Flandre Uncut: Defining Snake's carry top laner

by theScore Staff Jul 2 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of LPL / LPL Screengrab

Knowing very little about the editing process for a new film, I can only assume a lot of trial and error goes into it. One masterpiece gets passed along with too many scenes, excessive violence toned down for a rating, awkward scenes that just don't fit — a great concept, but a little too free, a little too much.

Li "Flandre" Xuanjun's return to the carry role for Team Snake has looked a lot like an uncut film. In concept, it works well. Carry champions and off-the-wall picks have always suited Flandre more than the tank role he spent the majority of his time playing in the 2015 LPL Spring split. At the same time, there are definitely games that the viewing audience might be happy to do without as Flandre endeavors to find himself.

Unique as soon as he appeared in the scene, Flandre started playing semi-professionally at 14 on a team lead by popular streamer, 董小飒 (Dongxiaosa). The team, 皇德耀世 (Huang di yao shi), also played host to known names like OMG's Hu "Cloud" Zhenwei and Edward Gaming's Zhao "Blackloli" Zhiming.

Flandre only played as a substitute at the time, but slowly gained popularity as a friend of Dongxiaosa. When Lucian hit the Chinese servers, he latched onto the champion and became known to the community as "Saint Gun Bro." The nickname sticks, even now, and Flandre still plays Lucian frequently. He can sometimes be found playing his old trademark champion while duoing with Invictus Gaming's Song "Rookie" Eujin.

Popularity and versatility earned Flandre a spot as a top laner on Snake eSports after the organization started up in the fall of 2013. When Snake players disappeared from Chinese solo queue servers shortly after the team's formation, Dongxiaosa said that Flandre and the rest had been sent to Korea for a bootcamp. When the team returned in February 2014, they climbed the solo queue ladder quickly.

Snake won the Tencent Games Arena Grand Prix in June and qualified to compete in the 2014 LSPL Summer season. During the LSPL that summer, top lane carries like Wang "CarryMyTeam" Zujing, Fan "Skye" Qifang, and Shek "AmazingJ" Waiho populated the rift. Flandre stood out from all of them, but it was hard to say whether that meant he was better or he was worse.

Flandre's 2014 LSPL Summer Picks

Champion Games played Wins Win%
Fizz 4 4 100
Gragas 5 5 100
Jax 1 0 0
Jayce 2 2 100
Kayle 3 3 100
Lissandra 1 0 0
Lulu 5 5 100
Shyvana 2 1 50
Yasuo 7 4 57

Flandre's most played champion during Snake's LSPL run was Yasuo, with seven total games played, four wins, and several bans. Despite an uninspiring 2.31 KDA, Flandre remained committed to picking Yasuo and teams actually bothered to ban it. He also became known for his pre-rework top lane Fizz pick, which managed a 100% win rate.

The infamous targeted Yasuo ban

During Snake's time in the LSPL, Flandre would push his lane forward with help from jungler Liu "Reborn" Yuan. He served as a distraction while Yang "kRYST4L" Fan (then called F4n2fan) continued to farm up hyper carries for the late game.

As a result of the team's inability to impact the early game, Snake often won off a split push style from Flandre drawing pressure or by team fighting from behind, which gave them a unique advantage in the monotonous LSPL "win lane, win game" meta. They finished the season in second place, allowing them to autoqualify for LPL.

During his time in LSPL, Flandre continued to gain popularity. A few referred to him as the second coming of Liu "PDD" Mou. The comparison was not without its merits. PDD had a knack for selfish builds and playstyle, picking up straight damage on Renekton and drawing a lot of gold resources.

PDD's AD Carry on Invictus Gaming, Ge "Kid" Yan, once said he played so much Ezreal because it was a safe, low resource AD Carry he could use while PDD acquired most of the gold. PDD also experimented a bit, bringing forward the Hurricane Kayle build before western players in 2014 LPL Spring.

Between 2014 LSPL Summer and 2015 LPL Spring, Snake and Flandre in particular underwent a massive transformation. With the acquisition of Korean players and the increasing focus on bottom lane, Snake reshaped their identity. Most 2015 LPL Spring games featured kRYST4L as the primary or sole carry with Flandre playing a lot more tank champions.

2015 LPL Spring Champion Picks

Champion Kills Deaths Assists KDA Games Wins Win%
Dr. Mundo 2 8 23 3.13 2 1 50%
Gnar 20 34 63 2.44 9 4 44%
Hecarim 2 5 2 0.80 1 0 0%
Irelia 8 6 15 3.83 2 2 100%
Jarvan IV 3 4 33 9.00 2 2 100%
Kassadin 14 11 37 4.64 4 2 50%
Lulu 0 3 4 1.33 1 0 0%
Maokai 42 50 165 4.14 15 9 60%
Morgana 22 15 41 4.20 5 5 100%
Nautilus 0 3 3 1.00 1 0 0%
Rumble 18 24 39 2.38 7 4 57%
Shyvana 6 7 4 1.43 2 1 50%
Sion 3 4 4 1.75 1 0 0%
Trundle 9 8 36 5.63 4 4 100%

Despite a heavy emphasis on tanks, especially Maokai and Gnar, Snake still mainly succeeded when Flandre got ahead. kRYST4L's tendency to over-extend in team fights or the lane made the team reliant on a strong front line to zone or lock down threatening targets. While Juggermaw was popular, Snake went for more protect-the-Kog'Maw style compositions, sometimes with Flandre just playing a meat shield like Dr. Mundo.

Unfortunately, while Flandre could still play the top lane tank role competently, he didn't excel in the same way he did on carries. He struggled in lane swap scenarios, which had not been a problem for him before in LSPL. Teams like Vici Gaming found out how to ban champions against either mid laner Lu "BAKA" Fan or kRYST4L, then lane swap and target Flandre. Most of Snake's jungle pressure shifted bottom lane to compensate, but it never made up for their debilitated front line.

Flandre and Coach Jun

The strangest thing about this period was the handing over of the shotcalling reigns. During the LSPL, where Flandre arguably enjoyed an unparalleled amount of freedom in champion picks and how he wanted to play, Coa "CoLiN" Hai, the team's Chinese support, served as the shotcaller. Between LSPL and LPL, Korean support, Kwok "Ella" Hoonkwak replaced CoLiN, and Flandre took over the team's shotcalling duties.

Flandre effectively suppressed his own natural inclinations in favor of giving kRYST4L the lead. Given the limitations of their team and the meta, the approach had its benefits. BAKA would never serve as more than just a wave clear force. His most successful champion, Xerath, boasted a 12-3 Win-Loss rate, while his second most successful champion, Azir, hit 9-7: barely positive. Outside these picks, BAKA didn't stray very far, sometimes picking Lulu when nothing else worked.

Snake almost had to play their pigeon-holed style, and teams easily saw through it. If kRYST4L didn't get a hyper carry, their playstyle crumbled. If BAKA didn't get Lulu or Xerath, he couldn't stall out the game long enough for kRYST4L and Flandre to farm. Almost all of the team's gold resources went to kRYST4L, as he received the highest percentage of team gold of any player in LPL (though it's worth noting this number is slightly inflated since he is a Dravn player). Snake went all-in on kRYST4L, and lockdown junglers like Jarvan IV could demolish them.

Snake's %team gold by role relative to LPL role average

Despite placing second in the regular season, Snake barely inched past the seventh seed, King, in quarterfinals and finished fourth overall after getting closed on by both LGD Gaming and Invictus Gaming.

Something needed to change. The acquisition of Ceng "U" Long from Edward Gaming marked the LPL's single smartest offseason roster move. U excels at holding lane like BAKA, only he has a larger champion pool and opened up a variety of styles for Snake: so much so that they took a while to choose a direction.

With U's acquisition, Snake effectively had three options for creating team compositions around carry threats. Early in the split, they built around U's Leblanc, and he had games where he showed a new level of lane pressure and roaming he had not exhibited before on Edward Gaming.

If a team left Kalista open, they still built around kRYST4L. Acquiring substitute AD Carry, Tan "Martin" Qi seemingly put pressure on kRYST4L to develop a less greedy playstyle, and his self-sufficient positioning improved. He learned to play Sivir, and she's become a staple of Snake's draft phase.

Lately, despite the strengths of their mid laner and the developments of Snake's AD carry, the team has chosen to select Flandre as the primary focus of their compositions. He's enjoying unprecedented levels of freedom.

2015 LPL Summer champion picks

Champion Kills Deaths Assists KDA Games Wins Win%
Ekko 2 7 1 .43 1 0 0%
Fizz 9 9 32 4.56 3 2 66.67%
Gnar 10 5 33 8.6 4 3 75%
Hecarim 27 19 25 2.74 7 5 71.43%
Irelia 1 0 9 10 1 1 100%
Maokai 10 10 23 3.3 3 1 33.33%
Rumble 1 4 5 1.5 1 0 0%
Ryze 2 5 2 .8 1 0 0%
Yasuo 0 4 2 .5 1 0 0%

With Hecarim, Ekko, and Fizz picks, Flandre's champion pool looks to be more well-rounded this split. Most of these selections are departures from his playstyle last spring.

Setting up Flandre as the primary carry makes sense. U comes from a background playing as a low econ-style mid laner, so he only takes the limelight in the late game. In a feature video by Ryan Luwei, U said he thinks fans remember him from last year because during his long games, many spectators had to pee, and "it left an impression."

Snake's Summer lineup

As for kRYST4L, it's difficult for AD Carries to serve as singular damage sources in the current tank-heavy meta.

Flandre hasn't just transitioned to the limelight by default, but because it makes the most sense within the dynamic.

It seems to have gone to his head.

Flandre's history of an oppressive laning phase has set him up for this moment. In the current LPL climate, it's arguable that only he and Unlimited Potential's Zhu "Loong" Xiaolong exist as the primary top lane carries in the LPL. Unlimited Potential sits at tenth place with no hopes of climbing.

%Team gold by role relative to LPL role average

The last time a strong LPL team had a truly top-centric focus was Invictus Gaming and PDD. Even OMG's Gao "Gogoing" Diping would use his leads to invade with the jungler or gank mid lane for most of his career instead of having the team play around him. PDD was China's top lane carry.

Flandre has effectively taken the mantel over from heavy lane over-extensions to outlandish builds. One of Snake's greatest flaws in the early game is still their lane swap play. With picks like Sivir, they choose to lane swap often, taking the top lane turret before reverting the exchange.

Once Flandre returns top, the minion wave often isn't reset properly, and he over-extends to the second tier turret on the enemy's side of the map. Eager to engage, he dies. A lot. Often not even to jungle pressure, but from failing to anticipate how long he has to run back to his first tier turret in the event of a misplay.

That doesn't touch his build behaviors. In his Ekko game, Flandre opted for one of the worst builds of the split with a Magus enchantment into Trinity Force. A Magus enchantment isn't the worst idea. It provides the core statistics of a Morellonomicon, commonly built on AP Ekko, but it's synergy with Trinity Force is practically non-existent.

Playing Fizz against Royal Never Give Up, Flandre went for Magus Enchantment again. The only problem with the build is it's effectively short term, given it should be replaced with items that provide more in the late game. Flandre couldn't get lane leads due to over-extending again, making the item less effective, and Snake lost.

Given Snake's place in the standings, this behavior is encouraged more than discouraged. They sit in a three-way tie for third place with fewer games played than Master3. What gives Flandre leeway to continue to play with outlandish builds and over-extensions is Snake's generally imposing late game.

U has long been known as the mid who carries late. Showing up continuously in long games with powerful ultimates and team fight targeting gives him a unique quality that used to be Bae "dade" Eojin's main calling card. With dade's more inconsistent performances, U often stands out as the strongest safe late game team fighting mid in LPL.

Compounded with Snake's understanding of minion control and late game shotcalling, Snake win a lot of games from behind, especially if U is given one of his best champions like Azir.

Flandre has one of the strongest safety nets in the league, something PDD never had. Invictus Gaming's playstyle was very all-in, and if they didn't get the leads they wanted at 20 mintues, it wasn't uncommon for them to surrender.

At the moment, Flandre continues to add extra scenes to his 2015 LPL Summer film reel. Scenes like Magus Trinity Force Ekko one might like to forget. A look at his solo queue account histories, two of which sit in the top 11 of the Ionian ladder, reveals Teleport top lane Azir is a prominent feature. He's only just begun to experiment.

Seventeen-year-old Flandre has control of not just Snake's direction as the team's shotcaller, but an ability to redefine the top lane carry role in China. There's no shame in following in PDD's footsteps. PDD's innovations and selfish builds made him the great player he was. Yet if Flandre focuses less on the outrageous and more on core carry champions, he could become a force all his own. As Flandre's style matures, he could make a name for himself like only the great Korean top laners in history have seemed to manage.

Until then, Flandre's playstyle is in the editing process. How far Snake can go this summer will depend on what he leaves on the cutting room floor.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. She has high hopes and low expectations of Flandre's future. You can follow her on Twitter.