In defense of KT Rolster's final draft

Yahoo Esports
Deft after KT’s final loss to SKT in the 2017 Spring regular season (lolesports)
Deft after KT’s final loss to SKT in the 2017 Spring regular season (lolesports)

In back-to-back previews of what many fans are already referring to as this year’s World Championship final, 2017 League Champions Korea saw top Telecom teams, SK Telecom T1 and KT Rolster, wrestle for first place. Despite the excitement, SKT reigned supreme, and they appear poised to take yet another Champions split and represent Korea at the third consecutive Mid-Season Invitational.

Following the series, analysts characterized KT’s drafts as spiking earlier than SKT’s, forcing KT into a position where they had to snowball and close out quickly. Instead, I’d argue that KT frequently fumbled their execution more often than SKT, losing both three-game series with an overall record of 4-2.

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Analysts concluded that KT erred by picking for laning phase. KT chose matchups designed to snowball and had no major recourse in the event that they failed. Though they averaged a gold lead of 1,895 at 15 minutes across all six games, they failed to close. If KT had drafted a well-rounded composition, perhaps they would have stood more of a chance.

Yet, KT Rolster’s compositions didn’t “all-in on the early game” as much as it seemed. Many of their drafts required an early lead, which they acquired successfully in five of six of their games, but these drafts didn’t necessarily demand an early close as much as better map play overall to avoid grouping.

“Win lane, win game: how strong your lanes are determines how much freedom you have in the game,” KT’s Cho “Mata” Sehyeong told ESPN after the matches. But to optimize the freedom from an early lead, KT need to avoid dooming themselves in the mid-to-late game.

Instead of referring to KT and SKT’s approaches to draft as “early” vs “mid-to-late game,” I’d rather point out overall differences in their composition styles. KT’s strong lanes typically set up 1-3-1 compositions better, while SKT’s prioritized advantages in teamfight compositions.

Naturally, there are exceptions to this generalization. In the third game of the first series, SKT actually picked stronger or pushing lane matchups in Rumble against Gragas, Zed against Jayce, and Tahm Kench against Braum, setting up a 1-3-1 with Zed. However, even in that matchup, KT got a sizable early lead and struggled to close out partly because of failure to consistently execute Gragas’ Explosive Cask for disengage. In the second game of the third series, SKT had an earlier power spike with Nami, Renekton, and Corki. Side lane pressure from Camille and wave clear from Viktor made it harder for SKT to push back.

But KT still showed more affinity for spreading out the map rather than teamfighting. In four of six games, KT were criticized for picking early game compositions, and I’d argue they had a stronger ability to 1-3-1 in almost all of their matches.

Part of why I think KT’s style of drafting was frowned upon is the conventional wisdom that tanks make for better scaling compositions. Tanks scale quickly because of their ability to stack durability and execute surprising late game flanks that can easily turn and control a fight. Before recent patches, most teams globally tended to choose more tank top laners. It’s easier, and it provides a sense of late game insurance.

Faker after the second win over KT Rolster in 2017 Spring (lolesports)
Faker after the second win over KT Rolster in 2017 Spring (lolesports)

Faker after the second win over KT Rolster in 2017 Spring (lolesports)

It’s this notion that ease of execution and ability to teamfight naturally provides superior scaling that I want to challenge. As long as solo lanes out-perform their opponents in laning phase (which they generally should in scenarios where a pushing lane or counter matchup is chosen), an easy alternative to teamfighting and grouping exists for teams that pick top lane carries into tanks.

It’s rare for a tank to adequately answer side lane pressure exerted by a Jayce or Camille pick, so tank players have no choice but to force fights. If these fights go poorly, the advantage in objectives frequently goes to the top lane carry player as he chips away at turrets or forces multiple members to answer his push.

Because of this approach, SKT quickly changed their tactic from choosing Nautilus (a tank that nonetheless has a surprising amount of wave clear) against KT in the first series to Rumble, Gangplank, Renekton, and Rumble again. In all three scenarios, SKT tried to prioritize a strong matchup that would outpush Song “Smeb” Kyungho and prevent KT from easily executing a 1-3-1 — not just in the early game, but in the mid and late game.

KT changed their own approach in the third game of the second series to flexing their top lane pick. With the exception of the final game in the second best-of-three, KT picked their top laner before SKT. In the final game, SKT early picked Rumble, and KT tried to force an easier mid lane matchup by flexing Talon. This particular draft was heavily criticized for being too early game focused.

KT prioritized pushing matchups in every lane and picked up an AD-heavy composition, which is risky with Ninja Tabi providing 30 armor and 12% damage reduction at an extremely efficient cost. As a result, I’ll look at this game and draft in particular to point out where mistakes were made.

KT Rolster’s final draft (lolesports)
KT Rolster’s final draft (lolesports)

To an extent, Rumble traverses the tank-no tank dichotomy. With The Equalizer, he has the capacity for long-range engage that does heavy damage and punishes over-extension. He also frequently pushes out the lane early, which creates pressure for the jungler to invade. As a result, Rumble was picked or banned in all six games and won in all but one in which he was picked for these two series.

In order to get priority on bottom lane, KT banned Nami and Varus early instead of Rumble, opening the Rumble first pick. KT answered with Karma, and since they planned to pick strong lanes in general, they also secured Rengar. Though Rengar can get countered by Graves’ ability to clear, it’s hard for Graves to invade early without pushing lanes for his team, and he doesn’t necessarily have the ability to gank early to generate lane pressure. SKT choosing Ezreal also pre-empted the typical Jhin pick, as Ezreal counters Jhin.

KT rounded out their composition with the Jayce and Talon flex as well as Ziggs to set up a strong 1-3-1 that pushes quickly and can capitalize on any mistake made by SKT. They banned Tahm Kench to prevent SKT from catching them out in side lanes.

Rengar also allows KT to out-pressure SKT in a 1-3-1 setup. This is important because, even if SKT manage to last long enough to stack armor, Rengar can still apply side lane pressure to create 2v1 situations. Ziggs and Karma will have enough magic-based wave clear on their kits in this event to allow him to leave mid.

SKT answered this setup by picking poke with Ezreal and Zilean, as well as preventing assassinations when they were grouped with Lulu and Zilean. This puts increased pressure on KT to coordinate side lanes and split up SKT’s composition.

KT’s setup is still viable, even with Ninja Tabi’s current reign, if they realize their objective isn’t necessarily killing their side lane opponents. Talon, Jayce, and Rengar can still do competitive damage to the likes of Ezreal, Lulu, and Zilean. Edge of Night can limit some of SKT’s poke. The problem is that Lulu and Zilean’s ultimates will inflate SKT’s durability and prevent up-front assassinations. Both Jayce and Talon will have trouble 1v1ing Zilean. KT instead have to use most of their AD to take down turrets.

Even though KT’s composition becomes harder to execute in the mid and late game, they made mistakes early. Heo “pawN” Wonseok’s habit of over-extending was by no means new in the KT vs SKT matchup. It was evident  in the first game of the first series when Lee “Faker” Sanghyeok waited in the brush to chunk pawN in a matchup that should have favored him.

Historically, pawN has a habit of over-extending in lane early. With Song “Smeb” Kyungho appearing top lane late after leashing for Go “Score” Dongbin, Kang “Blank” Sungu could correctly assume Score had gone to the bottom side of the map and was either on gromp or scuttle. As such, he could gank mid lane from the top side of the map, and pawN was caught out by Faker’s stun and Blank’s burst.

pawN killed for over-extending (lolesports)
pawN killed for over-extending (lolesports)

SKT secured a second kill within the first five minutes of the game. The pressure from Blank shut down pawN’s ability to push out mid into Zilean, which opened up Score to more invades on the top side of the map by Blank as the match progressed.

Luckily for KT, SKT’s bottom lane made similarly foolish mistakes early into the matchup. They took unneeded harass from Kim “Deft” Hyukkyu and Cho “Mata” Sehyeong before creeps came to lane. Score capitalized on the push when he reached level 6. KT taking bottom turret early opened up the map and gave pawN the opportunity to start pushing a side lane earlier.

Deft’s move to the mid lane could stall SKT’s attempts to push out top with Ziggs’ ultimate. In this way, KT mitigated some of the early bleeding from Faker’s mid lane pressure, but ultimately by making this rotation, KT didn’t have an option to answer SKT’s top side dive attempts with their jungle and mid laner. As a result, both of their solo lanes couldn’t generate as much pressure for Score, and his movements were limited to the bottom half of his jungle.

This wouldn’t prevent KT from winning (especially as three Mountain Drakes spawned to give them a leg-up in turret pushing), but it’s easy to see the far-reaching cost of an early mistake. pawN’s mispositioning in lane cost them pressure in two lanes, and the gold value of that is difficult to immediately quantify. It’s inexcusable, especially since this is a mistake that pawN has made repeatedly, not just in this series.

For the better part of the game, KT were able to make smart decisions to counter SKT’s groups. Around 15 minutes in, Deft and pawN pressured mid and bot Tier 2 turrets in exchange for SKT diving Mata and Smeb in the top lane.

Deft and pawN pressure turrets in exchange for SKT’s group top (lolesports)
Deft and pawN pressure turrets in exchange for SKT’s group top (lolesports)

This type of reactive play highlights how KT’s composition can continue to be relevant into the mid or late game. By avoiding situations where they group, KT can wait for SKT to collapse on one side of the map, yielding objectives for free. If they struggle to push into one of SKT’s solo lanes, they can at least lock them out of a skirmish where they can have a greater impact in the middle of the map.

As Talon struggles to match either Rumble or Zilean later on, the best scenario is for him to split and for SKT to send Rumble to match, allowing pawN to push further on the other side while Ziggs clears mid. If SKT make a single error in positioning, Ziggs’ demolition on his W and ability to clear incoming enemy minion waves with ult will give KT far more objectives than they would acquire normally.

By 21 minutes, KT secured all six outer turrets. Even if SKT go for Baron in this scenario, the amount that KT could acquire simply by forcing mid in response with Ziggs could easily yield an inhibitor and prevent SKT from getting the most out of their Baron trade. KT set up a scenario in which they could either prevent SKT from going for Baron entirely or in which it would actually be favorable for them to allow SKT to take it.

At 25 minutes in, KT began to show signs of fraying. Rather than maintain a 1-3-1 (made much harder because Smeb had fallen behind in levels) or respond by trying to pressure inhibitor turrets (again, much more difficult), KT found themselves picked off trying to secure vision around the Baron area.

This came to a head at 27 minutes when Smeb pushed out the bottom side of the map enough for Kim “Profit” Junhyung’s Rumble to have to answer. In this scenario, Smeb keeping Profit to this lane by continuing to push would’ve helped his team, even if he couldn’t get through Rumble’s clear to deal damage to the turret.

In any altercation or push scenario, Rumble would be far more useful than Talon, who wouldn’t be able to assassinate a member of SKT at this point. Rumble would have to choose between joining his team or losing the turret to a less useful Talon.

Instead, Talon tried to sneak back mid and assassinate a member of SKT. The Zilean and Lulu ults bought enough time for Profit to return to the team, engage with The Equalizer, and catch KT in a teamfight that gifted SKT Baron. With both pawN and Deft dead, KT couldn’t trade for an inhibitor. The game then swung in SKT’s favor.

KT Rolster lose a teamfight instead of maintaining split (lolesports)
KT Rolster lose a teamfight instead of maintaining split (lolesports)

In assessing how KT lost to SKT, I wouldn’t say the problem was  not drafting a well-rounded composition. I’d rather argue that KT made several mistakes in both early and mid game that prevented them from executing their composition correctly.

KT’s composition in this game was certainly harder to execute in the mid and late game than a teamfight composition, but SKT prioritized picks that would have made it difficult for KT to teamfight against them anyway. Their best option was to avoid fights and take objectives, and their composition, with the ability to demolish structures with Ziggs and a heavy amount of AD, could have allowed KT to favorably trade Baron away completely.

KT’s major foils in this series were Tahm Kench and Rumble. They showed an over-eager willingness to position too far forward in lane. Especially with picks like Jayce, KT grouped too frequently instead of playing out the compositions they drafted. This highlighted the lack of coordination and understanding of their own compositions, not going all-in on an early game draft.

It’s easy to say that KT’s compositions relied too much on closing early if you assume that every team eventually has to group and teamfight, but this isn’t accurate. KT’s final composition had answers for SKT’s teamfighting.

In professional League of Legends, there’s tendency to pick compositions that are easy to execute. Compositions with tanks are often favored where possible because Maokai flanks are easier to initiate, and maintaining pressure in multiple lanes requires a high level of communication and objective awareness. KT haven’t demonstrated they’re capable yet.

But if the team had won their final game, they would instead be heralded as geniuses (or at least a team with very lucky dragon RNG). They had an alternative answer to SKT’s more straightforward and practiced playstyle. Despite the mistakes, I’d encourage them to pursue it. Perhaps by the 2017 Spring final, they’ll be able to pull it off.

You can follow Kelsey Moser on Twitter @karonmoser.

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