“We’re good. We’re really, really good. I hope we can show you that in the next few days.”
Having placed in the Top 4 at the Mid-Season Invitational, the Flash Wolves won the right to a first seed position for the League of Legends Masters Series at this year's World Championship. In 2013, a brutal Season 3 World Championship loss to SK Telecom started Taiwanese teams on a spiral of international dismissal. At that tournament, SKT swept the Gamania Bears, a team that featured three current Flash Wolves and their coach, Steak.
This year’s Mid-Season Invitational gives the LMS preferential seeding in the World Championship for the first time since the Gamania Bears had it in 2013. The Flash Wolves’ run hasn’t been about building back up to the Taipei Assassins’ Season 2 success, but the team's own surprising climb. Since the Gamania Bears’ fall in 2013, the re-branded Flash Wolves have the unique distinction of having never dropped a game to a Korean team at an international competition. Now, they've 2-0'd the organization that unseated them as the Gamania Bears.
No matter what narrative one tries to impose on them, the Flash Wolves always find a way to defy it. On the first day of the Mid-Season Invitational, jungler Hung "Karsa" Hauhsuan said that the team had expected to defeat both G2 Esports and Counter-Logic Gaming, but that “it [didn’t] make any difference."
"We’re here to enjoy the games, and enjoy playing these games," he told theScore esports. "We’re not aiming for the championship, we just want to enjoy playing.”
In some ways, the Flash Wolves are awkward among the Mid-Season Invitational's Top 4 teams. They've have worked hard and developed slowly throughout the event, but their identity is less outwardly intense. Support Hu "SwordArt" Shuojie admitted that the team was more coordinated on Day 2.
“Coming into the game, we were still a little bit nervous, but during the games, we even sang songs," he said. "It was a really good atmosphere for playing, and that’s how we played.”
Admitting that the goal isn’t ultimate victory seems to be somewhat taboo internationally. If you don’t aim for the top, you won’t succeed. Yet the Flash Wolves have just always clicked. Part of their charm is that the unit of Huang “Maple” Yitang, Hsiung “NL” Wenan and Sword Art have stayed together for three years. With that said, there is a heavy feeling around the LMS that this might be the last time we see a team that truly feels like the Flash Wolves. Even with changing jungler and top laner, some principles of the team have remained the same, and as each member has progressed to gain international recognition, they’ve done so in a way that suits them as a unit.
NL was once a promising star. His teamfighting actually made him appear powerful, but as the team has grown, it has become more mid lane focused as NL’s individual skills have grown relatively worse to his competition.
“Whatever the team wants me to, I play it,” NL said. “Only if I lose a long string of games do I ask my team if I should do something differently.”
SwordArt has patiently shifted his style away from protecting NL to roaming and controlling vision on his own self-sufficiently. “For Flash Wolves, it’s easier for me to pick initiating supports,” SwordArt said. He insisted more mage-oriented supports are viable for teams that need to protect the AD carry, but that is far from the team Flash Wolves have become.
Maple has grown into the team’s main threat, dealing the highest percentage of team damage at MSI at 32.3 percent. Royal Never Give Up’s Li “xiaohu” Yuanhao even said that Maple is much more carry oriented than either him or SK Telecom T1’s mid laner, Lee “Faker” Sanghyeok.
The Wolves’ newer members, Karsa and Yau "MMD" Lihung, have developed in place of the players they replaced. MMD has averaged a low percentage of team gold for top laners, just as Steak often did when he started for the team, but his style has started to branch out more.
“Only when I play Ekko do I split-push because you can get out safely without being punished,” MMD said, emphasizing that his role on Flash Wolves is very much dependent on grouping with the team still.
Yet MMD has started to change the way he thinks about resource allocation slowly.
“Before, whenever SwordArt calls for this fight, like ‘Hey, finish this wave and come,’ I would just go immediately,” MMD said. “But now I’m trying to find a balance and decide if a wave is worth pushing before I join the team fight. We won’t always find the perfect team fight that we will win.” More focus on splitting his time to clear waves and get his own items improves Flash Wolves’ versatility and allows them to deal with teams with more split-pushing threats.
Chen “Winds” Pengnien, the Gamania Bears' jungler in 2013, was praised for his aggressive style prior to his retirement, much as Karsa is now. Karsa’s attention to ganking and the early game has defined a lot of how this iteration of the Wolves has developed to focus on early game strategies. The Flash Wolves have dictated the pace of lane swaps in many of their games at MSI and domestically in the LMS.
“We tend to have a lot of early games strategies,” NL said. “And lane swap just happens to be one of them.”
In the LMS, the Flash Wolves would occasionally push turrets all the way to the inhibitor before the 10 minute mark. Karsa said that this strategy was effective because it “depends on how you use the super minions.” One can observe the Wolves pulling the enemy super minion wave to the mid lane to intercept their mid lane creep wave. This denied a lot of farm to the enemy mid laner and allowed Maple to get ahead.
Yet Karsa also said that “this kind of lane swap is something you can only see in the LMS as it would take both teams wanting to push that way.” As a result, they haven’t been able to abuse this strategy at MSI. MMD also claimed Flash Wolves have focused more on dragon stacking and team fighting in the late game.
“We already knew it doesn’t matter how well you do in lane,” MMD said, “but if you want to win, you have to do well in team fights… Here, we’re not as aggressive in [turret] trades. I think it’s about us being a little nervous and conservative.”
Flash Wolves had the latest average first dragon of any MSI attendee going into the event, but they’ve adapted to targeting it frequently and averaged the third highest first dragon rate and second highest dragon control rate in the round robin. Yet Flash Wolves’ either-or mentality has made them less likely to abuse their laning phase strengths.
“It’s better to be conservative and go step-by-step than too aggressive,” MMD said.
NL echoed these sentiments.
“We may wait until we have a certain amount of dragons before we make moves [to take turrets],” he said.
It’s easy to see why the Flash Wolves may be gun-shy. They lost a 2,000 gold lead to Royal Never Give Up that they accrued in a lane swap with a poorly executed dragon fight. Counter-Logic Gaming were able to bait them into a fight on their terms by stacking dragons against them.
Flash Wolves have instead fallen back on stalling out games. To this effect, one of NL’s best champion picks, Ezreal, has been a major asset. They’ve applied the Ezreal ultimate to side lanes to stall games more and give them better control of the dragon. Though this style doesn’t necessarily cater to the Flash Wolves’ strengths, they’ve adapted slowly. Surprisingly, the team with the highest gold leads at 10 and 20 minutes domestically average a gold deficit of 369 at MSI.
I ultimately think this is to the Flash Wolves’ detriment. Regarding the meta game at MSI, EDward Gaming’s Ji “Aaron” Xing was adamant that turret trades and dragon stacking aren’t mutually exclusive events. A team that’s strong in the early game should still try to win early and only take dragons as an opportunity to force lead-building fights and build insurance just in case the game doesn’t end early.
When they opt into a lane swap, Flash Wolves have still more often than not been able to lead in it. They just haven’t as much, and this is something the Flash Wolves should attempt to initiate more often in the semifinals — especially against Counter-Logic Gaming, who currently lead in first turrets taken. As a result, CLG could be able to match their tempo, but not their mid lane aggression.
Like the LPL, the LMS favors early game mid lane ganks in lane swap scenarios and Karsa looks for early aggression, sometimes at the expense of his ability to scale.
“Mainly I think ganking is like gambling,” Karsa explained. “When you win on a gank, you’re double down, but if you lose on a gank, you lose farm, but I like gambling, and if we win all those gambles, then our team will be up.”
KOO Tigers’ coach, Jeong “NoFe” Nochul, referred to the Flash Wolves as “a team that consists of really funky, interesting individuals” and suggested that the surprising way in which they work together is the source of their advantage against more methodical Korean teams.
“Part of this is true because we know that Korean teams are orientated around farming and preparing for team fights,” NL conceded when he heard NoFe’s statement. He admitted this both suited the Flash Wolves well and allowed them to play surprisingly against teams like KOO Tigers and SKT.
A habit for taking the gamble has not only made Karsa an impressive ganking jungle, but it also makes the Flash Wolves less comfortable in scaling games. They, like Royal Never Give Up, have all the components for taking advantage of teams early. It seems that, at MSI — whether through nerves as MMD suggested, or a higher focus on caution as NL emphasized — they just haven’t.
Another struggle for the Flash Wolves has been the draft. Perhaps because of NL’s difficulty dealing with dominant AD carries in laning phase (he averages the lowest CS@10 difference of any non-Super Massive player at -6), Flash Wolves have tunneled somewhat on AD carry bans, leaving more power picks open.
The Flash Wolves have one must-ban power pick themselves. When SwordArt hasn’t played Alistar, he’s lacked some of his ability to roam independently. CLG and many other teams deciphered this, which explains their losses later in the round robin. Without Alistar and Ezreal, it’s unclear how the Flash Wovles will perform in their semifinal bout against CLG.
More emphasis has to be put on Karsa and Maple to play their game. Maple believes that, at the moment, Leblanc has no lane counters. Using a pick like that is the best angle of approach for Flash Wolves to attack a team like CLG. Though Choi “Huhi” Haehyun isn’t essential to CLG’s late game identity and mostly serves as a distraction, the mid lane matchup is an easy way for the Flash Wolves to get ahead.
That, or the top lane. Despite turret advantages, Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaya averages a CS@10 disadvantage at MSI, stressing his pain points in both direct matchups and CLG’s tendency to sacrifice him in lane swap scenarios for Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes to get ahead. No matter Stixxay’s form going into the semifinal, an AD carry without a front line is much more vulnerable.
MMD has quietly been one of the best performing and most versatile top laners of MSI with a self-sufficient style and an ability to both Teleport in a timely fashion as well as use Ekko intelligently in split-pushes. Regarded as a weak point prior to the tournament, MMD might be the Wolves’ unexpected ace should they opt for a lane swap.
Changing their focus for MSI has shown Flash Wolves are versatile, but it’s also put them behind. At the moment, I think CLG are favored to take the semifinal, but Flash Wolves can still return to their strengths and take the win.
MMD believes the mistakes that cost the Wolves against CLG are simple and correctable.
“The first game,” he said, “we neglected the importance of dragon. Even though we had the same amount of gold, they could decide the fight and have a higher ground. The second, we just screwed up the ban-pick, that’s all.”
He’s still confident the Flash Wolves can advance to the final.
Flash Wolves may have a more easy-going approach to MSI than other teams, singing songs in comms or openly admitting they’ve come to MSI to enjoy the games — but working hard is still important to them. Even though Karsa wasn’t unsettled by Flash Wolves’ unexpected loss on Day 1, he made sure to emphasize that the team as a whole doesn’t just succeed because they have an easy dynamic as a team.
“We put in a lot of hard work, otherwise enjoying the game would only get us so far,” he said.
MMD, the newest addition to the starting five, is particularly motivated.
“I’ve been to Worlds as a sub with the team and watched them play with Steak," he said. "All my teammates are so good, I really wanted to improve and get there. So this time I wanted to represent my team on the international stage.”
When international MSI viewers think of the Flash Wolves, they often try to impose TPA's 2012 storyline on them — TPA took home the second World Championship title and since then the LMS region has declined in public opinion. Splitting off from the Garena Premier League gave them an obvious boost, and the top teams have risen.
I’ve heard this storyline frequently, but it neglects a very obvious reality: Flash Wolves aren’t TPA. Flash Wolves as a team have a unique history and identity. With team members, notably Karsa, expressing interest in leaving the Wolves at the end of the year, this may be the last season we get to see it.
The LMS players at MSI make up the Flash Wolves. Their best chance to get to the final this weekend is to play like it.
Data provided by OraclesElixir.com.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports who may or may not be tired of the TPA storyline. You can follow her on Twitter.