Between talk of teams and matches at the League of Legends World Championship, proposed format changes in North America and Europe have dominated community discussion in the West. With the announcement of a return to the best-of-one format for the North American League of Legends Championship Series, and possibly the embattled European League of Legends Championship Series, debates of entertainment against competitiveness, money against raw talent, and age-old import rules have cropped up. It’s created an interesting backdrop to game’s largest and most prestigious tournament. This group stage provided a change for NA teams to prove the value of best-of-threes, the value of training to adapt and adjust in a series.
Of all groups to play through their deciding matches, Group B appeared straightforward. The day began with little fanfare. Most assumed, based on Week 1 results, the group would likely be decided after the second game. Immortals would beat the Gigabyte Marines. Longzhu Gaming would beat Fnatic. Longzhu would exit the group in first, Immortals second, and the remainder of the schedule would be moot.
Longzhu did finish first. Immortals did not finish second. And the day was anything but straightforward, beginning with the Gigabyte Marines, the Mid-Season Invitational darlings.
The Marines surprised Fnatic last week with an unexpected lane swap designed around top laner (and sometimes support) Trần “Archie” Minh Nhựt’s Galio and jungler Đỗ “Levi” Duy Khánh’s Nocturne. The team fed nearly all of its resources into the Nocturne, burning through early levels to achieve Level 6 as early as possible. Galio was able to join fights from around the map, following up on Nocturne dives. They were aided by a botched early bottom lane dive from Fnatic, but the Marines attacked the map in the way they wanted.
The Vietnamese team returned this week to a standard player setup with Archie in the top lane and support Phan “Sya” Trung Toàn in the bottom lane. Sya made the unconventional — by the Marines’ standards — decision to take Flash over Ignite, Levi locked in Kayn, Archie locked in Urgot, and the rest was history. But as shocking as the Urgot pick was in the moment, this was a case of strong lanes against a scaling composition. Veteran mid laner Trần “Optimus” Văn Cường stole the show on Syndra, and through the mid game, the Marines were able to put nearly any champion on the team in a side lane to create split pressure against Immortals. In their next game, the Marines nearly handed Longzhu its first loss of the tournament.
I’ve returned to the Marines’ English AMA several times since their appearance at MSI, and one response stands out above the rest: When asked about which teams gave them the most difficulty, Archie and then-top laner Phan “Stark” Công Minh said themselves.
If the Marines had turned and backed off after grabbing Longzhu’s inhibitor rather than fighting, they would have knocked off Korea’s first seed and thrown the group into further chaos. If they had picked a stronger early-game choice for Levi against Fnatic, if Optimus hadn’t died, maybe they would have qualified through the tiebreaker match. There were so many ifs in their games, and only the Marines can answer to them. This is a team with a rare self-awareness others should try to find for themselves, despite their slip-ups. It shows in their adaptation.
The key takeaway from the Marines isn’t the off-beat champion picks, the wonky lane swaps, or an entire strategy that hinges on rushing Nocturne to Level 6. Instead, it’s that the team knows which array of players to play where for what strategy, and it adjusted from Week 1 to Week 2 by choosing less risky in-game approaches while retaining its own signature style. In many ways, the Marines set the tone for Group B.
Against Marines, Fnatic doubled down on its own play style, seemingly learning a few things from their Week 1 matchup. In the Week 2 rematch, Fnatic focused attention to top while accruing advantages bot — partially due to its own laning prowess, partially thanks to Marines’ mistakes — continuing to pivot more around their side lanes rather than mid. To his credit, the inconsistent Rasmus “Caps” Winther had strong showings all day on Syndra, Cassiopeia, and a surprise Malzahar against a struggling Eugene “Pobelter” Park. He kept his lane pushing, and the comfort pick of Rek’Sai aided Mads “Broxah” Brock-Pedersen in applying pressure for his team.
In its final tiebreaker game against the Marines, Fnatic locked in Sivir for Martin “Rekkles” Larsson and focused bottom lane. The team relied on veteran top laner Paul “sOAZ” Boyer to catch up and juggled pressure from side lane to side lane while the Marines looked lost and confused without Levi’s early presence. sOAZ caught up and Caps stepped up with another strong Syndra performance, erasing the memory of Optimus’ strong start against Pobelter hours earlier. Fnatic returned to what worked for the players, relied on the veterans, and against all odds ran a mini-gauntlet through the group that led the team to the playoffs.
Immortals is the perfect team to close out this case study in how well Group B’s teams adapted from Week 1 to Week 2. Throughout the entirety of the play-in stage and first week of the group stage, we’ve repeatedly seen teams from all different regions fail to balance early lane pushing power with scaling team-fighting or split-push compositions. The meta pairs a myriad of near-unkillable tanks with an Ardent Censer arms race for scaling AD carries. In its first match of the day against the Marines, Immortals found itself pushed back on the map, especially as the mid lane progressively collapsed over the course of the early game.
It set the tone for the rest of the day, and apparently the mentality of Immortals. Most of the blame will be placed on Cody “Cody Sun” Sun and Pobelter for their more visible errors, but the entire team seemed lackluster, almost always reacting to their opponents. Of the three teams presumably fighting for second behind the Longzhu juggernaut, Immortals had to win only one game. Instead, it lost four. Last year, Immortals was humiliated after failing to adapt its play style after an undefeated spring regular season. The team lost in playoffs with a memetic Lucian pick for then-top laner Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon. That summer, Immortals fell just short of qualifying for worlds after losing to Cloud9 in the regional finals.
Both times, Immortals was criticized for refusing to adapt to the meta. In Wuhan this week, Immortals suffered a similar fate, sticking to scaling and a jungle Ezreal for Jake “Xmithie” Puchero that never quite worked out. It’s not a good start for the region, but Immortals was an unexpected team at the start of the summer, having finished seventh in spring. Now, NA fans turn to legacy organizations C9 and Team SoloMid in hopes they can adapt better.