In Patch 6.1, Riot Games finally decided it was the era of AP jungle champions. Warrior and Cinderhulk have both enjoyed periods where the enchantment has featured as the dominant build. Changes to the AP enchantment and the introduction of Runic Echoes radically increased the power of AP jungle champions to the point where even the occasional Nunu player prefers Runic Echoes over Cinderhulk.
Emily Rand previously discussed the power of Nidalee in the North American LCS. Her clear speed and efficiency through the jungle has been increasingly abused by professional players from week to week. The 10 percent movement speed bonus (reduced to 7 percent in the upcoming 6.4 patch) makes it possible for Nidalee to use her inherent passive advantages to make jungling against her even more oppressive. She also gains charges to the Echoes passive quickly and benefits from the mana regeneration, making her so powerful in the jungle in the early game that she actually can dictate the pool of viable jungle champions based upon which picks survive against her the best.
Within the past two weeks, Nidalee hasn't been the only pick benefiting from the Runic Echoes introduction. On Patch 6.3, Gragas received slight buffs to clear with an added AOE on Drunken Rage. His channel time on W is reduced, and his first attack now deals damage to enemies within 250 range, improving his health in the jungle. Initially, junglers debated the best enchantment choice for Gragas, but Friday's Gragases (Gragi?) all favored the Runic Echoes build.
Runic Echoes gives Gragas initial movement speed and burst, but less tankiness (even with Strength of the Ages and Drunken Rage). This makes Gragas ideal for the turret-taking meta. He provides a great deal of the disengage many European LCS siege compositions have been missing when they look to avoid fights, but he also works into pick compositions when the Echoes charges stack and can be released into burst damage. Gragas' flaws are in the early game where he struggles to duel more aggressive jungle champions like Nidalee or Elise before he gains his ultimate for disengage and protection.
Today's EU LCS games featured two direct matchups between Nidalee and Gragas in the jungle as well as one game each where Gragas and Nidalee were played against other champions. The games highlighted the advantages granted by recent patch changes and how teams were able to use champions effectively.
Origen vs G2: Gragas takes control
A traditional Jugger'Maw lacks a tank, but also usually brings a Lulu. Instead of a Lulu, this one had a Nidalee and an Orianna. The Kog'Maw buffs on two consecutive patches have given Nidalee a place outside just clearing the jungle really fast. In this game, the protection provided by Nidalee and Orianna nearly gave Origen a foot in the door in late game team fights. The power of Gragas' disengage and isolation tools, however, managed to effectively counter this composition in conjunction with lockdown from the likes of Lissandra.
Otherwise, this early game matchup should not have gone the way it did. G2's solo laners kept the lanes pushed out, allowing for Kim "Trick" Gangyun to invade and pick up a CS lead over Maurice "Amazing" Stückenschneider as a Gragas against a Nidalee. This match demonstrated both the fact that G2's ability to control the jungle by using mid lane as a central point is a very underrated strategy and that Origen lack the intricacies of communication to control the early game at the moment.
In seeing Gragas take control of an early game against Nidalee, it became clear that Origen aren't struggling because they have bad players. This was never an issue. They just lack some of the finesse that allows them to grasp the flow of the game as a team. It's hard to utilize a pick like Nidalee and her ability to invade if a team can't work well together.
H2K vs Giants: The near Flame Horizon
Surprisingly, where Origen failed to succeed in demonstrating Nidalee's early jungle dominance, Giants Gaming succeeded against H2K. H2K don't emphasize jungle control as much as lane assignment, as Marcin "Jankos" Jankowski has neither a high clear rate nor a lot of gank efficiency.
In Friday's game, Jankos failed to secure a single initial buff for himself. Joachim "BetongJocke" Rasmussen picked up three, and Jankos made the decision to cede the lone blue buff he could have picked up to Yoo "Ryu" Sangook. Jankos played Lee Sin this game, foregoing the Runic Echoes frenzy. This put a lot of pressure on him to secure leads for his lanes, as BetongJocke's and the rest of the Giants' control of the jungle signaled this game couldn't be about him.
Jankos ended the game with 143 CS to BetongJocke's 238, but ultimately had a stronger impact. His engages allowed H2K to make gains in later skirmishes, and he managed to secure leads for both solo laners through ganking.
I don't think this would have been the case if Giants were a stronger team overall. Giants pushed in two of H2K's inhibitors after team fights. The reality is that, even with a massive gold advantage from farm and extra items, BetongJocke didn't seem to understand how to use Nidalee. His final score line was 0/7/2, and he didn't seem to grasp point of entry when playing an assassin jungle champion.
H2K's team fighting still leaves much to be desired. It probably doesn't help that, as Konstantinos "FORG1VENGRE" Tzortziou-Napoleon suggested Thursday, their minds might not be completely focused with recent news. Even so, Giants don't know how to play around a Nidalee with a lead. This ultimately cost them the game.
Unicorns of Love vs Splyce: Adding Elise
Unicorns of Love made the decision to mainly avoid the jungle confrontation. After initial clears, Jean-Victor "loulex" Burgevin spent most of his time in lanes. He used his area of effect to clear waves and his ultimate as a threat for disengage in sieges. This strategy gave his Gragas a high kill participation, and many of his midgame creep kills were lane creeps. Taking the Gragas out of the jungle is a good way to avoid bad matchups like Elise.
Elise also benefited from the Runic Echoes introduction. Prior to nerfs to movements speed and base damage from Volatile Spiderlings on Patch 6.2, Elise was the champion of choice for Runic Echoes. Neurotoxin and Venomous Bite still work well in a meta with Strength of Ages health bonuses and make her a good match against Gragas' early game if you can pin him down.
The Unicorns simply bypassed the Elise by having Gragas group early. The problem in this strategy is that, if a team cannot succeed in getting turret advantages through pushes early enough, Gragas can fall disastrously behind. Luckily for the Unicorns, they were able to secure every first tier turret before eight minutes into the game, which allowed them to invade and place the necessary wards to control the jungle and strangle out Elise.
The strategy could have been countered by Splyce if they rotated their Corki more proactively to clear or exerted more pressure on the Fiora matchup. Gragas' ultimate makes it easy to push out a single source of wave clear in a siege, however, so Splyce may want to revisit their draft for the next time a Gragas is picked in an early rotation.
Vitality vs Elements: Anything Gragas can do...
At least in the early game, anything Gragas can do, Nidalee can do better. Vitality chose to apply a similar strategy to the Unicorns' approach, but with Nidalee instead of Gragas. By picking strong clearing solo laners, Vitality could invade and secure vision early. However, unlike in a G2 game or as with the Giants they didn't move for early vision to control the jungle, but to set up early sieges.
In a standard lane scenario where turrets frequently fall more slowly, Vitality managed to take out the first three turrets in under 18 minutes. Ilyas "Shook" Hartsema still completely outfarmed Berk "Gilius" Demir, but this didn't seem to be the central focus of Vitality's strategy.
Nidalee's heal allows teams to stay in lane and siege for longer. The fact that Nidalee also has a ranged auto-attack and poke with Javelin Toss means that she can easily push enemies off turrets as well. Her mobility makes it difficult for a Gragas to counter-siege completely with disengage. Vitality demonstrated this use well.
NOTE: As Marcel "Dexter" Feldkamp pointed out, Gragas kept up well in farm and was on track to scaling. Vitality didn't begin farming deeper into the jungle or stealing resources until after Gragas had the opportunity to scale. Vitality utilized Nidalee through sieging, but didn't necessarily punish the Gragas pick effectively.
Where the Gragas-Nidalee matchup reversed in Origen vs. G2 as a result of G2's better understanding of jungle control, Vitality demonstrated how easy it is for Nidalee to muscle out Gragas. Elements' best course of action was to wait until Gragas could get an edge in a team fight or create better zones in conjunction with Viktor.
In Patch 6.4, Runic Echoes will see slight nerfs to movement speed which will make Nidalee's power slightly less intimidating. But it will still be a crushing item, and it will be interesting to continue to watch how the Nidalee and Gragas matchup unfolds in the coming weeks.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.