Before this weekend’s games, Cloud9 seemed like far and away the best team in the North American LCS. They had beaten every team in the LCS — outside of a slumping Phoenix1, who had not yet shown up on the schedule — and it seemed like they could have made a mostly unchallenged run through the rest of the season. But that was four days ago. Today, their prospects look a little different.
In week five, Cloud9 played five games and lost four of them, ending the week with their first two series losses of the season, and an unfamiliar spot in the standing, at second place. But that might be exactly what this Cloud9 roster needed. Despite an impressive undefeated record through most of the season’s first half, they never quite fit the mold of some of the previous ultra-dominant teams in the NA LCS.
Back in the summer of 2013, a different version of Cloud9 — who, at first glance, could easily be mistaken for FlyQuest — was the kind of team that took control of the early game, taking the first tower in almost every game and forcing the enemy team to react. Last spring, Immortals had a, borderline impossible, gold differential at 15 minutes of almost 2,500 and took first blood in 78% of their games and had the league’s shortest game time by almost 3 minutes. The previous version of TSM, from last summer split, played their games almost mechanically, rarely making a mistake and almost always closing out a lead. Each one was a dominant team that always seemed perfectly in control.
Do any of those sound like Cloud9 this split? Not really. Cloud9 have spent a lot of this split eking out close wins with spectacular calls and strong team fight mechanics, but that isn’t a way to dominate a season.
Just last week in their series against FlyQuest, Cloud9 got off to an abysmal start losing the early game in two of the three games, winning one of those despite ending the game with a gold deficit. While it takes a very certain kind of team to manage to pull a game out while behind, it would probably say more about them if they weren’t there in the first place.
The truth is, despite their record, they were probably never going to be the kind of team that could dominate the league’s best. It’s easy to put off improving when you’re already winning. Which makes this week the perfect jumping off point for the rest of Cloud9’s season. They can put the notion of going undefeated behind them and focus on improving and competing for first place.
So, what does improvement look like? First, the good part. Cloud9’s late game, in the event they get there, is stronger than any other team in the league. It’s quick and decisive and understand exactly which objects are necessary to secure a win. In other words, the team knows their win conditions and plays to them well. The only problem with that is their early game.
To say Cloud9’s early game is bad would be a bit of an understatement. Their gold differential at 15 minutes is the fourth worst in the league and the worst among teams with winning records. Even worse, they take first tower in fewer games than any other team in all of North America. This tend to put Cloud9 on the back foot far too often, forcing them to play from behind and putting unnecessary pressure on their strengths.
As we have seen in their last three series, teams have figured out how to exploit this early game weakness. FlyQuest, Team SoloMid, and Phoenix1, have all put their primary focus in their matches against Cloud9 squarely in the early game, aiming to get a big lead then simply playing carefully, never allowing Cloud9 a way back in.
The answer for Cloud9 will likely come in two forms. The first is increased aggression from rookie jungler Juan “Contractz” Arturo Garcia and better synergy between him and mid laner Nicolas Jensen. While Contractz has been fantastic during teamfights, his early game hasn’t been quite so effective. He has had a tendency to fall behind in both pressure from ganks, as well as the kind of sustained pressure that can lead to first tower.
The second path forward for Cloud9 will come in the kinds of compositions they play. Through the first five weeks Cloud9 have seemed willing to play almost anything, using different types of champions to poke and prod their way through the NA LCS.
With teams growing wise to their early game weakness however, Cloud9 will have to start looking towards comps designed to absorb early game pressure. That means an increased presence for champions like Shen, Corki, Orianna who can help mitigate early game losses and push minion waves while the team gears up for their stellar late game.
There is never a great time to figure out you aren’t as ahead of the curve as you thought, but for Cloud9 their tough games over the last two weeks should be seen as an opportunity more than a burden. For the first time this split they no longer have luxury of first place, as they find themselves thrown back into the middle of the playoff race. With the best teams finding ways to beat them it is only a matter of time before North America’s mid-table teams catch on.
As the split begins it’s downhill sprint towards playoffs Cloud9 will have to evolve if they are going to stay in the hunt for a bye going into playoffs.