Sometimes, the best way to win is to work with your weaknesses, rather than trading it off for what seems on paper to be a strict upgrade. Though counter-intuitive, a team with long-standing players in their roster will have learned to optimize around each of their individual quirks and particularities, and there are rarely such replacements whose overall performance metrics are so high as to wash over the work done to integrate them into a team's overall strategy and identity.
AHQ's successfully turned their weaknesses into weapons, despite my own reservations regarding Westdoor's non-retirement. Flash Wolves, not so much.
As of the end of Week 2, AHQ remains undefeated in Taipei's LoL Master Series. Their challengers have included the Flash Wolves, a resurgent Machi 17, and just recently newbie-killers Hong Kong Esports. Power rankings for the LMS now have a simple foundational guideline: how much of a scare did they give AHQ?
Hong Kong Esports couldn't generate even a quiver.
Part of the problem is that AHQ's substitution strategy very neatly seals away a major weakness that HKE would've exploited last year: Liu "Westdoor" Shu-Wei's shallow champion pool. By utilizing him exclusively on blue-side games, like with Game 1 against HKE, AHQ forces a no-win situation on the enemy team. Obviously, Fizz is a must-ban. But with only two ban options left, and first-pick priority for AHQ, sealing off Westdoor's tactical options cannot be done without leaving themselves equally vulnerable to the meta's high-priority picks and counter-picks.
Compounding the problem: Hong Kong Esports had very recently acquired former LJL player Jun "Rokenia" Young-dae, whose Taiwan-side debut with the Gash Bears ended with an ill-fated loss to YoLMS (now known as XGamers). Rokenia is largely a stranger to the Taiwanese meta, and to Westdoor's Twisted Fate. To be fair, Rokenia's Jayce pick – to siege against AHQ's teamfighting composition of Trundle, Kalista, and Elise – was successful in shoving down the entirety of top lane's turrets by the 10 minute mark. But being that deep in enemy territory, even with Tahm Kench, Mundo and Janna to bodyguard, is a risky proposition for even the best teams.
Two minutes later, AHQ was up 6-1 in kills. By 26 minutes, they were freely securing Baron against a beaten and battered HKE, sealing off the game with little difficulty.
Game 2, which was against Wong "Chawy" Xing Lei, was more a demonstration of the power of specific champions. In contrast to his prior games this split, Chawy opted for Kassadin into Rokenia's Lulu — not only a deviation from Chawy's usual control mage strategies, but a lane matchup that frankly doesn't allow him to do much in the opening minutes of the game.
HKE was well aware of that. Xue "DinTer" Hong-Wei's Rek'sai was a constant threat, forcing a fast Flash at three minutes to make an awkward lane even worse. Hong Kong Esports was all over the Rift Herald and dragon throughout the game like purple on monstrous void crabs. Not that any of it matters when Chawy can recover from behind by blitzing their back line in any team fight and reliably get carried away by Kang "Albis" Chia-Wei's unbelievably tanky Tahm Kench before they can recover.
Having two health bars means a support can out-duel a Lissandra top lane, it turns out. Not HKE top laner Yang "Maplesnow" Yu-Wei's finest moment.
In contrast, fellow Worlds quarterfinalists Flash Wolves are finding it hard to hold on without former top laner Chou "Steak" Lu-Hsi. Though, interestingly, it was hardly former Flash Wolves Junior player Shen "Rins" Po-Ju's fault that their game against XGamers went so disastrously, or that of substitute AD carry Huang "Breeze" Chien-Yuan, who also spent time on FWJ.
Rather, the academy program seems to be working, producing mechanically capable players. Rins, in particular, did what Steak was almost never capable of pulling off: carrying against the Taipei Assassins through his independent efforts on Fiora in Game 2. His support play with Maokai in Game 2 would've been doable by his predecessor, but the Teleport usage and execution was at a very solid level.
But it was as if the Flash Wolves were playing a strategic RPG, and buffing their top lane carry potential came at the cost of jungle and mid lane capabilities. Hung "Karsa" Hau-Hsuan and Huang "Maple" Yi-Tang had put up excellent showings just a few months prior, back on the Worlds stage in Europe, but their week two showings had all of the hallmarks of a hangover: sloppy, hesitant, and error-prone. Even against the Taipei Assassins, against whom they secured what seemed a strong 2-0, there were problems in early-game execution. Karsa's Lee Sin, despite its strong early-game potential, was unable to counter the Assassins' initial map control gambits. Rift Herald fights would favor TPA's momentum, even if the Wolves all survived.
But it was, shockingly, Xgamers (formerly HeatWave and YoLMS) that was finally able to expose the weaknesses in Flash Wolves' communications. Though overlooked and beaten badly by veteran teams previously (and, indeed, their disastrous 1-4 exchange 12 minutes into game one marks them as still very green), they deserve full credit for the fearlessness of their play into the veteran team. XGamers' full-fledged objectives assault kept Karsa on the defense, while communicative difficulties were apparent with his coordination with Rins and Breeze (Rins giving up first blood to Nexus's Sion, in particular, was entirely avoidable).
With one tie and two wins, that puts rookie team XGamers in second place overall. A result that nobody expected – and not one to be left unchallenged.
Machi will be the first to check against XGamers' claim to the silver crown in Week 3, and they certainly seem up to the challenge. Though currently sitting at fifth place, tied with the struggling Flash Wolves, Machi looks like a stealth bomber in comparison: overlooked but carrying a dangerous payload.
To loop back at the hypothetical basis of LMS power rankings, Machi was the only team to give AHQ anything like a real jump scare, back in week one. Their 0-2 losses to AHQ and TPA disguised the fact that none of any of those four games were one-sided affairs, demonstrating solid play from all five of their players. Though teething problems with their team synergy and crisis-point decision making obviously need to be addressed, it should only take a little bit more for them to reach a breakthrough.
It's too early to tell if they've reached that point, even with a decisive 2-0 over Midnight Sun. Midnight Sun, after all, is right down there with COUGAR in terms of LMS prestige (or lack thereof). But between support player Huang "Dreamer" Jian-Hong goring the opposing bot lane with Alistar's horns and top laner Wang "BoBo" You-Lin's impeccable game one 10-minute Teleport flank on MSE jungler Liu "Wulala" Sheng-Wei, Machi looks set for a right proper brawl against the LMS's top teams.
Machi ended 2015 at a miserable 6th place. They've evolved extremely quickly since. The most interesting thing about the coming weeks is definitely if they can keep the pace going.
James Chen is a freelance writer seen on PC Gamer, LoLesports, theScore eSports and elsewhere. There isn't a bigger LMS fanboy anywhere. We've looked. You can follow him on Twitter.