Here we are with the semifinals, friends. Two of the playoff teams are no surprise: China's EDward Gaming and South Korea's SK Telecom T1, the consensus co-favorites entering the tournament, the two Asian titans of their regions. EDward Gaming have won almost everything in China for the past two years, having recently completed their three-peat in the LPL, topping LGD in the Grand Finals. SK Telecom T1 didn't have the best 2014, losing constantly to the eventual world champions Samsung White, but have arguably the best pedigree of any team at international events — winning the 2013 World Championship over Royal Club, and last year's All Stars event in Paris over another elite Chinese team, OMG, in the finals 3-0.
The lone non-Asian team in the playoffs, Fnatic, came into the tournament with maybe the most questions lingering over them. Steelback, their AD carry, is expected to leave the team after the tournament, leaving the door open for former starter Rekkles to return back to his original squad for the Summer season of EU LCS. Along with roster rumors, Fnatic didn't have the cleanest road to the Mid-Season Invitational, having a drawn-out fist fight with the rookie Unicorns of Love in their region's Grand Finals. Their offense was world-class, newcomer Huni emerging as one of the world's best carry top-laners. Their defense and overall team cohesion was a different story; throwing away winnable games and leads through miscommunication and being reckless with their attack.
The final squad have been the story of the tournament so far. Taiwan's AHQ went 3-2 in the group stages, with a good showing against EDG, and against SK Telecom T1 they held a lead for the majority of the game before crumbling in the late stages. AHQ went through a string of upsets in the postseason of the LMS to get into the Mid-Season Invitational, beating the IEM Katowice semifinalists Yoe Flash Wolves in the Grand Finals to win their region. Similar to Fnatic, they play on their attacking skills, putting pressure on the opposing team from the get-go and relying on their roaming ace in the middle lane, Westdoor, to get their bottom lane going with well-timed ganks.
SK Telecom T1 vs. EDward Gaming is the expected final. The past four Riot-produced major international tournaments have all led up to a Korea vs. China final, the Korean team coming out on top in each, only dropping a single map through those four finals. But standing in the way of that final are two offensive dynamos who will go down swinging: Europe's enigmatic and in-your-face Fnatic, the last remaining hope for Western teams at MSI; and AHQ, a team that feels they deserve the title of an Asian titan right alongside China and Korea's top two teams.
#1 SK Telecom T1 (5-0) vs. #4 Fnatic (2-3)
The first thing that jumps out at you when you look at this match is their records: SKT T1 with a spotless record through the first two days, and Fnatic below .500 with their only wins coming against the two teams already knocked out from the tournament. This is a time where the records don't tell the entire story; SKT were on the verge of losing to Fnatic in the two team's group stage match-up, the Korean champions needing another late-game comeback with their Lulu/Lucian composition to take the win from Fnatic.
SKT's tournament started off with an easy day one, taking three games where they weren't really tested. Even against the team they were expected to face in the finals, EDward Gaming, a weak drafting phase from the Chinese team gave SKT enough weapons to blow them out in their group stage match. Friday was an entirely different tale, SKT needing back-to-back recoveries in the late-game to keep their perfect record alive against Fnatic and AHQ.
The aspect that has been keeping SKT in these games, even when falling behind 10-to-15 kills and 6k+ gold is their control over the dragon. An objective that has changed its value in the game during the 2015 season, the dragon can be an often overlooked target on the map. Instead of giving around 1k gold like it did in 2014, it now gives a meager amount of gold to the person who gets the last hit and a stacking buff that helps the team controlling the objective grow stronger as the game goes along. Without the instant gratification of the gold, the early buffs of dragon aren't game-changing for a lot of teams. Many teams will simply give up the first dragon or two to gain vision on the map, or trade the pressure in the bottom lane by moving up top to grab a tower in response.
SKT are a team that takes pride in their crusades on the dragon, picking up the winged beast as one of their top priorities. With their tenacious warding and vision control, anytime a key player on the other map goes for a recall or a wave of players move to the top side of the map, the Korean kings are right there to slash down the dragon, grab the buff, and work towards the all-important fifth stack that will put them into a position where, even if they're down a ridiculous amount of gold, can still win the game.
Europe's Fnatic enjoy to fight. It isn't as refined or classy as SKT's sublime coverage of the map with vision or their heroic monster slaying, but that's what they do best and they know it. While their style is predictable, they aren't afraid to mix up their champion pools, the main carries in Huni and Febiven both showing during the tournament that they can be taken out of their comfort zone and still rack up the kills.
When Fnatic can sync together and play a complete, minute one-to-Nexus destroying game, they are one of the scariest teams in the world. Their offensive talent is world-class, right up there with the very best teams in either Korea or Asia. The potential to be the West's best chance at winning Worlds is certainly there for Fnatic, but the thing they need most is time. Huni's language has improved throughout the season, and their five-on-five team fights have gotten to the point where they can stand toe-to-toe with the best. That used to be an area where they were disjointed, most of their fights breaking out into small skirmish groups they could win through individual skill, and now they're working more like a squad.
But, as we saw against SKT in their group stage match, they are still a greenhorn group. They have three rookies on the squad, and Reignover, a former jungler for Incredible Miracle in Korea, is playing his first season in Europe. That means Yellowstar is really the only player with experience in the region and on the international stage. He's led the team well, and they were one team fight win against SKT from upsetting the tournament favorites. However, as has happened before in the regular season and playoffs of EU LCS, Fnatic can devolve into looking more like a solo queue team of strangers at times when things aren't going their way.
Fnatic have the talent to beat SK Telecom T1 in a single game, but this is a Bo5, a situation where SKT's substitutions with Faker and Easyhoon will give them the advantage of picking the tempo in how they want to play. If they beat one of SKT's world-class players in the mid lane, they'll then most likely have to beat the other, doing something that has been almost impossible for teams to accomplish in the last two months.
The greatest obstacle separating these two teams, outside of SKT having possibly two of the top three mid-laners on the planet, is time. Another season under their belt and a possible switch of AD carries with Rekkles, and this Fnatic team could be a major contender when Worlds rolls around. Alas, they don't have the luxury of jumping into the future five months to see how Fnatic's communication and synergy will be at that point, and SK Telecom T1 are ready to win in the past, present, and the future.
#2 EDWard Gaming (4-1) vs. #3 ahq e-Sports Club (3-2)
EDward Gaming need to win this series to confirm that they can win a major international tournament against the world's best. They have thoroughly conquered China, but their big chance to impress at the 2014 World Championships came to an abrupt end when they lost to StarHorn Royal Club in a disappointing quarterfinals exit.
AHQ need to win to validate their team, their league, and their home country. Taiwan has always been the picked on younger brother of the five major regions, usually pushed to the side and treated like a slightly better version of the Wildcard champions. Even with their World Championship win in 2012 with the Taipei Assassins, their international results haven't lived up to that miracle run since, usually falling out in the first round of international tournaments if the other four premiere regions are involved.
This is a chance to make it clear that Taiwan, the only one of the five regions to get two seeds at the World Championships instead of three, that they are not going to take any more of the neglect from their peers. The Yoe Flash Wolves put up a big fight at the IEM World Championships, losing to the winners Team SoloMid in the semifinals by a score of 1-2. Now AHQ can one-up even that top four appearance with a win against EDward Gaming, putting their region in their highest profile Grand Final since TPA beat Azubu Frost in the 2012 World Grand Finals.
It's the classic David vs. Goliath storyline. EDG win almost everything in China. They have an all-star lineup with world-class players at every position. They will be, win or lose at MSI, one of the favorites to hoist the Summoner's Cup in Europe at the end of the year. AHQ are from a region that most casual fans from the Western scene don't even recognize when talking about the East, always focusing on either the Chinese or Korean teams. This is their chance to punch Goliath in the face, bringing pride back to their region, and showing that instead of a secondary Wildcard spot at Worlds, LMS deserves to send three teams to Worlds just like the rest of the four other power regions.
If AHQ try to play this series standard, they will more than likely get swept. At each position, EDG seemingly have the edge. Even AHQ's ace Westdoor has the daunting position of having to go up against defending world champion mid-laner Pawn. Thankfully for AHQ, they aren't going to play slowly and hope that somehow EDG make mistakes in the early game. They're going to stand in front of the Chinese giants, hit them in the face, and see where the brawling lands them.
Bottom lane will be the big point of contention in this match. Ahq have made it a routine to try and get their bottom lane going, using Ziv's teleport, Mountain's ganking potential, or Westdoor's roaming champions to get the job down. With the constant pressure they put down in the bottom lane, AHQ have been able to pick up kills against tandems that are mechanically stronger than them. When they get that snowball rolling, An, their AD carry, can start becoming a factor, and assist Westdoor in being the main threats on the team.
Deft knows this quite well, AHQ picking on the pairing of him and Meiko in the first game of the tournament for both teams. The Taiwanese team was able to get the first few kills of the game and get an early lead against EDward Gaming, but it didn't last long. AHQ tried to force team fights around the dragon pit, opting to continue and contest the objective even if EDG were able to poke down one of their players. These ill-timed acts of over-aggression played into EDG's hands, the Chinese team displaying their top tier team fighting and taking a strangle hold on the game after a good start from AHQ.
This is a series where if AHQ can somehow pull off the upset, it's going to happen in one of the most exciting League of Legends series of all-time. The only way they can win is how they've played all tournament: never relenting aggression, constantly throwing punches with the hope that the 431st punch will be the one that knocks you out. EDG, as long as they don't have mishaps in their pick/ban phase, and play champions that they are comfortable with, will not be taken out in a chess match.
AHQ need to pick up the chess board, flip it over, and hit EDG in the face with it. Outside of their own region's faith, they were the team that was seated alongside the Wildcard squad to not make it out of the group stages. They're from the region that gets the least amount of spots at Worlds compared to the other four. They are the constantly tormented and forgotten sibling of the five divisions, and this is AHQ's moment to bring Taiwan back to the forefront.
EDG are most likely going to win, and it might very well be a 3-0 sweep in dominating fashion, but don't expect AHQ to leave Tallahassee without trying to take parts of EDG with them.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports. He says the worst pizza topping is anchovies — fact.