Like champions that fall in and out of favour in League of Legends, professional teams have changed over the course of the lifespan of the game, and tonight’s Legend match between CJ Entus and NaJin e-mFire is a fantastic reminder of how far the game has come, particularly in Korea. For NaJin e-m-Fire, their history is as storied and as fascinating as they come, made even more dynamic by its original team’s split into the two entities known today as NaJin White Shield and NaJin Black Sword.
A comparison between the two teams over the past year is almost as black and white as their names imply. For NaJin Sword, their up-and-down season 3 is reflective of their incredible individual talent, but inconsistency and a lack of direction has resulted in disappointing performances and initial inability to adapt to season 4. NaJin Shield, ever the opposite, has grown steadily in their teamwork and impeccable strategy, but has yet to taste victory at the highest levels due to merely average individual mechanics and playmaking potential.
The roster changes leading up to both Champions Spring 2014 and LoL Masters seem to have flown under the radar compared to more apparent moves made by other groups, such as KaKAO’s swap to Arrows and CJ Entus Frost’s apparent absorption of the remnants of Xenics Storm. It’s easy to write off these changes as done out of necessity due to Jeong “NoFe” No-chul’s retirement from the Jungle position for Shield, but the switch for Cho “watch” Jae-geol from Sword and his replacement, Shin “Helios” Dong-jin, have had incredible payoffs for both teams respectively so far. They both comfortably have a win in hand in their respective groups in Champions Spring, and the NaJin organization as a whole are at a deceiving 1-2 in LoL masters, with tough, hard-fought losses to Samsung Galaxy and SK Telecom T1.
Leading up to the inauguration of Helios in the jungle (and season 4 in general), Sword’s play has been characterized as dynamic and very balls-to-the-wall, but is often over-reliant on individual playmaking and a brute-force skill approach. With the Korean scene trending towards an emphasis on strategy, team composition, and map movement, the necessity of a dedicated, competent shot-caller leaves the team in need of a steady player like Helios. His past experience playing for CJ Entus, an organization historically known for their teams’ end-game dominance through immaculate shot-calling and execution of their strategy, has translated into a much calmer, more controlled iteration of NaJin Black Sword that knows when to turn on the teamfight prowess or when to target an objective.
Helios will draw bans here and there for his work on Evelynn, which he has heavily emphasized ever since the start of Masters in which he snowballed first blood against Choi “InSec” In-seok and the KT Rolster Bullets to a dominating 6/1/10 finish, outclassing the now-benched Yoon “Zero” Kyung-sup. His most impressive play thus far comes from Sword’s match against Samsung Galaxy Ozone in week 4, where his 0/2/0 belied his actual performance in a game that saw barely any kills, but many towers pushed, thanks to his very quick and tight shot-calling.
Teams that play against Sword will be given Sophie’s choice of bans, as NaJin’s support player Jang “Cain” Nu-ri has been playing out of his mind on both Annie and Thresh. His Thresh play focuses mainly on providing mobility and perfect peel in team-fights for his AD Carry, Kim “PraY” Jong-in. PraY’s recent foray into late-game scaling champions such as Twitch and Vayne are of note, though Twitch in particular has made louder waves in the professional scene. He is the only person to play it well, and does so with an incredibly modal precision, either farming empty lanes or immediately sieging turrets with his team.
In this sequence outside of the dragon pit against Jin-Air Greenwings Falcons, the team fails to secure the objective, but engages in a tiny skirmish that gives them a consolation kill onto the enemy jungler. Instead of fully pursuing the teamfight back into the Jin-Air jungle, Sword smartly rotates to the mid-turret, but PraY is already there clearing the minion waves as he was unable to assist with confronting the dragon fight.. This leads to a nice sequence of good team decisions.
Sword recognizes they are unable to successfully take down the mid inner turret, so Limit cycles towards blue and secures the steal, in which Cain manages to lantern them out before Jin-Air arrives to contest.
NaJin Black Sword currently has 3 points in Champions Spring 2014 with a 2-0 win against the Falcons. They still have an incredibly tough pair of matches against KT Rolster Bullets and Samsung Galaxy Blue. Of the three teams, Sword appears most likely to reliably compete at a consistently high level against the other two. They have the talent to match, but have executed team strategies much more effectively than the others so far. With Blue and Bullets splitting their series with a somewhat shaky Set 2 performance from both sides, Sword’s play of late is worthy of advancement to the bracket stage, which they have yet been able to do with Champions’ 4-group format.
Of the two sister teams, NaJin White Shield is the one that has not been marred by disappointing finishes and uncertainty. The team’s prospects heading into the spring tournament were incredibly high, placing fourth in Champions Winter against a very angry Bullets team that was once again eliminated early by SK Telecom T1. Winter was their coming out party, showcasing that a solid fundamental team strategy with average talent could overcome individual talents, epitomized in their convincing quarterfinals win against the dark horse of the tournament, Xenics Storm.
NaJin e-mFire’s decision to move watch over to Shield to bolster the roster’s talent is an acknowledgment of the importance of both talent and team cohesion. Watch fits White Shield’s lineup much more than he does in Sword’s, and it’s mostly due to the shot-calling and coordination that’s already in place. In Shield’s system, watch only needs to worry about setting up his lanes for success, as his mechanical skill and playmaking helps Shield survive the early game, where their individual matchups are more prone to be exploited.
Yu “Ggoong” Byeong-jun’s champion diversity in the mid-lane is formidable, showing considerable strength with Gragas and Kassadin (RIP). He sees success playing mobile champions to suit the needs of his team composition, which mostly revolve around fast, crisp rotations and heavy burst damage. Along with Shield’s standout bottom lane of Lee “Zefa” Jae-min and Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon from Jin-Air Greenwings Falcons, the familiarity between those three players have paid off dividends for team cohesion, which they built over the course of the following Winter tournament.
It’s a roster overhaul that serves as a precursor to CJ Entus Frost’s collective acquisition of Xenics Storm members Baek “Swift” Da-hoon and Shin “Coco” Jin-young to shore up their own roster weaknesses. It’s no surprise that these particular moves came from management of two long-running, perennially competitive organizations.
What White Shield collectively lacks in raw talent, they make up for with superior map awareness and team coordination. In their games against Xenics Storm in Champions and against SKT T1 K, they have proven that they are the most adept at utilizing minion waves to their advantage. If CJ Entus Blaze popularized the slow push minion wave, then White Shield mastered it, utilizing this strategy in conjunction with the threat of Baron to take free towers and inhibitors in the bottom lane.
It’s a testament to Shield’s minion control and strategy that they managed to use minions to emerge victorious against Storm’s superior team-fighting composition and play an incredibly close game versus SK Telecom T1 K, a team that is mechanically superior at essentially every position. Using both Storm and SK as a sort of barometer to gauge Shield’s ability to teamfight, it seems as though they’ve improved a significant amount in mechanics since their run in Champions Winter, and they’re only going to get better.
In this fight against Xenics Storm, Pantheon attempts a well-positioned Grand Skyfall on the back side of White Shield, but GorillA activates Song of Celerity and Talisman of Ascension to not only escape the zone in which Pantheon falls, but also dodges Zigg’s Mega Inferno Bomb, while at the same time outrunning Shyvana’s Dragon’s Descent.
It’s also worth noting that not only does Shield retreat perfectly, but they do so in away to allow the counter-engage to occur. LeBlanc’s retreats through the jungle allowing her to set up for an out-of vision burst combo if the enemy comes too close. She establishes presence by not being present at all. The unseen Ggoong is the deadliest.
To counteract the enemy team’s pursuit with On the Hunt active, Gorilla lands a perfect crescendo on the entire team, nullifying the engage. The Sona pick seems strange at first glance judging from Champion Select alone, but it’s a pick that had purpose, and saved Shield from nearly every engage, allowing them to win through the super minion slow-push.
NaJin White Shield has a relatively easier group to navigate than their counterparts. Instead of Samsung Blue and KT Bullets, they have to contend with a more top-heavy CJ Blaze and a less threatening Incredible Miracle 2. Blaze isn’t the same Blaze as they used to be, and IM2 is only a recent upstart team in an earlier stage of team development that Shield used to be in Champions Winter. Their chances for advancement are blazingly incredible.
As Good as Grey
It’s amazing to note that two teams that appear to be polar opposites can be shuffled around in the most subtle of ways and come out stronger on both ends because of it. We’ve seen attempts at roster changes seemingly for change’s sake, notably from the KT Rolster organization. Like KT, NaJin e-mFire also has a mentality that does not settle for anything less; however, since their two teams have such opposing styles and their own glaring weaknesses, they’re more able to fix each other up with a shakeup than an organization that has teams that play nearly the same way.
What good is having a T1 S or a KT Arrows if they’re simply a younger, higher-ceiling version than their spotlight sisters? It seems as though the Samsungs and KTs have settled for utilizing secondary teams as a way to breed competition and allow one team to rise up over the other. What more storied organizations like CJ Entus and NaJin are doing are developing two teams separately, with their own distinct playstyles and roster requirements. It’s a more versatile approach, which allows for more dynamic practices and more impactful roster swaps between the two.
Where the newer organizations emphasize synergy and togetherness, NaJin has found an interesting contrasting dichotomy between their two teams. They complement each other’s faults. They are the yin and yang of professional League of Legends in Korea that make NaJin e-mFire whole: a true sword and board.