The growth of Giants Gaming has delighted those who follow the European League of Legends Championship Series. They've gone from undisputed worst team in EU to one of the Top 5, able to take down Fnatic and H2k-Gaming. But after last week, it's clear they haven't reached the end of their road just yet.
Giants spent most of Spring as the lowest-ranked team in the league, and only avoided a Challenger Series relegation in the Summer Promotion thanks to the lack of competition coming up from below. Their extensive list of roster changes screamed instability; so far in 2016, 12 different players have graced their starting roster.
The Summer Season, however, has been a different story. They took 2-0s from two of Europe’s favorites, Fnatic and H2K, and muscled their way into a position of power. At the end of Week 5, it looked like Giants had finally secured a smooth formula that would comfortably slot them into playoffs and even allow them to contest for a Top 3 finish.
Week 7 knocked Giants down with a thundering crash. Losing 2-0 to both Unicorns of Love and Splyce, the Giants’ main rivals among the middle-of-the-pack upstarts, highlighted massive problems with the team's formula. They had weaknesses to exploit, and Splyce and UoL had no problem setting up the trip wire.
Have Giants fallen for good, or can they stand tall again? If the team’s problems aren't fixable, Schalke or Vitality could well knock them out of contention for Top 6 in the final weeks of the season.
Unicorns and the starless NighT
Both Unicorns of Love and Splyce targeted different vulnerabilities in Giants’ armor. Unicorns used their strengths as a proactive team to target some of Giants’ weaknesses, playing around their star carry, Na “NighT” Gunwoo. In both matches, Kang “Move” Minsu acted to exert pressure on the mid lane before Giants’ Nubar “Maxlore” Sarafian. By threatening mid, NighT’s control became more uncertain, and he was forced to play further back in the lane.
As a team featured in the EU LCS' top four jungle farmers by share of jungle creeps killed, Giants prioritize taking heavy control of the opponents’ fog of war. In most of their games, this comes from a fairly predictable formula. Maxlore helps his lanes get advantages on one side of the map, then invades the enemy jungle for deep vision. Usually, Giants will do this on the bottom half of the map so they can have control of the dragon and force fights early to further snowball NighT.
To make this style work, Giants usually have to set their mid laner ahead, since NighT generally follows Maxlore. As the mid laner with the highest wards per minute in the EU LCS, he shares a significant part of the burden of securing deep vision on invades. This in turn allows NighT and Maxlore to continue to pressure the mid lane. A lot of Giants’ successes come from acting first in mid, and before this week, NighT and Maxlore lead the league in First Blood participation.
As I’ve said in an earlier article, this relationship has much in common with G2’s jungle-mid combo of Luka "PerkZ" Perković and Kim “Trick” Gangyun. But Giants’ strategy seems to rely slightly more on NighT.
In cases where PerkZ gets pressured, Trick reacts almost immediately, by placing vision in the enemy jungle and fleeing when the enemy jungler disappears from the map, or by ganking another lane. Either way, he ensures he can continue invading if PerkZ falls behind, and bring PerkZ with him to get the mid laner back in the game. It gives PerkZ some room for early error, because Trick ensures vision coverage will persist to make him safer later.
That wasn't what happened for Giants against Unicorns. After getting caught once, NighT either fell back or dared to push forward again without vision only to get punished — again. Maxlore couldn’t use a strong presence mid to invade and set up fights for Giants, which destabilized their formula.
Unicorns also played much more proactively in their games against Giants than we’re used to seeing, even from them. The bottom lane dared to roam to the other side of the map to allow Tamás "Vizicsacsi" Kiss the opportunity to push deep into enemy territory early on without vision. Unicorns better identified their strong side, and Giants were left scrambling without one. By sacrificing their bottom lane to ensure both top and mid got ahead, Unicorns ensured Giants didn’t have a half of the map to control.
Giants’ failure to perform well under the weight of Unicorns' early roams and aggressive moves highlights some comments made by NighT in an interview from Week 6. “In Korea, they play more passively because in Korea, one death is more towers and vision, so [it’s] really risky [to give up] one death,” he said. It was hard for him to adjust to the EU in the first week, he said, but in the second week he adapted.
Overall, however, NighT’s play has still been relatively reactive. His ability to react in a split second using a supportive champion to save a teammate or stack his cooldowns on a target that mispositions for one second have made him incredibly strong in EU. But, when Unicorns constantly targeted him, he didn’t have the opportunity to react well, and they built up a massive lead.
Giants rely a lot on NighT reacting well to mistakes made by European teams, but when opponents constantly group around him to get a lead early and prevent him from getting an advantage, it’s harder for him to punish those mistakes later on. NighT has the power to react off an enemy misplay because Maxlore usually acts first to get him ahead. After NighT fell behind against Unicorns, Maxlore played a lot more uncertainly without his mid laner to back him up, and he made fewer attempts to get control of neutral objectives and enemy buffs.
Given NighT’s style, the Kassadin pick also created confusion. As a team that relies a lot on having control of mid to invade the jungle, Kassadin doesn’t exert the early lane pressure or wave clear Giants need. The pick seemed especially out-of-place after Game 1, as Kassadin’s low mobility and lower power at early levels made it even easier to target NighT. Perhaps the team chose Kassadin because he can evade ganks easily after Level 6, but true to their strategy in Game 1, Unicorns didn’t give NighT the time to secure Level 6 before ganking him multiple times.
Splyce, and the other team with a Snake mascot
Giants’ formula — relying on two lanes and invading a particular side of the map using mid lane pressure — makes them eerily similar to League of Legends Pro League team Snake eSports since Vietnamese jungler Lê "SofM" Quang Duy joined. Top lane and mid lane on Snake invade ahead of SofM on one side of the map, and he focuses on snowballing the mid lane early with repeated ganks.
Like Giants in the EU LCS, Snake have been punished for their somewhat predictable formula. Splyce’s method of attack in their win over Giants has a lot of parallels with the way Chinese teams have taken down Snake.
Casters refer to Giants as a team with a “holy trinity” not because their bottom lane is useless, but because Lennart “SmittyJ” Warkus usually gets ahead on his own, freeing up Maxlore to focus on the bottom side of the map more. This is reflected in Morgan “Hustlin” Granberg's and Son “S0NSTAR” Seungik's higher First Blood participation rates compared to SmittyJ.
Maxlore likely prioritizes his duo lane over his top lane for a myriad of reasons, one being that top lane can usually Teleport to provide backup. Another is that, as many junglers before Maxlore have said, bottom lane has two players to take advantage of a lead. Plus the dragon is usually in close proximity to the bottom lane, and SmittyJ’s self-sufficiency means he requires the presence of his jungler less.
Martin "Wunder" Hansen took advantage of SmittyJ in 1v1s, accomplishing with less resources what Unicorns of Love managed by transitioning their bottom lane to the top side of the map. Jonas “Trashy” Andersen also played much more to Wunder and SmittyJ’s side of the map, which drew Maxlore from S0NSTAR and Hustlin’s lane to try to support SmittyJ. But Splyce’s smart drafts gave them powerful AD carry and support picks in the 2v2, and the superior laning prowess of Kasper “Kobbe” Kobberup and Mihael “Mikyx” Mehle punished Giants' duo, splitting Maxlore's attention across the map.
Maxlore played the least decisively he has this season in the Splyce series. Though Giants did manage to get a teamfight advantage in Game 1, Splyce were much more punishing with their split-map strategy (and a stronger 2v2 with Sivir and Bard) in Game 2. In Game 1, Splyce spent the early game gathering small advantages in side lanes, and were looking to be ahead by mid game, but they made a poor call and lost a big fight over dragon. Still, Giants threw away their lead by attempting to over-force objectives, giving Splyce a leg back into the game.
Splyce supplemented their early game side lane strategy by using more defensive wards. They sit in the bottom four EU teams for wards per minute, while Giants sit in the top three, but even in the game where Splyce found themselves behind for a sizable chunk, they out-warded Giants in three of five roles. Splyce identified that one of Giants’ biggest strengths is in laying invasive wards, and they responded by keeping their own territory well-guarded. Their one major slip-up was the dragon fight in Game 1.
By pressuring both sides of the map and applying defensive wards, Splyce split Maxlore and made it difficult for him to invade. Teams like I May have used similar strategies against Snake eSports, a team that also relies on a strong top and mid lane to facilitate invades, targeting some of SofM’s more obvious patterns. It isn’t too unbelievable that the same could happen to Maxlore and Giants in the EU LCS going forward.
One of Giants’ more glaring problems may be in mid lane objective control. Their inability to react to Splyce’s steal threats in Game 1 demonstrates tunnel-vision, which is also consistent with Giants’ somewhat one-dimensional single-side jungle control formula.
For all the ways Giants were punished in Week 7, there is actually one relatively easy way for them to correct their formula: act first. Giving NighT his lead in the mid lane early is the formula that gave Giants success, and it allows him to ward his own land and roam more to gank side lanes or help Maxlore in invades. This could cause Giants games to devolve more and more into 2v2 or 3v3 scenarios in the first three minutes of every match, but the more practice Giants have with it, the more consistently they can win out.
Another solution is to just draft stronger lanes. This hasn’t always been a problem for Giants; some of their preferred champions like Ashe, Jhin and Sivir have strong laning phases, but getting a strong support and top lane also helps. They can also use SmittyJ’s Teleports as more of a tool to get him involved early. Key to G2’s heavy-invade jungle-mid success last split was a top laner who would Teleport often to assist his lanes. It still feels like SmittyJ isn’t pushing that button to create proactivity without Maxlore. Part of that could be the team waiting for Maxlore and NighT to get online before they make plays, but that doesn’t have to happen.
Even if they make quick fixes, Giants still need to develop more dimensions to continue to win matches and truly challenge Europe's Top 3. That means expanding past a gank mid, invade one side of the jungle strategy. In the past with different rosters, Giants have gotten complacent with a single playstyle and failed to adapt when teams started poking holes. When their multi-Tear of the Goddess stacking strategies stopped working in 2015, they remained committed to them, and never cashed in on what could have been a potentially much stronger roster.
With concerted effort, Giants’ problems are identifiable and fixable. The last weeks of the EU LCS regular season will let their fans know if a failure to develop is an organizational weakness, or a flaw Giants shrugged into the clouds when they first climbed up with their new roster.
Data from OraclesElixir.com.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.