How to win mid lane in 2016: A look at the final matchup between Faker and Crown

by theScore Staff Nov 1 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games

Just 10 minutes into the first game of the World Championship finals, Lee "Faker" Sanghyeok was already ahead in CS. But when he aggressively skirted the wave of blue-side creeps to harass Lee "Crown" Minho, the Viktor player retaliated, netting a kill by dropping his ultimate, chasing his opponent back up the lane and ultimately flashing to finish the kill.

"He said to beat SKT," English language caster Sam "Kobe" Hartman-Kenzler exclaimed, "you have to beat mid lane, and even though he’s down in CS, he did get his solo kill."

The solo kill, though, did not have the impact many would have expected. Shortly after, Kang "Ambition" Chanyong’s dive in the bottom lane was turned by Bae "Bang" Junsik and Bae "Bengi" Seongwoong. Any supposed impact from the solo kill felt muted.

The 2016 World Championship was supposed to be about the jungle. Going into the event, almost everyone expected a jungler as the overall MVP, and as Faker accepted his place as the first ever two-time World Championship MVP, a few naysayers still demanded jungler Bengi receive the designation.

Throughout Worlds, however, I was much more enchanted by the impact the mid lane role had on the game. This tournament finally signaled the death knell of laning phase as we knew it because of how little 1v1 contact and trading the two finalists had. Crown spent much more time actually in the mid lane than tournament winner and MVP Faker. As he sat in his chair with chagrin on his face after each loss, it seems unlikely that he was lamenting the strength of his individual performance and inability to secure wins, and more realistically considering what he had missed out on. Every game, he adapted slightly, but Faker remained more efficient in his roams, and his coordination with his jungler stood out.

Throughout the series, Faker sat in mid lane significantly less than Crown. In multiple instances, just in Game 1, attempts to poke or directly engage Crown resulted in Faker at least burning his flash to back out. At 44 minutes, when Samsung Galaxy stalled out an assault on the Nexus, Crown flashed to eliminate Faker, then kited the rest of the team fight with Gravity Field. Yet Faker drastically outplayed Crown in every way that actually mattered.

Normal metrics for assessing a 1v1 in the mid lane hardly applied at this World Championship. Yes, Faker’s 5.2 CS over his lane opponent for the event ranks him among the top mid laners. Yes, he bested Crown personally in the laning phase just looking purely at CS and itemization, time to levels and most often felled the mid lane turret first. That wasn’t why he won lane. He won lane because of his ability to push out mid more often and hesitate less in his roams and to make use of SKT’s raptor control priority more than Samsung’s Crown.

More and more, League of Legends is less about the big play and more about the series of small decisions. Where to put a ward, when to leave lane, and what side of the map to stand on. When to push, when to freeze — winning lane is no longer about numbers and hasn’t been for a while.

It started as simply as where Faker and Crown placed their early wards. In Game 1, Faker put his first ward at the entrance to blue side’s red buff jungle near mid lane, right by the raptors. His first act on placing the ward was to try to take one of the small raptors to deny Ambition an easy Level 3, but failing that, the ward still supported Bengi’s main goal in his invades: clearing the raptor camp later.

When SKT played their three games on red side especially, they targeted the blue side raptors. The benefits to doing this are in preventing easy access to vision clearance by the blue side team. As a result, it’s easier for SKT to populate and maintain their vision in the enemy jungle.

By contrast, in the first game, Crown placed his wards deeper in river, closer to dragon. Samsung prioritized dragons very heavily throughout the World Championship, averaging the highest first dragon rate of any bracket stage team at 71 percent and the highest dragon control rate generally at 62 percent. The problem with this tactic is that dragons often scale in usefulness, while the effect of controlling vision around the raptor camp can have a more immediate impact.

For example, as soon as Ambition went to take raptors, they could be contested by SK Telecom T1 — as long as Faker had the push. This created a skirmish opportunity that SKT could capitalize upon with more information and then use any victory to secure other objectives like blue buff, a roam to another part of the map, dragon or more vision.

Warding priority for Crown changed abruptly throughout the series. In Game 2, Crown used wards to specifically target Faker, placing his trinket in the mid lane early. Despite a better laning matchup allowing Crown to be able to push out the wave more often, and therefore keep better sight of Faker, he invested wards close to the first-tier enemy turret to keep better track of when Faker might leave lane. At about four minutes in, Crown invested his trinket ward specifically into getting sight of Faker while he backed to delay his buy and return to lane, interrupting the channel twice.

As the games continued to progress, Crown started using his first trinket on the entrance to his side of the jungle with the raptor camp. In Game 3, he showed this adaptation at three minutes and 40 seconds with a pink ward, which allowed Samsung to maintain more control over their own jungle. However, even with the lane pushed against him, Faker showed how much he valued control of that particular jungle entrance by leaving lane to kill Crown’s pink ward, and though Crown placed wards to prepare for contesting SKT’s raptors invade, he didn’t sync up well enough or often enough with Ambition to do so until Game 5.

Slight changes to warding accompanied Crown’s ability to use a stronger pushing matchup and roam more efficiently. In Game 1, he mistimed a roam attempt with the push on top wave, managed to make his way to attempt to help Lee "CuVee" Seongjin, but with no wave under turret, they couldn’t manage a dive. Crown simply returned to lane, having lost farm. In Game 2 at around 12 minutes, however, Crown managed to take advantage of Faker’s back and then path down to the bottom lane for dive.

Faker, on his way back to lane, however, spotted Crown’s movement and immediately reacted to match. He was able to trade for the dive and even up the kill count. Part of what makes Faker stand out against Crown especially is simply his lack of hesitation in roams. Later on in Game 2 after 14 minutes, Crown started to head to roam bottom, perhaps to capitalize on Bang with low health after he dueled with Park "Ruler" Jaehyuk. Faker reacted by heading to the top lane, and when he and Bengi cornered Ambition, Crown simply stopped and returned to lane. He either thought better of his chances bottom or thought he might be able to impact top lane reactively.

This mainly represents a difference in experience and map understanding between the two. Not all of Faker’s roams are without fault or mistake (an instance where Faker’s gank is countered by Ambition’s Kindred ult in Game 2 comes to mind), but the efficiency of his movements rarely reflect wasted time or changing his mind midway through.

Not all of Crown’s do either. One major difference between Crown’s and Faker’s roams actually came through exerting fake pressure. In Game 5 especially, Crown gave up a lot of control in the mid lane simply by leaving lane, but if he would path toward the top or bottom lane temporarily, it gave either Ruler and Jo “CoreJJ” Yongin or CuVee an opportunity to push more aggressively as SKT’s side laners would play more conservatively, expecting a possible gank. That and the side lane swap and allocation of resources to the top side ended up allowing Samsung to secure both Tier 1 side lane turrets first, but SKT responded by placing more players in the mid lane and shoving. This opened the map for them much more and allowed them to correct the disadvantage quickly.

In general, if Faker will roam from his lane, he won’t do so just to secure fake pressure. He usually goes to ward, to synch up with and support Bengi, or to gank, but his absence mid regardless gives his side lanes a go signal. Fake pressure can be extremely useful, but it isn’t as useful if it’s only for the sake of itself. By being able to both leave lane and force the enemy team to play more conservatively in the side lanes coupled with other actions like warding, or supporting the jungler, Faker can achieve more with his roams and doesn’t have to lose as much control in the mid lane.

After mid turret fell, Crown continued to change his habits between games. In Games 1 and 2, he went to free lanes to farm up for later team fights, but in Game 3 he started to change his strategy for matching split pushers or Faker. This gave him more presence and prevented SKT from pushing to Samsung’s base effectively.

Then, in teamfights, Crown displayed probably his best assets, especially as Viktor. His ability to position Gravity Field to kite the correct target appears very intuitive, and his targeting with Death Ray is precise. Part of the reason this series was a joy to watch was because both Crown and Faker played their best champions expertly in fights. In fact, a major reason SKT lost Game 4, even after controlling much of early game, was because Faker missed key Shockwaves or got caught too far forward in a teamfight by Crown or Ambition, who would flash aggressively after him.

The respect granted to Crown in Game 5 didn’t go unnoticed. SKT’s first rotation Viktor on red side immediately signaled they had finally decided to deny Crown his best pick. Though they had beaten it once already, they deemed it enough of a threat to force Crown off it. Given Crown’s less stellar performance on Cassiopeia in teamfights, however, it may have been more of a challenge, which Crown ultimately failed to meet.

The "I solo killed Faker club" has grown increasingly less exclusive with players like Fabien "Febiven" Diepstraten and Li "xiaohu" Yuanhao making the list. Almost every region has a golden boy who has done it, and LCK features several examples. Faker’s sometimes rash forward positioning and cocky all-ins have made it a common occurrence. It’s still brandished as an achievement, but with experience mechanisms, creep control, etc, a solo kill doesn’t even guarantee out-leveling or out-farming your opponent, let alone having a remotely significant impact on the game.

"Even if I lose [to Faker and SKT]," Crown said after advancing to the semifinal, "I will identify room for improvement. I just want to face the best."

Crown is far from a bad player. He demonstrated an ability to create a strong control point against teams like Cloud9, H2k-Gaming and some of the giants in his group. His flashes and targeting in teamfights on Viktor are strong, and he’s ballsy enough to go for the big play. But Faker still outclassed him in every way that mattered.

Crown himself highlighted Faker’s major strength. "Faker in each of his movements, he does a lot of psychological pressure and stuff."

When people talk about Faker, they don’t discuss flashy solo kills. They don’t mention him crushing his opponents 1v1 by sheer intimidation and force of will. SKT is a team that chips away and looks for moments to grasp onto, identifies efficient movements.

It seems almost absurd, then, that solo killing Faker is ever considered a metric of greatness. Faker isn’t a perfect player. It wouldn’t be difficult to list mistakes he made in the final series. But he’s the best at maximizing the efficiency of small decisions.

To Crown’s credit, he learned with every game. He adapted his approach to not just targeting Faker, but to limiting Faker’s movement and leaving lane more often, to adjusting his ward placement and making better small decisions. His ability to grow throughout the series was impressive, so it’s no wonder he desperately sought the opportunity to play the best.

Solo kill or no solo kill, it’s laughable to suggest Crown was close to outperforming Faker this time, but the biggest gap between them is clearly experience. That’s something he has time to gain.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.