Reigning champions SK Telecom T1 returned to domestic competition this week and picked up right where they left off when they left the country for the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational with sweeps over CJ Entus and long-time rivals KT Rolster.
Across Champions Korea, teams started to settle into the new patch and their new competition, all the while testing their limits with both roster substitutions and unique champion selections: MVP jungler Kim “Beyond” Kyu-seok pulled out Amumu against the Tigers for his team’s lone victory, CJ’s Park “Untara” Ui-jin tried out Shen with little success against SKT's Lee “Duke” Ho-seong’s Maokai, ESC Ever’s Kim “Crazy” Jae-hee took Renekton out for a spin with disappointing results, and Aurelion Sol racked up another loss in Korea from KT’s Song “Fly” Yong-jun. It’s difficult to believe that just a year ago, Korea was known for not testing out new picks as quickly as the four other major regions, especially China.
Some teams also made roster adjustments. Top laner Heo “Lindarang” Man-heung and jungler Yoon “Seonghwan” Seong-hwan made their LCK debuts for the Afreeca Freecs in a Game 1 loss to Samsung Galaxy. The Tigers continued to work towards finding an Azir composition with mid lane substitute Hae “Cry” Sung-min. Even SKT joined in the lineup shuffle with veteran Bae “bengi” Seong-woong’s triumphant return in a 2-0 sweep over CJ Entus.
Amidst all of these tests and trials, no team looks ready to stand up to SKT quite yet. Here are a few teams whose stock has risen and fallen.
The return of SKT may have created the most fanfare in Week 2 — especially with their Telecom War match with KT Rolster on Saturday — but Samsung Galaxy are the most complete LoL Champions Korea team not named SKT.
Much of this has to do with the current metagame and the methodical approach that Samsung have had since the beginning of LCK Spring 2016 since Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong’s arrival as the team’s jungler. As a jungler, Ambition has had his ups and downs, struggling with predictable, and punishable, pathing while on CJ Entus last year along with his continued insistence on donating his opponent First Blood — a holdover from his mid lane days. Ambition is a smart player, and seemingly just who Samsung Galaxy needed to lead their latest batch of prospects, including talented former SKT support Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min.
Together, the two set up a strong vision net that allows the team to systematically mow down objectives. Mid laner Lee “Crown” Min-ho's champion pool has been particularly useful in this endeavor, as he excels on high waveclear control mages like Varus, Viktor, and Azir — all of whom are strong in the current meta. Crown controls the mid lane and positions himself well in teamfights, thoroughly supported by his teammates. This has limited his opponents' flanking opportunities, even when Crown is on the immobile Varus. Ambition’s preferred picks of Rek’Sai and Nidalee also remain in meta, with Rek’Sai steadily growing in popularity since the season started. Both give Ambition mobility, above-average clear times, and Nidalee in particular is a comfort pick for Ambition since his time in the CJ mid lane.
New AD carry Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk also stepped up this week with strong teamfight performances against MVP. Samsung’s lineup had an obvious skill ceiling last split, which was evidenced by their downward spiral towards the end of the season. Samsung were never bad, other teams simply exceeded what Samsung could do as a unit and shut them down early. Ruler could be the player that propels this team into the playoffs this split, surrounded by veteran talent in Ambition and a strong support in Wraith.
The Tigers bounced back from their disappointing Week 1 loss to Samsung Galaxy with Week 2 victories over newcomers MVP and ESC Ever. Many of the Tigers’ issues against Samsung came from trying out new things — mid laner Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng’s Aurelion Sol paired with Swain for top laner Song “Smeb” Kyung-ho made for a particularly interesting and unsuccessful Game 1. The Tigers’ drafting was much improved this week, and the team ensured that KurO was on comfort champions in the two games he did play — LeBlanc and Viktor respectively against ESC Ever’s Kang “Tempt” Myung-gu.
Meanwhile, the team continues to search for a solution to KurO’s poor Azir performances in professional play. Despite now-memetic rumors of his scrim prowess, KurO’s Azir has reached similar status as teammate Kim “PraY” Jong-in’s Draven in Korea, affecting the Tigers’ champion select enough to warrant seeking other options. Cry was unimpressive last week, and obviously disrupted the Tigers’ much-touted coordination, but settled down in Week 2, turning in a 2/0/6 statline against MVP. In his first-ever MVP interview, Cry hinted that one of the reasons he was substituted in was to play Azir specifically, since it had become such a problem champion for KurO and the Tigers.
It remains to be seen whether Cry will work out as a more permanent solution for the Tigers. His presence still unsettles the team’s airtight coordination that they have with KurO, and with rumors of Azir’s upcoming demise in later patches, this may not be a sacrifice that the Tigers are willing to make for the long-term. Another noticeable difference from last season is jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-ho’s lack of early aggression. In comparison to his oppressive performances last split, his first few showings have been subdued, with similar vision problems that aren’t being made up for by his control over his opponents’ jungle. Still, the Tigers have the largest gold lead at 15 minutes of any team in Korea (1079) and are third best in wards placed per minute (3.68, an improvement over last split’s 3.49 thus far).
Jin Air Green Wings
Like clockwork, the Jin Air Green Wings are once again having a strong start to the season. Following the sister team merger, Jin Air’s teams have risen to prominence over the first few weeks in the LCK before inevitably falling, sometimes all the way out of playoff contention. LCK Spring 2016 was no different, with Jin Air impressing on a triple-AD carry composition that refused to work once teams adjusted. From there, they resigned themselves to a plodding game pace, with the longest average game time in Korea at 40.7 minutes and the lowest combined kills per minute of any team at 0.46.
In their matches against Longzhu Gaming last week, Jin Air once again leapt out to a strong start, this time with new mid lane prospect Jin “Blanc” Seong-min and a more proactive attitude resulting in two sub-forty-minute victories. This week, Jin Air returned to form, boasting a 58:37 Game 1 against Ever which raised their average above forty, putting them atop Korea once more. Still, Jin Air looks strong and objective-focused. While mid laner Lee “Kuzan” Seong-hyeok was a strong spring performer, Blanc has been tearing up solo queue lately, and perhaps Jin Air wants him to provide some much-needed punch to their overly-cautious lineup.
Usually a team that operates best when at the vanguard of a new metagame, KT Rolster’s modus operandi for the past few seasons has been to start off strong on a patch, inevitably falling behind when other teams in the region catch up. Unfortunately, they haven’t taken as well to this current patch as other teams have, and often find themselves falling behind in their increasingly lackluster mid game.
Mid laner Fly has performed inconsistently thus far, losing control of his lane early, which collapses the map inwardly onto KT and limits Go “Score” Dong-bin’s jungle options. Of all mid laners in LCK Summer 2016, Fly has the worst CS differential at 10 minutes (11.3), the worst gold differential at 10 minutes (-344), and is tied with Ever’s Tempt for the third lowest damage per minute (536). While KT admittedly gives Fly a miniscule amount of their resources — he receives the lowest gold share of any Korean mid at 20.7 percent — it’s an ouroboros cycle that shows little sign of changing anytime soon.
Most recently Fly was destroyed by Faker in both of KT’s matches against SKT, collapsing the map and lessening Score’s early impact in their side lanes. Fly is known for having a somewhat bizarre champion pool and many of KT’s champion select struggles are seemingly born of finding another comfort pick for Fly that isn’t Zilean and fits with what KT wants to do. In seven games, Fly has played six different champions, only doubling up on Viktor.
KT’s lack of a decisive mid-game — something that has plagued KT in the past year, even when support and shotcaller Lee “Piccaboo” Jong-beom was on the team — continues to be a problem, and Fly’s inability to consistently hold mid lane exacerbates the issue. KT remains a creative and bright team when they do manage to get their hands on something that works — their Kindred/Zilean/Taric combination against Longzhu this past week was highly entertaining — but these games have been fewer and further between than usual.
Taking a slight step back from their scrappy 2-0 win against CJ Entus in Week 1, ESC Ever went 1-4 this past week in games, losing series to the Jin Air Green Wings and ROX Tigers. In their first week, Ever arrived with strong dragon control and a good grasp on how to fit their team dynamic into the current metagame. Choi “Bless” Hyeon-woong looked especially impressive on Nidalee and Elise, dampening CJ jungler Kang “Haru” Min-seung’s LCK debut. Even in these victories, Ever made obvious rookie mistakes which were punished immediately this past week by both Jin Air and the Tigers.
Ever’s mistakes are obvious — fighting when they shouldn’t, disrespecting vision, and occasionally poor objective control — although their dragon focus is still fairly commendable. Vision in particular is a sore spot with this team. Bless places the fewest wards of any starting Korean jungler at 0.44 wards per minute and his team as a whole is third-worst in the region for wards placed per minute at 3.26. The only teams placing fewer wards are former Challengers Korea adversary MVP, and the Afreeca Freecs. Although these mistakes are fixable, it will be difficult for Ever to rise through the ranks into a much-desired playoff position without addressing them quickly. Even then, with the majority of LCK teams already practicing these basics better than ESC Ever, the climb will be tough.
Additionally, Ever took a step back this week by picking into a few late-game scaling compositions that didn’t suit their team’s more aggressive playstyle. When Ever wins, they do it by combining their strong dragon control with early skirmishes rather than waiting for late-game 5v5 teamfights, despite the fact that their team is also strong at these later fights. A far more competitive league coupled with the team’s simple mistakes means that Ever can’t give up as much early and expect to fight their way back late. They’ll simply be shut down before they can scale into relevancy.
Series to Watch:
Jin Air Green Wings vs. ESC Ever
This series offers excellent examples of how Jin Air win games and, by contrast, how ESC Ever win games. Games 2 and 3 in particular are both strong showings from Jin Air and Ever respectively, with Jin Air nearly pulling off a perfect game in Game 3.
Samsung Galaxy vs. MVP
Samsung is firing on all cylinders right now. Their sweep of MVP includes impressive performances from AD carry Ruler, and could act as his initial coming out party — along with his earlier Week 2 series against Afreeca — if he continues to improve and play at a high level.
KT Rolster vs. SK Telecom T1
It’s difficult not to recommend a Telecom War matchup. Even with the results being heavily one-sided in favor of SKT, KT tries out some interesting picks on the new patch while Faker has back to back monstrous Azir performances.
Ridiculous Composition of the Week: KT Rolster vs. Longzhu Gaming Game 3
Some may say that it may have not been a good idea for Longzhu to allow this composition to go through. Others may say that they should have pressured a composition with Kindred, Zilean, and Taric before 20 minutes. This is a game where Baron Nashor falls before the first champion does, but the payoff is worth it to see this ridiculous dive composition of Ekko/Kindred/Zilean/Ezreal/Taric come together in the late game.
Player of the Week
Samsung Galaxy’s Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk.
Ruler’s first week in the LCK was wholly unimpressive, and he seemed resigned to a life similar to his predecessors from last season — Lee “Stitch” Seung-ju and Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in — as a cleanup ADC who dealt damage in Samsung’s late-game fights alongside mid laner Crown. Yet, Ruler showed flashes of becoming something more this past week.
Although he needs significant laning improvement to be considered anywhere near top in the region, Ruler is surprisingly effective in teamfights given very few late-game resources by his team. Of all Korean AD carries, Ruler receives the lowest percentage of his team’s gold past 15 minutes (25.9 percent), meaning that all of Samsung’s lane farm is more often directed Crown or even Ambition, the latter of whom receives the largest share of his team’s gold past 15 minutes of any Korean jungler at 17.4 percent. Despite this lack of focus, he deals more damage to champions per minute of any AD carry in LCK Summer 2016 at 720. If Ruler can build on this efficiency, Samsung will be a contender for the LCK title.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.