Emily Rand's NA LCS Roundup: Adaptation

by theScore Staff Apr 11 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games/lolesports / NA LCS Spring 2016 / Riot Games

A good best-of-five has everything: player narratives, two strong teams and a clear strategic progression from the first game to the last. One of North America’s League Championship Series Spring Semifinals delivered on all accounts: Counter Logic Gaming versus Team Liquid. The two teams battered and bloodied each other until CLG emerged the rightful victor. Now they’re headed to Las Vegas to defend their championship title.

The other series saw Team SoloMid grind down a surprisingly unprepared Immortals team, 3-0.

Throughout the playoffs, adaptation has been a constant theme — teams have not only been forced to adapt to a new patch, but to fine-tune their strategies before all-important best-of-five matches. A season of best-of-ones hardly prepares a team for the playoffs format, since little to no adaptation is required. Teams like Cloud9 and Immortals were rarely punished during the regular season for their arguably static approach to the game. In the playoffs, however, they came unprepared and found themselves outclassed.

Fortunately, this Spring Split marked the end of the best-of-one era. Going forward all NA regular season games will be best-of-threes. In other words, teams need to learn how to adapt more quickly, lest they be shut down by more agile opponents — like Immortals were on Sunday.

Immortals were one of the most creative teams in the league this season. The team's lineup came together early and they were tearing through scrims before LCS games even began. Their strategy, with Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon snowballing in top lane and Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin controlling the jungle, set up a two-pronged assault that smashed the Spring Split, leading them to an NA LCS all-time record finish of 17 wins to only one loss.

On Sunday, April 10, they bombed out to a sixth-place Team SoloMid who struggled all season to find their bearings.

Immortals' trajectory invites comparison to that of Korea’s Jin Air Green Wings. Just as the (former) top NA team have been ruthlessly punished for their hubris — specifically their poor preparation and understanding of the meta — the Green Wings' inability to adjust to meta shifts has led them to lackluster finishes in both Spring 2015 and Spring 2016. Last year it was patch 5.5 and Cinderhulk that stopped them up; this year jungler Park “Winged” Tae-jin has struggled to find a home in the carry jungler meta. Jin Air dropped five of their last six series in LCK Spring 2016, with an abysmal 4-11 game record.

At the beginning of the 2016 season, Jin Air took the LCK by storm with their triple-AD carry composition designed around top laner Yeo “TrAce” Chang-dong’s top Graves. Then the meta shifted. TrAce wasn’t nearly as effective for his team on tankier champions like Nautilus, even when they managed to edge out a win. It wasn’t that Jin Air didn’t know the meta picks, but they couldn’t play them as effectively as their signature triple-AD threat.

Where the two narratives diverge is in how quickly Korean teams surpassed Jin Air. Thanks to the LCK's best-of-three format and longer season, their opponents adapted much faster, and they fell behind much earlier in the season than Immortals.

Like Jin Air, Immortals' success created ripples across the North American scene at the beginning of the split. Support Adrian “Adrian” Ma and his team shifted the region's support priority from tankier initiators like Alistar or Trundle to squishier disengage and healing champions like Janna and Soraka. Yet now, in the leadup to the Mid-Season Invitational where Immortals and other NA top finishers will face the rest of the world, their support prioritization stands as a mark against the entire region.

That's in part because Immortals' support choices were a way to compensate for their weaknesses. AD carry Jason “WildTurtle” Tran still sometimes makes aggressive positioning errors both in and out of lane (though not as frequently as in years past), and the healing and disengage were needed to keep him safe in teamfights. As added insurance, Huni would supplement WildTurtle's damage with a stable of carry tops. The system worked very well, so Immortals kept at it, and other teams began to emulate them.

By the Semifinals, however, their playstyle was less a secret weapon than it was a straitjacket. Game 1 against TSM saw Immortals take a typical triple-AD composition with Huni on top lane Lucian. The team sprung to their usual early lead, but then something unexpected happened — they were rapidly outscaled by TSM top laner Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell on Maokai, a tanky champion who saw significant buffs on patch 6.6. Games 2 and 3 followed a similar pattern — Immortals refused to play a tankier top, a tankier support and a harder carry jungler. And they lost badly.

In hindsight, their drafts seem arrogant. Yet with no one playing well enough to stop them during — CLG's one win aside — and not enough regular season games to root out their vulnerabilities, it’s no wonder they thought they could get away with playing the same game one more time.

Immortals’ Semifinal adversaries, TSM, failed to adapt throughout the regular season. With former carry players like mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg and jungler Denis “Svenskeren” Johnsen taking a backseat to AD carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, the team struggled to cohere. It wasn’t that TSM couldn’t grasp the meta; they couldn’t even grasp their own identity.

That changed in the Spring Playoffs. First, TSM cut their teeth on Cloud9, another team who were woefully lost come time for their best-of-five playoff series.

Hauntzer as a tanky initiator seems to work much better for TSM than a hard carry champion. As far back as Gravity, he's had exceptional teamfight timing, even with some basic minion control and wave management mistakes in lane. Svenskeren looks like a completely different player, now taking over games on Graves and Nidalee. Bjergsen has returned to the carry throne of TSM, dazzling on Zed, Azir and Vel’koz.

Perhaps more importantly, TSM’s wheels were turning throughout the series against C9. They adapted to what C9 threw at them as the games progressed. They did the same against Immortals, stomping them with a superior understanding of how their team operates and how to play the current metagame.

While Immortals' strategy ossified, on the other side of the bracket Counter Logic Gaming spent their weeks off preparing for the current metagame. They took on a hungry TL team in a back and forth affair that had all the elements of a great best-of-five: adaptation from both teams, draft sparring and stunning individual plays. If you watch one series from this weekend, that one delivers like none other.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of Immortals and TSM — unless you, like many fans, have been fervently wishing and waiting for this TSM lineup to show its true strength. The best-of-one season wasn’t wholly responsible for the fall of Immortals, but you can’t help but wonder how much better they would have been had they been forced to adapt sooner. Likewise, with TSM and even the TL squad led by three rookies, a season of series would have greatly accelerated each team on their path to an identity. Hopefully, next split will be different.

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