Losing is emotionally draining. It hurts like nothing else. Yet it also helps pinpoint areas that need improvement. The best teams take a loss and use it to their advantage, leveraging their strengths to overcome newly exposed weaknesses.
But what if your team doesn’t lose?
Change can be especially difficult when there aren't any signs that something is wrong. Immortals, who nearly ran the table in the North American League Championship Series Spring Split, now know this better than anyone. Last week they came up against a Team SoloMid who were perfectly suited to the current metagame, and what looked like an inevitable Mid-Season Invitational ticket for NA’s top team turned to dust.
“We were kind of stomping with that comp that we played against TSM," says Immortals jungler Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin. "We didn’t get exposed by any other team except TSM, and we just thought that this meta still worked against the tank meta.” There’s no hint of cockiness in his voice, just quiet confidence in his diagnosis.
Immortals’ Coach Dylan Falco says the team went into the Semifinals with a really good practice record. “We were obviously practicing a lot of stuff that was different from the meta, but we were performing even better than we had earlier in the season,” he explains.
Neither Reignover nor Dylan lost faith in the team after the loss. “People talk about our team as if we can only play one style, or we’re stubborn, and I don’t think that’s accurate,” the coach says. “We just are passionate and believed in what was our strongest strategy at the time.”
Once Immortals realized — too late — that their strategy no longer worked, they immediately began working to adapt their play for the third-place match against Team Liquid. Dylan stresses that they got as much practice as they could leading up to Saturday's match, and he feels the team "looked pretty good" after their 3-0 victory.
“We thought that our preparation wouldn’t be what they expected us to play,” he says, pointing to the team's first-pick Azir in Game 1 as an example. “We were pretty confident that we were going to win. I think a lot of it is that we just need to make sure we’re practicing a variety of things and quickly identify one or two small changes from game to game.”
Throughout the regular season, Reignover was a highly proactive jungler who dictated the pace of Immortals' games from the start. With a whopping 8.3 KDA, the highest of all NA junglers in the regular season, plus a 71 percent kill participation rate and a 61 percent First Blood participation rate, Reignover facilitated nearly everything Immortals did on the map.
When the meta shifted towards damage carry junglers, the team seemed lost without his ganking pressure. TSM’s Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen challenged Reignover at nearly every turn last week, effectively removing him from Immortals’ early game.
Against Team Liquid, however, he was back in control. Out of Immortals’ 57 kills across the bloody three-game series, Reignover had a hand in 47 (82 percent), including a perfect 8/0/10 Graves performance in Game 2. It was his first outing this year on the Outlaw, but it was more than enough to silence the critics who claimed he couldn’t play in-meta carry junglers.
“After the Semifinal we realized we needed to change something and we started to play a tank top and carry DPS jungle,” Reignover says. The team made sure to get lots of practice with aggressive junglers like Graves, Elise and Kindred — champions Reignover had played in solo queue, but hadn't felt very confident with in scrims. “It was pretty hard at the beginning, but as a team I think we just play really well together.”
Although Graves came out in Game 2, Immortals banned Kindred in all three games. “Sometimes you solo-carry or sometimes you solo-lose, you know?” Reignover says of the champ. “We didn’t want any kind of risk. Graves can really hard carry, but he can also be solid. He can still affect most of the game. Kindred is just too risky of a pick for us.”
Top laner Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon was another player who made substantial changes between the TSM and TL games. Finally shifting from carry champions like Gangplank, Graves, and the odd Lucian, Huni showed just as much prowess on initiation tanks like Gragas and Poppy. The crowd control from Reignover's Elise supplemented Huni's tank play in Games 1 and 3.
More important than the new drafting strategy was how the team adjusted their communication to accommodate it. “By changing the pick-ban, the way we played the game also had to be changed,” Reignover says. “[Players] who didn’t speak as much as before had to speak a lot, and someone who used to speak a lot doesn’t have a lot to say. The communication was pretty different, but we didn’t have problems. Everyone has a lot of experience.”
Immortals' experience and much-touted positive atmosphere helped them make the necessary adjustments so quickly, it's hard not to wonder what would have happened had they been punished earlier in the season. “Because we practice so well, there are situations where we can almost play whatever we want,” Dylan says. “It becomes really hard to find weaknesses in our strategy because of our practice, until we play a strong team like TSM.”
Next season, the NA LCS will move from its traditional best-of-one round robin format to best-of-three series. Dylan agrees that any additional stage experience for his team would help, not to mention making it easier to transition to the playoffs format. “I’ll have an entire season of best-of-threes to work up to the best-of-five series," he says.
"That being said, I don’t think it’s a massive difference," he adds. "I do think teams like TSM, CLG, and TL in particular are steadily improving. Hopefully with another three or so months of everyone trying hard, everyone will improve.”
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. She's looking forward to seeing what NA will do with best-of-threes even it means many more games to watch. You can follow her on Twitter.