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Monday Morning Mid-Laner: XD.GG’s Xmithie

  One of the more understated but nonetheless impressive stories of the Season 3 LCS in North America was the somewhat unnoticed rise of XD.GG (formerly known as Vulcun) through the ranks.  While their debut in the Spring split was largely underwhelming and they spent most of it clawing their way up the bottom four, the Spring regional tournament was where XD.GG demanded the world stand up and take notice.

The dominance that got them 3rd at regionals continued into the Spring split, and XD.GG made it clear that they were just as much the team to be feared as Cloud9 was, managing to be the only team to break even with the NA regional champions during the Summer split.  Despite a struggle to acquire an enormous fanbase on the level of CLG or Solomid, XD.GG nonetheless made it to the World championships alongside C9 and TSM.

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And no team achieves greatness if not on the back of a great jungler.  Of all the junglers in the North American scene, Jake “Xmithie” Puchero seems to be the one who has been sitting up and paying attention the most to what the junglers in Korea have been doing.  Xmithie has quickly come to embody the brutal efficiency of rotation perfection, making XD.GG perhaps the team in North America with the best control over the map in the early game.  Xmithie shows up where he needs to be, makes a play, and then smoothly guides the rest of his team to an objective.

Of course, he’s had plenty of time to build that synergy with some members of the team.  Xmithe and his mid-laner Mancloud have long made up the backbone of the team that would eventually become known as XD.GG through all of its many incarnations: APictureofaGoose, MTW.NA, Monomaniac Ferus, FeaR, Vulcun, and now XD.GG, all of them were formed around the core of Mancloud and Xmithie, and that long history puts them on the level of Team SoloMid when it comes to long term synergy.

All along the way, Xmithie’s champion pool has been evolving.  Of particular note in recent days is his Lee Sin, which one might now call “award winning,” as Xmithie recently won Leaguepedia’s “Best Lee Sin NA” tournament, a 1v1 duelling tournament highlighting mirror matches on Lee Sin amongst top players.  That excellence with Lee Sin speaks to a high level of mechanical competence, as Lee Sin is a very difficult champion to play at a competitive level without a supreme amount of mechanical prowess and positioning skill.

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Unfortunately, XD.GG’s showing at Worlds was disappointing, owing largely due to a lack of ability to close out games despite almost always coming out ahead in the early game.  After taking an impressive victory against Fnatic early on the tournament, they fell by the wayside, failing to make it out of groups.  Despite that, XD.GG showed in their games against Ozone and Fnatic that they’re capable of competing on the world stage with just a little more fine tuning.

And they’ll have an opportunity to do that soon.  XD.GG’s manager Gnomesayin indicated on Reddit that the team isn’t going through any roster changes for Season 4, and with a guaranteed spot in the Spring 2014 LCS, XD.GG (or whatever they come to be named) is poised to show the region and the world why they’re just as much a team to be feared as Cloud9 is.

Image credit goes to Riot Games’s page for Vulcun at http://na.lolesports.com/worlds/teams/vulcun-techbargains.

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Monday Morning Mid-Laner: SKT T1’s Faker

When Riot’s Season Three World Championship event began, all eyes in the group stage rested on the performances of one player: SK Telecom T1’s mid-laner, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok.   Of course, all of the Korean teams were expected to do great things going into the tournament; the “Korean hype train” was strong indeed, and as someone who spent a lot of time watching the matches in Korea’s OGN Champions Summer unfold I had a lot of hope for the Korean teams going into the world tournament.

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Faker, though, stood out among that crowd even during the extremely competitive OGN season.  As the popularity of assassin champions in the mid lane grew, Faker’s Ahri and Zed became the stuff of nightmares, and he was able to perform feats of pure mechanical prowess and intuition in mid lane that quickly became the stuff of legends, such as his incredible Zed vs. Zed 1v1 with KT Bullet’s Ryu during the Summer Champions final, where he was able to pull out a victory in the 1v1 despite beginning the fight severely behind on health.

But that was all par for the course for Faker in Korea, where he led his team to a victory in the Korean Regional Final against the same team in a similarly outstanding performance.  Faker and SKT T1 were relatively new faces in Korea this season; SKT was a new team assembled out of new players and took Korea by storm during the Champions Spring tournament.  Placing third in the most competitive tournament in LoL in your first go at it is nothing to sneeze at, and it would prove to be a portent for SKT and Faker’s meteoric rise to come.  As Worlds began, then, great things were expected from Faker and SKT T1, and they did not disappoint.

Granted, they got off to a bit of a rocky start, dropping a game in the group stages to China’s OMG and then having some hair raisingly close matches against North America’s Team SoloMid.  But even when his team did poorly, Faker seemed incapable of failing.  Managing to keep an insane amount of cool during heated moments in the game, he pulled off amazing plays such as lasthitting a minion mid-gank in order to hit level six and gain the ultimate that he needed to escape the gank itself.  Even during the loss to OMG, Faker still performed amazingly well, with a surgical level of calculated aggression that enabled him to snatch kills off of his lane opponent even in straight up lane fights.

This sort of mechanical perfection from all of their players carried SKT into the World Final, where they met China’s Royal Club for the titanic best of five showdown.  This matchup was a perfect clash of the old and the new; Royal Club contains several players who have been in the LoL scene since 2011 and earlier, and was a true veteran’s assembly of experienced, seasoned players, while SKT was a fairly fresh squad of players who, by and large, weren’t well known in Korea prior to joining the team.

The crucible of OGN Champions proved to be an effective one, however.  In the end, it seemed like the Koreans’ ability to keep a cool head was what enabled them to triumph over Royal Club in the final and secure the entire tournament and the Summoner’s Cup.  Royal Club’s trademark early game aggression seemed somewhat tempered in this matchup, and it doesn’t seem like a huge stretch to think that the nerves of the situation may have prevented them from exhibiting the same kind of insane aggression they’d shown in earlier matches in the tournament.

One of my friends directed me toward an incredibly insightful article outlining the idea of “mental guard break” , where a team or player’s morale can be so devastated by the situation and performance of an opponent that they render themselves incapable of performing on the level necessary to win.  Here, it seems like SKT’s experience with the high octane crowds of Korea’s OGN events enabled them to keep their cool and perform at their highest level even with the pressure of the world on their shoulders, and that gave them the edge against Royal Club, with Faker’s extreme precision and mechanical ability forming the head of the spear that they drove into Royal’s defenses.

With the World Championship victory under their belt, what’s next for SKT T1?  Champions Winter, of course.  They may have won on the global stage, but it’s still entirely likely that their greatest challenges lie ahead in Korea, where untold amounts of hungry teams are just waiting to steal that top spot.  Coming back triumphant from the world stage will undoubtedly be a boost to their confidence, but it remains to be seen if SKT T1 will be able to hang onto the title for long, or if one of their erstwhile Korean rival teams will go for the throat in the Winter and show them who’s truly the best.  Whatever the case, Faker will be with them, teaching the world what it means to be the god of the mid lane.

Monday Morning Mid laner: Royal Club’s Tabe

Coming into the Season 3 World Championships, a lot of uncertainly swirled around the strength of various regions.  Since the inception of the League Championship Series in North America and Europe and the prevalence of the Champions tournaments on OGN in Korea, the LoL Pro League in China, and the Garena Pro League in Taiwan, professional LoL play has become a largely compartmentalized affair.  The last time full teams truly squared off on a wholly international battleground was IPL 5 in 2012, and at the time, the Chinese were a dominant force, with Team World Elite dominating the tournament.

After that, things went quiet on the international front.  NA, EU, Korea, China, and SEA all retreated into their own tournaments, leading to the burning question: which region will come out and reveal that they’ve ascended past the rest?

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THE HUMBLE GOD

            For Royal Club’s Support player Pak Kan “Tabe” Wong, there is no other answer but China.  Royal Club’s strategy is forged in the blazing hot crucible of the Chinese meta, a place where junglers seemingly lose the ability to see towers once they hit level 3, and unmatched early aggression and playmaking determines who comes out on top.

To that end, Tabe has become known for a variety of interesting tactics and hallmark playstyles.  In a meta where no carry is safe from a rampaging jungler, Tabe and his sensational AD Carry Uzi can often be found doing an unconventional rotation to the mid lane, where a greater amount of lane safety can be acquired.

And it’s in mid lane where Tabe’s signature pick is really allowed to shine: Annie.  Annie isn’t something we see conventionally in the West in terms of support picks; she brings a ton of early game output and great, reliable crowd control, but she’s easy to kill and won’t scale well in the itemless and moneyless support role.  Western players (and Koreans) tend toward more conventional supports such as Sona or Thresh, who provide sustain, engage potential and escapes and don’t need money to scale in those capacities.

Tabe, however, doesn’t need to worry about any of that.  By rotating mid lane and engaging in a 2v1, Annie’s insane early game pressure is enough to shut out all but the most safe and competent mid laners.  The scaling problem isn’t so much of a problem if Tabe can get his hands on some early assists (or kills) and get himself some items that way.  As the old adage goes: why farm creeps when you can farm heroes?  Even if he falls behind, the unmatched initiate potential of the Tibbers stun is an asset deep into the late game, and Tabe can bring extra damage to the table on Annie in a way that few support players can match.  Uzi gets a lot of the credit for Royal Club’s success, often referred to as the Faker of ADC, but it’s important to note that behind every great ADC is a great support, and Tabe’s unique champion pool and playstyle are what get Uzi to the point where he can win games on his unmatched positioning and kiting ability.

But you’d never get that sense of firey power from his personality.  Tabe is often highly critical of his own lane play in postgame interviews, and has a penchant for throwing himself on the proverbial grenade to save his teammates in ganks.  Upon defeating OMG, their only Chinese competitor in the World tournament, he expressed (in fluent English, I might add) that his feelings were highly mixed, as he felt his play wasn’t up to par and that he was unhappy he had to eliminate his countrymen from the tournament.   It’s a level of true humility that’s rare among professional players, and it’s won the hearts of a large portion of the LoL community to see it.

Despite the recent spike of attention he’s received, Tabe isn’t a stranger to the pressure of high level LoL play.  As one of the game’s beta testers, he became acquainted with many of the famous names in North America’s LCS such as Dyrus and Saintvicious, and met many of them in America during the international WCG 2011 tournament, where he played for Invictus Gaming as their AD Carry.

In many ways, then, the World Finals are poised to be a clash of veteran players such as Tabe and Whitez with newer up and coming stars like Faker and PoohManDu.  All of the “teamkilling” is done; SKT T1 eliminated their Korean compatriots NaJin Black Sword, Royal Club eliminated OMG, and now it’s time to see once and for all if the Korean meta and infrastructure can stand against the unbelievable early game diving aggression of the Chinese champions.  Whatever the case, Tabe will be there, hoping to squeak Annie and her bear Tibbers through the ban stage and show the world stage how a support can carry.

Monday Morning Mid-laner: Team SoloMid’s Dyrus

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If you play enough League of Legends, you come to regard top lane as a strange place.  It’s a kind of brutal fight club, a detached lane ruled only by the strength of the slugfest that takes place between the two champions up there, interrupted only by the occasional gank from the jungle.  Top lane is a home to champions who can handle themselves, bruisers and assassins who don’t need anyone’s help to beat the hell out of each other and get going in the game.  What matters most in top lane, ultimately, is consistency, and the ability to provide an anchor the rest of the team can rely on.

For top lane in North America’s Team Solomid (or “TSM”), Marcus “Dyrus” Hill has long been that anchor.  Joining the team in Spring 2012 after the departure of its original top laner Christian “The Rain Man” Kahmann, Dyrus’s arrival on the team marked the beginning of a season-spanning tour of dominance in NA for TSM during the majority of LoL’s second season, and much of it was a result of Dyrus’s ability to be an unshakable top lane force.

Dyrus’s mastery of all of the staple top lane champions of the age (Shen, Rumble, Malphite, Darius, Jayce, Singed, Yorick, etc.) made him extremely difficult to outpick or ban out, and his ability to keep a game together even when behind prevented many an opposing bruiser or assassin from snowballing out of control.  Anyone who plays top lane knows how important (and rare) this ability is; in a lane so heavily dominated by the 1v1, giving up even one kill to your enemy at the beginning can mean a lost lane and domination the whole game.

Dyrus embodies the essential qualities of top lane in more than just his champion pool and consistency.  As one of the community’s most popular streaming players, it’s clear that there’s a lot to like in Dyrus’s personality as well.  People unfamiliar with him are often perplexed when watching his stream for the first time, as he doesn’t say too much and doesn’t go out of his way to be entertaining.  But that’s what makes his stream work; he’s not obtrusive, he’s reliable, and you can always count on seeing him playing well, listening to music, and being a generally calm and relaxed person.  Top lane personified: reliable, consistent, self-reliant, and always worth taking a took at.

While Team Solomid’s recent performance hasn’t quite lived up to the legendary run they had in Season Two, they have nonetheless managed to remain near the top of the North American leaderboard throughout Season Three, and Dyrus’s play has remained the subject of constant praise from his peers in the competitive scene.  Even among the feared Koreans, Dyrus is seen as an equal, with Season 2 Runner-up CJ Entus Frost’s top laner Shy stating at the 2013 All-star event that “I think Dyrus of the NA All-Star team is really good” as well as considering Dyrus “the most memorable player” he’d faced at the entire All-star event.

Most recently, Team Solomid played in the North American Regional Finals at PAX Prime and secured the second place berth into the Season Three World Championship that begins this week.  Defeating both Counter Logic Gaming and a very dominant looking Vulcun before ultimately falling to the current North American champions Cloud 9, TSM made an impressive showing at the event, and Dyrus’s perfomances stood out as a major factor in TSM’s dominance.

Dyrus’s performance in that tournament largely revolved around playing into the sort of double AP compositions that Team SoloMid has been favoring recently.  Curiously, Dyrus has recently been heavily favoring Karthus, the feared once-main of TSM’s mid-laner and captain, Reginald.  While Reginald’s Karthus was a highly aggressive kill-hungry murder ghost, Dyrus plays a different kind of game with the champion top lane.  Utilizing his high farm capability and generally safe harass from Lay Waste, Dyrus was able to accumulate a high amount of gold at little risk, while still being a global threat across the other lanes with Karthus’s ultimate.  This, once again, showcases Dyrus’s playstyle and consistency; even when playing a champion built as an AP carry, he’s able to enter into the role of anchor, safely getting a large amount of money while still effectively supporting his team.  If Karthus wasn’t a guaranteed ban against TSM before because of Reginald, he should be now with the possibility of Karthus being picked in either top or mid.

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Now, Dyrus and TSM face the world stage for the third time, being one of only four players (the other three being his teammates Reginald, TheOddOne, and Xpecial) to reach Worlds in all three seasons (as part of Epik Gamer in Season One, and then with TSM).  While TSM’s performance against Korean teams has yet to produce any positive results, a renewed level of competitiveness in the North American region combined with TSM’s strong teamfighting and quick adaptability to changes in the meta may give them enough to hold their own on an international level this time around.  Will Dyrus and TSM reclaim their former glory and prove their dominance once and for all, or are they doomed once again to fall to the Koreans without taking so much as a game?  Only time and the duels on the Rift will tell.

Image credit goes to Riot Games at na.lolesports.com

Monday Morning Mid-Laner: xPeke of Fnatic

Coming off of the European LoL Regionals this weekend at Gamescom, I didn’t have a great deal of difficulty selecting the player to profile for my first weekly e-sports feature. The performance of Fnatic’s mid laner Enrique “xPeke” Cedeño Martínez this week decisively solidified his team’s place as the number one team in Europe, and xPeke himself is the tip of the spear that Fnatic has driven into European LoL in Season 3.

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The triumphant veteran.

But for xPeke, success is old hat.  As one of the two remaining founding members of Fnatic’s League of Legends team (the other being his jungler, Cyanide) xPeke carries with him the legacy of being the original champions of Season 1, beating out Against All Authority back in 2011 to be the first team to claim the Summoner’s Cup and achieve complete dominance in the LoL scene.  While the team struggled in season 2, failing to qualify for the world tournament entirely, they’ve been on the rise again ever since, and are currently poised to become the biggest European threat to the Asian dominance of the LoL scene with xPeke at the forefront .

THE INCREDIBLE SPLIT-PUSHING MID

Of course, it’s impossible to mention xPeke without discussing his peculiar playstyle and the maneuver that shares his name.   xPeke is the one of the more “split-push” oriented mid-laners in the LoL scene.  With split-pushing, xPeke tends to utilize a style that revolves around detaching from the rest of his team and creating pressure in another lane.  By pushing a lane singlehandedly, xPeke forces the enemy team to choose between detaching from a teamfight to stop him, or moving to engage 4v5 fight against his team while xPeke destroys the structures in the lane uncontested.  Generally in doing so, xPeke will choose either the Teleport summoner spell or a champion who can function similarly, enabling him to act separately from his team but still teleport into a teamfight at a moment’s notice.

The extreme end result of a successful split-push is what’s called a “backdoor”, which refers to sneaking into the enemy’s base and destroying their structures and eventually Nexus when they’re occupied with other members of your team elsewhere on the map.  For reasons that will quickly become evident, this is also referred to as “pulling an xPeke.”

The most famous example of a back door in League of Legends history came during the group stage of the IEM Global Challenge Katowice in January of 2013.  Fnatic and xPeke were up against SK Gaming and had just come off on the worse end of a teamfight when the incredible moment happened.  xPeke managed to, using the teleport spell, warp back in behind the triumphant SK and destroy their open Nexus while deftly dodging all attempts to stop him and surviving with a scant amount of health.  From then on, anyone who manages to sneak in and destroy the enemy Nexus is referred to as doing “an xPeke,” with shoutcaster Leigh “Deman” Smith even going so far as to refer to it as doing “a Peke on Peke” when the technique was used on xPeke himself by Evil Geniuses.

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS

                The final game of the European finals highlights why xPeke’s strategy is so devastating under the proper circumstances.  In game 4 against Europe’s number one seed Lemondogs, xPeke picked up the champion Ahri, an ability power champion heavily oriented around strong minion clearing and extremely high mobility.  While the split pushing role is normally reserved for top lane champions like Shen (who can escape attempts to stop him and teleport into fights with his ultimate), xPeke is one of the few who really secures the split-push advantage on the AP champions like Ahri.

The advantage that he gains by split pushing with a mobile AP mage champion is the ability to go 1v1 with people who come to stop his split-push.  This was especially evident in game 4 against Lemondogs, where Lemondogs’s mid-laner nukeduck attempted to stop xPeke’s split-push top lane with Twisted Fate only to be easily outduelled and obliterated by Ahri’s burst casting.  Rather than having to teleport away or escape, xPeke was able to force out a duel with nukeduck and annihilate him in the 1v1 under Lemondogs’s own tower.  This advantage let him continue pushing, while forcing Lemondogs to have to send multiple people to stop him, leaving them vulnerable to the rest of Fnatic.

xPeke ranks with the best as one of the longest running and most iconic players in League of Legends.  From the Season One championship up to the Season Three European Regionals, xPeke is poised to drive Fnatic to international dominance.  With his strong split push, high dueling prowess, and an average Gold Per Minute rating that is virtually unchallenged in EU, xPeke will be a force to be reckoned with as the lynchpin of Fnatic’s chances on the international championship stage.

Photo credit to Leaguepedia