When asked if the ranged support meta is a “real thing,” Counter Logic Gaming support Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black laughs and quirks an eyebrow. “It’s actually a real thing,” he says before launching into a summation of how SK Telecom T1 and Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan countered CLG’s Soraka pick with Nami.
It remains to be seen whether ranged mage supports are truly back, especially with massive changes arriving on the 6.9 patch prior to the start of upcoming summer seasons across the five major regions. The 2016 Mid-Season Invitational served as a clash between various regional styles, through which its own in-tournament meta arose. Ranged supports surprisingly played an increasingly larger role in composition choices, beginning in the MSI group stages and ending with Wolf’s victorious Nami in the finals.
Act i. Alistar does it all - Group Stages
A best-of-one group stage at any international event is rife with upsets, surprises, and disappointments as pre-tournament expectations frame a feeding frenzy of instantaneous reactions to single wins and losses. Teams generally stick to what they know, provided that opponents haven’t researched the entirety of their personal power pick tendencies.
|2016 MSI Group Stages||Picked %||Banned %||P/B %||Winrate|
*ban and total pick/ban percentages include top lane
Alistar ruled the group stages, with Royal Never Give Up's Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong and Flash Wolves' Hu "SwordArt" Shuojie opting for the Minotaur every time it was left open by their opponents. Both supports act as the primary initiator for their respective teams. Royal relied on Mata using Alistar to apply early laning pressure when paired with Wang “Wuxx” Cheng along with setting up vision for jungler Liu “Mlxg” Shiyu. Their primary objective was always to ensure that Li “Xiaohu” Yuanho was ahead of his mid lane opponent, controlling the mid push and, as a result, opening up the jungle for Mlxg. Come mid and late game, Mata initiated RNG’s preferred 5v5 teamfights, knocking up multiple opponents far more often than not, while using Alistar’s ult and sustain to re-engage and continue to control fights if necessary.
SwordArt used Alistar in a more unique way, hiding in his own or enemy brushes and catching adversaries off-guard. Unlike Mata, who often tried to win lane early in the 2v2 with Alistar, engaging on opponents to get his AD carry ahead, SwordArt left AD carry Hsiung “NL” Wenan to his own devices while roaming and applying equal — sometimes more — early presence than jungler Hung “Karsa” Hauhsuan. SwordArt’s picks led to further disadvantageous situations for the Flash Wolves’ enemies. Alistar’s tankiness, sustain, and crowd control made him a staple pick for both supports, who each play a crucial role in leading their teams into fights.
Of the thirty games played across the group stages — counting the G2 versus SuperMassive initial match and remake as one game — only five went without the cow picked or banned. Four of these were SuperMassive games, spanning their sets against G2 and CLG. In an amalgamation of the duties that Flash Wolves’ SwordArt and RNG’s Mata perform, SuperMassive relies on support Mustafa "Dumbledoge" Kemal Gökseloğlu for both early roams and initiating full-on 5v5 fights. While Alistar was Dumbledoge’s most-played support champion in this past regular season of the Turkish Champions League, his strongest champion is Bard — which led SuperMassive to their MSI victory when it was left up by CLG — and he’s also known for the off-meta picks of Poppy and Elise. He accounted for all of Poppy’s appearances as a support at MSI, all losses, falling back on the initiation potential of the Keeper of the Hammer as a poor Alistar substitute.
Ranged supports were used far more sparingly in the group stages thanks to Alistar’s overwhelming presence alongside Bard and Braum, both of whom had an 80 percent pick/ban rate. CLG debuted Soraka at the tournament on Day 2 against G2 — the first of many appearances that, by the end of MSI, made her the second-most picked support at the event. Wolf and SKT AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik also showed a glimpse of their poke-heavy Karma and Ezreal lane that would later appear in their semifinal series against RNG.
Lastly, G2 Esports' support Glenn "Hybrid" Doornenbal brought out another ranged support, Janna, in their first group stage match against Flash Wolves. Janna lacks the same poke and sustain that Karma and Soraka bring to lane while being similarly squishy unlike Alistar, Braum or Thresh, and did little to aid G2 in this match against SwordArt's Braum. Janna only made one other appearance following the group stages — picked by CLG’s aphromoo in the semifinals — for another loss.
Act ii. The Rise of Soraka — Semifinals
Due to his overwhelming strength as a support along with the fact that he was a power pick for both Mata and SwordArt, Alistar was not seen in any semifinals match, banned out 100 percent of the time. Counter Logic Gaming, who had already banned the Minotaur against SwordArt in both of their group stage victories, continued this trend in all four of their games against the Taiwanese team. RNG banned it themselves three of their four matches against SK Telecom T1, unexpectedly not utilizing their blue side advantage by either forcing SKT to ban it or picking it first rotation.
Enter Soraka, who synergized well with top-tier mid lane pick, Azir, topped off blinking health bars in teamfights, and gave additional pushing power in lane.
|2016 MSI Semifinals||Picked %||Banned %||P/B %||Winrate|
A renewed focus on teamfighting was showcased by most teams throughout the group stages, and Soraka acted as a direct counter to what RNG liked to do: force their opponent into fighting early, prior to adversaries’ much-needed item powerspikes. With RNG doing SKT a favor and banning out the Alistar for them, Wolf locked in Soraka against the Chinese squad in three of their four semifinals games, forcing RNG to ban it come Game 4. Soraka stymied RNG. Not often called upon to be the primary initiator or engage for his team, Wolf was perfectly content on the ranged support, dutifully healing allies when needed and silencing opponents in teamfights.
Having spent the better part of the season honing their late-game teamfighting prowess with dazzling performances from AD carry Bang, SKT didn’t play RNG’s game. Instead, they shut down RNG teamfights with the Soraka pick, forcing an ill-advised Leona lock-in for Mata in Game 3. Had RNG been able to get the Jhin/Leona lane ahead early, the pick may have ended up looking ingenious. Instead, they failed to snowball Wuxx’s Jhin, and Leona proved fairly useless in later teamfights, with Mata uncharacteristically missing skillshots. Wolf returned to Karma in Game 4 alongside Bang’s Ezreal, dishing out massive amounts of early poke damage en route to SKT’s semifinals victory.
Soraka excels in lane, helping her AD carry push while continuously healing damage from poke or trades. She lacks the crowd control and any sort of initiation or kill potential that makes a good roaming support, which also makes her a poor match for SwordArt, who needs to be unlocked from NL and laning to facilitate his team’s success.
No stranger to Soraka in the 2016 North American League Championship Series Spring, Counter Logic Gaming banned her against Flash Wolves in the second game of their semifinal, despite a losing Game 1 for SwordArt on the Starchild. SwordArt was able to roam with Karma in Game 2, primarily due to an Ezreal pickup for NL — one of the only champions that NL can farm safely on without falling too far behind or dying needlessly. In Games 3 and 4, Flash Wolves banned Soraka and once again put SwordArt on Karma. CLG responded with a surprising Sona pick that shocked audiences, casters, and likely the Flash Wolves themselves.
Capitalizing on Flash Wolves’ tendency to move forward without proper vision, aphromoo’s Sona was impressive. While he fell behind in lane both games, aphromoo facilitated CLG’s mid and late game comebacks with clutch Crescendos, catching the Flash Wolves off-guard and making the most of Sona despite her squishiness.
Like Soraka, Sona has sustain and like Karma, Sona has poke. Additionally, her Crescendo gives her kill pressure in lane at level 6 that neither Soraka nor Karma has. aphromoo’s Sona pick followed a similar thought process to Mata’s Leona, the difference being that even when he fell behind, aphromoo was still able to exploit Flash Wolves’ mistakes while keeping allies healed and buffed throughout fights.
Lastly, Sona served as a soft counter to Karsa's Kindred, taking advantage of the natural grouping that accompanies Lamb's Respite to land Crescendo. While opponents were stunned, Sona was also able to heal allies with Aria of Perserverance prior to re-initiating after Lamb's Respite was complete.
Act iii. Turning the tide — Finals
Both Bard and Alistar enjoyed a 100 percent ban rate in the finals between SKT and CLG. Unlike their respective semifinals opponents, neither team needs to have their support as their primary, and often only, source of initiation. CLG has top laner Darshan “Darshan” Uphadhyaha and SKT relied on top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong — which is why his oft-egregious Teleport usage was so noticeable — and mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok to start teamfights throughout the season. In fact, Wolf was seemingly more than happy to move back into a more ranged support meta, bringing out another unexpected support pick, Nami, against aphromoo’s Soraka.
|2016 MSI Finals||Picked %||Banned %||P/B %||Winrate|
"In the series we just played, [Wolf] countered me every time I picked Soraka," aphromoo said after the 3-0 SKT sweep. "It was a pretty damn good pick, I'd say. I knew he was probably going to pull out Nami or Sona or something like that. But supports right now, it's really good not to shy away from all of the pool of supports since they all bring a lot to the table. So Nami that game, Wolf was going off every single game, he had sustain versus Soraka and then he had an engage with his wave so he played it really, really well."
After a near-win in Game 1, CLG returned to the exact same composition in Game 2, with SKT following suit en route to a more lopsided victory for the Korean team. Come Game 3, aphromoo picked Soraka for a third time and was thoroughly beaten by Wolf’s Nami. Another squishy champion that had fallen out of favor until this final, Nami has sustain in lane along with hard crowd control from her Aqua Prison and Tidal Wave. This was partnered with Elise for SKT jungler Kang “Blank” Sun-gu, who offered additional crowd control for the team in fights.
SK Telecom T1 may have been the near-unanimous favorite to take the 2016 MSI tournament, but no one would have predicted that they would sweep the finals with a Nami pick, giving the Tidecaller a 100 percent winrate at the event. Within a single tournament, weird and wonderful things can happen as teams learn from one another while adopting strategies to best these same opponents, creating a mini-meta evolution.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.