Sun Tzu, whose quotability has rendered him a favorite source of pretentious pundits for centuries, wrote that “if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.”
SK Telecom T1 and Samsung Galaxy will navigate the perils of a maximum of five battles on Saturday as they vie for the title of World Champion. To find victory, both SKT and Samsung will need to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and those of their opponents.
To that end, here are three key win conditions that could determine the success or failure of each team.
How SK Telecom T1 can win
1. Let Faker drive (not Duke)
Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok is many things. He’s deadly, decisive and creative; he’s the best League of Legends player in the world, and has been for years. Faker’s longevity is partly due to his incredible versatility: he can knock it out of the park on anything from a trigger-pulling, trail-blazing Lissandra to a sit-back, wave-clearing Varus.
Even though he can play different roles, however, SKT are at their best when Faker is in the driver’s seat, setting the pace as a primary initiator. The team sometimes struggle to get effective playmaking from the traditional initiator roles of top, jungle and support.
The rest of the roster are generally more comfortable doing other things. Lee “Duke” Ho-seong is a terrific split-pusher and duelist, and Kang “Blank” Sun-gu teamfights well as the second or third man in, while Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan plays a lot of disengage or counter-engage champions like Zyra or Nami. But when Duke is asked to play tanks and initiate the teamfights with flanks and proactive Teleports, he tends to commit mistakes. And when Wolf tries to force the issue himself, his engages can miss the mark.
Faker can excel on anything, but SKT needs him to be “Faker, Faker, playmaker,” both to keep his teammates comfortable, and to give them ways to break down Samsung’s strong defensive teamfighting. Champions like Lissandra, Syndra, Ryze and Orianna should be high on coach Kim “kkOma” Jung-gyun’s priority list.
2. Hit the gaps
SKT are most effective when they have pieces on the move and are stretching the game across multiple lanes. Early on, that involves Faker and Wolf roaming to find and exploit gaps in their opponents’ defenses. Later on, split-pushing takes over as SKT attempt to pull the enemy’s formations apart while they search for punishable openings.
The current metagame is built around having strength in the lanes and converting that strength into lane priority, pressure and towers. The side lanes especially have seen lane dominance rise to the fore. When SKT’s side lanes have priority, Faker is able to use his own control of mid to join his jungler and pressure the enemy jungle, cover tower pushes or create dives.
Vision denial is an essential part of this strategy, and SKT have been clearing more wards than anyone at Worlds, averaging 1.82 wards cleared per minute. This allows SKT to roam unseen while they set up plays, and it keeps the other team on their toes by giving SKT's split-pushers (usually Duke and sometimes Faker) chances to duck out of lane between shoving waves and hide in the fog of war.
Against Samsung, who have strong defensive vision and early river control, SKT will have to work hard to create the gaps they need.
3. Keep your noses clean
Sometimes a team loses because the other team was simply better, or because some close calls didn’t quite work out. That hasn’t really been the story for SKT at Worlds. Instead, in their losses, individual mistakes have frequently been to blame.
Consider Duke’s inexplicably casual First Blood death to Royal Never Give Up’s Jang “Looper” Hyeong-seok, or his failure to cancel an ill-advised Teleport and braindead geometry failure on an attempted Flash-Heroic Charge later in the same game. Consider how Wolf became an Enchanted Crystal Arrow-magnet in both of SKT’s losses to the ROX Tigers in the semifinals, giving up 11 deaths in two games as he struggled to adjust to Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon‘s surprise Miss Fortune pick.
Samsung are an effective counter-ganking and counter-engaging team. If SKT continue to make individual mistakes, or if their occasional issues with timing and miscommunication manifest in this series, they will be severely punished.
How Samsung Galaxy can win
1. Survive the early game
Based on a quick read of World Championship statistics for both Samsung and SKT, it might appear that Samsung will have the early-game edge in the finals. So far, Samsung have earned an early-game rating of 60.3, while SKT’s EGR is 57.3. SSG have gotten to that impressive rating by racking up a +1,167 gold difference at 15 minutes, 75 percent First Blood rate and 67 percent first Dragon rate — better than SKT across the board.
The reality, though, is that SKT have some of the strongest laners in the world, led at this tournament by Faker’s +7.4 CS advantage at 10 minutes, which has netted him an average 10-minute gold lead of +298. Samsung have reasonable laning strength of their own — Lee “Crown” Min-ho finished second in CSD@10 in the LCK summer split, and Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin always has the potential to manufacture solo kills — but if the match comes down to pure head-to-heads, they are likely to be outmatched.
Samsung’s greatest strength is their reactive teamfighting, enabled by their defensive vision and tight formations. With SKT’s occasional issues initiating fights — that is, whenever someone other than Faker is pulling the trigger — Samsung should be comfortable keeping the games close early on and testing their luck in the mid and late game.
2. Stay patient
When the stakes are high, it’s easy to feel pressure to charge onto the Rift and make things happen. But too much nervous energy is dangerous. As Samsung’s relatively young players step onto the biggest stage of their careers, it will be up to the coaching staff and the veteran leaders, especially Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong, to model calm and patience, both in tactics and in overall mentality.
In-game, Samsung should avoid forcing the issue. Throughout the tournament, they have thrived on defensive play, especially once they are in the lead and begin to set up sieges and map pressure. Much of that strength is built on efficient vision coverage, especially around their bottom lane and the dragon pit. By controlling the river, Samsung are able to react to enemy movements and set Ambition up for counter-ganks or safe counter-jungling. Good defensive warding, paired with excellent mechanics, has also helped Crown turn around gank attempts in the mid lane, not only escaping but sometimes picking up kills of his own.
Out-of-game, Samsung need to ensure that they take the long view of the series. They can’t afford to get rattled by their first few setbacks. If Samsung is to beat SKT and claim the Summoner’s Cup, the road to victory will be a long one. With SKT’s wealth of experience and history of success, their mental game is rock solid. Samsung need to match that poise.
3. Adjust, adapt, evolve
One of the hallmarks of Korean teams, especially in best-of-fives, is their ability to quickly evolve their play. Samsung have showed that ability over the past few months, making small adjustments to help them improve throughout the Korean Regional Qualifiers and the World Championship. In the finals, Samsung will need to draw on all of their versatility and the strength of their coaching staff to adapt faster, and more effectively, than SKT.
Against H2k-Gaming, Samsung showed they could adapt in-game as they got a better read on Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski’s style of play. Instead of directly butting heads with Jankos, Samsung shifted their vision to the bottom half of the river, and Ambition began to play towards the empty parts of the map, focusing on objectives so that H2K’s ganking, while successful, couldn’t generate meaningful leads. As the series played out and H2K struggled to consolidate Jankos’s pressure into real gains, H2K began over-reaching, and Samsung punished that impatience with superior rotations.
Samsung have also showed good out-of-game adaptation by switching between support players Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min and Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in and running with the hot hand. They have also changed up their draft priorities, especially in the bottom lane, as the Worlds meta evolved.
The Samsung coaching staff, led by Choi Woo-beom and Kim Jeong-soo, deserves praise for molding this roster over the past two years and making the right refinements at the right times. Up against kkOma, the best LoL coach of all time, there’s as much pressure on Choi and Kim as there is on their players. It’s time for them to deliver, and show the world what effective coaching really looks like.
Tim "Magic" Sevenhuysen runs OraclesElixir.com, the premier source for League of Legends esports statistics. You can find him on Twitter, unless he’s busy giving one of his three sons a shoulder ride.