If there's one thing LPL and EU LCS have in common this Spring, it's an unexpected rise. Both China's Snake and Europe's Fnatic imported low profile Korean players and burst through their first weeks taking games off more stacked rosters. Edward Gaming fell 0-2 to Snake, while Elements lost their opening match to Fnatic.
Snake and Fnatic have come out of the gates with a set system that, while one-dimensional, is well-executed. The styles of these two teams vary outside top lane centric jungle pathing; Fnatic's play is more skirmish-based in design, while Snake goes for straight 5v5s. Their style of jungle pressure also differs.
One common line between these two teams is that both play around a positional weakness of one of their players in the late game. In Snake's case, their overzealous AD carry, kRYST4L, requires heavy peel, andf or Fnatic, Reignover's tendency to engage ahead of his team necessitates immediate followup and multiple all-in champions on a composition.
If a team rises quickly, it can often times point to one-dimensional styles. A new team finds something that just "works" without having to slog through and explore other options. It also means they may fall on their faces toward the end of the split if they fail to branch out.
One man's weakness is a team's strength
When a team is forced to play around a specific weakness of a single player, it isn't always a bad thing. Having a glaring flaw gives a team direction. They design compositions to compensate. As a result, teams with these flaws sometimes can advance through the standings and start to synergize quicker than squads with well-rounded rosters.
Reignover has a tendency to either go too far ahead of his team in a fight or miss an initial single target engage. As a result, top laner Huni or support YellowStar are Reignover's necessary accomplices in all his endeavors. YellowStar and Huni favor champions with hard engagements like Annie, Leona, Gnar, and Lissandra.
While Reignover does gank for Huni, it isn't the team's main focus. Fnatic is much more likely to force three man chain-cc skirmishes around top or mid lane than gank directly.
The skirmish approach breaks some unspoken European covenant of the lanining phase. Traditionally, the European LCS has been the league of the extended laning phase, and early and frequent skirmishes serve as an easy means of upsetting a team that might expect the enemy jungler to show up in the mid lane, but not a jungler with a support and top laner in tow. This element of surprise has given Fnatic quite a few early leads, and they continue to pressure these advantages in jungle choke points throughout their games.
Snake plays around their AD carry, kRYST4L. While kRYST4L has set many viewers in awe of his ability to snowball Draven, teams like OMG have exposed his tendency to misposition.
To compensate, Snake's jungler Beast runs zoning champions and focuses on ganking the top laner so that kRYST4L has the ultimate late game front line while Ella, the support, keeps bottom lane heavily warded. Ella continues to ward around kRYST4L's trajectory throughout the game. This allows Snake to set up fights in their favor and protects kRYST4L from ambushes or from wandering into fog of war.
BAKA's limited champion pool also aids in peeling and zoning for kRYST4L. Long range abilities form Xerath create an area of threat, while Azir's Emperor's Divide allows for superior terrain control.
Whether by design or coincidence, both Fnatic and Snake have crafted playstyles around central figures that compensate for their flaws. Their ability to make teams around these details has allowed them to effectively execute a style that has put them ahead of other teams in the early weeks.
Lack of dimension
No matter how well a team compensates for the flaws of its parts, if they continue to run the same style every game, their opponents will begin to analyze and poke holes. Both Snake and Fnatic have already had some of these flaws exposed in recent matches.
Against Unicorns of Love, Fnatic struggled with effective warding. Most European LCS teams, notably SK Gaming, have trouble using vision. Fnatic's YellowStar is known for placing a lot of wards every game with his roaming, but the only game in which he placed significantly more wards than his opposing support was in the game Fnatic lost to UoL. YellowStar placed 79 wards during the match, while Hylissang only placed 45. If one looks at a screenshot of the map, it's easy to see why that might happen.
Fnatic's heavy wards were all centralized in the top red side jungle at around 34 minutes when Unicorns of Love chose to take advantage of their move to the top lane to charge down mid. The play got UoL an inhibitor and started to swing the game against Fnatic.
For a team like SK Gaming, poor vision in the European LCS isn't as critical. The team operates off 5v5 team fights and moving to objectives in the open. Fnatic's skirmishing tendencies make vision crucial. For the most part, they have tried to use the jungle to set up catches. Reliance on the chain cc engage from YellowStar and Huni means Fnatic will try to continue to create surprises or flanks. In this case, it's easy for them to get caught or out-rotated if their vision isn't spread effectively around the map.
Vision isn't their only problem: when Fnatic isn't picking skirmishes and fighting 5v5, it's harder for them to get the element of surprise. In a fight toward the bottom inhibitor, UoL predicted the initial dive from Reignover, and the followup was prevented by a Solar Flare from Hylissang.
The bottom line is that Fnatic needs to take skirmishes or flank fights in areas with low vision. If their vision isn't optimized, teams have multiple options for getting the drop on them. For Fnatic, a quick fix that could at least carry them through Spring might be in diversifying ward placement, but that's much easier said than done.
While Fnatic compensates for their problems with flank style fighting, Snake operates on a much more traditional 5v5 scale. For a jungler who isn't his team's primary carry, any peel brought by a composition won't be used to protect him, so smaller scale and less chaotic fights are Reignover's friend. In kRYST4L's case, the more meat shields and zoning tools he has from his allies, the better he'll perform.
OMG abused the skirmish game to take advantage of kRYST4L's excited Rocket Jump decision-making and set him behind. He ended the game with eight deaths after repeated targeting.
Snake also suffers from champion pool strife as a by-product of their one-dimensional style; BAKA's Xerath play was oft-talked about, but after facing repeated bans, it became clear that his second tier pick, Azir, was just "good" by comparison. Vici Gaming's unique strategy of banning out Beast exposed a potential weakness in his play, as well, as without zoning champions available, kRYST4L did not have proper peel in team fighting. Beast's individual play on Olaf also proved underwhelming, as he mistimed his Ragnaroks or missed axes.
kRYST4L in LSPL only showed promise on hyper scaling carries like Kog'Maw as, if Flandre managed to bridge the team to late game with split-pushing, it got to the point that his high damage output allowed him to take opponents with him before he fell. In this regard, his champion pool has been limited to the likes of Kog'Maw, Draven, and more recently, Kalista.
Snake's champion pick limitations have allowed them to create team fights around kRYST4L, but as teams like Vici Gaming find effective ban strategies against them, Snake will have to adapt or lose momentum. With strong split-pushing roots, Snake might want to consider using their well-warded bottom lane as a distraction while they revert and test out more strategies around Flandre.
When an underdog succeeds or dupes a powerhouse roster, it's exciting to watch; it makes the early season interesting. But often, teams that rise quickly might do so simply because they can only really practice or perfect one style. In the case of both Fnatic and Snake, it seems that they play to compensate for weaknesses inherent to their teams — unless they find ways around their limitations, other teams will start to figure them out.
Karon Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports and loves Chinese League of Legends. Her middle name is Aron. Follow her on Twitter.