With two weeks of preparation and absolutely nothing left to lose, the bottom-feeding underdog of group A, Prime Optimus, went into their final match against SK Telecom T1 S with a solidly-executed strategic game plan. They took two decisive games away from an SKT organization mired in distractions following a loss by T1 K against a similar underdog in KT Rolster Arrows. The combination of both SK Telecom losses resulted in a two-way tie between T1 S and T1 K, requiring a tie-breaking match that will surely raise eyebrows, regardless of its outcome.
Unlike SKT T1 K, whose past successes and re-integration of Lee “PoohManDu” Jeong-hyeon granted them a large margin of error, SK Telecom T1 S’s match against Prime Optimus was set up to be a statement game for them to prove that they truly belonged in the bracket stage. But by stepping into the spotlight of relevancy in the Korean scene, the glaring weaknesses that have always been apparent in their roster were exploited in full by a less mechanically-skilled, but more strategically-focused Prime Optimus, and thus the SK sister squad stumbled.
Prime Optimus’ plan for success borrows heavily from the original recipe brought out by SK Telecom T1 K in their 1-1 split versus S. It involves three key points:
- Take Renekton away from MaRin either by banning outright, or picking the champion away.
- Disrupt H0R0’s ability to snowball his lanes.
- Prevent S from hitting their strong late-game by winning early with aggressive rotations and objective control.
In the loss versus T1 S, T1 K’s reckless aggression in the mid-game provides the narrow window of opportunity for S to make the comeback.
Prime Optimus is very much aware of their mechanical limitations, and thus do not complacently lean on their mechanics for success; instead, they rely on their execution of their game plan. They ban out Renekton in both games, and implement two brilliant level 1 strategies in both games, in which they take the first Blessing of the Lizard Elder away from H0R0.
In set 1 with Optimus on the blue side, they send their jungler and bottom lane duo for a delayed Lizard Elder invasion to set up an uncontested steal and a smooth transition to a 2v1 swap, while simultaneously sending Hanlabong to solo the Lizard Elder buff on his own. Hanlabong saves counterstrike on Jax specifically for the counter-invade by Bang’s Caitlyn, allowing him to absorb both the Piltover Peacemaker and the Lizard Elder’s auto-attacks, and to escape safely. The plan is highly dependent on luck, as the initial Sight Ward that Kkyul’s Leona puts down can only cover one of the two jungle entrances; Optimus correctly predicts the invade coming from the bottom lane entrance instead of the middle lane.
In set 2, Optimus’ level 1 play is slightly less risky, but more aggressive. This time on red side, Optimus sends the entire team, save for Ninja on Gragas, to invade the red buff that H0R0 looks to clear first. The delayed invade sends Optimus into the bush behind T1 S’s Elder Lizard camp, but Old B’s Elise steps out too soon, causing the quick reaction from S to split off immediately; H0R0’s Lee Sin is left to his own devices at the Lizard camp, but escapes towards the bottom lane instead of the middle lane where he can simply take his own Ancient Golem camp. This forces a series of poor decisions from S; H0R0 instead tries to counter-invade Optimus’ Ancient Golem camp with Wolf on Annie, but gets pincered in the river by Elise coming from the upper river entrance and by Leona and Sivir from the lower river entrance. Lee Sin and Annie split apart, and are both forced to flash to escape back to their own side of the map.
This superiority in coordination is a testament to Prime Optimus’ level 1 preparation, as well as SK Telecom S’s lack of communication. In a tight situation, S fails to coordinate their map movements, perhaps due to a slow call or a slow reaction to the call. The bottom lane is on a slightly different page from H0R0, a symptom from his tendencies to coordinate ganks with the solo lanes in order to snowball them for the late game. Optimus knows this, and they force S to make poor decisions in the early game to capture an early advantage.
Throughout the course of the first set, Optimus manages to get under T1 S’s skin, particularly MaRin’s. With the nexus’ destruction clearly in hand, MaRin’s Shyvana is off in T1 S’s jungle helplessly chasing Hanlabong’s Teleport Jax. With Blade of the Ruined King’s active ability and Leap Strike, Hanlabong effortlessly leads MaRin along throughout the map long after the game is decided, slipping in a few taunts in between movement commands for good measure. As a team belonging to the SK Telecom organization, such a thoroughly tactical loss to a supposedly inferior team is downright embarrassing, but it’s worth noting that Optimus, while failing to win a single game against either T1 K or Arrows, played with well-executed strategies that were simply foiled by mechanically superior teams. SKT T1 S either fails to recognize the gap in skill between them and their sister team, or failed to truly prepare for this match by studying the VODs.
The manner in which SKT T1 S manages to recover from the level 1 strategy in set 2 is commendable, and indicative of their ability to emotionally move on from the trappings of the previous set. However, their attitude-based approach to the game occurs during a poorly played out teamfight during the second Dragon contest of the game.
Prime Optimus on the red side starts the dragon, but SK Telecom T1 S sets up a high-risk pincer move with Lee Sin hopping into the dragon pit, Shyvana flanking from the bottom and Orianna/Caitlyn/Annie on top. Optimus takes advantage of their superior mobility by combining Sivir’s On the Hunt with Leona’s Solar Flare, which essentially wedges Annie away from the rest of the group. Neither Shyvana nor Lee Sin are able to catch up to Jax, Leona, Gragas, and Sivir’s upwards movement, effectively nullifying the initial pincer effect.
This leaves Old B’s Elise alone to fend for dragon against H0R0 and MaRin, the two highlight players from S, and he manages to take the dragon 1v2!
Other than S’ failed coordination with the flank and losing the 50/50 smite on dragon, Optimus makes a few great plays to follow-up the Solar Flare, all enabled by Sivir’s active On the Hunt. Leona and Elise continue to zone out Lee Sin and Shyvana, further delaying the use of Dragon’s Descent, allowing Gragas and Sivir to provide backup for Jax. Jax himself flashes into Orianna and Caitlyn with counterstrike, effectively stunning both champions and forcing Caitlyn to flash downward. The Gragas and Sivir come in deceptively quickly to force Orianna to retreat through the wraith camp, preventing further damage to Jax, and killing Caitlyn. Bang knows he positioned poorly in that fight, resulting in his death on Caitlyn to the Barrel Roll. Both Lee Sin and Shyvana use their own ults on the back leg of the fight, long after the outcome is decided. T1 S leaves the fight emptyhanded, which puts them further into a disadvantage that they can’t overcome because of tilt; the look on Bang’s face in the feature image speaks volumes of what has transpired throughout the series.
For Optimus, being places into a group with the reigning world champions, their sister team, and a very plucky KT Rolster Arrows, gives them with a very slim chance of progressing through the group stage and possibly go on a Cinderella run similar to Chunnam Techno University in Champions Summer 2013. In securing a crucial three points in a group that was originally presumed to be a lock for SKT T1 K and one other more-established team, their playing spoiler is more a victory for them, while greatly exposing SKT T1 S and their persistent weaknesses. While there is a chance for Optimus to make some noise in NLB, theirs would have been a more sexy story had they managed to steal a few points to make it out of the supposedly impossible group and turn some heads.
Their thoughtfully-developed and well-executed strategies bely what is simply inferior mechanics, which is what prevented them from stealing a game or two from either of Arrows or SKT T1 K. Unlike NaJin Shield, whose emphasis on team cohesion and next-level strategic execution has left them knocking on the door to the echelon of CJ Blaze and Samsung Ozone, Optimus isn’t mechanically at that level. Old B misses too many cocoons to be comparable to watch. Kkyul doesn’t have the same teamfight presence that Gorilla has with Sona; he’s egregiously missed a few Solar Flares which would have easily turned decisive victories into outright stomps. The only solo laner that truly stands out is Hanlabong, whose Teleport Jax is a revelation, but is also a product of great adaptation to patch 4.4.
As for SK Telecom T1 S, they are exactly who they are, and despite their consistency and solid fundamental play, they have clear weaknesses that can be exploited by tightly planned strategy, or strong mechanical play targeting the key cogs of that team: H0R0 and MaRin. What bodes rather poorly about this team is that the amount of leeway that has been afforded to them as a result of SKT T1 K’s past successes is running out rather quickly, especially with the poor performance of SK Telecom in Champions Spring 2014 as a whole. While their K counterparts have already proven themselves with a World Championship and two Champions titles in the past year alone, S isn’t on the same boat. A lot of time has been spent to allow their development, and it would be a huge regret for the SK organization to have those resources go to waste.
There’s more at stake in the Group A tiebreaker match now, following the unexpected (though unsurprising) outcomes from the last two matches in the group. S needs to show that they don’t buckle under pressure and are affected by tilt; K needs to gel together once again with PoohManDu back, and adjust their play to suit the strategically oriented needs of the Season 4 metagame. Both teams need to regain their pride as well, and they’ll have plenty of opportunity to do so when they match again. They’ve gone 1-1 in their group stage series, and so much has happened to the organization as a whole since then; anything can happen at this point.