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Worlds semifinal preview: ROX Tigers vs SK Telecom T1

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It is impossible to talk about the history of ROX Tigers without mentioning SK Telecom T1. In their first split, back in spring of 2015, ROX Tigers — then called GE Tigers — put together an impressive, and somewhat unexpected, run through the LCK group stages that left them in first place and with one of the LCK’s best regular season records at 12-2. Their opponent in the finals that year was, of course, SK Telecom who were attempting to bounce back from a hugely disappointing 2014 slump.

Going into the match, the Tigers were the heavy favorites, with SKT struggling to take down a fairly benign CJ Entus team in the semifinals. But that wasn’t what happened. Instead the series was a clean sweep for SKT. And they didn’t even use star mid laner Faker. Looking back, it’s easy to see this as the moment SK Telecom T1 seemed destined to win Worlds that year, but at the time it was a bit of a shock. The Tigers had seemed heralded as the next great Korean team and SKT had been left for dead. But now, it looked like SKT was, once again, playing on an entirely different level than the teams around them.

Five months after that LCK Final, the two teams would meet in another final, this time at Riot’s 2015 League of Legends World Championships. This time there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that SK Telecom was the team to beat. But that didn’t deter the Tigers, who had proven themselves in the Knockout stages of the tournament by beating the team that knocked them out of the LCK Summer playoffs: KT Rolster — considered by many the third strongest team at the tournament — and Fnatic, Europe’s strongest team by a mile.

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The games themselves were fairly close, and ROX put up a strong fight, but in the end SKT’s combination of precision and mistake-free play proved too much for ROX — and the rest of the world. So, once again ROX was sent home from a final by SK Telecom with a second place medal.

The same story repeated itself again at the beginning of the 2016 season with ROX third loss to SK Telecom in a final, this time the 2016 LCK Spring Split playoffs. During the Summer playoffs, however, something a little different happened: SK Telecom was knocked out in the second stage of the playoffs by their arch rival KT Rolster. With KT in the finals instead of SKT, ROX seized their opportunity and found their moment of triumph, winning the LCK by a razor's edge in a 3-2 series.

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Peanut’s turn

Throughout the 2016 League of Legends World Championships, there have been a number of similarities between SK Telecom T1 and ROX Tigers. The AD Carries make up the bulk of the teams’ damage and are within three kills of each other and within 2% on their team’s damage share. The mid laners are similarly close, making it most likely that those two match ups will be close in this series. Meanwhile, top lane is likely to go largely in favor of ROX Tigers’ Kyung-ho “Smeb” Song, both in terms of individual mechanics in-lane as well as quality of teleport plays. However, this is countered by SK Telecom’s superior map movement and mid to late game decision making.

The only clear X-factor coming into this series is going to be in the jungle. It’s no secret that jungle has always been SK Telecom T1’s weak link. Whether it’s Sun-gu “Blank” Kang or Seong-ung “Bengi” Bae their damage share is low — for junglers — and their map pressure is lower. What may be a secret, however, is just how instrumental jungler Wangho “Peanut” Han is to ROX Tigers success. Peanut is a legitimate carry threat coming out of the jungle, unlike either of SKT’s jungle options.

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How much of a carry threat? Well, for one thing, he has the most kills. Not just among junglers, mind you, but of any player in the World Championships ,at 57. That’s six more than ROX AD Carry Jong-in “PraY” Kim (2nd) and nine more than SK Telecom AD Carry Jun-sik “Bang” Bae (3rd). That all adds up to a jungler who has to be looked at as a significant threat to carry for SKT. On top of that, most of these kills come from three different champions.

Peanut has averaged seven kills a game on Elise alongside eight assists during his three games Worlds with a KDA of 23. Unsurprisingly it’s a champion he thinks will be banned against him — alongside his Nidalee which he hasn’t been able to play yet at the tournament — for the rest of Worlds according to an interview he had with The Rift Herald.

In ROX last Quarterfinal game against Edward Gaming Peanut played Olaf to the tune of 11 kills and five assist with a 100% kill participation. On Lee Sin, his most played champion at five games, he has averaged four kills and eight assists. All this to say that banning out Peanut’s champion pool is simply a non-starter. For any possible ban SKT could throw his way, Peanut has proven that he can replace it with something twice as strong.

All this stands tall by itself, but seems even more impressive when compared with SKT’s junglers, who combine for only 25 kills. Now it’s worth noting that SKT as a team has fewer kills, but not enough to account for that kind of gap. In other words, SK Telecom only has it’s two carries to work with, while ROX has three legitimate threats to carry their kills in a game.

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Alongside his threat to carry comes another responsibility that will fall mostly on Peanut: the early game. For ROX Tigers this has been their worst area of the game by far at this tournament. Their Gold Difference at 15 minutes is the worst of any team still in contention and the 9th worst overall. It also happens to be the only time SK Telecom look particularly vulnerable, with both their losses coming in two of the three games in which they had a gold deficit at 17 minutes.

As I’ve already said, the lanes of ROX are, with the exception of top, unlikely to pull out into significant advantages on their own, so the responsibility to tip the game into their favor is going to rest squarely on the shoulders of Peanut. But, that means overcoming his team’s largest weakness to do so.

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Final Thoughts

With an LCK championship finally there's, ROX Tigers are ready to put history behind them and overcome their historical stumbling block. The team themselves are confident this is the moment to do it, in an interview with The Rift Herald, ROX mid laner Seohaeng “Kuro” Lee said “we also think SKT are really outstanding in the finals, so we are... glad we met them in the Semi-Finals.”

If SKT really do get better the higher the stakes then the only question remaining is whether ROX Tigers are strong enough to take down them down here in the final stop before they play for a World Championship. In that same interview Kuro said, “We have always thought we could beat SKT, but this time around our trust in that is a lot stronger than before,” now all they have to do is show the world.