Not many have heard of Chinese jungler Wei "xiaoxi" Lisheng, and there’s no reason that they should have — other than the strong chance that he’ll be a World Champion by the year's end.
LGD Gaming only recently signed xiaoxi, as the young jungler made his first appearance in the team's starting lineup during Week 7 of the 2015 LPL Summer Season. xiaoxi is a solo queue prospect with no prior competitive experience, so his first handful of performances were underwhelming at best. Not to mention that LGD banned Gragas and early-picked Rek’Sai, raising doubts about his champion pool.
xiaoxi doesn’t rub shoulders with the LPL's jungling giants. He isn't Clearlove, Spirit, or KaKAO, and he’s likely worse than Vici Gaming’s amateur pickup, World6.
But xiaoxi is exactly what LGD Gaming needs.
Sitting in fifth place, seven points in the standings below first place Edward Gaming, LGD Gaming is China’s best chance to win Worlds. That means a lot more this year than it ever has. Given that Edward Gaming claimed the Mid-Season Invitational title over the now-dominant SK Telecom T1, China's teams look like realistic world stage threats for the first time since Team WE took home the trophy from IPL 5.
Not only do LPL teams have talented players and excel at team fighting, but more strategic thinking has started to overtake the top teams in the region. This was spurred on last year by LGD Gaming before their new Korean acquisitions were even a possibility.
Support player and captain Pyl is known by many in China as a strong strategic thinker. Both mid laner GODV and AD Carry imp cited Pyl’s leadership as a reason for turning down other high salary offers in favor of LGD. His effect on the team was made obvious in Week 1 of the LPL Summer Season when LGD simply failed to act while he recovered from his jaw surgery. The team didn’t seem capable of formulating a direction or purpose without Pyl’s shotcalling.
Last year, LGD Gaming lacked strong players at most of their positions. Star, Quan, and Styz could all be easily banned out. Upgrades to Star and Styz, 17 and XQ, didn't have the champion pool problems, but 17 was far from consistent and frequently lost lane or failed to have a team fight impact.
To win games, LGD had no choice but to avoid confrontation with more star-studded rosters like Edward Gaming, Star Horn Royal Club, and OMG. LGD relied on pushing out minion waves and moving around the map to take objective trades. In a region that's about fighting all the time, LGD snuck into the playoffs by taking a game from Edward Gaming that WE couldn't in the end. At Regionals, they almost upset OMG for the third seed, and it took a spectacular carry performance
s from Cool to keep them from the world stage.
With the acquisition of top laners Flame and Acorn and AD Carry imp, LGD Gaming limited their individual weaknesses this year to their jungler. They don’t have to avoid fights; they can win them. At least, that’s what it looked like in the 2015 LPL Spring finals against Edward Gaming that unexpectedly went to five games.
TBQ remains on LGD primarily as a one trick Lee Sin player. When he plays Lee Sin, he looks like a very different jungler; TBQ has successful early ganks, his initiates make sense at least 70% of the time. Yet without Lee Sin, he struggles with pathing, angle of approach in ganks, and is often caught out of position.
With the influx of jungle talent between 2014 and 2015, TBQ often looked like the LPL's worst jungler. Despite upgrades to the top lane and AD Carry and GODV truly flourishing into the monster many posited he would become, TBQ struggled. LGD had to find a way to play around him.
Whether by design or coincidence, every lane on LGD Gaming contains a player known and respected for his understanding of minion control. Flame’s 100 CS leads over the opposition resulted in a term known as the “Flame horizon.” His ability to manipulate the flow of minions in freezes to deny or trade with the enemy top laner was unparalleled in Korea and part of his success as what many consider the strongest carry top laner to ever play the game.
Acorn’s minion manipulation in the top lane worked better in lane swap or stalling scenarios. He could find advantages in 2v1s and had an aptitude for identifying when to freeze and when to push a wave depending on his team’s control of the game. Acorn pushed out waves to stall and give Blue more time for a comeback, and many have attributed this quality of Blue's play to him.
In 2014, GODV’s best known champions, like Diana, were good at pushing up and eking out creep leads. In some regards, he was similar to Flame, but used his skills to have greater map pressure rather than pick up a CS lead. He knew when to push a minion wave, time a gank, a roam, or when to farm creeps. He abused the Spirit of the Spectral Wraith strategy perhaps better than any mid laner in the world to get a massive creep lead by timing roams and farming out camps.
Pyl’s shot-calling in 2014 earned the team their trademark style. They shoved out waves before contesting objectives so that they could fight and fail more often. If an enemy team aced them, they still couldn't push for a tower because of the oppressive flow of minions against them from LGD’s side of the map. Despite winning their fair share of games in the regular season, LGD players in 2014 Summer died significantly more often than players on other top teams. They could get away with it because of their expert minion control.
If it’s an accident that all four of these players have come together on the same roster, it’s a lucky one. Throughout this year, LGD has put on some of the best shows internationally in terms of strategic play and map movement. LGD ran Qiao Gu and OMG ragged in Demacia Cup, even with GODV as an AD carry by using minion waves.
In a recent game against Snake, LGD ran Flame on Shen in the top lane, GODV on Diana with Teleport, and imp on Corki.
Most people watching that game were captivated by GODV’s masterful Diana play. He finished the game with a devastating 15/3/8 scoreline. The much more interesting element of the game from a macro strategy standpoint, however, came in their control of the lanes. After GODV reached level 6, the entire map shifted. imp went to hold mid lane against U’s Ezreal by himself, GODV transitioned top to combat Flandre’s Fizz, and Flame’s Shen contended with Snake’s duo lane in the bottom lane while Pyl roamed with xiaoxi.
This very complicated shift requires an understanding of how different lanes work and timing the minion flow so that each player doesn't fall behind in CS while he transitions. It’s something that would normally have to be practiced, and something that only a team like LGD with their understanding of minion control would be able to execute as seamlessly as they did without their players falling behind. The benefit of execution is in getting lane counters and keeping down both of Snake's solo laners.
The Teleport on Diana made the process possible since it prevented Flandre from having an advantage in dragon fights. When asked about it, GODV only said that he liked TP on Diana because he expected to be poked down or forced out of lane early, and TP would prevent him from losing CS.
In most regions in the current meta, the top teams are where they are because of objective control, and control of the minion waves is paramount in securing Barons and dragons. Fnatic have their advantage in large part for an ability to push out side waves to distract teams from Baron attempts. For LGD, that seems as simple as breathing.
So why isn’t LGD at the top of their league in China? It seems ridiculous to argue that LGD will win the World Championship when they aren't even at the top of their region.
A few problems have caused LGD to struggle this summer. A lack of or less-than-committed head coach for a better part of the season — BSYY has been pulled away as a result of personal reasons — has forced Acorn into splitting his attention between coaching related duties like analysis and practice. Despite LGD standing out as a team of intelligent players suited to the meta with a strong shotcaller, they lack leadership outside the game.
Pyl spent the offseason receiving surgery to correct his underbite. As a result, LGD were not prepared to hit the ground running heading into the season. Aside from Pyl, GODV has recently suffered a wrist injury and had to cut back on practice, and imp has had to correct his visa issues. The team has spent time shuffling their roster to practice with GODV as the AD carry during Demacia Cup.
Then there’s the sandbagging. Last split, LGD placed sixth in the regular season. They played with outlandish champion picks, ignored dragons, and picked unnecessary fights as if they were trying to lose games.
While there’s no direct evidence that LGD tried to lose their games, the format of this spring’s Playoffs encouraged LGD to try drop for a lower seed. Teams in the top side of the bracket would have to face the dominating Edward Gaming before the tournament finals. In placing sixth, LGD dropped to the second half of the bracket and plowed through OMG and Snake without losing a game to meet Edward Gaming in an intense five game set.
Now that the format has changed and seeding means starting later in a gauntlet style playoffs race, LGD have seemingly put more creativity and effort into their regular season games. They went up from seventh to fifth place in the weekend they also faced first place team Edward Gaming and dropped a series to them.
The set against Edward Gaming was a one-sided landslide. Invictus Gaming, despite all of their problems, had a much more convincing drawn out series against Edward Gaming with their Lulu dive compositions. LGD was simply demolished.
Edward Gaming’s winning games tend to be devastating regardless of the opposition. In the finals set, EDG showed they have a superior grasp of the draft. They understood what picks would allow them to get at LGD’s back line seamlessly. That wasn't the problem this series. This series, LGD lost in a string of misplays.
Perhaps the most notable happened early in Game 1. Edward Gaming invaded LGD’s jungle, and TBQ attempted to contest the invade nearly on his own. Smart dives and dragon setups from LGD allowed them to nearly get back into it within the first fifteen minutes, but the large lead and subsequent poor attempts at execution from Acorn, TBQ, and GODV ensured they fell further behind.
LGD’s success during the playoffs came when Cinderhulk was most in vogue. The best strategy as a jungler sometimes seemed to be farming out and waiting for a team fight. LGD perfected their lane swap technique and sent GODV on highly mobile picks or Orianna to influence the map alongside Pyl. In this way, GODV and Pyl took over the map pressure role, and LGD minimized TBQ’s early impact.
That isn't this meta game. Mid laners are often set in their lane on wave clear duty with champions like Varus and Viktor. Junglers are more important. A lot of early game play involves 2v2s in the top lane between junglers and top laners to snowball. TBQ struggles in this role. Dives don’t go off well. He’s outclassed in invades and often caught out by the giants in the league.
xiaoxi isn't one of these giants either, but LGD’s new jungler doesn't get caught out the way TBQ does. In a similar invade contest by Snake against LGD, xiaoxi simply relinquished the buff and continued farming elsewhere. He’s played several turret dives, and though not all of them were successful, he didn't die unnecessarily.
Then, xiaoxi played Gragas. Up until the second game against Master3 last weekend, LGD opted to ban Gragas and pick Rek’Sai or Evelynn early, making it seem like xiaoxi couldn't play the top jungle pick.
xiaoxi’s team fighting engagements, and his synergy with Pyl to back up his Flash initiates, made LGD’s team fighting look flawless. xiaoxi started several fights that snowballed LGD ahead around dragon on Gragas.
LGD has struggled with target prioritization and getting the right engagements in the past. GODV often makes outrageous plays to compensate, using his sweeper to clear vision before diving into the fray. He’s flashed under turret on Viktor to lay down damage, and he’s brought primary initiation on Varus.
For once in a long while, GODV wasn't the one making the hero plays. Their jungler was, and he didn't mistime his casks or fail his dives like TBQ often has in the past while playing Gragas.
xiaoxi’s pathing isn't something to write home about. Many other junglers in the league might consider it ultra safe, but LGD doesn't want a carry style jungler. A player like Spirit — at least how he currently plays — or Condi, occasionally offered up as a strong solution to LGD’s jungler deficit, would cause LGD to shift their already powerful dynamic centered around GODV and Pyl to accommodate a carry style jungler.
A safer jungler minimizes early losses and allows GODV to play to the meta and do what he’s always done best: control the wave. On Vici Gaming, GODV went for more lane-centric plays based on a farm advantage. He only started roaming more on LGD, which coincides with when he started having to compensate for a jungle deficiency in LPL.
The synergy displayed so far between Pyl and xiaoxi in initiations will give LGD a more solid foundation from which to build. Some of the strongest teams in the world have powerful synergy between their jungler and support: Gravity in North America, Fnatic and Origen in Europe, Edward Gaming in China, and SK Telecom T1 in Korea. It’s the one thing LGD’s been really lacking to tip the scales for them.
LGD’s road to the World Championship is far from perfect. They’re in line to make the Chinese Regional Qualifier with 200 circuit points and good standings to make the Summer Playoffs. Securing a spot from there shouldn't be a problem. The problem is the competition at Worlds. Two giants in particular stand in their way: SK Telecom T1 in Korea and Edward Gaming in China.
At the moment, SK Telecom’s strategy is somewhere between Korean rotation-based loss mitigation and more aggressive dive play. They've picked up a faster approach to leads lately by diving more often in a manner one might consider greedier than they have been in the past. Despite this, SKT, when behind, has shown they still rely on the other team to make a mistake. They shove out the waves, they ward the jungle, and the look for a pick and a comeback.
It’s fair to say that LGD’s vision control has declined slightly in games in which inexperienced jungler xiaoxi plays. GODV and Pyl will likely still have to compensate for his warding. GODV in the past has often used lane leads to buy more wards and control the jungle in TBQ's place. Until xiaoxi can catch up, the team will still, to an extent, be forced onto their old mid and support roaming style and will likely look to pick more assassins.
In vision control, SKT’s Bengi does have an advantage. Bengi might not play as safely as xiaoxi in terms of loss mitigation, but his vision control can rule the day.
The advantage for LGD will always come back to side wave control and a mid lane focus. While SKT drives a lot of gold toward MaRin, who has shown he struggles in the carry role without massive leads, LGD favors distributing gold toward GODV much more often. According to GODV, this is a team decision.
Despite picking up the lowest percentages of team gold of any other top laners in the league on average, Acorn and Flame have still had massive carry performances and crushed their opposition. Both players have grown stylistically in terms of flexibility in 2v1 and 1v1 situations since coming to China from Korea. They've contended well with tops like Flandre and Loong who receive much more gold distribution and jungler attention.
At the Mid-Season Invitational, MaRin struggled to have an impact against Koro1, while Acorn and Flame have matched up reasonably well against the Chinese Gnar player throughout the season. Similar to Flame and Acorn, Koro1 also thrives on low percentages of team gold. At the moment, top lane is perhaps the most important laning role in the game, and a self-sufficient player who can stand up to a gold-dependent carry like MaRin would work wonders.
Against SK Telecom T1, however, the largest threat will always be Faker. Yet GODV’s unpredictability is a quality he shares with one of Faker’s biggest foes, pawN.
GODV shares a lot of similarities with pawN in terms of playstyle, but he relies more on the flow of minions to make plays. He manipulates a lane advantage and goes for the dive. Perhaps this more calculated approach to pawN’s randomness will backfire. Perhaps Faker will expect it. He would certainly be the one to do so, but few mid laners in China do. A gold distribution centered around GODV and solid top laners used to playing with a deficit positions LGD as a team best equipped to deal with Faker, the unconquerable beast of SKT, if such a thing is even possible.
In a meta based around team play, it’s hard to discuss what impact direct matchups can have, but from the data, we see that Faker and MaRin have the highest CS and gold leads at 10 minutes in the league.
SKT does well when MaRin and Faker get ahead. KT showed on Wednesday that SKT flounders when this doesn't happen. LGD is a team with strong solo laners in a dynamic almost tailor-made to deal with SKT's strengths.
When it gets to later stages of the game, it’s hard to match LGD on the map. SKT would wait for a mistake in map play that might be less likely to come than it would against other teams. They’d have to win in vision, but then again, they usually do.
As for Edward Gaming, it’s fair to say that, though LGD is poised to do the best of any team in China against international teams with an emphasis on map play and minion control, Edward Gaming is most likely to take China in a head-to-head.
The strength and synergy between Meiko and Clearlove is terrifying. One of Meiko’s largest advantages, and perhaps the one area he has over Pyl, is his vision control from behind. According to the team, Meiko has a large amount of say when it comes to distributing vision. He tends to outward enemy supports when Edward Gaming falls behind, a feat few players are capable of accomplishing from a gold deficit.
Like SKT, Edward Gaming rarely falls behind when playing with their MSI lineup. Clearlove’s ability to play team fights and gank well in 2015 has given Edward Gaming a capacity to snowball greater than any other team in LPL. They average a 2.7 thousand gold lead at 20 minutes regardless of win or loss and a 4.3 thousand gold lead at 20 minutes in victories. Contesting something like that is difficult.
If any team can, though, it’s LGD. If any team can fall back on the stall game through minion control, LGD is uniquely positioned with the talent on their roster to deal with devastating snowballers. It’s just that in a direct confrontation with an LGD squad with TBQ, EDG have shown they outmatch LGD in drafting, team fighting, and a strong jungle and support core time and again.
If LGD has the time to integrate xiaoxi, the possibility that EDG will fall increases. In many cases during their Spring Playoffs finals, Edward Gaming overcame LGD in team fighting. So far with xiaoxi on the lineup, LGD has misplayed team fights less than they did in the past with TBQ.
Yet you may have noticed, I'm speaking of an LGD that exists during strokes of brilliance, the pieces they have, and the strategies they execute unreliably. This LGD won’t always exist, especially without a coach, and especially given the time constraints of integrating an amateur player by the dates of the World Championship.
Perhaps the best course of action is to have Acorn step up full time into the coaching role. This meta suits Flame’s natural tendencies as a carry top laner, and when LGD needs a tank, he’s proven he’s the better Gnar of the two — though, interestingly, Acorn has shown he’s the better Hecarim.
It’s sad to see Acorn not playing, but his performances have seemed to decline since he’s taken on more responsibilities outside the game, and if LGD has formulated the strategies they have with him taking on these roles, it might serve them well to ask him to take a step back. I rated him the best top laner in the league for the first half of LPL, but LGD needs a stable support staff if they want to have their best chance to take down the monoliths that are SK Telecom and Edward Gaming.
xiaoxi will take time to synergize with the team and learn competitive play as well. That’s time LGD cannot afford to spend playing with TBQ. It’s sad to see one of the most senior members of the team step down, but LGD in the past two years have made so many roster changes that the squad is hardly recognizable. They weren't afraid to make roster changes in the past, but TBQ has always survived the swaps. If playing with xiaoxi means LGD can win Worlds, they shouldn't hesitate to put TBQ on the bench.
Stylistically, LGD are primed to grab the cup at the 2015 World Championship. Everything about their play and grasp of minion control suits the meta and puts them in good stead against the giants that currently stand out as favorites for the title. The only question is whether, given the issues that have plagued them this summer, they can get it together in time.
Kelsey Moser's favorite to win the World Championship is LGD Gaming. You can yell at her about it on Twitter.