At the end of opening night at the Mid-Season Invitational, SK Telecom T1 were the undisputed best team in the world. Three-peating champions in League Champions Korea. Intel Extreme Masters World Champions. Summoner's Cup winning World Champions. The first two games of MSI were so simple against Turkey's SuperMassive and the European victors, G2 Esports. T1 walked all over them, blowing both out with ease in two complete romps. Of course, SuperMassive wasn't the toughest team to draw on day one, but it was how SKT T1 went about it.
Calm. Collected. Graceful.
After the first day, however, there has been nothing graceful about T1's play: Four straight defeats. Sloppy, harebrained play. A lack of communication. Obvious tells of frustration on the players faces during the game. Little mistakes that become mountains of misfortune by the time the game comes to a close.
The beautiful painting SKT T1 once displayed -- for the time being, at least -- has turned to ash.
Since the merging of SK Telecom T1 S and K back at the start of 2015, the squad has played a beautiful counterattacking style that forces the enemy team to play flawlessly to win -- strong enough to win games through the laning phase, yet savvy enough not to rely solely on mechanical prowess. When T1 rampaged through the 2015 Riot World Championships and took home its second Summoner's Cup with an overall tournament record of 15-1, it was like watching a painter finish a great masterpiece.
The team was fluid and clean. Jang "MaRin" Gyeong-Hwan and Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok painted Summoner's Rift in the colors of their choosing. SKT T1's five members moved as one brush; if one was caught, two would appear right behind them to begin an advantageous skirmish. Unlike other teams who enjoyed brute forcing the issue and creating mass hysteria brawls, T1 picked people apart with skirmishing and smart play around the map.
Bae "Bengi" Seong-woong, the team's longtime starting jungler, wasn't the best player in the world. His mechanics left a lot to be desired, and he had a tendency to go into hibernation depending on certain patches and champions. But, the one thing you could count on with Bengi was intelligent play. As his career went along, Bengi played like a wily veteran who knew his and his team's limits. There would be times where he would be invisible or a non-factor against a better, technically better jungler, yet it wasn't often you would point him out as the main issue on the team. For all of his shortcomings, Bengi made up for it with his synergy, along with the team's ace Faker and diligent work ethic.
On the 2015 championship team, you had the flashy creators like Faker, MaRin, and even Bae "Bang" Jun-sik on the map, weaving through the opponents with a mixture of skill and flair. Bengi was the person in the middle who did all the heavy lifting. The end product was gorgeous and pristine, however, it was Bengi's hard work in the early game and behind the scenes that allowed the team's stars the paint to coat the canvas.
Today's iteration of T1 is similar but also severely different. Gone from the 2015 Cup-winning team is the squad's captain MaRin, who signed with China's LGD Gaming in the offseason. Bengi, the backbone of the team, was moved into a substitute role due to the meta not favoring his champion pool, coupled with rumored health issues. In their places, T1 brought in the former LCK MVP Lee "Duke" Ho-Seong in the top lane and relative rookie, high-ranked solo queue player Kang "Blank" Sun-gu for the jungle.
The main difference between MaRin and Duke is their communication. MaRin, who was credited for a lot of T1's swift movements on the map as a main in-gamer, was transitioned out for the stoic, soft-spoken Duke. Instead of yelling and telling his team to move forward into battle, Duke is more of the type to sit back, assess the situation quietly and chew on the same piece of gum he's been savoring for the past six hours.
Skill-wise, you could call it a wash, with maybe even an edge towards Duke. On NaJin, Duke was the major carry a majority of the time, forced into the role of either making his team succeed or watch as the ship sunk. So it was a bit of a system shock when he transitioned into a team with a consistent carry in the mid lane and AD carry roles. While the first few months were rough for Duke, he's primarily been solid since the second half of the spring split started up, being one of the keys to SKT T1's perfect victory at the IEM World Championships in Katowice, Poland.
In the jungle role, Blank has been the complete opposite of Bengi. He has twice the skill but none of the experience and pathing talent. Where Bengi can become invisible when he's doing poorly, it's obvious when Blank is having a bad game. He makes small mistakes, gets caught in the jungle during his pathing, and is noticeably shaken when things don't go his way.
At IEM Katowice, he was amazing. The jungle carry meta was perfect for him, and he outclassed the other junglers at the event en route to SKT T1's demolishment of all the teams there. His synergy with Faker still wasn't the greatest, and the overall teamplay wasn't as good when compared to the 2015 version of SKT, but he was a bigger playmaker than Bengi. Instead of reacting to situations and supporting, he was the one who could go in, pick fights, and start a successful chain reaction.
Over the course of the past two days at MSI, we've seen all the bad sides of Blank that people harped on when he first took over for Bengi. It's little, minuscule things he does wrong which doesn't necessarily hamper his team, but breaks up the flow. He has repeatedly messed up transferring the blue buff over to Faker. He has been seen and collapsed upon in the early-game when trying to counter-jungle. When the opposing team's jungler is putting pressure on the strong side of the map (where all the action is), Blank will be meandering about on the weak side, picking up a few gold coins as his teammates are getting swarmed.
SKT T1's distressing 0-4 slump isn't all Blank's fault, to be fair. Faker had the worst game of his career against Royal Never Give Up on the second day. Bang, usually a positional genius, has been ahead of the pack a few times and found himself getting deleted. For everything Blank does wrong, another member on the team is also making a mistake. While Blank has been the worst member of SKT T1 this tournament, he is by no means the only poor performing player.
At T1's best with this lineup, it can put on a great performance. Duke is a versatile threat in the top lane. Blank, as I mentioned before, can be proactive and be the firestarter in place of Bengi's role of the extinguisher. The biggest change from 2015's team to now is the change of Bang's role as utility player that sometimes carries to full-time ace who the team routinely builds compositions round. MaRin's held nearly 25 percent of his team's damage last year, which has transitioned into about 19 percent with the introduction of Duke. T1 has shifted more into an a mid/bottom-lane team centered around Bang instead of a mid/top-lane team.
When T1 are put on the back foot, it can resemble the team it once was with MaRin at the helm. The players are great at playing a defensive, turtle-shell style when things don't go their way in the early-game. As we saw against Royal Never Give Up, the kiting ability from the team was world-class, and T1 stalled out the game thirty minutes longer than even a top level team could. Things fell apart, though, when the team tried to play too aggressive for a final fight around dragon, and RNG, the better team fighting squad, prevailing in the close match.
The 2016 SKT T1 team, or at least the current form at MSI, can survive against any team in the world. Regardless of how it starts the game, the players are smart and coordinated enough to stretch out a game until the 40-minute mark. The players don't leave up a lot of holes, and the opposition will primarily need to play a masterful game to defeat them in the end. If you make a mistake, as RNG did a few times in its match, you can find yourself holding on for dear life.
"Is reinserting Bengi going to make T1 the same as last year? No, and it might not even turn its losses into wins."
The 2015 SKT T1 team from the summer, after coming together over the course of a year, didn't just hang onto games -- the players instilled fear into you. The team gave up early leads a few times, and it didn't even feel like it was an issue. It just felt like a matter of time until the gold would start shifting into T1's favor. If you made one mistake against that team, it didn't mean the game would be prolonged like the match against RNG yesterday -- it meant game over. Bengi would take control of the entire jungle, MaRin would be tearing you apart at the seams with his deft split-pushing, and Faker would be on the other side of the map doing the same thing. A single Baron power play would turn into a Nexus destruction.
Watching the two teams, you could give the mechanical edge to the 2016 side. When Blank is rolling or Bang is going off on a hyper carry, the team is a wrecking ball no team can stop. Nonetheless, it's the trust, the comfort, which makes the '15 side currently superior to today's iteration, even when the team is at its best.
The 2016 team is a whole lot of fun to watch when it's doing well and firing on all cylinders.
The composition of MaRin, Bengi, Faker, Bang, and support starter Lee "Wolf" Jae, at their peak, were boring. They took over the map and did whatever they wanted with it. It was no fun watching them methodically and artistically rip the opponent to shreds. Samsung White from 2014, the other team in the running for greatest League team of all-time, were the yin to last year T1's yang. White were innovative, crushing, and impactful in all of its wins. 2015 T1 were so coordinated and in sync it didn't need to pull out rabbits from their hats. Faker, the player with possibly the biggest competitive champion pool in history, wasn't even forced to go into second gear at last year's World Championships due to how one-sided T1 performed.
Blank is an exciting player, and assuredly more explosive than Bengi. Bang from this year is a much bigger name than he was last year due to his headlining role on the new T1. Duke is reliable in the top lane. Wolf is more consistent than his former self. And Faker, while playing more around Bang than being the centerpiece like last year's team, can fit any role he's given.
Yet, the beauty isn't there when I watch them play. The hardworking Bengi, getting his hands dirty in the opening minutes of the game to layout the foundation for the art that was about to be displayed. MaRin's authoritative shot-calling and slick split-pushing. Bang and Wolf unbreakable in the laning phase. Then Faker at the center, filling in whatever role he's put into, connecting everything together to make T1's victory absolute.
Is reinserting Bengi going to make T1 the same as last year? No, and it might not even turn its losses into wins, but it would bring back a sense of comfort from the team that is sorely lacking. On the team last year, Faker could trust in Bengi and MaRin, his two main partners on his map. Bengi for support, and MaRin to put the pressure on elsewhere on the map. As we've seen with the Blank and Faker partnership, there is obvious potential and a great amount of talent between the two. The two just don't have the same bond as other partnerships in the tournament who've been playing together a lot longer like with Royal Never Give Up and the Flash Wolves. Blank has the talent, yet lacks the experience and trust with Faker.
Bengi, alone, is boring. Average. A reliable cog.
Faker, alone, is amazing. World-class. The best.
Faker and Bengi together? That's when the masterpiece starts to take shape. And maybe it's worth a shot at MSI.