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Vitality coach YamatoCannon: “I’ve worked with so many different players, played with so many different players, but no one loves the game as much as Nukeduck.”

YamatoCannon says Nukeduck loves League of Legends more than just about anybody he's seen.
Vitality coach YamatoCannon (Jakob Mebdi) says Nukeduck loves League of Legends more than just about anybody he's seen. Photo courtesy of Riot Games.

Although Team Vitality didn’t match its debut European League of Legends Championship Series split in terms of finish, most spectators and analysts generally agreed that the team made improvements this summer with coach Jakob “YamatoCannon” Mebdi at the helm. Following a 2-0 win against the Unicorns of Love in the final week of the regular season, YamatoCannon spoke with Slingshot’s Kelsey Moser about preparing for a team like UoL, how he fit into Vitality, and parting ways with Splyce.

Kelsey Moser: To get the cliched question out of the way — I always feel like this happens toward the end of the season where you have teams locked out of playoffs or locked into promotion with nothing to lose, and then you have top teams with maybe a bit more wiggle room. Then come the upsets. As someone who has probably experienced a bit of both sides, why do you think this happens?

Jakob “YamatoCannon” Mebdi: I think, you know, looking at today, I have no idea what Unicorns of Love was up to today (like in draft). Looking at the week as a whole, I think there was a lot of — “we’re going to win.” I think this was the kind of mentality for G2 and Fnatic. I think it was like “Yeah, things are going to go as they go. We’re going to win, no problem. They’re lower tier teams. No biggie.” I think this came into play a lot. I think ROCCAT and the other team, NiP, they played really well. They’ve played the best series that they’ve played ever possibly.

I think G2 and Fnatic — Fnatic were testing this Azir. We need a new meme, you know. Instead of Perkz, we have this Azir Caps thing going on. But also, I think G2 was like “Yeah, there’s no way NiP is going to win against Fnatic, so why would we try our best?” I think this was part of the mentality. I can’t speak for them. This is how I kind of felt looking at the games because the games were interesting — to say the least.

KM: Unicorns, when I spoke to them last week, they said that it isn’t that they’ve been working on their early game, but that early game picks sometimes happen to fit into what they’re already good at. Was that kind of the sense that you got when you were preparing for them, or did you see the Splyce game and think this was a completely different Unicorns?

JM: To be honest, since this week didn’t matter too much for us (there wasn’t a lot of preparation going on), it was more about enjoying the last week, making something fun out of it. Instead of scrimming one day, we just went out and shot each other with paintballs, so there wasn’t much preparation going on.

But I have a vague memory of the last time I prepared against Unicorns. It was always about just making sure you cut through — you want to be in a game with UoL where you have, on paper, a stronger teamfight composition. When UoL are the ones sitting with the Rumble and the Xayah/Rakan, you are in a decent position because Unicorns of Love are very good at just forcing those fights all the time.

I think the main strength of Unicorns of Love is their ability to cut through the basics. Usually, teams have all step-by-step “Well, first you clear the mid wave, then you walk into river, then you put vision.” This kind of thing. And they are willing to just sit in a bush because they expect the enemy team to do something, and this is the strength of UoL. And always, when I go into games against Unicorns of Love, it’s all about — “Guys, if they are not showing anywhere, just play with the waves. Push the waves, and then, eventually, put yourselves in a good position to teamfight because that’s where the game will end up.” And that is usually what comes to mind when it comes to preparation with UoL.

I think, also, the main thing draft-wise that you can look at when it comes to UoL is that — their jungler, I think his Elise performance has been (when he played those two games, I think there was one game maybe with Renekton, Talon, it was a crazy draft) — their Elise looked very, very poor. I think this is something you can take into consideration, and in general, if we were ending up on blue side when it comes to preparation, we would ban Zac on blue side because we had this feeling that, if we pick Zac, we’re going to end up playing against Ivern/Janna, and we’re going to just have a bad time, something like this. I think this is what makes UoL a bit crazier. They are willing to break the standard kind of macro game, and that they are willing to play really different picks in jungle.

KM: Speaking of the Unicorns’ picks, is it often about not getting thrown off by some of their more unconventional champions and just boiling down “They’re going to play this way regardless” or?

JM: I think today they completely dropped the ball. I don’t know if they wanted to surprise us or what was going on, but when you pick a Galio into Renekton, you’re asking for a bad time. When you blind pick Leblanc in the current meta, where there’s everyone running around with 4,000 HP, you’re going to have a bad time as well. We got the Kassadin. The blind pick Trundle against the Janna was also bad. Everything was just a bad time in general. I think nothing was really a curveball this time around.

I think Unicorns of Love are very quick at adapting. I think I have a really clear memory where they brought out the Tahm Kench top after one day where they played it in LCK. It was completely busted, and then they came out and played it against us, and then we just lost automatically because Tahm Kench was really good. But I think, in general, when it comes to their picks, I don’t think necessarily something is like “Wow, this is something you need to ban against Unicorns of Love.” I think this was the case in the past more, but I think right now they’ve gone into this more meta kind of play. I think the biggest kind of point for that was, always when I looked at Vizicsacsi, he doesn’t play Jayce, he doesn’t play Rumble, and all of the sudden, he started playing Rumble, and this is something they’ve been working on. It seems. And it works.

KM: Vitality has kind of an interesting history based on the fact that they did really well the first split, and they’ve been having a lot of struggles since. As someone who just came into this organization, what’s your take on a lot of the setbacks that happened to this team?

JM: I think, you know, I’ve been a part of the EU LCS even before Vitality was a part of it. Like when they bought the Gambit slot and — I think it was a question of when they had success, they were just ahead of the curve. They were mechanically ahead in every position. Cabochard could play Graves top and completely massacre the enemy team, and they could play very fragile compositions while a team like H2K would just play this bulldoze composition with Lissandra/Malphite, very simple. So it’s about engaging on this target, one-shotting this target, and moving on.

Vitality was a very graceful team. I think they were the ones that mastered the Gangplank kind of play style that was going on where people swap and Gangplank ult the wave. Right now, it sounds very primitive to me when I’m saying it, but this was like — very revolutionary at the time. And they were very good at the lane swap kind of meta, and eventually, when everyone caught on, and on top of that had marvelous teamplay (which Vitality clearly lacked because they were just playing this split-push style where they pushed all waves and forced the enemy to move around and they never really necessarily grouped). And when the meta shifted, Graves got pushed out, and it became more of a team-oriented game. This was around the shift where it was all about the teamplay, all about the coordination: basing at the same time, pressuring at the same time, grouping mid, etc.

I think that’s where Vitality fell off. I think that’s the main thing that has been missing throughout. Everyone looks at this roster. Good players, you know, lack of good success. But there was this lack of teamplay in general. I could really see that when I joined this split. There was a lot of bad habits that have been kind of growing these past splits where everyone is playing very individually, and not really as a team, so the main focus for us this split was to unlearn these bad habits that put players in their own kind of zone in a game. Where they going on playing to harass this guy and just shut off everything else that is happening. This is something that we focus on most to make sure that everyone is on the same page to accomplish the same thing and, in general, just play together. This is the phrase that I mentioned most. “Just play together, base together, walk on the map together. Don’t do anything unless you’re together.” This is like the simplified version that I pushed onto them that you can refine into more complicated versions where you farm efficiently, but I think this was the biggest setback for Vitality these past seasons.

KM: You’ve had kind of a good relationship with Nukeduck in the past. You came into ROCCAT when they were in a similar situation, for example. Was this relationship part of the reason you and Vitality worked out this time around.

JM: In the offseason already, I was in talks with Vitality because I was really interested in the project. Always these projects on paper where it’s really good, and some things aren’t clicking. These are the projects that are always the most interesting to me: the challenges. It was the same with Splyce, like on paper, it was just a bunch of Danish guys that have no experience that was interesting to me. The same case in ROCCAT. They had Jankos, Nukeduck, VandeR, these players that on paper are amazing, but they were in Relegation. It was an atrocity. It was kind of a similar thing. I came in, and there were a lot of bad habits from past splits. It was about unlearning these habits and working on the basics and putting everyone in a good mindset towards growing the time.

To get on the point about Nukeduck — I was a sub when he was over on Lemondogs. I’ve always watched him play, and I’ve always been — he’s always been a close friend of mine (probably the closest friend of mine in the league scene). I also played with him on a team back in Season 2. There’s been a lot of history with me and Nukeduck, and I have a lot of faith in him because he has this love for the game that is unmatched.

I’ve worked with so many different players, played with so many different players, but no one loves the game as much as Nukeduck. He’s willing to play 12 games of solo queue a day. As a coach, it’s like, Nukeduck, you have to play less, and he’s like “What?” The argument is really hard when the player is playing too much. Even though he’s still the same game, but loves the game so passionately because this usually fades out really quickly. For me, I don’t have this immense love for the game. I have love for the competition — I love my job. That is what I love about it, not necessarily only League of Legends, but for him it’s all about League, League, League, and this doesn’t seem to fade at all. If I compare him to how he was on ROCCAT, he has made such immense personal progress where he’s going to the gym, he’s taking care of himself, while also having this love for the game. Because in the past, it was play, play, play, play, play — nothing else. Sleep was irrelevant, eating was irrelevant, nothing else, and he really keeps track of himself now. So it’s also amazing to see this growth. But Nukeduck as a player, I think, how Caps is rating him, how all these other mid laners are rating him, this is 100% correct. He is one of the best players we have in Europe, for sure.

KM: Splyce and Vitality have both said you really helped them turn around, but there’s also this idea from Splyce that the team didn’t necessarily think they could continue growing together with you. Do you think that maybe this is something you specialize in as a coach — helping teams find themselves and the basics — but that it has maybe been more challenging to go on from that point?

JM: I think since the players are in it, they’re playing it, I think this gives you a very different perspective. I know because I played in the past myself, so I can relate to the situation, but usually you reach point where — progress you need to have some trust in your players, right? That’s how I view it. I think, when it comes to Splyce, the situation that happened was that — my biggest difficulty was that I didn’t feel like I could grow. I feel like if I can’t grow, then things aren’t going to go very soon as well because we all peaked, and I feel like, in Splyce, I peaked myself, and I couldn’t develop myself.

If I just compare to the split in Vitality, I already know so many different things I can apply and do differently. How I’m going to prepare myself continuing to next split, but I just didn’t feel like I could have that in Splyce, and I think that’s what the players felt as well, and we had this discussion how we wanted to move on, and we all knew that something had to change. We didn’t really want to point fingers. They didn’t want to point fingers at me as well. That was just the situation. It just seemed like the right move because I didn’t feel it was correct to point a specific player. “This is how we change the dynamic,” because that was what was necessary in Splyce: a change of dynamic. I felt myself I am not improving. My goal is to be the best I can be. It’s not about going playoffs every season, whatever, I just want to be the best I can be, and I didn’t feel I could grow.

I did some mistakes that stuck, and I feel like, when I look at the situation Splyce is in now, I think it’s a good situation for them because I think they have five players that — if they don’t have a crutch to lean-on, and they realize that the only way for them to have success is to take it upon themselves, I think this is a very good situation for Splyce. Hopefully, right now, in their coachless state, they can take it upon themselves, because I truly, truly believe in them. I believe that they can do very good things in playoffs. Hopefully they can show that because, I think, if they take responsibility upon themselves to become better, and don’t rely on something — or just, oh say, this happened, so I’m not going to do it, I think that’s going to be very beneficial for them. I truly believe that.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games