Emily Rand's LCK Weekly: No fear of the underdog

by theScore Staff May 28 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of KeSPA / LCK Summer 2016

Whatever magic enchantment SK Telecom T1 cast over LoL Champions Korea, whatever sacrifice or charm they used to secure another LCK season, it worked. Despite SKT's disorganized play throughout the LCK Spring 2016 first round robin, not even regular season champion ROX Tigers could dethrone the reigning world champions. This means another season where SKT are the favorites and the rest of Korea tasked with taking them down — something that has yet to happen since the sister teams of Samsung Galaxy in 2014.

Noticeably absent from the first week of LCK Summer 2016 was SKT, given a reprieve thanks to their recent MSI adventures, while their adversaries kicked off another LCK season without them. With Week 1 in the record books, here are the six winning teams that SKT should be looking out for this season, based on first impressions.

Samsung Galaxy

They’ll never be the flashiest team in Korea with this lineup, but Samsung Galaxy execute their strategy well and certainly have the ROX Tigers’ number. The last time Samsung took down the Tigers was off of incredible jungle performances from Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong. This time, mid laner Lee “Crown” Min-ho took center stage on personal favorites Viktor and Varus.

There’s no problem with this iteration of Samsung, provided that teams allow them to play to their strengths (stacking late-game bonuses in the form of dragons and barons for fights and sieging). Samsung know how they function best and draft accordingly. AD carry Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk did a fine job against the Tigers without leaving too much of an impression, negative or positive, and Samsung stuck with support Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min, whose synergy with Ambition over the course of LCK Spring 2016 was often the primary reason for their wins. That being said, unless Ruler is a hidden AD carry gem whose powers have yet to manifest, teams already know what to expect from Samsung. This makes them a strong team, but one with a visible skill ceiling barring any sort of yet-unseen potential.

ESC Ever

ESC Ever leapt out ahead of their LCK competition with a decisive 2-0 win over CJ Entus. There were many questions surrounding Ever going into the season, primarily due to their inconsistent play throughout Challengers Korea Spring 2016. Their fortuitous 2015 KeSPA Cup victory led to the IEM Cologne title and an appearance at the IEM World Championship in Katowice, yet Ever faded towards the end of their domestic season with losses to Ever8 Winners and Stardust.

Jungler Kim “Ares” Min-kwon was predictable, and therefore exploitable, so Ever acquired Choi “Bless” Hyeon-woong. Ares had also been the team’s primary shotcaller, and in his absence, Ever’s macro play became increasingly simple while Bless struggled to find his place. Ever stuck with Bless throughout the Challengers Korea playoffs and Finals, upsetting favorite MVP to take the spring title on the back of strong performances from Bless, particularly on Nidalee and Elise. Ever's synergy only got better in their 3-0 sweep over the SBENU Sonicboom which earned them a spot in LCK Summer 2016.

In a week where no team was flawless, Ever proved the scrappiest, most confident team of the group. Their insistence on pulling the trigger on teamfights will get them into a lot more trouble against stronger teams — it was punished by CJ as well a few times in their series — but Ever is proactive which can put ill-prepared or slower teams at a disadvantage from which they are unable to recover. Bless continues to look strong, Lee “LokeN” Dong-wook has all the makings of Korea’s next superstar AD carry, and support Kim “KeY” Han-gi continues to be a masterful Bard player. Ever were certainly given a lot of opportunities by CJ, but they capitalized on them and have a high ceiling, which should make them an interesting team to watch throughout the split.

KT Rolster

The good news for KT Rolster is that much-maligned support Ha “Hachani” Seung-chan looks better by the season. Hachani put on a must-watch Taric clinic in KT’s first match against MVP, and his Cosmic Bindings throughout Game 2 turned crucial teamfights.

The bad news is that Hachani is still the least of KT’s problems, which spill over from the previous season. KT will look like the best team in Korea one game, and then conveniently forget how to draft or play in the next. Their early game remains strong and decisive, but they have significant issues transforming these initial leads into successful mid game pressure, never mind actually closing out a game. KT certainly didn’t deserve to win their second match against MVP when comparing the two teams’ in-game execution, and it’s telling that of the two teams, KT looked far more depressed in victory than MVP did in defeat.

Jin Air Green Wings

One of the more monumental achievements of LCK Summer 2016 Week 1 was that the Jin Air Green Wings managed to finish two games in under 40 minutes. For a team who had an average game time of 40.7 minutes — the highest of the LCK Spring 2016 regular season — this is quite an accomplishment, especially since they were going up against Longzhu Gaming, who had previously averaged 39 minutes per game.

Jin Air’s 2-0 win over Longzhu marked mid laner Jin “Blanc” Seong-min’s professional debut. Blanc had recently been lighting up the Korean solo queue ladder, and his Game 2 Twisted Fate was especially noteworthy, earning him his first-ever LCK MVP for his second pro match.

The return of Rek’Sai to the jungle champion pool served Park “Winged” Tae-jin well. Prioritizing it in both series, Winged was an important part of Jin Air’s well-coordinated teamfights along with top laner Yeo “TrAce” Chang-dong who returned to his career most-played champion: Maokai.

Last split, Jin Air started off strong with creative triple-AD carry compositions alongside their plodding game pace before ending the season on an 0-4 skid. Accompanying their contextually short matches in Week 1 was a more decisive Jin Air, willing to skirmish over objectives and make quicker calls. Hopefully for the Green Wings, this more proactive attitude will stick, allowing the team to evolve instead of stagnate over the course of a season.

ROX Tigers

Despite their LCK Spring 2016 Finals loss to SKT, the Tigers still appeared to be one of the best teams in Korea. Heavy favorites going into the summer season, ROX fell flat on their faces against Samsung Galaxy with slightly greedy drafting choices that they couldn’t execute well enough to garner a win.

Game 1 saw the Tigers go for both Swain and Aurelion Sol for top laner Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho and mid laner Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng respectively. Come late game, the two were unable to break the frontline set by Ambition’s Rek’Sai and Samsung top laner Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin’s Maokai, even with their continuous sustained damage.

In their second match, ROX replaced KurO with Hae “Cry” Sung-min. KurO’s exploits with Azir in the LCK are notoriously bad, and after feeling pressured to ban it in Game 1, the Tigers set out to play an Azir composition with Cry in Game 2. Unfortunately, their teamfight synergy was visibly affected, and Cry was also less than impressive on Azir. Jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-ho continued his recent string of mediocre performances that began in the LCK Spring 2016 Finals, failing to apply the same stifling pressure that exemplified the Tigers throughout the spring regular season. Previously, the Tigers looked to be the only team capable of knocking off SKT. They certainly won’t get very far if they continue to play like they did against Samsung Galaxy this past week.

Afreeca Freecs

The Freecs came out swinging. After a disappointing playoff collapse against the Jin Air Green Wings, this was a statement series for Afreeca, who traditionally have been strong in their initial LCK showings. A team seemingly in a continuous state of flux, Afreeca pulled out two new looks against Longzhu Gaming, who once again proved that they have yet to find any sort of cohesion with their wealth of talent. Longzhu did acquiesce much of Game 2 to Afreeca by not punishing the latter team for their mistakes or pushing their own advantages. However, Afreeca deserves credit for remaining steadfast and coordinated, sticking to their speed pick composition with support No “Snowflower” Hoi-jong on Karma, AD carry Gwon “Sangyoon” Sang-yun on Sivir, and jungler Nam “LirA” Tae-woo on Lee Sin.

LirA continues to make his bid to be called one of the best junglers in Korea, getting the early jump on Longzhu’s Lee “Chaser” Sang-hyun in both games while setting an early priority on objectives and pressure for Afreeca.

Series to Watch:

CJ Entus vs. ESC Ever

This series gives a good representation of ESC Ever’s strengths and weaknesses, in addition to the faintest hint at what they could be should they continue to improve at a steady pace. Above all, Ever are a fun team to watch due to their decisiveness and despite their misplays. It remains to be seen just how good Ever are, yet CJ Entus are off to a rocky start with similar problems that plagued the team last split.

ROX Tigers vs. Samsung Galaxy

Game 2 is particularly impressive, with Samsung pulling out a poke composition designed around Ambition’s Nidalee, Crown’s Varus, and Ruler’s Ezreal. Of all the teams in Week 1, Samsung executed their strategy the best, and it shows in both of these games against the Tigers.

For the Taric lover: MVP vs. KT Rolster Game 1

Experienced Champions viewers who have had the pleasure of watching Hachani since his days on the KT Rolster Arrows in 2014 may still shudder at the thought of him as KT’s starting support. Yet, Hachani had two strong performances this week, particularly this Taric game against MVP. It’s another example of how creative KT can be sometimes with their picks, and Hachani pulls it off well with precise Bastion links on teammates and multiple-person Dazzle stuns on enemies.

Player of the Week: Lee “Crown” Min-ho

In the past, Crown has been accused of having a narrow, oddly specific champion pool. Favorites include waveclear zoning mages like Viktor, Cassiopeia, and Varus in addition to LeBlanc, all of which he played last split, falling back on them even when they were considered slightly off-meta choices. Crown’s champion pool was a key factor in Samsung’s victory over the ROX Tigers this week, drawing three mid lane bans in Game 1.

Across both of his games this week he did a whopping 1195 damage to champions per minute, accounting for 40.1 percent of Samsung’s total damage share — the most of all players in the LCK thus far. His positioning and confidence on Viktor put an exclamation point on Samsung’s teamfights in Game 1, and his Varus was equally exemplary in Game 2, earning Crown the MVP award for that match.

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