Know Thyself: CLG's MSI Mid Lane Control

by theScore Staff May 4 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games/lolesports / MSI 2016 / Riot Games

Praised for their ability to play the map, Counter Logic Gaming are lauded in North America for their macro knowledge and team coordination. Where their 2016 North American League Championship Series Spring playoff opponents Team Liquid and Team SoloMid were considered to have superior talent on paper, CLG were the brains of NA, quickly discovering their identity before the rest of their region.

However, CLG’s intelligence is oft-mislabeled as map or macro strategy when their machinations are far more nuanced. Beginning the season with objective checklist in hand, CLG were known for ticking boxes off of said list, occasionally to their detriment. There were many times that CLG could have pushed further, ending games quickly. Other times, CLG played too impatiently — their Week 4 loss to Immortals comes to mind, as does their poor IEM Katowice series against Fnatic. These are the marks of a team in training, learning better map play with each passing game, rather than having mastered it.

What CLG actually excels at, under the guise of macro strategy, is knowing themselves — their strengths, weaknesses, and how to use the former to overcome the latter. After Day 1 at MSI 2016, CLG certainly aren’t the best team in the tournament, but they are one of the smarter teams, simply for recognizing and embracing their own identity.

Going into the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational, CLG were an easy pick for the second team — along with SuperMassive, the International Wildcard representative — to be eliminated from the group stages. This was due to a myriad of factors, beginning with their roster on paper and ending with North America’s abysmal international record. But, when assessing CLG, it’s best to burn the paper roster and focus on how the team operates as a unit. Yet, the current meta of a DPS carry jungler and absolute control over the mid lane seemed ill-suited to CLG’s strengths, especially given the mid lane and jungle duos present at 2016 MSI. From SK Telecom T1’s Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and Kang “Blank” Sun-gu to G2 Esports’ Luka “Perkz” Perković and Kim “Trick” Gang-yun, CLG’s Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun and Jake “Xmithie” Puchero appeared woefully outclassed by their international peers, especially Huhi. Huhi’s struggles to control mid lane are well-documented, and were an obvious mark against CLG in assessing their MSI chances.

In his first outing with CLG at IEM San Jose, Huhi played a few conventional champions — Ryze, LeBlanc, Azir — before locking in Kindred mid, an indicator that Huhi was unafraid to take weird and possibly wonderful picks to the mid lane regardless of a potential loss of wave pressure. An overview of his complete history shows a willingness to play just about anything. In his Champions Summer 2014 debut on BigFile Miracle, Huhi played six different champions across six total games. Unfortunately, Huhi visibly struggles both in lane and during teamfights at times, with obvious mistakes that draw attention to his deficiencies. Even today, in CLG’s win over Taiwan’s Flash Wolves, Huhi made glaring errors on Lissandra, costing his team a few fights. This is contrasted with strong performances, particularly on assassins like LeBlanc. It’s always a question mark as to which Huhi will show up on the Rift on any given day, with the possibility of both bad and good play within a single game.

CLG is more than aware of this. Towards the latter half of the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split and into playoffs, Xmithie stepped up to cover Huhi’s lack of pressure, aided by star support Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black disrupting opponents’ jungle routes and applying additional lane pressure through roams. AD carry Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes was placed on long-range comfort picks like Caitlyn, often left to farm safely from a distance in aphromoo’s absence. Recognizing that this could still be exploited by opponents, CLG took their game plan one step further in their first game at 2016 MSI against Royal Never Give Up, bringing Aurelion Sol into the mix.

Placing Huhi on Aurelion Sol ingeniously made up for his lack of waveclear thanks to the champion’s innate mobility from Comet of Legend. RNG’s mid laner, Li “Xiaohu” Yuanhao — who admitted after the game that he had not played against Aurelion Sol at all — was prevented from garnering any significant advantages or pressuring the lane forward. Instead, Huhi pushed the lane, returned to base, and immediately sprinted back to lane, giving CLG the all-important mid lane control that they had too often lacked from Huhi. This not only allowed Xmithie’s Graves to farm comfortably, but facilitated strong warding to augment CLG’s early pressure following the initial laneswap. Despite CLG’s eventual loss to RNG after a multitude of mistakes from both teams, the choice of Aurelion Sol was an intelligent one, showcasing just how aware CLG are of their own weaknesses. Aurelion Sol covered for Huhi’s lack of lane pressure in addition to becoming another strong front liner for Stixxay’s Caitlyn.

This doesn’t mean that Huhi is suddenly a monster mid laner nor are CLG without exploitable shortcomings. Huhi’s natural penchant for roaming assassins still doesn’t work as well as the waveclear zone control mages that are en vogue during the current meta. He’s prone to glaring mechanical misplays that often disrupt CLG’s plan of attack while approaching a fight, including breaking a necessary chain of crowd control. There’s the added problem of CLG’s notable lapse in vision control following their early game blueprint — something that other teams at the event often make up for with superior mechanical laners brute-forcing 1v1 outplays. This method isn’t as readily available to CLG, the odd aphromoo highlight aside.

A clash of regional styles and flavors is the best possible outcome for an international event like 2016 MSI, with each team sticking to their respective playstyle and leveraging their strengths to overcome their weaknesses. While SK Telecom T1 is the obvious favorite to win the event — likely without dropping a game based on Day 1 performances — CLG showed that they are one of the smarter teams at MSI when it comes to knowing themselves. Sticking to intelligent gameplans that by design hide their obvious flaws, CLG certainly have the tools to make it into the top four and possibly further. They know who they are. Now, it all comes down to better execution.

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