Playing Rock, Paper, Scissors with the LCK Playoff Gauntlet

by theScore Staff Aug 9 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of KeSPA / LCK Summer 2016

Now that the Afreeca Freecs have been eliminated, SK Telecom T1 are guaranteed the LoL Champions Korea 2016 Summer title.

It’s a joke with a hint of truth — and just a whiff of despair from fans of any team other than SKT — rooted in the odd circumstances surrounding the history of Korea’s playoff teams this split. Afreeca, who have the ability to be innovative in one moment and completely out of touch the next, have one of the best win rates against SKT since they were picked up by Afreeca and transformed from Rebels Anarchy into the Freecs of today. The Tigers have an abysmal record against SKT — the one team that has stood in their way since LCK Spring 2015, and has continued to be their achilles’ heel throughout every single LCK split and even a shot at the 2015 World Championship. KT Rolster’s chances against SKT appear equally bad, with the Telecom War rivalry — which extends beyond League of Legends into other esports — well in SKT’s hand as far as LoL is concerned.

Afreeca beat SKT, SKT beat the Tigers and KT, the Tigers beat Samsung, or KT and KT beat Samsung. All teams but SKT beat Afreeca.

Round 2: Samsung Galaxy vs. KT Rolster

This is the only guaranteed matchup thanks to Samsung’s aforementioned win over Afreeca on Monday. As previously mentioned, Samsung has a KT problem. Their problem, indicated by their low win rate against KT teams, stems from two things, one of which was luck.

KT Rolster and Samsung managed to avoid each other during Samsung’s 2014 heyday aside from one split set between the KT Rolster Bullets and Samsung Galaxy Blue in Winter 2013-14, and the KT Rolster Arrows' famous 3-2 victory over Samsung Blue in the Champions Summer 2014 Finals. The MVP/Samsung teams were caught in a growing rivalry with SK Telecom T1 K while KT Rolster’s teams were also caught in a rivalry with the same organization — another testament to SKT’s greatness over a large swath of LoL history. Since the two MVP teams, Ozone/White and Blue, were rebranded under the Samsung Galaxy banner, they are a measly 3-20 against KT teams — a 13 percent win rate with no series or set wins. Two of those three wins came in the aforementioned Summer 2014 Finals against the Arrows.

In LoL Champions Korea alone, that record is even worse. KT Rolster has dominated Samsung since the LCK’s inception in Spring 2015, sweeping them every series for a 16-0, 100 percent win rate.

Samsung’s teams throughout 2015 didn’t lack for talent per se, but there was no unifying or veteran voice able to bring the team together. Mid laner Park "BlisS" Jong-won — formerly known as "Bell Park" one of the Korean solo queue ladder’s stars at the time — washed out of competitive play, increasingly replaced by Kim "Ace" Ji-hoon towards the end of the split. Jungler Seo "Eve" Jun-cheol and AD carry Lee "Fury" Jin-yong had talent but no direction. The only veteran voice on the team was support Kwon "Wraith" Ji-min, formerly of ahq e-Sports Club Korea and SK Telecom T1 K’s short replacement for Lee "PoohManDu" Jeong-hyeon.

This changed with the arrival of mid-laner-turned-jungler Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong in LCK Spring 2016. Together, Wraith and Ambition are a formidable duo, and every move that Samsung makes presumably goes through one or both of these players. In their brief trial period for AD carry-turned-support Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in, Ambition and the team appeared far less coordinated, and his often reckless jungle invades were punished without backup or due to improper timing. Still, while this version of Samsung is much improved from any of their 2015 offerings, Samsung still lacks the ability to go toe-to-toe with KT Rolster.

Their woes start in the top lane with Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin unable to stand up to the monstrous carry potential of Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho and continue into the jungle with Go “Score” Dong-bin often able to punish Ambition for his more aggressive early invades. Samsung’s Lee “Crown” Min-ho has been a far better mid across both 2016 regular seasons than KT’s Song “Fly” Yong-jun, but lacks the all-in, killer instinct to thoroughly punish Fly early. With niche pocket picks like Aurelion Sol, Zilean, and more recently Taliyah, Fly can affect KT’s side lanes easily, making his presence known despite his lack of mid lane control.

Samsung will be able to beat KT if they play at their highest possible level, choose teamfights correctly, and punish KT’s laners — especially Fly and AD carry No “Arrow” Dong-hyeon — early. Unfortunately for Samsung, history and the one-on-one matchups are on KT’s side, as is the latter team’s creativity on new patches.

Round 3: SK Telecom T1 vs. Samsung Galaxy or KT Rolster

It’s difficult to imagine a world where SKT does not beat Samsung or KT. Of the two teams, KT is more prepared to beat SKT, and has hung in a bit longer in their games against the Korean powerhouse, but neither have a proven ability to best SKT.

As always, when speaking of SKT, troubles for their opponents start in the mid lane with the world’s best LoL player, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. Unlike Crown, Faker is able to punish KT’s Fly’s unorthodox picks and roaming. Faker will also err on the side of aggression to kill Fly in lane if he sees the opportunity. Fly is also not known for his best judgment against Faker, and has put himself into early deficits due to mistimed all-ins that have only resulted in Fly’s death and more advantages for SKT. KT’s only chance is to overwhelm either Kang “Blank” Sun-gu or Bae “bengi” Seong-woong in the jungle early, not lose too much mid lane pressure from the Fly/Faker mismatch, and allow Ssumday to take over teamfights and the game. Even in this scenario, SKT can fight their way back in late, 5v5 engagements, relying on star AD carry Bae “Bang” Jun-sik.

In the unlikely event that SKT goes up against Samsung, they will be able to wait for Samsung to make a teamfighting mistake — Samsung still struggles with knowing when to fight — or simply best them early due to their strong lanes. CuVee is also likely to have issues with SKT top laner Lee “Duke” Ho-seong, just as he will with KT’s Ssumday.

LCK Finals: ROX Tigers vs. Samsung Galaxy, KT Rolster, or SK Telecom T1

The Tigers have easily dispatched both Samsung and KT Rolster throughout LCK spring and summer 2016, although Samsung snuck in a 2-0 victory at the very start of the summer season.

While the Tigers are more than willing to try out new things, their reads on new patches aren’t always the best, and their odd affinity for Vladimir and Swain scaling compositions adversely affected Han “Peanut” Wang-ho’s early jungle pressure along with the Tigers' ability to do enough damage in teamfights, regardless of their tankiness and health regeneration. In their first LCK summer 2016 matches against Samsung, the Tigers tried out an Ekko jungle, top lane Swain, mid lane Aurelion Sol composition that did not work out in Game 1. They then trotted out new mid laner Hae “Cry” Sung-min in Game 2 for an Azir composition, given starting mid laner Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng’s inability to play Azir on the professional stage. The end result was a sweep in Samsung’s favor.

When the teams met later in the split, their series served as support Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon’s Taric coming out party. Samsung also made the mistake of handing Peanut his best champion, Nidalee, in Game 2, allowing him to take over the game. Should Samsung make an unlikely run for the Finals, the Tigers should be able to beat them easily.

Meanwhile, KT can take on the Tigers in a game of inches but lack the same composure that the Tigers have under pressure against any team aside from SKT. A Finals series against KT Rolster might be close, but the Tigers would eventually edge them out. KurO provides enough pressure to keep Fly chained to the mid lane and the Tigers’ star top laner Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho is one of the few top laners in the region that can best Ssumday, removing a key component from KT’s usual winning strategy.

The Tigers will have to rely on two key components to best their likely Finals adversary SKT: regular season MVP Smeb and mid laner KurO. KurO and Faker have a storied history, one that makes KurO look like the worst mid laner in Korea and further cements Faker’s legacy as the best player to have ever played League of Legends. KurO can hold his own against anyone but Faker, and this has caused massive problems for the Tigers throughout their horrific 28 percent total winrate against SKT in domestic play. Cry has proven an ineffective alternative as the Tigers’ natural cohesion and team dynamic suffers when Cry is substituted for KurO.

You can’t blame the Tigers for trying, but the unlikely event of the Tigers besting SKT is predicated on KurO conquering his inner demons when it comes to facing Faker in lane. Otherwise, this will be another LCK Finals victory for SKT, with the most likely gauntlet scenario as follows: KT beats Samsung, SKT beats KT, SKT beats the Tigers.

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