Kelsey Moser: The snake and the Charmer in H2K Gaming vs. Unicorns of Love

H2K overcame its demons in beating Unicorns of Love on Saturday
H2K advanced to the finals of the EU LCS regional gauntlet. Photo courtesy of Riot Games.

I’ve seldom seen a more disastrous five minutes for one team in a best-of-five series.

First, H2K Gaming failed to react properly to a Level 1 invade on its own strong side of the map that it should have been able to punish. When Zdravets “Hylissang” Iliev Galabov roamed mid lane to force out Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten’s Flash, he initially put his own mid laner behind. Fabian “Exileh” Schubert had to split experience with Hylissang at Level 1, ensuring Febiven would get an experience advantage and Level 2 first, so he punished the lead. A failure to side step Cassiopeia’s Noxious Blast, however, resulted in Febiven giving up a death for free.

After that, Andrei “Odoamne” Pascu didn’t take a proper back timer, and when Kiss “Vizicsacsi” Tamas shoved back, he could return to base, Teleport, and pressure with a Glacial Shroud to Odoamne’s Doran’s Blade. Meanwhile, in the bottom lane, a poor dive and several missed abilities resulted in more early kills for Unicorns.

Given H2K’s history of a poor mentality, few expected recovery after a Game 1 loss to cheese and a mid lane misplay. But core to H2K’s comeback was an identification of where its strengths lie and drafts that emphasized them.

H2K chose Sivir in three of five games and paired her with Braum in two of them. In past series, H2K’s bottom lane has fallen short of the opposing 2-v-2, but with Sivir, the Spell Shield prevents dives. Braum also deters dives so  the enemy team cannot make a play around the bottom side of the map. Instead, if Unicorns of Love got a bottom lane lead, they had to send their support roaming mid. That put Unicorns in a position where they had to try to snowball their weakest player, Exileh.

On top of that, Unicorns of Love rarely drafted a jungler who worked well in strong 2-v-2s on top side. The Kayn pick in Game 1 practically ensured UoL would lose top side 2-v-2s, which made the cheese invade particularly risky. Yet, when it paid off, H2K was forced into a position where it had to play to bot. In Game 2, the Rumble jungle pick meant Jankos had more time to farm camps as Sejuani on top side before securing the Scuttle Crab.

Of course, many will point out Cassiopeia had a 100 percent win rate in the full series. It’s important to note, however, how bottom lane played when mid lane had Cassiopeia. In four of the five games, the team with Cassiopeia went for a play-making support, and in Game 5, H2K managed to punish Thresh early.

The key to shutting down Cassiopeia, because she is short range and often gets push early due to her strong Level 2, is to pressure her with side lanes and jungle before she buys Catalyst. Rakan is an easy pick with which to manage that, which is why she was picked with Rakan in two of the three games in which Rakan was chosen.

In the one game where Cassiopeia and Rakan were on opposite teams, Game 4 of the series, Jankos pressured top side too much after initially pathing toward bottom. Even so, H2K’s bottom lane got an early lead, and Rakan roamed mid early for a kill onto Cassiopeia. H2K failed to pressure bottom lane enough to repeat this advantage, however, and Febiven using his advantage to make a play top cost H2K some control in mid and bottom, giving an opening for UoL’s scaling Cassiopeia and Tristana combination.

Without getting a bottom lane lead, H2K didn’t have good tools for punishing a Cassiopeia pick, and even if UoL got a bottom lead when they didn’t pick Cassiopeia, Exileh didn’t seem as comfortable abusing any advantage he gained on a champion that is — frankly — less absurdly powerful. This interaction, coupled with both teams’ tendency to take open fights in mid lane, made Cassiopeia unbeatable in all five games.

Both teams, sometimes, have difficulty balancing pressure. In Game 3, for example, H2K tried to push all the way to the second tier turret on bottom side without having strong pressure in mid or top lane, had to over-invest, and lost tempo. In Game 2, Samuel “Samux” Fernández Fort tried to push out top waves, but without wards in the enemy blue buff, couldn’t generate consistent enough top side pressure, and H2K eventually just forced mid on UoL with their AD carry in side lane.

Throughout the regular season, Unicorns of Love took advantage of H2K’s tendency to overreach. H2K will look for objectives in multiple lanes at once with an advantage, but because they understand the strength of the mid lane, mid will always be one of them. Unicorns could simply group and force on H2K in response, overwhelming them, taking Baron, and closing the game.

With a pick like Sivir, H2K came with the collapse advantage on mid lane. Xayah and Sivir both have mechanics for disengaging on their ultimates when the enemy tries to force, and with mid picks like Cassiopeia and Syndra, H2K cannot spread themselves too far. At most, they can set up a 1-4 scenario, meaning that, as long as Jarvan IV is banned, Cassiopeia should have more free reign in open mid lane fights.

If fights extended to the jungle, she had even more ability to use terrain and a Sivir ultimate re-position herself and output more sustained damage than an opposing mid laner. Syndra, the other popular mid lane choice, wouldn’t necessarily work well to eliminate the opposing AD carry if H2K brought out Sivir and Braum to block her single target ultimate either.

By taking the Sivir AD carry pick, H2K succeeded in increasing the importance of mid and top side. Given the lackluster performances by Sin “Nuclear” Jeong-hyeon and Choi “Chei” Sunho and the fact that UoL didn’t prioritize top and mid matchups, making the matchup more about mid and top worked in H2K’s favor.

Against Fnatic, these picks should be more contested. Fnatic have valued both Sivir and Xayah, and getting top ahead presents a narrow window for H2K. Stylistically, H2K’s emphasis on mid lane control makes it favored against Fnatic. It may even have won the third place match had Jankos not gone for Kayn in the final game and demonstrated a complete and utter misunderstanding of how to play the champion, only playing to bot and counter-jungling a single Krugs camp the entire match.

If H2K can topple its year-long bane in a Game 5 of the second to last match of a tournament (also known as a semifinal), it has chipped away at whatever mental hangup existed in the past. It’s hard not to feel like the final set of the EU LCS regional qualifier will be the closest and most exciting match of Europe’s domestic year.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games

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