A new season, a new split, and a bunch of new teams and players now grace Taipei's League of Legends Master Series – normally a recipe for disaster given that first-time players have to adjust to a whole new caliber of plays and teams still need to iron out the wrinkles in their communications and strategies. Last spring, the likes of Dream or Reality never actually managed to figure any of it out, going an ignoble 0-21 by the end of the split: the worst record of any pro team in any competitive circuit, and suggestive of a lack of depth in the Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macau scene.
The good news is, the door was shown to DoR, and this year's crop of talent is already showing signs of being an improvement.
The bad news waits for fans of last year's top performers. The Flash Wolves' roster is largely unchanged, as they replaced Chou "Steak" Lu-Hsi for former mid laner Yau "MMD" Li-Hung, who had also played top lane before in prior versions of the team's rosters. But not changing their roster isn't quite the same thing as playing at the same level as they did back at the 2015 World Championship.
The only non-Korean team to take two games off a 2015 Worlds finalist found themselves at the wrong end of a hunter's shotgun. Hung "Karsa" Hau-Hsuan, normally the unyielding backbone of the team, came limping out of the opening match against AHQ E-Sports Club sporting a meager 2.0 KDA and a black eye from the number of times fellow jungler Xue "Mountain" Zhao-Hong clocked him in the face with Graves' shotgun. As if that wasn’t enough, Chen "Ziv" Yi single-handedly consumed the top lane as Tahm Kench, slapping MMD aside multiple times on a one-on-one basis.
The most interesting thing about the LMS's opening week, however, was AHQ's commitment to a two-mid strategy, as they alternated between Wong "Chawy" Xing Lei and Liu "Westdoor" Shu-Wei in both of their sets. Both times clearly demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of each respective player. Chawy's long-range map control with Lux was oppressive and grinding, and while Westdoor was less capable of shutting down map movements, his one-on-one duel with Lissandra against Flash Wolves mid laner Huang "Maple" Yi-Tang was an incomparable display of mechanical aptitude.
Against the Flash Wolves, both methods proved viable.
Lies and Records
Against Machi 17, however, Westdoor's methodology seemed a lot more perilous. Machi 17 were fully suppressed by Chawy's unconventional Zilean mid lane pick in Game 1 – the danger posed by the ticking bombs he scattered under turrets made for comically easy pushes on AHQ's side. But Chawy was swapped out for Westdoor in Game 2, and the latter's champion pool issues were once again exposed: Fizz was banned, as expected, but Lissandra was taken away as well in Machi 17's first rotation.
Mid laner Hsieh "Apex" Chia-Wei has steadily grown a reputation as one of the most promising Taiwanese mid laners, and it's not hard to see why in his game against Westdoor. Westdoor's Diana fits his assassins-centric play style, but was largely ineffective in-lane, whereas the regular roaming from Apex helped Machi secure a definite map advantage throughout the game.
That said, AHQ came out ahead in that, and were undefeated after the first week. Machi made them sweat for it, but slipped up at the worst possible time when they grouped up at a choke point in the bottom half of the river which allowed Mountain to let rip a devastating Collateral Damage and kick off a warpath that successfully downed both of Machi's nexus turrets. With that said, AHQ almost lost – they pushed a bit too hard for the bottom lane inhibitor at the 41-minute mark, got aced for their troubles, and handed Machi the fifth and final dragon buff.
Good thing for AHQ that Westdoor respawned by then, as he was able to backdoor the Nexus before Machi could get back to base in time.
In contrast, Hong Kong Esports' Week 1 successes should be taken with a grain (or more) of salt. Like with AHQ, they went 4-0, but AHQ was tasked with facing a World Championship calibre team and a deceptively scary-looking Machi 17. HKE got to kick off their season with easy games against COUGAR E-Sport and Midnight Sun.
Chen "SpeaR" Yi-Chung and the rest of the COUGARs made their competitive debut with team DeftCarry's advent over Assassin Snipers during the spring promotion tournament last month, quickly getting acquired by their new organization after their successful qualification. SpeaR and mid laner Hsu "JeffeRy" Chia-Chum, in particular, set high expectations for the team with smart map movements from the former, and a high mechanical pedigree on the latter. But JeffeRy wasn't able to attend Week 1, and SpeaR seemed lost without his anchor and was walloped by HKE's Xue "DinTer" Hong-Wei.
Granted, losing to DinTer isn't quite the black mark it used to be. The former Taipei Assassins jungler has greatly matured since joining the Hong Kong squad, and losing former World Champion mid laner Kurtis "Toyz" Lau seems to have only spurred him and support Kim "Olleh" Joo-sung to greater heights. The DinTer that was known for bad ultimates and questionable map movements has become unrecognizable – there's just this thing that shows up in your jungle, kills your stuff, and walks away like your team didn't expend all of their cooldowns on his brick-like skin.
But it's one thing to make newbies like SpeaR and Midnight Sun's Liu "Wulala" Sheng-Wei look bad, and another thing entirely to face off against Karsa, Mountain... or Taipei Assassins' Chen "REFRA1N" Kuan-Ting.
Highs and Lows
The Taipei Assassins had an incredibly rough 2015. They lost, in quick succession, Taiwan's best jungler Chen "Winds" Peng-Nien, Korean AD carry ace Kim "Lupin" Do-Yeop (now a support on Korea's em-Fire). And just to rub salt on the wound, not only did Chawy get banned in late 2015, he also decided to quit the organization entirely and join their traditional rivals on AHQ.
Most teams would have folded under that sort of bad luck. Instead, the Assassins rallied. "New" jungler REFRA1N hardly has the most pristine competitive history – he was on the Flash Wolves immediately after the collapse of the Gamania team organization, performing only half-decently back when the Taiwanese teams played in the Garena Premier League. His departure paved the way for Karsa, who took the opportunity to carve out a reputation as Winds's rightful successor in the Taiwanese echelon (Winds even named his cat after his protege).
REFRA1N's now made a strong opening argument for reassessment and TPA as a whole now has hopes for a good spring split. REFRA1N's Lee Sin was the single largest contributor to their Game 2 victory over Machi 17, grabbing four kills in four ganks within the first 11 minutes of the game. He spearheaded rookie mid laner Chu "FoFo" Chun-Lan's explosive growth as a 10-1-16 Ryze, and finished the game with a flashy ward-hop into Dragon's Rage as the game reached the 32-minute mark, sealing Machi's fate for the week.
But it wasn't just the REFRA1N show, though the intensity of the spotlight on him would suggest otherwise. The team showed a great range of cunning tactics throughout the game. Of note: support player Li "Jay" Chieh's Alistar taking what seemed to be an obvious route to flank Machi through mid lane, causing them to retreat to the safety of the jungle. Except that top laner Chen "Morning" Kuan-Ting's Mega-Gnar had teleported in just as Jay made his move, allowing the Assassins to scoop up Machi for two demoralizing kills – as solid a demonstration of good teamwork and communication as one would expect from a top-tier team.
As for the bottom-tier: the less said about Midnight Sun Esports and XGamers, the better. True, both managed to pick up wins in the first week – against each other, making for the only 1-1 tie so far. But neither roster's looking prime-time ready just yet. Midnight Sun's still reeling from the loss of their promising 2015 roster – only veteran mid laner Chen "M1ssion" Hsiao-Hsien had any prior competitive experience, and that's not saying much at all. He was, at best, trading equally with rookie Tsou "SuwaKo" Wei-Yang, and neither team was demonstrating the close-knit jungle and support map control coordination now expected of professional play.
But, heck. It's just Week 1, and the LMS already has four teams it can expect to put up a good show throughout the split. All we need now is for the Flash Wolves to get their act together, and we'll already be swinging way above par, compared to last year.
James Chen is a freelance writer for LoL Esports, PC Gamer and theScore eSports. He wishes Winds would un-retire already. You can follow him on Twitter.