The second day of MSI 2016 semifinals at Shanghai Oriental Sports Center had North America's Counter Logic Gaming taking on the LMS's Flash Wolves. Each side had surpassed general expectations in the tournament but a peek at their group stage match history gave CLG the edge, both in overall performance but also because the pair's earlier face-offs had both ended in CLG victories. Would a North American side finally have what it took to reach the finals of a major Riot League event or was SKT going to go up against the aggression of Taiwan's Flash Wolves?
Champion select opened with a CLG ban on Alistar - a solid choice given Flash Wolves have lost every game bar one where they haven't picked up the champ for support player Hu 'SwordArt' Shou-Chieh.
Game one saw CLG return to a 1-3-1 style of play. In case you're not familiar with the terminology it's that low-kill split pushy sort of League of Legends where you have two players who each nibble at one of the side lanes, pushing waves and taking towers while the remaining players hold off attacks on the mid lane. It's about chipping away, rather than high-kill death balls.
They spent time pushing out their vision net and then using that information to apply pressure and pick their plays, pushing inexorably to the enemy base.
Flash Wolves managed a few decent trades in their fights, but the problem with 1-3-1 games (or the upside, depending on whose perspective you take) is that while you're committing resources to taking down the mid-lane inhabitants you're losing the other lanes, bit by bit.
Another teamfight looked like it might not result in any casualties but CLG capitalised on Zaqueri 'Aphromoo' Black landing a Cosmic Binding (which applies a slow effect) and wiped out the whole of Flash Wolves. From there, CLG just continued and escalated the push, taking more teamfights and more casualties, but always working their way further into their opponents' base.
CLG - 1, FW - 0
For the second game of the series the champion select started out the same way. CLG banned Alistar and LeBlanc while Flash Wolves removed Lucian and Maokai from the pool. But to round off the banning phase each team amended their previous ban list and gave a nod to the irritation of the previous game's support players. Flash Wolves got rid of the Bard which Aphromoo was such a pain for them on in that first game, while CLG didn't fancy another scuffle against the team-wide healing and sustain power of SwordArt's Soraka.
This time it was Flash Wolves who took the initial lead, although not by much. The LMS side was planning ahead more and warding better (the two are linked - it's about having a strategy, getting the vision to give you information and using that information to adjust the strategy or the timings or to find moments of unexpected opportunity). Wards win games, yo. Flash Wolves essentially turned the tables on CLG with their lane-swappy aggression in this match despite having what appeared the be the weaker team composition.
There was a moment of tension at the end of the match where Flash Wolves were in the process of a final assault on the CLG base. Nearly all the structures had been destroyed and the North American squad were on the verge of being obliterated. But, keeping an eye on the death timers, showed that CLG's carry Trevor 'Stixxay' Hayes - who's had a blinder of a tournament - was about to respawn. Could he boot out the two Flash Wolves players hammering the nexus? Not with a slew of minions to deal with too.
CLG - 1, FW - 1
Game three saw a selection of this meta's familiar faces. And Sona.
Sona is a music-themed support character with heal options and an ultimate ability which forces her opponents to dance.
"When we played against Flash Wolves we realised they don't really have solid engage option, they play to poke," says CLG coach Tony 'Zikzlol' Gray after the game. "We figured having some sort of engage while having sustain was perfect for this scenario. Sona fit that because it was a counter in lane to Karma, it had sustain to deal with their poke, and it had hard engage to be able to pretty much just start any fight on any of the people we wanted to kill."
It didn't necessarily look to be paying off at first as CLG's early game did not go well. Flash Wolves, however, were confidently roaming. They'd started the game with a 4-0 kill lead and were maintaining their advantage. But CLG weren't to be pushed over that easily. They were stalling Flash Wolves out, stemming the bleed. Then they began to take baby steps back into the game.
Flash Wolves' 5k gold lead became 2k.
A fight in mid lane resulted in a 2-0 kill trade in CLG's favour as the LMS side's mid laner Huang 'Maple' Yi-Tang went too deep and jungler Hung 'Karsa' Hai-Hsuan had to spend the Kindred's valuable ultimate to try to keep him safe (the ultimate is Lamb's Respite which stops any unit in the marked area from going below 10% health for a few seconds). With that skill unavailable CLG were able to wipe out Karsa and support SwordArt.
Flash Wolves were left to lick their wounds. Their 2k gold lead had become a 2k gold deficit. Oh, and CLG took down the Baron too.
Around the 36 minute mark the teams bunched up around the dragon pit. Flash Wolves had taken three dragons over the course of the game so perhaps one potential way out of their current unpromising situation would be to try to stay in the game long enough to get that fifth dragon buff and stage a comeback of their own. But you have to actually take the dragons for that to happen. The dragon and, soon afterwards, the match, went to CLG.
CLG - 2, FW - 1
Game four felt like it started off with a similar lack of clarity from CLG and they ended up down on kills (2 to Flash Wolves' 4) and a dragon behind but with a turret advantage and a small gold lead.
"We have to assess our early game and figure out what went wrong," says Zikzlol of the series as a whole. "In a lot of the early games we either messed up certain shotcalling aspects or we messed up, like people were out of position getting ganked."
But there was also confidence to their play. Flash Wolves carry Hsiung 'NL' Wen-An was slain under his own tower while Stixxay picked up a kill on Karsa's Kindred soon after.
CLG were back in the lead and accelerating. Their solid split push and application of pressure meant the end of the game saw wave after wave of minions, trundling at the LMS side's base. Eventually their nexus was utterly mangled. CLG had pushed North America further into a Riot-hosted major event than at any other point in the game's six-year competitive history.
But the celebrations from the team as they got up from their computers were muted. The semifinal victories were not flawless and tomorrow brings CLG up against a vastly improved SKT.
"We had to get through today to get to tomorrow. The most important thing for us, obviously, wasn't that match but the finals match. Our goal is to win everything so we wanted to put everything into [this semifinal] game and then put everything into the next game. Really, playing against Flash Wolves was that stepping stone before you get to the final destination."
CLG - 3, FW - 1
So what next?
Tomorrow is the final where SKT and CLG go head to head across a best-of-5. I ask Zikzlol how CLG will counter or avoid the mindgames that the aura of invincibility which tends to accompany SKT can bring to a team.
"A big part of that was our 'Respect all, fear none' mentality coming into the tournament," he says. "I feel like it helped everybody understand you need to play confidently. If we're going to make a play we need to make a play. We can't back out because we think 'It's Faker, he could counter the play because he's really good'. It doesn't matter. If your team is in the right place at the right time it does'nt matter what they can do.
"As long as we play confidently I'm pretty sure we can take it. We've already beaten this team on stage, we beat this team in scrims, we're practicing against them. I do not feel scared of SKT at all."
The finals start at 1.30pm CST which is 6.30am BST on 15 May.