It was supposed to be a short day with a 3-0 series between Longzhu Gaming and Samsung Galaxy -- it was just also supposed to go the other way.
Just before the Oct. 19 League of Legends World Championship quarterfinal between Longzhu Gaming and Samsung Galaxy, commentators had begun to praise Longzhu for its undefeated run through the group stage. The only other teams to have gone undefeated through groups in the past, Samsung Galaxy White and SK Telecom T1, ended up winning the entire tournament. Longzhu found ways to defy the meta and play out 1-3-1 and 1-4 compositions domestically. They were just that good.
Samsung Galaxy's 3-0 handling of Longzhu, however, abused obvious gaps in Longzhu's system. Ultimately, the fact that Samsung adapted and changed its focus over the course of groups set it on the right path to upend Longzhu. Longzhu made the same mistakes it had always made, but Samsung found new ways to take advantage of them.
Interviews with Longzhu mid laner Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong shed additional light on the topic. Toward the end of groups, Longzhu struggled against the likes of GIGABYTE Marines and had to play out late-game teamfights and rely upon Kim "PraY" Jong-in to carry when Longzhu was pushed well into its base.
"First," Bdd told ESPN after Longzhu qualified for the quarterfinal, "we're just trying to play with the current Ardent Censer meta. It's also sort of our fault that we weren't able to snowball as fast as we intended to. Playing against teams like GIGABYTE Marines -- it was a lot more difficult than expected to snowball in the early stage."
While praise went out to GAM for standing up to the No. 1 South Korean seed at the event, no one checked Longzhu's less-than-concrete track record for flaws. Bdd's apprehension and fear of facing any other LCK representatives begged a closer look.
Identifying Longzhu's flaws
"When we go for this 1-3-1 play on the map," Bdd said after the first week of groups, "it's because the champions that we pick fit our team's style and preference to play strong lanes."
From Bdd's perspective, Longzhu played 1-3-1 because these kinds of compositions work well with strong laning champions. Longzhu players garnered a lot of praise for laning and individual prowess going into the tournament. This was, however, partly a by-product of the team's tendency to draft really strong solo lane champions -- a preference not widely shared among LCK teams domestically. In the playoff final in particular, SKT played multiple games with losing lane picks, and no one could contest the mechanical prowess of Bdd or Kim "Khan" Dong-ha.
But teams like SKT also made a mistake domestically in how it chose to tackle Longzhu. Despite Khan's imposing laning skill, getting the top laner ahead isn't the trickiest part of playing out 1-3-1 compositions. In order for Khan to be able to split-push through mid and late game, Longzhu needed to be able to hold mid and keep from getting collapsed upon.
"The vision in the mid and jungle area are the most important thing," Bdd said, "therefore, we focus on them in practice. That's why we can play the game with early leads."
As a result, PraY has often favored AD carries that clear lane easily and also can get a lead in the two-on-two phase. In the World Championship meta, that made Varus ideal. Varus both can clear lane efficiently with Q and keep mid pushed as well as have a powerful laning phase when paired with the likes of Lulu. If PraY and lane partner Kang "GorillA" Beom-hyeon can get strong enough to hold mid, GorillA can also help keep Baron vision and prevent the duo lane and jungler from getting collapsed upon. This will keep enough pressure for Khan to split-push.
If Khan split-pushes without mid pressure, he becomes prone to being ambushed, as was seen in the final game Longzhu played against Marines.
In the Samsung series, Khan defaulted to Teleporting into a fight. After Samsung picked off Moon "Cuzz" Woo-chan when he face-checked Baron, Khan used an unnecessary Teleport on Jax that gave Lee "CuVee" Seong-jin exclusive control of the bottom side of the map and flanking Teleport threat. Khan lost tempo and had to stay with his team as Jax, delaying the ability for the Longzhu composition to get off the ground.
To dismantle Longzhu, then, it's better to target its bottom lane early on. If a team can match Longzhu in lanes by drafting strong matchups and transfer pressure to the bottom lane, it not only creates more opportunities to target Cuzz on his more questionable invades but also limits the ability of Longzhu to execute a 1-3-1 setup and play out its composition later on.
The Samsung approach
Samsung identified that weakness and played around bottom lane early on in the quarterfinal. But beyond that, it also went for key picks like Malzahar to control vision around Baron. The master stroke of Samsung, however, came from running with globals in mid and top lane in Game 2 and Game 3.
In the first game, the only game in which Longzhu managed to get an early lead, the blind Malzahar pick in draft felt like a mistake. Longzhu pressured it repeatedly and got a lead on bottom lane as a result. It didn't come through as a success until about 27 minutes in.
"While we were practicing," CuVee told ESPN after the series, "we thought the Malzahar is great for face-checking and map use."
Cuzz face-checked the Baron area and got caught by Lee "Crown" Min-ho's Nether Grasp, and Khan unnecessarily Teleported in. In this play, Longzhu gave up Baron control at least until Khan regained his Teleport, but the team could have simply kept pressuring bottom turret and played out the 1-3-1. It had enough control in the mid lane with Thresh and Xayah that Longzhu could prevent Samsung from sneaking Baron even without complete vision.
Samsung adjusted for that factor in subsequent matches. Despite Longzhu continuing to draft a strong bottom lane combinations like Varus and Lulu and Varus and Rakan, Samsung picked strong or even solo lane matchups where CuVee and Crown played champions with global abilities. Shen and Taliyah or Shen and Teleport Lissandra forced PraY and GorillA to play more defensively even if they could get control of the wave. In Game 3, CuVee and Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong also used the Shen ultimate and Sejuani's catch potential to invade the enemy blue buff jungle and lock down Cuzz.
By playing around bottom lane with the threat of globals, Samsung denied Longzhu's ability to get a lead on its bottom lane. Samsung easily got wards around the red area red buff and Baron, so it could set up a flank on Longzhu's mid lane in the 25th minute, win the fight and force Khan away from the side lane again.
Adaptation through experience
This isn't the first time Samsung executed a strategy like this. In its second match against G2 Esports in groups, Samsung drafted all strong lanes except mid and invaded the red side blue buff area relentlessly. This pressure forced G2's bottom lane back from its turret and allowed Park "Ruler" Jae-hyuk to get slow chip damage, and eventually, first turret and dragon.
Samsung tried several strategies in Group Stage. After it lost to Royal, Samsung subbed in Kang "Haru" Min-seung against 1907 Fenerbahçe Esports and played an early game-based Ezreal jungle strategy.
"We lost early to RNG," Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in told ESPN, "so we wanted to focus on the early game this time."
While subbing out Ambition didn't pan out, Samsung continued to experiment with strong lane pressure -- something it isn't typically known for -- and came out against G2 and Longzhu to play around bottom lane.
"I think we made this change after the game against RNG because they did a bot lane centric play," CuVee said after the Longzhu series, "and we figured maybe that that's the meta we should follow, so we adopted it."
Though Samsung looked shaky in groups, it had a similar trajectory in the 2016 World Championship. There, Samsung also learned to adapt, changing warding patterns throughout the event and bringing out different support champions like Zyra to find its stride. It managed to advance to the final, relying on adaptation to carry it.
Samsung not only adapted to play the tournament meta of focusing on bottom side, but it picked up globals and strong solo lane champions throughout the series for a more creative solution. Two years in a row, now, Samsung's strength at the World Championship has been changing its approach, identifying how to improve and looking like a progressively stronger team throughout.
"I think it's due to the changes in the meta and also because they don't have players that are really experienced at this kind of global competition," CuVee said of Longzhu's difficulty finding itself in the Ardent Censer meta.
Even if Samsung came out second in its group, a 3-0 over the No. 1 seed in South Korea demonstrates that its goals have not changed. While Bdd came out of Group Stage apprehensive about colliding with Samsung or SKT so soon, CuVee shrugged it off.
"I don't really know how other teammates felt," CuVee said, "but in my case, always my goal is to win the World Championship. In that case, we have to be able to beat the other Korean teams at any moment, so in my mind, it's fine that it happened faster."
If Samsung find the same reserves against WE, the way is paved for its second consecutive grand final appearance.