The European League Championship Series Regional Qualifier Gauntlet hasn't had the double reverse sweep stories of the North American LCS, the grueling 10-game days of China's League of Legends Pro League, or the constant denial of KT Rolster fan hope in League Champions Korea. But magic has still graced runs.
Last year, Unicorns of Love ran through all three days and took Splyce to five games in the final with no scrims to their name. In 2015, Team ROCCAT nearly upset heavy favorites Origen in a five-game semifinal series. This year, fans are looking to the expected clash between Splyce and Fnatic in the final with anticipation.
But only looking at Splyce and Fnatic might make one too hasty to dismiss H2K Gaming and Unicorns of Love. Both teams battled it out at the top of their groups all year, and to simply cast them aside because Splyce had one impressive showing against G2 Esports after an underwhelming season draws questions.
Though many of cast Splyce as a finalist, it comes into the Regional Qualifier as the last seed. When observing evidence that Splyce have the juice to go all the way, hopefuls will bring up its five-game quarterfinal against G2 Esports.
"I would rank [Splyce] above Misfits and above H2K as well," Coach Joey "YoungBuck" Steltenpool said after G2's win against Splyce.
Yet aside from the five-game series and G2's praise, Splyce's play hasn't left much room for optimism. A poor early game force in the bottom lane in its last regular season encounter against H2K Gaming cost Splyce dearly. In the series against G2, it benefitted from mispositioning and awkwardly timed roams from G2 mid laner Luka "Perkz" Perković.
Splyce love the pick composition, and that could contribute to G2's praise for the young team. But Perkz also played with an uncharacteristic level of distraction in G2's second half. One should only cautiously raise assessments of Splyce based upon its quarterfinal performance alone.
Splyce plays 1-4 compositions more often than any other team in the Gauntlet. It prefers to put Martin "Wunder" Hansen in a side lane on some of Europe's less popular picks like Camille.
"I looked to Korea to see what they're really good at because I was kind of confused after two or three patches ago," Wunder explained. "So I saw that a lot of people were ban-picking Camille or blind picking Kled and just blind picking all these champs."
Because of its look at Korean teams with carry tops, Splyce felt confident it could stick with pick compositions or snowballing top laners. But the execution still needs work. Even in its series against G2, Splyce forced mid with no pressure in side lanes. Splyce placed Wunder faithfully in a side lane, but when it saw an opportunity to group, it was hit or miss, suggesting it had a limited understanding of when its opponent would rotate mid. If Wunder built Black Cleaver and Frozen Mallet on Gnar and then Teleported into engage, it spelled disaster for Splyce's Baron control.
One might say this style measures up well against a team like Fnatic who would make it easy to get control of mid lane by constantly looking to set up side lane picks, but once Splyce force out the mid lane Tier 1 turret, it's more likely for Martin "Rekkles" Larsson and Paul "sOAZ" Boyer to just set up picks on Wunder. Splyce doesn't seem like a team with the reserves and patience to keep the map balanced after the first row of turrets falls.
If it does win, however, it will come out of snowballing from picks around mid lane. H2K Gaming's attention to mid lane may actually match up well against Splyce and shut down its potential miracle Gauntlet run, but the ability to set up mid lane picks is an exploitable advantage against both Fnatic and Unicorns.
Perhaps easier to kill than advertised, H2K Gaming places more attention on keeping mid control than perhaps any other team in the Gauntlet. It puts a lot of emphasis on mid lane counterpick, and Andrei "Odoamne" Pascu will instead look to pick his top lane champion blind.
"With all the mid priority and the top focus, the top pool gets pinched a lot, so I think it's just the safest to go for a safe blind," he said.
Odoamne's philosophy led to the Cho'Gath priority against both G2 and Fnatic, despite the strength of champions like Gnar or the Elise-Jayce combination into Cho'Gath. H2K, then, had much more success when it went for snowballing top picks like Renekton and could transfer this control to the mid lane.
For H2K, all roads lead to mid.
The problem, of course, comes through when one looks at one of the best ways to get mid lane ahead: generating leads in bottom lane and roaming with the support mid. In playoffs, AD carry Sin "Nuclear" Jeonghyeon averaged -3.1 CS against his opponent at 10 minutes. Fnatic and G2 both abused H2K's bottom lane, leaving it with limited options. A team with a stronger laning bot duo and more emphasis on counterpicking support might be able to nullify any advantage Febiven gleans with a lead and a smart roam.
H2K's advantages, however, come through in its strong jungle and mid core. Any team that puts pressure on a side lane should be prepared to lose objectives mid and on the opposite side of the map. Because of H2K's emphasis on mid control, it is always prepared to get trades in two lanes for one -- but this can just as easily lead to an overreach.
Against Unicorns of Love in the regular season, H2K looked to get Rift Herald and top lane Tier 1 at the same time without clear awareness of UoL's back timers. When it got flanked, the team was split up. This cost top side control, and it lost mid shortly after.
Theoretically, this weakness could easily give Unicorns a line in against H2K. Because UoL will group mid frequently in mid game, it will be able to meet H2K where they will both be strongest and likely over-extended. If H2K defeat Splyce, Unicorns could find a way to the final.
Unicorns of Love
But that isn't particularly likely to happen. Unicorns of Love have been nearly averse to adaptation.
"When we lose," Kiss "Vizicsacsi" Tamas said after Rift Rivals, "we have this tendency to resort to older styles where we might catch the enemy off guard and not try to go for the perfect play."
It comes as no surprise, then, that Unicorns of Love have had the same problem all year. Mid laner Fabian "Exileh" Schubert's champion pool has not expanded. At Rift Rivals, he struggled with understanding matchups, and this sentiment continued during the team's match against Splyce.
When asked how, as a coach, he might approach solving an individual player problem like matchup knowledge, Coach Fabian "Sheepy" Mallant said, "I don't work too much on matchups, but we are going over everything in scrims, so I think everybody understands every matchup in the game."
UoL's tendency to tunnel in on comfort picks when backed into a corner with no clear plan to fix fundamental problems doesn't inspire much confidence in the team. What you see, then, is what you get. And what you get is a mess.
Against Misfits, Unicorns of Love drafted Exileh a limited pool of high mobility mid lane champions to keep him from getting ganked by roaming bottom laners. To compensate, it went for extreme scaling and counterpicked both compositionally and in every lane. When Misfits simply ran the team over, UoL lost the ability to make a comeback.
Unicorns' advantage of playing for teamfights in the mid game evaporated when many other teams began drafting the likes of Gragas, Gnar and Jarvan IV. Exileh's pool shifted to more assassins to compensate for the threat of ganks and his high death count.
Unless Unicorns face a shell-shocked H2K that tunnels and fails to adapt as it has so many times before, its chances dwindle against Fnatic and Splyce.
Projected to make the final and praised as the best team in Europe after it 2-0'd G2 Esports, Fnatic found itself in the last place rung on the Gauntlet. Instead of just looking at Rekkles' champion choices as the problem, however, Fnatic showed conservative signs that it knows it needs to reinforce its mid lane weaknesses in the third place match against H2K Gaming.
In the second game, Mads "Broxah" Brock-Pedersen found an opportunity with Febiven over-extending mid and used it to gank and snowball. In the past, even with a strong mid and jungle duo, Fnatic had a harder time getting an advantage. Broxah seems somewhat dive averse without his Elise, and both Misfits and H2K Gaming took advantage of that with weak jungle and mid duos.
But in games like that, Fnatic has shown signs that it can transition its vision more around the mid lane. It can back and go for mid control before pressuring side lanes. It just hasn't done it consistently.
Other teams can take down Fnatic by denying Xayah (a champion that gets lane leads, has the ability to get picks, and works effectively in teamfights later) and sOAZ's mid engage champions like Gnar and Jarvan IV. That seems like a long list, especially when Jesse "Jesiz" Le can still pick up the Rakkan early on and look to engage mid.
Fnatic will punish teams with less clear mid lane control like Splyce because almost no one can beat it in a side lane. If Unicorns find an opportunistic fight in the mid lane -- if it makes it this far in the Gauntlet -- and can transition to Baron while two of Fnatic's players work in a side lane, that could be the miracle the loveable pink ponies need to attend Worlds.
Fnatic doesn't naturally punish H2K's weaknesses. One might even say that, had H2K not picked a clearly untested Kayn in Game 5 that only managed to deny one Krugs camp in the early game, it could have come out on top. The likes of Renekton, Thresh and Tristana can help H2K attend its third consecutive World Championship if it runs through Splyce and Unicorns and matches up against Fnatic in the final.
The reason Fnatic are favored so heavily to go to Worlds at this point is that Splyce are favored against both Unicorns and H2K. But should either H2K or Unicorns make the final over Splyce, it feels as if it has more upset potential by taking advantages of Fnatic's intermittent gaps in mid control. Though Fnatic is clearly aware of this problem, it hasn't pinned down a solution. It could cost Fnatic another Worlds appearance.