GUANGZHOU, China -- When Misfits Gaming members began celebrating the SK Telecom T1 draw for the League of Legends World Championship quarterfinals, it came off with a tinge of ironic humor. Barney "Alphari" Morris informed social media that he looked forward to facing Kim "Khan" Dong-ha at Worlds, as at the time, Longzhu Gaming was favored to make the final, and Misfits couldn't face Longzhu until then.
Really hyped to play vs Khan at worlds— Alphari (@AlphariLoL) October 16, 2017
When I interviewed Misfits coach Hussain Moosvi, he reached to come up with a first-seed team he thought Misifits could face competitively. He settled on SK Telecom T1 because of its questionable early game.
But for SKT, a questionable early game isn't a new development. In the 2016 World Championship final against Samsung Galaxy, the winning team only had a gold lead at 15 minutes in two of five games. SKT's mid- to late-game vision control always gives it a leg up for fantastic comeback team fights. Its group stage last year followed a similar trend to this year's as well. SKT had two commanding victories over Cloud9, lost a game to its League Master Series opponent and fell behind early against the Chinese team in the group.
Still, a sentiment lingered that SKT were more vulnerable this year than in years past. Misfits leapt at a chance to make history. Key to its approach was a focus on bottom lane, setting up pick-focused team compositions that forced SK Telecom T1 to face check for Baron vision, and finding inventive ways to give Lee "IgNar" Dong-geun agency in an Ardent Censer meta.
Even if Misfits didn't win, it chipped at the illusion of SKT's immortality, and it cemented its position as the team that changed the expectations of the meta game at the 2017 World Championship.
The gaps for SK Telecom T1
Throughout the season, SKT has had pain points in both its side lanes. Neither Han "Peanut" Wang-ho nor Kang "Blank" Sun-gu are known for snowballing their laners. While on ROX Tigers, Peanut always invaded off the top lane advantage Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho generated on his own, and Blank's creativity comes when he maximizes his laners' creativity.
When I interviewed him at the end of group stage, Blank had provided, at most, passive vision coverage to a lane that isn't pushed out.
While Blank's approach is intelligent jungling, Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon has on past teams been most effective at using pressure from Kim "ReignOver" Ui-jin to get leads and play aggressively. Without that kind of dynamic on SKT, Huni lacked synergy with both junglers, and SKT tried to get control in bottom lane instead.
Of course, SKT struggled in an engage support meta. Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan has preferred to answer tank supports with pushing options like Zyra or Nami. SKT's long slump coincided with Wolf spamming Lulu picks against other teams that played heavy engage. SKT lost control of bottom river, and the enemy team used roaming supports to punish Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok's natural aggression.
As such, the rise of Ardent Supports seemed to favor SKT. It could scale effectively in the bottom lane for teamfights while Faker got control of mid lane and Peanut and Huni worked on top lane synergy. SKT only looked challenged when teams like ahq e-Sports Club destabilized mid control with a strong two-on-two push. As long as SKT could keep mid control, it could get picks with vision and transition into teamfight comebacks when teams like EDward Gaming didn't control its siege.
The gaps, as always, are there for SKT. But there were only limited options for taking advantage of them.
While Ardent Censer favored SKT, it harmed Misfits' chances. IgNar, by the team's own admission, controls and coordinates the most engages in its games. While the team had begun to change its communication so that jungler Nubar "Maxlore" Sarafian and Alphari dictated more of the engage opportunities, when IgNar played the likes of Janna, Misfits' mid-game decision-making suffered.
Misfits began reaching for alternatives. A few niche champions can build an Ardent, and G2 Esports played its debut game against Samsung Galaxy with Alistar and an Ardent-building Ivern. Despite the loss, G2 support Alfonso "mithy" Aguirre Rodríguez insisted the strategy could work. Samsung only won because it had vision on Kim "Trick" Gang-yun throughout the game.
Misfits not only played Ivern in the series against SKT, but also mid lane Karma. After a Game 1 where SKT reacted to the Misfits draft by turning Rumble and Tristana around with Jayce and Caitlyn to give itself stronger side lane, Misfits managed to adapt and consistently look for a strong bottom lane matchup with IgNar playing an engage and pick champion.
"[Bot lane is] one of the hardest to get snowballing if enemy bot lane is really good," Maxlore said after Misfits beat Team SoloMid to make it to the quarterfinals, "and it's two really good bot lanes against each other. They knew when to ward, they have really good communication with the jungler and mid laner. They'll know everything is up. However, if you do get it snowballing, then the effects are tremendous. One kill? Free win, pretty much, in this meta."
Misfits took the approach to the extreme. In Game 3, for example, Maxlore put himself levels behind to stay bottom lane. He, IgNar, and AD carry Steven "Hans Sama" Liv began proxying between turrets at six minutes into the game, and the first bottom lane turret fell at eight minutes.
Still, SKT had some answers to Misfits' composition. Taliyah and Jayce are good at disrupting siege. But Tristana functioned as late-game insurance in conjunction with Orianna, and as long as Misfits' kills went to the hop-happy Yordle, SKT couldn't face Misfits head-on.
Misfits also shut SKT out of mid-to-late-game comeback fights with IgNar's engage champions and a pick style approach. The champions Misfits picked made it extremely easy for it to control Baron area. In Game 2, when it picked Blitzcrank against SKT, Huni and Peanut had to face-check around Baron several times to try to get vision, and IgNar's deadly hooks gave Misfits the ability to get picks and close.
Adaptation and reversal
In Game 4, SKT made a pivotal change. Rather than leave itself open to engages, drafting Ryze, Braum, Trundle and Tristana kept the team safer from picks. Braum canceled all-ins, and Trundle shut down Sivir's ultimate and Misfits' collapses. The deadly Jarvan IV and Tristana combination allowed Tristana to free hit from a distance, and SKT's wide array of zoning tools forced Misfits back as soon as it attempted a late-game dive.
Most importantly, however, SKT refocused attention from bottom lane to mid. To open the game, SKT took advantage of its Jarvan IV and Ryze combination to get an early first blood. The pick potential from Jarvan and Ryze allowed SKT to hold the mid turret for a good part of the early game. When Misfits went to top or bottom to make a play, SKT responded by trading for a mid lane kill or push.
By trading for mid, SKT got more overall control of the map and kept itself in the game until its composition got off the ground. Braum also had much more safety for checking vision around key objectives, and SKT won five-on-fives.
Tristana came out as first pick in Game 5 as a natural conclusion. But the draft developed to completely remove Ardent Censer champions from the menu. SKT once again picked strong duo lane choices that gave it the option of invading top side early. Then, it chose heavy terrain-creating champions like Jarvan and Taliyah, and the protection of Tahm Kench shut down a lot of Misfits' options for picking off SKT.
This time around, SKT started with a default lead on its solo lanes and the ability to scale with its bottom lane. It was the ideal setup for the weary giants.
Despite Misfits picking up three Infernal Drakes, the European team giving up mid turrets early meant more control and mobility for SKT's split-pushing composition. Even with mistakes, SKT won the final game to become the second team to advance to the 2017 World Championship semifinal.
But regardless of the outcome and SKT's resilience, Misfits accomplished something truly memorable.
Not only did it bring SKT to five games as a non-South Korean team at a World Championship, but throughout the match, it redefined the World Championship meta. The trend of strong lanes and proactive mid lane shoving took over a patch that many speculated at the start would focus entirely upon scaling five-on-fives. In Game 5 of a meta dictated by Janna vs. Lulu, neither SKT nor Misfits picked a champion that builds Ardent Censer.
The results of today's game could have major ramifications for the rest of the event. Teams that thought themselves safe to sit back and fight over Baron should re-examine their chances at making a deep run if they don't adapt.
Even if Misfits won't be crowned champions or make it to the Bird's Nest in Beijing, it may well have just dictated which teams will. The players on Misfits set out to make history today. Despite a loss, that's exactly what they did.