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Ripping off the Band-Aid: examining Fnatic's adaptations

Fnatic has struggled mightily at the League of Legends World Championship
Photo courtesy of Riot Games

Fnatic has problems.

In its opening League of Legends World Championship group stage match against Gigabyte Marines, Fnatic was the victim of cheese, as GAM turned bad swapping into a seeming renaissance-worthy grand strategy, according to Reddit. Against Immortals, Fnatic struggled for 50 minutes until an unfortunate hero play from Martin “Rekkles” Larsson ended the game in the opposing team’s favor. The final game of the opening weekend, against Korea’s top seed Longzhu Gaming, spared Fnatic the mercy of such a long drawn-out and hope-ridden defeat, bringing the European squad’s first week to a brief and humiliating end.

Fnatic is now 0-3. Should this team graduate to the bracket stage, it would become the first team in worlds history to do so from such a deficit.

It’s not likely.

Although you’d be forgiven for leaping to unfortunate circumstances in at least two of the descriptions outlined above, the fact remains that Fnatic has displayed a repeated misunderstanding of its flaws resulting in the misapplication of strategy and draft in attempting to fix them. Fnatic is every bit the team that graduated from the European gauntlet — for better and for worse. That team was not on track to contend with the best on the international stage.

I’ve seen things

I already detailed the immediate things Fnatic could have done differently with regards to Gigabyte Marines’ swap.

I didn’t go past nine minutes. If I had, you’d have seen more instances of similar issues with Fnatic’s understanding of, for example, mid pressure and its importance. The Fnatic of the EU LCS made plays exclusively tunneled toward side lane — that is to say, instead of a typical team that would acquire mid priority and utilize it into a side lane play, Fnatic would simply converge on and pressure a side lane objective/opponent indiscriminately of the mid lane.

At 9:30 of that game, all of Fnatic sans Paul “sOAZ” Boyer’s Maokai converge on bot lane for a play on Tran Minh “Archie” Nhut’s Galio. Four members move for this play. Although mid was pushed in prior, Nguyen Vu “NoWay” Long’s Tristana almost immediately began clearing the wave down mid. Fnatic now had to make its play and defend mid. The situation was a favorable 4-v-4 owing to the lack of ADC on the side of Gigabyte Marines and Galio essentially not being a champion at this point. Despite being similarly behind, Maokai could have stayed mid to damage the wave under tower with his Sapling Toss and Arcane Smash until Fnatic could reply post-play with Rasmus “Caps” Winther’s Ryze using Realm Warp to take control.

Instead, Fnatic opted to have Maokai teleport for an unnecessary 5-v-4, needlessly ceding the mid Tier 1, a decision that would have huge ramifications on the rest of the game. The mid lane does not exist on Fnatic’s map.

Things you wouldn’t believe

Against Immortals, Fnatic’s composition had everything you would need to avoid its typical issues. Ryze/Twitch allocated a lot of free global control with Realm Warp and Ambush, while Fnatic would adopt a policy of 5-manning mid before setting up lanes. Cho’Gath would make baron control that little bit easier, adding a different dimension of threat to contests.

The composition itself relied exclusively on pick potential. With no real primary engage, both Cho’Gath and their relatively low-ranged carries weren’t in a position to teamfight properly. Immortals’ composition had enough disengage in their Gragas/Janna combo to make plays on the backline by Mads “Broxah” Brock-Pedersen’s Lee Sin, or whoever else would dare, useless.

Fnatic’s mid game lane setup was unintuitive but very Fnatic. As the top lane matchup of Cho’Gath vs. Lee “Flame” Ho-Jong’s Jayce became lopsided, Fnatic fell back almost entirely on the pressure provided by Ryze’s Realm Warp coming from the mid lane. Jayce hugged tower as Ryze vanished from view and Fnatic sought to keep full vision control of the bottom side of the map.

When Jayce moved to extend in his lane, Ryze and Lee would move to collapse and Jayce would either have to respect or find himself under grave threat. Cho’Gath would maintain baron threat with Feast, dissuading an outright Baron rush despite Fnatic’s smite moving to the opposite side of the map.

Immortals was unable to fully capitalize on its obscene advantage in this lane for a large part of the game as a result. During that time, Rekkles’ snowballing Twitch would transition top lane and work his way to larger and larger item spikes as the game progressed.

The problem: Fnatic’s game plan couldn’t extend beyond that. Lacking a way to outright match the range of Li Yu “Cody Sun” Sun’s Kog’Maw or dive it in team fights, Fnatic was stuck waiting for that over-extension by someone in their line of sight. So long as the Immortals players were patient, they could be confident the option to group and teamfight was primarily theirs. Other than just protecting their backline, Gragas/Janna also leant a large amount of control in which fights they wanted to take should Fnatic find an advantage through pick or otherwise.

Fnatic had created a composition that wouldn’t lose in the ways it had before. It had not created a composition that was optimised to win.

Lost in time

Samsung Galaxy attempted a similar composition utilizing the Ryze/Twitch combo against Royal Never Give Up. This time Samsung paired it with a far better engage composition that scaled with it — Lee “CuVee” Seong-jin’s Maokai, Kang “Ambition” Chan-yong’s Sejuani and Jo “CoreJJ” Yong-in’s Rakan. Already Samsung has far more options to dictate the game than Fnatic did. Pick setup was a lot easier. Far be it from Park “Ruler” Jae-hyuk’s Twitch finding a solo kill to open up on, or Lee “Crown” Min-ho’s Ryze looking to catch mostly a very singular person, anybody on Samsung’s team could assist them in catches and peel on sight. Team-fighting obviously became a lot more accessible too with an incredibly beefy front line brimming with peel.

Such scaling led to another issue entirely: RNG’s composition was far more punishing early-mid across the board than Immortals’ ever was. While Immortals had opted into high pressure lanes with a scaling jungler, RNG had a high mobility composition with a strong mid game spike and early laning phase relative to Samsung’s.

There was very little Samsung could do against the RNG snowball, unable to hit critical spikes necessary to finally match them in fights. The game was a short one.

Against Europe’s G2, RNG would give Twitch a go. Jian “Uzi” Zi-Hao’s Twitch was not paired with a Ryze from Li “Xiaohu” Yuan-Hao, though. G2 opted to rotate the Ryze for Luka “Perkz” Perkovic, perhaps as denial, and RNG opted for Jayce — an option that benefitted them in mid-late game side lane pressure. The composition was rounded out with elements of front line and easy catch that made Samsung’s version so formidable.

Immediately, RNG’s mid-game setup was more intuitive than Fnatic’s. Spending the entire game prioritizing river control, RNG enabled the duo of Twitch and Shi Sen “Ming” Ming’s Janna to apply map wide pressure while holding mid themselves. Pushing out the wave mid, they never extended further than the torches and retreated back into the jungle to collect camps before repeating their application of pressure. With adequate river control, RNG was able to maintain jungle vision priority, and every time Uzi’s Twitch vanished from the mid lane, G2’s side lanes had to be as respectful as Immortals’ Flame was before.

The immediate options the compositional change to hard engage/pick champions gave were evident the first time Jesper “Zven” Svenningsen’s Tristana extended too far. With Ki “Expect” Dae-han’s Gnar unable to pressure his lane too far up for fear of Ambush, Yan Jun “Letme” Ze was able to roam often around mid lane and look for easy picks with his Twisted Advance. Thrice would Tristana be victim to this, every overextension into enemy territory mid punished accordingly and the multiple disengage tools in both her and Alfonso “Mithy” Rodriguez’s Lulu proved useless.

Consider Fnatic’s composition in context. In grouped situations, all Cho’Gath could do was be kited and die. Any dive attempt, Lee or otherwise, had two immediate responses from Immortals in the form of Explosive Cask and Monsoon. Although both RNG and Samsung had the tools in their composition to force on error, Fnatic simply had to wait for an error so great that it was almost gifted to them.

It never came and, thinking he had finally found one almost out of desperation, the game came to a close on Rekkles’ misguided attempt at finding the opening his team so desperately needed.

Tears in the rain

In Fnatic’s final game, amid a downward spiral of a tournament for the legacy team, a critical decision early game at 11:15 to continue matching side lanes over swapping favorably for tempo and control was abused as only the very best can.

It is arguable that Fnatic should have always expected to lose to Longzhu. The fight for Group B was a fight for second place. Now Fnatic doesn’t have the luxury to think that way. Tying both Immortals and Gigabyte Marines won’t put Fnatic’s fate back in its own hands. Only a total three match sweep will earn Fnatic a place in the bracket stage without any help.

The Longzhu game was a disaster by all accounts. The Gigabyte Marines game was a disaster by all accounts. The Immortals game was the slowest possible death, but an inevitable death nonetheless.

The critical issue is that Fnatic’s biggest challenge hasn’t been the strategies of its opponents. The biggest challenge is the same one Fnatic faced throughout the European season. Should Fnatic, overcome itself, a monumental task in and of itself, then regardless of the final result, the players can hold their heads high.

They’ll have figured it out.

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