For teams like SK Telecom T1, the Mid-Season Invitational in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has been a tournament of meeting expectations. Despite a few mishaps, the world-renowned juggernauts entered another international tournament head and shoulders above the rest of the field. While five of the six teams at the tournament have been vying for a spot in bracket play, SKT played through the group stages flirting with an almost perfect record.
For other teams, however, expectations have gone unmet. Having earned its reputation as "Korean Godslayers," Taiwan's Flash Wolves came into Brazil a shoe-in for bracket play. It was the only team with a real chance to challenge SKT.
Unfortunately, the team started its tournament with an underwhelming 0-2 record after losses to China's Team WE and Europe's G2 Esports. The Flash Wolves went from potential challengers to fighting for its tournament lives in a winner-take-all best of one against North America's Team Solomid for the final seed in bracket play. But the team succeeded, riding a 37-minute victory for a date with none other than SK Telecom T1 in the semifinals.
In most instances, a sub .500 record team with a number four seed taking on the best team in the world in the first round of a bracket would mean a death sentence. The Flash Wolves have a glimmer of hope, however, as it prepares for its match against SKT. After all, the last time it confronted each other on the Rift, the Flash Wolves won.
A game can be won or lost as early as the pick and ban phase, and so far the games between these two teams have been decided by two champions: Fizz and Lee Sin. SKT's Han "Peanut" Wang-ho has been nothing short of brilliant on The Blind Monk, with a 4-0 record and a staggering KDA (kills/deaths/assists) of 11. Hung "Karsa" Hau-Hsuan's Lee Sin has been less impressive, as he only has a 2-3 record and a 3.15 KDA, but what's worth noting is Karsa's best game on Lee Sin came against the Korean champions in its second meeting. Karsa went 3/0/8 and had a 73 percent kill participation rate in a game that remained close until shortly before the 30-minute mark.
Moreover, the ability to play Fizz both in the top lane and the mid lane make him a difficult flex pick to work around, and both FW's Yau "MMD" Li-Hung in the top lane and SKT's Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok in the mid lane have shown mastery of the champion. While Faker has posted a KDA of 14 on Fizz, MMD has a KDA of 19 so far.
Of course, the champions played are only as good as the players at the helm. For years when SKT dominance is mentioned, Faker has been identified as the catalyst. This time around, however, Faker has seemed oddly quiet while Peanut has become the center of attention. The Korean jungler has not only posted the highest KDA on his team, but has the highest KDA of any player in the entire tournament. Moreover, he has the highest average kills per game and is tied for fifth in least amount of average deaths per game. Generally speaking, these sort of accolades are often perpetuated by an obvious investment of gold into a certain player. Peanut's performance has been particularly impressive due to the fact that he is not getting the highest amount of gold share on SKT. In fact, Peanut is not even getting the second-highest amount of gold share amongst his peers. Peanut ended group play with 20.1 percent of the gold earned by SKT, which is the second lowest on his team next to Wolf.
What about Faker? The nice thing about being the best team in the world is that there are multiple players on the team that can be the ace at any point. Faker has had a perfectly good tournament in his own right. He leads all mid laners in average kills per game, and still has a respectable 4.94 KDA so far. If you kept close tabs on the LCK spring split, his performance should really come as no surprise. Faker carried a 4.71 KDA throughout the regular season, which is actually slightly lower than his performance in Brazil. When combined with his performance at the LCK playoffs, his KDA ticks down slightly to 4.68. Sure, Faker has yet to make a flashy solo kill on each of his lane opponents, but he's "The Unkillable Demon King" for a reason. The best players in the world step up when everything is on the line, and Faker's tournament is far from over.
While Peanut has stolen the spotlight on SK Telecom T1, Flash Wolves mid laner Huang "Maple" Yi-Tang has also demanded attention. He leads his team, and all mid laners, in KDA, and has played a hand in 71.3 percent of his team's kills. Not far behind him is his partner in crime, Karsa, with a 3.92 KDA and 69.1 percent kill participation. Even in their losses, Karsa and Maple have both had impressive performances and have shown why they are considered one of the best mid/jungle duos in the world. In their win against SKT, Karsa and Maple went a combined 9/0/14. With their tournament lives on the line against TSM, Karsa and Maple went 3/1/6 and 5/0/6, respectively.
These two teams have met twice so far at MSI, and both instances played out to notably different tunes. In its first game, SK Telecom slowly and methodically suffocated FW. Even though it failed to earn first turret gold, SKT responded quickly and had a minor gold lead of 2,000 at the 10-minute mark. That gold lead slowly ballooned to 4,000 at 20 minutes, mainly due to the immaculate macro play that resulted in a four to one turret lead. That lead continued to grow and ultimately ended at 13,400 when the Nexus fell at 36 minutes. If the game was a symphony, SK Telecom T1 was the conductor, carefully dictating the cadence from diminuendo to crescendo.
Its second game started off similarly. The Flash Wolves earned first blood and had the first drake, but SKT still maintained a 1,400 gold lead at 10 minutes. It was at this point in its first meeting that SKT slowly but surely began to tighten its grip around the game. This time around, the gold lead did not grow, it merely stayed the same for SKT. The Flash Wolves once again got first turret gold, and did what it could to keep the gold differential to a mere 1,300 at 20 minutes, much closer than the first time around. SKT was unable to build upon its lead and the Flash Wolves blew the game open at the 29-minute mark with a brilliant Baron play, which was the first Baron SKT had relinquished all tournament.
SK Telecom T1 has demonstrated excellence in slowly depriving its opponents of resources while turning those resources into wins. The Flash Wolves have proven that if the gold lead can be kept to a minimum, that can be exploited. The Flash Wolves have, even if just momentarily, shown why it is famously considered "Korean Godslayers" and will strive to etch that into history as it looks to hand SKT its first international loss in two years.