Albus NoX Luna wasn’t supposed to be here.
A true Wildcard team, they came into the 2016 League of Legends World Championships as heavy underdogs. Most considered them in the bottom two of the 16 teams represented at the tournament, right alongside fellow Wildcard INTZ e-Sports.
Their first week at the tournament showed that they could not only compete, they could beat some of the best. They dropped CLG. They beat G2. They even put up a solid early-game fight against tournament favorites ROX Tigers. No one could have expected how well they were going to do…including ANX mid laner Michael “Kira” Garmash.
“In scrims, we were bad against CLG… But then, the game against CLG was pretty close, but vs. G2 it was not so hard,” he told Yahoo Esports. “When we started against ROX, it was pretty close, and we thought, ‘Oh my god, what the f*** is going on?’”
Their reaction was the same as most Worlds viewers. They were playing stuff like Anivia mid and Brand support. Those are supposed to be the kind of picks Wildcard teams pull out to try surprising someone, then ultimately lose because they’re kind of bad.
For ANX, though, they worked.
“We play like we want,” Kira laughs when asked about their off-kilter picks. He chose not to explain further.
Most of the time, when a so-called “lesser” team does well in the first week of an international tournament, they tend to fall off in the second week. Not so here. ANX kicked off Week 2 by beating CLG. Their next opponent would be ROX Tigers, a team that had demolished them in the first week and was poised to make a run at the Summoner’s Cup.
“We thought that we could do something against ROX, but they’re still Koreans,” Kira said. “Not a big chance [to beat them]. 50/50 but still not a big chance.”
One marathon of a game later, they did it. The Wildcard team out of CIS had brought down the best team out of Korea and cemented themselves as legends. Plus, their four wins earned them a spot in the quarterfinals.
“It wasn’t really easy to prepare [for ROX]. They were the number 1 Korean team, so we need to prepare everything to play against the team that has everything. Except for Aurelion Sol,” he said through a grin. “We knew they weren’t going to pick that.”
Despite it being a close game all the way through, Kira knew they were going to win from the moment Lee “KurO” Seo-haeng died twice in lane.
“It was when Syndra went 0-2 that we knew,” he said. “We had good set up, Syndra got rolled, and we could win it.”
The rest of the game was filled with crazy plays, bad calls on both sides, and more Baron steals than should ever happen in a game. The weirdest moment came when Kira roamed down to the Dragon pit on Viktor and began soloing the Elder Drake. It was an immensely gutsy call, and one that could have easily lost them the game.
“I told my team, ‘I will do the Drake, just…do something.’ They told me not to do it, but I did it anyway,” he said. ”I didn’t care.”
The Elder Drake call is the embodiment of ANX. They’re a creative roster with a willingness to take risks. They don’t overthink the game and they go with their collective gut. And so far at Worlds, it’s worked for them.
As the game ended, Kira was in disbelief.
“I didn’t realize [that we qualified] at first, but when we beat the Koreans, I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ We beat Koreans! 66 minutes! And if I didn’t play so bad, we could have won earlier. Jesus Christ, it was amazing.”
The big question now is whether or not they can keep the same mentality for the rest of the tournament. They’ve got European team H2K next on the docket in a best-of 5 series. And despite their win over ROX, they later collapsed against G2. They have to prove that they’re mentally tough enough for the big stage.
“In game 2 against G2, we were tired from 66 minute game, so we were like no, we are done. By then, we didn’t care about the next game because we had already qualified,” said Kira. “My thoughts were, ‘Okay guys, we’ll see a new city. I’m happy, I’m tired, let me go to sleep. Damnit, we have a game vs. G2.’”
The ANX mid laner says that the structure of the day and having to play three different teams in a row affected their ability to stay calm and just play their own game. He’s sure that they’ll be prepared for the quarterfinals, though.
“When you play a best-of series, it’s against one team,” he said. “You think about only them, you don’t have so many pauses. You’re prepared for something like this.”
He does want one thing to change about his roster.
“I want to improve my bot lane to farm until 20 minutes and have no deaths [laughs]. Please, please, please, please. Just farm. Please, guys. Maybe 10 minutes, if that’s more reasonable.
How will they work through those issues?
“I think we need to relax for a week, like we did before. Play some Warcraft.”
Stopping for a moment to gauge my reaction, he eventually broke into a smile.
“But seriously, we have good scrim partners now,” he continued. “Now, Taiwanese teams want to scrim with us, some Chinese. Now we will have more. We’ll be able to check some things, find out what works, what doesn’t work, how to train. We know what to train now.”
Taylor Cocke believes in Albus NoX. Follow him on Twitter @taylorcocke.