In every season of the North American LCS, upsets have been expected. One player, champion pick or strategy would shine for a singular match to dredge a bottom 3 team up to the top and beat one of the league's elites. But that's a truth from a different age of NA LCS, one that bears only a passing resemblance to the present iteration of North America’s domestic League of Legends league.
The teams are better across the board now, but the ceiling has moved faster than the floor - in other words, the entire league has gotten better, but the skill gap between the top teams and the bottom teams has increased. The largest change though has come from the league itself. This split's Best of 3 format requires the underdog to outplay the opponent across two of three games, rather than simply outplaying them or surprising them with an unconventional team composition in one game.
The new format has created an LCS environment where upsets aren't just unlikely: they're practically non-existent. In fact, entering the penultimate Week 8, no team had beaten an opponent more than three places ahead of them in the standings. So, when Phoenix1 came from 9th place to beat first place and undefeated TSM, it wasn't just a great series, it was one of the most impressive upsets in NA LCS history.
Let's take a little bit closer look at how exactly they managed it:
The first game in the series was classic TSM. The league leaders moved quickly across the map and dominated the game through intelligent macro play and objective focus. TSM initiated every offensive movement and left P1 reeling. However, we did see a few glimpses of what would help P1 take down TSM in the next two games: aggression.
Throughout this split, teams have mostly utilized safe, passive play, which has lead to predictable and often somewhat boring games. It's part of the reason TSM has done so well up to this point - the team simply predicts what its opponents will do and out-aggresses them, as the other team plays from their back foot while their plan crumbles. But throughout this series, Phoenix1 played the aggressor, taking the game to TSM and forcing them into a reactive style we haven't seen from them this split. You could see it best in Game 3 when P1 jungler Rami “Inori” Charagh and mid laner Jun-Sik “Pirean” Choi turned a chase around on TSM top laner Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell and jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen.
Initially, the play seems obvious: after successfully diving Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg, P1’s mid and jungler will turn tail and hope to escape. Instead, the pair doubles down and re-engages, catching TSM completely off-guard. It's the kind of aggression we simply haven't seen this split.
Phoenix1 came into the series with a strategy centered around forcing TSM out of its comfort zone, and making it play by P1's rules. It's a risky plan that could have backfired easily, but it's also the perfect kind of fearlessness that makes upsets like this possible.
The Rengar Pick
Speaking of being fearless, let's take a moment to recognize the confidence required for Phoenix1's game 2 team composition. In the eight weeks so far of the 2016 Summer Split, no other pick has been half as surprising or effective. Simply put, Inori's Rengar turned the series around completely for P1.
For a little bit of context let's take a moment to reflect on North American League of Legends' history with Rengar: in short, it isn't good. In fact, Rengar has become something of a joke in the region, and with good reason. Since Season 3 Rengar has had only a 19% win rate in the NA LCS and in his most played split, Summer of 2014, he was played in 21% of games and only had a 21% win rate.
And it isn't a Rengar problem; he has, throughout that time, been a staple pick of high skill junglers in every region. In fact, immediately following the Summer 2014 split Dandy helped bring Samsung White the Season 4 World Championship thanks, in part, to his fantastic play on the champion. So, there was a huge amount of historical baggage on the shoulders of Inori - who throughout this split has been a slightly underrated, but still largely unremarkable player - when he locked in Rengar. But, boy did he prove up to the challenge.
During his postgame interview with Phreak, Inori said, "I told my team, instalock Rengar. And we just built a comp around that and it worked out." It's an explanation that sounds trite, but in truth it really was Phoenix1's entire game plan.
Understanding Team Composition
The composition's early game relied on Malzahar to lock targets down while Rengar provided the burst damage to finish them off. We see a version of this - although somewhat in reverse - when Inori fights an invading Svenskeren at blue buff at just 3 minutes, picking up an early assist and a kill for Pirean and giving both players a strong early jump start.
Repeat similar plays a few more times, and suddenly Rengar is strong enough to duel any of TSM's players - a significant feat when Hauntzer is on Trundle. Once Inori hit his stride all P1 had to do was start a fight and Rengar was sure to finish it. TSM looked utterly shellshocked, seeming surprised each time Rengar jumped out of a bush or burst down his target. P1 combined the Rengar and Malzahar with Derek “Zig” Shao’s Rumble and Brandon “Mash” Phan's Sivir, two champions able to keep consistent damage on TSM in order to chip heath bars down for Rengar's signature burst.
But the Rengar pick served another purpose: it was a perfect counter to Bjergsen's Taliyah. As TSM AD Carry Peter “Doublelift” Peng explained in his postgame interview, TSM played right into Inori's hands by using Taliyah walls to isolate themselves. In effect, Weaver's Wall turned TSM's members into horror movie victims, allowing Inori's monstrous Rengar to pick them off one at a time. Which is exactly what Phoenix1's composition was built to do.
While Phoenix1 picked strong compositions with clear win conditions and executed them well, it's important to note that TSM, who has done both of those things well all split, failed to do either. For instance, in the second game of the series, TSM was given an almost identical situation to the one against Apex in Week 6. Bjergsen was playing Taliyah mid with a Rumble playing a losing lane top against Hauntzer's Trundle. It was a perfect situation for Taliyah to use her wall to get top and pick off Rumble, whose low mobility makes him an easy target.
However, against Phoenix1, Bjergsen chose to camp the bottom lane in an attempt to counter the pressure created by Inori's constant presence there. The only problem with the plan is that you can keep a Rumble down, but Sivir is built to never fall behind on damage. This meant that most of Bjergsen's ganks had little to no impact on the game as a whole, with most of them ending in Rengar or Malzahar picking up a kill on a counter gank.
Team SoloMid's confusion seemed exacerbated in game 3 when they were faced with a fairly unique P1 team composition. The focal point of the composition came from camping Bjergsen's mid lane Cassiopeia, in an attempt to keep him out of the game and to get Inori's Rek'Sai and Pirean's Malzahar ahead. In doing so, they made perfect counterpoints to the burst damage of Mash's Twitch and Zig's Gangplank, forcing TSM to focus damage on the greatest of several evils.
At least that was what they should have done. Instead, TSM's teamfight focus was an absolute disaster, splitting damage between each of the four threatening targets, meaning they often took out none of them. It's the exact kind of multi-threat composition that TSM has beaten almost every team in the LCS with this split, but when they were up against it, they couldn't seem to muster the kind of focus necessary to counter this composition.
But prhaps the most interesting part of Game 3 is the style P1 used. It was a near copy of TSM's from the first game: quick calculated map movements with strong objective control, forcing the opposing team to react to their decisions. TSM seemed to lack all of the decisiveness we had seen over the last 8 weeks. And it's easy to see why. After the utterly bewildering end to game 2 - one of the greatest split pushes in NA LCS history - it seemed like TSM struggled to find any kind of coherent plans to come back in the series, and had no answer to P1's larger macro strategy.
Inori and Pirean
While Phoenix1 had a strong series from each of its members, the linchpin of its success against TSM came from the duo of Pirean and Inori. After the game, when asked about their play together, Inori said, "I think our mid lane/jungle synergy is better than theirs. I know it's a lot of talk, but I'm really confident in Pirean and me." We often hear words like this, but it's generally said in a pre-game video about scrimmages or practice. It's always "we could be the best." Seldom do we hear after a win, "we are the best." I mean, it's a little bold as far as claims go, but one thing is for sure: for two out of the three games in this series, Inori and Pirean were a better duo than Svenskeren and Bjergsen.
When people look back on this series, what they will remember is game 2 with, as Doublelift called it, the "cheese" Rengar. But the impressive part wasn't the second game - well, at least not the most impressive part. In game 3 Phoenix1, a team no one would have guessed as the spoiler to TSM's undefeated season, outplayed TSM with their own style for a quick and aggressive tactical victory.
In fact, the same thing can be said for the series’ standout player: Inori. He turned the series around with one of the best Rengar games in North American LCS history; an incredible and unexpected performance. But in game 3, he took one of the highest priority junglers in Rek'Sai and played arguably the best game on the champion we have seen all split.
It would be easy to write off Phoenix1's success in this series as a fluke, or a momentary lapse in focus from TSM. But to do that would be to ignore the quality of play that Phoenix1 displayed. In a series that started with a perfect microcosm of TSM's split so far - dominating objective control, crisp map movement and focus on meeting their compositions win conditions - by game 3 we had a complete reversal with Phoenix1 controlling the game while TSM struggled to keep up. Their constant aggression and frenetic pace in the last two games made for a brilliant strategy that exposed weaknesses in TSM that no other team had found this split. And it brought an end to Team SoloMid's undefeated run.
All game footage via Riot Games.