The Dragons of the MSI – A Short Recap

I had a narrative in mind when I started researching this piece. Having been away last weekend, I only caught bits and pieces of the Mid Season Invitational, and my main source of MSI information was the reddit recaps. Looking at the statistics, the thing that stood out to me throughout the tournament, day 1 through finals, was how incredibly sloppy the games were. Games averaged nearly a kill per minute, with the winning teams averaging a whopping 14 more kills than their opponents. The game lengths tell the same story; only three games in the entire tournament lasted 40 minutes, of which only one playoff game lasted that long. Even with the close playoff series between SKT and Fnatic, then between SKT and EDG, most individual games in those series were stomps — none of those games lasted into the 39th minute. Then there’s the story of the dragons. This is the story I went looking for through the MSI statistics, and the results are fascinating, if inconclusive. For much of the tournament, teams seemed to congregate around dragon and fight to the death, leaving subtlety and caution to the wind. The result is a tournament full of kills and dragons, with none of the finesse we have come to expect from the highest level of teams.

Yet overall, it is difficult to draw conclusions from the numbers I gathered. For one thing, the samples are incredibly small. One or two outlier games can ruin the analytic value of the data. More importantly, though, is that the data itself is inconclusive. On day 1, teams went for dragons at a much lower rate than they did in their regional playoffs — is that because the teams won so easily that they did not need to fight at dragons, or simply because they were risk-averse on the first day against new opponents? On the second day, dragons were killed at an incredibly high rate — were teams acing their opponents and taking a quick dragon, or did they just take advantage of unprepared enemies to sneak it quickly? At first I planned to take the data I gathered and try to tell the story of the tournament as I saw it, but it is clear to me that doing that would be disingenuous. There are simply too many possible explanations and variables to account for. Instead, I will present the data as I found it, and apart from a bit of editorializing, leave it to the reader to decide what it means.

Day 1: Off to a slow start

Average Game Time: 32:23
Average Number of Kills: 29.2
Average Number of Dragons: 3.43
Average Time Dragon is Alive: 2:43

Day 2: Fast and Loose

Average Game Time: 31:30
Average Number of Kills: 34.7
Average Number of Dragons: 3.86
Average Time Dragon is Alive: 1:31

Day 3: The Spirited Semis

Average Game Time: 35:36
Average Number of Kills: 33.5
Average Number of Dragons: 4.38
Average Time Dragon is Alive: 1:34

Day 4: Fighting in the Finals

Average Game Time: 35:33
Average Number of Kills: 34
Average Number of Dragons: 4
Average Time Dragon is Alive: 2:16

The first day involved fewer kills and fewer dragons than any other days, suggesting a tentativeness to open the tournament. Then in the middle of the tournament, teams were getting kills at incredible rates, and fighting for dragon almost instantly. Finally, as the dust settled in the finals, the kills stayed high but the dragons went back to a more reasonable rate of capture. The evolution of the tournament is interesting, since most of these teams won their regional playoffs based on a much less bloodthirsty style. Disciplined objective-based teams were abandoning the slower style to fight repeatedly at dragon. For reference:

SKT in LCK Playoffs

Average Game Time: 40:26
Average Number of Kills: 27.3
Average Number of Dragons: 4.88
Average Time Dragon is Alive: 1:47

More than any other team, SKT was willing to slow the game down and play for objectives. Even in much longer games, SKT’s LCK playoff games averaged fewer kills than the MSI games to go along with an elevated dragon rate. Where was that opportunistic, objective-based team in the finals?

EDG in LPL Playoffs

Average Game Time: 32:48
Average Number of Kills: 24.8
Average Number of Dragons: 3.85
Average Time Dragon is Alive: 2:07

Despite their kill-happy reputation, EDG averaged quite a low rate of kills in the LPL playoffs. Perhaps the EDG reputation stems more from their insanely fast games; before the MSI, EDG had not played a 40 minute game since the last week of the LPL regular season.

FNC in EULCS Playoffs

Average Game Time: 33:51
Average Number of Kills: 26.9
Average Number of Dragons: 3.9
Average Time Dragon is Alive: 2:19

Again, a famously bloodthirsty team with significantly lower rates of kills and dragons than most of the MSI.

Ahq in LMS Playoffs

Average Game Time: 40:56
Average Number of Kills: 36.9
Average Number of Dragons: 5.2
Average Time Dragon is Alive: 1:23

Finally a team that starts to reach MSI rates of kills and dragons. The glaring difference is that ahq averaged nearly 41 minutes per game in ten LMS playoff games. Quick dragons become more relevant as the game goes longer since the threat of fifth dragon is stronger. Ahq’s regional performance indicates a team that is going for a fifth dragon over a team that simply groups to fight at dragon.

The MSI featured a style of play that was nothing like the style any of the involved teams had played before. Contrary to the controlled, disciplined style that got these teams to the tournament, they played hectically and dangerously. There are any number of explanations for this — teams had jetlag, they were showing off for the fans, lack of time for preparation, unfamiliar opponents — but the end result was a bit of a mess. It is not to say the MSI was not entertaining, but it was definitely not good League of Legends.

Appendix I: Scatterplots

Tough to get a read on what the data means, but I thought I would be remiss in not giving some picture of the numbers I wrote out so meticulously above. For the following scatterplots, red is regional playoff performance, and blue is the different days of the MSI, plus the MSI average.

image (2) image (3)

Appendix II: My data

I do not pretend to have all the answers of what my data means, so I thought I would make it available to whomever wants it. It includes not only the data above, but also more granular statistics about kills and dragons taken in specific games. Of particular interest to me was how frequently the losing team at the MSI had 0 dragons, suggesting a heavily snowballing game. As a contrast, there was only one game in the entire data set in which the winning team had 0 dragons.

MSI Preview – Edward Gaming

The Team

Chinese powerhouse Edward Gaming burst onto the scene in Spring 2014, winning two LoL Pro League splits and qualifying for the 2014 World Championship as the top Chinese seed. They made a splash following their slightly disappointing quarterfinals exit at Worlds by signing Korean stars Deft and PawN to play their AD Carry and mid lane role, respectively. With their ringers in place, they once again dominated the LPL this spring, losing only six maps all season compared to 38 wins. They won the playoffs as well, but this time in somewhat less than dominating fashion, losing four maps against 9 wins, including two losses in a 5 game series against IEM darling WE, the eighth seed. At their best, EDG was the clear best team in arguably the best league in the world, making them slam-dunk MSI contenders. It remains to be seen if their slightly diminished recent form and questions about their mid lane situation will put a damper on their MSI hopes.

The Players

Top – Tong “Koro1” Yang
Key Champions – Gnar Maokai Hecarim

Koro1 was famously undefeated on Gnar until the spring finals against LGD, as that champion and Maokai are his signature picks. Both of these champions fit EDG’s heavy early and midgame roaming style, providing lane presence, tankiness, crowd control and initiation. Koro1 also added a frightening Hecarim to his repertoire late in the season, although more frequently EDG simply banned that champion so Koro1 could play one of his main tanks. Koro1, like the rest of EDG, is an outstanding roamer, often spending more time in the early game out of lane than in it. His laning on his main champions is unimpeachable, although he has shown some shakiness on more carry-oriented champions such as the Rumble he played in the LPL finals. Where koro1 shines most is in teamfights, as he always finds way to initiate victories and disrupt the enemy. As a result, he is always looking to group with his team or teleport into winning situations.

Jungle – Ming “ClearLove” Kai
Key Champions – Nunu Sejuani Rek’Sai

Legendary Chinese jungler ClearLove is one of the two remaining starters, along with Koro1, of the 2014 Worlds EDG team. Ironically, the jungler is perhaps the player on EDG who likes roaming the least, as ClearLove was known for his farming style for much of his earlier career. However, he has reinvented himself on this EDG team as a strong supportive tank player, especially his signature Nunu, which he played frequently even before 5.5. ClearLove has unbelievable synergy with every single member of his team; he is the clockmaker who fits all the EDG cogs and gears together. Opposing teams will likely try to throw everything they have at him, hoping to make his game unravel, but with the elite teamplay of EDG surrounding him, it is a difficult proposition. ClearLove does have one potential weakness, in that he was very slow to pick up jungle Gragas, preferring Sejuani and Nunu. Unless he remedies this by MSI, EDG will have to account for this in their pick/ban phase.

Mid – ??????? “???????” ?????????
Key Champions – ????????

Author’s note: I’ve been told by a source I trust that the team’s weibo has EDG’s substitute jungler coming to MSI instead of U. This means PawN is the definite starter. That being said, the questions about PawN’s attendance have turned into questions about his health.

Superstar Korean mid player Heo “PawN” Won-seok has been gaining helium for nearly a year as perhaps the best midlaner in the world, with a convincing résumé to his name. Known for his Jayce play in Season 4, PawN now has a vast array of bannable champions, especially Kassadin, Leblanc, and Twisted Fate. No matter the champion he plays incredibly aggressively in lane, even in very silly situations, such as against the lane swap with multiple enemies off the map. He tempts his enemies; If they fail to allocate resources to stopping him, his individual strength will win almost every matchup. Though perhaps it would behoove him to be a bit more cautious, his team almost invariably recoups some of the cost of his occasional deaths with objectives and farm. In the late game, PawN shines at getting in and out of fights with excellent use of mobility skills, pairing with his AD Carry to surgically remove priority champions.

Stalwart Chinese midlaner Ceng “U” Long was the starting midlaner for EDG’s 2014 Worlds squad, and unlike PawN, his play tends toward the passive. He was outstanding on Orianna in the World Championship tournament and had mixed results on everything else. PawN’s mysterious spat of recent injuries led EDG to start U at midlane this April for his first playing time in 2015. U responded with a mixed performance on supportive midlaners during EDG’s flirtation with disaster in the first round of the playoffs against WE, including a disastrous 0-2-0 Galio pick. Even accounting for the skill disparity between PawN and U, EDG was clearly missing some of their classic flavor without PawN’s aggressive playmaking. Although it seems likely that PawN will play at the MSI, his health is the biggest question mark in the tournament.

AD Carry – Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu
Key Champions – Jinx Urgot Sivir

Before a disappointing 2014 Worlds performance with Samsung Blue, Deft was popularly considered to be the best AD Carry in the world. He is doing his best to retake that mantle with an unbelievable 2015 performance on his new Chinese squad. Deft is a good, not great, lane player, but like the rest of his team, he is totally dominant in team fights. Deft plays like there is some sort of gentlemen’s agreement with his opponent not to target the AD Carry, positioning forward and flashing aggressively. No matter the champion, Deft always wants to be in the fray fighting. Incredibly, it almost always works, as his team repays Deft’s trust in their ability to keep him safe by immediately engaging on anyone who tries to kill him. Deft’s Jinx is particularly alarming when EDG goes for a turret pushing strategy, but his shorter range engage-focused champions are scary as well, since he can quarterback the fights from close-up. Deft can be overcome with solid laning play, or punished by limiting his in-fight mobility with great space control, but in straight-up teamfights there is almost no way to defeat him; his teammates play linemen and all Deft needs to do is split the gaps.

Support – Tian “Meiko” Ye
Key Champions – Annie

Though he is an LPL rookie, Meiko’s Annie is so feared that even on a team that includes PawN and Deft, Meiko’s Annie is among the most banned champions against EDG. He has added a very solid Janna and Nautilus to his champion pool for when Annie is not available, but if Annie is left open, Meiko will almost invariably play her to great effect. When not on Annie, Meiko is solid but not very flashy; he participates in many roams and peels for Deft in teamfights. However, one of the most important parts of being a good support is rarely getting caught while maintaining good vision of the enemy jungle, a skill at which Meiko excels.

Picks and Bans

EDG’s pick/ban phase reflects their overall team style; it is impossible to deal with every player on their team, and they focus on punishing their opponents’ weaknesses. Every player on the team has at least one signature champion, meaning that they automatically get at least one priority pick every game. Additionally, they are usually comfortable banning out their opponents’ strong champions, rather than trying to eliminate top overall picks, since EDG is still able to get multiple champions they want, even if their enemy bans some of them. As a result, the EDG pick/ban phase has a very free-form feel, with both teams in the game frequently getting multiple high value champions — EDG prefer to maintain their own flexibility over limiting their enemies’. However, EDG’s pick/ban phase in the playoffs has shown an surprising issue. PawN, for all his skill, does not play a single strong blue-side champion. He prefers high-mobility assassins and midgame carries rather than the few available all-around picks, but this leaves him vulnerable to getting counterpicked. Coupled with PawN’s naturally aggressive play, this makes him somewhat vulnerable to getting shut down by a concerted effort from his opponent, as occurred in game 5 of the LPL finals against LGD.

Playstyle

EDG’s entire game is predicated on pressuring their opponent into errors and then punishing those errors as a team. They are always moving together, and they are so decisive when they decide to push an objective or roam as a team that they can take towers or dragons sometimes before their opponent has any time to react. Frequently, EDG will be down in kills or seem behind in lane, yet still be up in gold or objectives because of their decisiveness; their time is spent extremely efficiently at all points in the game.

Like most teams at this tournament, EDG rarely tries all-out invasions in the early game, instead going for river vision and counterinvades. However, unlike most teams at this tournament, EDG’s early laning play can look very shaky. Besides PawN, no one on this team is an extraordinary laner, so teams can try to capitalize on PawN’s aggression to get kills mid lane while giving up little elsewhere. Worryingly, EDG also looked somewhat vulnerable in the laneswap against LGD in the LPL finals. LGD’s solid rotations and EDG’s surprising sluggishness in pressuring objectives left EDG behind at the beginning of nearly every game. This is especially a problem because EDG is reliant on lane swaps at times to free up their support and toplaner for their characteristic roams.

EDG’s style in closing out games is exciting but double-edged. They are almost never alone, and their team works together for roaming and vision, meaning it is nearly impossible to pick off anyone on their team. Being together all the time in the late game also means that they can punish positioning errors and initiate fights almost instantly, and when they get a grip on the game, they close it out like a vice, leaving no opening for comebacks. However, playing offensively at all points in the game has its drawbacks; their defense is substandard, especially their defensive warding. I suspect that EDG’s sightstones stop working in their own jungle, because they never seem to ward it, and furthermore they play in the enemy’s jungle as if that’s not warded either. In fairness, defensively warding is not as necessary when their team is usually together, and against multiple sweepers the wards disappear quickly anyway. Still, when they fall behind they do not have much of a plan to get back into the game except turtle and wait for their opponent to falter, especially if PawN is playing an assassin over a waveclearing laner. Compounding this issue is their lack of objective focus; they much prefer to force fights in the jungle and around neutral objectives than to actually get those objectives in the first place. Even when they were ahead by almost every measure, they allowed themselves to fall behind in dragons during the playoffs too frequently, and frequently they got caught in sloppy dragon fights. Overall, their teamwide discipline in working together is borderline superhuman, but at times it feels like they do not have much of a plan to actually win the game except to roam together and hope their opponent does not defend accurately.

Player to Watch
Deft

PawN might be the player to not watch at the tournament if his health keeps him away, but even if PawN plays, Deft’s story is very compelling. Not only will Deft have to improve upon his disappointing 2014 World Championship to show he is a world-class AD Carry, EDG will have to show that their playstyle will actually work. Deft, for all his early game passiveness, plays incredibly far forward in teamfights and counts on his team to keep him safe. Will it work as well against the best in the world as it does in China?

Key Number – 15

That’s the points differential between EDG and second place Snake in the LPL regular season standings, the same as the difference between second and seventh place. EDG was so far in front of the rest of the league that no other teams had any chance of catching them, and thus had no real incentive to show EDG their most powerful picks and strategies. Similarly, EDG had the option of saving their best picks for the playoffs, but also did not get the opportunity to test them at the highest level. This team is incredibly strong, but as their playoff performance shows, they are not totally infallible, and their domestic dominance could conceivably work against them.

Outlook

Even with the strong competition at the MSI, anything less than a finals appearance for EDward Gaming will be considered a disappointment, and even that may leave a bad taste in their mouth if they do not win it all. After Chinese bottom-feeder WE made it to the IEM World Championship finals in March, the entire LPL took a step forward in the world’s estimation, perhaps even placing above the mighty Koreans. EDG dominated the LPL almost to the same degree that Beşiktaş dominated the third-rate Turkish League, meaning that EDG has a legitimate claim to the title of best team in the world. Once they get rolling, they are almost impossible to stop, but there are legitimate concerns arising about the holes in their game. If EDG can force their opponents to play the chaotic style they prefer, EDG will beat any team in the world, but it remains to be seen whether EDG’s aggressive style of map-wide roaming will consistently succeed against a disciplined, objective-focused team.