Prior to the 2017 League of Legends World Championship Play-In Stage, Group D was viewed as a tricky group due to the looming threat of Team WE.
Two weeks later, and Group D is now looking like a near-impossible miss for North America's Team SoloMid.
Make no mistake, this group is far from settled. If Flash Wolves or Misfits come out playing their best possible League of Legends, it could be anyone's group and there's already a strong debate between which of the two favored teams -- TSM and WE -- will come in first. However, if all teams play as expected, then it's TSM's group to lose.
It's not an international tournament without the Flash Wolves. Default representatives of the LoL Master Series, Flash Wolves set the tone for their region, which is often rooted in assumptions based on the previous Flash Wolves performance.
With Flash Wolves' graceless Mid-Season Invitational exit at the hands of SK Telecom T1 and Hong Kong Attitude's 0-3 series against Fnatic, stock in the LMS is down. The Flash Wolves themselves had a shaky LMS split, but pulled together in the end when it mattered to win yet another LMS title and earn the first seed.
Support Hu "SwordArt" Shuojie is one of the best in his position at this event and in the world. His teammates frequently credit him for keeping the team centered and focused, but they also rely on his engages and remarkable initiation sense as a guide in-game. With Ardent Censer support champions continuing to wreak havoc across the Play-In stage, SwordArt's ability to start or control teamfights will unfortunately be dampened. This isn't as large of a hindrance as it would have been in previous years with AD carry Hsiung "NL" Wenan, who was not only a liability due to performance but had a limited champion pool that affected the Flash Wolves' draft. With Lu "Betty" Yuhung, the Flash Wolves can be a lot more flexible in their play and Betty doesn't need his hand held in lane; however, if SwordArt is forced onto Ardent supports rather than his signature Alistar or a similar engage champion, the Flash Wolves' control of the map and game tempo will suffer.
Adding to this are mid laner Huang "Maple" Yitang's constant struggles across the split. Flash Wolves are typically characterized by their aggressive one-two punch -- jungler Hung "Karsa" Hauhsuan and Maple -- but recently haven't found more than a few champions on which Maple can succeed. This loss of mid lane pressure has hurt them, and will continue to do so especially against TSM's Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg and WE's Su "Xiye" Hanwei, the latter of whom performed better than expected in the Play-In Stage.
With more DPS-focused or carry jungle champions returning to popularity, including Ezreal, Nidalee and Lee Sin, Karsa will likely bear a heavy load in any potential Flash Wolves success. The problem with relying on the Flash Wolves right now is that the team's typical strong performers are entering this tournament on a downturn, making it difficult to count on the team making it out of this group. That being said, the Flash Wolves have the talent and are certainly capable of this, especially if the meta shifts ever so slightly in their favor.
Outside of G2 Esports, who have stuck with the same successful domestic lineup for three straight splits and several international competitions, Europe comes to this World Championship with a handful of talented rookies or up-and-coming players with little to no international experience. Misfits are one such team, where even their more experienced players like mid laner Tristan "PowerOfEvil" Schrage have concentrated success in Europe but a limited amount of international appearances.
Going into this group stage, there has been a large amount of community discussion regarding the differences between best-of-ones, which are used in international group stages and larger best-of series. This best-of-one setup is perfect for Misfits to create some havoc, not because of any cheese or comfort picks that they would pull out -- like AD carry Steven "Hans Sama" Liv's Draven -- but because of their proactive team playstyle that is now further centered by increased coordination and control from PowerOfEvil and jungler Nubar "Maxlore" Sarafian.
Misfits aren't afraid to group and dive for early objectives, especially if Lee "IgNar" Dong-geun is unlocked from the bottom lane and allowed to roam freely. This can take many teams by surprise, and WE already proved to be somewhat susceptible to aggressive early rotations and objective trading during the Play-In Stage. TSM, who are often inconsistent in best-of-one stages but a much stronger best-of-series team -- not unlike WE -- could also be taken by surprise in similar fashion. But a win would depend on Misfits' ability to close out the game, which they have struggled with in the past.
Since Play-Ins, Team WE have lost a bit of their luster. After close calls with Lyon Gaming in groups and even Young Generation in their best-of-three qualifier, WE have obvious early game weaknesses and the occasional odd draft that doesn't suit the team's strengths. That being said, WE ultimately went undefeated in Play-Ins as expected and what they showcased on the Rift was hardly out of the ordinary.
Currently, WE relies heavily on jungler Xiang "Condi" Renjie to create enough pressure early, either by ganking or, more likely, farming up before targeting objectives in the mid game. Even in his more errant paths, Condi was never pushed out of relevancy, especially on the high-DPS jungle Ezreal or old favorite Gragas. WE can smartly trade objectives even while behind in kills early and do well to facilitate Mystic on hypercarries like Tristana and Kog'Maw although they would still do better to remember the liability of drafting all losing/scaling lanes. Team WE remains a team that can play around any lane if they so choose. Despite primarily sticking to frontline tanks for top laner Ke "957" Chang-Yu throughout Play-Ins, WE can always call on 957 to carry if need be, and already had success rotating between tanks like Galio and DPS carries like Jayce and Corki for Xiye.
One final thing in WE's favor is the location and venue. Home field advantage isn't often a factor in League of Legends, but WE ignited fans during the Play-In stage and will likely inspire even more commotion during the group phase. As a signature Chinese organization, Team WE will not want to lose face now that they've finally found their way back to the World Championship, especially not on home soil.
Last year, NA's darling was favored to not only exit groups, but make it to the semifinals or finals with a dash of luck. Against the Group D lineup of Splyce, Royal Never Give Up and Samsung Galaxy, TSM found themselves just barely on the outside looking in as Samsung and RNG proceeded to the quarterfinals.
This year, TSM have been gifted a group that, if they play to their strengths, they should be able to win. Of all teams in this group, TSM look the least shaky. Even if they are taken by surprise in the early game, this is a team with the intelligence, wherewithal and experience to adjust, scale and ultimately overcome.
Everything for TSM starts with Bjergsen, the driving force behind the team's success since his arrival in 2014. Bjergsen shouldn't have any trouble against any of the mid laners in this group. Even if they have the capacity to go toe-to-toe with him, Bjergsen's mid lane control is the best of the four and automatically relieves pressure from jungler Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen, who has found his footing after a much more inconsistent spring. Against Immortals, TSM were also able to use super side wave management along with Bjergsen's mid lane control to lead them to victory. Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell is capable of carrying or providing the tanky frontline to further unlock star AD carry Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, and Vincent "Biofrost" Wang recently silenced doubters of his ability to play tankier initiators. That being said, a possible return to more mage and ranged supports with Ardent Censer will only strengthen TSM's bot lane.
TSM's greatest weakness is TSM.
Notoriously slow to start in new metas or patches, TSM have also been caught off-guard in best-of-ones by teams that could either take advantage of them early, snowball, and close out the game before TSM could scale, or teams like G2 Esports who risked scaling along with TSM and betting on a superior teamfight. Team WE could go this route, betting on Jin "Mystic" Seong-jun's Kog'Maw in the late game.
Predictions: (1) Team SoloMid (2) Team WE (3) Flash Wolves (4) Misfits