There is only a single Bo5 separating us from the Champions Korea Spring 2015 Grand Finals, as the second-seeded SK Telecom T1 are set to face-off against quarterfinal winners CJ Entus. The first round was more of a walkover than a playoff match for CJ, as they picked apart the Jin Air Green Wings in three straight games to move into the organization's first Champions semifinal match since CJ Entus Blaze lost to NaJin White Shield in a climactic ace match in the last Champions Korea Spring tournament.
This is a match between two teams who had distinct reigns atop of Korea in the past. CJ Entus, which absorbed the MiG/Azubu legacies, were the top team in the early days of professional League in Korea. Madlife, Ambition and Shy were the elite back in those days and are still around today, using their experience to try and have one more go at a title run. SK Telecom T1 came in after CJ's era, as Faker rose from the amateur ranks to lead SKT to various Champions Korea titles as well as a world championship during the 2013 season.
Samsung would take the forefront in 2014, but as we all know by now, all 10 of the starting players from White and Blue scattered across various teams in China. With the leaders of the pack heading to China instead of defending their title — even the Champions Summer 2014 winners, KT Arrows, lost their best players KaKAO and Rookie to Invictus Gaming — it has left an opening for a new team to take Korea's top spot.
The GE Tigers will be watching to see which old guard will meet them in the Grand Finals. Will the more-family-than-team CJ Entus make their first finals appearance in two years, or will Faker will remind people who the best player in the world is?
SK Telecom T1: The Red Army Rises
Whenever you talk about SK Telecom T1, you have to start with Faker. The most innovative, creative, strong, diverse, whatever you want to call him — he's the best player in the world. There is a lot of talk of Deft or Pawn in China, or that Easyhoon has been catching up to the two-time Champions Korea MVP, but Faker is still Faker. Every time he steps onto the Rift, the other team have him circled atop of their scouting report and prepare to face him. Whether you hold him down or try to camp him, he is a player that can make gold out of coal and will make a mile of a mere inch.
This season saw SK Telecom T1 mostly play on cruise control. They knew they were one of the Top 3 teams in Korea and they played like it. The first half of the season saw them sleepwalk through the competition and put on performances that were out of character and looked flat out lazy. Possibly their most discouraging loss, the 0-2 defeat to CJ Entus at the start of the season, was the perfect example; they slogged around the map, warded improperly, and gave up simple objectives due to not doing things they routinely did thousands of times before.
The second half of the season was more of the SKT you expected after their nonchalant dominance in the preseason. They didn't drop a single match to any of the seven teams in Champions, even taking care of the GE Tigers in the season finale to give themselves an extra boost into the playoffs. No matter the skill level of the team around him, if a decent team can play smart around Faker, they will always have a chance to win with him as their ace.
Speaking off supporting casts around Faker, the biggest name we have to touch on is T0M, their new jungler who has come into his rookie season as more of a test drive than being thrown into deep waters. Instead of outright replacing the veteran and former world champion Bengi, T0M has been used sparingly, only playing four games, all of which he has won.
The biggest difference between T0M and Bengi is their style of play. Bengi is not the most mechanically gifted jungler; Faker's right-hand man for the entirety of his professional career, he has always been more the eyes and ears for his mid-lane star. When SKT were at their peak, Bengi's job was to grab Mobility Boots early, head off across the map, and make sure that they knew where everyone was at every part of the game. He didn't need to make big plays, carry, or even be the best jungler on the map. As long as he got his wards down and patrolled the mid lane to make sure Faker was safe, he was doing his job.
T0M is a different beast all-together. Although the current meta is less about bruisers and big playmaking champions in the jungle, it's always good to have a player on the roster who can make people react to them than always being the reactionary one. While T0M is a player that can put pressure on, wreck havoc in the opposite jungle camps and make people react to him, Bengi is more of a player that observes the map and moves according to how his opponent moves.
Outside of those two positions, SKT have beefed up their other roles since last season. Marin has come into his own this season, shaking off an inconsistent first year as a pro on the SK Telecom T1 S squad. Down in the bottom lane, Bang and Wolf (with sometimes Piccaboo) are a duo that can keep even with the opposition, and SKT's AD Carry can be a carry threat if needed or when Easyhoon is playing as a more control/zoning mid laner instead of Faker.
With the tools that Faker has around him, this should be his season to reclaim the throne that was kept from him the past two seasons by the Samsung organization. In his now almost two year career, only Samsung have eliminated him from a regional competition. With Samsung's old stars off in China and only two Bo5's left before becoming the first player in Korean history with three titles (Bengi would join him), now is the time for the winners of seven in a row to reassert their championship swagger in the playoffs.
CJ Entus: The Old Blues Stand Strong
You want to count them out, but they just won't let you. Jin Air came into the quarterfinals not looking their best. They still resembled a team who didn't know how to work with the new game patches, and their series wasn't even close. It wasn't a matter of Jin Air being behind the times and CJ holding that over them. CJ Entus looked near flawless in their execution to the new meta, their players acclimating to the new times and looking the strongest they've been all season.
The new meta lets Ambition, a player with the least amount of recent experience in the jungle than any of the current starters, fall back on tanks and less skill-shot/playmaking intensive champions. This allows Ambition to then be able to use his experience and knowing of the map to place wards, peel for the team and disengage if needed on champions like Gragas.
The other big plus in this meta is the reemergence of Shy. Mainly a tank/utility player for the past few seasons, the new Teleport/Smite meta allows him to play Hecarim, one of the few carry-oriented champions he's done well on, and Shyvanna, a champion he has experience with and can do major damage in the back-lines with a correct flanking engagement.
Coco has also been a big benefactor of the changes, showing that the newly retooled Ziggs is playable and still extremely annoying to play against with his zoning capabilities and unexpected burst damage. With Ziggs thrown into his champion pool, it makes it harder for teams to ban out Coco like they did during the middle of the season. Vladimir, Orianna, Ziggs, LeBlanc, or even the possibility of playing a marksmen in the middle lane, Coco's biggest weakness of being predictable with a small champion diversity has been taken care of.
CJ's bottom lane have also been better as of late. The addition of Nautilus to his list of champions gives Madlife another playmaking skill-shot champion to use, and Space has felt more comfortable lately playing a variety of champions from late-game hyper carries, mid-game power spoke Trinity Force users, or even picking up Urgot and being a more beefy competent to the composition. It's still far too early to say they're a top two bottom lane in Korea, but they've come a long way from people groaning at the proposition of Space and Madlife continuing to be a duo when the preseason started.
They're still underdogs against SKT in the semi-finals, but nowhere near as big as they were a week or two ago. The new patch has worked to perfection for CJ Entus, alining their player's strengths with the champions that are currently being played. The worry of predictable champion pools are now, for the time being, out of the way and the team has shown the ability to play different compositions the past few weeks.
Whichever team makes the Grand Finals, the upstart GE Tigers will be in for a fight with a vengeful king looking to regain their prominence in a nation they once called their kingdom.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports. He thinks T0M is a cool jungler and would invite him to go out and play soccer sometime if he wanted. You can follow him on Twitter.