In 2015 LPL Spring, Snake’s meteoric rise had analysts scratching their heads; their one-dimensional playstyle made strategies that should have shut them down appear more obvious. Limited effective champion pools plagued Snake’s mid laner, jungler, and AD carry, and the team sought to execute close to the same style designed around protecting Yang "kRYST4L" Fan every game.
Despite placing second in the regular season, Snake fragmented in the playoffs. They withered initially against seventh place Team King, who took advantage of their bottom lane vulnerabilities and dependency on late game team fighting, but then went 1-6 against stronger teams — LGD Gaming and Invictus Gaming — in semifinals and the third place match.
Qiao Gu in 2015 LPL Summer has reminded many spectators of Snake. Most of their strategies focus on late game team fighting. They’ve had a surprising rise to second place in the regular season after joining LPL from LSPL. Many resources go to peeling for a central figure.
On the surface, Qiao Gu have far more experienced players who understand that a one-dimensional playstyle won't win them tournaments, but it’s hard to properly assess whether Qiao Gu are just another Snake based on their playoff run. So far, they've only played one best of five against an inconsistent Invictus Gaming; their Finals will be against LGD Gaming, looking more dominant than ever, so it would be hard to fault any team for a loss to them.
Instead, to determine whether QG are “just another Snake,” it’s important to look more closely at their regular season performance. During Snake’s run, a lot of their weaknesses were obvious before teams exploited them in the playoffs.
Snake’s 2015 Spring run came with a one-dimensional strategy that teams exploited intermittently with bans or lane swaps. Despite Snake’s fourth place finish, there were five teams better than them: Edward Gaming, LGD Gaming, Invictus Gaming, Vici Gaming, and OMG.
OMG is perhaps more debatable, as they had fragmented team play, but larger champion pools and an ability to run over the laning phase characterized OMG’s play against weaker teams. This would have worked well against Snake in a best of five.
A team doesn’t have to be elite to be better than Snake was in Spring; players just have to have larger champion pools, more strategies and compositions at their disposal, and look comfortable among the top four teams in LPL Summer. As rosters and teams have had more time to develop, that sets them way ahead of comparable competition in LPL Spring.
Qiao Gu at a glance
The fundamental difference between 2015 LPL Spring Snake and 2015 LPL Summer QG is that the latter team used their time in LPL to develop a wider variety of effective strategies. They addressed problems they retained from LSPL. These are things Snake failed to do until this Summer.
Despite Snake’s top laner Li "Flandre" Xuanjun being known for a wide variety of carry champions, nearly 50% of his champion picks in 2015 LPL Spring consisted of Maokai and Rumble — the only champions he played more than five times.
Flandre wasn’t the only one. Kim "Beast" Joohyun played Nunu 11 and Jarvan IV 10 times in 44 regular season games. Mid laner Lu "BAKA" Fan played Xerath 15 times and Azir 10 times. kRYST4L played 12 Kalista games, 8 Kog’Maw games, and 7 Draven games. Kwok "Ella" Hoonkwak played 20 Janna games and 10 Thresh games.
Snake’s compositions all looked more or less the same. While other teams like LGD experimented with a wide variety of picks, playing each one five or six times situationally, Snake’s players stuck predominantly to two or three favorites. BAKA in particular was easily banned out with a Xerath target. Teams struggled to play hyper AD carries without Beast on a zoning jungle champion, making Jarvan IV and Nunu successful bans for both Vici Gaming and Master3 against Snake earlier in the season.
Top laner Bao "V" Bo, like many of Snake’s players this Spring, remained stuck on a pinch of champions with most of his games played on Hecarim or Maokai. The rest of Qiao Gu, however, have more than two predominant champions, like Baek "Swift" who has played Rek’Sai, Gragas, Ekko, and Nidalee all nine or ten times, or, like Kim "Doinb" Taesang, who played a wide variety of champions ranging from Lulu to Kassadin to Viktor to Nautilus. Even though Zhang "TcT" Hongwei fixated a lot on Janna, playing 15 Janna games all split, he played more than five games on Annie, Alistar, and Braum, attaining at least a 50% win rate on all of them.
At least computationally, Qiao Gu’s playstyle had a lot more variety than Snake’s. Most of how they played hinged on the difference between a carry or tank style jungle pick. Either way, Swift picked up a lot of the early gold. Qiao Gu’s lanes either enjoyed early game gank pressure from Swift’s carry junglers or played self-sufficiently while he scaled on tanks.
A lot of Qiao Gu’s ills in LSPL came from focusing too much on snowballing lanes ahead. In LSPL, it’s fair to say their team fighting was lackluster. Swift would engage too early, and Qiao Gu would struggle with cohesive follow up. They only won by smashing lanes and outplaying their opposition.
AD carry TnT, who spent a lot of time in LSPL after playing in LPL, said he didn’t feel he learned anything LSPL, and it was pretty clear there wasn’t much to learn. In QG’s third place Demacia Cup match with Team WE that went to five games, QG got confused by poke compositions and split-pushing. They lost to Spirit’s Nidalee when WE avoided head-to-head confrontations in lane swaps and only won the games where they could steamroll forward with direct matchups or a focus.
Even then, QG had the creativity to test compositions. In response to WE’s Viktor pick, Doinb selected a mid lane Maokai, and the team focused a great deal of resources into making him unkillable in collapse with top lane Lulu and Sivir and Janna in the bottom lane. It probably shouldn’t have worked, but it showed the team’s willingness to challenge their usual playstyle.
QG’s LPL arrival saw fast change in their approach. The team began to follow up much more on Swift’s engagements, even when they seemed questionable. It led to better overall team fighting and cohesion even in disadvantaged situations. Despite QG’s strong record, they actually average the lowest gold lead at 20 minutes in victories with an average of 121 gold ahead at 20 minutes overall, dwarfed by EDG’s average 2,625 lead at 20 minutes. QG don’t win by snowballing anymore.
In some ways, this change is troubling, but it may also be a development out of necessity. No player on Qiao Gu looks like the strongest player in his role, though a small case can be made for the competitiveness of AD carry TnT. The strongest teams in LPL, Edward Gaming and LGD, have top of the table talent in far more roles. QG aren’t going to win by brute forcing lanes like they did in LSPL, so they’ve found another way.
The keys to QG’s strong team fighting lie in aggressive play from front liners V and Swift, while Doinb and TcT play a follow up role. When asked about his synergy with TnT, TcT said he prioritizes defending the rest of the team before TnT. Peel from champions like Janna go into supporting Swift in his engagements.
Doinb has developed enough trust to follow up Swift without question. In some cases, he will rush Zhonya’s Hourglass so he can use a gap close ability to go in after Swift, activate Zhonya’s, and wait for the rest of the team to catch up while the opposition collapses on him or wastes cooldowns. This support system can turn a potentially disastrous engage into a comeback fight.
While V, Swift, Doinb, and TcT dive as a unit, TnT takes care of himself. His self-sufficient positioning as an AD carry gives him a strong ability to help his team impact a team fight from behind. He’s not the flashiest player in terms of cooldown usage, but counting his auto attacks or free hits in a fight is a sometimes shocking experience.
V’s champion pool in relation to BAKA’s
With a broad picture of how Qiao Gu operate in relation to Spring split Snake, it’s easier to start addressing more specific criticisms and parallels. One of the most obvious ones is top laner V’s champion pool.
With 16 Hecarim and 15 Maokai games played during the regular season, V’s champion pool looks nearly as suspect as BAKA’s. It doesn’t help that only one other pick has above a 50% win rate.
It’s somewhat surprising to see V so fixated on two specific picks when he played nine different champions in 17 games in LSPL Spring (regular season and Playoffs) with the highest KDA on his team. He showed perhaps the best aptitude for laning of his teammates.
Naturally, LPL is a much more competitive environment for top laners, but jungle pressure has shifted much more away from V over time in LPL. Early in the season, Doinb, QG’s mid laner, was the lowest or second lowest mid laner in terms of percentage of team gold earned. He now is at the cusp of the top half of mid laners in percentage of team gold earned, and V has received fewer and fewer jungle ganks and resources.
V is in a position similar to Flandre in last year’s 2015 LPL Spring. He’s gone from being a ganking priority to much more of a low econ top laner, sitting in the bottom three of top laners in LPL for percentage of team gold earned. He’s put away his Kassadins and played more and more Maokai.
Perhaps the least properly integrated member of Qiao Gu, V has taken over as the team’s secondary engage and primary tank when his style has been more historically suited to carry champions. To an extent, it feels a little like Qiao Gu are waiting for an opportunity to use more of V’s talents. In LSPL, his most-played and highest KDA and win rate champion was Gnar. He played Gnar only five times in LPL regular season, but in two of five games in the playoffs.
Most would say V is the weakest link of Qiao Gu, given his champion pool, but it’s hard to say exactly how limited he is on other picks when he’s played them one or two times and coincidentally lost with them. In LSPL and Demacia Cup, V’s Lulu seemed practiced and coordinated, but in his single LPL game with Lulu he didn’t even appear to remember how to properly team fight or ult. Whether it’s a fluke or not could make or break a team willing to try to ban top laners against QG.
QG have the tools to adjust their strategy to give V more focus like they used to; the question is whether they’ll use them.
Swift’s overzealous positioning and kRYST4L’s peel priority
Swift is a slight analogue for Snake’s kRYST4L, just as V is an analogue for Snake’s BAKA. kRYST4L relied on the other four members of his team to peel for him and received more of his team’s gold in Spring than any other player in LPL. Strategies built around other members of the team carrying were few and far between — though Snake did execute a Nidalee and Xerath centric poke composition to some success, but it was easily banned out because of BAKA’s champion pool.
Both TcT and Doinb focus a lot of resources on following up or peeling for Swift’s dives, which aren’t always consistently smart. Many have compared Swift to Choi "inSec" Inseok for his relentless desire to go for a target, even from behind.
Swift is only in the top three of LPL junglers for percentage of team gold, below both Spirit and Clearlove. Instead of locking down the kills, most kills go to TnT, who has earned more kills than any other player in LPL.
In this dichotomy, though Swift retains more peel resources, bottom lane has the highest gank priority in the early game, and TnT and Swift both receive above average gold distributions without completely starving out their supporting cast.
V, Doinb, and TcT don’t receive above average resources for their roles, but they aren’t scraping for scraps like a few other players in their positions.
Over-reliance on late game team fighting
Part of QG’s relatively even gold distribution comes from high kill participations across the board. Each player on QG has more than 70% kill participation and is in the top six for kill participation for his role. Both V and Doinb have the highest kill participations among solo laners, and Swift sits at second for junglers. This points to the team’s heavy reliance on team fighting.
QG also have one of the two latest first blood timings at 7 minutes and 33 seconds, just before Snake at 8 minutes and 10 seconds. QG are also in the bottom for the amount of first dragons and first towers they acquire, pointing more toward their tendency to lose laning phase and give up advantages early.
Unlike Snake, QG have more than a few ways of addressing the problem. Doinb and TnT have both acknowledged that they play less aggressively or pick less lane dominant champions to suit team dynamic, but they lose lane a little more often than some of their counterparts on other top teams.
Qiao Gu are in the top four teams for lane swapping frequency behind LGD Gaming, Vici Gaming, and OMG. They’re among the teams most likely to send their duo lane top. Teams that send their duo lane top are also more likely to miss out on first dragons or delay first bloods, though not getting first turret more consistently is a concern for them.
Split pushing from TnT or Swift also happens more often than it did in LSPL. Over the split, QG have experimented with more split-pushing and poke compositions around Nidalee or Sivir. Snake attempted a Nidalee-centric poke compositions in three total games last Spring, but that’s as far as they got in expanding their strategic focus. Swift is still willing to play Nidalee or Sejuani, giving the team more options, especially given Doinb's large champion pool and the picks he selects to complement Swift.
Far from comparing Qiao Gu to Snake last Spring, they remind me much more of the 2014 iteration of Edward Gaming. Swift’s high resource playstyle but the team’s low first blood rate points to more frequent counter-jungling, which is often visible in QG’s games. Swift will frequently outfarm the enemy jungler. Swift is second for CS per minute at 3.6, behind Spirit at 3.8.
A team fight-centric playstyle that allows the squad to come back from behind also characterized EDG last year. This split, if QG do get late game objectives like Baron or Inhibitors first, they’re more likely to hold onto leads than other teams. The team’s win rate on acquisition of the first inhibitor (92%) is the highest of teams in the Playoffs, and their win rate on acquisition of first Baron (73%) is second of top six Playoffs teams behind Edward Gaming.
Outside a low early pressure and team fight-centric style in the late game, QG also have a very similar dynamic to EDG in terms of gold distribution. V received criticisms this year that are reminiscent of those received by Tong "Koro1" Yang last year — struggling in lane, limited champion pool — but he’s had strong team fighting on tanks.
Swift’s attention to farm over ganks reminds me of Ming "Clearlove" Kai's old flaws, but Clearlove’s engagements last year were more calculated. Doinb has had the most stable performances most recently of any players on QG, and he’s recognized primarily as the backbone, much like Ceng "U" Long. TnT performed somewhat poorly in lane, but his self-sufficient team fight positioning makes him stand out, but perhaps not to the level of Zhu "NaMei" Jiawen last year.
The analogy falls apart a little at TcT. Feng "Fzzf" Zhuojun was much more focused on engagements, and TcT much more on peel, but they both had a penchant for Janna and Thresh (honestly, though, which support doesn’t?).
2014 Edward Gaming obviously had their flaws, but they managed to take their style to the top of the league, winning almost every tournament in which they participated. The landscape of the game and the competition within LPL have changed drastically, but a more conservative early game style seems to work for QG. They don’t forget to pull the trigger when they see an opening after 20 minutes, and they play perhaps better than any other team in the league from behind.
The most definitive point in QG’s favor, however, is their adaptability. In 28 game wins during the LPL regular season, QG won 16 Game 2s and 12 Game 1s.
With seven total 2-0 victories to their name, QG won nine Game 2s after losing a Game 1, and only five Game 1s before losing a Game 2, making them slightly more likely, based on a limited sample, to come back than to lose momentum.
QG also are not without higher level best-of-five experience. In the Demacia Cup last Spring, QG played five best-of-fives, including games against OMG, Snake, Invictus Gaming, and WE. The tournament was plagued by technical issues and other setbacks, but QG played at least three back-and-forth series and one that that went to five games. They only lost their semifinals match to iG 0-3. This past week, they got their revenge. They went up two games to iG before dropping two more and regrouping to take the series.
When one talks about Qiao Gu, they shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as Edward Gaming and LGD. Those two teams have transcended the rest of the LPL rabel, even with EDG’s recent setbacks.
QG, at the very least, deserve a mention among the top four in LPL. My favorites to take the last two seeds at the World Championship are Edward Gaming and the new and improved Snake, but QG’s chances of making it and deserving the spot are far above what the Spring iteration of Snake’s would have been, and they get the edge over Invictus Gaming.
As for the finals this weekend, LGD will likely push past Qiao Gu. Yet it's impossible to ever completely count QG out in a game, even from 10,000 gold down. It should grant them at least one game.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.