MSI Preview: Royal's unsteady rise

by theScore Staff May 2 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of LPL / LPL Screengrab

Although I am very pleased we took the LPL crown, we cannot get caught up in the victory feeling and think ourselves champions because there is still MSI and the summer season.

Mata on winning the LPL

Royal Never Give Up are carrying a lot of narrative baggage with them into the MidSeason Invitational. Their LPL victory follows a string of disappointing Chinese showings at international events, but they nonetheless face high expectations set by EDward Gaming, who defeated SK Telecom T1 at last year's MSI.

Yet Royal Never Give Up aren't coming to MSI to satisfy a narrative or take back the LPL's place as the second-best League of Legends league. Li "xiaohu" Luanhao has told reporters that when the team lost to Fnatic at IEM Katowice earlier this season, it wasn't because they had a heavy mindset, as other Chinese teams on the international stage have claimed. RNG went to IEM as they do every tournament, looking to gain experience and play their best in every match — and they intend to play MSI the same way.

The team have always set modest goals for themselves. At the end of the regular season, Captain Cho "Mata" Sehyeong said his goal was to make the LPL Final, and only when that was attained would he think of winning. Royal haven't set any explicit long-term goals, beyond their desire to return to the World Championship final this Summer.

But over time, their small successes have added up. Royal Never Give Up have improved the most steadily of any Chinese team since the LPL began this Spring. They aren't the same team that touched down at Katowice — but they're also far from the powerhouse China sent to Talahassee last May.

RNG are heading to MSI not with any grandiose ambitions, but to become more of a team. They will defend China's MSI title on home ground, and they will contend for second place, but whatever else happens, they will continue their slow build. Anything beyond that is a bonus.

Objective control

Objective Overall AVG MSI Rank Playoff AVG MSI Rank
First Blood%  59.4 2 78 2
First Dragon%  59.7 5 67 3
First Tower%  55.4 6 78 3
First Baron%  52.9 6 44 6
Dragon Control%  58.9 6 67 4
First Dragon time  16.1 5 17.6 4
First Herald Time 12.6 3 11.1 2

There's really no nice way of putting it. For most of the season, Royal Never Give Up's objective control relative to other teams attending MSI was truly abysmal.

However, the most significant story to tell about them is how their raw numbers improved between the regular season and playoffs. Despite only playing EDward Gaming and Team WE, the second- and third-place teams, their early game control of dragon and turrets improved considerably in the playoffs, and their dragon control improved by 8 percent.

Their issues with control partly come down to having two very different playstyles, which vary based on which AD carry they decide to field. With Zhu "NaMei" Jiawen, who has a poor standard laning phase, the team focuses much more on rotating to lanes and trading turrets. But when Wang "wuxx" Cheng plays, they're much more likely to emphasize First Blood and try to brute force 2v2s with scouting wards, often ignoring objectives in favor of kills.

With NaMei, Royal have also been more likely to take early dragons and try to build dragon stacks to force a contest over the fourth or fifth dragon. This contrasts with Royal's play against EDward Gaming in the Finals, where dragon and Rift Herald were for the most part ignored.

It seems most likely that wuxx will play for Royal at MSI. His aggressive play is something the team values highly, and it creates a focal point in the bottom lane. Royal's macro play suffers slightly with wuxx, but they are still likely to secure early objectives because of how drastically better his laning phase is than NaMei's. As they improved their laning phase across the board during the regular season, RNG went from a team averaging a 10-minute gold deficit to one of the top three teams at MSI for both average gold at 10 minutes and at 20 minutes.

To their detriment, however, they've also made a big shift away from focusing on Baron, sometimes giving it up without vision control. An early Rift Herald seems much more important to them — they were the first Chinese team to begin prioritizing Herald, with by far the highest first Rift Herald rate in the LPL at 63.64%. They often give the Herald to jungler Liu "Mlxg" Shiyu to aid in a more invasion-based style of play, rather than using it to push lanes.

Expect Royal to play a style that focuses on mid and bot lane in the laning phase, with emphasis on jungle control rather than ganking. They will likely only use objectives to bait fights, and take fights even if objectives aren't contested.

The lane swap

When Royal take the lead in the lane swap — as they did against WE in Game 2 of their semifinal series, when WE made some fundamental mistakes on the first push — they use their advantages to add more farm on Mlxg. In this example, RNG effectively traded Tier 1s, used their lead to take Rift Herald with Mata and Mlxg while the second Tier 1 fell, and then invaded and placed wards to obtain vision. At seven minutes, Mlxg had double the farm of his opponent, Xiang "Condi" Renjie.

Royal are much less likely to try to opt into swaps when they play with wuxx, and will use deep vision early to try to scout lane matchups or move to revert swaps. In Game 3 of the Final, RNG looked like they were going to initiate a lane swap, but instead opted to push to turret and back, then head to the bottom side. When EDward Gaming also pushed out the wave and backed to match them, ADC Kim "deft" Hyukkyu purchased a Cull — but so did Jang "Looper" Hyeongseok as Quinn.

Royal then pushed out bottom wave, went top, pushed out top wave, and finally settled in the bottom lane for the 2v2. EDG, wanting to avoid Quinn's power as a lane bully, chose to respond to each swap with their own lane rotation, and refused to accept a standard 1v1 lane until Tong "koro1" Yang had achieved level 5. But by taking the lead in the re-swaps, RNG was able to pull ahead in farm in both their duo and top lane, and came out of the swaps in command of both when teams finally settled on standard lane assignments.

Many teams will simply accept the re-swap after the first back, but the item advantage that Royal had when they returned to lane forced EDG to at least also back, if not try to insist on following through with the swap. With this strategy, RNG were able to farm up their Quinn — though it seems too risky to try something like this regularly.

The game did show that Royal's gotten much more competent in lane swap scenarios, and they've learned how to use swaps to get advantages in their desired standard lane setup. Mata will sometimes get over-aggressive on the top and jungle duo in swap scenarios, and Royal doesn't pressure lane swap advantages as well as some of the other teams at MSI, so there are still flaws in RNG's decisions. But they are no longer the team at IEM Katowice who tripped over themselves when other teams decided to fast-push them.

Mlxg's jungle style

Mlxg's jungle style has come a long way since the start of the split. Early on, I has some harsh criticism for him concerning his lack of vision control. Since then his warding has improved, and he now frequently rushes Sightstone and Sweeping lens. He kept up with Ming "clearlove" Kai in the LPL Final in wards placed and cleared in the first 10 minutes, and he averaged more vision-related actions than either Hung "Karsa" Hauhsuan in the LMS Finals or Kim "Trick" Gangyun in the EU LCS Finals.

Relative to other junglers at MSI, Mlxg is now more vision and farm-oriented than he is a ganker, but Royal still shows a lot of aggression in jungle invades and skirmishes. Many lane ganks are handled via Teleport. Royal and other LPL teams favor mid lane Teleport so heavily that xiaohu ran the spell on Azir earlier in the season and Leblanc in the final.

Jungle item Mlxg% MSI AVG% Enchant Mlxg% MSI AVG%
Tracker's  71  82  Runic 47.4  48.9
Skirmisher's 18.4  13.8  Cinderhulk 13.2  10.9
Stalker's 10.5  4.2  Devourer 13.2  13.7
Warrior 26.3  26.4

Taking a look at his item stats, Mlxg's strange preference for Stalker's Blade and Cinderhulk is immediately evident. Stalker's Blade complements Royal's style well, as Mlxg will use it to initiate skirmishes and pursue targets. He especially likes this item with Ekko, a champion on which he will also build Cinderhulk to initiate and kite. Ekko's lower clear speed early on makes Mlxg focus more on taking buffs initially over camps.

Taking Skirmisher's Sabre is typically opposed to a vision-oriented jungling style, but it's not uncommon for Mlxg to build both Stalker's Blade or Skirmisher's Sabre and a Sightstone. He also excels with more forgiving champions like Ekko, because of his tendency for over-zealous engages in teamfights. Much of Mlxg's play seems to depend on his own mindset and whether or not he feels he's ahead. Against WE, Mlxg's jungle style was much more aggressive than usual, and in Game 5 he was very clearly emotionally charged.

Mlxg is generally unpredictable, and there are a lot of factors that make him difficult to define. But he trends more toward invades and farming than ganking, with a few exceptions. This should be the expectation for him.

xiaohu's mid lane control

Overall Rank Playoffs Rank
Mid CS@10 0.6 4 7.3 1
Mid Dshare% 30.1 2 30.6 2

As with many jungle and mid lane duos, xiaohu's control of mid lane creates opportunities for Mlxg to invade. xiaohu's best champion is Azir, and he pushes out lanes aggressively. He also excels with LeBlanc and Lissandra, and these champions are able to find openings for flanks. xiaohu's engage sense will be his advantage against other mid laners in the war for second place at MSI.

xiaohu has grown more stable this split, and he's gotten better at controlling mid lane. His contributions to Royal in both consistent damage and pressure make him easily the strongest player on the team after Mata. The AD carry role has been relatively unstable, and Mlxg's overzealousness means that xiaohu is often relied on to pick up slack. He and Looper form the pillars of the team, that will at least hold the lanes, if not carry.

Because of Royal's tendency to play the bottom lane aggressively, xiaohu will often be left unchecked while opposing junglers focus on bottom. It's unclear how xiaohu will stack up against the strong mid laners who will be at MSI, but he's improved throughout the split along with every other aspect of the team. If Royal manage to make a strong play for second place and unsettle all the contenders at MSI, it will because of xiaohu's unexpected synergy with Mata in teamfights.

Since Royal have developed so much in so little time, it's hard to tell how much their improvements will shine through on the international stage. A conservative prediction would be a fourth-place finish for Royal, but second place is certainly not out of the question — so long as they can hold on to the progress they've demonstrated in their macro game and individual play.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter for RNG gifs during MSI.