Day three was semifinals day at League of Legends [official site] Mid-Season Invitational. With International Wildcard team Beşiktaş and underperforming North American side Team SoloMid eliminated, Europe's Fnatic headed back to the Rift to duke it out with Korea's SK Telecom T1 before Taiwan's AHQ faced off against China's Edward Gaming.
Shoutcaster and analyst David "Phreak" Turley was on hand to pick through the day's games with us, starting with the five match back and forth between Fnatic's chaotic aggression and SKT's strategising and lust for dragons:
"There's a million and one ways to play League of Legends and SK Telecom have a bunch of great players but what they pride themselves on is good strategic play," says Phreak. "Fnatic are very chaotic and very aggressive so you have somewhat of a clash of styles. Whichever team is allowed to play their style typically tends to win as long as it's executed properly.
"SKT wants a slow game with not a lot of kills and they'll tend to keep making better decisions than Fnatic. Game 5 was a prime example of that. Game 5, Bengi made some really good plays and good for him but it was a low kill game and SKT played their style - a strategic, smart game - and kept growing leads. Fnatic played a very chaotic style, very aggressive. Whenever they won a game [in the series], or they were close in the game, it was a high kill game. It was about them getting an aggressive jungler for Reignover, it was about Huni teleporting around constantly and making plays. The primary goal was to get kills and if you get kills you can probably do something off of it.
"It has the interesting side effect where these games with ten thousand gold leads for Fnatic are still somewhat close because you know they'll just recklessly look for some fight that might lose them the game."
SKT's ability to come back into the game when the other team is ahead also serves them well in this situation. They're strong at warding which helps them maintain vision and stops from losing too much map control. They can lose their cool in the face of a tasty-looking dragon, though, entering fights they shouldn't as they try to contest it.
"They're very good at warding, they're very good at being measured, but they really want every single dragon," says Phreak. "That spawns every six minutes if you kill it right away so every six minutes SKT would come out and be like "I'm going to fight Fnatic!" but Fnatic would be winning and they would win another fight and the lead would grow."
But, given SKT's comeback skills and Fnatic's aggression sometimes backfiring, those games could still feel knife-edge close. The clash of styles was really pronounced in the third game of the series.
"Game 3 was really heartbreaking. It was actually a prime example of the clash of styles; it was a descriptive game," says Phreak. "You saw the individual skill of Fnatic, you saw the chaotic fight style, you saw a bunch of solo kills from Febiven on Zed - that was really good by him. It was also greedy by Faker. He didn't get an armguard and just said 'Zed can't kill me' and was wrong twice."
But Fnatic's lack of caution was punished by the Korean side. "Fnatic being a lot more risk-loving and not cautious enough, honestly, Huni got caught a whole bunch and tended to die. Fnatic's composition was fine and their ability to teamfight would have been fine but there was never a 5 on 5 fight the entire game. That game to me was decided by the fact that SKT kept up ward vision and kept up a very smart game plan. Fnatic was reckless and got caught out, mostly Huni [...] They didn't play it intelligently enough."
Popping To The Shops...
Phreak mentioned the lack of an Armguard on Faker's Azir versus Febiven's Zed so I ask about SKT's itemisation in general - some of Bang and Faker's decisions and choices across the best-of-5 were downright odd.
"You'd see weird things by SKT - I felt like they itemised improperly," says Phreak. "There was one where Faker's really far behind and he builds a Luden's Echo on a champ where he should just get a Deathcap. You'd see Bang get behind on Sivir and, like, build an early Brutalizer. 'I'm just going to build Youmuu's and hope I have some spell damage...' - really awkward.
"There's one which Bang got really abused for. He had a really awkward recall and had exactly 800 gold and he'd buy an Avarice Blade and not even potions. You should probably buy boots or a Long Sword and a few potions because you're going to get wrecked in lane. Lo and behold the guy gets down, like, 40 CS. He's getting some money back from Avarice Blade but his lack of combat stats means he can't do anything in the 2 on 2 whatsoever."
It's particularly noticeable in that matchup as bottom lane is where Fnatic has a weakness. Their ADC Steeelback's average CS in competitive games has been noted several times by the casters and analysts as a cause for concern in comparison to those of his counterparts on other teams.
"I don't know if it's greed or disrespect or nerves or what," says Phreak. "Honestly, [they made] some severe itemisation mistakes. Itemisation is something that's really hard to get wrong because you can basically follow a formula and it's right 99% of the time. There are some differences you can make: a key example being Hecarim players can choose to not go Trinity Force if the team really needs a tank. That's one of the few adaptations that regularly exists in League of Legends. Or AD carries going Bloodthirster versus Blade of the Ruined King. But not coming into lane with potions? Why would you ever do this. Similarly, the non-Armguard Azir from Faker. That's just wrong. You build a defensive item so you don't die to Zed. It's either disrespect or just an incorrect choice."
But Phreak points out that without speaking to the players directly it's hard to know for sure what happened in a given situation. "You see the symptoms - he bought the wrong thing. Figuring out why is hard. I'm usually pretty hesitant to say 'He did this because x'.
"I think in League of Legends a lot of the good and bad plays are pure happenstance. It's impossible to know all the inputs for something. If you go gank bottom lane you don't know exactly where the jungler is a lot of the time. Sometimes you have a ward but a lot of the time you don't know for sure where that guy is. When the gank works you're like, 'He's so smart, he knew Gragas was on the other side of the map!' and when it fails it's like 'He's so dumb! Gragas was right there!'"
That combination of happenstance and smart play is something we saw in the fifth game of the series with SKT's jungler, Bengi, on Nunu. Phreak points out that compared with Rek'Sai or Gragas or even Lee Sin, Nunu is a tricky champion with which to exert control. "His counterganks are pretty mediocre, his actual ganks are even worse, he doesn't do much unless he's stealing jungle camps from the enemy jungle."
But in this particular game? "Essentially, a lane swap happens, Reignover is in the greedy side of the jungle near the enemy duo lane and Bengi takes one camp, runs across, find him on red, steals the camp and is then so healthy he can fight him for blue as well. When you have a greedy jungle start and get punished for it Nunu looks amazing. Bengi stops Reignover from doing anything then Faker gets to play ahead of the minion line and crush Febiven."
Happenstance and smart play.
"In retrospect Bengi looks like a god."
That Other Guy
I ask whether Phreak is surprised that Faker played all five games given Easyhoon could have switched in and offered some different options for team composition and playstyle.
"I'm not surprised he played game 1. I'm not even surprised he played game 2 or 3 or 4 but I'm surprised he played game 5," he replies. "It feels to me like Easyhoon is the better performing player right now between the two of them. That's my opinion of the players' strengths.
"Some people say it's because Easyhoon's better at the current popular mid laners - teamfight mid laners are common, [and they're good] for SKT's style which is all around playing passively-ish for the beginning of the game and playing for dragons. If you're looking for teamfights every six minutes, champions with two and a half minute cooldowns on their ultimates and big AoE teamfight presence like Cassiopeia and Azir become really popular.
"Easyhoon is known for this kind of champion, playing safe in the mid lane and not getting behind. That seems to be all SKT needs out of the mid lane right now. Faker is known for his aggressive one on one play. Half the time you see him pass the river ahead of the minion wave, zoning someone out of experience and old. In game 5 you saw that work really well when they played a bit more aggressively. Faker completely crushed Febiven and Bengi was all up in the jungle and didn't let Reignover do anything. That style's totally fine; it won SKT the Season 3 World Championship."
But when they're facing off against Fnatic they're butting up against a team whose style is to try to crush in the laning phase, to gain early leads and to be dominant about the 15 minute mark. That's one reason why Phreak thinks Faker was the preferred choice here. He's a bigger bully in lane and when laning is being prioritised over teamfighting that's important. You still need an Armguard, though.
Who Ordered The Bloodbath?
After the drama and the back and forth of the SKT v FNC matchup came AHQ v EDG. It concluded after just three games but those games were an utter bloodbath. Teamfight followed teamfight and the casters often barely had time to finish recapping one big bust-up before the next brawl kicked off.
"AHQ and Edward Gaming were definitely much more willing to fight," understates Phreak. "In a way the series was similar to Fnatic v SKT but the teams are closer together in style. EDG is a strategically smarter team than AHQ but still very aggressive. AHQ is also a very fight-focused team and really focused on dragon control so they have that one thing that keeps them objective focused.
"They're risk loving, they'll take a battle they don't know they're going to win. It ended up biting AHQ a lot. Like SKT, they're much too willing to pick losing fights if it's in front of a dragon or Baron and they could be doing something else - anything else - than losing three kills for no reason."
To any non-fans peeking in it probably looked like an incomprehensible mishmash of coloured lights, champions flying in all directions, weird spells and respawn timers. Even the experts can't catch everything taking place onscreen.
"As far as parsing that information, teamfights are always chaotic and you're not going to catch everything, says Phreak. "That's fine. Your goal as a caster is to keep up with the shape of the fight. You want to look for the really big ultimates like Glacial Prison [which Sejuani can use to stun] and The Equaliser [which is Rumble's airstrike]. If they land you have to make sure you call out that hey, this big tide-turning thing has happened."
Keeping up with the Edwards'
In their first game the teams started off looking pretty even on numbers but Edward Gaming had the better control, gradually pulling ahead and being all up in AHQ's jungle (technical term). AHQ were using kills to stay in the game but Edward were taking objectives. I ask Phreak whether that's a fair assessment from his point of view.
"That's very accurate. AHQ are a team that are a little outclassed in individual skill. There are a few standouts - Westdoor specifically. Westdoor is clearly a phenomenal player. But they are largely outclassed as players. In the LMS playoffs they typically lost lane against teams very obviously weaker than SKT and Edward Gaming. AHQ's saving grace is they're very good at ganking bottom lane. They've pretty much built their team around it at this point.
"AHQ got a whole lot of kills from ganking bottom lane. Mostly it was to make up for big minion kill disparities. They'd be up on kills but still down on gold because Edward Gaming had so many other strengths, like their raw laning power and their ability to play lane swaps. AHQ was trying to keep up with a bad early game through kills. Edward Gaming just simply are very good at playing the objectives right.
"AHQ are spending time getting ganks but they're not getting much more out of it. Edward Gaming are like, well you're bot lane, we're top lane, let's kill a turret. It was shown in game 3 where AHQ spent their time ganking bot lane and Edward Gaming go, 'We can snowball the Aurelia/Gnar matchup [on top]'. They did and Koro1 dominated the entire game. Pawn split pushed well and knocked down turrets as well. Edward Gaming was better at bigger picture League of Legends."
The Final Countdown
So going into the finals it's SKT versus Edward Gaming; a match I and almost everyone I'd spoken to had predicted before the MSI group stage games even started. I ask Phreak whether the games of the past few days have affected how he thinks of those teams and that final.
"Most people were expecting SK Telecom v Edward Gaming in the finals. They were the favourites and they got there. No-one's really surprised. The tournament went pretty much as expected to be honest, for the most part. As far as how they match up, I think both teams have a chance of winning. SKT came in as the favourites and, even after a five game series against Fnatic, I think they still come in as the favourites.
"SKT have shown they're still strong strategically. Just like before, they're a little too willing to fight for objectives they're not likely to win but they keep up their very good basic skill set. They play vision really well and rotations really well.
Edward Gaming are very good at playing with Baron and abusing advantages. They're very good individual players and I think they have a wide variety of available strategies and Edward Gaming becomes a good match. I'm excited about the fact these teams have different styles. EDG are much more aggressive and I want to see where they place that aggression. Unlike AHQ where it's all bot line and sometimes mid if they burn a flash, EDG can realistically snowball any of their major lanes and any one of those can carry. Koro1 is the least likely of the three, but Pawn and Deft can both carry absolutely, especially with Pawn mostly playing teamfight mages now. He's definitely going to be a teamfight threat.
"The question is, does SKT - much like the Fnatic series - does SKT put their eggs in the laning phase basket? 'Faker, go beat up Pawn in the mid lane,' and make sure we really get these early game junglers for the most part in the hands of Bengi - give him the Rek'Sai over and over. Or SKT might choose to play a much more reserved style, put in Easyhoon and play a much more laid back game and hope to not get the game to snowball out of control, just scale it for the teamfights where they're almost invariably going to be stronger."
The grand final (and a caster/pro player show match) begins at 5pm EST, 10pm BST