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Still the same Fnatic: Kennen was a symptom of a problem that was never solved

Fnatic's League of Legends failures stemmed from problems that never got solved
Fnatic struggled after its season-long problems finally caught the team in the EU LCS semifinals. Photo courtesy of Riot Games.

Have you heard? Martin “Rekkles” Larsson plays meta AD carries now. All of Fnatic’s problems are solved.

Following the Rift Rivals fallout, Rekkles’ champion pool changed from Kennen to Ashe and Varus. Fnatic’s supporters breathed a sigh of relief because it seemed to be the perfect evidence that, yes, Fnatic had learned.

Of course, the Kennen pick was never the problem with Fnatic, but merely a symptom of the problem. Fnatic’s roster has received most of its power from side lanes in Paul “sOAZ” Boyer and Rekkles, and Misfits displayed that expertly on stage in last week’s European League of Legends Championship Series semifinal when mid and jungle crumbled completely.

I can say that because hindsight is 20-20. After all, I predicted a Fnatic win, but it was less that Fnatic seemed like a powerful team that had truly fixed its issues and more that I did not foresee Misfits’ impressive rise. Fnatic has had some of the same persistent problems all split, and a swap to “meta ADC” picks simply covered a lot of them up so well that, at times, Fnatic seemed to fool everyone.

To make this point, it’s easy to pick out problems from one of Fnatic’s matches against Misfits and look for them in one of Fnatic’s regular season games: the first win in the last week of LCS against G2 Esports. Fnatic’s fixation on jungling around top, over-committing to a side lane play, and struggling to get mid control without preferred engage picks were all flaws Misfits finally abused.

The jungle problem

Mads “Broxah” Brock-Pedersen has received a lot of positive attention this split, including the lauded All-Pro jungler award. Yet he follows a very simple formula: play around sOAZ’s pressure.

In the first game of the semifinals, Fnatic had pressure in all three lanes at the early levels, yet Broxah played only around top side. When sOAZ warded enemy jungle on priority, Broxah went for his only early invade to deny jungle camps. With three strong lanes, Broxah should have been able to stay ahead of Nubar “Maxlore” Sarafian and do more than just show up late to contest red, deny the first krugs and the first raptor camp, but Maxlore was otherwise able to farm his own jungle unchallenged.

It becomes especially egregious considering Rasmus “Caps” Winther played Cassiopeia and had the mid lane pushed the whole time. The amount of jungle control a team can glean from mid pressure is substantial. Instead, Fnatic simply let Maxlore scale and gank mid at Level 5. Caps played to the bottom side of the lane while Broxah farmed raptors, but all Fnatic’s vision was around top side, and Fnatic also didn’t have good wards in place for Zac’s gank paths. Instead of having them in river brush, a ward over the ledge leading to red and blue buffs would have served greater use.

Fnatic’s bottom lane also had pressure for much of the early game, and Jesse “Jesiz” Le kept the enemy blue buff well warded. Broxah never bothered to move for bottom side river or jungle control, despite the high priority infernal drake spawning first.

Instead, Broxah went for a 10 minute gank on top side. Although Gragas and Cho’Gath have surprising amounts of damage for tanks, the gank still lacked the powerful punch that ganking mid or bot would have provided. Broxah also went for the gank without Caps having control of mid lane, so Maxlore and Tristan “PowerOfEvil” Schrage had time to answer in a top roam and trade kills and pressure.

From there, the tables turned. Misfits began counter-jungling Broxah.

Broxah played to top side a lot during the regular season quite frequently. sOAZ had pressure or could set up waves well for him to gank the long lane. Bottom lane, meanwhile, had the ability to push and stack waves to deter the enemy jungle from diving. Rekkles and Jesiz created their own vision control to compensate for Broxah’s one-dimensional tendencies.

In Fnatic’s first game against G2 Esports in the last week of the regular season, Fnatic got a lot of easy control out of Kim “Trick” Gang-yun invading against pressure early. Mid and jungle collapsed on him because they had the freedom to leave lane, and Fnatic got first blood early.

Broxah also ganked top when his own raptors spawned in the game against G2, and he would have been better served to get a personal advantage by pathing to bottom side. He only awkwardly went to the bottom side to place bottom side wards when his bottom lane was backing and they didn’t have the opportunity to back him up. Broxah went for similar invades in the Fnatic series when sOAZ backed, but got away with them because Misfits didn’t have the early pressure to contest.

A lot of Broxah’s invades occurred just as the enemy jungler finished a camp. Fnatic as a team didn’t make an effort to time camps or track the enemy jungler and simply functioned off free or easy early lane pressure. Fnatic didn’t push the envelop. It didn’t develop the teamplay necessary for Broxah to become the alleged best jungler in Europe.

Broxah isn’t solely to blame here. Fnatic’s failure to use the amount of pressure it had in either the G2 or the Misfits game reveals more long-standing problems in understanding what the jungler should do. Fnatic had a similar problem at Rift Rivals, too. It might be more troubling that it took so long for a team like Misfits to abuse this tendency domestically.

Poor side lane trades

The problem isn’t that Rekkles only played Kennen. The problem came from why Rekkles only played Kennen. Initially this split and last split, Fnatic gravitated toward making smart side lane trades. It happened when the enemy team would make a move on the top or bottom side of the map. Fnatic used the information to react and get a pick in a side lane, then transition to an objective.

Fnatic’s side lane pick behavior relied on snowballing a side-laning AD Carry or top laner. While Ashe and Varus might not be traditional “side lane” picks, they are noted for their early lane pressure and ability to make plays or picks in the mid and late game. Fnatic kept a similar approach but just chose different champions.

In the first game of the Misfits series, Fnatic and Misfits made a side lane objective trade. Fnatic went for top lane turrets, and Misfits for bot. Fnatic had a tempo advantage and pushed all the way to the inhibitor turret, prompting Misfits to back first.

With only a surface level look, it seemed Fnatic had the advantage, but went for an inhibitor turret it more than likely could not secure. Fnatic only got slight damage on it while Misfits backed, and Misfits’ back, meanwhile, provided the opportunity to quickly buy and refresh wards. When Fnatic over-pushed or over-extended, it lost tempo because it, too, would have to back, ceding control to Misfits.

Fnatic regrouped for bottom side. While Fnatic managed to finally secure the infernal drake and get the bottom Tier 1 turret, Misfits pushed all the way to top Tier 1, took Rift Herald, and secured the first tier mid-lane turret — the most important objective in this trade — off Fnatic’s late back.

In another side lane trade that game, Rekkles and sOAZ grouped bottom to get a pick on Barney “Alphari” Morris. Although the pick succeeded, it occurred while Baron was in play and while Misfits’ duo lane pushed out mid. Misfits had mid lane control and solidified Baron area control as a result.

Misfits in particular hesitates a lot to pull the trigger on Baron, and its composition in this game didn’t particular suit any Baron rush plan. But Fnatic has made mistakes like that when a Baron take is a possibility. It cost the team Barons against G2 in the spring semifinal, and it’s somewhat troubling the tendency still exists to send either the ADC and top laner, the ADC and jungler, or the top laner and jungler to the bottom side when Baron is in play. And even without Baron in play, losing mid control and Baron area vision is costly.

Fnatic also gave up mid control for side lane trade in the last Fnatic/G2 series of the regular season. When G2 went for Rift Herald, Fnatic reacted by grouping to take the bottom Tier 1 turret, but that opened up the opportunity for G2’s bottom lane to push out mid and get more map control.

Although Fnatic often has given up mid control to focus a side lane, it isn’t that Fnatic doesn’t know how to control mid. A lot of these side lane pushes have forced Fnatic to double down and focus on getting control mid. It’s much more like Fnatic can only really focus pressure in one lane at a time.

And that’s where the Misfits pick and ban phase came into play targeting Fnatic’s preferred engage picks.

Group mid, make Unicorns proud

When Fnatic loses mid control and needs to push for objective vision, it will often do so by sending the entire team mid. That’s often is the most effective way to get control of dragon or Baron because the team begins by pushing out the mid wave, and if the entire team is there, but members of the enemy team are in a side lane, the enemy team cannot push back.

From there, Fnatic can place wards near both Baron and dragon in one swoop. The enemy team spends too much time pushing back the wave.

But the enemy team can contest the mid push — even if outnumbered — if Fnatic cannot engage upon them. If only three or four members of the enemy team sit mid and push to answer Fnatic’s move to get vision control, Fnatic wants to respond by engaging them and taking a fight with a numbers advantage.

Against G2 in the final week of the EU LCS, this worked well. Fnatic stunned out Trick with an Orianna shockwave and followed it up with crowd control: notably, a long range Jarvan IV ultimate from Broxah.

Although Broxah played Jarvan IV in this game, sOAZ played Gnar. Fnatic has gotten access to these picks in top and jungle frequently throughout the regular season, and they have played a very key role in how Fnatic likes to get vision. Both picks have a lot of laning presence top, and then they can threaten a massive long range engage mid later on in the game with an advantage.

sOAZ had a 100 percent win rate on Gnar and Jarvan IV in the summer regular season with seven and six games played, respectively. They are his most picked champions, and only Galio and Camille, picked three and one time each, also had 100 percent win rates for Fnatic.

Obviously, sOAZ can play other champions, but Fnatic relied a lot on the long range engage potential from these picks. Against Ninjas in Pyjamas late in the regular season, one of the biggest problems for Fnatic was the Rumble pick. In a composition with Cassiopeia, Elise, and Braum, Fnatic had no group engage tools. It’s important for Fnatic’s late game team fights and ability to control objectives to be able to force fights mid if necessary.

When Fnatic give up mid control to make a side lane play, it often must immediately group mid to force and regain overall map control. Without that option, Misfits properly picked Fnatic apart.

Fnatic didn’t change. Of all the team’s issues, this was the fundamental flaw. Fnatic looked better because it could get a lot out of top side pressure, having Broxah follow sOAZ’s lead, strong counter mid matchups, and the luxury of forcing fights if they extended too far in a side lane play.

Fnatic lost in semifinals because Misfits identified the problems and abused them by choosing a scaling jungler, making more conservative side lane trades, and forcing mid control when Fnatic lacked its preferred engage picks.

Fnatic can double down and look at why the problems occurred, but the team has already had several opportunities to fix them, and time might be too short for the existing laundry list. Having Broxah work against pressure in bot lane or spending more time keeping tabs on the enemy jungler with an advantage will suit Fnatic’s early focus. Rather than forcing in side lane or mid, Fnatic can use deeper wards they place from an advantage to balance pressure in multiple lanes at once until it’s time to contest an actual objective. Then, Rekkles’ Ashe needs to pull more weight in engages.

It’s salvageable. If Fnatic makes it past the regional gauntlet and qualifies for Worlds, it will have to take the month long boot camp as a life line.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games

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