For four straight seasons spanning over three years (2013, '14, '15) Team SoloMid vs. Cloud9 was the final match of the NA LCS playoffs. The two titans of North America faced off in four straight grand finals, with the blue and white of C9 sweeping the first two before TSM stormed back to win back-to-back titles of their own.
The 2016 spring postseason will not end in the fifth installment of the classic playoff rivalry -- but it will begin with it. After an offseason where both teams believed they'd built title contending teams -- TSM even assembling a squad I dubbed a 'dream team' in the preseason -- here they sit: one of them moving onto the semifinals and a guaranteed spot in the Las Vegas finals weekend, and the other sent home with nothing else to do but ponder what went wrong until the summer split starts.
SoloMid have never played in an NA LCS season without reaching the final match, having competed in all six grand finals up to this point.
At 9-9, with a slump in the second half of the season, and time running out before they have no time left to fix its issues, this could be the season that ends TSM's historic streak of reigning atop the NA region. Well, that's if rivals C9 have anything to say about it.
Top Lane: An "BalIs" Le (C9) vs. Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell (TSM)
While it's been anything but a dream season for TSM, Hauntzer has had a solid first split on the squad in the replace of longtime veteran Marcus "Dyrus" Hill. On a team with two super carries and a forward-pushing jungle, he's primarily been in a supportive role for a large part of the season, and he's done well for the most part.
Balls has been in a similar situation, as his team plays mostly through the jungle, mid and AD carry positions, and he's generally seen as a backup for his offensive-minded teammates. It's been a bit of a comeback season for the former best top laner in North America; although not near the place in hierarchy he used to inhabit, it's hard to argue Balls hasn't had a few standout performances this split.
Still, Hauntzer has almost identical numbers on a weaker regular season team, so I'll give the edge to the TSM newcomer over the C9 veteran.
Jungle: Lee "Rush" Yoon-jae (C9) vs. Dennis "Svenskeren" Johnsen (TSM)
Unlike the top lane pairing, the jungle faceoff isn't nearly as close. Rush was last split's MVP, and he's been a strong signing for C9 since moving over from Team Impulse. He's currently in the process of fully transitioning over to his new squad, but the Lee Sin main has been picking up steam as the split has gone along.
TSM, though, thought it was getting the same type of deal as C9 when it picked up Svenskeren. One of the best offensive junglers in the western scene last year, his move from Europe to North America hasn't been as smooth as Rush's chemistry with C9. There are times when he'll have fantastic openings to games and then have it all fall apart when it hits the late-game.
Skill-wise, Rush might be the most talented player in North America. Svenskeren, who has heaps of mechanical skill in his own right, isn't going to beat Rush unless he's at his optimal form and synergizing with the rest of his team.
Mid Lane: Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen (C9) vs. Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg (TSM)
This is the heavyweight title fight of this opening round matchup. In the blue corner, we have Jensen. He came into the NA LCS with tons of skepticism due to his professional suspension because of online behavior. The Danish solo queue prodigy hadn't even really played in a pro setting before signing with Cloud9. Since starting off in a slow manner, he's become synonymous with C9's success, becoming a full-fledged ace in the mid lane and reincarnating as a true pro-gamer alongside his comrades.
In the black corner, we have Bjergsen. The king of North America. The Jensen before Jensen even stepped foot on United States soil. The two-time MVP and multiple-time champion. One of the best technical players on the planet, and the man who has carved his name into the legacy of North American esports forever. Even in a season when his team has been through countless issues and various slumps, Bjergsen put up numbers of a player you'd think was on a vastly outperforming squad.
Last year, if all else failed on Summoner's Rift, Bjergsen was able to save his team, his management, and TSM's fans with late-game heroics. This season, while trying to become a more strategically diverse team with a plethora of carry weapons on the map, it could very well revert back to how it was in 2015 if things don't go well in the first game or two.
Jensen had an MVP-like season. Bjergsen can always be seen as the MVP of the league due to how important he is to TSM. Ultimately, I side with the player on a better streak of play, but it'd be foolish to count out NA's most dangerous player.
Bottom Lane: Zach "Sneaky" Scuderi and Hai "Hai" Lam (C9) vs. Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng and Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim (TSM)
It's frankly scary how star-studded these two bottom lanes are. Sneaky is possibly the most consistent player in the history of the NA LCS. Hai is one of the greatest in-game leaders of all-time. Double lift is one of the greatest AD carries the western scene has ever seen. And YellOwStar is the captain of the Fnatic team that went 18-0 in last season's summer regular season and made the 2015 Worlds semifinals.
The biggest difference between these two bottom lanes is trust and comfort. Regardless of Hai's lack of experience in the support role, he and Sneaky trust each other. They've been friends and teammates for over three years, and they know how to play together. When they have small hiccups in lane, they know how to move onto the next stage in the game without skipping a beat.
Doublelift and YellOwStar are attempting to reach even half of what what the C9 bot-lane possess in terms of comfort and reliability. They're too talented of players and hard workers to not reach a higher plateau, but time is up -- it's do or die time for the spring season.
In spite of Doublelift having a much better season than TSM's regular season standing shows, it's Cloud9's complete belief in one another which gives them the leg up in the bottom lane.
TSM, if they keep the same starting five for summer, could be one of the best western teams. The talent is there. From everything I've heard from players and everyone surrounding the team, TSM have the drive and work ethic to be one of the best western teams. It's just the simple fact that they haven't fully gelled as a unit, and Cloud9, though not being perfectly in sync this spring, is the complete opposite. They're laid back, having fun with each other in practice, and have a leader in Hai who knows how to get it done in the postseason.
I still believe in the dream of this all-star TSM lineup. Unfortunately, those dreams look to be heading towards the clouds this Saturday.
Prediction: Cloud9 3 - 2 TSM