Incarnati0n: The Prodigal Son

by Michael "Veteran" Archer Sep 22 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of Skye Bui / theScore eSports

“Europe is actually crazy. If any of the Top 8 European mids came to America - like if Bjergsen or Nukeduck came to America, they would crush. Including Reginald. European teams are just so mid-centric. Talent breeds talent that’s what I think, so in European solo queue you can queue up and you play Ocelote one game in Diamond 1 and then you queue up and the next game you’re playing against Bjergsen because he’s practicing a new champion. So then eventually, you’ll be really good at mid. We don’t have that in North America.”

- Doublelift, Grilled #85 Oct. 30 2013

Victory is all that matters to the grandest of EU’s solo queue stars. Amid the burning criticism, harsh words and doubt, the Prodigal Son was not done. Nicolaj “Incarnati0n” Jensen had but three series to make it to the World Championships. His opponents were North American staples by now, each of which had held the number one spot in the region at various points. Gravity, Team Impulse, Team Liquid. A mix of Koreans and veteran North American players. Star talent all around.

Then there was Incarnati0n, a player whose inclusion to replace Hai on Cloud9 signalled the start of a slump for North America’s most dominant team. I had previously covered some of the areas that prevented an efficient use of Cloud9’s mid laner at the time. Since then some of these issues have been addressed. Meteos’ conservative play was replaced with Hai’s more proactive play. Mid was finally given priority and was allowed to become that island Incarnati0n desired.

Cloud9 were expected to go to Worlds. Incarnati0n was in his debut split. He had been beaten down to relegation territory, viewed as a person synonymous with terms such as ‘overhyped’ and no longer been pegged as a carry star in the making. By the end of these three series only one fact would matter and only one thing would need to be added.

Incarnati0n was going to Worlds, and he had won it on his own terms.

Hai Again

Incarnati0n’s champion pool was adjusted upon Hai’s return to Cloud9. An immediate effect was seeing Incarnati0n on Twisted Fate, a pick that served incredibly well until a poor Baron call threw the game in question in Team Liquid’s favor. An ill-advised Zed pick debuted that same week, though the meta and general itemisation issues rendered it far more useless — even going so far as to prevent him from using his ultimate even once for lack of genuinely suitable target.

Needless to say that though they were still stumbling, Hai’s return to the team brought about the comfort that Incarnati0n needed to succeed. The right idea was there even if the execution was not perfect yet. It needs to be said, and it appears many forgot, that Incarnati0n was a rookie. That he had the potential to become Top 2 in his region was never in question to analysts, but to the general public reading such views, they seemed to expect Bjergsen (who had had two splits of professional LCS play already, and debuted in a far weaker NA mid scene) level play from the very first game.

That a solo queue mid laner in his debut competitive split would struggle when placed on a different champion pool and forced into a new playstyle shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. Everybody needs to be made comfortable in their role first before a successful transition can be made.

After the initial two weeks of Hai’s return, Incarnati0n was placed on a cocktail of 66% Orianna and 33% Ahri/Lulu, all champions within his favoured repertoire and of great benefit in teamfights and a supportive role. Though they only won four-out-of-six games in this setup and four-out-of-eight in total post-Hai, it was enough. They staved off relegation territory, maintained a 2-0 split record against TSM and hit the Gauntlet. They would start from the bottom.

Pnad Pray Love

At Regionals, Incarnati0n got off to a slow start and finished with a roaring finale. By the end, he held the second highest kill participation on his team at 68.9% to Lemonnation’s 73%. He and Sneaky towered above the rest of their team in damage statistics, but Incarnati0n topped his role in DPM at 576, while Sneaky was beaten out by final rival Piglet 595-659.

Sneaky’s success were often on hyper carries such as Draven and Vayne, while Incarnati0n’s pool was far wider. In his first set against Gravity, he played Diana, Yasuo, Orianna, Viktor and Azir for the finale against Keane’s Fizz. Keane’s signature cheese coming alongside Incarnati0n’s signature champion was not enough. The first two games of the following set against Team Impulse showcased his Varus and Ahri to round out his champion pool of seven coming into the regionals. He gained victories on Yasuo, Viktor, Azir, Orianna and Diana throughout the Gauntlet. He held strong performances on all of his champions.

His consistency throughout the latter set was astounding. Game 2 against Team Impulse was shockingly one sided, but Incarnati0n was able to go as far as 5-0 while the rest of his team was 1-19. In that same game he dealt the most damage to champions of any player in that game, 25.8k on his Ahri against the 25.1k of his opponent’s Sivir. Many cried foul when he was awarded his second MVP of the Gauntlet after this series, claiming that the title should have gone to Sneaky, whose Vayne performance was critical in the final two matches. Incarnati0n performed well regardless of how his team was doing, including when Sneaky was the one at fault.

A lot has to be said of the setups that initially put Cloud9 so far behind in their first two sets. Tunneling on an Amumu/Karma setup and not understanding the prevailing meta counters to such a setup nearly cost the series against Gravity. The double disengage of Gragas/Alistar and even Braum negated Amumu/Diana’s dive and the poke style Karma commits to. The Karma pick would resurface against Impulse, this time being countered by the quintessential anti-poke champion Soraka. Cloud 9 simply did not understand these factors, very often picking their compositions directly into their own counters.

Sneaky was also misused. The final series against Team Liquid had the ADC star on Draven/Vayne for the series’ entirety, but their losses had been accrued on Tristana/Ashe beforehand. Were it not for the prioritisation of Karma, these strategies could have worked. Unfortunately, all it did was place Sneaky at discomfort compared to his true role as part of a two-threat Cloud 9.

In spite of all this adversity, Incarnati0n pulled off a carry-worthy performance on every champion in his pool barring Varus. Ahri, Orianna, Diana — these were the champions that Incarnati0n made his name in Europe with while Azir and Viktor are the new solo queue staples that he has now developed into strong additions.

Salvaging Solo Queue

Much has been made about solo queue performances in relation to competitive play. Incarnati0n was certainly not recruited to where he was because of his competitive record — he had none to speak of. What people knew was that he had the potential to do well, to do extremely well, in his own right and on his own terms. Anybody who was expecting a clean transition was foolish to do so. There was no way the expectations others placed on him would be met in a single split by any single player. He met them anyway.

Jensen is a testament. He is a testament to the strength of consistent solo queue training. He is a testament to the continuing strength of the European mid lane meta. He is a testament to the idea that some players just have to be used right before they can succeed. He is an example to every rookie player that has to start with such pressure, to every team that looks for immediacy in results from acquisitions, to every viewer that is quick to judge.

The Prodigal Son is the story of a man who took what his father gave him and wasted it, but was welcomed back with open arms. When Jensen left his European homeland he took a risk, a risk many wrote off as having backfired. Most of us figured that he had wasted the talent he developed with. We were wrong. He took what he got from our shores and made it his own, he developed his competitive style over the course of a split and went from what looked like a struggling rookie to a man standing high on top of seasoned veterans. When the Prodigal Son returns home he will do so victorious. He will have achieved so much off his own merits.

When I talk about Europe I think of an unwillingness to give up, a stubbornness to fall down and the raw natural talent to go far and prove all doubters wrong. Nicolaj “Incarnati0n” Jensen is a shining example of everything European, and he will return home for the World Championships having achieved the only thing that matters to him. Victory.

Michael “Veteran” Archer is an EU writer and former coach/analyst who never stopped believing. You can follow him on Twitter.