Following the mass Korean Exodus, SK Telecom T1 remained one of few teams to retain a full roster of top-level players, resulting in a crucial developmental advantage compared to the other teams that competed in the OGN pre-season. While teams like Samsung were still laying the foundation for their new (albeit extremely talented) roster, SKT forged ahead by testing the limits of relevant strategies within the context of their team, ultimately finishing the pre-season well ahead of the other teams. With the LCS about to start, it’s important that the coaches and analysts look towards SKT as an example; not merely to see what champions are strong in the current meta-game, but also their approach to pick/ban phase, their resource allocation, and their vision strategy.
The Pick-Ban Mind Games
Before delving into the pick ban phase, let’s first consider the landscape of relevant champions in this meta-game. There were 54 different champions picked over 36 games, 7 of which were used in multiple roles. Some of the more contested picks for each role are shown below, along with their pick, ban, and win rates.
It’s interesting to note that Gnar has been banned in all 36 pre-season games. Corki and Lissandra, despite being present in 83 and 81 % of the games only show a win rate of 35 and 33% respectively. With the exception of Ahri and Leblanc, the majority of mid champions are flex picks, a list that includes Jayce, Ezreal, Kassadin, Lissandra, Morgana etc. This flexibility also extends to item builds and strategy, allowing champions to overcome weaknesses at various points in the game, further opening up the possibilities for the pick ban phase. For example, Renekton normally struggles against Jayce; however, in their game against Samsung, SKT’s Marin opted into the matchup. With some pressure from Bengi and an unorthodox full damage build, Samsung’s Cuvee ended the game with a score of 1-8-2, 100 CS behind Marin.
These changes make pick ban phase much more interesting than ever before. Coaches, who are now allowed to participate in the process, not only have the responsibility of helping choose the champions but can also help outline strategies and objectives for that particular team combination. With that in mind, let’s consider SKT and their coach Kkoma’s brilliant pick ban phase against Najin em-Fire.
Each pick-ban phase is a separate game, played by exchanging information and bound by player skill and time. Recognizing that Najin has the first pick in Game 1, SKT choose to trade power picks for flexibility. Najin opt for Janna as their first pick, followed by SKT picking up Lissandra and Jarvan IV. Najin pick up Corki to complete their power bot lane set, after which SKT pick up Ezreal and Alistar. At this time, SKT does not know where Kassadin is playing or the last two champions, but between Lissandra, Jarvan IV, and Ezreal, SKT can use their last pick for top, jungle, mid, or AD Carry.
After Najin pick Zed and Elise for their final rotation, Kkoma picks Lee Sin for Bengi, locking in Jarvan IV for top lane. This forces Najin to lane swap out of the Kassadin-Jarvan IV matchup and allows SKT to avoid facing Corki and Janna in the bot lane. While this game exemplifies Kkoma’s emphasis on pick flexibility, the next game he manipulates power picks to focus on team synergy, putting Jarvan IV and Lissandra different positions and using Jayce and Graves-Janna to disrupt mid and bot respectively.
Four of the five games Faker played in the pre-season were on flex champions like Ezreal and Lissandra. It’s an approach to the game that uses the highly skilled players to adapt for the team, rather than having the team cater to the strengths of the star player. Professional players are an aggregate of many elements: mechanical skill, game sense, flexibility, etc. The pick-ban phase in Season 5 will test not only team’s knowledge of the current metagame, but also how they create an identity around the unique proclivities of their members.
Game Economy and Resource Allocation
A game of League of Legends has limited resources on the map for its players in terms of experience and gold. Moscow 5 recognized that Darien’s repeated deaths allowed them to pick up dragons and buffs from the other side of the map, while their enemies lost wave after wave chasing Darien. CLG was criticized for having a singular strategy of feeding Doublelift and letting him carry the team. These are but a few examples of how some teams use resources differently.
The question then becomes, how can teams use resources efficiently? In terms of gameplay, the jungle and support roles are examples of how a team concentrates resources onto the top, mid, and ad carry roles during the laning phase. But once the laning phase ends, each team has a different philosophy on which members receive farm, push out lanes, and control vision.
A top laner who is split pushing by himself will have more farm than one who is responsible for defending a turret with his team. A mid laner who has to retreat due to jungle pressure gives up a wave of creeps. While these seem like disparate events, teams influence resource distribution within the team based on their objective focus and overall strategy. The figure below shows the distribution of CS within each team during the preseason.
Teams like Samsung Galaxy and Najin prioritize farm onto their AD carries at the expense of their top laners, while KT Rolster does the opposite for its top laner. Teams like CJ Entus have a tight distribution, while other focus on their mid laners, notably IM and SKT. This data gives valuable insight into a team’s strategy and how teams will react. Let’s now consider the new SKT, a team composed of members from both K and S teams, specifically the top lane.
Another impressive facet of SKT’s strategy is their deliberate allocation of gold to their players. Unlike Impact, Marin prefers a carry-oriented approach to the game. His aggressive style relieves pressure from the map and has a strong presence in teamfights alongside Faker. However, this requires additional gold for him to buy items and remain relevant against his opposing laner.
The figure above shows the average CS difference for each player compared to their lane opponent at different phases of the game. During the preseason, when Impact was in the top lane, Faker and Bang would end on average with 121 and 39 CS above their lane opponent while Impact would be even or just below his lane opponent. In the games with Marin however, Faker and Bang’s CS leads are halved, CS that’s donated to Marin. This conscious effort has been rewarded by Marin’s impressive 10.5 KDA in their wins, compared to Impact’s 4.3. Marin and Bang have helped create a much stronger and relevant identity for SKT that wouldn’t have been possible with Impact and Piglet. If Marin was forced to follow Impact’s established utility role, SKT would not have been nearly as successful as it has been so far.
Western teams have segmented the game into phases of objective control, but resulting in haphazard distribution of resources. Sometimes farm is deliberately funneled to members in ways that is counter-productive to team’s goals. It’ll be interesting to see whether teams like CLG and Curse accommodate their new solo laners, or force them into established roles set by their predecessors.
SKT has started the preseason in dominating fashion, dropping only 1 game out of 10. Is this a foreshadowing for things to come? It’s hard to tell. SKT certainly looks like the most polished team; Bengi’s mechanics have drastically improved and the team has found a modicum of synergy with Marin’s carry-oriented style and Bang’s calculated approach. But, veteran teams like Najin and KT aren’t to be dismissed. Najin didn’t play Ohq in their set against SKT, a player who has ensured victory in every game he’s played in the preseason. Additionally, teams like Samsung and HUYA have shown more than glimpses of potential. Samsung especially who have shown time and again that their mechanical skill is top notch, will only get stronger under their veteran coaching staff as the year progresses.
Shifting to the west, the examples above show how SKT have formed an identity, displayed in their pick-ban phase and resource allocation. But if western teams are to compete against other regions, they must innovate themselves, discover their own opportunity costs and fortify weaknesses instead of mirroring other teams. Since Season 2, western teams have played behind the curve, relying on empirical analysis from regions with a more established infrastructure.
With Riot’s acknowledgement and financial support for coaches and analysts, it’s time for teams to learn from SKT, not only superficial elements of meta champions and vision strategy, but the deeper insights into how they approach the game to accentuate their players’ strengths within the context of the team. Will CLG and Alliance give the proper resources to their new members? How will Team8 and Roccat use the unique styles of their top laners? It’ll be interesting to see if the west adapts in the new season.