For the most part, the LMS is a two-team league.
Yes, the Taipei Assassins have been performing above expectations, with rookie mid laner FoFo and journeyman jungler REFRA1N tossing up unreasonably good plays. Certainly, Machi 17 and Hong Kong Esports are continual threats; HKE has an alarming tendency to force tied best-of-two sets against any team, both good and bad.
But when push comes to shove, there are only two real contenders for the 2016 LMS Spring Playoffs: ahq E-Sports Club and Flash Wolves. The dragons of Taipei are head and shoulders above the competition, with ahq coming just two tied sets short of a perfect regular season.
Both ahq and the Wolves have a record of consistency on their side. Their dominance this split is merely a continuation from the summer 2015 season, which culminated with the two teams becoming the LMS's first representatives at the League World Championship. But will ahq continue to dominate all the way to a first place playoffs finish, or will Flash Wolves discover the key to defeating them?
Experience in the passenger seat: GreanTea and Steak
The most important overlap between the top two LMS teams: stubborn loyalty. Despite many offers from outside the country, almost every 2015 Worlds representative opted to stay on their respective team.
ahq's roster is largely unchanged, except for the addition of former TPA mid laner Chawy — which comes as a surprise, given the rumored bidding war for top laner Ziv, whose performance last October put him on par with even the best out of Korea and China.
On Flash Wolves, the only missing member from the original ten is top laner Steak — sort of. Though he also did much better than expected at Worlds, he never really had much of a reputation for stellar mechanics. But he didn't so much leave the team as change jobs, another point of commonality between the Wolves and their erstwhile rivals.
On ahq, it was support player GreenTea who moved to the analyst role. When he retired from ahq halfway through the first split of the LMS, fans of the team nearly revolted. He was their star player at the time; Westdoor's assassins-only playstyle was biting hard on the team's viability against a circuit that consisted solely of fellow Taiwanese and Hong Kong players, and the 2014 Southeast Asia representatives were struggling just to stay in fourth place.
Yet GreenTea’s retirement turned out to be the best thing ahq could ask for. As good as he was as a player, his work as team analyst was beyond all reasonable expectation. ahq showed glimmers of promise in the weeks preceding the playoffs, and once they were actually there, it was as if a whole different team was in the field.
Back then, the Flash Wolves were at a comfortable place at the top of the new Taiwanese hierarchy. They weren't expecting ahq to be the ones to knock them down. For more than 10 months since, the Wolves haven't been able to beat them. It was only very recently that they were able to take a game off of ahq, though nobody’s yet managed to best them in a full set.
Former top laner Steak's retirement from the Wolves' lineup didn't lead to any similar miracles. But it did lead to similar adaptations. Both ahq and Flash Wolves are now known for stellar map play, especially with strategic lane swaps. GreenTea’s move also helped ahq solve a problem that's plagued the team throughout its history: they’ve finally learned to close out sets without dragging them past the 45 minute mark.
Flash Wolves, meanwhile, used to be a team that was exclusively good at map play, but floundered a little when forced to play head-to-head fights over objectives. Maple, in particular, was better-known for control mages like Azir and Orianna (though, to be fair, every Taiwanese mid laner but Westdoor has a pocket Orianna, thanks to Toyz's big win in 2012).
Now, everybody's banning Zed and LeBlanc from Maple, and the Flash Wolves lead even ahq on kills per game. Their patch-to-patch adaptation has been among the best in the circuit — a hallmark of the power of good support over reliance on individual specialization.
Pack leader in the jungle: Flash Wolves’ Karsa
The teams start to differ when it comes to how their players specialize, especially their junglers. Flash Wolves' Karsa was considered one of the best in his position back in Worlds 2015, and he continues to impress with all-around strong stats in the spring. Yet here’s an example of where hard numbers matter less than how they’re interpreted — ahq jungler Mountain exceeds Karsa in gold share, kill share and farm speed, but is commonly considered the inferior jungler.
The difference starts with their wards-per-minute discrepancy. Mountain has nearly half of Karsa's vision coverage. Karsa also has the stronger First Blood participation rate, at over 50%, whereas Mountain has only participated in just over a third of First Bloods in his games. Kill participation shows a similar lead for Karsa, with the Wolves’ player involved in 69.3% of kills and Mountain trailing by 5 percentage points. Furthermore, Karsa has what is easily the highest average assist rate of all LMS junglers, making him the set-up king of Taiwan.
He kills fewer players than Mountain, but comes out with a better KDA. The Flash Wolves are a jungle-centric team, dependent on Karsa's control of the map to get mid laner Maple very, very fed. Superficially, both ahq and Flash Wolves are mid-lane-centric teams. But for Flash Wolves, Maple follows the path that Karsa sets out. The opposite is true with ahq: Mountain follows his mid laner's lead.
A rock and a hard place: ahq’s mids
Chawy and Westdoor provide alternating leadership for ahq, which is a fascinating dynamic given their vastly different playstyles. Westdoor's questionable Azir play, under the cover of a regular season performance so dominant that they were guaranteed the top playoffs seed weeks ago, reinforces his reputation as an assassins specialist. Chawy, meanwhile, is more likely to decide on Lux or Viktor to play into the enemy composition, and has really only performed well on LeBlanc when forced into the role of assassin.
Their stat lines tell of their distinct specializations. Chawy's kill participation and CS rates are exceptional, as you would expect from a player who specializes in mages that can nuke whole waves with a spell rotation. It's very hard to beat ahq with Chawy on-deck; the map pressure and farm he secures give him favorable combat stats at almost every stage of the game.
Westdoor, meanwhile, defies statistical analysis — he's infamous for gold deficits across almost every matchup (averaging a whopping -12 compared to the overall circuit average), and actually contributes less overall damage. A cursory comparison would suggest a player that more rightfully belongs on a mid-tier team instead of one of the playoffs favorites.
Granted, when your job is to look for single targets to nuke and walk away from, you only need enough damage to kill that one champ — not enough to bring down the whole team. Under Chawy, ahq is a particularly good macro-oriented team; his games are longer than Westdoor's, but they're relentless in their pressure, slowly grinding down the opposition lane by lane, turret by turret. His mage's waveclear batters their defenses and leaves few openings for counterattacks. With Westdoor, games end because there's nobody on the field to defend. They were slain, torn apart by burst damage, leaving their teams outnumbered. Ahq still does map play just fine under Westdoor, but they do it facing a lot less opposition at objectives.
Two rivals, one throne
Three months into the season, ahq's dominance at the top of the standings may be more of a curse than blessing. For the longest time, the team's strict adherence to side-player pairings — blue side for Westdoor, red side for Chawy — has allowed them to capitalize on their respective strengths, while ducking issues with Westdoor's champion pool by exploiting blue side's first-pick advantage.
That strategy likely won’t be as effective going forward. Not because of shifts in the pick-ban meta, but because ahq’s weaknesses have been thoroughly probed by their opponents. Even if the enemy team can't completely ban out Westdoor's champion pool, they can at least accurately predict which champions he'll reach for and what rotation he’ll use to lock them in. Chawy, on the other hand, may have a wider range of picks, but his playstyle is even more predictable than Westdoor’s.
Flash Wolves can neutralize ahq's greatest strengths with smart preparation, but can the Wolves stop ahq from exploiting their own weaknesses? Top laners Rins and MMD haven’t systematized their playstyles the way Westdoor/Chawy have; Rins is a rookie, and MMD tends to have his own champion pool depth problems. The Wolves seem to swap them out more based on performance than for any cunning strategic reason.
Both of them will have to go up against ahq’s top laner Ziv, who has set the Taiwanese standard for top lane play two years running, with the highest gold average and one of the circuit's greatest assist rates across a wide pool of champions. Ziv is ahq’s X-factor, throwing everybody's calculations out of whack. The soft-spoken, mild-mannered top laner is easily overlooked, but there's a reason why he was the subject of the most audacious contract rumors after the last Worlds.
For Flash Wolves to be crowned the new kings, they'll have to brave a multidimensional threat. They’ll have to adjust to two wildly different but equally successful playstyles, and they’ll have to deal with what lurks patiently in the top lane.
James Chen is a freelance writer for LoL Esports, PC Gamer and theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.