This weekend saw reigning champions, SK Telecom T1, take on Korean League's domestic champions ROX Tigers in a spectacular best-of-five which immediately earned a place as one of the greatest matches of any League of Legends World Championships to date. It's definitely the best I've seen, and it occupied my thoughts for most of the following day. I even found myself pondering bits of it during the rather less compelling showdown between H2K and Samsung Galaxy the following evening.
Read on for the weekend's Worlds 2016 news, but here be spoilers:
SKT vs Rox Tigers
Okay, so before I get to the spoilers, I'm just going to put all the match VODs one after another here in case you didn't see the result and want to experience the highs, lows and WTF-ery of the matches for yourself:
I mean, right?! That is how you play professional LoL. It was the very definition of a semifinal that felt like a final. It also couldn't help but put the other showdown - Samsung versus H2K - into the shade.
Both ROX and SKT were playing at the top of their games and, rather than a stomp, we got a proper back-and-forth, complete with a totally unexpected pocket pick. SKT were actually stretched by the competition, as evidenced by their reaction upon winning. They normally take a win in their stride unless it's the final but this was uncharacteristically exuberant and really lovely to see (even though my heart was breaking for ROX at this point because, damn it! They came so close!)
One of the most interesting twists to the series came in game 2 with ROX picking up a Miss Fortune as a support for Ashe. If you're a bit rusty on your champions, Miss Fortune is almost always played as a damage dealer, but here ROX wanted to use the huge range and the slowing effect of her Make It Rain ability to help set up Ashe's Crystal Arrow. The latter is a skill shot and ROX's ADC player, PraY is fantastic at landing those shots anyway, so with the additional help from Make It Rain he was a complete monster.
Oh, and if you want to see the moment where I ended up hollering and clapping alone in my living room at 2am watch game 2 from about 40:15 on the Youtube timestamp (32:30ish in-game) for the Arrow that prevents SKT's top-laner, Duke, from coming back to defend the base.
It's also worth watching the draft for the moment MF turns up. It totally wrongfoots the casters to the point where Jatt give up mid-sentence saying "I don't care about my last point" as they try to work out what's just happened. I have such a soft spot for the Tigers anyway, but this moment totally tipped me over from just rooting for a good game and a good story to rooting for them specifically.
SKT didn't actually work out how to deal with that combination on the Rift as the series progressed. In the end the team needed to just flat out ban MF in order to declaw that particular element of the Tigers' attack.
Game 4 saw the return of SKT jungler Bengi as well as their banning of the Miss Fortune. Bengi has swapped out for Blank after the first game of the series but he returned with a vengeance for the final two games of the set. The slight changes to the ban phase actually allowed the usually-permabanned jungle champ Nidalee through the draft. It worked so well, allowing SKT to apply hideous amounts of pressure forced ROX to a fifth game.
For the fifth game the picks and bans saw Ashe switch over to being an SKT chmapion and Jayce finally making it through the draft to be picked up by ROX Tigers. It felt like the line-ups put the game slightly in ROX's favour but that's just theorycrafting. You need to be able to execute on the plan and... ROX ultimately didn't.
Meanwhile, SKT were doing SKT things. Better objective control, some key early kills, great synergy between legendary mid-laner Faker and Bengi, and a team composition which scaled far better into the late game whereas ROX's picks put them on far more of a time limit in which to win. By the end of the game SKT were further ahead, and because of their earlier objective control it meant that the bonuses ROX could theoretically get from the same kills would be less impactful so watching the game you were aware of the Tigers' options for coming back into the game just reducing and reducing.
For example, SKT's earlier game kills on key objectives like the elemental drakes bestowed bonuses like movement speed and bonus damage to objectives. Once those are in place they can be further boosted by killing the later game Elder Dragon. Whereas ROX hadn't stacked any of those earlier buffs and thus a route back into the game via Elder Dragon kills wasn't really even available.
There was a moment where it looked like top-laner, Smeb, might be able to re-engage on a fleeing SKT - it's about 46:15 on the Youtube timestamp and about 40:30 on the in-game timer - but the shot doesn't land and ROX are out of options. Heartbreak for the Tigers, SKT one step closer to a third World Championship title.
H2K vs Samsung Galaxy
Oh lord, it's so hard to follow a match like SKT/ROX when everyone is still absorbing the drama and coming down from the emotional tension of the previous night so I had sympathy for these two teams. Unless they pulled out something bonkers in terms of a game-changing pocket pick or put on even more of an exhilarating show, this was always going to be more of a sidenote, you know?
It ended up being a lopsided affair, the Korean side winning 3-0 and the whole semifinal being over in around half the time of the previous night's theatrics.
That's not to say that interesting things didn't happen, but it was more about odd moments or hints that Samsung were already thinking about facing SKT. For example, the first game saw Samsung picking up the Miss Fortune/Ashe combo for themselves and using it to dominate H2K. Partly you can say that's because, if there's a solution to a problem you're a fool not to make use of it, but there's also an element of demonstrating that you can execute on a strategy SKT haven't yet demonstrated they can beat without using one of their three bans. If Samsung demonstrate they can play that combination, it affects what SKT might need to ban in a given game and then the conversation move to what other champion options they're willing to let through in its place.
On the H2K side, that team were explosively aggressive, getting a kill against Samsung's jungler, Ambition before the game timer had even reached the one minute mark. In theory it should have helped shore up the bottom lane while top and middle would excel.
But their feistiness didn't translate into broader success and the European side were repeatedly outplayed by Samsung. It was like watching five really aggressive travelling salesmen camping out on a single doorstep and haranguing the occupants. Sure, you'd need one or two people manning the door, and sure, one or two of the residents might end up with an unwanted hoover or magazine subscription, but while the siege of the front door is happening the rest of the occupants can sneak out of the side gate and dismantle the travelling salesmen's minibus, steal their lunch and throw their remaining hoovers into a skip.
To use more game-appropriate terminology, it's that classic thing where H2K were ahead in kills but not picking up objectives like towers and dragons. So ultimately it's not building a true advantage. Instead they just cede more and more map pressure and then find themselves in the later portion the game, only really using pick-off kills to keep Samsung at bay rather than taking any form of control back.
I mean, even aside from that it felt like H2K were never really quite on the same page. Their pick and ban phases seemed disjointed, with characters being banned and then the champions you would ban them in order to pick were just left on the table. Players would excel individually but there was no sense of map-wide communication and just so many little mistakes or trades that just aren't worth it. Samsung, on the other hand, were making those trades work for them and for every kill they gave up they were making a gain elsewhere. Samsung was by far the better team, with the better macro play and better execution.
And thus, Samsung Galaxy will be taking on SKT next week in Los Angeles at the grand finals. I'll be out there for the match, so vaguely on the right timezone for the first time this tournament! It'll be on 29 October for US viewers (4.30pm kickoff PST, 7.30pm for EST) and 30 October for UK fans (that'll be half past midnight).