Adaptable nonconformity: Qiao Gu's chances of meeting the meta at IEM Cologne

by theScore Staff Dec 17 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of LPL / LPL Screengrab

Adaptability makes a team great. At least two Chinese teams at the World Championship displayed difficulty in adapting to the rapidly shifting meta on patch 5.18. It didn’t get easier; five patches later, and the game has once again changed almost completely.

The Qiao Gu Reapers may have missed their shot at the World Championship altogether because of a patch change. Though they placed second in both the LPL regular season and the LPL Playoffs, QG and Snake looked completely lost in the only Regional Qualifier that incorporated juggernaut changes. Against Invictus Gaming, QG dropped Viktor priority and didn’t adjust their dynamic to combat the pressure their opponents could exert with a top lane focus.

Yet it’s not as if the Qiao Gu Reapers are averse to change. Throughout the 2015 LPL Summer, Qiao Gu acted like the fearless adolescent team of the league. Rather than conform, they developed their own style away from the one-dimensional approach that qualified them from the LoL Secondary Pro League.

Even when others may have called their approach a desperate attempt to buck the trend, they embraced their new style as overtly as mid laner Kim “Doinb” Taesang embraced his own season-long personal makeover.

As a team, the Qiao Gu Reapers find a way to succeed, but they’re limited by the skill of their players. If they want to win, they have to bend the meta. This takes time, and it wasn’t something they could accomplish in order to qualify for the World Championship.

At Intel Extreme Masters Cologne, QG will once again have to adapt. The largest concern for the team is whether or not they will in time. QG’s dynamic makes it hard for them to play the way teams are expected to play at IEM Cologne — the meta is more focused on snowballing and the early game. But QG have only ever really succeeded by avoiding conformity.

On March 9, Qiao Gu — without the “Reapers” addendum to their name — defeated the then-touted OMG eSports Club 3-2 in the Demacia Cup Round of 16. Following the matches, OMG admitted they hadn’t studied QG leading up to the games. Jungler Baek “Swift” Dahoon outperformed Yin “Loveling” Le, and QG’s bottom lane startled by dismantling two iterations of OMG bottom lanes; Jian “Uzi” Zihao played with both Hu “Cloud” Zhenwei and Luo “Luo” Cirui.

This was also the first week Doinb had replaced Kim “BoriSal” Yeonghoon in the LSPL for Qiao Gu. It wasn’t just OMG; very few saw this more surprising Qiao Gu coming. They managed to pull through a bug-ridden Demacia Cup and place third, beating Snake and WE in addition to OMG, but at the time Qiao Gu were simply hard-hitters. Their much-lauded team fighting didn’t exist; that came later.

Still, one game against WE gave viewers a hint that this Qiao Gu Reapers team may play a little differently. I’ll just say “juggertree” and allow you to make your own assumptions.

When QG eventually qualified for the LPL, they played their first best-of-two against LGD Gaming, who were playing without their captain Chen “Pyl” Bo. They walked all over them, and split 1-1 against a new iteration of OMG. People didn’t just talk about QG’s results, however, as the team had also made a decision to dye their hair to commemorate their first week in the LPL.

AD carry Yu “TnT” Rui, who perhaps had the most to prove, dyed his hair violet. The Chinese AD carry swell of Uzi, Gao “WeiXiao” Xuecheng, and Zhu “NaMei” Jiawen had passed over TnT, leaving him to jump teams that paid him very little into LSPL for the 2014 season. Though Royal Club Huang Zu allegedly rotated Uzi to the mid lane to accommodate TnT as their AD carry temporarily, his name hovered just below the elites. He missed his chance to rub shoulders in the LPL in 2014 and played on an LMQ in North America that narrowly missed relegation in 2013.

TnT has changed his name more than any other player in LPL (yes, even more than Loveling or Wei “pAinEvil” Zhen). He’s dabbled with a variety of different AD carries from Caitlyn to Ashe to Sivir to Vayne to Lucian to Jinx, rarely appearing as if he has a dominant main. It seems that over the years, he's kept trying to reinvent himself. Li “Link0” Linke, the team leader and manager, said he originally built the team with TnT as its foundation — and reinvention has also defined the Qiao Gu Reapers.

In my estimation, this was the year TnT and his careful team fighting finally stood out. In the eyes of many others, he likely never will.

Despite the outward appearance of a constant quest for reinvention, TnT is very nonchalant in interviews. He discussed his failure to learn in LSPL, the state of LMQ and Royal Club, his frequent name changes, and called himself the worst ADC in the LPL very matter-of-factly. Even though the Qiao Gu Reapers are a new team this year, TnT is a patient veteran of the scene.

TnT’s self-sufficient positioning and ability to team fight well from behind gives QG more freedom to change and develop. Just as jungler Swift will almost always go for the engage, TnT will almost always take care of himself. This reliability allowed QG to alter their style in LPL Summer.

Swift, as aggressive as he ever was on CJ, has taken to farming heavily and ganking sporadically in laning phase. The Qiao Gu Reapers' style adapted away from a blunt assault and attempt to outplay to a more team-oriented approach. Part of this came from the increase in competition at the individual talent level in the LPL, the rest form Swift’s more self-centered early game.

Over time in the LPL, QG started performing worse in lane and better in team fights. They had the lowest gold lead at 20 minutes in wins of any team in the LPL regular season. Bao “V” Bo, who had the highest KDA of any QG member in the LSPL, dipped back from the spotlight. He focused almost entirely on Hecarim and Maokai. While his laning had aided the team’s more aggressive style in the LSPL, he became a notable weakness as the QG Reapers changed.

The team first started changing when Doinb joined halfway through the LSPL season. While TnT’s personality seems more relaxed and nonchalant, Doinb comes off as much more flamboyant. He didn’t just dye his hair at QG’s introduction to the LPL, but continued to experiment with different shades of blonde and different haircuts throughout the season.

In the LPL, Doinb became the team’s more reliable solo laner and he changed his favorite champion as often as he changed his hair. Many would describe Doinb as Swift’s support rather than QG's mid laner — he's adept at Morgana, Lulu and Orianna. But as QG developed, Doinb received an increased percentage of team gold. He flexed his Kassadin, Viktor and Azir prowess. Doinb even played tanks like Maokai, Sion and Nautilus.

"When I pick a tank, it makes [the] laning phase very difficult for me, but I know if our enemy picks a tank, it's very hard for my bottom lane to do damage," Doinb told me at a visit to the QG house in August.

"I want to pick more tanks to make the enemy know how it feels."

The team was built around TnT, and Swift’s more aggressive style defined many of their limitations. It either forced Doinb to engage after him or support Zhang “TcT” Hongwei to focus most of his peel on Swift. But despite these difficulties, Doinb’s wide champion pool gave viewers a chance to watch multiple iterations of the QG Reapers. The team had to adapt with him as he became more of a damage dealer, more of a star.

If Doinb is to be believed, he did all of this simply because Riot likes to make a lot of nice skins. "If I want to play with the nice skins, I have to learn the champions," he said at the house visit.

It’s undeniable that QG Reapers have changed considerably this year, more than the average team. They changed in a way that made them unique. Peel went to the jungler, not the AD carry. The mid laner didn’t always play the “right” champion. The team didn’t play to win lanes, but to team fight, and they often found themselves capable of coming back from monstrous deficits.

The QG Reapers didn’t have the same expensive contracts on their players as LGD Gaming and EDward Gaming, but they found success in the LPL by developing an identity. QG prioritized teamwork, something that analysts, players and other experts have all said Chinese teams severely lacked at the World Championship.

Unfortunately for the new Chinese team, the meta has shifted further from their comfort zone. The style of falling behind in lane that QG developed to compete in the LPL has become more punishing with short, snowballing games. It’s not going to work at Intel Extreme Masters: Cologne, and the players in the teams they’ll face aren’t weak enough for the QG Reapers to simply run over them with individual mechanics.

That doesn’t mean that the QG Reapers are hopeless — perhaps placing second in Summer Split seemed just as hopeless with the lack of headline names on the roster. The QG Reapers are limited, and they didn’t adapt quickly enough at the Regional Qualifier, but that doesn’t mean QG aren’t adaptable. If anything, change has defined the team and their rise through the LPL.

TnT’s and Doinb’s champion pools have become their largest assets. In an AD carry-centric meta, the fact that TnT has played this year relying on his own positioning will make him a good choice for pushing towers quickly and dealing damage in chaotic fights.

Doinb excelled with Teleport mid lane on champions like Lulu, and his Kassadin was autobanned when it was in vogue. The dual engage of Swift’s dive and Doinb’s followup with Zhonya’s made collapses against Qiao Gu something that could easily backfire.

Aggressive jungling has been a friend to Swift. As long as his team can back him up with careful picks, Swift will naturally take the initiative to pick up Lee Sins and Elises — perhaps even a Kha’Zix or two.

A weak laning phase can easily be a problem for the Qiao Gu Reapers, but this year has told us that they can develop a work-around. QG don’t necessarily conform, but they adapt within their own limitations. It’s only a matter of whether or not they’ve done so in time.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.