“We played this week’s games with zero practice.”
Andrei “Odoamne” Pascu’s comment following H2k-Gaming’s 3-0 playoff win over Fnatic subverts almost every expectation that spectators have about the importance of synergy and refining strategies before a match. Bad blood or not, H2K almost instantly shrugged off their issues with Konstantinos "FORG1VEN" Tzortziou-Napoleon and were rewarded with a semifinal berth after winning one of most anti-climactic best-of-five series I’ve ever watched.
H2K fell into stride, Fnatic didn’t. Logically, anyone who watched the final week of the EU LCS regular season could predict this, but each team’s playoff history made us pause for thought. Coming off of a disappointing split in which they failed to make the finals for the first time in their organization's history, Fnatic suffered their worst ever playoff finish as they failed to make it past the quarterfinals. Their late acquisition of Mateusz “Kikis” Szkudlarek didn't improve the team as much as H2K's last-minute addition, with lackluster Gangplank barrel placement and obvious communication hiccups.
Simply put, Fnatic weren’t a team. Laners played far forward with Lee “Spirit” Dayoon farming on the opposite of the map, and Fnatic didn’t have a strong concept of champion priority on the new patch — and when they did they chose champions their players didn’t always appear comfortable playing. The team played drastically out of sync, and one can point out moments where teammates didn’t trust each other to follow up plays.
But because Fnatic weren’t a team, it isn’t immediately clear if H2k-Gaming are one either. Let’s not beat around the bush, a lot of the success of this series came from “live or die by Jankos” coming to fruition — something that hasn’t proven to be a reliable source of success. Marcin "Jankos" Jankowski chose higher pressure jungle matchups and actually abused their strengths (or at least in the case where both Jankos and Spirit chose lower pressure jungle picks, Jankos didn’t use them like lower pressure jungle picks).
Jankos had exceptional early game performances, but a hint of some of his spring playoff play re-emerged — especially in Game 3 when Jankos' Hecarim willfully charged into fights ahead of his teammates. With better use of Gangplank’s setup, some of H2K’s old hang-ups in uncoordinated teamfights might have come up in the conversation.
More troubling was Martin “Rekkles” Larsson and Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim’s apparent desire to repeatedly throw themselves on the Infinity Edges of their opposing bottom lane. Perhaps the pre-series trashtalk got to Rekkles and YellOwStaR, and they forced trades they kept losing, or they felt it was essential for them to at least try to push out lanes and exert pressure to help protect Spirit in invades that didn't happen. A lot of the advantages that FORG1VEN and Oskar “VandeR” Bogdan’s picked up throughout the series were free of charge.
Far from testing H2K’s resilience as a newly-reunited team, the quarterfinal against Fnatic both built them up and gave them a precipice to fall from when they collide with Splyce’s stronger coordination and flexibility in this week's semifinal bout. One misstep may very well reopen old wounds.
That isn’t to take away from things that H2K did well. When they obtained advantages, they funneled them into vision around the mid lane which allowed Yoo “Ryu” Sangook to have a higher impact than he had for much of the regular split or spring playoffs. This showed a new fundamental understanding of how many European teams with carry junglers use mid lane pressure. They push out mid to open up invade opportunities, and Ryu shut that possibility down.
When Spirit invaded, he ultimately placed more wards than Jankos, but H2K’s wards were more centralized in relevant places. Spirit, especially in the first game, spent more time around his duo lane, and with that information, H2K didn’t have to add as much vision to the rest of the map with their jungler to take advantage of stronger pushing lanes.
Jankos’ time around the AD carry and support duo was much more focused. At around 14 minutes into Game 1, after Fnatic had set up the top lane with invades, Spirit headed bottom, crossing one of H2K’s only wards on the map in the river bush near dragon. H2K reacted immediately in the top lane to gank Fnatic’s over-extended duo lane, thwarting their attempt to pick up the first turret using Gangplank’s global pressure. Communication and reactive play was generally strong in the early game.
H2K don’t have problems getting leads, and they correctly identified the importance of mid lane more thoroughly this time around. Cutting down the first row of turrets comes to H2K, FORG1VEN, and H2K with FORG1VEN as simply as memeing comes to EU LCS spectators. Now, not only does FORG1VEN get first blood, he gets first turret blood, providing H2K with an extra buffer they didn’t have last time.
It’s the mid to late game where H2K have traditionally become more aimless, and it’s the mid to late game where Splyce seem most comfortable. Throughout the regular season, Splyce’s heroic comebacks and execution of 1-3-1 became a staple. Slightly in line with Rekkles, laning doesn’t seem to be Kasper “Kobbe” Kobberup’s favorite thing. He’s much more Splyce’s insurance policy when the solo lanes don’t get off the ground, and he does it better than Rekkles as well.
Splyce’s 1-3-1 after turrets fall also abuses some of H2K’s struggles in maintaining momentum. With Ryu and Jankos occasionally getting caught out against Fnatic in side lane pushes, Splyce’s more practiced and refined 1-3-1 as a unit should result in them taking advantage of even more of H2K’s slight breakdowns in coordination.
The most interesting question for me becomes how important first turret gold really is. H2K love brandishing their leads, and extra gold for taking down the first turret of the game could be the lynchpin in whether or not they attend their first final in EU LCS history.
Splyce’s resilience might throw all of H2K’s hard work in the early game back at them, or a combination of H2K’s best-of-five experience and a single tier one turret could uncoil the Snake’s grip on the second place finish that seemed assured halfway through the regular season.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter for Chicago restaurant recommendations as Worlds looms.