After a waltz through the Group Stage that saw them amass a flawless 6-0 record, SK Telecom T1 returned to the World Championships with another impressive showing, sweeping the Taiwanese champions, ahq e-Sports Club, in a relatively one-sided best-of-five series. ahq came back in the last set to give the reigning Korean kings their best game of the tournament, even becoming the first team at the tournament to lead T1 in gold past the 20 minute mark. Nevertheless, the former world champions showed their composure and pedigree in their first real test of the competition, capitalizing on an ahq mistake around the Baron pit and converting it into a brisk victory.
The story of this tournament following the first few days was the unpredictability. Anyone could beat anyone on any given day. LGD Gaming, the Chinese league winners and one of the tournament favorites, faltered heavily in their first week of play, losing all three games while western teams like Origen and Cloud9 remained undefeated. While many of the Chinese and Korean powerhouses have slipped up thus far in the tournament — LGD and Invictus Gaming not even making it to the knockout stage — one front runner has only exceeded expectations from the outset of Worlds: SK Telecom T1.
Having won it all in 2013, today's SKT T1 is vastly different from the one we saw lift the Summoner's Cup in Los Angeles. The cornerstones of the team — Faker, Bengi, and kkOma, — are still on the squad, but they've matured and know what it takes to become a champion. The T1 we saw back in Los Angeles a few years ago was a group of players with remarkable raw skill that could win games through simply dominating in lane. Their macro play was still lacking, and when they couldn't bulldoze teams with their individual talents in-lane, that's where problems started to pop up.
People forget this, but the golden SKT T1 squad of 2013 were one game away from being eliminated from the tournament, down 1-2 to a NaJin Black Sword team that were in a slump before heading off to the World Championships. Of course, T1 dug themselves out of that hole, won the final two games, and then went on to sweep the surprising finalists from China, Royal Club, in the most lopsided Summoner's Cup Final we've seen up to this point — cementing the '13 T1 team as legends to this day.
The SK Telecom T1 squad that we see at this World Championships is a completely different beats. MaRin, Faker, and Bang can all do what Impact, Faker (a smarter version), and Piglet did back in 2013 with dominance in lane, however, they don't only rely on their individual outplay potential to win games. While T1 do normally get ahead in the laning phase and transition into their flawless mid-game that opens the Baron up to be taken early around 20 minutes, they're also a team that can win from behind. The scariest thing about the current iteration of SKT isn't how strong they are when they're ahead — it's how intimidating they are when at a deficit. You can be up 7k gold, have complete control over the Drake pit, and a few minutes away from victory, and all it takes is one slip up, one commitment or mistake and everything you worked so hard to accomplish for 40 minutes is now gone in a flash.
ahq will know how that feels with how their World Championships came to an end. After two quick victories from T1, the second map being an absolute blowout, the Korean champions decided to play indifferent in the third set, picking a composition with no wave clear and a Kassadin in the middle lane with zero kill pressure against Westdoor's signature Fizz with ignite. It was eerily paralleled to Samsung White's run from last year: running through the group stages with a 6-0 record and then taking a fast 2-0 in the quarterfinals against their underdog opponents before underestimating them on the third map. SSW also picked a Kassadin/Tristana composition in their Round of 8 match versus Team SoloMid in 2014, and they paid for it, getting caught early, having no wave clear to get back into the game, and TSM never allowing the Kassadin to scale into the late-game.
Although you can debate the strength of '14 TSM with '15 ahq, SK Telecom T1 pretty much did exactly the same overconfident pick/ban that their Korean rivals did in 2014 and were able to escape from the map with the sweep instead of having to load up for a fourth game. All things considered, ahq played a great game, as Westdoor abused Faker's Kassadin and solo killed him in the game's opening minutes. The Taiwanese champs were even able to control the drake pit, the place where T1 sets up their control of the map and allows them to play around a fast Baron in the mid-game. With four dragon stacks, equal in gold, and constant one-on-one victories over MaRin's Fiora and Faker's Kassadin, it looked likely that if ahq could secure the final dragon that we'd be heading to a fourth game just like Samsung White and TSM last year.
That's when ahq learned about the frightening truth about SKT: you make one mistake — especially around Baron — and you're dead. You're done. If you mess up around Baron and allow T1 not only to secure the buff but win the skirmish around the pit, the game is done. When it comes to the Baron Power Play (the three minutes of added buffs a team gets when they slay the Baron), there is no team close to the efficiency of SKT when they get that advantage. A majority of teams will get the buff, take a few towers, ward the jungle, and call it a day, happy to get a gold lead or get back into the game. For T1, when they kill the Baron, it's a countdown clock to the end of the game — it's less of a power play and more of a sign that the opponent's Nexus is about to get blown up.
SK Telecom T1 use the Baron Play to the fullest of its capabilities, stretching the map as humanly possible and pushing all the lanes that they worked all game to push against the enemy's base. T1 don't hold onto their ultimates or summoner spells for the perfect teamfight or in case they'll need them in the next minute — they just use them. Bang will use Buster Shot to blow away someone from a turret to knock it down and move onto the inhibitor. MaRin will issue his Grand Challenge with Fiora to dash in and start clearing a way to the opponent's Nexus. SK Telcom T1 aren't searching for quintessential moment to use all the tools in their arsenal. When they have the Baron buff on them, their only strategy is to leave the opponent's base in ruins, regardless if they didn't use a flash correctly or wasted an ultimate at an inopportune time.
The Taiwanese champions hesitated with a chance to close out the game against T1, and that's how they found themselves out of the tournament. ahq went to the Baron following a won one-on-one duel from Ziv's Darius against MaRin's Fiora, and the team wavered around the Baron pit, ultimately deciding to try and get the buff instead of waiting the extra few minutes to fight around the Drake pit and claim the final dragon buff that would catapult them back into the series. SKT T1 returned in time to contest the Baron, slaughtered ahq in the pit, grabbed the Baron buff, and exhibited no hesitation or indecision — the team barrelled into ahq's base, took down the Nexus turrets, and destroyed their last glimmer of home to turn a competitive game into a rapid win in only a matter of seconds.
The 2015 SK Telecom T1 is an evolved, matured version of its 2013 counterpart. Even when they pick a composition that is seemingly countered by their opponents, the other team needs to play absolutely perfect to beat SKT. As we saw against ahq, it only takes one second of indecision to turn a winnable game into a complete loss versus the former world champions. Origen, SKT T1's next opponent, a stronger team than ahq when it comes to late-game decision making, will need to be proactive in the early-game so they can have a fighting chance against the unbeaten T1. The European summer runners-up were able to play comfortably in the first 20-to-30 minutes versus the Flash Wolves yesterday, but T1 will be like going from a brisk walk on a treadmill to a full-on sprint, and Origen will need to be prepared to play against a team that can play quickly and methodically at the same time.
Faker and Bengi are two matches away from becoming the first players in League history with two world titles. kkOma is two victories from becoming, if he isn't already, the undisputed greatest coach this game has ever had. And SK Telecom T1 are only six straight map victories from immortality — a flawless victory.
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for The Score eSports. You can follow him on Twitter.