The Wolf and the Unicorn: inside SKT's NA support meta picks

by theScore Staff May 13 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games/lolesports / MSI 2016 / Riot Games

Counter Logic Gaming’s unexpected second-place group stage finish hasn’t been North America’s only victory at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational. Regardless of whether CLG defeats Taiwan’s Flash Wolves on Saturday, North America has already scored a surprising win in setting a meta trend.

All too often — rightfully so, in the vast majority of cases — NA is accused of simply copying other region’s meta choices without innovating anything for themselves. Not since Cloud9’s Season 3 Ashe and Zyra combination have any specifically North American champion choices been incorporated by other regions to any notable extent. The 2016 North American League Championship Series Spring Split saw the region, especially Immortals’ Adrian “Adrian” Ma, focus on squishier mage supports like Soraka, Janna, and Karma. Much-maligned prior to 2016 MSI, these supports were expected to be dominated by tankier choices like Alistar, Trundle, Braum, and even Thresh.

Yet, Soraka and Karma were chosen by SK Telecom T1 support player Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan. Seen in a few of the Korean champion’s group stage games these two picks became a key part in the SKT’s success against Royal Never Give Up in a 3-1 semifinal win. Much of this has to do with RNG’s strengths — they defeated SKT once in the group stages bt using early pressure and teamfighting — and the execution of SKT’s own teamfights, which differ from any other team at the tournament.

Prior to MSI, Soraka and Karma saw play in the 2016 NA LCS Spring Split, with no picks in Korea or China outside of a challenger game in the former and an Energy Pacemaker.All loss to Invictus Gaming. Aside from a smattering of games in Europe, no other major region elected to use either of these champions for the support role, opting for in-meta tanky initiators instead.

Immortals’ Adrian set the Soraka trend this past spring with Cloud9’s Hai “Hai” Lam and more recently CLG’s Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black also taking the Starchild to the Rift. Adrian was also the first NA support to play Karma in the 2016 NA LCS Spring, and Team Liquid’s Matthew “Matt” Elento followed suit with a fair amount of success despite two losses to aphromoo’s Soraka in their NA LCS semifinal match. Across the Spring Split, Soraka enjoyed a stunning 90.9 percent winrate thanks to closely accompanying Immortals’ near-perfect season and CLG picking her up in time for their successful playoff run.

Soraka brings extra pushing power to her AD carry, and most importantly, constant healing throughout teamfights. Karma brings waveclear and impressive poke to chunk down opponents in lane. Both also provide all-important crowd control for teamfights and skirmishes — Soraka with her silence and root from Equinox and Karma with slows and roots from Inner Flame/Soulflare and Focused Resolve/Renewal.

“While scrimming against other foreign teams, I got to learn that Soraka is actually a really good pick,” Wolf said in a Riot interview following their victory. “Soraka and Karma are both champions that are stronger in the laning phase. I wanted to focus on snowballing from laning phase to get ahead.”

Winning games through lane has always been SKT's specialty, and the one game that they lost to RNG in today’s semifinal came on the back of losing lanes across the board in Game 1. This was quickly rectified in Game 2 and by Game 3 RNG found themselves selecting Leona for support Cho “Mata” Se-hyeong in an attempt to deal with Wolf’s Soraka pick. Unfortunately for RNG, they botched their early ganks and ceded pressure to Wolf and AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik’s Sivir, who easily pushed the lane forward once RNG’s attempts were unsuccessful. Adding insult to injury were Wolf’s constant Soraka heals, replenishing SKT’s blinking health bars in teamfights so the team could re-engage and wipe RNG off of the map.

RNG banned the Soraka and Sivir in Game 4, which ushered in SKT’s return to a full poke lane with Ezreal and Karma, pushing RNG back into their own turret once more. Wolf’s early poke from Karma made up for any lack of pressure that Bang’s Ezreal would have had prior to stacking his Tear of the Goddess, and Bang took the early CS advantage against Wang “Wuxx” Cheng’s Tristana. Not only did this set Bang ahead of his laning opponent, but it opened up the map for SKT jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu to focus on top and mid lanes, along with a bit of counter jungling, all the while knowing that their bottom lane was safe and self-sufficient. The end result was a perfect Game 4.

Despite the fact that Wolf’s most-played champions are Alistar, Thresh, and Braum — all of whom have hard engage and initiation for teamfights — Wolf is not SKT’s primary initiator. Throughout LoL Champions Korea Spring 2016, SKT relied on mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and, once he learned how to communicate better with the team in the latter part of the second round robin and playoffs, top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong. SKT’s group stage struggles, including their 0-4 skid on Days 2 and 3, were often pinned on Blank’s inability to apply early pressure or obvious mechanical misplays from the Korean jungler. Yet, Blank’s role in his team’s most successful games was that of a secondary DPS carry to late-game scaling choices for Bang. Faker and Duke were left to start and guide the team through fights with Wolf offering secondary initiation and crowd control, further allowing Bang to clean up a fight.

Soraka and Karma make the most of Wolf’s strengths — additional crowd control, disengage, and reinitiation in fights — while giving SKT automatic pushing power in the bot lane, getting Bang ahead of his laning opponent without the need for Blank to make an appearance. It's an alternative route for SKT to free up Blank so he can farm or apply pressure elsewhere. These picks also give Faker more wiggle room for his mid lane champion choices — Faker’s Fizz was a treat to watch in Games 1 and 3, even with the Game 1 loss — no longer restricting the star player to the role of the mid lane control for Blank. The two champions won’t work with every team setup, but for SK Telecom T1, they create yet another way for the team to win by playing to their strengths and overall team identity.

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