The first day of the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational in Shanghai, hometown team Royal Never Give Up beat the North American representative, Counter Logic Gaming, to kick off the entire tournament. Long gone are the days of a Chinese team making it to an admittedly lopsided international final against a Korean powerhouse. Recent showings of Chinese teams at international events have earned tempered if not non-existent expectations for the region. A 43:29 trial to see which team could donate their opponent more advantages, RNG’s win did little to instill confidence that this would change, especially at the end of the day in light of two dominating performances from tournament favorite, SK Telecom T1.
SKT appeared untouchable, not simply because of their on-Rift performances — one win was against a G2 team that struggling with their own internal issues and the other against the International Wildcard representative — but due to the madcap nature of other Day 1 results. With early games all-too-often contests of which team performed less poorly, it seemed inevitable that SKT would run the table in similar fashion to their 2015 World Championship groups.
“Would you take SKT or the field?” is a question jokingly asked prior to the organization’s appearances in both domestic and international events. The field has a notoriously lousy record. Due to their overwhelming success, SKT always have a target on their back. They’re a known entity and defeating them means something because of their accomplishments and the strength of their region.
A work in progress — despite a fair amount of success throughout the 2016 LoL Pro League Spring — RNG were not a likely candidate to first crack SKT’s armor. Putting aside the regional differences and recent international tournament performances, RNG were wholly inconsistent. Their objective control was lacking and the team’s execution of laneswaps baffled commentators at the Season X IEM World Championship at Katowice, a tournament where RNG fell to Fnatic in the semifinals.
Led by former MVP/Samsung Galaxy White support Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong, RNG were prone to miscommunication errors as well as overly-aggressive behavior from both jungler Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu and AD carry Wang “Wuxx” Cheng. While the evolution of mid laner Li “Xiaohu” Yuanhao from a flashy solo queue player to a legitimate top mid in the region was a welcome surprise, his control of the center of the map wasn’t always enough to carry RNG to victory alongside Mata’s direction.
This year’s SKT team has also been far from flawless. They ended the first round robin of LCK Spring 2016 on a disappointing loss, and used the Season X IEM World Championship at Katowice to steady themselves. Their second round robin performance marked a slow ramp-up where new jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu found his footing thanks to stifling mid lane control from Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. With carry DPS junglers in-meta, Faker consistently kept his lane shoved on the likes of Lulu, Corki, Azir and Lissandra, allowing Blank breathing room and time to farm.
Come the LCK Spring 2016 Finals, SKT bested the favored ROX Tigers, owners of the regular season. With ROX jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-ho on the slower, farm-heavy Graves for two of SKT’s victories, the reigning World Champions tempered his much-touted early aggression and used their own jungle and mid duo of Blank and Faker to control the tempo. Blank looked to finally have come into his own, with proactive early plays on the map rather than simply following Faker’s lead. The two in tandem facilitated AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik and top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong in teamfights, netting SKT another domestic title.
RNG’s approach to this was smart: take away Faker’s mid lane control, thereby eliminating any early game pressure from Blank on Nidalee. Ensuring that Xiaohu was not only on an Azir counter but one of his personal comfort picks of LeBlanc was crucial, and Xiaohu rewarded his team for their trust in his abilities. Time and time again, Xiaohu punished Faker’s forward positioning, often with Mlxg’s Graves returning to the lane for good measure.
One of the reasons that SKT has such a strong hold over the mid lane is because Faker plays so far forward and aggressively, regardless of champion choice. On Azir, this has led to improbable, assassin-like highlights in the second round robin with Faker killing his opponents with or without help from Blank. Faker refused to back off and play safely after the first kill, leading to successive deaths and a complete loss of the mid lane. This also took away any sort of potentially aggressive maneuvers from Blank’s Nidalee. The map grew progressively darker for SKT, which was perfect for RNG’s pick composition, and SKT’s problems of the LCK Spring 2016 first round robin returned — pushing side waves without necessary vision and Teleport mis-timings from Duke. Even Bang’s best efforts couldn’t save SKT from the loss.
Taiwan’s Flash Wolves took a different approach with similar elements. RNG hammered SKT early with a pick composition while Flash Wolves met SKT at every turn with smart lane assignments and objective control. RNG’s victory relied on Xiaohu’s mechanical skill and pressure on LeBlanc. Flash Wolves picked up the slower, damage-over-time choice of Ryze for their mid laner, Huang “Maple” Yitang and set up a dual-pronged attack with support Hu “SwordArt” Shuojie’s Alistar and jungler Hung “Karsa” Hauhsuan’s Kindred on top of double Teleport from Maple and top laner Yu “MMD” Lihung.
Again, Blank was outclassed by his jungle opponent. Karsa had significantly better early pressure — due more to individual misplays and poor decision-making from Blank than anything else. On Kindred, Karsa farmed up early and not only showed in lanes, but aided in pushing them, providing additional physical damage for taking turrets. By contrast, Blank missed a significant amount of spears on Nidalee, crucial for chunking down opponents in order to build a successful turret siege. In failing to appear in lanes to punish the scaling Ryze and AD carry Hsiung “NL” Wenan’s Ezreal, or to stalk Karsa in his own jungle in service of either killing the Flash Wolves' jungler or stealing his farm, Blank did not use Nidalee to her fullest potential.
Flash Wolves opted into a composition heavily-reliant on the notoriously slow build of Tear of the Goddess for both Maple’s Ryze and NL’s Ezreal — a choice that trades early aggression for late-game dominance. Karsa’s appearances in lane to pressure objectives along with key SwordArt roams provided much-needed early control of the map that double tear teams all too often lack. Teleports from MMD’s Ekko and Maple’s Ryze made it so that Flash Wolves could respond to all of SKT’s movements, and SKT’s first round robin teamfight miscommunications returned to haunt the Korean team.
A commonality between all three of these teams — RNG, Flash Wolves and SKT — is that none of them were heavily favored to win their regional finals. In China, Edward Gaming appeared to be the superior organization with more experience while RNG was still finding their identity. AHQ and the ROX Tigers had wholly obliterated their respective regular seasons, while Flash Wolves and SKT both had obvious weaknesses for opponents to exploit.
Going into 2016 MSI, SKT was favored due to their ability to punish others’ mistakes without allowing opponents to capitalize on their own. RNG and Flash Wolves showed that, with preparation and execution SKT’s mistakes are punishable as well. These two games show that SKT are not infallible as MSI Day 1 had indicated, yet these losses will ultimately make them stronger. In the question of taking SKT or the field, the answer remains SKT. Yet, there's still a target on SKT's backs, and they need to be prepared for other teams' very best.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.