Following the North American Regional Gauntlet that qualified Clutch Gaming for the 2019 World Championship after they reverse swept Team SoloMid in the Gauntlet Final, a lot of discussion pointed fingers at Team SoloMid’s management. Rather than staying committed to Matthew “Akaadian” Higginbotham as the team’s announcement earlier in the split claimed, Team SoloMid chose to sideline not only him, but their other starting jungler, Jonathan “Grig” Armao, for Academy jungler Mingyi “Spica” Lu.
Obviously, a lot of controversy surrounded the announcement and the manner in which it occurred, but fan ire failed to identify that another team, one Pacific Ocean away, had a story very similar to Team SoloMid’s this split. Just like Team SoloMid, Invictus Gaming advanced to the Grand Final of their Spring Split. Just like TSM, iG struggled in the regular summer split, and only qualified to the first round of their Summer Playoffs. Just like TSM, iG subbed in a rookie jungler from their Academy (LDL in China) team for the closing matches of the regular season, playoffs and Gauntlet. Just like TSM, their Gauntlet Final lasted five grueling games.
Unlike TSM, Invictus Gaming qualified for the 2019 World Championship.
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The difference in iG’s success over TSM’s comes from the approach and game plans each team took to integrating their new junglers. In the Gauntlet Final, iG came with a clear plan that allowed their rookie player to succeed by playing the game around him. TSM, on the other hand, lost control of their solo lanes independently and played more defensively and conservatively with the jungle.
For most of the split, TSM committed to one starting jungler and a consistent starting roster overall. Invictus Gaming, following their semifinal loss to Team Liquid at the Mid Season Invitational played with a much less consistent starting five.
When Invictus Gaming began 2019 Summer, the first player they brought forward from Academy was support Litan “Lucas” Paoao, who played the first three series for iG following criticisms of starting support Wang “Baolan” Liuyi. iG lost two of those three series, with one notable loss to one of the lower-ranked teams in the LPL, Victory Five.
Following Baolan’s return, star mid laner Song “Rookie” Euijin took a step back for substitute mid-laner Deng “Forge” Jie while he tended to a family emergency. iG had considerably more success over the next five series with Forge, winning four of them, but as a result, the team didn’t play with its MSI starting five at all until Rift Rivals.
Victory 5 after an upset win over Invictus Gaming
None of the substitutions seemed to address a large criticism analysts levied iG’s way: the inconsistency of starting jungler Gao “Ning” Zhenning. For two of the team’s final three series of their regular season, iG promoted Lu “Leyan” Jue to the LPL team’s jungle position.
Much like Spica for TSM, Leyan appeared inconsistent, but promising. Also like Spica, Leyan had a particular reputation for aggressive jungle champions. His most played LDL champions in Summer included Sylas, Gragas, Nidalee, and Olaf. While Spica played mostly Sejuani and Jarvan IV in North American Academy, his reputation as a solo queue monster stems more from the likes of Nidalee and Graves.
Adaptation from Playoffs to Gauntlet
Both TSM and iG had near-humiliating losses in the first round of Playoffs. Rookie’s underperformance was very clear, draft priorities gave iG very limited win conditions, and the team left Leyan mostly to his own meandering devices on picks like Karthus.
Team SoloMid’s Quarterfinal series against Clutch featured a similar story. Clutch applied strategies like swapping Heo “Huni” Seunghoon’s Gangplank into Akali to secure a pushing mid lane and prioritizing heavy skirmish mid-jungle duos like Sylas-Qiyana. While TSM played two games of Akali, priority on Corki and Sejuani limited their 2v2 capabilities as a duo.
The main difference-maker came from how both teams adapted during the long break from the first round of Playoffs until the Regional Qualifier Gauntlet. Team SoloMid and Invictus Gaming both had multiple weeks of radio silence to integrate their new jungle additions better into their teams. While iG had to play two five game series for their Gauntlet, TSM slotted into the Qualifier final, so for the purpose of further investigation, this article will focus only on the two final best-of-fives.
Team SoloMid have not been as fortunate and will sit out from Worlds for the second time.
Both TES and CG, the respective opponents of iG and TSM in the Regional Final, have a reputation for putting the priority on securing strong picks for their solo laners. Much of CG’s climb through Playoffs and the Gauntlet featured Gangplank, Rumble, and Qiyana bans. Meanwhile, TES has a reputation for Akali, Corki, and Irelia. Akali and Irelia are among the most banned against id laner Zhuo “Knight” Ding during LPL Summer Split.
In the first game of the Regional Gauntlet, TSM continued the trend of banning CG’s priority solo lane picks in Rumble and Gangplank. iG, meanwhile, reserved bans for Jarvan IV and Sylas with the option of a Sejuani pick on the table. TES jungler Xiong “Xx” Yulong has a history of low Sejuani priority, having lost the majority of his games on the pick and not selecting it often when other options are available. iG likely reasoned they could secure Sejuani, and limiting possible counterpicks to give Leyan a favorable matchup would stand the rookie in good stead.
To follow this up, iG also first picked Qiyana. Not only does Qiyana synergize very well with Sejuani as a melee champion, but she has fast and easy roam timings, providing good jungle assistance in two-man gank setups. iG also looked for Kai’Sa early, which can easily get set up in lane by strong crowd control combos and snowball in the context of the LPL. iG rounded it out with another melee top pick in Aatrox that can also scale up in a more bot-focused game.
By contrast, TSM’s draft plan looked very different. The team also favored Sejuani as a champion that tends to be forgiving for experienced and rookie junglers alike due to all-in potential in later fights and straightforward 2v2s with popular melee picks. TSM left Sylas open and banned the typical Gangplank and Rumble against Huni, putting more of the burden on Spica to absorb counterpick pressure. The only lane TSM picked with an easy setup for the jungler was top lane Jayce for Sergen “BrokenBlade” Çelik, as Jayce-Sejuani is a classic combo. CG selected Neeko and Pantheon along with Xayah and Rakan bot lane and Sylas jungle.
As a result, the draft had two volatile solo lanes with unfavorable bot and jungle matchups. Pantheon-Sylas and Neeko-Sylas should also win 2v2s against Sejuani-Jayce and Azir-Sejuani early on. This scenario didn’t set up many options for Spica if Clutch had strong jungling.
In game, the approach to the jungle also played out very differently. Leyan made some initial fumbles in pathing that TES failed to punish. TES’ Olaf could have easily bullied him out for pathing from the bottom of his jungle to the top, but Olaf chose to avoid the situation. Leyan did get punished by playing for an early bottom play while the opposing top laner had push and Teleport. The turn allowed TES’ Lucian-Alistar lane to regain control and closed a lot of TES’ win condition.
But Rookie responded by taking up a lot of the early map pressure responsibility. Following the thrown bottom play, Rookie rotated top on his next reset for a dive to relieve pressure and still give iG a win condition to snowball through top and allow Kai’Sa and Sejuani to scale instead.
In TSM’s Game One, Clutch force a split map scenario that made Spica start on his Blue Buff. This also forced BrokenBlade to leash so that he wouldn’t get to the lane first. But instead of opting into the split map scenario, Spica’s Sejuani cleared his top side and then went bottom for Krugs so that he could play more defensively and prevent a potential dive or play onto Sona and Tahm Kench. Accelerating Jayce would have worked more in line with the team’s win condition, but TSM forced a more defensive clear.
Both iG and TSM managed to win their first games, but the approach outlined more or less how each team differed in playing with a new rookie jungler. iG opted into drafts and setups that gave Leyan a lot of room to make plays and control the map with other members taking a lot of the burden for map control when Leyan made mistakes anyway. TSM played with lanes more in isolation, leaving Spica to look for defensive gank opportunities or simply scale for Sejuani-centric team fights.
iG accelerated this focus and played much more smoothly after Game One. They adapted by prioritizing the Kai’Sa and Nautilus heavy skirmish bottom lane in Game Two. They continued to prioritize a mobile mid champion that Rookie could roam with like Taliyah after Knight opted for his signature Corki. Almost every play in the next two games was instigated either through Rookie leading a duo mid-jungle invade on his priority or support Baolan clearing a brush with Sweeper and setting up a gank or resetting and roaming top on Leyan’s natural clear timers.
iG’s most successful game was the Game Three 25 minute obliteration of TES. They early picked a Qiyana-Elise duo. Rookie gave up waves to make plays on enemy buffs or a side lane with Leyan. They played almost as if they were double-jungling, and Rookie had four kills by 11 minutes while Leyan had 30 CS and two levels over Xx’s Sejuani before a blunder at Blue Buff. The blunder occurred mostly because Rookie and Leyan separated in the play.
Overall, iG invested a great amount of resources into making Leyan look good. He varied his jungle pathing game-to-game, and Rookie and Baolan only failed to back him up in Game Four where Knight’s Zoe pushed and confined Rookie’s LeBlanc to lane. Giving up waves mid doesn’t always solve every situation, but it became clear that iG had spent their time away from the stage refining a strategy that would allow Leyan to excel despite a lack of experience.
Team SoloMid actually had a game where it seemed as if they had the same plan in mind, and it was by far the team’s best game despite almost losing late-game fights with triple Infernal. Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg’s Sylas and Andy “Smoothie” Ta’s Nautilus seemed joined to Spica’s Sejuani in Game Two. Spica’s initial path of clearing the full red side of the jungle and looking mid burned Tanner “Damonte” Damonte’s Flash. Smoothie roamed from bottom lane priority to finish the kill in a dive. Following that, all three of them roamed top side to answer Clutch’s gank on Broken Blade. On reset, they continued to work together, four-maning bot side and pressing their lead as a trio.
After Game Two, however, TSM seemed to regress more toward scaling mid lane picks like Azir and Corki that didn’t create as advantageous 2v2 opportunities with Spica’s Sejuani. Part of this also came from Clutch adapting to pick Jarvan IV in the next game and pressure mid before Spica’s Sejuani who kept repeating the same full red buff and red buff side clear predictably. Despite having a strong bottom lane in Game Three, Smoothie and Spica failed to synch up before an Infernal dragon fight around nine minutes.
The most Bjergsen seemed to help Spica with jungle control came with small leans, and Spica continued to primarily gank defensively. Meanwhile, CG’s solo lanes continued to excel with picks that didn’t necessarily ensure prior, but could gain it through the skirmishing that TSM failed to draft toward.
iG seemed to draft around allowing their jungler to create skirmishes and excel, while TSM’s game plan, with the exception of one game, felt more like a game plan of a team that had little faith in their new jungle prospect. They even placed him into a situation where they first picked Skarner, a champion he didn’t seem particularly comfortable on, to deny Lira. Spica stuck to more of a full clear approach, and laners didn’t seem to create opportunities for him as well as Clutch’s laners did for Nam “Lira” Taeyoo. While jungler or laner could take the fall for that, most of iG’s jungle-centric plays were clearly lead by Rookie and Baolan picking up the slack.
One can also argue that the metas differ substantially in LCS and LPL. Choosing champions for Sejuani and Azir-centric team fights proves a main staple of a slower-paced early game region, but Clutch accepted openings left by TSM’s approach well.
In fact, it’s arguable that Spica could have excelled with an iG style approach. Though Sejuani and Jarvan IV served as his main staples in LCS Academy matches, he seemed much more comfortable on the likes of Lee Sin. His engages also need more work, as fights engaged by mid laner Nicholas “Ablazeolive” Antonio Abbott with an Azir ultimate or a Twisted Fate port always seemed to yield better results for TSM Academy. This seemed consistent in his LCS matches. Of course, perfecting the primary engage role should be something any jungler works on, but if TSM aimed only to win and qualify for Worlds, maybe giving him the reigns on some of his favorite solo queue champions could have worked better.
TSM also have a bit of a history and reputation for not succeeding well by playing through mid-jungle 2v2. I’d argue that iG’s natural approach to the game is also horrible for junglers, and their previous roster put an undue amount of responsibility on Ning. iG have a tendency to play all three lanes as if the enemy jungler doesn’t exist and simply rely on their own jungler to accelerate one side of the map harder, at times to disastrous results. Even so, they managed to adapt their usual approach to assist Leyan in the Regional Qualifier.
iG’s success in integrating a rookie jungler in a short period of time came from the team’s approach to enabling Leyan. Both iG and TSM’s young junglers made mistakes, but Leyan had more free reign to execute. I still look forward to seeing more from both him and Spica as they improve.