MSI Preview – ahq e-Sports Club

The Team

2014 World Championship participant ahq had by far the strangest road to the MSI. For most of the season, they were the definition of mediocre; they won a total of one game against the top 3 Taiwanese League Master Series teams, and they won all but one game against the bottom 4. They then ran the gauntlet of those same top 3 teams in the playoffs, sweeping the second and third seeds and winning 3-1 in the final against yoe Flash Wolves, who had lost exactly one game all season to that point. Maybe it was the Cinderhulk changes; maybe it was adding Mountain to their jungle spot, moving Albis to support; or maybe they were just capable of turning it on at the right time. Whatever the case, there is no bigger wildcard in the MSI than ahq. The Wolves could easily have been considered a MSI contender if they had made it, and ahq dismantled them; could ahq take the whole thing?

The Players

Top – Chen “Ziv” Yi
Key Champions – Maokai Gnar

Ziv is capable of playing carry-oriented champions, showing strong play on Hecarim and Kennen in the LMS finals and even a respectable Vladimir in their lone loss to yoe FW. However ahq seems to function best when Ziv is on disruptive tanks, split pushing constantly and teleporting into fights to be a major nuisance. His solid, ego-free play has been an important part of ahq’s playoff resurgence, as it allows Westdoor and An to move freely and maximize their damage. Keep an eye especially on how Ziv navigates the early game, as he often remains relevant despite giving up significant farm to his teammates, but when he gets farm priority, he can dominate games.

Jungle – Xue “Mountain” Zhao-Hong
Key Champions – Sejuani Gragas Jarvan IV

Rek’Sai was by far the most contested jungler in the LMS this season through the playoffs, and Mountain showed some proficiency on that champion. However ahq looked best when they used the Rek’Sai priority against their opponents, forcing a high pick from their enemies and grabbing for themselves the less ostentatious Jarvan IV when Gragas or Sejuani was not available. Though Mountain showed some technical weaknesses in his game — missing smites, falling behind in farm and occasionally misusing his skills — he was incredibly disruptive in teamfights and his contributions to vision control were substantial. Although it took a little time for synergy to develop between Mountain and Westdoor, the mid lane ganks and double bot ganks between them were a powerful weapon in ahq’s arsenal. Mountain’s ability to be in the right place at the right time were a stark contrast to Albis’ strange jungle meanderings in the regular season, and though Mountain arguably has a lower individual skill level, his teamplay is much better.

Mid – Liu “Westdoor” Shu-Wei
Key Champions – Cho’Gath Karthus Twisted Fate Fizz Zed

Perhaps it seems a little strange to put five key champions for one player, but Westdoor warrants the aberration. Every game in the playoffs, Westdoor played one of those champions, and every single champion on the list drew at least one ban. Westdoor is the king of the Taiwanese midlane, known for his outstanding solo queue play, especially on TF and Fizz. Until last year’s World Championship appearance however, Westdoor languished in the professional scene on second tier teams, a situation which threatened to recur this regular season on ahq. Once his team started to play around him though, consistently putting him in position to carry, both he and ahq significantly stepped up their game. Westdoor is a superstar, a player that will take over the game if unchecked, and he is patient enough to wait for an opportunity if his enemies try to focus him. With the exception of a certain Korean midlaner, there may not be a more dangerous individual player at the MSI, even considering all the talent at the tournament.

AD Carry – Chou “An” Chun-An
Key Champions – Urgot Kalista Sivir

Does An have a twin brother who played for this team during the regular season? Where is the AD Carry who was constantly getting caught against the top teams or flashing offensively into ridiculous situations? The dubious flashes made a worrisome return in the LMS finals, but everything else about his game was spectacular in the playoffs. His laning was outstanding, his positioning superb, and mastery of his role was clearly evident in all aspects of the game. Gone was the disjointed and inconsistent play that characterized the regular season of both An and ahq, replaced with beautiful coordination that made An look like a potential Piglet to Westdoor’s Faker.

Support – Kang “Albis” Chia-Wei
Key Champions – Nautilus

Nautilus. The end. Whatever the thought process that led ahq to move Albis from jungle to support right before the playoffs, it clearly was not because they wanted him to stop playing jungle champions, since Albis happily picks Nautilus every time it is left open. He prioritizes Janna when he cannot get Nautilus, with fairly impressive results, and he played Kennen once in the LMS playoffs, but Nautilus is his bread and butter. The transition from jungle to support was a bit rocky in the beginning, but he has settled into the role very well, shining brightly in the vision game and in teamfights. Albis is an obvious candidate for MSI opponents to try to pressure into mistakes, either with bans or in-game focus fire, but so far his support play has shown few weaknesses.

Picks and Bans

For a high level team, ahq are surprisingly predictable in their pick and ban phase. Besides Westdoor and An, each player has a fairly small champion pool from which he chooses the best available champion to fit what the team needs. On blue side, like clockwork, ahq ban one of Gragas or Sejuani and first pick the other, and on purple side they almost invariably last pick Westdoor’s midlaner. What must be so maddening about playing this team though, is that there is just enough redundancy in their champion pool that they can always get a composition they want. Looming large over the whole process is that if their opponent does not account for Westdoor’s champions or An’s Urgot, it sometimes does not matter what the rest of the team picks. So far, the top LMS teams have looked extremely uncomfortable trying to counter ahq’s new style, especially with Westdoor’s safer mid lane play, but international teams will have more time to practice using ahq’s inflexible pick/ban phase against them.

Playstyle

This team morphed, seemingly overnight, into a team that plays League of Legends the “right” way. They have well-crafted team compositions, an extreme objective focus, solid vision control, and everyone on the team knows his role.

In the early game, ahq plays a flexible, reactive style. They ward the river but rarely go deeper unless their enemy invades them first. Part of the reason for this is that, as of the playoffs, their 2v2 lane always goes bot. They do not complicate their game, as they are confident either 2v2 or in the lane swap. Many teams will freeze the lane in a lane swap, since the theory goes that trading a stronger top laner for a tower will eventually result in losing objectives in a weaker midgame. Not ahq. They push push push and run to dragon at any chance they get. If their enemies give up dragons in exchange for tower pressure, ahq will gladly take the dragon and stall until they get five. If their enemies try to beat ahq to the dragon, ahq will ace them, then take the dragon anyway and a tower to boot. Even when ahq is behind in gold, they are extraordinarily good at manipulating their enemies into bad positioning and then winning the ensuing teamfights.

Ahq’s preferred team compositions are tanky and short-range, which makes sense considering their extreme focus on dragons. They push outer towers early and trade losing teamfights for inner turrets if they have to. Against damage-centric team compositions, most of the team acts as a beefy front line for An while Westdoor flanks, but against tankier compositions, ahq will often split push heavily and fight as a big group when they are together. Their vision control is a major focus, and their jungler works with their support to dominate this aspect of the game.

Player to Watch

Westdoor

This team has quite a few players to keep an eye on. Can Albis and Mountain continue to succeed in a new role and off the bench, respectively? Is An really as good as he looked in the playoffs? But the star of the team is Westdoor, and the MSI could be his coming-out party. In the LMS playoffs, not only did ahq look as good or better than they did at last year’s Worlds, but Westdoor himself looked unstoppable on all of his eclectic array of champions. If Westdoor plays to potential, this could be the time that western audiences finally add him to the pantheon of great midlaners. It seems likely that Westdoor is not quite ready to climb that Olympus, but it is also hard to put a limit on how good this ahq team could really be until we see it.

Key Number – 6

That’s the number of times ahq picked Sejuani or Gragas jungle in the LMS playoffs, compared to just once for ahq’s opponents. Both Sejuani and Gragas were banned in every single game that Mountain did not play one of them. Ahq figured out the tanky post-5.5 landscape faster than any of their domestic opponents; it remains to be seen whether they can keep it up against international competition that has been contesting these picks for weeks.

Outlook

Even if we could be sure that playoff-version ahq is the one that shows up to the MSI, there are still significant question marks surrounding this team. Though ahq made Worlds last season, Westdoor is the only remaining player from that squad, leaving them worryingly short of international experience. Another celebrated player from that Worlds team, support GreenTea, was unceremoniously benched immediately prior to the LMS playoffs, and the new jungler and support have significant questions about their versatility. That being said, ahq figured out how to play tanks and how to beat tanks faster than any of their domestic opponents, and their uncompromising focus on objectives presumably translates very well across international borders. Also, having one of the world’s best players at mid lane is a great place to start in any competition. It is easy to envision ahq turning back into a pumpkin against the best in the world, but especially if An keeps up his elite play, the glass slipper fits this team better than anyone else at the tournament.

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