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 – SK Telecom T1

The Team

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The Players

Top – Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan
Key Champions – Hecarim Maokai Gnar

In 2013, SK Telecom formed two sister teams built around solo queue stars. One became Faker’s legendary SKT T1 K. The other was MaRin’s less celebrated SKT T1 S. While Faker has been much better in the competitive scene, MaRin’s individual skill is near the same level, and it has shown lately, especially on split pushing tanks. Though MaRin’s Maokai has been his best pick this season, he recently debuted a nearly unbeatable Hecarim which will almost certainly be permanently banned against him. MaRin excels at laning, so he spends almost all of every game in one sidelane or another, pushing and outdueling his enemy counterpart. Though his teleports have been occasionally shaky, when he successfully groups he is outstanding in his ability to initiate and draw focus fire as the point man for the SKT teamfight.

Jungle – Bae “bengi” Seong-ung
Key Champions – Rek’Sai Jarvan IV Sejuani

It appears that SKT will bring their maligned veteran jungler bengi to the MSI over their phenom rookie Tom. This makes good sense. At times, especially in the LCK Finals, Tom looked like he was about ten steps ahead of the opposing jungler, but other times he looked completely lost, and he brought SKT to the brink of elimination in the playoffs. Thus, SKT will instead start bengi, whom they hope has overcome whatever slump beset him for 2014 and much of this year so far. Bengi has a deep knowledge of jungle matchups and how to exploit them, and his early gank pressure is spectacular. However, as the game goes on, bengi can be prone to getting caught in awkward situations, and he sometimes seems like he is not in sync with his teammates during teamfights. That being said, his recent form looks unbeatable, as he was the catalyst behind SKT’s reverse sweep of CJ Entus in the LCK semifinals.

Mid –
Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-hoon
Key Champions – Cassiopeia Lulu Azir

Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok
Key Champions – Leblanc Lulu Everyone Else

Mortal midlaner Easyhoon showed his individual skill in the LCK finals, handily winning the Azir vs. Cassiopeia matchup twice with Cassiopeia and once with Azir. Before that series, Easyhoon was mostly known for his ability to safely farm the midlane on his small pool of supportive or hyperscaling champions. He would then play a primary role in SKT’s late game teamfights. Even when his team fell behind early, Easyhoon was often able through positioning and teamplay to help carry the team to victory. As the season went on, he had especially good synergy with Tom’s aggressive jungle play, supporting the rookie when he went on wild invades or aggressively initiated teamfights.

What more is there to say about Faker, the god of the midlane? It seems likely that based on the way SKT has played the season so far, they will use Easyhoon to substitute for Faker in matches throughout the tournament, and equally likely that everyone watching the tournament will be disappointed when they do. Faker’s best quality is his aggression and utter confidence in his solo plays. There is an aura of victory around him that only rarely has cracked, though notably this happened multiple times against fellow MSI midlaner PawN. As far as champion pool, Faker simply cannot be allowed to play Leblanc or Lulu this tournament; he has never lost with the former, and his team seems unstoppable when he plays the latter.

AD Carry – Bae “Bang” Jun-sik
Key Champions – Sivir Kalista Lucian

Overshadowed by the star power around him, Bang is another dangerous player on this SKT squad. Coupled with his bot lane partner Wolf, Bang consistently wins his lane in farm and pressure, though it is difficult to put that in perspective considering the exodus of bot lane talent from Korea to China. What is easy to see however, is that Bang’s positioning in teamfights is unquestionably excellent. He lets his teammates, especially Faker and MaRin, draw the focus and then aggressively enters and finishes the fight. He is best on mobile midgame carries, since his team asks him to be able to get in and out of fights quickly, rather than hard carry games by himself.

Support – Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan
Key Champions – Thresh Alistar

Wolf works brilliantly in concert with Bang, both in winning the lane and in teamfighting. Wolf is Bang’s personal bodyguard. Together they take control of the midgame with aggressive plays mixing Bang’s damage with Wolf’s crowd control. Wolf is also tremendously important to SKT’s midgame vision dominance, combining with the jungler to get a strangehold on the enemy territory in preparation for objectives. He is best on disruptive tanky supports; he showed a disturbing tendency to get caught and die on his less durable champions. Wolf’s comparatively small champion pool could be a problem for SKT, because they cannot bring Piccaboo to the MSI to substitute as they would during the Korean season. However, as long as he can overcome this potential issue, there are not many bot lanes who can match up with SKT’s in a 2v2.

Picks and Bans

Although Faker is renowned for his Leblanc, Lulu is at least an equally high priority champion for SKT. They never let her through bans on purple side and they invariably pick her first on blue side. Because SKT is so reliant on being able to pressure lanes, they also instantly ban any champion who is able to pressure them back, such as CJ’s Shyvana. This kind of adjustment makes SKT especially dangerous in series play. Every LCK match was a series this season, so SKT perfected their ability to adapt their pick/ban phase to fit their opponent’s strategies. SKT is also adept at outdrafting their opponent, aided in part by the vast champion pool of the best player in the world. Faker is impossible to ban out, and at any time he can bring out a pocket pick to deadly effect, such as his surprise Anivia earlier this season. Another place SKT often gets an advantage is in their selection of bot-lane champions. They pick high priority AD Carries like Sivir or Kalista early in the draft, but they like to save their support pick until later to get a favorable 2v2 matchup for tower pressure.

Playstyle

SKT’s greatest strength is their laning phase, especially their solo laners. To highlight this strength, SKT plays a rigid style, in which they spend most of the early and midgame matching their opponents’ laning setup. This has the dual purpose of allowing their excellent laners to shine and also shutting down a lot of rotational play from their enemies. An enemy that sends three or four-man roams to side lanes has no guarantee of actually coming out ahead and risks falling behind in the other two lanes. As a result, much of the action in SKT’s games happens in the river and in the jungle. Because they usually have such a solid grip on the lanes and draft such highly mobile champions, they spend a lot of effort collapsing on enemies or fighting them in transition. The pressure they create in lane allows their jungler to farm or initiate plays. The flip side is that they struggle if the jungler falls behind or if they lose control of their own jungle, since SKT consistently looks uncomfortable in siege situations or fighting in lane.

SKT plays the typical river-control level one, then usually sends their top laner to a solo lane after perhaps a few jungle camps. In a lane swap, SKT is completely comfortable sending the support to duo lane with the top laner instead of the AD Carry; the point is to match lanes and give the jungler space to farm or make plays. Occasionally, overaggression coupled with a lack of early and midgame wards can lead to silly deaths in lane to ganks, but because the whole team commits to that aggression, an enemy gank in one lane can turn up the pressure in others. When the enemy ganks do not work, it almost always opens up the map for the SKT jungler to respond with ganks or counterjungling, especially because SKT’s laners are so deadly in small skirmishes. For this reason, sometimes the enemy team has a pocket strategy to try and shut down SKT’s jungler instead of their laners. If this works it can be worse for SKT than if they shut down a laner, because of SKT’s reliance on jungle control.

SKT’s early midgame vision is surprisingly mediocre; they spend all their money pushing their lanes and rely instead on smart play and communication to keep safe. However at about ten minutes into the game, as they prepare to take the dragon or towers, SKT suddenly adds a burst of wards to the enemy jungle, pink warding their own jungle defensively. This defensive pink warding is a hallmark of SKT’s style. It forces passiveness from their opponents by limiting enemies’ ability to track SKT’s movements by warding SKT’s jungle instead of their own. If SKT makes it to this part of the game with any sort of lead, they are incredibly difficult to slow down. Their continued lane pressure leads to towers and dragons, and their offensive warding allows them to safely push or collapse on favorable team fights. SKT’s teamfights are also distinctive; they usually have MaRin disrupting the back line while the midlaner chooses either to fight with the other four members and draw focus from the AD Carry or to dive with MaRin. The enemy is faced with an impossible choice — they can try to kill the best player in the world or take out the other carries that are shredding them apart. Additionally, SKT’s players, especially MaRin, have an almost preternatural ability to know exactly how much punishment they can take before they have to get out of fights, leaving the enemy softened up and out of position with nothing to show for it.

SKT lacks a decisive move to close out the game, especially because their preferred solo lane champions do not usually excel at sieging. Rather, SKT will have someone in every lane almost the entire game, keeping waves pushing to cement their vision dominance or to rotate opportunistically to inner turrets. Their lane control is immaculate; they rarely even try to fight until all waves are pushing in their favor. CJ Entus notably had success against this strategy in the LCK semifinals by picking powerful champions that could keep the lanes pushed in their own favor, which stagnated SKT on their own side of the map. However, even then it is difficult to finish SKT off, given their excellent defensive warding and teamfighting skills. The key to beating SKT is to use their rigidity against them, either pushing the lanes or controlling the jungle, since SKT is not spectacular at mapwide rotations, but their individual players’ skill makes it both difficult and risky to try this.

Player to Watch
Faker

I’m not going to get cute here and say to follow Easyhoon’s story or MaRin’s exciting play. Faker is the reason you are going to watch, and rightfully so. It has been over two years since Faker’s ascension, and over a year since his unstoppable rampage through the Korean Champions League and then Worlds. Since then, Faker’s international hegemony has been tested only briefly, when he rose to the occasion at last year’s midseason All-Star event. Will we see him continue to dominate as the best player in the world or could he finally be dethroned?

Key Number – 11

That is the number of times this season, out of 41 total games, that SKT T1 ran their presumptive MSI regular lineup of MaRin, bengi, Faker, Bang and Wolf. Substitute mid lane player Easyhoon only played seven games with the other four players on that list, meaning that in every game, SKT will play a lineup that started fewer than half their games. SKT is a team noted for their willingness to switch up their players within a series, trying to find combinations that work in specific matchups or simply to ride the hot hand to victory. Opposing teams will have more difficulty in scouting them for this reason, but SKT themselves will have to adjust to the loss of flexibility, and they must make sure their synergy is at a high level with a smaller roster.

Outlook

It is tempting, as western fans, to think of SKT T1 as “Faker’s team,” the elite mechanical Korean stars. Hiding behind this flawed narrative is the fact that SKT consistently shows an extremely well-crafted gameplan and a teamwide commitment to disciplined execution. The very fact that they almost invariably perform with each of a half dozen different lineups in arguably the strongest league in the world speaks to that discipline and teamplay. Whatever their weaknesses, this team is almost impossible to overestimate; it has star power, teamwork, and the most storied organization in eSports history at their backs. Anything less than a MSI championship is an upset and likely a disappointment for this team.