Europe could have had six incredible teams this split. Instead, the EU LCS has three top teams, three playoffs stragglers and... the rest.
Fnatic, Origen and Unicorns of Love managed to finish in the middle, sandwiched between the best and the worst. Back in the first two weeks of the season, there was reason to believe that all three could have been top-tier. With the talent level on Fnatic and Origen, and the creativity and strategic improvements expressed by Unicorns of Love, Europe should have had six top teams vying for the win.
While Fnatic has struggled with communication, Origen and UoL have braved their own technical trials. It’s easy to compare Origen’s revolving coach door to Unicorns’ jungle carousel. Both teams have been unstable in one way or another, and it's come out in their awkward mid and late game decision-making. Europe’s closest quarterfinal clash has a lot of questions hovering around it.
1. TO: Russia, Missing you
Since Danil "Diamondprox" Reshetnikov’s departure from Unicorns of Love as a result of difficulties with his visa, UoL have played with three other junglers. It seems as if their quest for a new jungler is a desperate attempt to find a player just like Diamondprox, but reproducing a jungler with his style and pedigree is impossible.
Diamondprox brought decisiveness and clarity to the team. He paired well with support Zdravets “Hylissang” Iliev Galabov to create counter-invades. With his extensive experience on their side, UoL played much more cleanly in their early game.
It's possible UoL settled on Jean-Victor "loulex" Burgevin in an effort approximate Diamondprox's experience and decisiveness, but so far it hasn’t resulted in success. Whatever loulex showed offstage that prompted Unicorns to acquire him, he hasn’t reproduced it in one of the team's competitive matches.
loulex’s independence in the early game has, however, allowed the bottom lane to focus more on building leads onto Pierre “Steeelback” Medjaldi. This has mitigated Unicorns’ tendency to fall behind early, but has created more holes in the mid and late game.
On H2k-Gaming, loulex used to start skirmishes at awkward moments, and he's done the same for Unicorns. The team has thrown leads with strange positioning around objectives. Diamondprox’s absence is palpable.
Beyond loulex's fumbles, changing junglers has also slowed UoL's strategic development. Unicorns showed off their creativity earlier this split by avoiding scouting wards with blind swap rushes and turret hugs. They also temporarily had the lead in jungle control. Their strategies put them ahead of much of the EU LCS for a large part of the split, but as they kept changing junglers, the team started to fall behind. Eventually they looked a lot like Origen: a team that relies on Baron and their AD carry when nothing else can be done.
Familiarity with loulex as an opponent may be enough for Origen to abuse the matchup.
2. Where is the coach?
Origen released their starting coach this season, but the change hasn’t improved them. Their drafts remain awkward, and their communication absent. Origen continue to look for 2v2s to accelerate Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen into a power spike. A Lulu ban is still a pain point. They split themselves at Baron for pickoffs. Their split-push coordination needs work.
An ineffective coach is the same as no coach. So far, Origen haven’t been pleased with their candidates. The results are evident. Last year, the team grew and continued to improve over the course of the split, but this year they keep attempting the same strategies with poor results.
It’s possible Origen won’t find a coach that suits their ideal. Perhaps it’s a better idea to hire an imperfect voice and hope he improves with time and learns from the team what they need. This may be exactly what they're attempting with their analyst.
Regardless of whether Origen decides to change coaches, it won’t yield results for them in the 2016 Spring Playoffs. Origen’s analyst and players have to dig deeper to build new strategies. They’ve managed to skate by Unicorns of Love in both of their games against them, so their first series may not punish them; but they can’t hope to make a dent in the Top 4 if they don’t find some way to break out of their box.
A coach may not be the answer, but staying the same isn’t either.
3. The EU LCS’ orphans
This year’s Unicorns lineup is comprised of castoffs from last year’s teams. Both Hylissang and Kiss “Vizicsacsi” Tamás were put down by dominant voices in the community after the departure of Tristan “PowerOfEvil” Schrage. H2K’s first change to their primary lineup was trading out loulex. Fnatic dismissed Steeelback after the return of Martin “Rekkles” Larsson. Hampus “Fox” Myhre fans lost a lot of enthusiasm in SK Gaming’s summer split.
Based on their play early in 2016, many of these players seemed like they were worth a second look. Vizicsacsi and Hylissang created the border of the team that drove them to victories. Steeelback’s drive has made him a successful last resort carry. His play allowed him to get revenge on Fnatic both games in the regular season, and it’s a big reason Unicorns are seeded above Fnatic. The remaining two never had much luster to them: Fox has quietly accumulated kills, but still hasn’t impressed, and loulex has yet to prove his value on the major stage.
This quarterfinal bears witness to the grudge match between PowerOfEvil and Vizicsacsi and Hylissang. UoL surpassed expectations with their top and support as two of their stars, while PowerOfEvil struggled on Origen. Many have cited his limited champion pool as a problem for the once triumphant team.
PowerOfEvil may not play all of this series, but it’s likely he’ll at least make a match appearance. Origen may be favored overall with a less inconsistent late game, but if Hylissang and Vizicsacsi can control side lanes, they can force Origen apart and pick up a Baron.
This generation of Unicorns is still worth our attention.
4. The blue pill or the red pill
On the analyst desk, Origen have said that Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martínez is a stronger player for them on blue side because his champion pool allows them to blind-pick mid lane. PowerOfEvil needs to counterpick and get the proper matchup for his pool to be effective. As a result, we might go into the first playoffs series this week with xPeke only playing blue side games and PowerOfEvil showing up for red side — if such mid-series substitutions are permitted.
Some have suggested that xPeke makes Origen feel more coherent. While xPeke’s assassin-flavor champions have helped him make unexpected picks and turn losing games, the team's coordination is still weak when he plays. The “xPeke effect” is mainly the ability to find and eliminate a wandering target before taking an objective.
PowerOfEvil has faced heavy criticism this split. His playstyle favors more scaling mage champions, and it hasn’t always made him look optimal. With Lulu almost constantly banned against Origen, POE’s choices are further limited. He has a lot to prove if he’s allowed to play this series, especially against his former teammates.
No matter which mid laner they start, having two options adds another dimension to UoL's required preparation. As both PowerOfEvil and xPeke have different styles and champion pools, they can both completely change the team’s dynamic. This extra layer of unpredictability — far from refined to a point where it can be optimally implemented — may serve as a gimmick that pulls Origen through when nothing else will.
5. All-in on the AD carry
Whether a team admits it or not, many of them have the clutch carry: the player they rely upon to drag an unwinnable match to winnable, the single force that can turn the right fight and create an opening. For both Unicorns of Love and Origen, the clutch carry is obvious; he’s in the bottom lane.
Steeelback and Zven both sit in the top five of the EU LCS in terms of share of team damage to champions. Both have the same specialty champion that enemy teams know they should ban: Kalista. Origen and UoL games both average more than 35 minutes. Long games mean more AD carry importance as items mount. Staying alive has made the difference for Steeelback’s and Zven’s teams.
Sivir is a champion that suits Steeelback. Her popularity could put Unicorns in a position where they tip over the edge for at least a game. Early in the split, Zven’s peerless teamfight positioning would have made Origen an obvious favorite in a late game teamfight, but he’s tripped and fallen forward a little too often in the latter half.
As both teams try to get their bottom lanes ahead, expect early 3v3 skirmishes or tricky lane swap scouting to find the best matchups. Origen and UoL’s emphasis on AD carries will make for long games and a long series, but impressive individual plays.
Come for the dashed hopes of what these teams could have been. Stay for the fantastic AD carries.
Statistics in this article can be found on OraclesElixir.com.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter for Steeelback Sivir memes.