Despite their dominance in the second half of 2015, SK Telecom T1 looked far from polished at last year's MSI. Both Fnatic and EDward Gaming took them to five games, and Faker saw his first loss on LeBlanc, thanks to a composition designed by EDG to completely neutralize his signature champion. The loss ultimately cost SKT the championship.
Now, SKT is the only team remaining from the previous MSI, and they're looking to finally add an MSI trophy to their case. But they shouldn’t underestimate the competition.
Let’s start off with G2. Ever since they entered the LCS, they've been the team to watch for smart meta picks. Trick was the earliest jungler to adapt to carry-style champions like Nidalee, Graves and Kindred. Kikis has been playing tanks in top lane throughout the split with assistance from Hybrid on champions like Braum. Rookie of the split Perkz has had an especially great showing with a range of champion styles — he can adapt and play a more team-oriented TP style, with champions like Lissandra, or he can demonstrate great prowess and mechanical outplays on assassins like Zed, as he did in the EU LCS Spring Finals.
The story of this team is all about Trick and Perkz. They open up both sidelanes with great pressure and roams to get their teammates ahead. This team can either go off and win a lot of games, or their often reckless skirmishes can backfire. No European team could figure out how to beat their mid/jungle duo, so it's up to international competition to try.
Players to watch: Trick and Perkz
Counter Logic Gaming
Next up is Counter Logic Gaming. CLG won the NA LCS Finals against TSM in a close series with a 3-2 result, though they finished the regular season in second place. Coming into this tournament we have to ask two big questions: Can Darshan stack up internationally against other top laners or will he falter (again)? And, is aphromoo really a strong enough leader to shotcall in high-pressure situations and control his teammates against stronger opponents than they faced domestically?
At multiple past international events, CLG has lost its grasp on the meta and failed to adapt to how other regions are playing. Nevertheless, if CLG wants to have a good showing at this MSI, they need to stick to the style that worked in NA for them. They should not draft to cover their weaknesses, but rather to improve their strengths – chiefly, letting Darshan split-push on a champion like Ekko to create pressure and out-rotate opponents with superior map movements. CLG won't be able to straight-up out-teamfight a lot of the attending teams.
The one thing they have going for them is the lack of top-tier top laners attending MSI. Duke is not an S-tier top laner like Ssumday or Smeb, and Darshan can definitely prove himself this tournament. CLG needs smart map movements and should aim at getting them through lane swaps in order to win games.
Players to watch: Aphromoo and Darshan
SK Telecom T1
Korea has always played the best League of Legends, at least in terms of the number of teams that can compete with the world’s best. This split has shown that the gap between the West and the East has only widened, and SKT is at MSI to underline this statement once more.
After an impressive series between SKT and ROX Tigers, I have no doubt in my mind that SKT and the Tigers are still the two best teams in the world. At the start of the split SKT struggled to close out games and find good drafts. Often, their new jungler Blank wasn't used correctly to create pressure. But over the course of only a few weeks, Blank has transformed from a rookie jungler with many mistakes to one of the best carry junglers in the League.
Without much top lane competition at the tournament, I expect that Duke will put up a great showing, regardless of any individual weaknesses. And though he's often unnoticed behind Faker, Bang is worthy of being called the best ADC in the world at the moment – which makes SKT the team with the two best carries at MSI.
Players to watch: Faker and Blank
Royal Never Give Up
Even though China has disappointed in recent international competition, I would never count out a team that has a player as talented as Mata on the roster. Royal Never Give Up was looking shaky before Mata decided to join their ranks, but since he's arrive the team's overall performance has seen significant improvement. Mid laner xiaohu in particular seems to be on a different level now, with much better planning involved in his play.
With all roles having roughly equal importance in the game currently, it all comes down to team play and effective use of power spikes, champion positioning and TPs. I don’t think RNG's jungle-mid lane synergy or macro game is nearly as strong as some of the other teams, and therefore they are at a clear disadvantage coming into this tournament. As a team, I think that they still make a lot of rotational mistakes and lane distribution errors, and they have to fix the fundamentals of their gameplay in order to contest the title.
Players to watch: Mata and xiaohu
The Flash Wolves have made a name for themselves over the last two years, even though their opponents have almost always underestimated them. SwordArt is arguably the best support player in the LMS, and to any fan of the region it should be no surprise to hear the names Karsa and Maple. Both of them are incredibly skilled players and have shown multiple times that they can play mechanically demanding champions at the highest level.
This team is easily capable of challenging every team in this tournament, except maybe SKT, provided that they replace their weak link in the top lane – Steak – with powerhouse MMD. It’s going to be interesting to see how they stack up against a team like G2, because on paper, the mid/jungle duos on each side are evenly matched, and their respective side lanes have similar strengths and weaknesses. Even though SwordArt is a great support I can’t rate NL that highly – a dynamic which also holds true for G2, since Hybrid is a fantastic player, but Emperor is often mispositioned and hasn't had a great performance this split. This should make for an interesting matchup.
Players to watch: Karsa and Maple
Last but not least we have to talk about the IWCI winner: SuperMassive eSports, who qualified after defeating Hard Random in the finals. I think it’s impossible to really rate the IWCI team's strength, because the metagame at lower levels is much different than at the international stage. For one thing, scaling team comps aren't punished as often.
Although Lissandra and Azir definitely played a big part in SuperMassive's victory, I'm afraid those two champions might not be available to them due to bans. Naru and Dumbledoge are easily their two best players, and this team can make something happen, it will be thanks to them.
Players to watch: Naru and Dumbledoge
Champions to watch
Picks are an essential component of the current meta, and several of them are absolutely needed to set up game-winning conditions. Starting in the top lane, it’s no surprise that tanks have been dominant over the last weeks due to itemization changes, and it won’t be any different this tournament. Poppy and Maokai have been S-tier picks in all regions. They're generally used as split-pushers, main engagement and mid game carries. Thanks to their itemization, they can deal an insane amount of damage with two items, and single-handedly win games based off of good TP flanks on the backline. Ekko has been the best early pickup, due to his ability to also flex into the mid lane and in some cases even jungle, and I would not be surprised to see many first picks and bans targeted at him.
We also have a very stable jungle pool: Nidalee is often banned out, and as an answer, both teams have been trading Kindred and Graves with each other. The Kindred vs. Graves matchup is really even, so no team gains an advantage in the draft — unless the team as a whole is built to dive, in which case Kindred gets the edge, because she denies assassination, and her level 3 is a bit stronger than Graves'. We probably will also see a bit of Elise for extreme early game aggression, and Gragas for players that are more comfortable on him, even though they are not as effective as the other three.
Mid lane is the the most interesting role, as Deficio wrote in a recent post about meta team comps, and a simple Summoner Spell can dictate the whole playstyle of a team. There are obvious choices like Lissandra, Ryze, Zilean, Lulu and Kassadin with TP, which allow a team to set up a 1-3-1 in the later stages of the game and collapse with a man advantage, using both TPs. But mages like Varus, Azir, Corki, Orianna and sometimes even Cassiopeia are also fairly good right now, usually running a Cleanse or Heal. Lastly, you have assassins and high-pressure mid laners like Zed and LeBlanc.
Likewise, bot lane choices for the AD carry provide a lot more to the team than just damage. Sivir and Ezreal can provide utility, while also giving the best damage output in late game. Lucian wins you the lane phase and seems to be a high priority pick in some regions. Some teams have experimented with Twitch, but I'm not really sold on the pick yet.
For the support role, Braum and Alistar are the obvious S-tier picks regardless of the ADC. With multiple carries on each side in every game, Braum gains a lot of value, because he both counters opposing carries and facilitates his own. Honorable mentions also go to Trundle to counter tanks and Bard for some engagement utility and pure lane dominance. Sometimes Thresh is preferred as a counter to Braum, but he needs to be played flawlessly to have the same impact on a game.
Given the above, here's how I would rank all six teams:
- S-Tier (most likely to win the whole tournament): SKT
- A-Tier: G2 and Flash Wolves
- B-Tier: Royal Never Give Up and Counter Logic Gaming
- C-Tier: IWCI
Anything but first place would be a disappointment for SKT, and probably one of the bigger upsets in League history. Even if they do emerge the uncontested victor, a battle for the silver medal between G2 and Flash Wolves will be worth watching. Both teams heavily rely on their mid and jungle synergy to make plays happen.
Just based on historical context, the B-tier will usually be the teams that have trouble adapting to the meta, aren't prepared in the draft, or are outclassed in some matchups and/or the macro game. I would rate the IWCI team at the bottom, since I don’t see this team ranking above any of the other five.
Marcel "Dexter" Feldkamp is a professional player, desk personality and freelance interviewer for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.