Flash Wolves’ NL problem

Flash Wolves secured third place in the group stage of the Mid-Season Invitational while also securing a Pool 1 seed for the League of Legends Masters Series region. It’s set to play Counter Logic Gaming on Saturday after going 0-2 against the North American representatives in the group stage.

Huang “Maple” Yi-Tang,  Huo “SwordArT” Shuo-Jie and Hung “Karsa” Hau-Hsuan all had their standard performances to get the team through the group stage, with even top laner, Yau “MMD” Li-Hung, performing above expectations. Longtime AD Carry Hsiung “NL” Wen-An, however, was once again lackluster. He has been unable to stand against opposing carries in the laning phase and continues to be a head-scratcher in team fights.

NL’s performances rightfully drew criticism as he was seemingly the worst AD Carry in the group stages, only having a couple of decent performances crutched by the safe, longer-range Ezreal. It comes as no surprise, as NL has generally shown to be at best mediocre on the national stage, with Jinx games at last year’s world championships being his high point. His weakness as an individual carry forces Flash Wolves to compensate for him when it comes to farm and play style, with relatively minimal return (which is why carries like Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes and Ha “Kramer” Jong-hun are valuable in their own right).

Flash Wolves has been unable to move away from the carry despite making numerous attempts at changing him out, with Kramer and Huang “Breeze” Chien-Yuan both starting over him in the last year. Flash Wolves struggled with both transition periods and eventually defaulted back to NL in hopes of maintaining its collective strength for another split. This is fine domestically, as NL has little competition in the region, with the AD carries in the LMS being routinely poor performers. Internationally, the gap shows all too well, with NL struggling against even the carries from Wildcard regions. It is easy to say that NL has to be replaced, and if Flash Wolves wants to be a more threatening contender in its last split split together, the change must happen.

It’s not easy for Flash Wolves to do so. Criticizing NL and pointing to him as the primary issue is easy, but time and time again he has proven himself an important piece of the puzzle. SwordArT and NL’s synergy and understanding of each other’s play styles date back to three years ago and trickles into the entire Flash Wolves game plan. SwordArT’s roam-heavy style requires a bot lane partner that is prepared to sacrifice some of his own laning power in order to gain more elsewhere. It is understated how much this also affects Karsa to be an effective jungler, as SwordArT is often in tandem with him as well, whether it be gaining vision or ganking mid lane.

Maple is obviously the main carry on Flash Wolves and to most people the ace of the LMS, but much of his success is also thanks in part to Karsa and SwordArT’s focus around mid lane. The seamless communication around mid lane and around mid-to-late game decisions has much to do with NL, though it is worth noting that he is not a primary shot-caller. He does, however, make it easy for Flash Wolves’ play style to flourish — given his experience with the team — and provides a voice of reason in times of need. A best-of-two against seventh place eXtreme Gamers earlier in the year shows the difference between Flash Wolves with and without NL, with utmost clarity. Flash Wolves couldn’t string together a single play, and though Breeze played fantastically, it didn’t matter when they fell apart in the 5-v-5.

That’s not to say that Flash Wolves can continue to go on with NL, either. He is like a baby tooth that needs to come out; it can get the job done, but it needs to be removed to allow a stronger replacement to grow in. Flash Wolves has shown a willingness to wiggle it around, but almost none to actually rip it out. The recently-finished spring split would have been ideal to do so, as MSI’s importance pales in comparison to worlds, but yet again, the team opted for comfort, despite Breeze showing himself to be a strong carry.

Now, Flash Wolves is in the middle of MSI but will be facing CLG in semifinals and potentially SK Telecom T1/Royal Never Give Up in the finals. They are undoubtedly the underdog in all matchups, being constrained by an inflexible mid game and dwarfed AD carry. Given NL’s inability to match up well in the laning phase or in team fights, it looks grim for Flash Wolves to be a player down.

It is possible Flash Wolves will want to permanently move on from NL next split in hopes of a more competitive appearance at worlds. Given its desire to secure that very worlds berth, though, it is a bit much to ask for another shakeup next split, given the uncertainty that comes with it. After this tournament, there is no doubt that Flash Wolves will have to deliberate between stability and new heights, as they deliberate on who will start at ADC once again.

Photos courtesy of Riot Games.

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