Despite Samsung Galaxy making the final and taking SK Telecom T1 to five games,, almost no commentator saw it as the second strongest team at the 2016 League of Legends World Championship. Despite being underestimated, however, Samsung had continued to evolve, and it was that adaptation that, in my opinion, set them ahead of ROX Tigers as the World Championship closed.
At Beijing's Birds Nest Stadium this Saturday, SKT and Samsung will meet at the first ever repeat final. Once again Samsung has improved over the course of the event, but rather than say it doesn't deserve to be there, critics may even dare to refer to Samsung as the favored team to best SKT -- a first, as every final SKT has appeared in it has won.
While SKT and Samsung's Chinese opponents focused more on scaling options, even moving for the likes of Twitch and Soraka, SSG and SKT have both put high emphasis on strong laning picks to carry out side laning setups; a stark contrast from the reputation for building late game team fighting compositions. As such, victory or defeat for SSG and SKT will come down to getting solo lanes ahead and understanding when to group and when to attack side lanes.
Top counterpick priority
Both SKT and Samsung prioritized having strong top lane matchups in their series against Royal Never Give up and Team WE. Shen, Camille, Gnar, and even Kennen ended up being pivotal picks for SKT's Heo "Huni" Seunghoon and Samsung's Lee "CuVee" Seungjin. But how the two top laners played out strong matchups was more significant.
SKT looks for ways to get Huni an advantage. This can be as simple as creating pressure in the bottom side and forcing Teleports from opponents to give Huni a free lane to farm, as SKT did against RNG in Game 1. For example, RNG tried to make a play on the bottom side, allowing Huni to claw back for an eleven minute Trinity Force.
Still, advantages can be squandered. In that same game, because of the lead on the enemy Twitch, Huni didn't have the option of split-pushing past river even with a lead against Shen. Even with vision on Twitch, Huni didn't push to river and work on building his advantage. He grouped when he could have pushed, and that sent SKT into a team fight with four low range members against a Janna and no Ardent Censer of their own.
By contrast, CuVee has a steady commitment to side lane pressure. He often pushes to the turret, relying on Samsung's vision control on the opposite side of the map to know the location of threats. Samsung also rely on CuVee much more to set up team fights on Gnar or Kennen with a strong flank. The team prioritizes giving him a counterpick matchup so that jungler Kang "Ambition" Chanyong has the ability to help mid and bottom lane set up good backs. Ambition shouldn't be considered a gank-oriented jungler, but rather one that always shows up to lane to help mid and bottom push out and get an advantageous back so they come to lane with stronger itemization.
As such, if both SKT and Samsung go for a 1-4 composition as they have throughout the playoffs, a lot will come down to strong top lane picks. That will give red side an advantage, and Samsung will be able to utilize this advantage better than SKT. SKT will get more of an advantage on blue side by prioritizing strong jungle picks to influence mid lane.
Of course mid matters
In both the SKT and Samsung series in the semifinal, Galio became a high priority mid lane pick. Samsung and Royal both found ways to counter the Galio priority -- it came down to strong jungle matchups to influence the mid lane.
After nerfs, Galio doesn't have as much freedom to simply push the mid lane at early levels without exposing himself to auto attack harass. In Game 3 in the RNG vs SKT series, RNG used Ryze and Sejuani against the weaker early Zac to force Galio back and relinquish lane priority.
In the Samsung series, Galio fell out of blue side first pick tier when WE failed to take advantage of Jarvan IV to pressure mid early. Galio is often banned on blue side because his matchups are so jungle dependent. As the series progressed, however, Samsung felt more comfortable to first pick Galio, but the pick necessitated a strong ganking jungler like Lee Sin and a play-making support like Rakan. Even WE's Su "xiye" Hanwei showed signs of wanting to back early, knowing that Rakan and Lee Sin could easily make a mid play and give priority to Galio over Taliyah. Yet he stayed in lane and gave up first blood.
It seems as if a Galio first pick isn't ideal unless Jarvan IV is banned or blue side can ensure a strong jungle matchup. That's why a powerful jungle pick like Sejuani with both Jarvan IV and Gragas off the table or Jarvan IV should be considered first pick-able. In this scenario, any even mid matchup can be swayed by the jungler. For SKT, this will matter much more as the team receives most of its control through Lee "Faker" Sanghyeok. As both top and bottom have performed unreliably for SKT, the importance of getting control mid and transferring it to side lanes increases.
As such, the limited pool of mid laners both teams will want to play comes into contention. For Lee "Crown" Minho, Samsung has been so reliant on picks like Taliyah that it has picked her blind and gotten punished when WE countered with the Kassadin and Shen combination. Taliyah will fall prey to assassin picks like Leblanc or Kassadin and really powerful traders like Cassiopeia. Yet the power Taliyah has to both control mid lane and impact side lanes will make her equally attractive to SK Telecom T1 if it cannot choose Galio.
Since Crown's laning has suffered this year, and Faker has had to win his lane and transfer his pressure to side lane, that makes both teams interested in pushing mids with globals. Samsung in particular have chosen heavy global comps, preferring Taliyah and Shen as a combination. SKT look to 1-4 and pick a mid that impacts side lanes and can counter ganks on priority.
As the game progresses, however, Crown's limitations become more obvious. He plays almost every mid lane champion in a similar manner: wanting to push out top to river, get wards in the jungle around Baron , and set up for fights or picks to transition to Baron. That made Viktor with a Lich Bane an ideal choice, as Viktor's ultimate covered a lot of jungle space, but for something like Malzahar, Crown has struggled more to find the correct niches. Much narrower terrain is necessary to get a pick with Nether Grasp without getting collapsed upon. As such, that raises priority on Taliyah even more.
Denying Taliyah could easily shut down how Samsung want to play mid and leave way more openings for SKT to control Baron. With a strong jungle matchup as well, SKT can take any mid advantage to compensate for its weaknesses in side lanes.
Neither Samsung nor SKT are known for their bottom laners, yet the greatest divergence comes from the bottom lane roles. Samsung has focused more on getting bottom leads with picks like Varus so it can hold its 1-4 or 1-3-1 better later on. SKT has wanted more scaling bottom lane picks to set up for team fights.
While SKT will focus more jungle attention around top and mid, Ambition will teeter between mid and bot. That almost ensures a bottom lane lead for Samsung and an easier time playing out it desired composition. If Samsung has mid pressure in mid game off a bottom lane lead, Huni is much more likely to get caught out, which can cede Baron to Samsung without a team fight.
This is where I see Samsung gaining an advantage. With the way both teams set up compositions, top can usually hold its own for Samsung, and bottom for SKT will not get a large advantage. An unattended bottom lane and wayward top lane setup is exactly what made SKT vulnerable to Longzhu Gaming in the LCK final and what Samsung has since worked on perfecting -- as if it anticipated the coming rematch against SKT as soon as Group Stage ended.
But SKT can still win by holding mid and jungle strong. If Faker has shown spectators anything, it's that he won't lose without a fight. Even if Samsung are stylistically favored, Faker is perhaps the one player in the game that can win matches on his own, and mid seems to be the most limited part of Samsung as it stands.
Even if both SKT and Samsung have similar histories and have identified a similar way to play in the current meta, the stylistic miss-match will decide the entire best-of-five. It's on Samsung to take the first Worlds title from SKT, but Faker will be waiting to latch onto any mistake.