LCS playoff preview: Evil Geniuses' steady improvement vs. Cloud9's indomitable play

Jiizuke and Evil Geniuses have fixed some early-split problems. Will it be enough to topple Cloud9? Provided by Riot Games

Back in Week 5 of the 2020 League of Legends Championship Series spring split, Evil Geniuses mid laner Daniele "Jiizuke" di Mauro's LeBlanc pushed a wave of minions down top lane. The instant the top tier 1 turret fell, Team SoloMid decided to use their Rift Herald in the mid lane. Jiizuke continued to split push until it became clear that he couldn't get much more done, and TSM came out ahead on the play. Miscommunication continued to plague Evil Geniuses in this loss, often with Jiizuke caught out in side lanes without the rest of his team or a minion wave.

"This is actually looking like it's playing out in-game," LCS caster Joshua "Jatt" Leesman said of the team's communication woes. "Where the Svenskeren/Kumo/Zeyzal team have a plan, Jiizuke has his own plan, which is off-script. And then Bang also has his own plan, which is generally a little bit different as well."

An odd collection of successful players, Evil Geniuses lacked an identity for much of the 2020 League of Legends Championship Series spring split. It was most visible in games such as that Week 5 loss to TSM, in which these issues hampered any good plays the team executed. Evil Geniuses found their footing by transforming their perceived weakness -- Jiizuke's propensity to split push in a side lane -- into a strength.

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After Evil Geniuses' Saturday playoff victory over FlyQuest, support Tristan "Zeyzal" Stidam mused on how his team managed to find their late-split success. He recalled drafts in which they would put Jiizuke on control mages, eschewing his split-push prowess. According to Zeyzal, the team started communicating better when they leveraged Jiizuke's ability to create pressure to their advantage by putting him on more split-push-oriented champions and focusing on their other three or four in 1-3-1 or 4-1 setups.

"It think that kind of reflects not only what we misunderstood then, but what we understand now is that Jiizuke as a player, he has the mechanics to play whatever he wants, but you have to utilize his understanding of what he does on the map and how it impacts the whole map," Zeyzal said. "He's the kind of player who will push split-pushing to the absolute maximum. Most of the time, I'm almost scared that he's going to just int in a side lane, and sometimes he does, but I've seen it succeed enough because I trust him. When he does get punished, I'm actually more surprised."

Evil Geniuses' next opponent is Cloud9, an adversary with whom they are somewhat familiar: Zeyzal, jungler Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen and Colin "Kumo" Zhao were all with the Cloud 9 organization last year. Yet Evil Geniuses have more in common with Cloud9 than shared players. These are currently the two teams with the strongest team identities in the LCS.

Cloud9 have razed through the spring split, tying the LCS win rate record of 94% with such dominant performances that their place among the best LCS teams of all time is being discussed. Where Evil Geniuses' series against FlyQuest ended in a dramatic Game 4 base race, Cloud9's 3-0 over 100 Thieves looked like a speed run.

"For me, I don't think of us as invincible," Cloud9 top laner Eric "Licorice" Ritchie said. "At the end of the day, we're just five players against another five players. What I'm really focused on is that I'm playing really well, and I guess I'd give that same advice to anyone playing against us: Just focus on yourself as much as possible."

As League of Legends has continued to evolve the past two years, having an internal understanding of how a team wants to play has become crucial to success, whether that be domestically or internationally. Cloud9 has understood this better than any other team in 2020, entering the split with a synchronized early pressure style that opened the map for jungler Robert "Blaber" Huang and showcased the roaming prowess of mid laner Yasin "Nisqy" Dinçer. Cloud9's main goal is to ensure that anyone on the team can carry at any time. As aggressive as Cloud9 is early, it's often coming from different places on the map from game to game.

"I think there's actually been a really good mix for me personally, and I think a lot of it is that because my teammates are so good, it frees me up to play whatever I want," Licorice said. "I can play strong side; they can play around it. I can play weak side because they'll carry me."

Licorice stressed that Cloud9's record-tying split has come from focusing on the team and their individual players before looking at what their opponents are doing, and that's exactly how they'll practice for their upcoming match with Evil Geniuses.

"Our preparation for the EG match -- and, I think, basically any match that we play ever -- is always going to focus on what we play well first and what we want to practice because we really think that we can take the driving seat in a lot of these games," Licorice said. "And then afterward, we'll make sure it's good into what they pick and see if it has answers for the 1-3-1 style that EG seems to favor so much."

Zeyzal similarly emphasized the need for Evil Geniuses to look at themselves first, rather than narrowing their focus on what Cloud9 want to do on the Rift.

"We just have to make sure we keep leveling up in individual talent because I think that's largely where they have us beat. If we can level up individually, I think our map play can be better than theirs, using Jiizuke's knowledge of side-laning and how he wants to play the map as well as how we play around that," Zeyzal said. "Even if we're not in split-push, just in general, I think we can make calls that will put us in advantageous positions around them, but they're just so damn good individually. We've been working on that quite a bit."

Despite disruptions and changes that have come from the rising pandemic, including moving the entirety of the LCS to a remote, online format, both Evil Geniuses and Cloud9 have maintained their regular-season momentum, with their strong team identities and eyes on the LCS title.

"I just really want to win the trophy," Licorice said. "I don't care where I'm playing from. I don't care if it's a big stadium or the LCS stage or we're playing from our house. I just really want to win the trophy. And that's been my focus, it is my focus, and I don't care about what happens with the scheduling or logistics behind it."