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Rift Rivals struggles revealed Samsung Galaxy’s increasingly visible flaws

Rift Rivals struggled exposed problems Samsung Galaxy had for years.
Samsung Galaxy's play style has slowly changed -- and not in a good way. Photo courtesy of Riot Games.

Korean teams weren’t expected to lose at Rift Rivals, but the manners in which the region’s teams individually lost to their Chinese League of Legends Pro League counterparts weren’t surprising. SK Telecom T1, KT Rolster, Samsung Galaxy, and MVP all showcased the same strengths and weaknesses at Rift Rivals that they have exhibited throughout the 2017 League Champions Korea summer split.

Samsung Galaxy is a particularly interesting case because only recently have teams taken better advantage of cracks and flaws that have existed since the start of the summer split. Many of those opportunity areas are rooted in how the team was constructed and has evolved since last year.

When Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in was announced as Samsung’s starting support over Kwon “Wraith” Ji-min against the Afreeca Freecs in last year’s regional playoffs, his arrival was met with no small amount of confusion. Samsung beating Afreeca was expected, but CoreJJ’s presence on the starting lineup was not.

Ask a Korean team why a specific player is starting over another and the answer, 90 percent of the time, will be scrim performance. It’s often just that simple: the team performs better with one player over another, therefore that player receives more starting time in the LCK. CoreJJ played three games for Samsung Galaxy during the summer split’s regular season. All three were losses, despite the fact that he was on comfort champions Zyra and Bard.

One of the primary reasons for CoreJJ’s lack of initial success had nothing to do with his individual play style and much more to do with veteran mid laner turned jungler, Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong.

Ambition learned to jungle while on CJ Entus in 2015 somewhat out of necessity, much like KT Rolster’s Go “Score” Dong-bin. His jungling style that year defaulted to making him another laner, and he was particularly strong on prior mid lane favorites like Gragas and Nidalee. But his approach was easily exploitable. With his pathing devoid of creativity and trouble with routine vision rotations, Ambition arrived at Samsung an experienced player but a mediocre jungler.

Wraith changed that.

Much like the arrival of supports Jeong “Fixer” Jae-woo and Lee “Piccaboo” Jong-beom did for Score on KT Rolster, Ambition had a new ally in Wraith, who frequently roamed to support Ambition with vision placement, guiding him through the jungle. When CoreJJ started over Wraith, that aspect of Ambition’s improved jungle performance faltered. As a result, the team as a whole appeared lost.

It looked as if the CoreJJ experiment was over until he reappeared in the regional gauntlet.

The rest is history. CoreJJ and Samsung beat not only Afreeca, but upset KT Rolster and qualified for the League of Legends World Championship. Ruler and CoreJJ are a strong duo, and CoreJJ is an extremely lane dominant support who helps guide Ruler in lane. It’s a different play style for the team than when Wraith helped guide Ambition, but for his part, Ambition has grown into a strong jungler who no longer requires assistance from a smart, roaming support like Wraith. Although his more optimistic jungle invades are still frequently punished, Ambition understands how to communicate with his lanes and use pressure, all while maintaining the farm-focused style he developed on CJ Entus.

Lane-focused supports have dominated the League of Legends meta since the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational, and they only recently began to decline in popularity. With that, the strength of Samsung’s bot lane has faltered.

As an aside, this is why SK Telecom T1’s bot duo might look less lane dominant going forward. Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan knows how to dictate his lane far better with mage and disengage supports than with tanky initiators — even Alistar is played more for counter-engage than initiation in Wolf’s hands. Fortunately, SKT has flexibility in choosing focal points elsewhere, even if its bot lane isn’t drawing as much pressure as it has for the past two splits, and Wolf is still a strong team fighter even if his laning presence diminishes. More importantly, SKT knows how to play around Wolf as a disengage support because it has other initiators on the team.

Samsung hasn’t showcased this same flexibility, and a slightly weakened bot lane is just the beginning of the problem. This meta shift in and of itself wouldn’t have nearly as much of an effect if it wasn’t partnered with mid laner Lee “Crown” Min-ho’s declining mid lane presence.

Crown is a player built by hard work and dedication. If rumors are to be believed, that mentality extends to the entire Samsung team, reputed to put in remarkable practice hours within a region known for its commitment to practice, and Crown is still cited by his peers as one of the hardest-working individuals in the LCK. Through that effort, he became the centerpiece of Samsung, and he had the gold allocation and resource dedication to match.

Yet, this past split, Crown has struggled.

A portion of the gold that Samsung previously allocated to Crown has now been split between Ruler and top laner Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin. Crown’s influence revolved more around controlling the mid lane and never extended to strong kill participation, though he frequently posted strong score lines and high damage numbers.

Crown has the lowest kill participation and the highest percentage of his team’s deaths of any starting LCK mid laner. Samsung doesn’t need Crown involved in every kill, but it does need him to keep mid pushed, something that has increasingly become difficult. With mid destabilized, Samsung’s previously strong early game, second only to KT Rolster in the spring, has suffered.

For the majority of the summer split — all but one game — Samsung has returned to Ambition as starting jungler. Given meta shifts in the bot lane and a lack of pressure mid lane, it’s easy to see why. Ambition, first blood donations aside, is a steadier jungler who takes far fewer risks than Kang “Haru” Min-seung.

The rising star of the spring split, Haru was everywhere for Samsung in the early game, ganking lanes or invading opponents’ jungles. Haru’s stifling early presence was one of the reasons why Samsung was able to beat KT Rolster and SK Telecom T1 in the back half of the 2017 LCK Spring regular season. The pressure didn’t come from Haru alone, and Haru was able to get away with riskier routes and invades than most LCK junglers thanks to a pushing bot lane with CoreJJ on mage supports and mid lane as a major control point thanks to Crown.

With good scouting and draft adjustments, like the ones shown by EDward Gaming at Rift Rivals, teams can overwhelm Samsung by poking holes in the early game and closing it out before Samsung has a chance to come back. J Team also had a fairly strong early game showing against Samsung, but its habit of forcing skirmishes in the mid game and over-committing any advantages it had. Back in Korea, the Jin Air Green Wings provided the blueprint prior to Rift Rivals when it perfect-gamed Samsung en route to a surprising 2-0 sweep in Week 5. Samsung’s problems aren’t likely to disappear, and though the team is good enough to stay near the top of the standings, it will have to address these issues before the playoffs and the regional finals if it wants another shot at the Summoner’s Cup.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games

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