encounter with H2K, banned Gnar and Kennen to keep Odoamne off a lane bully, already signaling that they recognized his strength. For ANX, H2K made sure to prioritize Odoamne’s Jayce pick, and against Samsung, he was given the counter-pick option more often, with FORG1VEN taking Sivir as a versatile choice earlier in the draft.
The later the tournament progressed, the more Jankos ganked Odoamne’s lane. The team's best synergy came from top and jungle, contrary to the common belief that Jankos' history with Oskar "VandeR" Bogdan makes communication easier around the bottom lane.
This combination made Odoamne look like one of the best laning tops at the World Championship. His success tended to get downplayed because of how weak EDG’s Chen "Mouse" Yuhao and ANX’s Dmitri “Smurf” Ivanov were against him, but he stood up just as well against more impressive tops like Chen “Ziv” Yi, Felipe “Yang” Zhao and Lee "CuVee" Seongjin.
Odoamne understands top matchups at a depth many of his counterparts don't. H2K has long been a team that takes top pick early in the draft, leaving him open for the enemy team to counter-pick, and as a result, he has learned to cope with matchup disadvantages. His colleagues have praised his strong 1v1 knowledge and ability to at least go even when he has the weaker champion.
When people think of strong laners in League of Legends, they think of carry players who take a powerful lane bully and snowball their way to control of the game. For teams with a strong top, the convention is to play around him as much as possible, choosing a matchup that lets him counter-pick and play with a lead. A consequence of that is those top laners can become one-dimensional, and will struggle in a bad matchup they aren’t used to.
In our interview before Worlds, Odoamne commented upon recent LCK series he had seen. "Two best-of-fives in Korea in a row or something, and every game, I see the person playing in the weaker matchup gets solo killed two or three times," he said. "Other players don't know how to play weaker sides of the matchup and just go even."
It's assumed that the other common type of top laner — the low-economy "role-player" who takes safer champions — has the reverse problem, and can't adapt to a carry role. But Odoamne has shown he can use his understanding of matchups to get small advantages in the laning phase and bring them into the late game. Though his reputation is as more of a role-player, when he was given the opportunity to pick a strong matchup on the international stage, Odoamne showed up.
He still has flaws. The team often relied on him to carry, and he didn’t always succeed — especially in the series against Samsung. In Game 1 of the semifinal, when Jankos emphasized the top lane, Kang "Ambition" Chanyong reacted by acquiring consecutive Earth Dragons. As the game progressed, CuVee, even with a deficit, had a stronger impact in split-pushing. The dragon buffs meant he could take structures incredibly easily while the rest of his team answered H2K’s Baron contest.
Of course, that's not all on Odoamne. Shotcalling often determines how a team will split its focus into side lanes, and Samsung, a team that spent most of the tournament giving up side lane pushes and pressure to force fights around Baron, adapted when teamfighting stopped working. They went back to stretching their team and keeping waves pushed, splitting H2K across the map. H2K were forced to pressure Odoamne’s lane, partly because Samsung’s duo lane pair pushed too easily in the bottom lane, and partly because Yoo "Ryu" Sangook performed poorly. But the advantages they gave up in dragons proved something they couldn’t properly overcome.
H2K may have slightly misappropriated Odoamne’s strengths. Rather than using him to reinforce their late game teamfighting, something they have struggled with all year, they're better off playing him as a split-pushing carry or laner. It's worth experimenting with his role as his career continues, especially if he stays with these teammates and their teamfighting woes linger.
Becoming a jungler
"Live or die by Jankos" became more of a joke than a meaningful phrase used to describe H2K’s playstyle in 2016. The adage reflected Jankos’ commitment to impacting his lanes, sometimes at the expense of his own farm.
Over the course of the year, Jankos’ jungling style slowly developed. In Spring, his main asset was warding, falling behind other top junglers in farming and actual lane pressure. A lot of this came from the fact that he spent his time camping brushes and looking for ganks which meant that he fell behind his counterparts in farm unless he did acquire a first blood or an early gank to help him snowball.
As time progressed, it became apparent that the Jankos mantra came from the fact that, if he didn’t have the impact he needed early on lanes, he slowly lost relevancy. Poor positioning in teamfights and awkward engages exacerbated the problem.
Though many blamed H2K's focus on FORG1VEN’s lane — including myself — the roster swap for Aleš "Freeze" Kněžínek appeared to make the problem worse. Jankos became increasingly desperate to snowball lanes, and a set pattern didn’t develop, which made his pathing less efficient and more indecisive.
Then, something very suddenly seemed to click part way through the summer playoffs. Jankos’ apparent obsession with making a play for First Blood dwindled. Ryu began backing and giving up waves to Jankos. He hesitated much less before going to lanes, in part because his solo laners became good at prepping waves for ganks which allowed him to path directly into lane and waste much less time. High values of farm began to accompany Jankos, especially in the team's third place match against the Unicorns of Love.
This trend continued for H2K into the World Championship. Jankos’ play had less of an "inconsistent" label attached to it. Many spectators didn’t notice the root of the change and began to say that he was simply "on fire," but even as H2K flagged against Samsung, Jankos played a much more relevant game. He looked for openings and isolated targets on Lee Sin without instantly dying because he could maintain farm levels and stay competitive.
If anything remains inconsistent about Jankos it’s his over-commitment. Several instances in H2K's series against Samsung saw Jankos stick to targets too long in fights or ganks, not satisfied with a summoner spell burn. This allowed his opponents to turn skirmishes around and win them.
It’s also worth noting that much of Jankos’ performance will suffer with the loss of mid lane control. Ryu’s poor performances in all three games against Samsung — backing in awkward locations, over-extending, etc., — cut down on the jungle control the team could maintain. Not all of this was completely Ryu’s fault and could be blamed on poor communication or warding from the team, but a lot of his misplays were made individually.
If a team doesn’t have control or can’t push out the mid lane, it becomes much harder to invade on either side of the map. To an extent, this forced Jankos into a predictable pattern in the final series where he repeatedly ganked top, looking for a lane to impact that wasn’t the weaker matchup bottom lane or Ryu’s suffering in mid.
A higher level of coordination and communication with solo lanes for Jankos in general, however, is something he should be able to take with him going forward. His jungling style has certainly expanded, and he’s become a more complete player as a result.
Pinching the AD carry pool
The height for H2K was undoubtedly their 4-0 day in the second week of San Francisco’s Group Stage. An extended laning phase gave FORG1VEN a Caitlyn soap box against ahq e-Sports and H2K showed an interesting approach to EDward Gaming that restricted some of the roaming nature of Tian “meiko” Ye and prevented them from extending their map pressure.
FORG1VEN was suddenly a lord of the tournament’s lanes. Snubbed from the list of top AD carries attending, in part because he simply didn’t play a lot in the summer split, FORG1VEN channeled his energy into dueling with a duo touted as the world’s best in Kim “deft” Hyukkyu and meiko. He earned his right to trash talk with three relatively close laning phases.
That wasn’t the surprising thing about FORG1VEN. Against Albus NoX Luna and Samsung Galaxy, FORG1VEN picked his champion later in the draft. As he stated after the game against ANX when discussing the Sivir pick, "Obviously it's not as lane dominant as it should be, but as a player, I can get away with this because it's like what Tristana was in the previous split, where it was very bad in lane, but because of how bad players were against me, I was able to get away with it by taking Tristana."
This didn’t necessarily hold true. Despite Sivir’s strengths in pushing waves, Samsung drafted stronger laning duos and kept the bottom lane pushed against FORG1VEN and VandeR.
In response to criticisms of his champion pool, FORG1VEN said the follwoign on Twitter:
Coach Neil “PR0LLY” Hammad reinforced the claim"
The problem with this statement is that, with the exception of the third and final game against Samsung, H2K hardly pinched the AD carry champion pool. In general, this wouldn’t have been a poor strategy, given Park "Ruler" Jaehyuk has been criticized in the past for his champion pool and the strength H2K get from their side laners. Yet they wasted time in Game 2 banning Miss Fortune when the pick typically doesn’t work as well without Ashe. FORG1VEN also didn’t get the opportunity to demonstrate his strength on the lane bully picks he mentioned.
Inconsistent and, at times, awkward drafting in series remains a flaw of H2K’s coaching staff. The strategy of pinching the AD carry pool may have been a strong one if it didn’t come in Game 3 when the team's morale had visibly depreciated. Other questionable choices included leaving Viktor up after banning Ryze and choosing Sivir early in Game 3 to give the top lane priority, but then choosing Trundle instead of a strong carry pick (even with the Poppy counter being a consideration).
When a team like H2K has had consistently intelligent drafts in best of one and best of two scenarios throughout the year, but seems to crash, fail to adapt, or fall apart in high pressure best of fives, one has to look at their support staff and how they're able to cope in semifinals.
As for FORG1VEN, in the group stage and quarterfinals, he displayed two strong dimensions to his play. He can make a lane go even in a strong a or a weak matchup, depending upon his opponent, and his one of the best laning forces in the World.
The problem arises when he can’t push out the lane to facilitiate the jungler. Jankos had one strong side to work from. Samsung’s series is one of the few instances where FORG1VEN couldn’t just get away with a weak matchup "because [he’s] FORG1VEN." That doesn’t mean he should stop thinking he can, as his confidence certainly gives him an edge, but he could also require more restrictions and guidance from team staff in that case.
H2K-Gaming may have surpassed the fabled Team Dignitas in Baron faux pas throughout the year. The World Championship was no different, and examples of poor Baron calls exist. What exactly is bad about H2K’s Barons?
It’s a clear combination of things. One is an inability to coordinate fights well. Odoamne will initiate a fight and the team won’t fall in lane (either because his call is bad or the team doesn’t react well), Jankos will over-commit to targets. FORG1VEN will take too much of a risk in positioning forward to maximize damage. Ryu will get caught out trying to set up a flank from brush. VandeR will take a straightforward path and get eliminated before he can use crowd control.
Each player on H2K has his peculiarities that makes team fights disorganized. It’s almost a complete wash of problems. For this reason, H2K have struggled to look more like a team. There’s no one struggle, and each player could work independently on his own flaws in coordination, but after a year they don’t look more unified. That spells roster changes.
It’s hard to say what this H2K team would need to make their team fighting more seamless. A more peel oriented support? A top laner with more consistent dive calls? A jungler that focuses less on engaging? A mid laner more in tune with traditional mage play? A cleanup AD carry? That’s a choice for H2K to make in the coming offseason.
Alternatively, if they do stick with the existing roster, H2K would likely continue to work on strategies that drift further and further from 5v5s. It’s imperfect, and restricts their ability to adapt. Samsung’s departure from team fights to split pressure and back throughout their semifinal series showed the wear and tear of H2K. They adapted before the eyes of spectators. Right now, that option didn’t exist for Europe’s second seed.
While H2K’s team play in some sense was very one-dimensional at the World Championship, they also showed signs of their individual players spectators hadn’t seen. Odoamne, Jankos, and FORG1VEN all presented alternate sides to their play that the team can work with to decide on a new identity for 2017. If the squad retains one or all five of the players, they have a foundation for understanding their limits that they could only attain at Worlds, where in a few instances they were pushed further than they were domestically.
No matter how it ends, this year for H2K has been an important one. They didn’t live up to expectations domestically. They surpassed expectations at Worlds, almost as if by a fluke. The 4-0 day against EDward Gaming, ahq and INTZ will serve a testament to what the roster could accomplish, while the Samsung series displayed the ugliest sides of this squad as well as the fact that, even at their lowest, this H2K is finally to a point where minimum reserves can be retained. We may have seen this H2K team at their limit, but not its individual players.
That’s something they can feel good about.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.