Unexpected. During Rift Rivals between North American and Europe, not even Phoenix1’s players could account for the effectiveness of their quick and dirty invades and punishing dives.
Phoenix1 finished the Rift Rivals group stage as the second place team of the event, losing out only to Team SoloMid, who represented North America in the final. Phoenix1’s final 4-2 record led to some conservative optimism about P1’s return to the North American League of Legends Championship Series.
Yet Phoenix1’s first week of competition after their return home ended in two losses: an expected 2-0 drop to TSM and a messier 2-1 loss to Team Dignitas. Any reserved Phoenix1 optimism cooled.
But it shouldn’t completely.
Despite not having decisive victories on home soil and making more mistakes than the opposition, some of Phoenix1’s improvements remain. The team’s main errors cropped up in a mixed identity during draft, poor acknowledgement of flanking vision, and ignoring side lane pressure or compositional differences when grouping mid.
Although Phoenix1’s play came riddled with those mistakes, MikeYeung had jungle starts and pathing that acknowledged the strong side of the map. The team took advantage of poor mid game setups to secure early Barons. It feels somewhat fair to say the Phoenix has risen again, and now it has begun to molt. The only question is whether it has the leadership to develop properly.
The mid push and the jungle invade
Some of Phoenix1’s first red flags came from bad habits picked up from Rift Rivals. In the first game between G2 and P1, G2’s top and mid lanes had push priority, but MikeYeung was still able to invade G2’s blue buff area because G2 hadn’t converted the push into strong river control. Although MikeYeung crossed a ward, G2’s top laner didn’t react, and Luka “PerkZ” Perković got pinched on the narrow path between blue buff and mid Tier 1.
More of those kinds of invades were challenged against TSM. For example, in Game 2, MikeYeung was caught on Rek’Sai while Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell kept the top wave from crashing into his turret. As a result, he didn’t lose farm for reacting to the invade quickly after MikeYeung crossed a common top side ward.
That only hints at one of P1’s greatest problems in the search for a new identity. Most interviews and discussions about P1 suggest MikeYeung has taken a large role in shot-calling and shaping P1’s new aggressive identity. The more troubling factor comes with the mid lane and jungle picks P1 prioritized in many of the games this past weekend.
Phoenix1 in both Rift Rivals and the recent week of the NA LCS highly prioritized Corki to the point of demonstrating a willingness to pick it blind. It worked against many of the EU LCS teams that didn’t emphasize getting mid lane control, but a pushing mid lane is crucial for a jungler who wants to invade frequently. The fact that P1’s Corki priority continued against TSM, a team that will emphasize a strong 2-v-2 in jungle and mid, suggests P1 either demonstrated too much cockiness in setting up invades or didn’t understand how to get mid lane priority to control the jungle.
“Truth be told,” Ryu said, “Corki doesn’t really have a strong laning phase, so I don’t really like picking Corki. But all my teammates want me to play Corki. They really like Corki. So I end up just playing it. Corki laning phase is kind of bad, but if he gets even a little bit strong, his damage becomes really good.”
He even went so far as to build Rod of Ages on Galio in a game against Corki because of Corki’s low pressure laning phase. When playing the reverse matchup as Corki against TSM’s jungle and mid duo playing Gragas and Galio, Ryu lost the push, impeding MikeYeung from invading. MikeYeung then didn’t transfer any leads from fast clearing into getting mid or top priority either. In the first game, to make matters worse, Phoenix1 went for Sejuani and Corki, completely shutting itself out of the game as a team that supposedly wants to make its identity about early jungle aggression.
Although P1 struggles with transferring leads across lanes and had its identity muddled in draft, the early game still demonstrated MikeYeung understands how to make plays to strong side. He will start games pathing toward the side lane that will have the push to avoid getting invaded upon, something with which some junglers on mid-tier teams still struggle.
Setting up side lanes
Beyond a lost early identity, P1 also demonstrated questionable understanding of lane assignments as the game progressed. Kalista often makes for a poor mid lane holding champion in a 1-3-1 setup or composition, but P1 continued to rely heavily upon Kalista and Corki picks for much of the weekend. With a strong early top pick, Corki and Kalista can still make for a strong 1-3-1, but Kalista needs to side lane.
Instead, P1 seemed to repeatedly lose mid lane priority when Corki went to a side lane to push. Corki had much better clear than Kalista, but P1 prioritized being able to clear a wave on top or bottom quickly and jet back to lane.
That made the team somewhat vulnerable to mid lane engages or getting pushed in by Tristana. In general, Kalista will struggle to push back or deal with Tristana’s pressure as a more burst-oriented AD carry with higher mobility, tower taking potential and disengage. Tristana is the most popular Kalista counter in the meta for a reason. Kalista’s advantage is engaging, but with P1 constantly sending its main damage threat to clear a side wave, the options became limited.
As a result, P1’s opponents often got side lane priority while P1 huddled in the mid lane. When that happened, TSM and Dignitas placed vision in river. P1 either picked Kalista compositions or compositions with hyper carry ADs that wanted to team fight, which meant they looked for fights around neutral objectives.
TSM and Dignitas often having better river control made it hard for P1 to win dragon fights — especially when they ignored popular warding locations like the small bush close to dragon. Enemy teams used that ward against P1 in at least three instances throughout the weekend while P1 had trinkets up or could have checked for the Control Ward in place.
That didn’t always spell disaster. At times, it seemed P1 had a sense of self-awareness about its blindness in bottom river fights. In at least one instance against Dignitas, P1 face-checked with vision on Dignitas’ Renekton and main damage dealer, Tristana, to initiate a fight when it had trouble getting an engage in the mid lane. The fight went well, translating into an early Baron.
The great 20 minute Baron
This type of strategy is extremely risky, and that seems to be the core of Phoenix1’s new approach. Make the unexpected play and see what advantages one can glean. That very philosophy, poor side lane control, and weak dragon control made Phoenix1’s best strategy setting up and baiting mid lane dives.
Against both Dignitas and TSM, Phoenix1 managed to bait its opponents to dive them in the mid lane just after Baron spawned, resulting in a major gold swing. That type of eagerness from the enemy team is exactly what makes it difficult to condemn Phoenix1 as a “solo queue” team that cannot break into playoffs.
In a meta where tanks continue to gain popularity and grouping mid often seems like a viable strategy rather than a default route to take in the midst of confusion (which is how P1 uses it), P1 has found an opening that allows the team to take early Barons. If P1 can continue to manipulate even top teams like TSM into these risky mid fights, it might have surprising success.
Of course, the problem comes when P1 attempts to execute this tactic regardless of the draft. Phoenix1 grouped too early with Nidalee and hyper carry compositions. Before a champion like Kog’Maw gets off the ground, if Phoenix1 insists on drafting a champion like Nidalee, it has to maintain a siege or split setup with strong solo lanes until Kog’Maw can itemize for fights. Phoenix1’s early grouping cost the team games against Dignitas just as it netted them leads.
Yes, Phoenix1’s games demonstrate a general misunderstanding of when a jungler can invade. P1 seems to have adopted high risk as an identity rather than establishing game flow. But certain strengths like reacting well to mid lane engages and understanding which lanes have pressure early may set up a springboard for the team to catapult into top six.
The problem comes down to whether or not P1 will think critically about their flaws and adapt for a more holistic approach. Aside from getting punished for early invades, the rise of tanky junglers in the coming Patch 7.14 could cut out P1’s high risk style all together, leaving them with only a group mid approach.
“I’ve learned that the best way to play is to play without the fear of making a mistake,” MikeYeung said during Rift Rivals. “How I want to play from here on out is — even if I go 0-6, even if I feed, I’ll know that I’m still making proactive plays. I’m not going to have any regrets. There are times in the NA LCS where our games will go to 50 minutes, to multiple dragons, multiple Barons. It’s because we’re too scared to make a play.”
MikeYeung’s new “no fear” approach might mean making the necessary changes to improve the team, to carve out better lane assignments and flanking vision control. It might also mean to commit to what he perceives as his strength in a more high risk play style.
For a barely rejuvenated Phoenix1 seeking new plumage, the latter is cause for worry.
Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games