Isolated environments tend to give rise to species differentiation, and you don't get much more isolated than an island like Taiwan. The LoL Master Series' second season has successfully built on the successes of its debut, and in doing so has sprouted the first seedlings of a unique regional identity.
Strong personal mechanics and strategies out of the Korean playbook are now expected of teams in the Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macau region. The much more intense selection pressure in the LMS circuit has given rise to strategies that are designed to emulate or rival the world’s top League teams.
For the region’s leader, ahq E-Sports Club, the fruits of these efforts are plain to see.
Apex Predator: ahq E-Sports Club
This time last year, ahq was clinging to fourth place, far behind Flash Wolves, Taipei Assassins and Hong Kong Esports. Though nominally one of the big four veteran teams, they were afflicted with too many strategic deficiencies to take down anybody but the rookie teams they were trying to shake off.
Now, things are a little different. The retirement of support player Sa "GreenTea" Shang-Ching to provide an analytical backbone to the team has proved to be a minor miracle. Though fans initially saw the move as a sign of ahq's imminent implosion, it turned out to be a transformative moment. Suddenly, ahq was playing with purpose and precision, closing out games in 30 minutes. They stopped relying on mid laner Liu "Westdoor" Shu-Wei to break open games with assassins picks (though, granted, they weren't able to solve his limited champion pool at the time). And former jungler Kang "Albis" Chia-Wei, who took over as support from GreenTea, was nearly as good with Thresh and similar champions.
Ahq turned from a floundering middle-of-the-pack team to one of the best that Taiwan has fielded at Worlds since 2012. They locked in a quarterfinals position at the LWC alongside Flash Wolves, before getting knocked out by eventual winners SK Telecom T1. In the process, Westdoor got to show why an entire island region keeps mashing the ban button on a champion nobody else plays, when he took down mid lane legend Faker one-on-one with Fizz.
This year, ahq has been even stronger. It took six weeks of competitive play for them to drop their first game of 2016, and they still tied up the set with a convincing Game 2. Thanks to the acquisition of last season’s Taipei Assassins mid laner Wong "Chawy" Xing-Lei, the team no longer has as pressing a mid lane problem: by having Westdoor only play blue-side games, when the team has first-pick priority, they counteract the risk that he’ll be muzzled with targeted bans or forced into a bad matchup.
At the same time, Singaporean veteran Chawy is among the region’s most flexible mid laners, with a champion pool twice or three times as diverse as Westdoor's. The team often plays them as a one-two combo, with Westdoor starting a set, and Chawy using the information they glean about the opponent’s mid lane and overall team composition to prepare a hard counter. It’s if ahq is fielding two teams with massively different styles, forcing opponents to commit twice as much prep time, and invalidating anything they learn in the first game of a set.
But the rest of the LMS is catching up. Hong Kong Esports was the first to find a chink in ahq's armor, when Chawy defaulted to his oft-favored Viktor pick. That proved fatal against a composition that included Malphite, Gragas, Bard and — in particular — former LoL Japan League player Jun "Rokenia" Young-dae's Zed.
Up to that point, Hong Kong Esports was in same position ahq was last year, struggling for relevance in fourth place or below while desperately seeking a replacement for former mid lane ace Kurtis "Toyz" Lau. They earned a reputation as “The 1-1 Kings,” constantly trading games even against organizations with fewer resources and less raw talent — teams that, last year, they would've easily clobbered 2-0. But against the undefeated ahq, that 1-1 curse transformed into a blessing.
HKE knew they had to take advantage of ahq’s growing disrespect for opponents in the draft. They accurately mapped out ahq’s probable picks and prepared a hard-counter — reminiscent of Edward Gaming’s strategy for killing Faker. Ahq barely blinked when Gragas and Bard were selected in the first phase, and were already committed when Malphite and Zed were locked in after Viktor. The draft secured ahq's first defeat since getting knocked out of Worlds.
Now the LMS knows how to make ahq bleed, the region is starting to see more emphasis on strategy over individual skill. Pick-ban strategies have never been a strength of the LMS; sheer mechanical aptitude has been enough to secure GPL titles in the past, which is why the region is so top-heavy in mid laners. But with ahq monopolizing two of the region's best mids, individual performances won't cut it.
If ahq is to be taken down by playoffs, the other teams will need to improve their analytical game. Instead of trying to match ahq blow-for-blow where they're strongest, opponents need to surgically attack the least-developed aspects of ahq's teamplay: their jungle.
School of Winds: Taiwanese Junglers
The fog of war is unusually deadly this spring. 2016 has brought a bumper crop of jungle talent to the island, and an aggressive meta that favors high-damage picks like Nidalee and Graves. Flash Wolves jungler Hung "Karsa" Hau-Hsuan is no longer the only noteworthy player in the role. He spent the early weeks of the split struggling to keep up with his counterparts — as he should, given they're all playing like him now.
The LMS jungle "style" has a clear lineage. If the talent concentration in mid lane can be traced back to everybody wanting to copy Toyz, then the jungle equivalent would be Taipei Assassins’ Chen "Winds" Peng-Nien circa 2014. Though his team performed poorly that year, the former Gamania Bears ace of Worlds 2013 was their one shining light. Winds' jungle game was good enough to garner international recognition, even when compared to his Chinese and Korean peers.
The Flash Wolves — consisting of every other Bears player — felt his absence acutely. His aggressive counter-jungling style, and improbably consistent Smite-steals, were the tactical bedrock to their success in 2013, and it was difficult to find a suitable replacement. Some of the best junglers in the LMS passed through the team, including the likes of Xue "Mountain" Zhao-Hong, now with ahq, and Chen "REFRA1N" Kuan-Ting, now with Assassins. None of them lived up to Winds’ standards.
It wasn't until Karsa was acquired from the original Machi 17 roster that things finally clicked into place, and it was because Karsa is (and has described himself as) Winds' immediate successor. How immediate? Enough so that Winds named his cat after him.
But he might have to get a second pet if ahq’s REFRA1N keeps up his performance. Like Karsa, he played with Flash Wolves, but at the time he was a far more conventional middle-of-the-pack player. By contrast, this spring he has the number one kill participation rate among all eight Taiwanese jungle starters, the second-best overall KDA, and the second highest gold-per-minute average. He's arguably the best counter-jungler in the circuit right now — as worthy as Karsa to be named Winds' disciple. It’s no wonder REFRA1N considers Karsa an immediate rival.
And this is why ahq might lose not just a game, but an entire set, to either Taipei Assassins or Flash Wolves in the second half of the Spring Season: they're starting to fall behind in the jungle arms race.
Their jungler, Mountain, might have walked in Winds' footsteps after his own short stint on the Flash Wolves years ago, but the style he developed diverged from his peers. He’s safer, more farm-intensive, and less focused on integrating his map movements with the overall team strategy. He has the second-worst kill participation rate among all LMS junglers, ahead of only HKE's Xue "DinTer" Hong-Wei, but he also hogs an unusually large amount of his team's gold share. All of this suggests that ahq still needs to do a lot of work on their macro game. They especially need to adapt now that Graves — a fixture in Mountain's spring games — has been nerfed.
Mutant Factor: eXtreme Gamers
Thanks to some weird voodoo magic, XGamers have been upsetting analysts’ nice, clean predictions of how the split would look so far. It was no big surprise when they took a game off of COUGAR E-sports, the lowest-ranking team in the LMS (COUGAR lost their anchor player when mid laner Chia "jeffeRy" Chun Hsu transferred over to Hong Kong Esports, never to be seen again). It was more of a shocker when they took out the Flash Wolves 2-0 in Week 2, but the Flash Wolves quickly found motivation and returned to form in their following games.
XGamers hasn't stopped there. Though they haven't had a 2-0 set against a top team since they beat Flash Wolves, they’re a major reason why HKE earned the 1-1 Kings moniker. And they came closer than any other bottom-four team to actually giving ahq a challenge.
Yet they play nothing like what's expected of an LMS contender. Statistically, they're all over the place: their laners have only run-of-the-mill mechanics, and some of them are just barely able to stay ahead of COUGAR.
Only former Logitech Snipers jungler Fan "Yo" Chih-Wei can claim a noteworthy pedigree. Whereas the likes of Karsa and REFRA1N are spearpoint players, aggressively dictating and leading the charge, it might be better to describe Yo as... mortar. As in, he's often all that's keeping XGamers together as one coherent entity.
Yo dies often, he doesn't pick up kills, but he has a better assists stat than any other player except Karsa. The leadership he offers, which is expressed in the trust of his teammates, has made them better at reacting than any other LMS rookie team. It allows them to pivot almost instantly around the smallest mistakes.
That doesn't make them the most refined team in the LMS, but there's something to be said for sheer unpredictability, given the increasingly cerebral nature of high-level League play. It'll be up to XGamers to prove they can carry out the rag-tag diehards narrative — while it’s too early to predict they’ll make the playoffs, there's a whole other half of the season for them to grow.
James Chen is a freelance writer for LoL Esports, PC Gamer and theScore eSports. You can follow him on Twitter.