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The what-ifs that Worlds left behind


At the League of Legends World Championship media day, Riot Games director of esports Whalen "Riot Magus" Rozelle said he believes that, at the end of the day, Worlds is about crowning the best team. He said he believes the current format, including single-game group stage matches, allows Riot to do that.

From its groups run to its knockout stage dominance, Samsung Galaxy certainly made Rozelle's claim look correct. It's worth investigating, however, the circumstances that lead to crowning Samsung Galaxy as the champion and how luck impacted it.

The World Championship format is a tenuous thing. Samsung has demonstrated a slowness to adapt to patches in the past; this team qualified through the gauntlet and made it to two Worlds finals but couldn't extend past the second round of the Summer Split playoffs.

The circumstances of group stage, then, certainly contributed to Samsung's success. It's hard to tell the best team from the first weeks of Worlds, and as such, it's hard to claim with complete certainty that the best team always wins. Had one thing gone differently, Samsung may not have even been at the final day of Worlds.

The South Korean squad might not have even made it out of groups.

The G2 factor

You can't knock Samsung Galaxy for an easy group. Arguably, Samsung had the toughest group possible for a League Champions Korea team with Royal Never Give Up, the best performing Chinese team at the event, and G2 Esports, one of the best Western teams.

There was a definite feeling in the first two weeks of Worlds that perhaps Samsung may not have even made it out of the group stage. RNG beat Samsung twice, dropping the LCK's No. 3 to second fiddle, and Samsung had a 48-minute game against 1907 Fenerbahçe Esports that could have easily resulted in a loss if Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in's well-timed polymorph hadn't controlled the final team fight.

Samsung, by its own admission, didn't have the best read on the meta when it entered the tournament. What would it have taken for it to not have escaped its group at all?

Fenerbahçe winning its Week 1 match against Samsung would have been a good start. With the inclusion of Kang "Haru" Min-seung on the roster, Samsung had much weaker Baron and mid control in mid-to-late game. With Haru playing Ezreal, and a Trundle in the top lane, Samsung had a more precise teamfight setup. No one could really match Fenerbahçe's side-laning Ekko, and the ball was truly in the Turkish squad's court.

A 3-3 tie wouldn't have been enough to eliminate Samsung entirely. During Group Stage, Samsung beat G2 twice, and the head-to-head would still tip Samsung over the edge. That meant G2 would have to have won at least one more game.

In Week 2 of groups, G2 played a weak side lane and weak jungle matchup composition against Samsung. At that point, Samsung had already adapted to playing around a strong bottom lane two-on-two and using jungle invade pressure to force the opposing AD carry and support back and whittle down the first-tier turret. G2's read was still far behind. A victory for G2 over Samsung at that point doesn't seem likely in retrospect.

But in Week 1, Samsung and G2 played the second match of the entire World Championship. G2 debuted with an Ivern jungle and Alistar support composition that it never pulled out again.

Support Alfonso "mithy" Aguirre Rodríguez told ESPN that the strategy itself was good, but he believed it was an all-in proposition built around the early game. Because of Samsung's vision control, the enemy team always had knowledge of Kim "Trick" Gang-yun's location, which limited the ability for G2 to make its composition work.

If G2 had stuck to Ardent Censer support compositions, its jungle pick wouldn't have been out-scaled later. G2 could have opened the tournament with a win. In fact, if G2 hadn't played in one of the very first two matches of the tournament, it may have chosen to debut with an entirely different composition and won the game.

Given the way both G2 and SSG approached the meta in Week 2, it doesn't seem likely that G2 could have overcome Samsung in a tie-breaker scenario. But had Fenerbahçe and G2 both bested Samsung during its lost-and-confused Week 1, a scenario where Samsung becomes the second South Korean team to fail to escape Group Stage in World Championship history doesn't seem that far-fetched.

The luck of the draw: A group against Royal

By Lee "CuVee" Seong-jin's admission, Samsung benefited from playing group stage matches against the second seed Chinese team, RNG.

"I think we made this change [to play with strong bottom lane drafts] after the game against RNG because they did a bot lane-centric play," CuVee said after the team's quarterfinal sweep of Longzhu Gaming, "and we figured maybe that that's the meta we should follow, so we adopted it."

CoreJJ made a similar comment about Samsung's early game-focused draft against Fenerbahçe in Week 1. He said Samsung's loss to RNG in the early game the day before led to Samsung experimenting with more early game strategies.

RNG was one of the most bot-focused teams at the tournament. Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao, Fnatic's Martin "Rekkles" Larsson, and EDward Gaming's Hu "iBoy" Xian-Zhao were tied for the highest percentage of team gold for an AD carry at 27.4 percent. Uzi, Rekkles and iBoy were also all in the top three for percentage of team creep score after 15 minutes. Of RNG, Fnatic, and EDward Gaming, RNG played most effectively around its bottom lane, setting up safe conditions of Uzi to clear mid or side lane and using mid to generate pressure while the AD farmed.

Considering the poor state of Fnatic's macro play and EDward Gaming's failures in Week 1, RNG was probably the single best team to teach Samsung about strong bottom lane play. Considering also that most teams say playing on-stage differs considerably from playing scrimmages, Samsung's stage losses may also have had a stronger impact and helped the South Korean team learn.

Not playing Royal in Group Stage may have caused Samsung to adapt more slowly to the meta, which likely would have hurt Samsung in the opening round of the knockout stage. Playing to bottom side was exposed as Longzhu's weakness in its losses to KT Rolster during Week 9 of LCK play, but Longzhu was still considered better than Samsung going into their quarterfinal matchup. Longzhu's poor mid-game vision control would have helped Samsung, but a win for the underdog looks less likely without those group stage bottom lane lessons.

Facing RNG in a best-of-five

RNG had Samsung pegged in the group stage, and fans of RNG have also argued that, had RNG denied Galio in any of the semifinal games it lost to SK Telecom T1, it could have made it to the final against Samsung and won the World Championship.

Galio gave Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok considerable control in SKT's games against RNG, but mid wasn't necessarily why Royal lost Games 4 and 5. Poor pathing and set up around Baron turned games both times, and strong jungle matchups for RNG limited the amount of pressure Faker could exert.

Even so, Faker played Galio well in team fights to compensate for Bae "Bang" Jun-sik's transgressions. In the event that RNG did make the final against Samsung, the question remains whether or not it could have extended its win rate against the South Korean third seed.

By the second game against RNG, SSG had already adapted to play with strong side lanes, but its mid lane picks hadn't solidified. By the end of the event, Lee "Crown" Min-ho had developed a narrow preferred mid pool to the extent where he was willing to blind-pick champions like Taliyah and Malzahar. Considering RNG's willingness to give up Faker's priority picks, it doesn't seem likely that the Chinese team would challenge Samsung's either. In a best-of-five, considering all of its other advantages, Samsung likely would have the upper hand.

But by then, the group stage had already had its impact. Samsung absorbed what it could from its experience, and the draw itself had a hand in forming the strongest team at Worlds. While a Samsung that 3-0'd SKT could have been forged by other means, the Samsung that emerged fought specific circumstances and relied on the luck of the draw to become the World Champions.

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