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Kelsey Moser: Gauging the relevance of NA vs EU Rift Rivals heading into worlds

Rift Rivals has some relevance when projecting the League of Legends World Championship
How much relevance does Rift Rivals carry going into worlds? Photo courtesy of Riot Games.

Much salt was sprinkled over North America’s dominant form at the Western Rift Rivals event. NA teams came with a more aggressive approach to using lane pressure with their junglers, more ganks to mid lane, and more attentiveness to early dragon skirmishes. With a 12-6 record in the group stage and a 3-0 of Unicorns of Love at the hands of Team SoloMid in the grand final, North America became the undisputed Kings of the Atlantic (or Supreme Elected Official, depending upon your legislative leaning).

But throughout the course of the rest of the regular season, EU LCS teams emphasized how much they had learned from North America. Things like supports roaming mid more often could be observed in their gameplay. Add in a patch change that de-emphasized jungle aggression with more scaling tank picks, Team SoloMid’s shift to more of a mid-to-late game focus, improvements made domestically by dominant European team G2 Esports, and it becomes murkier.

Is Rift Rivals still relevant for ranking North American and European teams coming into the League of Legends World Championship?

The jungle problem

Looking at Rift Rivals, a lot of viewers saw how much pressure junglers from North America applied to lanes and concluded that NA junglers were simply better. This year brought a new wave of mechanically skilled young ones like Juan “Contractz” Arturo Garcia to the LCS, and Europe simply didn’t have the talent.

A lot of what went wrong at Rift Rivals had less to do with the individual junglers and more to do with a breakdown between jungle and the lanes. While many of NA’s mid laners had no problem blinding preferred picks like Yoo “Ryu” Sang-wook’s Corki, Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen’s Leblanc, or Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg’s Syndra, European mid laners still found ways to give themselves weak laning matchups.

On Day 1 alone of Rift Rivals, Fnatic picked Corki into Galio, allowing Ryu to opt for an unconventional Rod of Ages build due to an easy laning phase. Fnatic chose Orianna and Twitch into Leblanc and Caitlyn. Unicorns of Love picked Corki into Syndra.

Unicorns of Love had its turnaround on Day 2 when it identified niche counterpicks for NA’s blind mid lane picks that Fabian “Exileh” Schubert could play like Kassadin into Leblanc and Vladimir into Syndra. In an interview, Exileh pointed to both his problems coordinating with his jungler at Rift Rivals and NA teams’ tendency to blind pick mids.

Of course, TSM avoided that pitfall in the final. By picking its mid laners in the second pick phase and banning key elements of Exileh’s pool like Leblanc, it ensured stronger matchups and mid-jungle control for roaming to top or bot against UoL and capitalized on the European team’s rushed mistakes.

The mid pressure generated by NA teams against EU teams in those matchups, however, ensured the jungler could invade freely. That gave NA teams better vision of EU junglers and allowed for more freedom. A jungler with pushing lanes — especially mid lane — always has more options than a jungler with weak lane matchups for his team. That’s where the adage “it’s easy to look good as a jungler when all of your lanes are winning” originates.

Of course, that wasn’t always the case. In the match between G2 and Phoenix1 on Day 2, for example, a lot went wrong for G2 when it didn’t react to Mike “MikeYeung” Yeung’s aggressive invades against the push. Even though G2 had the enemy jungle entrance warded, it didn’t react to the information, and the invade went off for P1 to snowball the game. A lot of that can be pinned down to poor coordination and communication within the team. With strong top and mid lane matchup and Elise against Lee Sin, G2 could have won a 3-v-3 off the reckless invade and instead snowballed the game in its own favor.

The problem, then, seems less to do with a gap in individual talent and more to do with a gap in how mid and jungle play generally. Mid doesn’t generate pressure to facilitate the jungler, and the jungler doesn’t gank mid early necessarily to snowball this lead. Even when mid and jungle do have an advantage, European teams didn’t necessarily reinforce that control with wards in river or react to wards they had placed.

All of the problems have solutions. The question is whether improvements can be observed in the three EU LCS teams attending worlds.

Examining the change

First, as a proxy to see how likely NA and EU LCS teams are to get a good mid lane matchup by picking their mids later in the draft, I looked at pick orders for both EU LCS and NA LCS playoffs and regional qualifier on Patch 7.16. Both regions played 34 games.

The consensus is that picking mid third on red side to open bans is common for both regions. It occurred in 13 of 34 games in EU LCS and 14 of 34 games in NA LCS. NA and EU mid pick order departed, however, because it was much more common for EU teams to pick mid laners either red side first rotation or blue side second rotation (after first pick blue side and before third pick red side). In EU, mid was chosen in these slots 27 times, while it only happened 12 times in NA.

Part of that came from the increased popularity of Cassiopeia in the EU LCS. Cassiopeia was one of the most frequently picked champions in EU LCS on 7.16. She appeared in 18 of 34 games, and in NA, she appeared in only nine. Given that Cassiopeia is generally regarded as having an unbeatable laning phase, she rises in priority as a blind pick and can be chosen earlier in the draft.

NA LCS is home to more unconventional mid laners like Hai “Hai” Lam and Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun, both of whom played in playoffs or the gauntlet, which accounts for some of the discrepancy in Cassiopeia’s popularity. Cassiopeia also saw a higher ban frequency in NA LCS with 17 bans to 11 in EU.

Removing instances of Cassiopeia drops the amount of times mid is picked in red side first rotation or blue side second rotation from 27 to 14 in EU LCS and from 12 to 10 in NA. These numbers suggest that NA and EU LCS have a similar understanding of when early picking mid is acceptable. If both regions have similar understanding of matchups, it becomes equally likely for NA and EU LCS teams to have bad mid matchups.

It’s also worth noting that Misfits abused the same weaknesses of Unicorns of Love that TSM abused at Rift Rivals. By banning Leblanc, Misfits destabilized Unicorns with better mid and jungle control. In general, Nubar “Maxlore” Sarafian’s improvements in working with his pressure lanes make Misfits look like the best mid-jungle team from EU LCS attending worlds. Even in the EU LCS summer final, Misfits constantly reinforced mid control by having Maxlore push out mid when Tristan “PowerOfEvil” Schrage needed to back. That translated well for Misfits to control the map early, and it had a gold lead in all three losses at the 15-minute mark.

Misfits, at least, seems to have grasped the mid-jungle dynamic North America had on display at Rift Rivals. Fnatic and G2 give more cause for concern with Mads “Broxah” Brock-Pedersen and Rasmus “Caps” Winther losing 2-v-2s when they have stronger early matchups, as they did against Misfits in Game 1 of their EU LCS summer semifinal. G2’s Luka “PerkzPerković has been inconsistent on some of the highest pressure picks like Lucian, and Kim “Trick” Gang-yun doesn’t pressure lane leads with jungle control as well as he has in the past.

Bot to mid

But two other points exist to give more confidence in G2 and Fnatic at worlds.

Following Rift Rivals, one key element of concern for European teams came from the power of roaming supports. Getting leads in the bottom lane helped North American teams snowball mid as well by sending supports to pressure the central lane. Even when mids had relatively even matchups like Orianna vs Syndra, and teams felt comfortable picking mid champions blind, supports could take advantage of winning bot to go mid with the wave pushing. That gave the jungle freedom on half the map off one winning lane.

In the wake of Rift Rivals, this was another problem that took Unicorns out of the running. With roaming supports, Exileh seemed to feel even less safe on mages and tunneled on picking only champions with escapes like Vladimir, Talon, Kassadin, and Leblanc. But it also became a boon for G2, Fnatic, and Misfits.

Jesse “Jesiz” Le and Martin “Rekkles” Larsson (Fnatic) and Alfonso “mithy” Aguirre Rodríguez and Jesper “Zven” Svenningsen (G2) comprise the strongest bottom lanes in Europe. Both lanes often win the 2-v-2 on their own, which frees the supports to roam. Misfits might not have the best bottom lane duo, but Lee “IgNar” Dong-geun is always  smart with his skill shots and excels on playmakers like Blitzcrank or Thresh that can impact mid lane in a big way.

This interaction raised the priority on support counter picks. Support and top became the two roles most often saved for last pick (to ensure the opportunity to counter pick the enemy’s support) on Patch 7.16. In EU LCS, support was picked last in draft on red side in 10 games. In the NA LCS, it happened in 11 games of 34. Both regions now will have support rotate mid to pick up the slack, even if the jungler doesn’t. IgNar and Jesiz do a lot for their teams.

Scale and fight

Of course, NA junglers like Jake “Xmithie” Puchero are more frequent abusers of catch-up experience. Xmithie will often just clear buffs and go for ganks or vision, knowing his lanes will push out and keep his camps up so he can go back and clear them for a bonus. EU LCS junglers will still interact with lanes less and opt for more full clears early, but when teams acclimated to 7.14, that didn’t seem as important anymore.

Patch 7.14, which came to the game after Rift Rivals, brought a sudden increase in popularity of scaling team-fighting compositions. Better tank itemization combined with earlier Cinderhulk buffs swung tank junglers into popularity. Add the rise of Ardent Censer supports, and games became more about scaling bottom lane picks, even mid matchups, and safe junglers.

With buffs to the likes of Nidalee and Lee Sin on 7.18, this may change slightly in time for worlds, but tank junglers will still have a fair amount of popularity. Tank junglers scale well for late game by just doing full clears, and this hides some of the flaws of not playing well to lane pressure exhibited by European teams. The game becomes more about which teams excel at mid-to-late game wave management (knowing when to push, bounce, and slow push side waves to set up for Baron) and key team fights than jungle pressure. It’s not a coincidence the patch drop coincided with G2’s return to form in the EU LCS.

Even TSM abandoned the strong laning approach to an extent. For most of the games of the NA LCS summer final, gold remained relatively even, and Immortals had the gold lead at 20 minutes in mid game in three of four games. When Immortals prioritized one of the most mid lane punishing picks in Lucian, TSM remained competitive in farm, Immortals improperly prepared waves, and TSM abused poor positioning in turret sieges to turn Game 4.

In fact, both LCS finals progressed in a similar fashion, except Misfits’ first two drafts didn’t leave a lot of options if Plan A failed. TSM and G2 didn’t dominate early games, waited for opportunities to fight, kept side waves in their favor, and waited for Immortals and Misfits to force out of desperation.

As a result, a lot of the major impact of TSM’s dominating mid and jungle control at Rift Rivals seems less significant in retrospect. G2 and TSM play in similar ways with emphasis on keeping mid pushed, conservatively avoiding mistakes, getting farm on jungle, and using bottom lane effectively in fights.

As a result, these teams seem fairly even with Fnatic, Misfits, Immortals, and Cloud9 shuffling below them. A lot of concerns still exist about mid and jungle control for EU LCS teams, but when aggressive jungle picks aren’t dominant in the meta, and mid lane matchups are determined more by roaming supports, Rift Rivals doesn’t feel like as much of a determining factor of which region will do well at worlds.

There’s a slight tip in favor of NA’s more aggressive and bloody “meta,” but G2 and TSM appear far above the rest if their competition regardless. Cloud9 has never had the strongest early coordination anyway, and it gets by based on heroic plays made by its carries after fatal early game errors. Fnatic has slowly started to compensate for flaws, but healing is tentative. Immortals and Misfits might suffer from some of the same fatal flaws of over-eagerness and not preparing vision or waves correctly before forcing engages.

It’s best, going into worlds, to get a feel for how each team plays individually. Rift Rivals won’t cast a long-standing shadow over the next tournament, especially with both EU and NA teams bootcamping in the same place to concoct the beginnings of a World Championship meta on Patch 7.18.

Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski learned a great deal about jungling from the boot camp before last year’s tournament. For him, the month training against the world’s best before the final stage is most significant.

You have one or one and a half months to prepare for the international meta,” Jankos said. “And then you can scrim the best teams from all over the world. So we will pick up a lot of plays quicker.”

Jankos himself won’t be attending, but his point has a grain of truth to it. In a few weeks’ time, it will all be settled on the Rift.

Photos courtesy of Riot Games.

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