By fluke or fan vote, Intel Extreme Masters Oakland is the Unicorns of Love’s third consecutive annual appearance at a California IEM event. Their first, the memorable debut of the Unicorns on the international stage, accompanied a shocking upset over the newly rebuilt Team SoloMid, the flagship team of North America. The Unicorns of Love had yet to play a League of Legends Championship Series game, but the surprising Twisted Fate jungle pick in conjunction with Tristan “PowerOfEvil” Schrage’s Syndra fascination unseated TSM.
The Unicorns of Love and Team SoloMid could collide again at IEM Oakland this week. But two years have dragged on since then, neither team has retained the same form and Brazilian team INTZ e-Sports could still play spoiler to the rematch. While conceptually, many still think of Unicorns of Love as a cheese-based team with unexpected picks and illogical map movements, their identity has drifted more and more towards a team that simply plays standard lanes in the early game well. Though Team SoloMid will again likely be favored, UoL have a deceptively high chance of defeating both INTZ and Team SoloMid in their rebuilding phase again to reprise an IEM final appearance.
With a less than impressive overall regular season record of 6-5-7 (W-T-L), the Unicorns of Love slipped into the EU LCS Summer playoffs in sixth place: the final seed. Though a significant gap in points separated them from Team Vitality, the first non-playoffs team with a score of 3-9-6, the roster had spent the summer playing as if thrown together. Top laner Tamás “Vizicsacsi” Kiss and Zdravets “Hylissang” Galabov stretched the roster thinly across the map. This was the best they could do after the unexpected loss of Danil “Diamondprox” Reshetnikov and the myriad jungler transitions that spring.
As the split wore, however, the Unicorns took advantage of a straightforward formula that allowed them to propel Vizicsacsi ahead, at times at the expense of other members of the team. He averaged a CS@10 lead of 7.4 (second in the region) and was in the top five among gold differences at 10. In the playoffs, the presence of a consistent strong lane would give Unicorns a straightforward side of the map to play around in standard lanes and allow them to experiment with more strategies that took advantage of that style of play.
Though the Unicorns of Love only placed sixth, they ran through Giants, the third seed, convincingly, and managed to take games from all three World Championship EU LCS representatives in the playoffs and the gauntlet. Unicorns dragged Splyce in particular to five games in the Regional Qualifier, ending the overall summer split with a positive win rate of 5-4 against EU’s second place team.
Without PowerOfEvil, the Unicorns have sought a more consistent carry in Vizicsacsi, and this has redefined their playstyle from surprising with an attempt at shock-and-awe to a support network that’s more steady and strategy-oriented in its execution. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its flaws, as macro play has never been a consistent strength for the Unicorns.
A lot of the Unicorns’ previous creativity has been funneled into surprising opponents in the top lane. UoL were the first European team to bring out the post-Level 5 lane swap in the opening game of the EU LCS playoffs following the removal of lane swaps. With both bottom and top lane ahead, Hylissang and Kim "Veritas" Kyoungmin took the opportunity to back after Giants Gaming’s duo recalled and headed to the top lane. Vizicsacsi’s control of the wave allowed them to slip into the brush undetected and then emerge to dive the top turret along with Kang “Move” Minsu. The game snowballed from there.
This isn’t the only time Unicorns of Love’s duo has roamed top. They’re known to frequently use their opponent laners’ backs or concede their Tier 1 turret to roam to the top side and assist their jungler. The fact that losing Tier 1 turret is now less advisable with first brick gold just means they have to play more intelligently when they do leave lane, but so far strategies like the one they used against Giants in their first game have been abundant.
In the Unicorns’ first game against Giants in the Regional Qualifier, the team instead relied upon Fabian “Exileh” Schubert to push the wave on Karma and head top for blue buff contest. In this way, the Unicorns of Love demonstrated that one of their major advantages is a willingness to identify and pressure top lane advantages.
With Veritas able to play utility picks and follow Hylissang’s lead, the more fiddly parts of the Unicorns’ strategy come through in their jungle and mid lane synergy. Move receives a lot of criticism for inefficient pathing, but much of this came from an imperfect relationship with his mid laner. While other teams began to funnel more lane farm into their jungler or play more to push and control the mid lane while their jungler looked to invade or farm, Exileh preferred to farm champions over minions.
Throughout the split, Exileh was especially noted for his daring with more solo kills than other mid laners in the league, but had a habit of falling behind in CS and gold. Exileh liked to take more risks in aiming to kill his lane opponent or roaming top, rather than keeping mid lane pushed and allowing Move to control the jungle. This forced Move to either spend a lot of time hovering ineffectually around Exileh’s lane or farm the top side of the jungle near Vizicsacsi almost exclusively.
The relationship between the mid laner and the jungler is obviously a two-way street. Not all blame can be placed on either Exileh or Move alone for this deficiency. Over the course of the World Championship, it became clear that a lot of the meta focused on mid lane control and denying raptor camp for vision, which was something that the Unicorns of Love never quite seemed to grasp. Instead, Exileh and Move merely took a risky approach to shutting down the enemy mid laner. If it worked, they could transition pressure to blue or red buff on the top side of the map. If not, both players fell behind their counterparts.
This approach could be ultimately disastrous for the Unicorns of Love against TSM or even INTZ. INTZ’s strategy relies upon providing mid support from Gabriel "tockers" Claumann for jungler Gabriel “Revolta” Henud. Team SoloMid’s jungle and mid synergy between Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen and Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg was initially a struggle for the team earlier this year, but is now a mainstay. If Svenskeren blind invades, Bjergsen will often have control of the lane, making it harder to punish Svenskeren without Bjergsen coming to his aid.
As a result, the jungle and mid synergy will be the largest hurdle for the Unicorns should they want to make a deep run. All three bottom lanes on the top side of the bracket will trade off as weaknesses or reliable sources of utility, but rarely as focal points. Top is liable to create pressure for Unicorns, as Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell will lack the same support as Vizicsacsi, and the system of top side pressure from INTZ isn’t as established. Mid and jungle is where it breaks down.
Statistically, Exileh has the champion pool to make him competitive on Patch 6.21 at IEM Oakland with Viktor, Ryze and Vladimir being among his most played for the split. Viktor’s re-emergence as a popular choice makes it much harder to ban him out than it was in the EU LCS summer playoffs or regionals. All these champions also have a strong ability to push the lane in many matchups as well.
What it will come down to is whether or not Move will have room to breathe. The team’s strength in getting Vizicsacsi ahead will give Move all the tools to take advantage of invade opportunities on the top side. If the Unicorns can draft strong lane matchups in top and mid lane, then Move only has to follow the cues of his solo laners.
INTZ, the Unicorns of Love and Team SoloMid are on a difficult side of the bracket, but the Unicorns’ ability to identify how to manipulate the top side of the map early makes them a foe with a more reliable strategy than they had two years ago at IEM San Jose. Team SoloMid will retain their core in mid laner Bregsen and jungler Svenskeren while INTZ haven’t changed their roster at all. The Unicorns’ time together as an established squad will only get them so far. It’s down to Move and Exileh to make their third California IEM as strong as the first.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.