Entering the first round of the playoffs, Team SoloMid, the reigning NA LCS champions, are put in a position they've never been in before: entering the first round as seeding underdogs. The three-time LCS champions have never finished below third place in the regular season standings before this split, and their late season play cost them a first round bye as well as side priority in the quarterfinals.
Gravity also enter the playoffs licking their wounds. The 2015 Summer Split felt like the perfect season for the sophomore LCS team that was formerly under the Curse brand as their academy team. After making a few offseason transactions and experiencing a turbulent first weekend with their imported Korean jungler, Move, the team's trajectory skyrocketed. They only needed a decent finish to the season to clinch one of the two first round byes, but slipped at the finish line to see Team Liquid, their former Curse kin, pick up the regular season championship and Counter Logic Gaming finish in second.
The stakes are different for both teams. For Team SoloMid, they've already accrued enough circuit points that a failure in the first round of the playoffs won't be a back breaker. Even with a loss to Gravity, they'd still be in a decent position to qualify for Worlds by having a high seed in the last chance gauntlet qualifier. While the loss wouldn't kill their shot at Worlds, it would kill any confidence remaining for a team that didn't just want to make the World Championships this year, but contend for the Summoner's Cup. After their stunning victory at the IEM World Championships over CJ Entus and Team WE, nothing other than a Top 8 finish at Worlds will look like a success for America's giants.
As the team with no real accolades to their name, Gravity are the hot shots looking to make a name for themselves. They tinkered with their lineup in the offseason to make their squad even less experienced, moving out their two longest tenured players for Altec and Move. Everything was going according to plan for the boys in the leather jackets, that is, until they fell apart in the final few games of the season. Unlike TSM, however, they have less room to breathe in the first round if they hope to make Worlds, only finishing 5-6th last season and needing at least a victory in the quarters to solidify a spot in the gauntlet for the third NA spot.
Team SoloMid: Attrition Warfare
Attack SoloMid in the early-game, neutralize Bjergsen, and roll your advantage into the middle stages of the game to an easy victory. That was the blueprint the top teams from across the world laid out for the rest of North America to see at the Mid-Season Invitational when TSM were knocked out of the competition in the group stages. Accustomed to being allowed to extend games and turn gold deficits into late-game victories through better team fighting and objective control, the two-time NA LCS champions were punched in the teeth by opposing teams at MSI before they could even catch a breath.
Stop Bjergsen. Speed up the tempo. Punish Dyrus in the top lane repeatedly and funnel gold into your top lane. Keep up the pressure. Before too long, the game is over. The junglers from the other team never let Bjergsen have a second's rest, as they properly took advantage of TSM's lack of regard to their top lane and decimated their archetypal approach to the game.
This season, TSM set out to change how they played the game. Santorin and the rest of the team gave Dyrus more help in the top lane and allowed him to be a factor instead of a sacrificial lamb. The team tried to give WildTurtle a better chance to carry and not always revert back to needing Bjergsen to be the solo ace in every game they played. It was a season where they experimented with different strategies, lineups, and even changed out their coach at the end of the season.
The result? Bjergsen did over 40% of his team's damage, and TSM still played an incredibly sluggish early-game that has made them the squad with the longest average game time in the league. WildTurtle's season has been anything but reassuring for the team as he was temporarily benched for a game for substitute Keith before reasserting their unpredictable secondary carry into the lineup as the permanent starter. Following a strong first half of the season that saw him cut down on his deaths and raise his positive stats, Dyrus took a step backwards as the season progressed as he accrued more deaths than kills for the split.
With everything that's gone on since MSI, TSM are seemingly the same team. Bjergsen carries. WildTurtle is the wild card that can either grab a miracle Pentakill or flash into the enemy team with no chance of survival. Santorin farms, protects Bjergsen, farms, and then protects Bjergsen some more. Dyrus plays tanks and utilities without much variance in the top lane. Lustboy does his job respectfully in the bottom lane, having a down season from his previous two but still the clear second best player on the team behind their Danish ace.
As per usual for TSM, win or lose, it's going to have to be Bjergsen that pulls them through another difficult situation. Regardless of if he wins the award or not for the third time, it's hard to argue that he isn't the split's most valuable player. Impulse might lose a lot by taking away Rush or Impact, and Team Liquid might miss Piglet's ability to take over games at the AD Carry role, but no one player is more valuable to his team than Bjergsen. Without him in the starting five, TSM would be a team that would have probably missed the postseason all together.
Unless WildTurtle magically wakes up from his split-long slumber or the team dramatically changes their plan of attack, the series is going to come down to how Bjergsen can do against Keane and the rest of Gravity. For TSM to make a trip to their sixth straight LCS semifinal, Bjergsen is going to need to do what he's done many times before — be the best player in North America and once again showcase his talents to the entire world.
Gravity: Red Side Chess
If Bjergsen is Superman, the mighty superhero that is gifted with flight, unlimited power, and all the innate skills to beat up everyone, then Keane would be Batman. Bjergsen is the quintessential mid lane carry — he does the largest damage on his team, he saves the day when his team needs him the most, and he is the face of the franchise. He's a technical genius that his team puts in the best position through champion select and the early-game to make sure that he can pick apart the enemy team when the game hits its climax.
Keane plays the opposite of how Bjergsen plays the mid lane. He sits third on his team in kills, with Altec in the AD Carry role as the ace and Hauntzer in the top lane both having greater kill records than the Korean mid this season. Instead of playing high damage champions that can take over games and make him the central character at the end, he'll pick whatever helps the team in the end. He'll routinely leave his champion select open at the end of the draft on the red side, ready to counter-pick the opposing team with a Jarvan IV or an Urgot if it can help his team win the game through a better composition.
While Bjergsen is undoubtedly the strongest mid in North America with the highest mechanical skill cap, Keane uses his brain along with the rest of his team to get the upper hand on the opposing team. This showed in Keane's last match against TSM, as Bjergsen and co. locked in the feared Runeglaive Ezreal on the blue side. With Keane having the last pick in the draft on the red half of the Rift, he chose Jarvan to counter Bjergsen, knowing that it would be another tool that could neutralize the slippery sharpshooter and tank damage if need be.
In the battle between brawn and brains, Keane and Gravity's counter-picking strategy worked to perfection as Jarvan and the rest of the team abused Ezreal's weak early-game and forced the rest of TSM to play the entire game without a foothold. Gravity pushed the tempo as teams did against SoloMid at Worlds, never letting Bjergsen influence the game, and cruise to one of the cleanest wins of the season.
Similar to TSM, Gravity are not the greatest in the first parts of the game. When they're not on the red side, they can have trouble grabbing an advantage and can fall behind early — the fourth place team in the league actually averaged a deficit in gold at the 15 minute mark. They're strong when it comes to team fighting, but they're comparable to TSM when it comes to their aces. If Altec can get through the lane phase not in a huge hole, his positioning in team fights and knack for seemingly never taking damage in brawls can lead Gravity to one-sided team fights that rocket them to victory.
Can Gravity do a good enough job at stopping Bjergsen? When they beat TSM in the regular season a few weeks ago, Gravity played their best game of the season. They beat TSM in the pick/ban phase, executed their composition to perfect, and never let TSM get any breathing room from the first minute of the game. Gravity deployed the strategy of never letting Bjergsen get a chance to see the late-game and make sure that he could never be a factor in the match.
Due to Gravity's better seeding, they will most likely be playing on the red side for at least three matches in the series, giving them the chance to counter-pick TSM on their preferred side choice. This will allow Keane to relax and sit in his comfortable situation of overseeing the picking of champions and giving him the best chance to take whatever is needed to stop Bjergsen and allow his team to gain a ticket to the semifinals.
Gravity's only experience in a best-of-five is their 3-1 loss to Team Impulse last season in the quarterfinals, and that was a roster without Altec or Move. TSM, for all their weaknesses, know how to play in a lengthy series and don't feel pressured if they fall down early, winning both of their playoff matches last split after falling down 1-0.
Betting against Team SoloMid in the postseason is an almost futile effort. No matter how much trouble or shakiness they've shown heading into the playoffs previous splits, they've only lost two postseason matches in their history: both times to Cloud9 in the Grand Finals. Gravity, although a team that appeared to resemble an old Cloud9 when they were at their best, are coming into the playoffs with a mirrored downswing and without the illustrious history to lean back on.
Although everything I see is telling me to take Gravity and start pouring dirt on TSM's grave, it comes down to where we began: Bjergsen is the best player in North America. When things are darkest and TSM needs a hero, he has shown time and time again, he will be there to make sure that they have someone to believe in.
Prediction: Team SoloMid 3 - 2 Gravity
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports who covers the North American LCS and Korea's Champions. You can follow him on Twitter.