Two weeks and a lot of drama's pared down the 16-team field to eight quarterfinalists. The knockouts are unusual this year, including teams that entered the tournament as favorites for the title and contenders that seemed to be untouchable after Week One.
The big surprise, and a huge tank in regional stock: LGD Gaming, China's number one seed, was sent packing home after just a short and swift vacation in Paris, as was third seed Invictus Gaming. China's hybridization experiment with last year's best South Korean players seem to have largely failed—two teams failing to make it out of the group stage makes this the single worst year they've ever had at the World Championship. In contrast, South Korea's somehow managed to improve their overall performance: unlike the last two years, where MVP Ozone and NaJin Shield flubbed out, all three teams this year have advanced.
Of course, at least China still has Edward Gaming to cheer on. North America, despite a promising opening weekend for Cloud 9 and Counter Logic Gaming, collapsed wholesale in Week Two. None of their teams made it through. Zero. Nada. A stifling silence where there was once chants of "TSM! TSM!" now fills the Parisian auditorium
But the biggest winner of this year's group stages comes as a surprise. The Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macau region's first year after their divorce from Southeast Asia has been an astounding success. Both LoL Master Series teams, ahq E-Sports Club and Flash Wolves, have beaten odds and expectations for a chance to swing at the prize.
But the teams left on the field aren't gonna make it easy for them.
Flash Wolves vs Origen
Members: Steak, Karsa, Maple, NL, Swordart
Worlds MVP: Karsa
Biggest surprise: Apparently a pack of Wolves can take down Tigers!
Members: sOAZ, Amazing, xPeke, Niels, Mithy
Worlds MVP: sOAZ
Ages like fine wine: xPeke's mid lane Worlds buff.
Both Flash Wolves and Origen are coming into the quarterfinals exuberant in the mere fact that they made it at all. The combined forces of South Korea's KT Rolster and China's LGD Gaming was supposed to be an insurmountable roadblock for the European third seed, except that the LGD they were expecting never actually showed up to Paris. America's own Team Solomid wasn't expected to be a problem to anybody, given their total loss of identity in the preceding months of play, but that still should've left Origen in a distant third.
Instead, only KT Rolster gave them any trouble, and Europe's veteran darlings secured a surprise second seed in what was considered the second-hardest group for a western team to advance through.
As for the Flash Wolves: Steak wasn't supposed to be so good! The KOO Tigers were supposed to be the undisputed kings of the so-called "Group of Life," eager to make up for an embarrassing IEM performance earlier this year. Yet a 0-2 result against the Taiwanese second-seeds caught the world off-guard, and the Flash Wolves recovered from a limp 1-2 Week One record to shake down American darlings Counter Logic Gaming for the number one seed of their group. Karsa, in particular, has now established a reputation as probably the very best jungler in the entire tournament—at the very least, the best in his group by a very wide margin.
That one loss to Brazil's PaiN Gaming is going to haunt them, though. True, the Brazilian representatives showed what was easily the most competent set of games any Wildcard region's ever demonstrated since the start of League of Legends as an esport. And to take a game off of the group's eventual leaders is a feat as yet unreplicated by a region of their comparatively modest stature. But it also suggests that the Flash Wolves have strategic weaknesses to exploit—they were notably passive in the game against PaiN, and a weak early game plays badly into Origen's aggro.
SKT Telecom T1 vs ahq E-Sports Club
Members: MaRin, Bengi, Faker, Bang, Wolf
Origin: South Korea
Worlds MVP: MaRin
Things Faker does: Letting others take the spotlight.
Members: Ziv, Mountain, Westdoor, AN, Albis
Worlds MVP: AN
Never play Rengar again: Mountain
There's an eerie resemblance between SKT T1 and AHQ right now. Neither of their mid laners are particularly noteworthy this tournament—sure, they've made a few splashy plays, but even Faker's not snagged as much of the spotlight as you'd expect from what consensus has established as the number one player in the world. Even Westdoor's Fizz, though certainly a deadly threat in fights, has been largely content in waiting in the sidelines as his teammates finish the takedowns.
Instead, the top laners have been doing all the talking. MaRin's Renekton bit clean through the bones of Edward Gaming and H2K (we don't talk about the unfortunate fate of Thailand's Bangkok Titans). Ziv has been playing a more conventional set of Darius and Gnar games over in Group B. But he's playing them with such virtuoso flair as to justify rumors that Chinese talent scouts have been offering him wealth in excess of his current team's entire war chest.
Ziv does, however, come into the match with a handicap: he's their backup hitter, and all of the team's actual resources go into AN's pockets. Not justifiably, by any means: AHQ came within a hair's breadth of matching the Flash Wolves as their group's top seed thanks to the roaring rockets of AN's brilliantly positioned Jinx, falling short only because Fnatic's Febiven flipped the game on its head at the very last possible moment, stopping AHQ in their tracks solo despite Fnatic losing all three Inhibitors. SKT T1's Bang and Wolf have been comparatively less flashy—but, on the other hand, their team's play has been so meticulous that they haven't really had the opportunity to show off anyhow.
In a lot of cases, AHQ was winning despite—not because—of jungler Mountain's contributions. SKT T1 doesn't have a similar problem: Bengi's second Worlds is shaping up to be his best yet. The team's strategies are operating like well-oiled clockwork thanks to him, giving them a significant advantage into Taiwan's top team.
Fnatic vs Edward Gaming
Members: Huni, Reignover, Febiven, Rekkles, Yellowstar
Worlds MVP: Febiven
Ban on sight: Febiven's LeBlanc
Members: Koro1, Clearlove, PawN, Deft, Meiko
Worlds MVP: Deft
Quietly snuck out of the building: AmazingJ
Only one team has ever taken an international tournament off of SKT T1 and Faker, and they're suddenly not looking so hot. Edward Gaming is the last of the Chinese teams still in contention, a lucky holdout in Group C thanks to the mediocrities of both H2K and Bangkok Titans, but their rematch against SKT T1 was a massive disappointment to LPL fans. AmazingJ's disastrous performance against MaRin prompted the team to declare a substitution coming into the playoffs, replacing him with original top laner Koro1 for the game against Fnatic, and the team that terrorized China for most of the year is looking decidedly mortal at the end of the season.
Of course, they're not the only team with top lane troubles. Fnatic's Huni is a crowd-pleaser, with flashy and aggressive plays to occupy the audience's attention. But that same sort of play style was readily exploited by Taiwan's AHQ, who claimed that they deliberately set up traps for him knowing that he'd immediately Teleport back into a fight to try and make up for lost gold.
Fnatic has got to be breathing a sigh of relief, though. They were within seconds of getting shunted into Group B's second seed—if it weren't for Febiven's breathtaking last-second LeBlanc burst, it could've been them facing SKT T1 instead of AHQ. The stock for European mid laners have risen drastically in the last half-month, and Febiven is an enormous reason for it. Keep your eye on the kid, or perish.
KT Rolster vs KOO Tigers
Members: Ssumday, Score, Nagne, Arrow, Piccaboo
Origin: South Korea
Worlds MVP: Ssumday
Members: Smeb, Hojin, KurO, PraY, Gorilla
Origin: South Korea
Worlds MVP: GorillA
Attracts Lee Sin bans: Hojin
The South Korean fratricide was somewhat unexpected. Despite China attempting to undermine their talent base, South Korea showed up in 2015 as still the overwhelming favorites for the title. Two of their teams are at the top of their respective groups, guaranteed to have a playoff round against teams that comparatively struggled more to get to the quarterfinals.
And then there's the KOO Tigers.
Was it really that the Flash Wolves proved an amazing team, and the Tigers were just caught off-guard? Maybe. LMS fans would love to think so. But with the Tigers, specifically, there's some ambiguity involved. They were the first Korean team to drop an international title to another region since World Elite took IPL 5 in the final days of 2012—an ignoble sort of fame, and one they've been eager to shed all year. Instead, they're stuck in a fratricidal situation one set too early, forced to face off against KT Rolster for the right of a semifinals finish.
That might be alright for PraY and GorillA, as GorillA's support play has been ambivalently high-class. That's not so certain between Smeb and Ssumday, as Ssumday's top lane has been near-immaculate. But the real deal-breaker is perhaps overall confidence. KT Rolster is a rougher team than SKT T1, but eager to demonstrate their mastery of the Worlds patch, showing off the overwhelming potential in Mordekaiser. KOO Tigers, on the other hand, are pussyfooting around their weaknesses instead. The Wolves rattled them, and KT Rolster is even more familiar with their strengths and weaknesses than the Taiwanese team. This might be the second-worst matchup they could have settled for—but, hey, at least it isn't MaRin and Faker.
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