How Fnatic Beat the Giants

I wrote yesterday about how even though Giants have not beaten any strong opponents, their 4-2 record could be an indication of a turnaround from last split’s miserable showing. At the very least, even if the Giants are worse than their record suggests, they have already set themselves up well for their first ever playoff run. Predictably, Fnatic then annihilated them in Giants’ most one-sided game of the season, taking advantage of a bizarre Giants role-swap and generally making the upstart Giants seem totally unprepared. But it is hard for me to care very much about analyzing the actual game, which was a stinker start to finish. Rather, what I found most fascinating was how Fnatic used their three bans to disrupt nearly everything that has made Giants successful this season. So without further ado, here is the ban-by-ban story of how Fnatic beat the Giants.

First ban – Jax

A Jax ban. Get used to it Giants; Jax may never be open for you again. Werlyb has been somewhere between acceptable and decent on other champions, but his Jax has been an out of this world carry. Twice this split teams have challenged Werlyb to beat them on Jax, and twice Jax has turned into an unstoppable killing machine. Especially with Huni a clear step above his Giants counterpart on every other champion, it is elementary for Fnatic to ban Jax away and let their star naturally win his matchup. The key here is that Fnatic is not afraid of any priority top lane picks. Not only is their top champion pool extremely varied, courtesy of the six-toplaner bans from many previous opponents, but they also are willing to challenge Giants to beat them with Hecarim or Gnar or Fizz or any other champion currently favored in competitive play. In a split that has so far been largely dictated by which of a dozen or so unbeatable champions are left open in the pick/ban phase, it is a refreshing change for Fnatic to give their opponent the pick of those champions and target their opponent’s actual strength. In this case, it resulted in an underwhelming Renekton for Giants, vindicating the Jax ban and ultimately contributing to a huge Fnatic advantage.

Second ban – Morgana

Another great target ban for Fnatic. Unlike Jax, Morgana is strong enough to generally be worthy of a ban, and her win rate in 12 games so far in EU is an outstanding 83%, with a 20% ban rate. The Giants themselves are responsible for four of those wins, with 0 losses. For Giants, Morgana is a crucial part of their ability to disengage after attempting plays. Time and again in their victories, Giants have tried a gank or a dive, and survived due to black shields and dark bindings while teammates push towers or secure other objectives. Further, LCS rookie G0DFRED has so far only had success on that champion, and it is a bit surprising how long it has taken LCS teams to attempt to take advantage of his champion pool and inexperience. The end result is that Fnatic once again prioritizes disrupting their opponent’s specific plans over keeping them off of the strongest overall champions, thereby limiting Giants’ ability to control the pace and flow of the game.

Third ban -Thresh

This ban is significant as much for who was not banned as for who was. Sure, Thresh would have filled the same hybrid engage/disengage function of Morgana in Giants’ team composition, and in the only game so far in which G0DFRED did not play Morgana, he played Thresh, meaning that Fnatic’s Thresh ban functions similarly to the previous ban of Morgana. However, just as crucial as the fact that Fnatic bans Thresh is the fact they leave Rek’Sai and Gragas open. Fnatic has yet to ban either of the top two junglers this split, even when their opponent challenges them by banning one. On the flip side, until Fnatic, Giants had only played a single game without both Gragas and Rek’Sai removed, and even in that game Rek’Sai was banned. Fnatic challenged Giants to abandon their recently favored Evelynn in order to play the top jungle matchup, something that had not happened in a single Giants game so far. Giants’ excellent play in tier-two jungle matchups was thus neutralized by Fnatic’s leaving open the first tier junglers. Once again, Fnatic’s ban disrupts Giants’ specific style and forces them out of their comfort zone. For a Giants team that has struggled a bit in teamfight coordination, but excelled in dictating the overall flow of the game with lane control and objectives, Fnatic’s bans are devastating. From the start, Giants are reacting to their opponent’s choices, not forcing their opponent to react to theirs.

Overall, reducing Fnatic-Giants to just three bans is a serious oversimplification. Fnatic is clearly a stronger organization and LoL team, and they would probably win a blind pick game just as easily. Who can say if Fnatic’s banning style would work against Giants if it was attempted by a weaker team? Leaving open so many top tier champions in favor of target bans can backfire terribly against a well-prepared opponent. In fact, it is hard for me to say if these bans would work as well if Fnatic themselves tried them again tomorrow. On the one hand, it is possible that Fnatic found and exploited the pathological weaknesses in Giants’ new style, permanently ending their Cinderella story. Then again, Giants have showed a resilience in their play this split that was previously lacking, and if they really are the contenders they have seemed so far, they will identify and eliminate their weaknesses going forward. Either way, Fnatic’s brilliant banning phase in this game demonstrates yet another reason why Fnatic is the premier western League of Legends team, and how far even promising teams like Giants have to go to catch them.

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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 – Fnatic

The Team

Fnatic’s roster underwent a total makeover this offseason in the wake of their runner-up finish in 2014 LCS Summer Split and disappointing group stage exit at the World Championship. Star midlaner xPeke and jungler Cyanide, the last remaining members of the Season 1 World Champion team, departed for a new team and retirement, respectively. Top laner SoAZ joined xPeke’s nascent Origen squad, and AD Carry Rekkles left for the disappointing new Elements superteam. The sole remaining player, support Yellowstar, scoured the Korean leagues and EU Challenger scene for replacement players who would fit his vision of a new, modern Fnatic. The result was this Spring Championship squad, a team characterized by early support roams and top lane focus. FNC will no doubt be considered an underdog at the MSI, but people have been underestimating this team all season, only to see them emerge at the top of the heap.

The Players

Top – Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon
Key Champions – Rumble Vladimir Lee Sin

Fnatic grabbed Huni, the spring “Rookie of the Split,” from the deep ranks of the Korean Samsung organization to man their vacant top lane spot. Huni responded by tying for the league lead in top laner kills while placing third at his position in deaths. Huni is never afraid to get into the fray for his team, and paired with jungler Reignover, Huni relentlessly carved a path through the enemy with his aoe mages and off-tanks. Unlike top laners from other regions, Huni made almost no effort to switch to a super tanky playstyle post-5.5, at most picking up Hecarim when available and a surprise Lee Sin in the EU semi-finals. Instead, he continued to play his front line mages, complementing a fearsome Rumble with a dangerous Vladimir. Huni’s most outstanding quality is his dynamic teamplay. Not only is he Fnatic’s most dangerous early skirmisher, Fnatic’s lategame teamfights look completely different when Huni is involved; while everyone else on the team has a set role, Huni bounces around between front and backline, drawing focus then leaving. His masterful orchestration often leaves enemy teams out of position and vulnerable, even when they actually manage to take Huni out.

Jungle – Kim “ReignOver” Yeu-jin
Key Champions – Rek’Sai Olaf Rengar

Like Huni, Reignover led all EU players at his position in kills, and, like Huni, was third in deaths, behind the junglers from the hapless CW and Giants Gaming squads. Another Korean import, Reignover teamed with his top lane countryman to form a powerful skirmishing duo; they combined for dozens of ganks and double roams during the season. Reignover is highly aggressive, yet it always seems calculated; his ganks have a high rate of success both because he correctly gauges where to go, but also because he has an intuitive feel for how much damage he and his teammates can output and tank. He also shows an outstanding ability to come at his opponents from surprising angles at all times in the game, especially on Rek’Sai and his signature Rengar. As the game goes on, Fnatic uses Reignover to initiate skirmishes and occupy the enemy while the rest of his team uses the space he creates to pick the opposing team apart. Reignover was extremely useful on his proprietary Olaf for this reason. Even though he died more often than he got kills, his ability to run unimpeded at the enemy made the situation extremely uncomfortable for his opponents, and the rest of his team capitalized on that discomfort. Lately Reignover has had some success on the tanky junglers of the post-5.5 landscape, but he still looks most comfortable on his favored carries.

Mid – Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten
Key Champions – Zed Leblanc Ahri

Febiven mixes in some Ahri, Kassadin, Twisted Fate and Cho’gath when his main assassins are banned or taken, but he is on an entirely different level with Zed and Leblanc. Part of the reason for this is that they are best suited for his farm and flank split pushing style, but even more important is that they are the most potent “safe” assassins. Febiven is best when he has the tools not only to get in but also out of fights. Even if he does not drop his full payload of damage right away, he is incredibly smart about how to distract and frighten the opponent into a mistake that he or his teammates can use. He is always willing to commit to a winning fight, but even more important is that he always gives himself a way out if the fight goes wrong, and he has the discipline to use that way out. It makes for a dangerous threat on his opponents’ flanks that can never be easily disposed. Overall, Febiven is not the most individually skilled player, nor does he have the deepest champion pool, but he meshes so well with his teammates that it rarely matters.

AD Carry – Pierre “Steeelback” Medjaldi
Key Champions – Everyone

Steeelback is the chameleon of Fnatic, playing whichever champions his team needs and safely doing damage from the back while his teammates make plays. He began the season playing the popular caster-type carries like Graves and Corki, and has lately branched to such varied choices as: hypercarries like Jinx, teamfighters like Sivir, midrange carries like Lucian, and even the occasional supersafe farming Ezreal. Steeelback often falls behind in lane, in part because of mediocre 2v2 laning but also because he is left alone by the roaming of his teammates. However he is prodigiously successful at safely doing damage in fights, as evidenced by his 95 spring split kills compared to only 27 deaths. While his more aggressive teammates are distracting the enemies, Steeelback acts as the fist in the glove, cleaning up the fights and staying alive to push towers.

Support – Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim
Key Champions – Thresh Nautilus Janna

YellOwStaR is Fnatic’s engine. Long before the rest of EU fully understood lane swaps and roaming supports, YellOwStaR was modernizing the European game. Initially on his powerful Annie, but lately on higher utility supports like Janna, Nautilus and especially Thresh, YellOwStaR is Fnatic’s chief playmaker. Not only is YellOwStar superb at using his champion’s skills perfectly in chaotic teamfights, he also is a tremendous in-fight decision-maker, masterfully conducting his teammates in and out of the battle. This is especially apparent on Thresh, as his teammates instantaneously make plays with the knowledge that they will be getting a perfectly timed lantern to escape. YellOwStaR’s glaring weakness is, like Steeelback, his mediocre 2v2 laning. Teams can set him back or at least draw Reignover’s help by setting up 2v2 lanes, and Fnatic often does not work hard enough to get early lane swaps.

Picks and Bans

During the regular season, Fnatic generally banned a mix of their opponents’ best champions, then picked for themselves champions that fit their own style. This seemingly straightforward pick/ban phase usually resulted in an aoe mage toplaner, a mobile carry jungler, an assassin mid, and a roaming support. In the playoffs however, the extent to which home preparation played a role in Fnatic’s pick/ban phase was readily evident; in both series they banned the same three or four champions every game, rather than adjusting to what their opponent showed them. They had a clear gameplan; they would limit their opponent’s access to strong champions like Maokai that they themselves did not play. In their early picks, they prioritized a favored support for YellOwStaR or extremely high overall priority champions like Sivir or Hecarim, leaving a late pick for Febiven to try to counterpick his lane. Fnatic’s picks were based on making sure each player had a strong champion on which he was comfortable, rather than going for a thematic team composition or trying to outpick their opponents. This is a perfect style for them, as their comparative lack of pick/ban creativity increases their ability to catch their opponents off-guard with creative play in the actual game.

Playstyle

Among European teams, Fnatic has the most modern approach to League of Legends, in that they consistently try to maximize their resources with smart rotational play instead of stagnant orthodoxy. As long as Fnatic’s mid and AD carry have a regular stream of lane gold, everyone else is flexibly arranged where they can have the greatest impact. While most teams who play this way early eventually settle into a more settled midgame style, Fnatic continues to roam and fight through the entire game. Though they are happy to simply take free towers or dragons when offered, Fnatic’s greatest strength is their ability to quickly collapse as a team on stragglers or poorly positioned champions.

Alone among MSI teams, Fnatic’s early game is a breath of fresh air. In an era of defensive river control and counterinvades, Fnatic often tries some goofball way to grab early initiative, whether by camping a lane brush, a 4-man tribush invade, or some other wonky tactic. They are not afraid to sneak a 3-buff start, and they have a deep understanding of their champions’ early game strengths and how to use them. Fnatic’s early game hijinks can backfire though, even if they do not give up kills, since spending so much time in the jungle can create strange strength imbalances compared to enemies who have spent that time in lane. However, it is extremely rare for Fnatic to be significantly behind in gold after the early phases of the game, and relatively common for them to be moderately ahead.

A common theme of Fnatic’s early midgame is Reignover and Huni making plays in lane together, either in the 1v1 top lane or by roaming to the duo lane. Fnatic works very hard to get a tower, often trading very early, which frees YellOwStaR to roam around the map while their mid and bot carries farm to relevance. Then, throughout the game, Fnatic works hard to create a weakness in their opponent’s setup, usually their top laner, and relentlessly pressure that weakness until their opponent cracks. On one hand, it can result into multiple teamfights that are essentially 4v5 because one champion is so far behind, but on the other hand, Fnatic is sometimes far too reckless in trading renewable resources like kills for less renewable resources like dragons and towers. As a result, Fnatic can struggle to close out games, having neither the dragons nor the map control to decisively strike at their opponent’s heart. They overly rely on auspicious fights and barons to win the game.

Player to Watch
YellOwStaR

Fnatic’s support will be under a lot of pressure this tournament, not only because of his relatively weak laning and his international counterparts’ great roaming, but also because as captain and shotcaller, he will have the responsibility of making sure Fnatic can initiate the complications that make them successful . Fnatic is likely to struggle if they cannot initiate and sustain their frenetic chaotic style from first blood until the nexus dies, and YellOwStaR is the key orchestrator of that style.

Key Number – 349

That’s Fnatic’s EU-leading kill total during the spring split, ahead of SK’s second-largest total by over 60. They managed that compared to only 231 deaths, meaning that FNC was consistently initiating and dominating teamfights and skirmishes. The flip side is that their 34 total dragons were ahead of only two teams — cellar-dwellars MYM and Giants Gaming — and that total was nearly doubled by SK. FNC was majorly reliant on initiating good teamfights in strange places to win the game, and it is unclear if they can adjust to a disciplined team that fights for objectives and vision control.

Outlook

It seems like Fnatic’s style should have been figured out long ago. They fight early and often, and they turn those fights into towers and barons. A smart team need only avoid those fights and keep FNC on track to hamstring them. It is thus a testament to how brilliantly Fnatic implements that style, with teamwork and preparation, that they could keep it up for a whole split and emerge victorious. So as much as it seems self-evident that Fnatic will run out of steam against the best in the world, FNC always manages to beat the odds, especially when the stakes are highest. Watch for Fnatic to catch unwary opponents off guard at the beginning of the tournament and then continue to surprise throughout the event, maybe even sneaking their way onto the podium by the end of it all.