Heading into the second half of the NA LCS Summer regular season, three teams came into the weekend with major questions following them. Two of them being the only teams to ever actually win the NA LCS, Team SoloMid and Cloud9, who've faced off in the past four Grand Finals. The third was Team Dragon Knights, the exact reverse of the two longstanding titans, participating in their first LCS season and currently in last place with a 1-10 record.
TDK went through the entire first half of the season at a disadvantage, needing to play subs for the first nine games of the split due to visa issues with their Korean imports Emperor and Ninja. After finally getting their work visas worked out in the middle of last week's games, the real Dragon Knights played for the first time all season.
A team that did the little things and could hang around with a majority of the league until late-game, those qualities carried over when their main threats of Emperor and Ninja were slid into the starting lineup. TDK won their LCS game in franchise history off the back of their Korean duo's strong debuts, beating out Dignitas, a team that came into their duel with the winless Dragons on a hot streak.
One game down and a long road ahead of them if they wanted any chance of making a miracle run at the playoffs, all eyes were on if they were cold carry the momentum to begin the greatest run in LCS history.
For TSM, the team that TDK would face on Saturday, it was also a week of change. WildTurtle, their second longest tenured starting player, was benched at least for the first game of the week, his poor-quality play in the AD carry role the biggest problem for a team currently sitting in first place. TSM brought in Keith, the former Liquid player that challenged Piglet for a starting job last season before eventually losing out in the end to the former world champion.
And then there was C9. 3-7 and falling off the rails, their expected slow start had started to turn into a season-long disaster. The team wasn't clicking in coordination, the macro play they were famed for was gone, and the weeks were slipping away from grabbing one of the six spots into the playoffs. With the same stagnant play looking like it'd continue, a surprise occurred before the weekend's games: Meteos stepped down as the starting jungler of the team, forcing former captain Hai to put his retirement on hold to play at least two more times with his old team.
Three teams hoping that tweaks to their starting five could be the right move to make the second half of the season better than the first. Let's see how they fared on Saturday.
Team Dragon Knights: The Bloody, Unyielding Emperor
Crush everyone and make the playoffs.
This was Team Dragon Knights' mindset going into their first full weekend with their preseason starting five. They impressed with a solid win over the surging Dignitas the week before, but this was a step in competition. TSM, although going through their own roster issues, were still the top team in the league and the back-to-back defending champions.
For TDK to hold their own destiny in making the playoffs, they almost needed to run the table and go perfect in the second half of the season. Even if they had stolen one or two of those games they were close to taking with their subs, the whole season could have been different for the Dragons. Instead, Ninja and Emperor were given the task of climbing a mountain that has never been attempted before in LCS — at 1-9, don't look at just avoiding relegation, but look at grabbing the final playoff spot.
After their game against TSM, the Dragon Knights will now have to hope that a possible 8-10 record will be good enough to at least give them a chance for a playoff tiebreaker. The team continued on their good habits from the previous Sunday, TDK looking a lot more synchronized in their play and movements across the map with Ninja and Emperor in the lineup.
They prioritized their ace AD carry from the start, getting the former CJ Blaze member Emperor going against TSM's newcomer Keith in the bottom lane. Emperor picked up the first kill of the game and would continue putting the pressure on throughout the game on the fast tower pushing Tristana.
Dragon control was good. They rotated well whenever TSM tried to pick up objectives, forcing trades that kept them on an even keel compared to the champions. Keith was held down, putting Emperor into a nice spot to get ahead of lane and get into the mid-game with an advantage through items. Team Dragon Knights appeared to be a team that had been reborn under their changes to the roster.
Then Emperor Flashed into the enemy team and died. Ninja made similar jumpy plays, trying to go for a home run play and kill TSM's glass cannon Ezreal in the middle lane instead of playing for a safer and smarter play.
Their overzealous nature got them close to taking the win and putting them into a commanding lead through taking out Ezreal or other members of TSM's squad, but every time they would go in and chunk down their target to below 50 hit points before they got away through a Lustboy lantern or Dyrus shielding with his beefy Nautilus.
TDK, through all their aggressive overplays, were still in a position to turn things around at the end of game because of their dragon control throughout the game. They zoned and pressured well along with dragon pit, giving them four stacks and a chance at a fifth following a snipe of Bjergsen in the extreme late-game.
Unfortunately for TDK, the narrative of the entire game came back to reinforce itself at the end — they were close to taking the fifth and final stack of the dragon, but Santorin came up big in the clutch to steal it away and kill any hope they had of running the table in the second half of the season.
Verdict: They lost, which is extremely bad to their chances at playoffs. Still, by a simple eye test of how they've played against two top teams in consecutive games, it's hard to imagine a scenario where they started the season with their current roster and aren't in a playoff spot. They're a good team that has two aggressive carries who can make big plays to go along with the good team play the other three members provide.
Playoffs would be a miracle after this loss.
Avoiding auto-relegation? Enemy, Team 8, and Cloud9 should be worried facing the new TDK in coming weeks.
Team SoloMid: Keith Does Things
I'd like to breakdown Keith's debut with TSM and talk about if he will beat out WildTurtle for the starting AD carry job, but this was not the game to make any assumptions. He got focused heavily in the early game as the newbie and gave up first blood, and he was kept down for most of the game while all the focus for TSM damage wise went to Bjergsen's glass cannon Ezreal in the middle lane.
So, by the end of the game, Keith did what he was supposed to do. He sped up people. He cleared waves. He sped up more people. He threw some boomerangs and cleared some more waves. He didn't flash into the enemy team and put his team at a huge disadvantage in the late-game. He sped up some more people.
Check back tomorrow when TSM doesn't play a composition centered around an Ezreal that is doing 50,000 damage per minute. Hopefully then we can give a little insight on how Keith fits in the overall scheme of things for TSM.
Cloud9: Captain America Returns
The former NA champions were down and out. No direction or direct leadership. Their once great teamwork was an artifact of the past. Any hopes of making a third straight strip to the World Championships was all but dead.
But wait! There is Hai! He's riding a bald eagle, shot-calling him to land at the LCS studios to start as jungler after the sudden departure of Meteos. He is bringing hope back to Cloud9! On the fourth of July, America's Independence Day, an American hero returns to lead his team from the brink of death to make a historic climb from the bottom of the table to the top.
To New York City!
To Germany for the World Finals!
Roll credits to end the movie as "Silver Scrapes" plays in the background while Hai flies away on his magical bald eagle back to his secret house in the Tibetan mountains.
That would have been great, right? Hai coming back to bring his friends together when they needed him the most to turn the sinking ship around to make a run at Worlds.
The game even started that way, with Hai's calls in the early game having a bigger impact than C9 did all the first half of the season at the start of the game, even putting pressure on the mid lane to help Incarnati0n at the start. A mixture of Liquid incompetence in the early-game and some decisive calls pushed C9 to a commanding lead heading out of the laning phase, the former NA champions even getting the gold advantage up to 5,000.
This is where the movie started to become less Disney and more like HBO's Game of Thrones. The smart trades of giving up bodies for objectives started to work less and less, giving Liquid the opportunity to take Baron and catch out members of C9 in the mid-game to bring the game back to an even score.
The game started to spiral out of control, with Liquid putting the pressure on the newly thrown-together C9 and making them make quick team fight decisions. While the overall macro game of C9 was improved and brought back memories of the team from last year, their team fighting brought everything back to reality.
When C9 were getting thrown back to their base and were at a disadvantage, they turned on a dime instead and tried to counterattack, leading to even more needless deaths and adding to TL's lead. Those inopportune team fights were no longer trading a kill for an inhibitor like earlier in the game. Now C9 were losing three to four bodies and getting nothing back, with Liquid strolling from their killing spree to take another easy Baron.
Everything fell apart at the end for C9. With everyone dead around him, Hai watched as his return to C9 was greeted with a loss. The fairy tale ending was smashed into dust and the only thing left was a team wondering what else they can possibly do to somehow have a shot at the playoffs.
Verdict: If you give Hai a few more weeks and the team gets a better feel for team fighting, C9 could be a playoff-level team in terms of talent by season's end. But, as with TDK, it doesn't matter how talented you are by the end of the season if your record isn't good enough to get you there. Liquid balanced that act perfectly last season, Piglet and the rest of the team finally coming together in the ultimate games of the season to force a playoff tiebreak and sneak into the top six.
Unless Spirit or KaKAO magically fall from the sky into C9's lap, what other choice do they have but to hope that Hai's leadership can get them onto a path in the final weeks to contend for a playoff spot?
I'm going to go back to dreaming about my Disney-like movie where Hai and his bald eagle companion lead Cloud9 to the world championship over SKT T1 and Faker in Germany.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions. You can follow him on Twitter.