The Unicorns of Love are one of the most dangerous best-of-five teams in the West.
It’s not their gameplay, or their mental strength and attitude that earns the Unicorns such lofty praise.
No, it's their incredible pick and ban phase.
In the wake of the news that jungler Mateusz “Kikis” Szkudlarek would be leaving the team, a very interesting question was asked - does his removal hurt the Unicorns of Love’s pick-ban phase to the point where they are no longer going to be feared in a series?
This is a layered question, especially with the announcement that former UoL jungler Berk “Gilius” Demir would be taking the now vacant jungle position.
While the addition of Gilius may very well solve the communication and gameplay issues that have resulted in the Unicorns being a strictly .500 team this split, ultimately I think their pick-ban take a serious hit.
A History Lesson: The Unicorns Pre-Kikis
Let’s go back to the fall of 2014, when a promising young European Challenger squad was climbing their way through the rankings and earning a lot of fan praise.
Their name: The Unicorns of Love
Their mission: to join the LCS
As they fought their way through the Challenger scene, the Unicorns of Love were recognized for their unusual and entertaining pick-ban phase even before Kikis became a member of the squad. In many ways, other than their humorous and iconic name and their “family” identity, the pre-Kikis UoL’s reputation in Challenger was built on their tendencies for pulling out pocket counter-picks and making them work. Who could forget their infamous Swain or Yorik against Denial?
Compared to many of their opponents, the Unicorns lacked experience and recognition. To come out on top, they needed to rely on their wit and skills to find interesting solutions to the then meta picks. Leading the charge with their own special brand of weirdness were up-and-coming stars Tristan “PowerofEvil” Schrage and Kiss “Vizicsacsi” Tamas.
Take UoL’s LCS Promotion Series performance against Millenium. Facing down the veteran LCS squad was a daunting task for UoL. Down 0-2 and with Kev1n’s Dr. Mundo running all over them, the Unicorns pulled a risky audible and picked Poppy for Vizicsacsi. In a one-versus-one against the non-interactive Mundo, Vizicsacsi easily got past Poppy’s rough early laning phase and did what UoL hadn't been able to up until that point — kill the carries of Millenium.
The pick completely swung the momentum of the series. Fighting all the way back to force a Game 5, UoL once again went to a pocket pick to close it out, putting PowerofEvil onto the then unheard choice of Cassiopeia. Against Kerp’s immobile Twisted Fate, the pick paid off in spades and the Unicorns of Love completed both the comeback and upset.
If nothing else, the UoL vs. MIL series is a case study in how the Unicorns have historically manipulated the pick-ban phase to come out on top in tough series. With two niche picks, they were able to throw Millenium off their game and triumph in what looked to be an unwinnable series.
Even before Kikis joined the team, UoL were winning with off-meta picks and the addition of a player as diverse and skilled as Kikis simply took that fact and brought it to the next level.
Even as a full-blown LCS team, the Unicorns’ deep champion pool and innovation continues to define the team outside of the jungle position. PowerofEvil has brought many niche picks to the forefront of competitive play. Let’s not forget that in his hands, AP Kog’Maw and mid Varus went from laughable one-offs to LCS staples. The same goes for the other innovator on UoL, Vizicsacsi, who was one of the first players this season to recognize the revival of post-buff Shen and even dabbled in top lane Nocturne.
Taking a moment to consider the Unicorn’s history and identity as a team, it’s easy to see that pre-Kikis and post-Kikis an unusual pick-ban was, is, and will continue to be a core element to the Unicorns of Love’s game.
That shouldn’t change anytime soon.
Along Came a Kikis: The Reactive and the Proactive
Heading into their freshman LCS split and first major LAN appearance, something was different about the Unicorns.
The niche picks, the oddball counters, they were still there.
But they went from something the Unicorns pulled out when they were desperate to something they could use as a weapon from Game 1. The threat of the picks became almost as real as the picks themselves, a constant reality that got into their opponents’ heads and changed the way teams approached UoL.
And it was because of Kikis.
Looking back on the Unicorns’ pick-ban phases, it’s clear that while it has always been unique, it was largely reactive to what their opponents were doing. By reaching deep into their champion pools for unusual counters, UoL were able to leverage their niche picks to produce an appropriate response to whatever was working for their opponents.
Vizicsacsi’s Poppy was a reaction to Dr. Mundo’s passive laning phase.
PowerofEvil’s Cassiopeia was a reaction to Twisted Fates’ lack of mobility.
Pre-Kikis, the Unicorns’ picks felt like risky gambles.
With the addition of Kikis, the Unicorns were able to leverage their fondness for niche picks proactively.
Never better was this shift in pick-ban mentality shown than at the Unicorn’s first LAN event as an LCS team: IEM San Jose.
Facing down Team SoloMid, the Unicorns pulled off one of the best pocket pick surprises in IEM history.
The Unicorns knew that as the perceived weaker team, they needed to put Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg in an uncomfortable position if they were to have a chance of walking away with the series.
So what did they do? They meticulously crafted a pick-ban scenario where Bjergsen would be baited into picking Xerath into what he assumed to be Twisted Fate, only to have the Unicorns pull the rug out from under him with their jungle TF and putting LeBlanc into the hands of PowerofEvil.
The result: TSM were sent reeling and UoL upset the North American juggernaut 2-0. In interviews after the game, the members of the Unicorns confirmed that the jungle Twisted Fate was no accident, but a pick they had deliberately prepared for the situation.
Their play at IEM San Jose was the first indication of what was a dramatic change in their thought process. While the pick-ban phase relied just as much on a surprise pick, no longer did the Unicorns have to scramble to come up with an effective counter to what TSM were doing. They were the ones who wielded their own love of unusual champion selection to rattle TSM from the get-go, and the proactive use of a cerebral and unusual pick-ban phase paid off in spades. TSM were completely unable to recover from the shock of the first match, as the Unicorns used the momentum gained from the victory to crush the second game.
The next opportunity the Unicorns had to flex their pick-ban muscles in a series came in the Spring Split Playoffs against Gambit Gaming.
Already down 0-1, the Unicorns once again used a bait strategy to get P1noy onto an immobile AD Carry, Urgot. Instead of picking a meta jungler, UoL proactively took advantage of the fact that Gambit’s main damage dealer had no escape abilities to unleash Kikis’ Udyr, who would be effectively able to dive and stick to P1noy in the back line. With the now famous “Flash-Bearslap,” Kikis put the Unicorns ahead and never looked back. Just like in their series against Millenium, the shift in momentum was palpable as Gambit scrambled to find an answer to UoL’s pick-ban phase, which constantly left them at a disadvantage. Even when the Udyr ban came out, Kikis already had the now-notorious Shaco pick to fill in the gap.
The Unicorns won the series 3-1.
Yes, Vizicsacsi and PowerofEvil continue to innovate to the benefit of the Unicorns, but it was Kikis who sparked the change and turned UoL from a fringe team with a situation deeper than usual champion pool to a true playoff contender with the power to completely take over a series from the pick-ban phase. His flexibility in the jungle role meant that pick-ban for opponents went from difficult to nearly impossible in long series, because no single member of the Unicorns could be targeted with bans.
The Future: A New (Old) Jungler
The question at hand needs to be revised to ask not whether the Unicorns of Love’s pick-ban is weaker for the subtraction of Kikis, but for the addition of Gillius.
From either his earlier competitive matches with the Unicorns back in 2014 or in his more recent outings with Gamers2, there is no indication that Gillius is able to exert nearly the same level of pressure in the pick-ban phase as Kikis did with his presence alone. In the past, Gilius has been a solid jungler, but never one to deviate from the meta pick all that much. In his matches with Gamers2, he has only played Lee Sin, Gragas and Nidalee. The same is true of his solo queue account. Nothing that Gilius has show in any of his high-elo or competitive matches dictates the ability to have pocket picks proactively prepared.
What this means is that for the first time since the Promotion Tournament back in the fall of 2014, a core member of the Unicorns will be bannable. This gives UoL’s opponents something to exploit in a long series that they never had the option to before. Pick-ban might actually become a liability should target bans become commonplace against Gilius. Inevitably, this means that UoL needs to dedicate higher picks to his jungle choice while potentially giving away valuable champions to the opposition and throwing away the possibility of baits or counter-picks.
Before, duo lane Pontus “Vardags” Dahlblom and Zdravets “Hylissang” Galabov were protected by the pick-ban shenanigans their opponents were forced to deal with. But with jungle needing now to take a higher priority than ever before, they become vulnerable to having their own champion pools compromised or have what is working in a best-of-five denied like it couldn't be before.
This theory was proven correct in their first few matches with Gilius. Against SK Gaming, UoL first picked Lee Sin only to have SK take away the power picks of Shen and Corki (two of UoL’s best). This also gave SK the option to put Svenskeren onto Nidalee, one of the few junglers who can match and often beat Lee Sin in early pressure. Because UoL needed to dedicate so many resources to Gilius, SK ended up holding all the cards in pick-ban and crushed the match afterward.
In their second match of the week, Gambit went so far as to pick both Gragas and Rek’Sai in the first round, forcing Gilius onto a “B-tier” jungler, Jarvan IV. While the result was still a victory for UoL, it indicated how much of a liability the jungle position could be in future pick-bans.
It was, and should continue to be, nearly impossible for UoL to craft advantageous pick ban scenarios in the future with Gilius on the team should this sort of scenario play out often. This is especially true in a best-of-five scenario with very little room to maneuver should Gilius become heavily banned out.
The innovation, the ability to pick reactively in the mid and top lane roles will certainly remain intact so long as PowerofEvil and Vizicsacsi remain on the squad.
But taken as a whole, the Unicorn’s reputation as a fearsome best-of-five team is certainly damaged, possibly beyond repair.
That’s a shame.
Europe needs the Unicorns.
Teams get better when faced with the unknown in pick-ban. When forced to dig deep and come up with strategies for even the most unpredictable pick-ban situation, coaches and players develop and learn. This is what the Unicorns bring.
Fans should be entertained and shocked by pick-ban wizardry and not skipping over champion select like in the days of Shyvana-Mundo. This is what the Unicorns bring.
I hope someone else takes the torch and integrates niche picks into developing a proactive strategy.
Because I don’t want UoL’s incredible pick-ban to become a thing of the past.
League of Legends deserves better.
Nicholas Doucet is a News Editor for theScore eSports.You can follow him on Twitter.