Emily Rand's LCK Weekly: the homestretch

by theScore Staff Mar 29 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of KeSPA / LCK Spring 2016

To no one's surprise, the ROX Tigers clinched LoL Champions Korea Spring 2016 postseason gauntlet's top spot this past week with two more series sweeps over CJ Entus and Kongdoo Monster. With the Jin Air Green Wings and KT Rolster losing to Samsung Galaxy and the Afreeca Freecs respectively, the middle of the pack is more nebulous than ever. The large gulf between the Tigers and the second (Jin Air) through eighth (Longzhu Gaming) place teams still appears insurmountable for these teams to overcome, especially in a best-of-five playoff series.

Another gaping maw exists in the standings between the eighth place spot and the bottom two teams, Kongdoo Monster and SBENU Sonicboom, both of which are bound for the Summer Promotion tournament against what will most likely be MVP and one of either ESC Ever, Stardust, or Ever8 Winners.

Story of the Week

The Playoff Picture

It’s difficult not to draw comparisons between LCK Spring 2015 and LCK Spring 2016, although a key difference lies in this year’s iteration of the Tigers. ROX continue to decimate opponents, even when picking less than ideal compositions like their all-damage arrangement in their second game this week against Kongdoo Monster. Unlike like last year, where the Tigers trended downward following their startling IEM loss, this year’s ROX Tigers bounced back from their Week 9 series loss to Samsung Galaxy by sweeping SK Telecom T1 in Week 10.

While the Kongdoo series was admittedly more of a showcase of swagger than discipline, ROX’s other Week 11 series against CJ Entus was similar to their showing against SK Telecom T1 last week. In both series, ROX had a closer first game before blowing out their opponents in the second game of a sweep. This only goes to show just how large the gap still is between ROX and the rest of the field, with their next closest competition – the Jin Air Green Wings and KT Rolster – dropping their Week 11 series to presumed inferior opponents.

Jin Air Green Wings: 10-5 (overall game record 22-13)

Remaining series: Afreeca Freecs, ROX Tigers, Longzhu Gaming

The Jin Air Green Wings have plateaued a bit as of late. This past week saw them drop a series to Samsung Galaxy thanks in large part to poor drafting and misplaying the laneswap. In Game 1, Jin Air allowed Samsung jungler Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong to have his best champion, Graves, by banning out Nidalee, Kindred, and inexplicably Lulu rather than Graves.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that Jin Air top laner Yeo “TrAce” Chang-dong was the first to debut Graves in the top lane, making it a dangerous flex pick for the Green Wings. Yet, in spite of a first-rotation Corki on blue side for Samsung, Jin Air opted to gift the Graves to Ambition regardless, placing focus on their bottom lane of AD carry Na “Pilot” Woo-hyung and support Choi “Chei” Sun-ho by picking Kalista and Alistar. TrAce has spent six of his past seven games on Nautilus, removing a key carry threat that aided Jin Air in their rise through the standings to second place. Unfortunately, the focus on Pilot as the main carry rather than a secondary one to TrAce or mid laner Lee “Kuzan” Seong-hyeok has rarely paid off this split. Jin Air’s plateau coincides with the removal of TrAce as a primary damage threat for the team, and this is something that they’ll have to reexamine heading into playoffs.

KT Rolster: 9-5 (overall game record 21-12)

Remaining series: Rox Tigers, CJ Entus, SK Telecom T1, Kongdoo Monster

Their final Week 13 series against Kongdoo Monster aside, KT Rolster have a tough schedule in front of them that will test their mettle and determine their position in playoffs. Like Jin Air, but in a far more obvious fashion, KT Rolster struggles without their top laner as the primary carry threat. Of all starting top laners, KT Rolster’s Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho receives the highest percentage of his team’s gold at 23.6 percent, with his next closest adversary, SK Telecom T1’s Lee “Duke” Ho-seong a full percent behind him at 22.5. Yet KT Rolster has struggled as of late without Ssumday on one of his more carry-oriented choices of Poppy, Fiora, or Gangplank, opting into Gnar and Maokai against the Freecs. Poppy in particular allows Ssumday to control fights and either initiate or disengage rather than leaving these duties to his teammates — specifically support Ha “Hachani” Seung-chan.

Additionally, the loss of support Lee “IgNar” Dong-geun hurts. Initially when former KT Rolster Arrows support Hachani announced his return to the team, it was thought that Hachani would take more of a backseat role. Fresh off of his coaching stint with the Afreeca Freecs — then known as Anarchy — Hachani seemed to be a strong mentor-like figure, especially with his penchant for face-checking brushes on the Rift. Unfortunately for the team, this isn’t how KT Rolster evolved this past season and IgNar recently left the team after only playing a total of three games. In their recent loss to Afreeca, Hachani was everywhere his team needed him not to be, getting caught out and frequently mispositioning in skirmishes and teamfights.

SK Telecom T1: 9-5 (overall game record 20-12)

Remaining series: Kongdoo Monster, Samsung Galaxy, KT Rolster, SBENU Sonicboom

There’s not a team on their remaining roster that SK Telecom T1 cannot beat in a best-of-three, placing the reigning World Champions in a good spot for a strong playoff position behind the ROX Tigers. That being said, SK Telecom T1 still makes a myriad of in-game mistakes, and they certainly don’t appear to be shoo-ins for another LCK title like their 2015 counterparts were at this time last year. SK Telecom T1 has series against the two bottom teams in LCK Spring 2016, which should give the team more time to improve their coordination. This past week was already a great start for SK Telecom T1 as they swept both Longzhu Gaming and CJ Entus, sprinting ahead in the overall standings to fourth place, only a point behind third-place KT Rolster.

Duke’s Teleports remain fairly suspect, reaching memetic status at times, and games are usually won off the backs of mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik, both of whom are having fantastic seasons. Faker still has an affinity for over-aggressing, something that teams have been able to take advantage of during individual fights and skirmishes, but rarely punish SK Telecom T1 for with a loss. Their generous schedule also allows further time for Duke and jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu to coordinate with the team so they’re thoroughly prepared for playoffs.

Samsung Galaxy: 9-6 (overall game record 19-17)

Remaining series: Longzhu Gaming, SK Telecom T1, Kongdoo Monster

If given their champions and allowed to play their game, Samsung Galaxy can best any of their opponents in Korea. This was once again proven in their series against the Jin Air Green Wings in Week 11, further muddying the middle of the LCK Spring 2016 standings. While it’s possible for Samsung to sweep their next three series, it’s equally possible that they’ll go 1-2. Their gameplan relies on their strong jungle and baron control, with Ambition power-farming on the likes of Graves throughout the early game.

Mid laner Lee “Crown” Min-ho also presents an interesting conundrum for opponents with his off-center champion pool, and has had some stunning recent performances on Varus. Samsung is one of the least-bloody teams in Korea with an average of 0.52 combined kills per minute, focusing on poking down their opponents thanks to waveclear from Crown and supplementary damage from AD carry Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in

Runner-up: The rise of the Afreeca Freecs

Last year as Anarchy in LCK Summer 2015, the Freecs initially took a series from NaJin e-mFire and a game from CJ Entus, en route to becoming the season’s scrappy underdog. Teams subsequently learned how to ban out mid laner Son “Mickey” Young-min, and the team was left without another reliable carry option.

Now in LCK Spring 2016, the Freecs have improved and learned, especially where resource distribution is concerned. More often than not, Mickey now plays a more disruptive role, distracting opponents so that AD carry Gwon “Sangyoon” Sang-yun can take center stage. Top laner Jeon “ikssu” Ik-soo has also recently made his mark on the LCK, reintroducing Gragas top into professional play against Kongdoo Monster and is currently tied for second in the MVP standings with 900 points.

The Freecs aren’t great, but they’re highly entertaining and have moved beyond taking the occasional game off of superior opponents but whole series. Their most recent 2-1 win against KT Rolster continues to show that teams can’t sleep in draft or on the Rift against the Freecs.

Series to Watch:

CJ Entus vs. ROX Tigers

Up until recently, CJ Entus had risen through the standings thanks to their relatively easy schedule in the first part of the second round robin along with impressive teamfighting. Mid laner Gwak “Bdd” Bo-seong fit in perfectly to CJ’s gameplan, providing a strong presence at the center of the map along with supplementary zone control and damage to AD carry Ha “Kramer” Jong-hun.

CJ Entus gives ROX their all in the first game and still comes up short. It’s another entry in a long list of examples that shows the strength of the ROX Tigers. Late-game teamfighting, which is usually CJ Entus’ bread and butter, is where the Tigers stop CJ, even in fights of CJ’s choosing.

KT Rolster vs. Afreeca

This series is an interesting one due to the teams’ respective draft choices and, of course, the upset victory for the Afreeca Freecs. The Freecs exploit KT Rolster’s struggles without the Ssumday Poppy pick, and manage to be in the right places at the right times while KT support Hachani is decidedly not. While many may have written off the Freecs’ victory against SK Telecom T1 in the first round robin as a failing on SK Telecom T1’s part, this series further shows why teams cannot sleep on the steadily-improving Freecs.

Samsung Galaxy vs. Jin Air Green Wings

Mistakes were made by both teams in this series, starting with choices in the draft and ending with choices on the Rift. Nonetheless, it’s a good example of what both of these teams are currently capable of. Additionally, it serves as yet another reminder as to how far the ROX Tigers still are from both of them – and the rest of the middle of the pack teams – in spite of the fact that Samsung has the only series win against the first-place team.

Ridiculous game of the week:

ROX Tigers vs. Kongdoo Monster Game 2

Locking in an all-damage, solo-queue composition without a tank that relied solely on Kindred’s Lamb’s Respite for any sustain in teamfights, the ROX Tigers still managed to pull out a victory in a bizarre finish. Good if you want to just sit back and have a laugh.

MVP of the Week: Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok

Last year, Faker had to watch as Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon started ahead of him in nearly half of SK Telecom T1 presumably due to the latter’s proficiency on zoning mages. In particular, Azir was an Easyhoon special, controlling fights with his impressive zone control and steady stream of damage output across lengths of time.

Never one to be outdone, Faker has perfected Azir in a way that only Faker could — by making the champion his own. Faker’s Azir is aggressive, as he plays the champion like a burst mage rather than a slower zoning option for continuous damage in extended fights. In Week 10, Faker’s Azir nearly won SK Telecom T1 their first game against the ROX Tigers. This past week, Faker continued to dazzle on Azir against both Longzhu and CJ Entus, with his conquering of the Emperor of the Sands just another minor feat in his lengthy list of personal achievements as the world’s best League of Legends player.

Runner-up: Lee “Crown” Min-ho

An integral piece of the Samsung puzzle, Crown offers waveclear and zone control while also holding lane against some of the LCK’s best. While he still has a few obvious holes in his champion pool — his Lulu against Jin Air was particularly uninspiring in spite of success with the champion against SBENU Sonicboom — he makes up for it with exceptional performances on Varus along with odd pocket picks like Cassiopeia. This past week, Crown put on a Varus clinic in games against both SBENU and Jin Air, showing just how important he is to Samsung’s overall success.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.