With or Without U: the obstacles in Snake's LPL climb

by theScore Staff May 27 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of Robert Paul / TheScore eSports

As Snake is currently the only team in China with a positive record against Edward Gaming (3-1), this weekend's best-of-two series comes with heavy tension. Snake's acquisition of U, one of Edward Gaming's first rookies, almost makes this matchup as anticipated as the release of Jurassic World.

In the 2014 LPL Spring Split, two rookie mid laners earned the split's most MVP points. Xiyang proved the be a near one-trick pony, but U adapted and made himself essential to Edward Gaming throughout 2014, earning him the Insight on Esports award for Eastern Rookie of the Year.

After his Week 1 performance with Snake, U has the highest MVP score of any player in the LPL, the highest Kill-to-Death ratio of any player who has played all of his team’s games, and an overall 80 percent kill participation. He also played four different champions in four games for Snake, who currently sit in a four-way tie for first place in LPL.

The fact that U has already played four different champions for Snake when their previous mid laner, BAKA, only played two champions in 44 percent of Snake’s games in the LPL, Demacia Cup, and International Esports Tournament is significant. U has also functioned as a carry threat in late game team fights for Snake, a role BAKA only ever fulfilled on Xerath.

Champions Played in LPL, Demacia Cup, IEM Shenzhen, and IET (>5 Games play for either U or BAKA)

Note: Data does not include LSPL, where BAKA had a strong record on Ziggs.

Champion U's Record BAKA's record
Syndra 14-3 NA
Lulu 13-3 3-2
Ziggs 13-5 NA
Orianna 11-9 3-2
Zilean 5-0 NA
Leblanc 5-3 NA
Kassadin 4-2 0-2
Xerath NA 12-3
Azir 1-0 9-7
Viktor NA 4-2

Despite U looking like a general upgrade over BAKA in champion pool and impact, this is only the first step for Snake. Their opponents, WE and Unlimited Potential, weren’t expected to be of the highest calibre going into this split. Though U plays more champions, Snake has fallen prey to their previous failings: inactivity in the early game and over-reliance on team fighting to win.

In this first week, Snake averaged a game time of 43 minutes and 38 seconds, which is five minutes longer than the average overall game time in LPL of 36 minutes and 14 seconds. Their average gold lead of only 375 gold overall at 20 minutes is reflective of a tendency to fall behind. Despite winning three of their four games so far, Snake hasn’t picked up a single first dragon.

Long games aren’t a new thing for Snake; they played around kRYST4L as a scaling Kalista and Kog’Maw hyper carry in 2015 Spring. Nor are they new for U, whose Ziggs plays was a calling card of Edward Gaming’s first LPL split. His ability to stall out games and use precise ultimates late game to win fights from as much as ten thousand gold behind compensated for the team's early growing pains.

Snake 2015 Spring mid laner, BAKA

Despite Snake’s late game side control and comeback ability in team fights, their early game pressure is completely lacking, and Flandre’s performance in lane swaps is crippling.

U’s more self-sufficient positioning as the primary carry has made Flandre’s weaknesses as an underfed front liner in these situations less of an issue until he catches up. The chain CC from Emperor’s Divide, Glacial Prison, and GNAR! to end Snake’s Game 1 against WE was truly a sight to behold.

Snake is not without early game gains. In two of their matches they picked up First Blood, albeit later than when either Unlimited Potential or WE did in the other game of the two series. In addition, the Sivir pick has been good for Snake, as they've gotten the first tower in every game they've selected it.

Sivir is a new look for kRYST4L

kRYST4L looked lost on Urgot, and if he can’t pick up Sivir, Snake may struggle to snag early structures and buffer their gold income. Like BAKA, kRYST4L’s champion pool has been a target in the past.

Success as an afterthought turret pusher instead of a primary carry on Sivir has added a new dimension to Snake’s play, but the question becomes what Snake will default to and how their play will look in the event that Sivir is banned. With an overall 16-4 Sivir Win-Loss record in the LPL, it won't be an easy champion to grab every game.

This iteration of Snake is new. U told fans Snake played together for a total of four days before the new split. He had accompanied Edward Gaming to Florida for the Mid-Season Invitational victory and on their vacation following the event. They still have a lot of work to do.

So far, Snake have shown an understanding that they can’t play the same game they did in the spring split. They need to change. Moving kRYST4L into a more supportive role while U takes center stage seems to be their desired direction—at least for now.

U has said previously that he doesn’t necessarily like to play mages, and his solo queue history reflects that. His top three most played picks this season are assassins: Leblanc, Ahri, Kassadin. Lately he’s logged the standard Cassiopeia and Azir games, but both Leblanc and Ahri remain in his top five recently played champions. Though the Kassadin didn’t work out completely due to catches and focus from Unlimited Potential, U still had strong comeback team fights, and his Leblanc game was one of his most impressive.

Even on assassins, U’s playstyle is conservative. The closest stylistic comparators for U to players in other League of Legends regions are Froggen and Easyhoon. He minimizes risk in the early game, usually picking up CS leads, but rarely pressures his advantage until mid game. This style of play makes him incredibly consistent, but means Snake needs to find another player to take risks.

Snake's young top lane shotcaller, Flandre

In the League of Legends Secondary Pro League, Flandre was usually the player to have an earlier impact for Snake. His potential as a strong 1v1 laner drew jungle pressure and dropped early towers. He then made a nuisance of himself split-pushing. Flandre looks uncomfortable early in LPL. He falls behind in lane swaps, he doesn’t make daring plays in 1v1s.

If Snake insists on putting kRYST4L in a more supportive role, less emphasis will be on Flandre simply farming and playing safe to build himself as a front line. He can take more risks. Snake’s first game against Unlimited Potential was the game where Snake had the largest lead over their opponent at 20 minutes: 2300 gold. Flandre played Irelia and received more jungle pressure. He dove Loong, his top lane opposite, and roamed.

When Flandre started engagements this weekend, U followed him up without hesitation. U’s playstyle works best with someone else taking the lead, which was why he had strong synergy with Koro1 in 2014. Even from behind, Edward Gaming’s top and mid lane duo could decimate team fights. Koro1 corralled damage threats, and U smashed health bars will a massive area of effect ultimates. NaMei slaughtered the stragglers.

Koro1, U's last top lane partner in team fights

In 2014, Koro1 could seldom have a strong early game impact as he consistently lost his lane. Flandre has shown he can have powerful performances on the right champions, and the key to fixing Snake’s early game woes might be to involve him more and give him more bruiser or carry champions over straight tanks like Maokai.

As Flandre is also Snake’s primary shotcaller, earlier involvement might also force him to think about how the overall game plays out. For having a young shotcaller, Snake’s late game minion control and split-pushing is surprisingly mature. If Flandre can be more active, not just in his play and risk-taking, but also in establishing an early game plan for the team, Snake will improve.

The Flandre-Beast combination was devastating at the start of Spring. Flandre needs to turn on the greed and demand attention to give Beast direction in the changing meta, as he's looked lost of late.

Naturally, none of this means Snake should completely abandon their old playstyle. For as much criticism as I’ve given kRYST4L in the past, his willingness to pick up Sivir again shows he can adjust.

kRYST4L's lane aggression still needs to be modulated, especially his Spell Shield use in the set against WE. In team phase, he got caught out less, though it was still noticeable. He died the same amount of times as U, despite U often being the primary target focus of the opposing team.

If kRYST4L can position better and learn to stand back, it will also improve his hyper carry play, and Snake can transition between a variety of compositions with ease. Developing a new style of play and fixating on it won’t fix their problems; it will simply give enemy teams a new counter-strategy to perfect, and Snake will finish with another disappointing playoffs placement.

Snake’s real test comes this weekend. It’s true that in both best-of-twos where Snake faced EDG in Spring, they weren’t sporting their MSI Championship roster of Koro1, Clearlove, pawN, Deft, and Meiko, but with EDG “developing talent,” they’re unlikely to do so this time around.

Both teams come into this week having lost a game each. Vici Gaming showed that, running both AmazingJ and pawN, Edward Gaming breaks down where both they and Snake have historically excelled: in the team fight.

AmazingJ, Edward Gaming's new "young talent"

Vici Gaming managed to take a game off EDG as one of the worst team fighting teams in LPL by exploiting EDG’s scattered focus fire. Snake has a strong chance. AmazingJ mostly functions as a split-pushing menace, but Snake has shown that their second best quality in their current iteration is side wave control in the late game.

Against Edward Gaming, it generally comes down to the jungle. If Snake’s weak early game can survive Clearlove’s oppression, they can beat EDG in the late game. That's a big if.

U struggled on Edward Gaming's bench when comparing himself to pawN. He’s even made the statement on stream that he feels he’s too far below pawN’s level to even ask him for help to improve his game. Going into this split, U said he questioned his ability to carry Snake to victory, but the wins they’ve achieved so far gave him confidence.

pawN, Edward Gaming's 2015 mid laner

U and pawN are the yin and yang of mid lane. While U prefers to minimize early game risk by amassing small leads, pawN does his best to over-extend and play fearlessly to throw his opponent off guard. pawN is akin to a reckless, sometimes senseless version of Faker, while U plays like a less polished Chinese Easyhoon. Despite the losses at MSI, Easyhoon always bested pawN in lane, capitalizing on his somewhat erratic exchanges.

Theoretically, U's playstyle can counter both Clearlove's zealous map pressure an pawN's over-extensions. The only thing blocking U from making this an even fight is insecurity. If Snake can beat down or split even with Edward Gaming again, that should give them a sense that they’re headed in the right direction and bolster their new mid laner's confidence.

When U approached the Edward Gaming manager, San Shao, about his desire to play again as a starter, San Shao said he resolved to “help [U] find the best team, even if it increased the difficulty of EDG’s victory.” This weekend, viewers will get a gauge of how big of an acquisition U can be for Snake.

If Snake comes up against a full strength Edward Gaming with Koro1 and pawN, Snake are likely to crumble. Snake has a ways to go to mend errors in drafting and work out the kinks in their new roster, but they have the right pieces. To make it work, U has to find his swagger, and Flandre needs to find his head before laning phase ends. Snake has a shot, not just at attending the World Championships for China, but at taking Edward Gaming’s throne.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for the Score eSports. She's not sure how far Snake can go this split. You can follow her on Twitter.