The 2017 Mid-Season Invitational’s play-in stage has finished, and with that we have our six teams that will move on to the main stage.
A supposed formality turned heart attack, North America’s Team SoloMid came out of the play-in stage with more questions than answers, while LMS’ Flash Wolves ripped through the competition. But are they really top dogs? They will face even tougher competition during the main event, including the World Champions SK Telecom T1.
6 - GIGABYTE Marines
Players to watch: Trần "Optimus" Văn Cường, Đỗ "Levi" Duy Khánh
The underdog darlings for MSI are the GPLs GIGABYTE Marines, who made it after a tough play-in and devastatingly close series versus TSM. That series alone is a microcosm of what we should expect from this squad, which is rife with playmakers and bloodthirstiness.
In their play-in against other smaller regions and TSM, the Marines stormed out to a 60 percent first blood rate off the back of Levi and Optimus’ roams. They then converted this into solid experience leads which opened up the map at later points instead of gunning for first tower gold.
The team has laning issues that end up hurting this early game playstyle, however, providing a failure to launch situation if they can't jump out to those early leads. Combine that with what will be a top lane liability in Phan "Stark" Công Minh, who has only shown prowess on Gragas, and it will be hard for the Marines to muster up the consistency to take down every team. A few wins, as evidenced in the TSM series, are not unlikely, as their drafts aside from the top lane have been fairly creative and nuanced.
5 - Team SoloMid
Players to watch: Kevin "Haunzter" Yarnell, Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg
Team SoloMid's eyebrow-raising performance in the second round of the Play-In stage has even some die-hard fans of North America's perennial champions concerned — and with good reason.
TSM come into the event with a lot to prove. They were rated highly coming into Worlds 2016, but fell short of the community's expectations and their own, failing narrowly to escape the group stage. They will look to improve on this performance at MSI, but appear arguably weaker than they did ahead of that event.
Champion pool-wise, TSM prefer the same set of champions as their peers in the LPL and LMS. All three teams have Nautilus, Lee Sin, Syndra and Ashe as their most played in the top, jungle, mid and AD carry roles respectively. Having to trade and contest for these still viable picks will alter TSM’s strategy considerably. On the bright side, Bjergsen and Hauntzer outperformed their gold share with high damage numbers across the split, and will be looked to as priority lanes if the team is to attempt a push into the bracket stage of the tournament.
Some inconsistent play in the bot lane has yielded question marks in my mind. In the same breath as I can conjure great collapses by Jason "WildTurtle" Tran and Vincent "Biofrost" Wang in the NA LCS Spring Split Finals, I can also recall bad laning which led to a 2v2 death against the GIGABYTE Marines. WildTurtle also struggles in teamfighting scenarios more generally, with comically low kill participation (59.1 percent in the regular season) and damage per minute in the NA LCS (435, which is lower than anyone but Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black during his one-series stint as ADC).
These domestic shortfalls will be tested even more thoroughly against the international competition at MSI, and their bottom lane in particular will need to hold their own versus great duos such as G2, Flash Wolves or SKT's bottom lane.
Beyond that, TSM has serious vision issues, being the team with the worst efficiency on control wards and wards cleared of all teams at this stage of the event. Solving these issues makes them a more likely candidate than they currently are to make the bracket stage.
4 - G2 Esports
Players to watch: Luka "Perkz" Perković, Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen
G2 have found their way to another international competition, and their second MSI in a row. The continued kings of Europe come into the tournament after a season of domestic dominance, but amid continuing questions about their ability to perform internationally. Putting aside vacation memes that came in the wake of their dismal 2016 MSI performance, G2 also struggled at Worlds and failed to make it out of the group stage, despite their best efforts to improve through the summer split. Given the way they choose to allocate resources and hold their leads with less risky calls, I expect those struggles to continue.
G2 has an Ki "Expect" Dae-han problem. The Korean import is routinely asked to play carries such as Rumble, Camille and Gangplank but doesn’t get a big gold lead or jungle pressure to accommodate that ask. This may work in a region left wanting for top lane talent outside of the top teams, but can be a weakness in international competition.
Perkz on the other hand, looks to be in peak condition, putting up great numbers and seemingly coming to form just as we enter this stage of the tournament and G2’s dynasty. Domestically, he has coined the term "lane kingdom" for his suffocating laning play, which has often drawn jungle pressure. Of course, this is not a tournament lacking in mid lane talent, and he will certainly be tested against the likes of Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, Bjergsen and Huang "Maple" Yi-Tang.
Alfonso "Mithy" Rodríguez remains a question mark coming into this tournament, as the veteran support is coming off of an inconsistent spring split borne from a rocky first-half. He had the second-highest death percentage of all EU LCS supports across the split, which can speak to his problems with positioning during teamfights and warding excursions. Some teams at MSI, especially World Elite and Flash Wolves, may be able to track his roaming, and punish G2 with unneeded deaths.
G2 ran over Europe in spectacular fashion. The team had dominating laning phases which led to gold advantages at 15 minutes that were only trumped by Flash Wolves' own domestic run. However, they did not snowball these gold leads quickly, opting instead for an approach that yielded high vision and neutral objective efficacy before closing out games in a lower-risk fashion. G2, for all intents and purposes, are the most cautious team with a lead at this tournament, which could be their undoing as late-game slip-ups can be more punishing with a smaller lead.
3 - World Elite
Players to watch: Jim "Mystic" Seong-jun, Xiang "Condi" Ren-Jie
MSI's LPL representatives earned their tickets to Brazil off the back of incredibly composed and measured play in their LPL finals series against Royal Never Give Up where they stalled out early game deficits with mid-game teamfights and late-game macro decision making. This is exemplified by the way they stretch the map in Game 3 of their spring split finals match, effectively negating their inhibitor advantage.
This World Elite is far from the team some Western fans may be most recently acquainted with that lost to TSM at IEM Katowice 2015. Far from the constant aggression that we come to expect from China's best teams, World Elite has crafted themselves as a team that holds their own in the early game, hoping to scale up and outmaneuver their opponents around the map. They rarely use Condi to influence the mid lane, and hope that the side lane pressure creates enough advantages to get their clever macro started.
The team plays well around their AD carry Mystic, either through capitalizing on his utility for measured and calculated plays or utilizing him as the primary carry in a Kog’Maw, Caitlyn or Ezreal composition.
Top laner Ke "957" Chang-Yu can both serve as a primary tank for his team, or aggressively splitpush and flank on picks such as Kled or Fizz. His teleport usage is absolutely phenomenal as he synchronizes well with his team and collapses onto overstretched enemies to great effect. Condi also has unique early game pathing, memorizing standard ward locations and timings, and dodging them for good invade pressure, especially versus pushing lanes that leave themselves exposed.
Where World Elite are likely to falter is through the mid lane. Though Su "xiye" Han-Wei has a handle on a wide variety of champions, his blind pick (which is likely to happen on blue side) will create situations that will challenge WE's plan to use Condi to alleviate pushing side lane pressure early on. The likes of Faker, and even Perkz or Bjergsen could present difficulties for the mid laner.
2 - Flash Wolves
Players to watch: Hu "SwordArt" Shuo-Jie, Huang "Maple" Yi-Tang
The Flash Wolves are going into this tournament with a lot of hype. They're coming off a recent first-place finish at IEM Katowice and were nearly undefeated in the LMS spring split with a roster that featured new AD carry Lu "Betty" Yu-Hung, who shined in his role as a utility-focused carry for mid laner Maple and jungler Hung "Karsa" Hau-Hsuan. Together with SwordArt, who has mastered the ranged support meta through his high damage percentage, KDA (11.5 in the regular season), and warding stats, the Flash Wolves bring a potent bottom lane that will be difficult to supplant. But despite their domestic dominance, they may struggle against the the likes the of Bae "Bang" Jun-sik and Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan.
The Flash Wolves have great laning phases, complimented by a 50 percent first blood rate and a 75 percent first tower rate across all competitions in 2017. Their potential to snowball a game is nothing to scoff at either, as they have the highest added gold differential per minute, the highest percentage of wards cleared and the highest rate of secured neutral objectives per game of all teams in the tournament. Most of these stats can be attributed to unparalleled dominance of the LMS, but that does not mean they should be discounted.
If the Flash Wolves are to be ousted, it’ll come from drafting early game pressure picks that threaten first tower and an ability to control the map. Plays that capitalize on that are especially good against the Flash Wolves. Just look at their series against H2K at IEM Katowice for some proof.
1 - SK Telecom T1
Players to watch: Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, Bae "Bang" Jun-sik
When people say this is SKT’s tournament to lose, it’s with good reason. The world champions are coming into this event in fine form, taking the LCK Spring Split with a decisive 3-0 victory over their domestic rivals KT Rolster in the playoff finals.
In that series, SKT had to overcome early laning deficits which they managed to turn around through strong mid-game plays. They also have a strong understanding of their power troughs, backing off from potential fights to take much smaller losses than other teams would be forced into. The late game is where SKT truly shine, as they are able to have very efficient vision around neutral objectives and play teamfights better than any other team in the entire world.
They also boast the world's strongest mid laner in Faker, whose spring performance is among his strongest, and the world's top AD carry in Bang, who has gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu in a dominant domestic season.
If other teams have a chance to make SKT bleed, it will be through the jungle. Han "Peanut" Wang-ho has had a particularly small jungle pool and has been over-aggressive in his pathing, opting for early invades and ganks to set laners ahead in exchange for his own farm and experience. Against junglers such as Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen, this may be a powerful tactic, but not so much versus Karsa, who can create similar levels of aggression and keep pressure on the mid lane.
And don't underestimate the LCK's unique distaste for Ivern. As a region, the Green Father has only been picked once across the whole spring split. If other teams can pick up Ivern and use the champion to neutralize Peanut’s aggression, they may be able to scale into the mid and late game with enough utility to outlast SKT during the phases in which they’re considered the undisputed best in the world.
SKT 3-1 G2
FW 3-2 WE
SKT 3-1 FW
Gabriel Zoltan-Johan is a news editor at theScore esports and the head analyst for the University of Toronto League of Legends team. His (public) musings can be found on his Twitter.