While North America and Europe's top League of Legends teams and fans debated how seriously they should take Rift Rivals, an intense battle was brewing in Dalian, China for the LPL/LCK/LMS Rift Rivals title.
Rift Rivals has long since passed, but the top of both South Korea's LoL Champions Korea and China's LoL Pro League remains as competitive as ever, rising above the quagmire that has been the 2018 competitive metagame.
Xander Torres and Emily Rand debate who is truly the best in the east right now and how some of these matchups might play out. Teams include China's Invictus Gaming, Rogue Warriors, Royal Never Give Up and JD Gaming along with South Korea's Gen.G, Kingzone DragonX, Griffin and KT Rolster.
Invictus Gaming vs. the top of South Korea
Rand: Let's start with Invictus Gaming, since Song "Rookie" Eui-jin and company have occupied the top position despite us having some -- let's say misgivings -- about the team. There are more than a few people, myself included, that are disappointed with how little iG has evolved this split. To me, iG still relies heavily on drafting strong lanes (often counterpicks) and really struggles when its laners can't get those early leads. Just look at jungler Gao "Ning" Zen-Ning when his lanes are behind.
Torres: iG might only have one loss, but plenty of questionable situations occur thanks to the "win-lane, win-game" approach. Ning, in particular, doesn't even need to wait for his lanes to win or lose because he just waltzes into the jungle without lane priority and dies. It really shows that the mindset of this team lies in the early game and against more patient teams focusing on counter-attacks, that can get pretty dangerous. Granted, Wang "Baolan" Lu-Yui's vision control does cover up a lot of iG's issues once any kind of advantage comes to pass.
Rand: Poor Ning is being dunked on by both of us here, but I think establishing iG's approach to the early game is important. I'm glad you mentioned Baolan's early vision control because I think it still doesn't hold up to a few teams in Korea, namely Gen.G and possibly KT Rolster. iG should be able to beat a team like Griffin by drafting pushing lanes and relying on that to finish by mid-to-late -- before Griffin can scale into strong 5v5 teamfighting -- but I think vision control from the likes of Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in and Cho "Mata" Se-hyeong, along with their roaming could stop iG's approach. We've already seen KT best iG at Rift Rivals, and although the meta has shifted since then, I think the matchup would still go in KT's favor. Gen.G is an interesting matchup that I also think would result in an iG loss, especially since Gen.G not only has solid early game macro but the team is champion of the mid-game stall, and could beat iG in teamfighting. What do you think of iG's matchups?
Torres: KT is easily iG's worst nightmare. An early-game focused team with an active control jungler? That's always going to be its kryptonite. Mata's roaming approach will keep Baolan from getting vision and iG from mounting the necessary control to take over mid game, but Go "Score" Dong-Bin will shut it down from the start. KT's tendency to pick lanes with the purpose of snowballing a game in 25 minutes will make iG's life difficult as that gives Score even more agency over Ning. As for the Gen.G matchup, I see your point about their mid-game stall and that makes it rather difficult for iG, but their tempo can also burn them plenty against a team with measured aggression. The matchup is closer than the KT matchup and might slightly favor iG's flavor of League of Legends, but I do agree that Gen.G's general vision control will suffocate iG if the early game is the least bit locked out. The matchup primarily hinges on how both teams focus on their mid laner because it seems like Rookie will have to be the superhero against a team that revolves so well around Song "Fly" Yong-Jun's controlled playstyle.
Gen.G vs. the top of China
Rand: Speaking of Gen.G, this is a team that, much like the entirety of the LPL at the start of the summer split, stubbornly stuck to traditional AD carries, especially with the Ezreal/Tahm Kench combination for Park "Ruler" Jae-hyeok and CoreJJ. This team has fairly good early objective control, which is a rarity in South Korea right now, that often flies under the radar due to either Kang "Haru" Min-seung or more recently Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong dying on an invade without pushing lanes or proper vision. Gen.G is still a 5v5 teamfighting team above all else, but the team's early game can be deceptively strong especially since the meta suits Gen.G's champion pools. I'd love to see them go up against a team like Rogue Warriors.
Torres: Gen.G's matchup against Rogue Warriors is as strange as it gets. Gen.G's early vision control makes it difficult for Rogue to skirmish as much as it usually does, but that doesn't mean it won't try. Haru and Ambition have their moments, but Sung "Flawless" Young-Jun has entire episodes of strange jungle invades without lane priority. Still, Rogue chooses really creative fights often as well and is extremely decisive when it comes to tower dives. If Gen.G focuses draft priority on scaling picks like Ezreal, I can see the team having plenty of trouble handling a snowball from the Chinese side. Bot lane stands out as the center of action when it comes to these two teams.
Rand: Yeah, both are bot-lane focused in different ways. Another interesting matchup would be against Royal Never Give Up, which has reverted to a scaling focus now that Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao is back on the starting roster. RNG has the tools to have a stronger early game in jungler Hung "Karsa" Hau-Hsuan and its two solo laners, but will frequently default to scaling for 5v5 teamfights or to set up a late split-push. It's like RNG hit the reset button after Uzi came back and ended up where the team was at the very beginning of 2018 LPL Spring playoffs. Interestingly enough, this Gen.G team credited RNG for teaching bot-lane focus at last year's Worlds, an important factor in this roster's championship run. I imagine something like Gen.G's teamfights against Griffin in both of their series this split -- with RNG coming out on top.
Torres: Indeed. Gen.G's playstyle might be bot lane focused, but its overall approach to the game plays heavily into the hands of RNG. Even so, RNG's default back to scaling picks -- such as Uzi's Vayne -- casts quite the blemish on its current strength. In a world where RNG continues to make the same scaling compositions of Spring, Gen.G probably should come out more often than not thanks to the tandem of CoreJJ and Ambition. Karsa is a strong player, but RNG falls apart at the seams when a solo laner or jungler doesn't create the appropriate pressure to relieve Uzi during "raise the puppy" drafts. In a potential matchup, Lee "Cuvee" Seong-Jin might actually be the most important player due to the current top lane pool featuring Gnar and Kennen, picks that heavily punish RNG's current approach to the game in the laning phase and afterwards. That somewhat extends to a potential matchup against JD Gaming as well, given that team's misgivings in the mid game.
JD Gaming vs. the top of South Korea
Rand: So for our final look at matchups, JD Gaming is probably a name that not many people have heard outside of a few dedicated LPL viewers. This is a team that has one of the best mid laners in the LPL, behind Rookie and RNG's Li "Xiaohu" Yuan-Hao in Zeng "Yagao" Qi, who I fondly call "toothpaste" since I found the meaning behind his handle during the Demacia Cup broadcast. Top laner Zhang "Zoom" Xing-Ran has also been strong lately, and old LCK fans might recognize bot laner Lee "LokeN" Dong-wook from his time on ESC Ever. Since about mid-spring, JDG has continued to improve from a team with a lot of talent that showed flashes of competency to one of the best teams in China. I typically mention JDG alongside Suning Gaming, if only because the two share a conference and were fighting each other for a playoff spot last split. Yet, JDG has made improvements in the team's macro, even with a still-shaky mid game, and can put together some amazing teamfights and skirmishes.
Torres: JDG hasn't started ex-ahq AD carry Liang "RD" Tenli in a while, but I'm still a fan of its unique approach to the game. The team's aggression can be compared to Rogue Warriors, but JDG lacks the same unhinged aspect and some of the calculations that fuel much of Rogue's play. As a team that actually bears great similarity to Taiwanese squad, MAD Team, JDG is an underdog with upset potential against a squad like KT Rolster or Kingzone DragonX. MAD couldn't do it at Rift Rivals, but JDG has just a bit more firepower in the early game to threaten Kingzone's general lack of competence and the right amount of ingenuity to throw KT off in the early game. Especially against Kingzone, Yagao's ability to play just about anything necessary combined with Kim "Clid" Tae-min's early-game killer instinct spells bad news for Han "Peanut" Wang-ho.
Rand: Ah, Kingzone, I guess we were going to have to bring them up at some point. Kingzone occupy a nebulous place in South Korea right now: a good team with proven talent that has disappointed one too many times on the international stage. I too think JDG would give Kingzone a lot of problems early. Again, outside of KT, occasionally Gen.G, and a few Griffin and Hanwha Life Esports matches, the LCK hasn't really shown a lot of strong early game firepower, which makes a lot of these hypothetical CN-KR matchups interesting. The issue with the Kingzone-JDG matchup is that I still don't trust JDG's mid game enough to say that JDG would win convincingly, although I think the top and jungle matchups would be in JDG's favor. Gwak "Bdd" Bo-seong has kept Kingzone at the top of the LCK, sometimes dragging the team kicking and screaming. I don't think Bdd would be stomped by Yagao but I do think that JDG play better around Yagao's advantages than Kingzone does around Bdd at times. It would come down to the mid-game and although I agree that Kingzone's early game isn't great, I trust Kingzone's veterans to make better decisions mid and late.
Torres: BDD is arguably the best mid laner in the LCK and he definitely keeps the Kingzone matchup with JDG close enough for veteran decisionmaking to kick in. Ultimately, JDG lacks a lot of the same experience and foresight that some of the best teams in Korea have.That can really bite a team, but sometimes a team like Griffin can really own it if the players are talented and the identity is focused enough. A matchup between Griffin and a LPL team like JDG would also bring interesting results, given the team's emphasis on teamfighting and de-emphasis on information.
Ultimately, the LPL has great teams, but with the LCK's constant ruckus at the top, it feels as if the top of the region is more consistent in a variety of matchups. The vision and objective control heralded in the LCK goes a long way and that's the last step for a team like JDG or even a team like Griffin that poised itself near the top. Still, the regular ingenuity that occurs in the LPL when it comes to snowballing games can catch anyone off guard.