LOS ANGELES -- As the seconds ticked down on Cloud9's pick timer, head coach Bok "Reapered" Han-gyu pondered his final selection. Across the League of Legends Championship Series stage, Team SoloMid's draft was complete; Reapered still needed a top laner for Eric "Licorice" Ritchie.
TSM boasted a formidable composition, versatile and explosive with several deadly tools. They had plenty of engage with Sion's Unstoppable Onslaught, Lissandra's Frozen Tomb and Olaf's Ragnarok. Luican could poke from afar with The Culling, and Zilean's Chronoshift could revive an ally if a fight went sideways. All told, their lineup seemed set for success with few holes to exploit.
Reapered decided he wanted those ultimates too. It was time to unchain Sylas, League of Legends' newest champion, whose unique skillset will deeply influence the meta for months to come.
"There were a lot of options for our last pick," Reapered said. "We had like four different options: go teamfight super hard, pressure the early game, whatever works. But I saw the Zilean and Lissandra; holy s---, it was so much value. We had to commit to it."
Released in Patch 9.2, Sylas introduced a new mechanic to Summoner's Rift: the ability to copy an enemy's ultimate with his own ultimate, Hijack. Given the plethora of dynamic ultimates among top-tier champions, Sylas arrived at the perfect time, adding another layer of strategy for teams to parse.
"You have to consider it," Reapered said. "If you're giving too powerful Sylas team comps for the enemy team, you'll have a bad time against it. ... Sylas can actually go jungle or mid or top. Honestly, it's pretty annoying. And if you feel like something is annoying to play against, that means that champion is super powerful."
Licorice's showstopping performance against TSM last Saturday perfectly encapsulated how devastating Sylas can be against the right composition. Having reached the 40 percent cooldown reduction threshold and Level 16, Licorice's Sylas was able to steal multiple ultimates in the same fight, which completely undid TSM's teamfighting. He could initiate with Unstoppable Onslaught, root grouped opponents with Frozen Tomb, save teammates or himself with Chronobreak and damage from long range as a melee champion with The Culling.
The top laner finished off Cloud9's victory with a 3/2/10 KDA (kills/deaths/assists) as the first player to pick Sylas in the LCS. It was a departure from some the champion's appearances overseas: The pick went 0-3 in the League European Championship last week with an 0/8/1 KDA. However, in the League of Legends Japanese League, Sylas compositions have gone 5-1 with an average 4.8 KDA.
Unlike previous Sylas picks in the LEC or League of Legends Japanese League, Licorice opted to index fully into ability power rather than build armor to tank. Half-measures like Zhonya's Hourglass and Iceborn Gauntlet were discarded in favor of Lichbane and Hextech Protobelt-01, creating an even bigger power spike in the late game. Part of that choice stemmed from his lane matchup, Sergen "Broken Blade" Çelik's Sion, a champion no one was going to out-tank.
Counter Logic Gaming top laner Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaya admired how comically Licorice's Sylas abused Sion, a champion Darshan has favored lately. At one point in the match, Licorice stole Sion's ultimate while he was being chased by opponents and then used that ultimate to block the opposing Lissandra's ultimate.
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"That was pretty cool," Darshan said. "I think it's hilarious whenever you're playing against Sion as Sylas and you're just chasing each other down with Sion ulti."
But stealing ultimates is only one of Sylas' many skills, continuing a trend of new or reworked champion movesets packed with utility. Akali, Irelia, Urgot, Aatrox and Zoe could seemingly do everything upon release and have all needed a series of subsequent nerfs to achieve balance compared to other champions.
Reapered understands the allure of developing exciting champions, but with Sylas, even cuts to a moveset might not be enough.
"You have three dashes, you have a heal, you have a shield, you have an [area of effect] attack, you have a grab, a slow and you can steal the ult," Reapered said. "Yeah, cool dude. These days, champions have too much utility, too much outplay potential. I don't like it that way, but same time it's cool to see those champions make the outplay. You can feel your heartbeat, right?"
Darshan doesn't know if the power creep inherent to these new champion kits is a net positive or negative for the game, but he has begun to question the validity of picking older champions in the face of newer models.
"Would I really want to play Annie every game if I could be Sylas every game? Not really," Darshan said. "It kinda outdates the older cast, so that can feel bad for some of the people who have been playing the game for a long time. I liked playing Jax a lot, but playing Jax now, his kit is super straightforward, and other people have overloaded kits that are just stronger. Why would I ever pick Master Yi? Why would I ever pick Garen? I can just pick a better version of that champion."
Sylas remains a niche pick this early into his release cycle, too reliant on getting an top-tier ultimate comp like the one TSM offered Cloud9. But C9's lopsided win, rumors from scrims and a meta that might slow down enough after Patch 9.3 for Sylas to consistently hit his late-game spike might be enough to keep in inside the meta if his signature ability stealing isn't enough.
"Sylas is really good right now; you just have to play a lot and practice him," Team Liquid jungler Jake "Xmithie" Puchero said. "Everyone's just experimenting since he just started. It's only a week or two. I think people should expect a lot from Sylas in the next couple weeks."