NA LCS introduced franchising ahead of the 2018 season, paving the way for new teams like 100 Thieves and Clutch Gaming to join the league.
What a first year it has been for those two sides, both of which have locked in their place in the playoffs. They’re joined by a revitalised Echo Fox and a consistent Cloud9 at the top of the standings.
Heavyweights that had been very active during the offseason, like Team Liquid and TSM, sit snugly in the middle of the standings, with a place in the playoffs far from guaranteed.
While the upsets and the uncertainty have increased the interest in the NA LCS, there are no relegations in the franchise system and thus the agony at the end of the regular season is centered around the playoffs race.
Final push for the playoffs
Heading into week seven, the league seemed to have settled on its top six. FlyQuest, Optic Gaming, Golden Guardians and Counter Logic Gaming seemed pretty much excluded from the playoff race. They were all at least two wins behind TSM, who were showing improvements at the time.
That was the case do three of those four teams that have already been mathematically knocked out of the playoff race.
However, against all odds, Counter Logic Gaming have experienced a surge to end the regular season, recording a four-game win streak, that puts them in contention for a place in the postseason.
With one week remaining in the regular season, four teams are locked into playoffs: Echo Fox, Cloud9, 100 Thieves and Clutch Gaming with any two teams being separated by only one win. This means that any team can still acquire the valuable semifinals bye.
How Counter Logic Gaming can make the playoffs
Three more teams are still in contention for playoffs: Team Liquid, TSM and CLG.
TL and TSM have the advantage of being two series ahead of CLG. They do not hold their own destiny in their hands, making their chances of progressing slim. In order for CLG to have a shot, one of the other teams needs to lose both of their games this weekend.
TL will face Cloud9 and Optic Gaming. While C9 is a formidable opponent, Optic have had an uninspiring split and they have been a bottom-tier team throughout, hence TL has a good chance of taking at least one game and ensure they make the playoffs.
TSM are also playing a rather underwhelming team in the face of Golden Guardians. While a win there will guarantee them a playoff berth, a loss leads to an all-out battle for a place in the playoffs against TSM on the last Sunday of regular season.
A triple tiebreaker is still possible since, in this case, all three teams will have a 1-1 record against their opponents.
However, CLG margins of success are still slim, given that if they are to advance, they will need to come through at least on tiebreak game too.
Even if CLG fail to salvage their Spring Split, it is worth analysing their problems and how, at such a late stage, they have found a way to snatch victories from the top five teams.
The one major change from the offseason was the substitution of Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black with Vincent “Biofrost” Wang in the support position. Jungler Omar “Omar” Amin was relegated to the academy team and his place was taken by YeuJin “Reignover” Kim. Even though his performance last year on Team Liquid was subpar, the team carried a heavy burden in this; his team was frequently behind in the early levels and his controlled, farming style of jungling only added to those problems.
Seeing that CLG had highly-proficient and experienced players in every position, most had grand expectations of this team. Riot Analyst Josh “Jatt” Leesman even predicted them to end first in the regular season.
Despite that, CLG’s start was riddled with problems that lead to a 3-3 score after the three first weeks, together with archrivals TSM. This was followed by an abysmal couple of 0-2 weeks, before they eventually bounced back.
Inconsistent showings have certainly been the name of the game for CLG. Characteristically, they are currently the only team to have a 2-0 record against Echo Fox, who have topped the standings since the start of the season.
The cause of CLG’s poor start
In the start of the split, while Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaya was still struggling in the top lane, the team tried to play through him.
He still has the highest percentage of First Bloods among tops in the league (43.8%). This, in conjunction with Reignover’s style in the jungle, had left Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun flailing in the mid lane. He tried several champions that ranged from the meta Zoe and Ryze picks, to the off-meta Fiora and Jayce. He tried to offerutility to his team with the Zilean pick and having side-lane pressure with Corki.
All-in-all, he tried 12 unique picks but the pressure around mid was too much to bear. This often lead to teamfights where the magic damage was lacking and if Darshan was not playing his Gankplank, damage was lacking overall, making CLG’s composition a one-damage-threat.
ADC Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes had his bright moments, but he could not single-handedly carry his team to victory.
While CLG survived the early game and had decent control over early game objectives like 1st tower (5th in the league) and First blood (joint first in the league), CLG’s game plan started faltering in the mid-game. The team has the second lowest priority on Rift Heralds in the league, just above Flyquest. Their baron set-up not been lacking, but they were committing to too many fights.
Throughout the regular season, CLG has had plenty of opportunities to rush down the baron but lack of vision clearance and the decision to turn on pretty much every Baron dance has harmed them.
When they pick Kalista (Kalista was picked three times during their six-game losing streak), they have strong baron control and they should play to this strength.
During the whole season, CLG had a dismal average of 0.69 per game. Likewise, during the last four games they secured five barons; during the other 12 played this season they secured six.
How CLG stepped up their game
What could have helped CLG reach their present level? While Biofrost is certainly a very adequate support, especially on the mechanical side, this left CLG in a shotcalling vacuum for a while.
At the start of the season everyone had mixed shotcalling duties. This did not work out and led to synergy problems, so during the last couple of games Biofrost has taken on the role of main shotcaller.
This is combined with a different priority in drafts. Darshan has been picking tanks again (after the first game of the split against C9), preferring Maokai and Chogath. Reignover has also been sticking to tank junglers. This gives Biofrost the freedom to pick playmaking supports like Rakan and Thresh. Stixxay can pick his usual aggressive picks like Caitlyn and Varus and in combination with an aggressive support he has more of an impact.
Huhi resorts to Orianna, a strong teamfighting pick. He usually has two tanks to deliver Orianna’s ball to the enemies, making her an excellent choice to these compositions.
Finally, Reignover with this kind of pick and ban is freed to put emphasis on the bot part of the map, helping to snowball the botlane and aiding Huhi during the laning phase.
Given Stixxay’s superb damage per minute (737), it seems that the team has found a formula for consistency by avoiding taking difficult to execute compositions and focusing on the botlane that have acquired the OP5 title for the last two weeks.
A 2-0 week seems quite likely now, but even in this case, a playoff berth is not guaranteed.
Nevertheless, regardless of whether CLG manage the biggest upset in recent years, the team seems ready to take the next step forward. If they manage to maintain their cohesion and playstyle, they will be strong contenders for the Summer Split.
But first, they have a weekend of exciting, do-or-die NA LCS action in front of them.