There is, obviously, a difference between a veteran team and a rookie one — though it isn't necessarily their win/loss record. After all, veterans struggle too, and even world champions like SK Telecom T1 can flounder from year to year or patch to patch.
Several key habits differentiate teams that have competitive experience from those that don’t, one of them being how they set up their games. Veteran teams are a lot less likely to fall for obvious traps — and a lot more likely to be the ones deploying them.
Take your pick
Midnight Sun played in the League of Legends Master Series in 2015, but since most of the original roster was banned out before the start of 2016, they effectively hit reset on their team development. They're once again a telling example of a rookie roster — both in how they struggled early on and how they've improved over time.
Case in point: Week 3, Game 1 versus veterans and Worlds quarterfinalists Flash Wolves.
Midnight Sun’s first failing was their crude understanding of power picks. Graves and Kalista are major threats this season; Kalista has an 83.8% pick-ban rating right now, making her one of the two most hotly contested champions. Midnight Sun took her in the second rotation, an understable move since the number one pick/ban, Alistar (with a whopping 97.5% pick-ban rating), was part of Flash Wolves' first rotation.
Superficially, Midnight Sun's first three picks looked like a solid core: the synergy between Kalista and Thresh, backed by the sheer destructiveness of Graves, would tempt any team. But their draft had a core weakness: Kalista's strength is built around her mobility, and both AD carries have relatively short range.
They can’t have been happy to see Flash Wolves pick Nautilus in the second rotation. The defensive wall created by the Alistar/Nautilus combo would be tough to crack, and Nautilus outright shuts down Kalista's mobility advantages with a tap of the R key.
Flash Wolves "won" the pick-ban phase off a single rotation: Alistar and Elise. By forgoing the obvious Alistar/Kalista power duo, and choosing a general-purpose jungler like Elise instead, they forced Midnight Sun into a lose-lose scenario. Either MSE picks Kalista, knowing it would give them fewer strategic options and leave them vulnerable to counters, or they allow Flash Wolves to complete the game’s most powerful duo.
Solo-queue-style power pick drafting isn't the only common problem with rookie teams. Even when it works out in their favor — or at least doesn’t hurt them — their opening strategy also reveals the gulf of experience they have to cross.
Game 1 turned out to be even worse for Midnight Sun’s draft, thanks to Flash Wolves’ lane-swap strategy. The Wolves started out with a 2v2 bot lane, but swapped NL and SwordarT up to top lane before the three-minute mark, suppressing Ninuo's Gnar and forcing him off to roam and farm with jungler Wulala instead. This allowed the Flash Wolves to have wards up deep in Midnight Sun's upper jungle by four minutes, neatly preventing Midnight Sun from using the creep waves in that lane to farm up. It paid off before the game was five minutes old, when Ninuo was flanked by Karsa from behind and Wolves took First Blood.
Flash Wolves had a clear reason to go for the lane swap: by suppressing Gnar, the enemy team's only real front liner, it'd be much easier to poke Midnight Sun off objectives with Quinn and Ezreal, and easier yet to get on top of Kalista or Graves in fights. In the opening minutes of the game, it was evident Midnight Sun didn't know how to respond to it.
Game 2’s draft phase nominally favored MSE.
With the Wolves opting for an odd Ryze first-pick, and MSE choosing a strategically flexible support/jungle first rotation, they were able to ensure this time that the Graves/Kalista dual AD composition didn't face any unexpected challenges. With Nautilus working for them this game alongside Lissandra, they had what was then the most powerful teamfighting package you could viably draft — and one that wouldn't suffer to Flash Wolves' lane-swapping shenanigans.
So the Wolves didn't lane-swap. But maybe Midnight Sun should have.
Flash Wolves opted to play Game 2 defensively, refraining from the deep warding they did in Game 1. They set up standard 2v2 lanes, with the top laners off on their own island, and their ward placements for the first three minutes focused on covering their jungle entrances. When they did encroach upon the enemy's side of the jungle, it was reactionary, warding the enemy Ancient Golem in response to Midnight Sun warding its counterpart.
But the same wards at the same camps doesn’t mean both teams were playing the same game. Flash Wolves' initial wards were clustered around the Dragon side of the map this time, minimizing Wulala's freedom in the region and lengthening the farming phases for both Lucian and — especially — Ryze. MSE's Herald-side wards in the upper jungle, on the other hand, were meant to prevent ganks on Ninuo's Nautilus.
What MSE weren't able to do, thanks to the Wolves' defensive warding, was keep Karsa from hitting level six. And wards in the jungle don't mean much when Rengar can run up a lane while invisible, dropping his entire spell rotation on a single target to secure First Blood on Ninuo. Again.
That game highlighted what is probably the biggest difference between a rookie team and a veteran one: matching the pace of the game with the champions they play. Players straight out of solo queue, where bot lane is always 2v2, are prone to assume that’s the natural flow of the game. But it’s only preferable if, like with Flash Wolves' Game 2, you’re intending to maximize time and gold for mid- and late-game champions like Rengar, who needs his stealth ability to be effective, or Ryze, who needs to itemize as much mana as possible by the time the team starts looking for fights.
Rarely do you see a rookie team that has an opening playbook designed for alternative scenarios. Or, in fact, an opening playbook at all.
To Midnight Sun's credit, they've been catching up. Their latest game against fellow rookies and bottom-rankers COUGAR demonstrated a stronger grasp on how to control the pick-ban phase and sculpt the opening minutes of the game.
This time, it was COUGAR's turn to overplay their hand, and Midnight Sun's to capitalize. The Alistar/Gragas/Lissandra combo provides a strong brawling core in teamfights, with Lissandra to catch Lucian and prevent him from kiting. Midnight Sun's Leona support pick was a way to prevent this: since all three of CGE's opening picks need to work within the same vicinity, a single Solar Flare can crush their engagements. In response, COUGAR chose a Trundle top lane, as his kit's designed to rip holes in tanks like Leona.
So Midnight Sun picked Fiora top lane, and showed off the lessons they learned about map play in the preceding weeks. In sharp contrast to their game against Flash Wolves, Midnight Sun's initial warding strategy was aggressive, tossing them within sight of the enemy's base walls to scout out who the COUGARs were assigning to top lane. Like Flash Wolves, they wanted to guarantee an extended laning phase — though this time the goal wasn’t to enable a mid laner like Ryze, but to guarantee that Ninuo had as much time he needed to harass and outfarm Never.
Midnight Sun crushed their opposition the same way Flash Wolves crushed them — with smart planning and strong opening strategy. And that is how a rookie team transitions to experienced veterans.
James Chen is a freelance writer for LoL Esports, PC Gamer and theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.