It should have been the Worlds Finals: Preview of ROX vs. SKT

ROX vs SKT from LCK 2016 Summer, courtesy of OGN
ROX vs SKT from LCK 2016 Summer, courtesy of OGN /

The World Championship draw gave us a heavyweight fight in the semifinals between SKT and ROX. Which of these Kings of Korea will emerge triumphant?

The 2016 World Championship has been extraordinary. We’ve seen it all: upsets, comebacks and straight start-to-finish dominations. But one of the leading storylines of the bracket stage was the dominance of the three Korean teams. It seems like the entire Worlds tournament led up to this match, where ROX Tigers and SK Telecom T1 get to decide who’s better on the international stage.

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Where to even begin with these two teams? SKT has played big brother, beating ROX time and time again. It doesn’t matter who’s in the jungle or playing top lane, two of League’s most crucial, decision-based positions. The God of League, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and SKT have defeated ROX in every single final the two have met in. ROX may have been the LCK champions, but SKT has defeated them in three straight series dating back to the Spring Finals.

But this isn’t the same ROX team that lost to SKT in the Worlds Finals last year or in the LCK Spring Playoffs. Having finally won an LCK split, they are not even the same team that lost twice to SKT in the Summer regular season. This time, they were the favorite coming into the tournament, and after a thorough dismantling of China’s EDward Gaming, possibly the favorite coming into this match as well. This time, Kyungho “Smeb” Song is the best player in the world. This time, jungler Wangho “Peanut” Han should be the star in that matchup.

The individual matchups

As mentioned, ROX has the better top laner and jungler. SKT rookies Hoseong “Duke” Lee (top) and Sungu “Blank” Kang (expected jungler) are mechanically gifted, and in Duke’s case, strong in lane. But both suffer from lapses in decision making and play-planning. Duke has gotten better with teleport timing, but can still be late. Blank has given SKT the best jungle stats:

But it sometimes looks like they don’t know how to play around his pressure (like in the loss to Flash Wolves). Then again, SKT rode that leading jungle control to a comprehensive victory at MSI despite an even weaker group stage.

Still, can Peanut and star support GorillA do enough to control the space in between lanes? ROX’s Jong “Pray” In Kim is a strong player, but SKT’s Junsik “Bang” Bae has again proven that he is a monster, especially in the current bot lane meta. Lost in the hype of Faker and last year’s Worlds MVP, Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan, Bang is often SKT’s rock, their late-game carry when all the attention is on the mid lane.

The men in the middle

And so much attention will be heaped on the mid lane. Faker is a god, and his enemies know it. In order to take down SKT, you need to make God bleed. Problem is for ROX: can Seohaeng “Kuro” Lee, a talented player, but widely thought of as their weak link, stand up to Faker?

After all, in their last meeting during summer, Faker absolutely styled on ROX’s substitute mid laner, Seongmin “Cry” Hae. It would not be surprising if Cry and Pray still wake up with nightmares of Faker’s Game 1 LeBlanc.

Kuro will certainly need help. And more than from Peanut. GorillA needs to show up. Smeb needs to pull off those TP ganks that so thoroughly destroyed EDG. When all else fails, pick a fight comp and ram it down mid. ROX is known to get bloody when they’re down, trying to fight their way out. Maybe the should draft and play like that from the get-go.

Faker at 2016 Worlds, courtesy of Riot Games
Faker at 2016 Worlds, courtesy of Riot Games /

An early-scaling comp, played against SKT, can be dangerous. This is a team that likes to wait out your power spike before arriving at their own. They are famous for ceding kills and turrets and then turning on the jets when their opponents least expect it.

But SKT also like to play scaling champions, especially in the mid lane and AD carry. After that LeBlanc game, Faker went back to Azir against Kuro’s Taliyah while Bang has that trusty Ezreal. It’s interesting that in a region that picked up Taliyah early, Faker, with his huge champion pool, only had two games on the early-pushing champion, both against ESC Ever, one of the worst teams in the league. Then again, he went a combined 14/4/11 in the two victories, and his Cassiopeia (strong early) is absolutely horrifying. But letting him scale without punishment is a death knell.

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The macro

The problem with that strategy for ROX is their own penchant for slow starts. That wasn’t a problem against EDG, who also looked shaky early. All they had to do was give Smeb a carry and let him abuse substitute Tong “Koro1” Yang.

SKT top laner Duke, courtesy of Riot Games
SKT top laner Duke, courtesy of Riot Games /

ROX will likely try the same against Duke, but SKT is fine giving him either a tank with wave-clear to slow Smeb down, or a scaling champion like Gangplank. In that second map of their last meeting, Duke picked GP, ROX ganked Duke repeatedly and looked to be in complete control of the game. But SKT stayed patient, controlled the side lanes beautifully, team-fought exquisitely, and won after a 43-minute ace.

And isolating Duke relieves him from his biggest weakness: joining his team on-time. As good as Smeb is, simply having him split push all day will likely lead to two losing lanes. That’s all SKT need, especially with how well they have already controlled objectives on the bottom side:

So split pushing can’t be the win condition.

But can it lead to the win condition?

Peanut: Rox’ s path to victory

ROX need to rock the boat, especially if they get a lead. Let’s say Smeb takes an early turret. Fine, but now Duke can freeze deep in his own territory. Rather than reset and have Smeb work on the other side of the map, ROX need to get out of the farm stage. Try to prep a sixth-man wave and crash the inhibitor. Send four or five members bot and try to dive Bang. Bait Baron as early as possible and force a fight that Smeb can reach faster than Duke. Accelerate the game and get to the mid-game.

ROX was able to take significant advantages in each of their last two map losses to SKT, but they let SKT fall back on farming and teamfight their way out of those deficits. Blank is much criticized for not being in the right place, but he is a fantastic farmer and can combine with Jaewan “Wolf” Lee to provide good vision.

That vision will require ROX to step out of the typical Korean comfort zone and make some risky plays without vision. It’s fine if they trade objectives, too — it’s not that SKT is worse when things get chaotic, but when you shorten games and accelerate the pace, just like traditional sports, it increases the variance. Also, it puts pressure on Blank and Duke to react accordingly.

ROX Tigers jungler Peanut courtesy of Riot Games /

If this sounds familiar, it is the exact strategy that KT Rollster used to eliminate SKT in the quarterfinals of the LCK Summer Playoffs. KT kept constant track of Blank’s location and pathing and dove wherever the SKT jungler wasn’t.

This will rely on Peanut’s abilities to invade and set vision. Peanut, like the rest of his team, had a shaky group stage before completely destroying EDG’s star jungler Ming “Clearlove” Kai in the quarterfinals. He is playing like the best jungler in the world and that’s exactly what ROX need in this matchup.

The prediction

For most of the tournament, SKT has looked incredibly strong. From toying with their food in the group stage to turning on the afterburners against Royal Never Give Up. They bring what should be two winning lanes into any remaining matchup.

But with Peanut playing like he has in the quarterfinals, ROX has a shot against anybody. Still, I keep going back to those winning lanes. When they get up, SKT look unstoppable. When they are down, their opponents still can’t rest easy. That puts immense pressure on ROX to make the right play.

This should be an incredibly close series. Redemption for ROX waits at the end, but the call here is SKT in five.

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