The battle to make the League of Legends playoffs has ended in Korea. Of eight possible qualifying teams, only five best made it. With each having a unique identity, the playoffs of League Champions Korea will be a titanic clash of styles during the gauntlet.
Four teams — Afreeca Freecs, Jin-Air Green Wings, SK Telecom and KT Rolster — will play this week. The format is simple: Teams are seeded into a single bracket based on standings in the regular season. Fifth place Afreeca Freecs face Jin Air in the wildcard match, the only best of three in the playoffs. Whoever wins advances to face third place SK Telecom in a best of five, and so on to KT Rolster for the Semi-final, then ROX Tigers in the final.
Advancing is the only goal; even if one doesn’t make it to the, the circuit points are critical for attending the League of Legends World Championship. Let’s take a look at each team entering the playoffs:
The dark horse: Afreeca
In the last two weeks of LCK, CJ Entus, Longzhu Gaming, Samsung and Afreeca Freecs all had a shot at the fifth seed. CJ and Longzhu were deemed to have little chance, so the expectations were on Samsung and Afreeca. Samsung was the favorite — Lee “Crown” Min-ho had a stellar season, Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong brought leadership, and Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min and Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin were underrated. But Samsung lost its chance when Kongdoo Monster forced Samsung to a third game in its final match. That, along with important wins over KT Rolster, Jin Air, and Longzhu in the last few weeks, put Afreeca in playoffs.
Even with a new sponsor and one of the most ridiculous names in League of Legends history, everyone knew Afreeca. Formerly Rebels Anarchy, the five-man roster didn’t change between seasons. Beating the Freecs was as simple as banning Son “Mickey” Young-min’s best champions. No one else could carry, even with power picks. That held true during the first round robin.
But over time, Afreeca developed. No “SnowFlower” Hoi-jong and Gwon “Sangyoon” Sang-yun became the center of the team through its successful aggression in the duo lane, each contributing to over 70 percent of kills. Jeon “ikssu” Ik-soo became a reliable frontline on tanks like Maokai, Poppy, and his pocket Gragas. Nam “lira” Tae-yoo thrived on Graves and boasts a 10-4 record on it. Suddenly, Mickey wasn’t the only star carry. In fact, he served as comic relief with questionable decisions and hilariously bad teleports.
Afreeca could win with power picks, and that made it formidable: did a team ban them and let Mickey play his best champions? Or ban Mickey out and let the other players have theirs? Such a conundrum let Afreeca explode at the end of the first round robin and into the second, improving from 3-6 to 10-8 with upsets over SK Telecom, KT Rolster, Jin Air Green Wings, Samsung, and KT Rolster.
Afreeca must beat those teams again to advance to the finals. With lira and the duo drawing fire, the threat of Mickey’s staple champions, and the second strongest early game in the league, Afreeca is a real threat in the gauntlet. The only question is the depth of its niche strategies; it hasn’t succeeded with surprise picks or off-hand strategies. In a best-of-five series against teams that have, Afreeca might hit its limit, but not without forcing teams to show their hand.
The patient Jin Air Green Wings
With an average game time of 40.7 minutes, Jin Air Greenwings like to take things slow. They don’t have trouble closing like Afreeca. Rather, they wait for the opponent to make a mistake, then punish. It’s a slower pace that runs the risk of backfiring — long death timers can allow a comeback from one team fight — but that didn’t prevent Jin Air from making the playoffs.
With changes in the mid lane and jungle, the question for Jin Air was whether its new players could fill the holes left by Lee “GBM” Chang-seok and Lee “Chaser” Sang-hyun. While Lee “Kuzan” Seong-hyeok has been solid, Park “Winged” Tae-jin has been hit or miss — he’s popped off and taken over a series, and other times has been invisible.
The star of Jin Air is Yeo “TrAce” Chang-dong. A safe laner, TrAce has avoided ganks though his veteran intuition. Farming on champions like Gangplank, a champion still banned against him, TrAce is a threat who cannot be stopped. He’s played 14 different champions across the split, sometimes bringing out pocket picks like Morgana should the situation call for it. Among the top three in LCK in three different categories, he has stood out as one of the strongest top laners. Recently, he’s been relegated to tank duties, which has hurt the team as the meta has changed.
Jin Air’s plays the wildcard match against Afreeca Freecs, and the two are opposites. Afreeca hits hard early, fumbling later on to close; Jin Air tries to avoid early conflicts and make it to the late game to win around objective calls. In their last meeting, Afreeca took the series with a 2-0 sweep, trading objectives with Jin Air and snowballing its early lead efficiently. If Jin Air is to advance, it must prevent Afreeca from creating those early leads or generate its own through Winged’s ganks.
Historically, Jin Air has held expectations and failed to live up to them. Meta changes have harmed the Green Wings before and threaten them again. With teams like ROX Tigers and Afreeca boasting an impressive early game, Jin Air will have to win despite stylistic mismatches.
The revitalized SK Telecom
The start of the season was troublesome for SKT. With the departure of Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-Hwan, the world champions struggled to integrate Lee “Duke” Ho-seong. Although he’s a strong laner, Duke’s teleport coordination has been an issue, either arriving too late or at the wrong location. On top of that, Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong’s vision control style did not fit into a jungle carry meta, nor could he pick up champions like Graves, Nidalee, or Kindred. This lead SKT to play Kang “Blank” Sun-gu, but his first performances were underwhelming.
Last summer, SKT averaged the highest gold lead at fifteen minutes in LCK with 1,214. That number was 342 this spring, which was only fourth. This is in part because of communication but also a result of early deficits from the beginning of the season.
SKT was given important practice at IEM Katowice, as Blank played all the games. He then returned to the LCK with respectable performances. Though he’s had one of the lowest kill participation for junglers, he has the highest wards per minute at .92 and he’s close to the highest damage per minute to champions among junglers. He’s the crucial reason SKT has endured this jungle meta.
Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok might be the famous carry of the team, but Bae “Bang” Jun-sik has been the most consistent element on the roster. Even in SKT’s start of the season, Bang was nearly flawless in his performances, often times carrying entire games. Bang rarely falls behind in lane regardless of the matchup, and he rarely makes positioning mistakes. He is the best AD carry in Korea, and perhaps the world.
SKT has steadily improved. Duke’s teleports haven’t been mind blowing, but they’re certainly serviceable. Blank has bolstered SKT’s early game, helping it avoid falling behind. Communication has steadily improved, evidenced through its better skirmishing and team fighting, even when playing from a deficit. Afreeca and KT Rolster, should SKT advance to the next round, can put the squad on the back heel and force it to rely on sheer star power.
SKT faces another year where, after winning the world championship, the rest of Korea improved dramatically. Denied attending worlds last time, whispers of the curse of even numbered years rang in its ears. This time, however, the players look more than ready to make a run to the championship.
The dragon masters: KT Rolster
While the rest of Korea deprioritized Dragon, KT Rolster continued to stack the neutral buff as a scaling threat. This resulted in it having the highest Dragon control rate of 56 percent. It was a unique style for the metagame, but it’s difficult to argue against a second-place result.
With Kim “Nagne” Sang-moon and Lee “Piccaboo” Jong-beom departing, eyes fell on Song “Fly” Yong-jun and Ha “Hachani” Seung-chan. Fly was anticipated as an upgrade with more adaptability than Nagne, while Hachani was a theoretical downgrade to Piccaboo, who gave KT Rolster a second life last summer.
Fly, though not perfect, served well. From poking on Lux to flanking with Lissandra, Fly has slowly improved over the season to be a respectable mid laner. Hachani surprised; by emulating Piccaboo’s roams and synergy with Go “Score” Dong-bin, Hachani’s classic face-checking moments have been few and far between.
No “Arrow” Dong-hyeon’s consistency and Kim “ssumday” Chan-ho’s inability to be shut down has given KT a monstrous base-level. Arrow’s team fighting has been spectacular, and ssumday has had pop off performances and introduced picks like Rammus to unique counter strategies. Remarkably, Arrow, ssumday, and Fly contribute equally to the damage share: Arrow and Fly carry 25 percent, while ssumday barely misses at 24.9. Typically the top laner lags farther behind, but that’s not so for KT, which is one of the strongest top laners in the world.
Score’s development has been critical to KT’s success. Now jungling for over a year, Score has optimized his pathing and benefitted from the introduction of marksmen into his jungle, though that is secondary; he’s just improved. Last summer, Score had one of the lowest kill participations among junglers and CS deficits at 10 minutes. This split, he has the highest kill participation at 76.8 percent and CS leads. He’s improved his CS per minute from 11th to fifth in comparison to other junglers. Score has grown into one of Korea’s best junglers, out-shined only by the flashy Yoon “Peanut” Wang-ho.
KT has it all: synergy, objective control, flexibility, coordination, and pocket strategies. It did have to show off Fly’s Malzahar in order to secure a win against the ROX Tigers, so it’s out one of its tricks, but perhaps KT has more prepared. Though it has many strengths, there are some weakness. Fly’s performances can sway from great to mediocre, which affects how well KT can perform. Some of its drafts are questionable, forging team compositions with little complementary elements.
KT will have to keep those in check to earn the crown. This would be a momentous year for it: it’s finally been able to defeat SKT in a series, the first since 2014. Should SKT advance, then KT is flanked by rivals. It will have to defeat SKT, which humiliated it in the summer final last year, in another chapter of the Telecom Wars. Should it emerge victorious, it would be a rare win in the rivalry, but it could not rest on its laurels. ROX Tigers await in the finals, and KT would enjoy revenge against the squad that eliminated it from the world championship.
Afreeca wants to realize the underdog dream. Jin Air seeks to outlast everyone. SKT is fighting to keep its crown in a year of superstition. KT walks the path of revenge.
The gauntlet is set. Glory to the winner.