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Special to VPEsports: Kelsey Moser

Peng “Mni” Fang’s Tahm Kench accidentally Devoured a minion in arguably the most important team fight of the rookie’s LPL career to date.

Teammate Zeng “Metoer” Guohao’s Zac leapt optimistically toward Lee “LokeN” Dongwook’s Jinx as he had so many times before in the 43-minute game. Metoer missed, Jinx’s trap caught him in place, and Mni promptly pressed W on the nearby Cannon Minion before spitting it out in horror. Topsports Gaming took the opening to engage onto AD carry Xie “Jinjiao” Jinshan without a front line or without a Tahm Kench eat to peel for him. The ensuing team fight wasn’t close, and TOP marched for the Nexus and cemented the end of Bilibili Gaming’s 2019 Spring Season.

Throughout the split, BLG impressed with calculated resets to set up major objectives, and took team fights only on their own terms. It seemed almost fitting that BLG’s completely collapsed with a single mechanical error.

“I just wanted to say that if BLG played in any other region,” English language caster Clement Chu said from his desk in Shanghai, “there is no way this team does not make playoffs.”

But BLG’s loss set up the final 9-6 block for sixth to eighth place that rounded out the LPL standings going into playoffs. JD Gaming, EDward Gaming, and SinoDragon all finished just above BLG. Any sense of bitterness that BLG didn’t qualify after their strong first seven weeks washed away as soon as a question of who they could possibly replace arose.

BLG, naysayers might argue, brought more finesse and careful consistency than the erratic EDG or JD, and offered more depth than SDG. But Mni’s Tahm Kench Devour feels even more apt for it. EDG, JD, and SDG all have defined approaches to how they like to set up and play the map. It may not feel as controlled in some instances as BLG, but they also have something BLG lack: a clear, almost straightforward win condition player to carry the team fights that matter most.

JD Gaming’s reactive double TP

JD Gaming’s loss to EDward Gaming in the 2018 regional final left a shadow over the World Championship. Solo lane rookies Zhang “Zoom” Xingran and Zeng “Yagao” Qi had serious signs of star power and the shifting of the meta at the 2018 World Championship suggested that JD perhaps could have had a better showing than even RNG.

In 2019, when solo lane strength and versatility seem just as important, JDG have further disappointed by only just skidding into playoffs. Zoom, Yagao, and support Zuo “LvMao” Minghao remain consistent, giving JDG the same solo lane pillars that led to their success in 2018, but key roster changes occurred in jungle and ADC that didn’t seem significant on paper.

Jungler Kim “Clid” Taemin left for T1’s so far successful rebuild and LokeN joined Topsports Gaming, a team with a similar identity to Jing Dong that has managed to maintain a steady hold on top three of the LPL this split. While both Clid and LokeN were important pieces of JD, analytical consensus cast Sung “Flawless” Yeonjun and Gu “imp” Seungbin as side grades at worst.

JDG’s Flawless

These replacements have limited the depth of Jing Dong as a team. Flawless lacks some of the creativity Clid brought to the table, and JD still struggle to incorporate Đỗ “Levi” Duy Khánh effectively into their roster. But the largest struggle comes from the bottom lane. Imp’s win rate is 50% or lower on any champion not Kai’Sa, demonstrating that he is both on his own in games, and hasn’t adjusted well to his team not playing around him.

But top laner Zoom has a damage percentage of 25.1% for the regular season, higher than any other top laner who has played the majority of the season for his team except Victory Five’s Lim “Jinoo” Jinwoo. JD rely heavily on mid lane priority from Yagao’s best champions like LeBlanc, Zoe, and Lissandra. Flawless will play almost one-dimensionally through mid, then Yagao will roam top. Often JD will win the 3v3 against any team that tries to match them, and Zoom will either roll through his lane or scale well to do the majority of the damage in team fights.

While JD will likely fall to the reinvigorated wrecking ball that is Team WE with Jiang “beishang” Zhipeng, BLG would do the same — and most likely with less tenacity.

But the map around bottom lane is often black of JD, and imp over-extends to trade, resulting in frequent deaths. LvMao and imp look most comfortable in 2v2 settings where the entire map has matched top side, and they can outplay in a favorable matchup.

Any sneaky tactics from more subtle opponent junglers are frowned upon, and JD often overstay to get the last kill or try to force dragons if their opponents back for an item. It creates a small window for success before opponents come back to lane after respawning with an item lead. If they get caught then, double TPs are burned just to maintain a lead when resetting on an advantage would provide the same result.

Watching the rest of the map lose while Zoom secures two turrets top side or manages to 1v2 the jungler is something one will most likely never find in a BLG game. The reactiveness of a double Teleport into a Lissandra ultimate or the finesse of imp’s Kai’Sa ultimate don’t have the same predictability as Baron spawning in one minute and thirty seconds triggering every BLG back. In fact, JD are lucking if they back twenty seconds before Baron spawns and generally have to rely upon a blue trinket and a trademark double TP to get the objective.

And that’s enough for JD to average the same number of Baron’s secured per game as BLG.

While JD will likely fall to the reinvigorated wrecking ball that is Team WE with Jiang “beishang” Zhipeng, BLG would do the same — and most likely with less tenacity. BLG’s roster doesn’t have the mechanics to outplay from a disadvantage, and that may well be the entirety of JD’s advantage.

Photo by: Riot Games

The more EDward Gaming changes, the more they stay the same

EDG’s set-in-stone identity dates back to 2015. Since the introduction of Tian “Meiko” Ye, EDG have played around level six wombo combos in bottom lane, have had exceptional front-to-back teamfighting, and have lived and died by mid game transitions.

The most significant departure occurred with the more consistent introduction of Chen “Haro” Wenlin in 2018. While EDG still played around bottom lane, the EDG that appeared on the world stage in 2018 had more erratic tendencies, had lost some of the controlled team fight flavor, and threw a lead as easily as it secured it.

But after only winning five games of 12 in the first four weeks of 2019 LPL Spring, Ming “Clearlove” Kai, EDward Gaming’s franchise player, returned to the starting roster and has hardly left. In his ninth season of professional play, Clearlove has brought more stability to the EDG roster. You can still expect ganks bottom and the level six all-in. Like in the Invictus Gaming series in the last week of the LPL, EDG even went so far as to pick Xin Zhao for Clearlove, level two gank bottom lane after completing blue buff, and give up his entire high experience top side early all for Hu “iBoy” Xianzhao’s first blood.

Clearlove is also happy to play champions like Jarvan IV that give EDG a team fight focus. And Jeon “Ray” Jiwon having a higher rate of success on more split-push oriented carry champions like Akali or Jayce has finally provided EDward Gaming more dimension. But EDG get their leads in plates and pushing mid-game advantages. The objective is to rotate iBoy and Tian “Meiko” Ye around the map as early as possible, and EDG struggle to close without an advantage.

Even so, jungle creativity and a fast-pace gives EDG a matchup advantage against SinoDragon. A Clearlove-lead EDG has never placed below fourth in the LPL Playoffs. If EDG stick to their predictable identity, that’s likely to remain true.

SinoDragon’s rookie control

SinoDragon had to fight hardest of the three teams for their playoff spot, 2-0ing RNG and Suning in their Week 9 series. While JD’s and EDG’s losses after BLG’s 1-2 finish against TOP left a bitter sweet taste, SDG’s series conclusion broached no reproach.

SDG follow the same formula as a lot of newly qualified LPL teams that find success (2015’s Snake eSports, 2016’s Qiao Gu Reapers, etc). SDG have found select champions that work into their players’ identities and picked them whenever they were available.

For Jiang “Changhong” Changhong, it’s a 78.6% win rate, 14 games played Sion. Xiaopeng’s 10 games played Lee Sin has a 70% win rate. Bot laners Chen “GALA” Wei and Ling “Mark” Xu have played 13 games of Kai’Sa and 11 games of Galio respectively, boasting an above 80% win rate on the champion duo.

Watching the grace with which Xiaopeng handles skirmishes on his signature Lee Sin or Rek’Sai and the confidence GALA and Mark project in any team fight makes it clear why SDG made playoffs over BLG anyway.

Denying comfort picks seems like a good approach. The composition of Sion, Lee Sin, Kai’Sa, and Galio with Cassiopeia or a mobile mid laner that secures priority has clear execution in team fights. Galio and Sion position far forward and posture aggressively, Kai’Sa can self-peel and eliminate nearly any threat with an ultimate cast. Twila controls the zone in between.

But SDG’s systematic approach should make the BLG fan cheer harder for this team than any other. SDG can sense when they’re about to lose bottom turret, and always initiate early lane swaps to ensure a trade. SDG always make sure they back first for an objective to ensure an itemization advantage when Xiaopeng rotates to one side of the map. When SDG have a lead, they don’t lose it. Of 15 games in which SDG have secured first Baron in 2019 LPL Spring, they’ve won all 15 of them.

Expected champion and compositional dependency easily raise eyebrows for SDG. Rookie players default to certain champions because it’s easier to play the same pick over and over while learning game concepts at a higher level. Given all of SDG are LSPL or LDL raised Chinese rookies, comfort easily becomes a crutch they’ll have to adapt away from in Summer.

Expected champion and compositional dependency easily raise eyebrows for SDG.

SDG are also incredibly susceptible to bottom lane dives and rely on the comfort of blue side to keep a low range bottom lane duo like Kai’Sa and Galio safe. SDG boast a 72.7% win rate on blue side, but only a 38.5% win rate on red side. EDG’s preference for red side in the regular season could be SDG’s only saving grace.

But watching the grace with which Xiaopeng handles skirmishes on his signature Lee Sin or Rek’Sai and the confidence GALA and Mark project in any team fight makes it clear why SDG made playoffs over BLG anyway. This more than likely won’t be the split for SDG to make a deep playoffs run, but it’s the split they start their careers as legends.

Making the cut

No major region has gone through more changes in the past four years than the LPL. What it takes to be a top Chinese team has evolved to the point where one cannot easily define an LPL playoffs team.

Like Clement said, in any other league, BLG would have made playoffs. But perhaps also in any other year, careful standard macro and ward-oriented sensibility would have made playoffs in the LPL as well. 1-3-1s, sweeper lenses, and strangling opponents out of objectives are no longer revolutionary concepts in the LPL that can muscle out better players.

To make top 8, teams don’t just need setup — they need players who can make moments count. For JDG, EDG, and SDG, that was the difference.

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