A common criticism of SK Gaming suggested that they could not win games without winning their laning phase. Today's Spring Finals showed that this criticism can be applied to many teams in Europe, except they don't go for a laning phase win so much as an early skirmish game win.
With perhaps the exception of Game 1 (and even then), it was simple to tell which team would win based on the draft phase. Which team had more mid game power spike champions? Which team had more solo lane damage threats? Which team had the better "wombo combo"?
Which champions are better at stealing Baron?
Game 1's draft blocked out Hylissang's main champions, but he came prepared with a backup Braum selection. Beyond that, Fnatic made late game scaling solo lane choices with Vladimir and Kassadin. Arguably, Kalista has a good two item mid game power spike, but Steelback isn't one of the main pillars of the team.
Praise was levied upon PowerofEvil's Varus selection, as it was able to do a considerable amount of poke damage. Two bigger factors contributed to the successes of Unicorns of Love in early dragon fights:
1) The drafting of Gragas and Maokai could effectively zone the Kassadin and lock him down for shredding in the early and mid game.
2) Why would Fnatic opt into early dragon fights with a Vladimir and a Kassadin picked for their team's main carries?
Beyond this, Fnatic did pick up smart tower trades early in exchange for group dives, but more experience gains from kills on Vardags meant he could use his Sivir ultimate earlier. As a result, it was easy for the Unicorns to get a positional advantage when Fnatic went for an ill-advised early desperation Baron.
There wasn't much logic to Game 1. Fnatic opted into their same early game skirmish strategy without paying respect to their composition. Trying to force a 20 minute Baron instead of waiting it out didn't help.
In Game 2, the Unicorns grabbed a composition with long ramp up time while Fnatic went for a triple threat composition with mid game power spikes. Rumble, Twisted Fate, and Sivir all scream early skirmishes and dragon fights, while Ziggs, Jinx, and Sion beg for late game team fights. UoL still fell for the skirmishes because they apparently cannot help themselves.
It took Fnatic a long time to close out Game 2, but they won after several failed dives.
Going by our established gauge of which-team-has-more-mid-game-damage-threats, Game 3 is the hardest to call. That's when matchups and compositional cohesion matter, and Sivir and Syndra are out of place on a team together.
Fnatic repeated the same formula of a triple threat composition. While Syndra theoretically counters Ahri, Febiven got the better of the matchup by roaming for skirmishes. Huni's Hecarim denied Irelia ideal trades by standing on creeps. Both lanes got ahead, and Lucian could properly pressure objectives in the mid game.
In terms of execution, Udyr might not always be a cheese pick, but Fnatic expected the Level 2 gank of which the Unicorns have been so fond, and he fell behind.
I likened the Unicorns' Game 4 draft to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave." The Unicorns have been relying on off-picks to win with inconsistent results. In Game 4, they picked a more standard composition around Sivir and hard engage that allowed Vizicsacsi, Kikis, and Hylissang to get into position to set up Shockwaves for Power of Evil. For once, there was no cheese, and many of the picks had strong synergy.
At this point, the Unicorns were only just beginning to look into the fire light in the cave. It burned their eyes after staring at shadows for so long, as they lacked good late game damage outside Orianna. This isn't always uncommon in their drafts, as they like going all-in on Power of Evil's carry potential.
It wasn't going to get to the late game anyway, much to Fnatic's dismay, as they had once again made the mistake of picking heavy scaling selections on their carry players. A misplayed blue buff invade set Huni behind on Shyvana, despite his Smite pickup that should have allowed him to outfarm Vizicsacsi. Febiven once again went for Kassadin, and Steelback found himself a Jinx pick. By the law of the EU early lane win and skirmish "meta," Fnatic were bound to lose.
In Game 5, Fnatic could properly punish the Unicorns' lanes again. The went back to Rumble and Ahri and denied the Unicorns their Sivir. Fnatic could now get the positional advantage early on, and their strong laners forced early skirmishes. Once again, with a massive lead it didn't matter how long it took Fnatic to close. Even when PowerofEvil set up perfect Shockwaves in the late game, it wasn't to be.
Winners of the Unicorns of Love vs. Fnatic finals didn't have to have a perfect draft; they just had to be able to pressure lane advantages and win out in early game dragon fights and skirmishes. This is an entirely different approach to last Summer's European LCS winners, Alliance, who choose to extend laning phase and fight with late game picks. Today, it appeared that the reason Elements had no hope of winning this Spring Split was that they weren't playing the right game.
The reality is that the late game scaling comeback approach should still work. In all five games, the team with more late game picks chose to opt into early skirmishes or allowed themselves to get caught out with poor vision. Despite Fnatic, in theory, having the best warding in the European LCS, that vision is rarely on Huni's side of the map, leaving him vulnerable to roaming and ganking squads.
Huni's success is the key to Fnatic's. On his best picks, he can turn 2v1s, and low vision is less of a problem. On late game scaling picks like Vladimir, he requires better cover. It was rare Fnatic could make a worthy trade on the opposite side of the map, even if the Unicorns sent four members to dive Huni.
It was easy to tell which team would win based upon their number of mid game power champions. This isn't because mid game power spike champions are inherently better, but because the teams in the finals today don't seem to have more than one speed. You go for the trades as early as you can, even if your champions outscale theirs.
Part of the problem is that three of four semifinalist teams have "janitorial" AD carries. The top three finishing EU LCS teams are helmed by strong solo laners, and the best AD carry in the EU LCS, Forg1ven, plays for the laning phase. Hyper scaling compositions have success in other regions because post 40 minutes is where you maximize sustained damage, where Jinx and Kog'Maw can capitalize on the zoning power of beefy tanks.
Players like Ryu, Febiven, and Power of Evil want to carry games with high burst damage. Power of Evil's poke picks are an attempt at adapting. Increased sustained damage will help carry late game. Febiven and Ryu still find their best games on assassins like Ahri and Leblanc with early pressure. Ryu's Kassadin was a work of art, and an exception to the rule that gave H2k comeback plays yesterday. Teams build around their early play potential, and scaling comps fall by the wayside.
The larger offender, though, is the lack of vision and ignorance of power spikes. PowerofEvil can play more stalling poke champions, but if the Unicorns of Love still seemingly opt into every early and mid game fight, it won't matter. The gold lead will become too large, especially if the Unicorns keep taking disadvantaged fights into the late game instead of biding their time to get a good pick.
If Fnatic figures how to transcend this win condition or pick for it more reliably, they might still have success at the Mid Season Invitational. Until then, this is how Europe plays their game. The EUvolution is still in progress.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for the Score eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.