While last spring featured the rise of the GE Tigers over the smouldering wreckage of a Korean scene that had lost its tournament format, sister teams, and an abundance of talent to China, this spring saw the Tigers dictate game pace and the metagame over a much stronger array of teams.
Last spring's gauntlet showcased an ageing CJ Entus squad, a Jin Air team that had no idea how to play on the current patch, and a surging SK Telecom T1 run rampant in the hopes of securing a spot at the Mid-Season Invitational. This season has similar plot devices — especially when looking at the Jin Air Green Wings — but Korea is much deeper than it was in 2015. Even the Afreeca Freecs' cinderella-esque story showcases just how much the scene has grown in a year's time.
Second verse, same as the first
Like last year, the Jin Air Green Wings looked to be one of the LCK’s most creative teams at the beginning of the season. Even with their plodding game pace and insistence on taking nearly every objective the map had to offer, they appeared to have their finger on the pulse of the current meta — especially with their triple-AD carry composition around top laner Yeo “TrAce” Chang-dong’s Graves.
In 2015, the introduction of Cinderhulk to the competitive meta stymied Jin Air. Jungler Lee “Chaser” Sang-hyun was unable to be as effective on tank junglers as he was on more carry-oriented or utility picks. Without Chaser’s early game presence, the team faltered and finished the season with a 1-4 series record in their final three weeks. Going into playoffs, there was still the hope that the short break would give Jin Air time to adapt. They didn’t, and bombed out of playoffs in the first round. A similar story looks to unfold in 2016.
Jin Air finished the split with a 2-8 game record, dropping all four of their series in the last three weeks. Unlike last year, Jin Air has struggled to adapt as the meta has slowly shifted away from their initial: the triple-AD carry comp.
Jin Air can play the meta champions, but the setup of a carry jungler and a tank top doesn’t suit the team and they’ve had difficulty getting TrAce involved as the season's progressed. AD carry Na “Pilot” Woo-hyung has struggled when the team has needed him to carry the most, especially since the current carry jungler meta doesn’t suit Park “Winged” Tae-jin's more utility-focused style. Perhaps with a stronger AD carry, Jin Air would be able to work out their kinks prior to playoffs. As it stands, they have no momentum and go up against a surging Afreeca Freecs team.
A dream is a wish your heart makes
Unlike Jin Air, the Afreeca Freecs have adapted to the late season meta.
Simply put, this team is a far cry from the one that would sit through picks and bans in the hopes that mid laner Son “Mickey” Young-min’s best carry champions weren’t banned. This split has seen the Freecs focus more around AD carry Gwon “Sangyoon” Sang-yun and support No “Snowflower” Hoi-jong. Top laner Jeon “ikssu” Ik-soo has been perfectly content in the latter part of the season on tankier champions, including his reintroduction of Gragas to the top lane pool.
The real hero of the Freecs’ meteoric rise — they've won five of their last six series, only losing to the first-place ROX Tigers — has been jungler Nam “LirA” Tae-yoo. Initially called upon to replace Park “Bubbling” Jun-hyeong back in 2015 when they went by Anarchy, the veteran jungler is often cited by teammates as the Freecs’ core. This past offseason, when the Freecs were struggling to find a sponsor and on the verge of disbanding, LirA was the one who reportedly kept them together.
Now, LirA is not only leading his team, but having a career season on the likes of Nidalee and Graves. He holds the second-highest CS per minute of any starting LCK jungler at 4.9 — only 0.1 behind Samsung’s Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong — and the third-highest earned gold per minute at 240. Where Winged has struggled to find his place in the current meta, LirA has thrived. The Freecs’ cinderella story will likely come to an end against either SK Telecom T1 or KT Rolster,
Defenders of the crown
Aided by the demise of Jin Air, SK Telecom T1 overcame their initial problems this season to finish respectably in third place. While the Freecs have stolen the show, along with the hearts of every LCK fan, SKT have quietly gone 10-3 over the past three weeks and have won all of their series save for a Week 13 loss to KT Rolster.
However, this isn’t last year’s SKT, who had a similar late-season rise before ripping through the playoff gauntlet that culminated in a dominant 3-0 win over the GE Tigers. This year, their strength of schedule is distinctly less difficult than that of 2015. KT aside, SKT faced the bottom five LCK teams which help them claim their third-place finish.
Following their IEM championship win, SKT have further developed their teamfighting, led by mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and continued development of new jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu. There’s little doubt that the current state of the jungle suits Blank more than veteran Bae “bengi” Seong-woong, and to the team’s credit, Blank has improved significantly. The newcomer has continued bengi’s vision legacy — he has the most wards placed per minute of any LCK jungler this split (0.92) while on a stable of more meta picks like Nidalee, Graves, and Kindred in addition to Elise and Gragas.
Faker is still the star of the show, and he masterfully controls teamfights on nearly every champion he plays — his Lissandra and Azir have been particularly impressive this split, especially when you consider his history with Azir. His overwhelming presence allows Blank to do his thing in SKT's jungle and facilitates AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik’s incredible teamfighting prowess.
Present day, present time
The current metagame is fantastic for KT Rolster. A team that has often thrived on their ability to adapt to new patches, KT has taken to the most recent patch like a fish to water. The question, as always, is whether KT will be able to stay ahead of their opponents as other teams adapt while going through the lower parts of the playoff gauntlet. One of the reasons why KT often appears so uneven is that teams outpace them after their initial burst of ingenuity following a new patch, and KT is then left waiting for more changes to arrive.
Fortunately, this year’s KT is a bit more flexible, although they still struggle if top laner Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho or jungler Go “Score” Dong-bin are ineffective early. AD carry No “Arrow” Dong-hyeon has visibly improved his individual mechanics from last year and is no longer as over-reliant on his personal pocket picks. Lastly, while Ha “Hachani” Seung-chan is still a sticking point for his face-checking ways, the current tank support meta coupled with his own improvement makes him far less of a liability.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. She is personally rooting for KT Rolster, but accepts that they'll likely find a way to lose. You can follow her on Twitter.