The Play-In stage of the League of Legends World Championships has concluded, and the main Group Stage will commence on Thursday in Wuhan, China.
LPL's EDward Gaming, the first seed of China, leads Group A as one of the only non-LCK teams that's historically had a rivalry with SK Telecom T1. SKT and ahq both limped into second seed after their worst domestic showings in years. Cloud9 hope to break up the primarily eastern clash with a score to settle after last year's Day 2 opening humiliation at the hands of SKT.
Everything about Group A feels tense on paper, but a deeper look makes one feel more lukewarm about the level of competition ahq can actually bring to the table. With primary carry and top laner Chen "Ziv" Yi having his worst split in a long time and ahq's more 1-3-1 focused approach dropping out of favor, the LMS representative seems more likely to play spoiler than contend for a way into quarterfinals.
Even when SK Telecom T1's form has come into question, it has only had minimal struggle -- even in a best-of-one setting -- and never misses the bracket. The main point of contention, then, may fall between North America's third seed, Cloud9, and LPL's first seed, EDward Gaming.
But in a best-of-one setting, no team should find any matchup unwinnable. After losing to Samsung Galaxy at Rift Rivals, EDward Gaming changed its tactic to confront the Korean teamfighting-comeback giants in the bracket successfully.
With an unstable set-up in SKT's top and jungle, ahq, the projected worst team in the Group Stage, may have the perfect formula to beat the South Korean favorites. Even Cloud9 demonstrated a taste for controlling the map with heavy bottom lane pressure in its recent Play-In matches, something underrated in Longzhu's victory in the LCK final.
While Groups B, C and D look closer or more exciting on paper, spectators shouldn't ignore Group A. It's just as ripe for unexpected results.
The giant wakes from slumber
SK Telecom T1 has won every major Riot Games event it has attended with two exceptions: the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational and, less notably, the 2017 Rift Rivals featuring teams from LMS, LPL and LCK. Though Rift Rivals should not be considered a major victory for the LPL on the same level as MSI or Worlds, it injected a sense of confidence and camaraderie into China's international competitors. The matches following LCK's loss also painted a vivid picture of SKT's problems in the meta that persisted into its loss to Longzhu.
Against Longzhu, attention flew to Kim "Khan" Dongha's 1v1 performance in powerful matchups, but the stability of its bottom lane went overlooked. Kim "PraY" Jongin and Kang "GorillA" Beomhyeon pressured in the 2v2 that Bae "Bang" Junsik and Lee "Wolf" Jaewan couldn't contest, even when Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok used his mid lane lead to invest vision to cover the bottom jungle. With PraY and GorillA taking over the 2v2, Khan and the rest of LZ transferred the top lane lead bottom. Then LZ's bottom duo held 1-3-1 and 1-4 configurations to close out the game without any force from SKT.
SKT has had some difficulty generating pressure in the bottom side with the reserved way Bang and Wolf play, as well as Wolf's larger affinity for mage supports. With the slow shift in the meta during Play-In that favors more Janna and Lulu to push out the bottom lane and roam less, relying on junglers to use pressure for invades rather than duo roams with support and jungle, Wolf's champion pool and playstyle look more relevant. The bottom lane meta was much more diverse before the Play-Ins, but if support becomes an Ardent-only occupation, SKT's path to dominance is far more secure.
The Cloud9 and EDward Gaming fallout
Cloud9 and EDward Gaming will also lose some traction in that case, as both teams have a certain amount of reliance upon the playmaking power of their supports, Andy "Smoothie" Ta and Tian "Meiko" Ye. But EDward Gaming's showing in the LPL final also saw Meiko shifting to Ardent support picks -- with some success -- which helped him reign in rookie AD carry Hu "iBoy" Xianzhao's more daring Tristana dives and Lee "Scout" Yechan's Teleports. Ming "Clearlove7" Kai has a fondness for diving bottom lane that could continue unfettered. If SKT have less reliable top-jungle synergy, Chen "Mouse" Yuhao may go unexploited.
C9 also demonstrated the ability to play off bottom lane pressure as the Play-In stage escalated. Particularly in the set against Lyon, one saw the power of blue buff control from blue side with a winning bottom lane duo. Juan "Contractz" Arturo Garcia invaded and controlled enemy blue buff to set up dives and snowball. In Game 1, Cloud9 exploited Sebastián "Oddie" Alonso Niño Zavaleta's poorly considered top lane Level 2 gank to acquire complete early control of enemy blue.
The problem for both C9 and EDG comes out when one considers that both have gotten used to relying on mid control. For Cloud9, bottom, side lanes and jungle will transfer pressure mid. For EDG, mid lane transfers pressure to the bottom side.
On the jungle side, more aggressive picks like Ezreal and Lee Sin have risen unexpectedly, but Sejuani and Gragas, two of Clearlove7's favorites remain in full swing. Contractz has a higher tendency to try to impact his lanes, but when he plays to side lane, a breakdown between mid and jungle seems to result.
Throughout the Play-In Group Stage, the mantra seemed to be gank mid often, but when bottom lane became a sticking point, Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen got picked off more. He and Contractz -- as they did in the past -- struggled to coordinate roams to the bottom lane, and seemed hesitant to leave mid for the first time in a long time. Their coordination was also a sticking point in NA LCS Playoffs and the Regional Qualifier match against Counter Logic Gaming.
For EDward Gaming, Scout serves as the team's primary win condition. One of its greatest natural failings is giving up control of mid for risky bottom lane engagements, and though it bested RNG in trades by heading mid more often than not, EDG's side lanes don't feel strong enough to carry a game against Cloud9 or SKT (perhaps even against ahq) if Scout gives up leads.
EDward Gaming need to play high-risk to snowball because Cloud9 have demonstrated a better ability to come back in long fights. In the Ardent support meta, that will become key. Targeting Scout's snowballing and roaming champions like Lucian and Leblanc in draft may destabilize EDG.
ahq's path to the top
If ahq want to do more than just inconvenience the other teams in its group, it needs to pick a good anti-dive support like Braum or Janna in the bottom lane and invest heavily into Ziv. Bottom lane will be more of a problem, as Chou "AN" Chunan has always struggled with consistency and could easily get forced on mid by tank compositions. Both EDward Gaming and SKT should leave openings top side, and a single loss for the projected tournament winner at the hands of the worst team in Group Stage doesn't seem that far-fetched.