WUHAN, CHINA -- This is just how it is now.
After an extended match of poor side lane plays that gave up Barons, a failure to match Jayce, and disconnected sieging, Fnatic's Martin "Rekkles" Larsson flashed for a pick onto Immortals. Immortals' young AD carry, Cody "Cody Sun" Sun, flashed in return to protect mid laner Eugene "Pobelter" Park, and victory for the North American team came off the play made by an AD carry nearly 200 CS below his opponent.
But in a roundabout way, this is how it is right now -- this is how teams are supposed to win right now.
Enter Ardent Censer.
With Ardent Censer providing increased auto attacks for late-game fights, any mistake against an Ardent Censer team in mid game will allow the opponent to outscale and overrun in team fights. Despite a 3-0 day for North America, no team makes zero mistakes, and in that context, the top-seeded TSM and second-seeded Immortals' sloppy 50-minute matches gave NA fans a feeling of apprehension.
Haunting memories of the 0-10 Week 2 of the 2015 World Championships group stage are beginning to surface.
"This patch," Cody Sun told me after the match, "because of Ardent Censer and hyper carries, tank junglers are still really good and tank tops are still really good. ... When both teams pick scaling comps, they just end up scaling to late game so it becomes an issue of whoever makes a mistake first."
It was hard not to feel that the AD carry with the longest range determined the outcome rather than tight play from North American winners.
But the NA teams did play better. Team SoloMid recognized the option to pressure mid to regain tempo against Flash Wolves, while the Wolves seemed to completely forget how minion waves worked in their eagerness to pressure to fight or backdoor. Fnatic tried to transfer pressure from side lanes to mid instead of the other way around when it had to match a snowballed Jayce, creating easy openings for Immortals.
After Cloud9's comparatively more decisive game against ahq e-Sports, Andy "Smoothie" Ta explained the challenge of playing against Ardent Censer supports with engage playmakers like Alistar that don't build the item.
"You have to break open the bottom lane," Smoothie said, "and use that advantage to get a pick on mid lane, and use that advantage again to abuse the enemy ADC who has Ardent Censer."
Any misstep creates an opportunity for the Ardent Censer team to get back into the game, win a decisive teamfight, and close. As a result, by simply not making the last mistake, NA teams are playing the game the way it should be played right now -- like it or not.
TSM thrives in the late game fiestas 😎 on a serious note, our weak points showed hard on stage and those have to be fixed asap. GG FW!
- Søren Bjerg (@Bjergsen) October 6, 2017
For Team WE, which came under fire for horrifically disorganized early games, this is good news.
"In the early game, our communication is quite lacking," Xiang "Condi" Renjie said after Team WE's game against Misfits. "A lot of team comps we actually pick are late-game based. So we're a pretty weird team."
That clashed directly with how WE played its opening game of Group Stage. Condi's Jarvan IV kept tight vision around bottom lane to burn the enemy Lulu's Flash. Lulu then couldn't use the all-in Ignite summoner spell. WE closed in surprisingly decisive fashion after Misfits failed to abuse bottom lane push or punish Leblanc's overextensions.
But the gap between WE and Misfits showed in Misfits' lack of decisiveness and early vision. By neglecting bottom side, Misfits practically opened the door to its Nexus. WE's decisive win says more about Misfits' failures than WE's success, but Immortals and TSM toughed it out and made fewer mistakes.
Smoothie had similar things to say about Cloud9's quick win against ahq e-Sports.
"I think [ahq] just played not so cleanly," Smoothie said of Cloud9's win. "They did some really weird things I didn't think they would do."
Indeed, ahq tried awkward collapses that instead left its flanks exposed to four-man collapses.
Even Kim "PraY" Jongin -- the AD carry of LongZhu, a team that plays to snowball top and win quickly with a bottom-centric scaling meta -- admitted that losing an early game and waiting to win late can be the most straightforward way to win.
"I feel like teams that are good in the early game are not usually good in the late game," he said.
Of course, even if these assertions may assuage the pangs in the hearts of North American fans, many players still aren't willing to give up on executing the perfect early snowball. LongZhu can still execute by playing with a snowballing top and then looking for picks. Smoothie hinted that still more options exist.
"I'm not going to name names, of course," Smoothie said. "Other people are playing playmaker [supports], and they're doing really well on them [in scrims]."
It's hard not to feel tempted by the early-game snowball-and-pick strategy, especially when it has long been one of the only ways to take down the Goliath of League of Legends esports: SK Telecom T1. To close the day, EDward Gaming almost managed it again in front of a home crowd.
With a Rek'Sai and Lucian combination, EDward Gaming took advantage of SKT all-inning too much on scaling compositions to build a monumental gold lead. EDward Gaming brought along a powerful Janna, but its warding in mid game when it went up for Baron let it down. The snowball collapsed, and SK Telecom T1's engage from Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan and Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon, Orianna Shockwave, and vision setups won the match.
Perhaps SKT's win is the last nail in the coffin for snowball compositions at the World Championship. Lulu and Janna will become a permanent staple unless Rakan (one of the few playmaking supports that can also build Ardent Censer) is left open.
NA LCS fans should feel good about TSM's and Immortals' wins today as a sign their teams will escape the group stage. The pit in your stomach isn't another impending NA collapse. It's dread that these back-and-forth matches and sloppy side trades will be excused under the reign of the new normal.