The 2014-2015 off-season brought a slew of changes to the Asian League of Legends scene; over 20 Korean players left for new opportunities in China, wanting to get a higher salary and/or leave the condensing Korean region.
Two of those players were elite top laners, the richest and deepest position in Korean League of Legends history. When you look back at the history of Korea, the one strength that stands above all else is their consistency at breeding new, elite players in that role.
Acorn, a Season 4 semifinalist, signed with LGD Gaming first. It was a no-brainier from the outside; he was joining his former Samsung housemate imp on the team, and he would be able to play alongside two standout carries in imp and their mid laner, We1less.
While most of the Korean players moving over were used to being the star of their team, Acorn felt at home being a support to a team with strong carries. His time on Samsung Blue led him to two Champions Korea finals (winning one) and a semifinal appearance at Season 4 Worlds before losing to imp and the eventual champions, Samsung White. On Blue, Acorn played more of a utility role, placed as a primary engage with his flanking teleports and tank play on champions like Maokai.
Then, Flame showed up. Leaving CJ Entus — the only professional team he had ever played for — the bidding for the highly-touted top lane carry started with only a few weeks before the new season started throughout the major regions. Although considered possibly the best top lane player in 2013, he had a down 2014, having a roller coaster season that ended on a low note.
LGD Gaming weren't satisfied with only acquiring one of the best ten players at the top lane position, so they went out and signed Flame. While Flame was offered more from other teams — Qiao Gu allegedly courted him with a yearly salary of $1,000,000 a year — he decided to choose the team he thought had the best shot of getting him to World Championship for the first time.
With two top lane players with polar opposite styles of playing, so far LGD has split their time almost evenly — Acorn always playing one game and Flame the next; this changed when Flame was reportedly sick, and Acorn played all four games against Invictus Gaming and King. Their strategy has been somewhat of a success three weeks into the season, sitting in fourth place along with iG. They have a record of four match wins, a draw against third place Snake, and three 0-2 losses to EDG (split), iG (both Acorn) and their most recent series against King (both Acorn).
The differences between LGD with Acorn and LGD with Flame have been distinct. With Acorn, the team is 5-4, and they play more towards letting We1less and Imp be the stars of the team. Acorn is used primarily as he was on Blue: a great engage specialist, knowing how to control team fights with smart teleports around the dragon pit and flanking behind the enemy team. He plays around his team, setting up five-on-five team fights and zoning the opponents out when taking dragon or Baron Nashor.
Flame is 4-2 through his first six games, better than Acorn's overall record with the team after a disastrous week against iG and King. When Flame plays for LGD, he is put as the main focus of the team. Either Imp or We1less take a step back, playing a more utility oriented champion to support Flame's high damage carry champion.
When their plan comes together, LGD seems unstoppable. Imp, Flame and We1less are three of the best carries at their position in the world, and they're captained by PYL, who is considered one of the best supports in China. But when things don't go well, or Flame is shut down early, LGD can fall into directionless pieces as they did against EDG and Snake.
Think of it this way: during the off-season, LGD put together the perfect vehicle. We1less, their young mid laner, has grown in the past few months and is constantly becoming a scarier player to lane against. They kept their captain PYL amid rumors of other Chinese teams trying to sign him. Imp, the reigning world champion, was added to give the team another carry threat that can compete with the opposing ace AD carries in China.
So, with all the prepping and setting up the perfect bus ride to take them to Worlds, who do they give the keys to? Acorn, the safe and reliable player, who might not get them to a world championship but will keep the vehicle intact? Or do they give the keys to Flame, who might drive LGD all the way to a world championship, but could just as easily drive them off a cliff?
If you wanted to know who the better player was, the last two years point to Flame. He's led teams as the sole carry and won the IEM World Championship and World Cyber Games. Still, while Acorn has been steady and reliable, Flame has had great highs and then equally as great nose dives.
Acorn was given the keys to the bus this past week allegedly due to Flame being under the weather, and the team lost four straight games. It would be unfair to put the blame fully on Acorn, who repeatedly out CS'ed his opponent and lane and played more of a backup role. They weren't able to win against iG or King, but you'd put more of the blame on imp, who has repeatedly chosen Kalista and failed to capitalize on her. With Kalista's reliance on playing alongside the support to use her ultimate, PYL's roaming and movements around the map have been restricted while imp plays on the spear throwing marksmen.
The decision that LGD has to make comes down to one question: do they trust Flame? If they do, the trio of carries plus PYL and a hopefully in-form Quan can beat any team in the world when it comes to firepower and technical ability. If Flame's champion pool can grow to add a few tanks and utility champs from time to time to vary up LGD's play, their opponents wouldn't be able to simply ban out Flame in the pick/ban phase.
Acorn is cool, steady and enables confidence from his teammates, but there are limits on what he can do if Imp or We1less aren't performing well. Flame is his namesake — hotheaded at times, fiery and someone who posses the mechanical ability to be the best player in the entire world.
In the choice between ice and fire, which would you choose?
Tyler "Fionn" Erzberger is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow him on Twitter.