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Worlds preview: Group B

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SKT vs. C9, plus top teams from China and Taiwan.

Riot

Group B of the League of Legends 2016 World Championships is anyone's to win. SKT -- the defending champions and one of the tournament's strongest teams — enter the group coming off of a slump, while Cloud9 outperformed everyone’s expectations in North America’s playoffs and gauntlet. Meanwhile, LMS top seed Flash Wolves are on a mission to prove their region deserves to be in the conversation with the best in the world. The final piece of the Group B puzzle is IMay, a highly unpredictable team who could be either one of the best at Worlds or one of the worst.

The Teams

SK Telecom 1: For the first time ever, SKT are entering the World Championships as something other than the first seed from Korea. But don’t let their number two seed fool you into writing them off: they’re still the same SK Telecom that has dominated in the past, right down to the struggling jungler. Because of this, it’s almost impossible to count them as anything but the favorites.

After all, SKT is also the first World champion to qualify to defend its title, and has absolutely dominated international competition for the last three years. SKT has won four of the last six Riot-sponsored major tournaments, and came in second at one of the others. No other organization can claim anything close to that success. And some of the most key pieces from those tournaments are still around.

At the forefront is the biggest star in the sport, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. Considered by many to be the best competitive player in the game’s history, Faker is likely to dominate every mid lane match up in this group. His teammates in the top and bottom lanes, on the other hand, are likely to find themselves in fairly even match ups.

The biggest outlier for SKT, as it has always been, is the jungler. In this case that would be Kang “Blank” Sun-gu, who throughout his time with SKT has been inconsistent at best, and at worst a virtual non-factor for the team. If anything could pull this talented and successful SKT team down, it would be a total lack of presence in the jungle with the notable caveat that this is the same complaint leveled against last year’s starter - and now sub - Bae “Bengi” Seong-ung. That time around, SKT won the whole thing.

Flash Wolves: The Flash Wolves are one of the strangest teams at worlds this year. At the last major international tournament - MSI back in May - they were eliminated 3-1 against Counter Logic Gaming. On the other hand, they beat eventual champions SKT twice in that same tournament. In fact, in the four games they have played against Korean teams at international tournament, Flash Wolves have never lost, and yet they still have never been able to finish better than 3rd at a Riot-sponsored international event. But the Flash Wolves are aware of this fact, and this year look to be in the best position yet to fix that.

The team’s biggest strength is their map movement and objective control. In the LMS Summer Playoffs, they took the first tower in 7 of their 8 games, and controlled 70% of the dragons taken in those games. By point of comparison, every other team in this group had around 50% dragon control during their playoffs. Part of the reason this is possible is the super mobile style of the Flash Wolves’ midlaner Huang “Maple” Yi-Tang, who specializes in a midlane teleport style. In fact, as discovered by Tim Sevenhuysen, the Flash Wolves’ win 15% more often when Maple uses teleport than when he doesn’t.

There’s no other midlaner in the group - not even Faker - who can boast such a mobile style, or as high a win rate with teleport. This advantage in mobility and map control is likely to give the Flash Wolves a fairly strong leg up on some of the other teams in the group.

Cloud9: Over the last month of their competitive play, Jung “Impact” Eon-yeong — Cloud9’s toplaner — has played the best League of Legends since he won the World Championship with SKT back in 2013. In fact, he is the chief reason that Cloud9 qualified for Worlds. If Cloud9 is going to succeed in this group, Impact will have to be their anchor. That’s going to require him winning almost all of the lane match ups he is handed in this group, a scenario that actually isn’t too far fetched. Sure, it still won’t be easy, but if there were any group at Worlds that Impact could dominate, it’s this one.

The biggest problem for Cloud9 is that for every positive part of the group for Impact, there’s three negatives for the rest of the team. Take midlane for example, their midlaner — Nicolaj “Jensen” — is a great player, but he is going against the best midlaner from the LMS, the second-best midlaner from the LPL, and Faker, the best midlaner in the world. With a matchup like that, midlane wins are probably a little more than Cloud9 can hope for in this group.

What that means in a practical sense is that they are going to be forced to rely on jungler William “Meteos” Hartman to help create large bottom lane leads for AD carry Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi, while Impact carries over a large lead from top lane into significant damage in team fights. All that requires a lot to go right for Cloud9. It isn’t out of the question, it’s just a difficult plan to pull off game after game.

IMay: IMay have almost all the pieces of a successful Worlds team. Their mid laner and AD Carry had the best KDAs of any player in those roles with more than 8 games in the playoffs and their top laner was second. But their style revolves around immense levels of aggression, which allow them to control the game.

The backbone of their aggression is their top laner and shot caller Shek “AmazingJ” Wai Ho. If he is able to pull out to an early lead, it will create a perfect base for Kang “Athena” Ha-Woon and Xie “jinjiao” Jin-Shan to build into a carry position. If, however, AmazingJ is unable to gain a lead, things are going to be very difficult for IMay. Their style is predicated on their ability to control the pace of the game, and without AmazingJ gaining a foothold, the tightly controlled styles of SKT and the Flash Wolves are going to prevent IMay from ever having a chance in the match. In other words, IMay is likely going to be feast or famine in this group, either taking over a game completely, or never having a chance.

Match Up to Watch: SKT vs Flash Wolves

Here’s something you don’t see very often: this matchup represents a chance at revenge for SKT. In the previous two meetings between these teams - at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational - the Flash Wolves won both games, preserving their unbeaten record against Korean teams. Not only is this impressive feat going to be put to the test in this group stage, but the teams also make for an interesting matchup style-wise, with both focusing on objective control oriented styles.

These games are also likely to provide us with one of our most interesting lane matchups of the groups stage with Maple going up against Faker. When the two met at MSI, the lane was completely dominated by Maple -- a rare feat against League’s best mid laner. This time, however, the lane is likely to be a little more even with higher stakes and both players using a roam-heavy style designed to pull their team into an objective lead early.

Predictions:

SK Telecom is going to come out on top of this group, but it’s not going to be easy. The rest of the group is fairly unpredictable, but I think the Flash Wolves have the best chance to take second with the global meta fitting their style. This leaves IMay and Cloud9 in third and fourth respectively. That being said, Cloud9 has been in outstanding form and IMay have a small chance to be a dominant force in this group.

The Group Stage of Riot’s League of Legends 2016 World Championship will start on September 29th at 6:30 p.m. PST.