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Escaping LGDepression: a look at LGD's roster changes for 2016

by theScore Staff Dec 15 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot eSports Flickr

LGD Gaming’s signing of Jang “MaRin” Gyeonghwan has lit up the League of Legends eSports corner of the internet. SK Telecom T1 ran the table at the World Championship with only one Nexus breached, and MaRin brought home the tournament's MVP award. Analysts commended his shotcalling and his top lane prowess in taking SK Telecom T1 to their second World Championship title.

Optimists applaud LGD’s move to pick up MaRin after both Lee “Flame” Hojong and Choi “Acorn” Cheonju made apparent indiscretions at the World Championship, and LGD’s praised shotcalling under Chen “Pyl” Bo slipped into indefinite hibernation. LGD made several other changes, including replacing Zhu “TBQ” Yongquan and nabbing recently retired Lee “Heart” Gwanhyung as Head Coach.

At the surface, LGD looks to be addressing flaws. Perhaps I’ve come down with a severe case of LGDepression, but digging deeper generates skepticism, and my disappointment only intensifies. Decisions LGD Gaming have made so far seem to be primarily cosmetic. They give no indication as to whether or not they will reach deep enough to correct the actual flaws that plague the team.

MaRin: Carry top, shotcaller extraordinaire

“Smeb who?” several onlookers asked during the 2015 World Championship final. Both top laners had looked nearly uncontested in the Group Stage and through to the semifinals, slashing their way to opposite sides of the rift. After the first game, when MaRin’s Rumble finished with a 7/0/11 scoreline and Smeb limped away with a 1/4/2 Riven, MaRin became the Worlds best top laner in the public’s eye.

Despite only finishing the series with a 3.35 KDA to Smeb’s 1.78, the narrative still holds that MaRin turned Smeb into a KOO-flavored slushy in all four games. In reality, most of the individual games where MaRin lead Smeb, his advantages came from in-game calls rather than head-to-heads.

For example, Game 1 began with SK Telecom T1 using their duo lane and MaRin to fast-push the first turret on the bottom side of the map. Smeb reacted slowly to join the fast-push top with his bottom lane, resulting in MaRin getting an experience advantage and shoving the wave before backing away. This forced Smeb into a position where he had to freeze the wave at KOO’s tier two turret, and MaRin transitioned to the top lane.

Following these early moves, MaRin had a strong Teleport in the bottom lane while Smeb remained top, netting him two kills and pulling SKT ahead of KOO. In most cases, MaRin didn’t perform some “sick 1v1 outplay” to get leads on Smeb. He came by them with teamplay and shotcalling. SKT often make sacrifices for him to get ahead. In the Game 1 example, KOO's strategy could have resulted in a bottom lane advantage, but SKT are often willing to sacrifice their bottom lane for MaRin's success.

MaRin generating advantages with team play is consistent with his time in League of Legends Champions Korea as well. According to an analysis of SK Telecom T1 jungler Bae “bengi” Seongwoong’s jungle pathing by Brendan "LoyotatheDragon" Schilling, bengi focused 37% of his ganks on the top lane as of early July — just below 40%, which he focused on mid lane. Yet 50% of his first ganks went top lane, and only 25% went to the mid lane. When the meta shifted toward top laners, bengi seemed to take this to an extreme with a large majority of his first ganks heading toward the top lane at Worlds.

Gank priority and SK Telecom T1 setting up swaps to give MaRin a lead resulted in him having, on average, the highest percentage of team gold of any top laner in the world at 23.71% for the 2015 Summer competitive season. Typically, when a player has an irregularly high percentage of team gold, it isn’t on his shoulders alone, but because his team chooses to play around him.

Both these aspects of MaRin’s play do not translate in a simple plug-n-play fashion into LGD Gaming. LGD’s top laners, on average, had the second lowest percentage of team gold of any top laners in the LPL at 19.93%, just behind OMG’s Hu “xiyang” Bin at 19.83%.

Mid laner Wei “pAinEvil” Shen and Gu “imp” Seungbin split the majority share of the gold relatively evenly at 23.92% and 23.62%, making LGD much more bottom lane focused. pAinEvil secured kills early with roams and duo ganks from Pyl and TBQ, and imp earned free farm until the mid game in side lanes as part of the team’s mechanism to create lane pressure and control minions.

A similar analysis of TBQ’s jungle pathing during the LPL Playoffs by LoyotatheDragon revealed TBQ used only 20% of all ganks in the top lane preferring to prioritize both bottom lane and mid lane. He only ganked top lane 6.25% of all first ganks during the LPL Playoffs. LGD’s current team dynamic creates very little possibility for top lane to be propelled ahead except by using Teleports or self-sufficient prowess.

Most evidence suggests MaRin doesn’t often get ahead in 1v1 without his jungler, and SK Telecom T1 has done the worst in games where MaRin falls behind. At a Mid-Season Invitational press conference, MaRin admitted that being the shotcaller and getting camped will affect calls and individual performance. Focusing a shotcaller with multiple ganks is a proven strategy against more than just SK Telecom T1.

If LGD Gaming don’t change their dynamic, MaRin will need to get ahead through Teleport calls. Given MaRin’s prowess as a shotcaller, one might think this shouldn’t be a problem, but Teleport calls rely on an easy relay of information. MaRin has stressed that he would like to learn Chinese, more than likely because his communication is allegedly one of his greatest strengths as a player.

Yet learning Mandarin Chinese isn’t something he can accomplish overnight. It can make communication more difficult and inhibit his Teleports, even with another accomplished shotcaller in the bottom lane.

The new Heart of the team

LGD did have strong shotcalling in the LPL. They had a better grasp of minion flow than any other LPL team, and Pyl’s frequent roams made his pathing as a support as interesting to track as a jungler’s during the regular season. LGD also had the shortest average game time of any team in the league, characterized by their proactive play.

All of this deteriorated at the World Championship and didn’t return by the time the Intel Extreme Masters San Jose rolled around. If communication broke down that easily, then adding another strong voice won’t necessarily improve the situation.

This goes back to creating a proper team environment to improve mentality, focus and practice. Which, as I’ve already written, the team management and ownership have yet to show they can achieve. It’s not enough to just get a new coach.

After a year of coaching swaps, LGD signing a coach during the offseason sets a positive tone. Heart has the maturity and patience necessary to become a strong coach. He has been part of teams capable of creative strategy in the past, from GSG’s Heimerdinger siege composition to Unlimited Potential’s anti-Evelynn theory. Though Heart has said he doesn’t consider himself a strong strategist, he did say, “[he] tr[ies] hard to look like someone that is.”

Heart, having worked with LGD’s newest addition Xie “Eimy” Dan, could also facilitate the team’s transition. Understanding the habits of multiple players on the team, including imp and Acorn, means that Heart won't need long to assimilate. He also learned Mandarin Chinese somewhat quickly compared to other Koreans in China which will also serve as a plus.

Without the LGD Gaming management and ownership enforcing strong practice behavior, the task falls almost entirely to the coaching staff to create the environment. Heart said, “I spoke with the players on the team and understand their weaknesses and also know how to fix them.” That’s easier said than done for a problem like pAinEvil’s unstable approach to scrims, which allegedly has survived since his time on Vici Gaming.

As much as a player like Heart seems like he’d transition well into a coaching position, there’s no guarantee. Not all great in-game strategists or shotcallers can teach a team to perform like they did. Korean coaches have expressed difficulty understanding how to transition their methods to work with Chinese players given cultural differences.

At the very least, Heart has worked on a Chinese team for a year. He doesn’t seem to harbor illusions on the topic. “I know it will be difficult to control the players, and that will be the challenge,” he said. We won’t know if he’s up to it until we’re waist deep in the LPL Spring Split.

No really—who is Eimy?

It should come as no surprise that very few individuals in the western community recognized Eimy when LGD announced his addition. Eimy played for Unlimited Potential in the 2015 LPL Summer Split. They placed in the bottom four of the regular season and lost to Team WE while playing to retain their spot in the LPL Promotion.

Eimy's LPL Summer champion picks

Champion Games played Win rate KDA
Gragas 12 50% 4.0
Rek'Sai 9 44.4% 3.8
Ekko 7 57.1% 4.9
Sejuani 4 25% 3.4
Nidalee 4 0% 1.6
Nunu 3 33.3% 4.5
Evelynn 3 0% 1.9
Lee Sin 2 50% 2.6

Data from GamesofLegends.com

Before Eimy played in the LPL, he qualified for the league twice. The first time, Eimy played for Vici Stand Gaming, the team that eventually became Vici Gaming’s primary team in the league. His Lee Sin play in the LPL expansion blasted through the harder side of the bracket.

When Vici Gaming qualified and replaced Eimy with Choi “DanDy” Inkyu, I had Eimy at the top of my list as viable replacements for TBQ. Instead, Eimy shuffled to Vici Gaming Potential with Heart, and the team qualified for the LPL Summer Split before rebranding as Unlimited Potential.

Eimy plays best on aggressive junglers like Gragas, Ekko, Lee Sin and Nidalee. He had a harder time during the Cinderhulk heyday when some of his flaws became readily apparent. Though expressing greater mechanical skill and a more expansive champion pool than TBQ, Eimy has similar problems with decision-making.

Eagerness causes Eimy to pull the trigger too soon and dive headlong into the opposition or blow cooldowns before his teammates arrive. He's not as strong on supportive junglers, as he lacks an understanding of how to play around power spikes.

Yet, even when TBQ’s Lee Sin play didn’t command bans in the LPL, Eimy’s Ekko did on a consistent basis. Eimy had enough power with Gragas to split off the right targets. The last time Lee Sin possessed as much power in the meta as he does now, Eimy could Dragon’s Rage to victory.

Many have suggested Heart’s alleged friendship with Eimy caused LGD to select him as their new jungler. While Heart spoke fondly of Eimy, and he served the role of Unlimited Potential’s secondary shotcaller, Eimy also played with pAinEvil on Vici Gaming. Due to Vici Gaming’s close relationship with LGD, they’ve transferred players in the past. Eimy and World6 seem like the most logical acquisitions with that in mind, but World6 showed more champion pool limitations.

When Eimy and pAinEvil played together in the past, Eimy often had a permanent position in a tent beside mid lane. As pAinEvil getting ahead and roaming the map has created wins for LGD Gaming in LPL, this relationship could prove fruitful.

Unfortunately, Eimy has a lot of problems to overcome, and he may not be able to grow into a more patient player fast enough. Perhaps having a Chinese shotcaller would make communication easier and cut down on Eimy’s willfulness, but that is pure conjecture at best.

Changing the dynamic

With MaRin’s addition, LGD Gaming’s team dynamic can’t stay the same. If MaRin is dependent on leads, he’ll need help from the jungler or roams. Though LGD Gaming have favored the bottom half of the map, this isn’t impossible.

Getting MaRin ahead was successful for SK Telecom T1, and using the mid lane as a force to propel the rest of the team with roams worked well for LGD Gaming. With MaRin, LGD will likely look to transition more toward a top-centric approach. Many junglers may gravitate toward the bottom side with the AD carry changes, which will make this difficult, but not impossible.

If Eimy and pAinEvil reinvent their synergy, an easy strategy to build from begins with a mid lane gank and an early roam top from pAinEvil. This could improve LGD Gaming. If Eimy and pAinEvil can work better as a duo than TBQ and pAinEvil, less pressure would fall on Pyl, who can remain in lane with imp and pressure the magic of the most powerful duo lane of LPL 2015.

Teams in the LPL have also found it beneficial to work with both a Korean and a Chinese shotcaller. One operates as the primary communicator, and the other keeps the flow of communication going to either the remaining Korean player or the other two Chinese players. Both MaRin and Pyl have a reputation for leadership and may build synergy, but it will take time to overcome the language difficulties and understand their teammate's quirks or tendencies.

Improving LGD with these moves is not impossible, and it’s perhaps easy to see why the news of MaRin’s acquisition was met primarily with LGDelight. The bafflement comes with short memories. Acorn and Flame were both listed among the best top laners in Champions 2014, outpacing MaRin in most criteria. Yet this year, MaRin is presumed an easy upgrade over both Acorn and Flame.

Acorn fits LGD’s current dynamic better, and it isn’t out of the question for the team to gravitate more toward playing with him again. MaRin also has the possibility to adapt his style to play with less gold, as Flame did, but MaRin isn’t a better player than Acorn or Flame overall. If he stands out now, it’ll be due to form and motivation.

If Acorn and Flame lost their practice dedication and form, the same can happen to MaRin. An initial boost of motivation may come from a roster change, but over time, the same problems will still exist. LGD Gaming need to fix their allegedly deplorable approach to scrims before any roster changes or coaching additions can have long-term effects on performance.

It will take some convincing for me to believe this team can repair their problems. The LGDepression continues.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter, where she may post her collection of LGD cat pictures.

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