There's always a second time for everything.
Unicorns of Love has returned for a second year in the LCS, following a successful 2015 campaign, as they were three games away from reaching the World Championship. The team that beat them, Origen, went on to captivate the Western League of Legends fanbase as they attempted to make SK Telecom T1 bleed in the 2015 World Championship.
For UoL and Origen, the world stage was a best-of-five series away. In 2016, an LCS semifinal berth lies a bo5 away.
Times have changed.
As G2 Esports crashed the LCS party in style, en route to a top spot finish, and as H2k-Gaming cashed in on their big offseason heist, Origen and the Unicorns of Love looked from the outside as they tended to ailments of their own.
But only one squad will make it right. It could be Origen, the squad that has remained unaltered on paper for the most part, except that they have acquired Tristan "PowerOfEvil" Schrage to give breathing room to Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martinez, as the latter's juggles with ownership responsibility and practice proved unmaintainable on the long run.
That move also provided the squad with an interesting challenge: how PowerOfEvil adapts to his surroundings on Summoner's Rift, and how his teammates adapt to him. Given his statement in a recent interview with Sport1.de's Karina Ziminaite, the squad didn't click yet. "You could see that, with Peke, they kinda trust each other a little more," he said. "In game, if you don't fully trust in a call, you don't follow it instantly or you question it, it can go really bad."
Despite that, and despite the different champion pools the two mid laners sport, Origen ended the season two games behind Vitality. The team's record with xPeke may not include any of the Top three squads, but a 3W-0L showing remains promising, especially in light of the emergency nature of his first two apparitions (PowerOfEvil taking rest due to illness).
Whether xPeke and PowerOfEvil share playing time, or whether one of them plays throughout the entirety of the series, they can rely on Alfonso "mithy" Aguirre Rodriguez's shot-calling and Maurice "Amazing" Stückenschneider's assistance to capture early-game objectives, especially when the squad or their opponent performs a lane swap.
Come what may, Paul "sOAZ" Boyer remains as instrumental to the team's success as he was throughout his five-year playing career. Stats may depict a bleak picture, with a 54.2 percent kill participation (the lowest in the LCS among top laners) and a tendency to play from behind (-210 gold differential at the 10-minute mark).
Yet, it is a consequence of Origen's approach to the game (with a high prioritization on Dragons (67 percent of first Dragons claimed, highest among playoff teams), and on the problem opponents face past the early game: lose an inhibitor to a split-pushing sOAZ, or lose Baron Nashor.
Regardless of the squad's choices, Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen has delivered mind-boggling performances throughout the split. His damage per minute is the highest in the LCS period (658), and he is capable of amassing tremendous gold leads quickly (at a pace of 315.6 gold per minute on average, the highest in the league).
But the Unicorns of Love stand in their way.
During the offseason, UoL hired several players who had something to prove, and prove they did.
Once a placeholder for Martin "Rekkles" Larsson, Pierre "Steeelback" Medjaldi was elected into the EU LCS Spring Season's First Team, and he would have won the Most Improved Player award by a long shot had it existed. The numbers speak for themselves: 88 kills (highest this season), a 6.8 KDA ratio (second to H2k-Gaming's Konstantinos "FORG1VENGRE" Tzortziou), 658 damage inflicted per minute (second to Zven) and 12.8 percent of his team's death tally (the best among playoff squads).
Steeelback's reliability allowed his support, Zdravets "Hylissang" Iliev Galabov, to regain the confidence that was lost during the 2015 LCS summer split, allowing the latter to endeavor away from the bottom lane when possible and play the vision game.
On the other side of the map, Kiss "Vizicsacsi" Tamas has become one of the squad's primary shot callers, in part out of necessity; Hampus "Fox" Myrhe has proven LCS-worthy after SK Gaming's downfall, but his communication does not often involve calling shots. In addition, Danil "Diamondprox" Reshetnikov, who showed he was as reliable as ever, left Berlin as the "visapocalypse" descended upon the LCS in Europe and North America.
UoL's jungle has been a revolving door since then, but the latest tenant of the role, Jean-Victor "loulex" Burgevin's play was not UoL's main issue down the stretch. In fact, despite the team's 2W-4L record (a record that would have been 3W-3L record had UoL not been impatient against Origen on Week 8), he helped UoL in its quest for the highest First Blood ratio among teams in the LCS (72 percent), and participated in 76.4 percent of his team's takedowns on average, more than his predecessors.
What's the prognosis?
UoL is unable to build an early-game lead consistently, as the squad scores a paltry 256 gold deficit at the 15mn mark on average. Although UoL is one of the most bloodthirsty squads in the LCS and heavily favor team fights, Origen matches them in intensity, the body count across both sides averaging two deaths on each side every three minutes.
The way kills are parlayed into other advantages are what separate the two squads.
The Unicorns of Love tend to drag games to extreme lengths, primarily due to their ability to come back from deficits through turret takedowns and open up the map. As they let their team-fight centric compositions ramp up and choose their confrontations carefully, their games last more than 37 minutes on average.
Origen's approach is systematic tower takedown, whether it involves sOAZ, Zven, PowerOfEvil or xPeke. Split-pushing is Origen's forte, but the squad sometimes builds tunnel vision to a fault, leaving themselves vulnerable to team fights without their primary source of damage or their primary means of disengage.
The difference maker may be xPeke, as Zven conveys a compelling argument in an interview with theScore's Marcel "dexter" Feldkamp; "The way Peke communicates is close to home. Peke is very good at communicating what he's doing, what he can do, and he's playing ahead of himself."
Such forward planning would help mithy make the right call, and help sOAZ and Zven decide when a push would yield dividends. But the Unicorns of Love will not yield without a fight, especially if they take a less risky approach to finishing games (unlike Origen vs. UoL on Week 8).