Knowing full well that they weren’t going to receive a single award at the 2014 Demacia Cup Awards — despite dominating the Chinese League of Legends landscape for the past year — EDward Gaming boycotted the ceremony after winning the titular tournament. It was their eighth domestic tournament win of that year.
Near the ceremony's conclusion, Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu heard his name being called. He received the award for most talented young rookie after leading his League of Legends Secondary Pro League team to several finals against the EDward Gaming, winning one of them.
In the coming year, EDward Gaming remained dominant and Mlxg’s reputation persisted as mere whispers. Despite King's bottom six placement, Mlxg remained one of the 2015 LPL Summer Split's Top 10 MVP earners, and jungler Lee “KaKAO” Byung-kwon heralded Mlxg as the best Chinese jungler going into the 2015 season.
Having transferred to Royal Never Give Up, Mlxg spent the end of the summer season playing in the Promotion Tournament. Following their loss in the final week of the regular season to Vici Gaming, Mlxg crumbled in the post-game interview. If Royal had won the series 2-0, they had a chance to avoid playing in the tournament. Unfortunately for them, they only managed to tie against VG, but Mlxg later confessed that he really thought they would make it.
At the 2015 Demacia Cup Awards, Mlxg was nominated for the best jungler award based on his spring season's MVP count. In the end, clearlove won the title. The 2015 Demacia Cup Awards may as well have been rebranded as the EDward Gaming Awards as they won in almost every category.
The 2016 LPL Spring Split Final is brimming with storylines and exciting matchups: Zhu “NaMei” Jiawen has made it back to an LPL final after a year of absence, Cho “Mata” Sehyeong and Jang “Looper” Hyeongseok have reemerged from a year of obscurity and EDward Gaming are finally looking as dominant as they did this time last year.
But given the state of the meta and the focus on EDward Gaming and Royal Never Give Up, it would be disingenuous not to highlight the matchup between clearlove and Mlxg.
It’s no coincidence that two of the LPL’s favorite carry junglers will be playing against each other in a domestic final for the first time since 2014's G League final, even considering the QG Reapers’ complete collapse. After all, this is their meta.
In a year that saw LPL teams fumble with lane swaps, smart jungle pathing has served as the LPL's bright spot during one of its least competitive splits.
Breaking down the technicalities
To pit clearlove and Mlxg against one another, I investigated their decisions and behavior in the first ten minutes of every game in the last series in which they faced one another (Week 9 of the LPL regular season) and the two LPL playoff series they played: EDward Gaming against Snake eSports and Royal Never Give Up against Team WE.
clearlove's average number of actions taken in the first 10 minutes
|Jungler||Against||Clears||Ganks||Counterganks||Wards||K or A||D||Buy|
Mlxg's average number of actions taken in the first 10 minutes
|Jungler||Against||Clears||Ganks||Counterganks||Wards||K or A||D||Buy|
Definitions: Clears refer to both neutral camp clears and instances where the jungler goes to a lane and clears part of or all of a wave of lane minions. Ganks are defined as instances where a jungler enters a lane to initiate a gank. Counterganks are instances where a jungler enters a lane to respond to a gank by a jungler or another enemy player. Wards include trinket use, tracker's knife wards, securing scuttle crab, or vision wards. "K or A" is kills or assists. "D" is deaths. Buy refers to instances where the player goes back to buy; if the player dies, this does not count as a buy instance.
Warding behavior is similar for both clearlove and Mlxg in the first 10 minutes. Between the regular season and their playoffs series, they purchased fewer Tracker's Knives, often favoring Skirmisher's Sabre. clearlove's two deaths against Mlxg in the first 10 minutes of Game 3 of their regular season series were a result of Mlxg invading his jungle.
Behaviors vary when it comes to ganks, counterganks, kills, and buys per early game. In both series, Mlxg averaged more kills and assists per game in the first 10 minutes than clearlove, though clearlove's numbers were more consistent. Mlxg's series against Condi featured one game with four kills or assists, two games with two kills or assists, and two games with zero kills or assists in the first 10 minutes, while clearlove was involved in one kill or assist in all three of his games against Zzr.
clearlove also ganked less frequently than Mlxg in his two series, with Mlxg averaging one more gank per game than clearlove in his two series. Despite this, the two had similar clear numbers, and clearlove has a higher rate of kills to ganks. Following a gank from Mlxg, whether successful or not, Mlxg will often take creeps from lane, but on EDward Gaming, Heo "pawN" Wonseok or Tong "koro1" Yang initiate Teleport ganks. In these scenarios, clearlove rotates to the empty lane and takes farm.
Counterganks also make up for clearlove's lower gank initiative rate. When adding ganks and counterganks together, clearlove averaged one gank per game in his series against Mlxg, whereas Mlxg averaged 1.67. Against Zzr, clearlove would average 1.67 ganks per game with ganks and counterganks aggregated, which is greater than Mlxg's 1.6 aggregate against Condi.
clearlove is more likely to exert lane pressure in counterganks. Zzr initiated a total of three ganks in the first 10 minutes in the three games between EDward Gaming and Snake eSports, and clearlove was on the appropriate side of the map to respond to all of them. You can see this tendency toward counterganking in his playstyle throughout his career.
clearlove's Action Distributions for his two series
Mlxg's Action Distributions for his two series
Definitions: Farm includes any clears. Gank includes all confrontation actions, including kills, deaths, ganks, and counterganks. Vision includes any ward placement or ward kills. Buy includes any instance of backing to buy items.
Both clearlove's and Mlxg's styles have grown more farm heavy over the course of the season. This reflects an increased emphasis on the carry jungle style with meta shifts. Both Royal Never Give Up and EDward Gaming use their junglers as one of two primary threats. In the case of Royal Never Give Up, the primary threats are Mlxg and mid laner Li "xiaohu" Yuanhao, and on EDward Gaming, the threats are clearlove and AD carry Kim "deft" Hyukkyu.
Building carry junglers
Mlxg's and clearlove's jungle pathing reflect his team's dynamic. Fifty percent of Mlxg's ganks in the series against Team WE were directed toward the mid lane, while all of clearlove's ganks were directed to side lanes. pawN is a frequent Teleport user, and he's even opted to use the spell on assassin picks like Leblanc and Zed. This allows pawN to initiate ganks in the early game while clearlove farms, and he will often offer a fresh wave of farm to clearlove without clearing it before he Teleports.
In Game 2 against Snake eSports, deft, Tian "meiko" Ye, and koro1 orchestrated a dive in the top lane while clearlove was able to clear two waves of minions in the bottom lane. Following this, deft and meiko rotated to the bottom lane, pawN Teleported to the top lane for an additional gank, and clearlove cleared the mid lane wave as well.
On Royal Never Give Up, Mlxg is less frequently offered waves of minions, but often will partially clear a wave as a reward for a gank (or he will take kills in a gank). As a result, Mlxg's average level at 10 minutes was 7.6 in his series against Team WE, above Looper's 7.2. In lane swap scenarios, Mlxg will occasionally clear half of his jungle, then gank the mid lane. If the gank is successful, he and xiaohu split the next wave of minions. An example of this is in Game 4 of the WE vs Royal Never Give Up series.
Though these are only examples from limited series, they're observable in earlier games throughout the season, including Royal's first series against Vici Gaming where Mlxg Level 2 ganked mid lane in Game 1.
Time of event in minutes
|Jungler||Against||Time to Level 6||First gank|
Based on these stylistic differences, clearlove will focus more on farming, possibly disrupt opponent jungler ganks, and achieve Level 6 before the enemy jungler, but the opposing jungler will also likely initiate the first gank. In Mlxg's case, he will initiate ganks earlier than clearlove on average, but may achieve Level 6 later. In their previous matchup, this was the case.
clearlove countered around 40 percent of Mlxg's ganks, which made it more difficult for Mlxg to split farm and take kills to gain experience. Meanwhile, EDward Gaming continued to allocate free lanes to clearlove, allowing him to reach level six slightly before Mlxg on average. This makes EDward Gaming's style more consistent, but also more easily thrown off by surprise, which is what occurred in Game 3 when Mlxg invaded EDward Gaming's jungle twice to kill clearlove.
If EDward Gaming's laners don't maintain sufficient vision coverage, it's easy for Mlxg's less predictable aggression to win him kills early. EDward Gaming's laners will generally only over-extend if clearlove is in the vicinity, which is what makes him an apt counter-jungler. In this manner, his location can also be telegraphed for invades. Royal Never Give Up's coordination with Mlxg is less exact, and so they will sometimes over-extend when Mlxg is on the other side of the map in more risky movements.
During the regular season, clearlove went undefeated on several champions, including Evelynn, Kindred, and more recently, Nidalee. Teams have banned his full AP build Evelynn and Kindred against EDward Gaming. Both junglers have favored Graves. Both junglers performed poorly on Elise, and Mlxg has yet to win a game with Elise this season.
For both junglers, Kindred inspires increased early game aggression. Mlxg's four kills or assists game against Team WE was his only Kindred game in the series, and the game in which he repeatedly invaded clearlove's jungler was also a Kindred game. Kindred is clearlove's highest kill participation pick that he's played more than twice, reflecting his higher tendency to gank lanes with the pick.
clearlove and Mlxg excel at all three of the standard picks, and I expect all of them to be contested or banned, perhaps forcing out unique picks like clearlove's Evelynn or Mlxg's Ekko.
Data for this section courtesy of Esportspedia.
The pathing debacle
When it comes to farming jungle camps, Mlxg's pathing in the first clear has been more predictable than clearlove's. Mlxg will clear an entire quadrant at once, then either gank mid or move onto the next quadrant. clearlove will forego camps selectively and prioritize securing the scuttle crab or invade to counterjungle or simply find the enemy jungler before taking both buffs. EDward Gaming generally come prepared with unique Level 1 strategies, sometimes only featuring a duo lane invade before camps spawn.
This interaction makes it easy for EDward Gaming to return the favor from their last encounter with Royal Never Give Up and track Mlxg early. EDward Gaming also now know about the possibility that Mlxg will invade, at least with a Kindred pick, and may prepare better jungle entrance vision coverage.
Following the possibility of a Level 1-3 invade, it comes down to whether Mlxg's unpredictable initiative will pay dividends or backfire. If he goes for the obvious over-extended lane, clearlove will likely be in the vicinity for a countergank. If Mlxg focuses more on farming, EDward Gaming's Teleport lanes will snowball the game. Both teams are accustomed to team fighting from a deficit, but EDward Gaming's longevity as a unit makes their overall coordination superior if RNG fall behind.
Royal Never Give Up have recently started playing for dragon stacking, picking up dragons as early as six minutes into the game. They then use this strategy to force teams to fight them before they take the fourth or fifth dragon. EDward Gaming has the highest dragon control in the league at 65.75 percent after semifinals. They were the first team in the LPL to rely on dragon as a late game insurance mechanism this split.
The dynamic of using xiaohu as the primary carry threat is the best way to shut down clearlove and EDward Gaming. By securing a lead in the mid lane, it becomes difficult for the enemy team to control the jungle. With xiaohu constantly pushed out, it's riskier for clearlove to invade and lay down vision for counterganks or to counterjungle Mlxg. Since EDward Gaming don't guard pawN's lane very closely and are more used to a style where he falls behind and exerts pressure on side lanes, this is the easiest way for RNG to defeat EDward Gaming. Expect more level 2 mid lane ganks from Mlxg.
Starting with the coming 2016 LPL Summer split, Royal Never Give Up's substitute jungler, Choi "inSec" Inseok, can be considered a Chinese resident for the purpose of competitive League of Legends. How Mlxg performs in the final could make or break his position on the starting roster in the second half of the season.
It may not yet be time for the LPL jungle's promising star to challenge its king. In the words of Mlxg's teammate, Mata, "There are a lot of areas on which Mlxg can improve and become better." Feeling challenged in long series has appeared to make Mlxg increase the pressure before, especially against Team WE's Condi and his infuriating Baron steals.
After a year and a half of climbing back up, Mlxg will jungle against clearlove in another tournament final. It's clear the skill is there. It's all about time. Maybe a year and a half is enough.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. She is excited that the 2016 LPL Spring final will be casted on-site at Shanghai Qizhong Tennis Center in English for the first time by Max "Atlus" Anderson and Jake "Spawn" Tiberi. You can follow her on Twitter.