Pieces of past success: KT and SKT's bid for the top of LCK

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KT Rolster’s Smeb (lolesports)
KT Rolster’s Smeb (lolesports)

The threat of SK Telecom T1’s indefinite supremacy looms as a convenient excuse to dismiss the rest of the League of Legends story as it unfolds in the coming years. In some ways, it hasn’t been told well. Rather than ask when SKT will fall, many have assumed they’ve already won this season and each season to come. It’s made heavier by the weight of SKT’s history, a history that predates LoL.

But though SKT have doggedly remained the best team in the world for at least the past two years, they have stumbled. Challengers have emerged; Lee “Faker” Sanghyeok has faced would-be rivals, and SKT have lost best-of-fives.

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This year, KT Rolster pulled four of those challengers together to complement the last man who dared to assume Faker’s mantle and failed. Song “Smeb” Kyungho, perhaps to a heavy-handed or even forced extent, was pitted as Faker’s rival throughout 2016, but he stands out as the only member of KT Rolster’s current roster to have never defeated SKT in a best-of-five.

KT Rolster itself was the last team to topple SKT in a best-of-five, but only Go “Score” Dongbin, the team’s core player and a member since October 2012, remains. Score’s creative pathing proved instrumental in KT’s grueling five game set victory. Despite ultimately eliminating SKT from playoffs, however, KT could not keep it together for Worlds, and were supplanted by Samsung Galaxy.

Prior to KT’s defeat of SKT, their last loss was at the hands of EDward Gaming at the Mid-Season Invitational, with EDG becoming the only non-Korean team to have overcome Faker’s SKT. Three members hailed from mainland China, but both Kim “Deft” Hyukkyu and Heo “pawN” Wonseok were also part of the team.

Deft drew key bans on Jinx and positioned well to perform better as his team’s primary carry. Though pawN struggled against Faker in lane, his ability to sustain and prevent Faker from snowballing in Game 5 ran counter to pawN’s more reckless history. It opened the map for the rest of EDG to choke out SKT.

But pawN has an even longer history of beating Faker in a best-of-five, with the most notches in his belt of any member of KT. Often referred to as Faker’s kryptonite, this narrative has been largely overblown, but he has demonstrated a lack of predictability and stability in lane that occasionally mirrors Faker’s. One might liken him to ROX’s Son “Mickey” Youngmin, as his strengths are in aggressive play and positioning far forward in lane, but this playstyle that can easily backfire.

Before EDward Gaming, pawN defeated SK Telecom T1 K as a member of Samsung Galaxy Ozone and Samsung Galaxy White. Cho “Mata” Sehyeong, KT Rolster’s support, served as the pilot of the ship when Ozone and White defeated SKT T1 K in back-to-back Champions playoffs, and then one final time in a humiliating 3-0 tiebreaker to qualify for the World Championship.

Samsung White’s playstyle was nearly everything SK Telecom’s isn’t. With an incredibly fast pace that relied upon attaining Teleport advantage with jungle pressure and then looking to trade aggressively in the 2v2, White snowballed their leads by playing to deep vision. Their overenthusiasm cost them in teamfights in the mid and late game when White did manage to lose, particularly to sister team Samsung Blue.

It’s almost as if KT Rolster tried to draw from the wisdom of every team that succeeded in felling SK Telecom T1 in the all-important best-of-five and gathered it around Smeb for a final push. The two upcoming best-of-threes in the Telecom War will give us our first taste. If you’ve followed the story so far, it feels like a last gasp. At least that’s how it may well be remembered.

KT Rolster’s Score (lolesports)
KT Rolster’s Score (lolesports)

One common theme for all of KT’s laners is how they position in lane. Often seeking to pressure turrets early, KT  value being able to push out the wave and open the jungle. This is an intelligent but risky approach to building a team around a jungler like Score, who developed fantastically since his role swap into one of the most efficient junglers in the history of the game.

In 2016’s KT, Song “Fly” Yongjun usually exerted less mid lane pressure, preferring to leave lane and roam to help side lanes. This put more weight on Score to be careful when playing around his mid lane, and he usually gravitated more toward the top half of the map around Kim “Ssumday” Chanho.

KT have fashioned a team that gives Score a choice of lanes to play around, and KT have managed to pull off compositions that revolve around playing off leads in any of their three lanes. Score often uses entrances to the enemy jungle on the bottom half of the map near mid lane to create openings and control the dragon area.

Mid laner pawN, of course, is as inconsistent as ever, securing leads with the least reliability of KT’s three lanes. Still, when he sets up a control point to clear mid, it enables KT to find ways to rotate their duo lane.

KT find creative ways to protect deft in early sieges in the top lane: the perilous long lane that often results in less mobile AD carries and supports getting caught out after they leave bottom. In KT’s perfect game against Samsung, they used pawN’s Azir and Ziggs bombs to zone off the turret and dissuade collapses.

But the KT philosophy of pushing far forward in lane can often be their undoing. Against MVP, perhaps because KT drafted heavily for the early game, they showed a poor ability to react to the use of champion globals. Throughout the match, KT maintained  their fast play, but Tahm Kench wrecked their split-pushes in Game 1, and their dives were punished in Game 2.

In lane, as well, the need to keep all lanes pushed out as much as possible often means more wards, and balancing pressure in three lanes at once can spread an opposing team thin. But this requires strong communication with the jungler and an ability to react on the opposite side of the map if something goes awry. This is something KT do much better than I had originally thought they might, but it starts to fragment as the game progresses.

Looking at the teams from which deft, Mata, and pawN have hailed – teams that have defeated Faker’s SKT in a best-of-five – this willingness to constantly shove and make proactive plays has been a hallmark. It even aligns well with Smeb’s Tigers, though they fell short in that playing most frequently around top and jungle didn’t target the core of Faker’s bottom lane-directed map movements or tussles over blue sides Oracle buff.

Going into this year, SK Telecom T1’s roster building has appeared less conventional. They’ve thrown out stability in favor of more irascible pickups like Heo “Huni” Seunghoon and Han “Peanut” Wangho. Rather than falling back on the dogged approach to matching the enemy jungler that Bae “Bengi” Seongwoong provided, both of SKT’s current junglers have shown a  willingness to scrap.

Peanut has had less luck this time around, not adapting perfectly to a team that’s less interested in invading with him as a central figure and more looking to rely upon him as a standalone scout. But it’s unlikely his pickup was on a whim. SKT have leveled up their ability to create early game momentum this split over previous iterations as they look to pull together a team that matches Faker’s willingness to trade and engage his lane opponent early.

SKT’s Peanut (lolesports)
SKT’s Peanut (lolesports)

Like KT, SKT have also fallen against a team many ranked below the top 4 in LCK. With Faker taking poor trades and falling behind before their loss to Freecs, it’s clear this roster stutters without their mid laner as the core. Given Score’s and pawN’s tendency to pinch the jungle entrances around mid lane, this is going to be KT’s opening.

But if SKT’s biggest weakness so far seems to only come to light when Faker stumbles, that’s a difficult weakness to exploit. SKT still have catches in the early game integrating Peanut and using Huni as a more reliable tank player, but pulling in Kang “Blank” Sungu serves as something of a bridge between Peanut’s aggression and bengi’s patterned reliability. Blank was never really one or the other.

SKT often defy logical prediction, but this back to back double best-of-three Telecom War provides opportunities for both teams to adapt in the interim. Whoever triumphs in the first matchup may have a disadvantage in the second, as the losing team will be better able to identify their opponent’s strengths.

Short-term adaptability has always been that which makes SKT most terrifying, but pulling data also seems to be the name of KT Rolster’s game. They’ve drawn together pieces of rosters that have found success against Faker’s SKT. KT perhaps believe that, if they dig deep enough, there’s a reliable method for felling Korea’s giant.

You can follow Kelsey Moser on Twitter @karonmoser.

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