Down two games to SK Telecom T1, Samsung Galaxy announced that Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong, Lee "Stitch" Seung-ju, and Kwon "Wraith" Ji-min would start the third game Tuesday, Aug. 15.
"Haru's leaving the booth," SPOTV caster Brendan "Valdes" Valdes said. "He's taking his- that's also [Park "Ruler" Jae-hyuk] leaving the booth? That's a new AD carry there, we have lots of substitutions. [Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in] even with his stuff going into the bag."
"What? What is going on?" fellow caster Alberto "Crumbz" Rengifo asked.
"This is going to be a big replacement as we go to the commercial, guys," Valdes said.
Haru, Samsung's breakout star of spring, had only played seven total games onstage for his team in 2017 LCK Summer. Stitch and Wraith had played none.
The charged atmosphere that accompanies all high-profile League of Legends Champions Korea matches escaped the Nexon Arena, nearly audible even from blinking monitors halfway across the world. Samsung's cheer captain tried her best to revitalize the crowd with one final "One, two, three, SAMSUNG FIGHTING!" The "T1 FIGHTING" cheer that followed dwarfed that of Samsung, echoing throughout the arena.
"What can we expect out of this lineup? Most likely a loss." Crumbz said, just before the game started. "But maybe they could surprise us."
Thirty-two minutes later, Crumbz was proven right. The third match between SKT and Samsung was a comedy of errors that kicked off with Stitch rocket-jumping with Tristana under his own turret impatiently to a completely avoidable death. It wrapped up with a so-called "toilet issue" for Samsung's Lee "CuVee" Seong-jin that caused an in-game pause before SKT finished unceremoniously mopping the floor with Samsung's carcass. Perhaps the top laner was made so violently ill by his own team's performance.
This isn't the first time Samsung has substituted Ambition, Stitch, and Wraith as its secondary line in a must-win Game 3 series. It did the same against KT Rolster in the 2017 LCK Spring playoffs, leading to a loss against a greedy KT composition that revolved around Kim "Deft" Hyuk-kyu's off-meta favorite, Jinx.
Neither of these 0-3 playoff series are good looks for a team that took SKT to a full five games at the 2016 World Championship, giving audiences the closest Worlds Finals series in years. If Samsung wants to make the World Championship this year, it'll have to run the Regional Qualifier gauntlet.
Samsung is no stranger to substitutions. Although these Game 3 line changes reeked of team mentality issues and a quick surrender, Samsung succeeded in 2016 and 2017 thanks to key player substitutions that showed a strong understanding of the team's core strengths. In the 2016 Regional Qualifier, Samsung gave the starting support nod to former Bigfile Miracle and Team Dignitas AD carry Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in. At first, this too appeared as a desperation move, much like its more recent Game 3 shifts to Ambition, Stitch and Wraith.
Yet, CoreJJ was exactly what Samsung needed at the time: A strong laning support to aid then-rookie AD carry Park "Ruler" Jae-hyuk as the meta shifted to one of complete lane dominance. Wraith had served his time as Ambition's right-hand man throughout 2016, setting up vision rotations and roaming while Ambition further adjusted to the jungle position. Fully acquainted with the jungle by the end of 2016, Ambition didn't need Wraith anymore, especially with Lee "Crown" Min-ho performing so well in mid lane. At Worlds, Crown stole the show, but it was CoreJJ behind the scenes who helped shape the support meta and backed up Ruler en route to becoming a surprisingly strong bot lane on the international stage.
In 2017 LCK Spring, Samsung relied on another substitute to transform the team, former CJ Entus jungler Kang "Haru" Min-seung. Haru was one of the top junglers throughout the spring split, relying on Crown's control of the mid lane and Samsung's generally strong lanes to overwhelm enemy junglers with risky but rewarding invades. Samsung swapped back to Ambition for the 2017 Summer Split, which again showed a strong understanding of how the team worked.
With Crown underperforming, to say the least, for most of the summer, Samsung knew that the team didn't have the same mid lane control that had helped them in 2016 and early 2017. This meant that Haru wouldn't have escaped with his life and the opposing jungler's farm on the same invades that characterized his play in 2016 Spring. As the steadier jungler and far more experienced player, Ambition was often able to steer Samsung in the right direction for most of summer regardless of Crown's mid lane woes and a meta shift away from mage supports that hurt CoreJJ's effectiveness.
Given Samsung's prior experience and intelligent substitutions over the past three splits, the team's recent roster decisions are concerning. The fact that Samsung decided to start Haru over Ambition is of particular note, since recent changes to the jungle meta are ideal for Ambition's farm-heavy style, and Crown was still struggling prior to the demoralizing loss to SKT on Tuesday. Ambition is also the stronger teamfighter, preferring to farm early before joining up with his teammates for turret pushes or advantageous skirmishes in the mid game. Without his direction, Samsung almost appeared to accept the loss at times, bleeding out in a slow death at the hands of SKT.
This isn't to say that Samsung's losses are Haru's fault. Samsung drafted three losing lanes in Game 1 (Cho'Gath, Taliyah, Tristana and Taric against SKT's Kennen, Lucian, Caitlyn and Alistar) and the team's fate was quickly sealed by an exemplary Lucian performance from Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok. Crown held the mid lane a bit better on Orianna in Game 2, leading to a few bot-side jungle invades from Haru, but the teamfighting coordination was lacking and was exploited by SKT once the game went late. Game 3 was a flat-out surrender, like the one against KT in 2017 LCK Spring.
As the dust settles and sides are drawn as to whether Game 2 is solely on Samsung's inability to set up its tank line for Crown and Ruler, or simply another impressive outplay from SKT and Faker, Samsung has deeper concerns than having to face Faker's Fizz again. The Game 3 capitulation by way of substitutes, and starting Haru over Ambition in Games 1 and 2 speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of the team itself, something that Samsung has previously excelled in.
The next chapter in the Telecom War will determine the first team from Korea to qualify for the 2017 World Championship: SKT or KT. Samsung's last chance at this year's Worlds lies in the upcoming Regional Qualifier. There, this same team will have to defeat one of SKT or KT at the very least in order to once again claim Korea's third seed, like it did in 2016 with its surprising upset over KT. Based on its most recent series against Longzhu Gaming and SKT Samsung's level of play is not up to par. Samsung will not make Worlds like this.