We're coming up on the halfway mark of the NA LCS Spring Split and Counter Logic Gaming are sitting outside a playoff spot. That's something most experts couldn't have predicted only a few short weeks ago. So how did we get here? What's wrong with CLG and is it time to push to panic button?
WHERE IT STARTED:
To establish where we are we need to look at where we've been, and for CLG that starts at the Spring Split in 2016. CLG was coming off a Summer Split Championship, and a poor showing at Worlds where Huhi was forced to play jungle due to an Xmithie visa issue. That off-season saw changes as Pobelter left, Huhi became the full time mid laner and Stixxay replaced Doublelift at adc. CLG entered spring with high hopes but the understanding that it may take time for the team to come together. That didn't really happen as CLG was strong from the start, going 13-5 before beating Liquid and TSM in the playoffs to win the Spring Split. They followed that up with a very strong showing at MSI where they finished second.
Since then CLG has struggled. The Summer Split saw them finish fourth at 10-8, despite no changes to their roster. They managed to beat Liquid in the playoffs before being swept by TSM. They then lost the third/fourth place match against Immortals. They qualified for Worlds but failed to make it out of groups after being upset by Albus NoX Luna, and giving G2 their only win of the tournament.
So it's safe to say expectations were mixed coming into 2017. On one hand, CLG was the only top tier team with no changes to their roster, giving them an advantage in synergy over other teams. On the other hand, their most recent history was struggling as a team, something that's continued to plague them.
So what was different in the spring of 2016 compared to the summer or the current season? If you look back at that Spring Split team it was led by a dominant split push game from Darshan, who was a star in the top lane. Darshan was fourth among starters in csd@10, third in xp@10, third in first blood participation and second in kills. The argument could easily be made that Darshan was the second best top laner behind Huni that season.
With the influx of new top laners, and the development of existing ones, Darshan is nowhere near the best top is NA anymore. He averages both a negative gold differential and xp differential and has the worst csd@10 of full time starters.
Xmithie and Huhi were both league average at their roles in the spring of 2016, showing that while they overall didn't help the team, they didn't hurt the team compared to others. Xmithie is now average to below average in the 2017 Spring Split in most statistical categories, while Huhi is still at the league average level.
Stixxay stepped into the adc role and excelled, having the fourth best csd@10 among full time starters and the best gold differential. Despite having the third best csd@10 this season, he averages negative gold and xp differential and is among the bottom of the league in those stats. He does lead the league in kills and is second in assists, but he also is second in the league in deaths.
While support is the hardest to qualify, as its stats are based so heavily on the team and it's changed the most in the last year, aphromoo had gold differential numbers and a kda that were both above average. This season aphromoo is dead last among full time starters in both gold and experience at 10 minutes. He has the second most deaths and a below average kda.
So that's how we got here, but what happened? How did every single player seemingly get worse? The answer to that is complex.
For starters the individual talent in the NA LCS has gotten better. While Huni may be gone, Ssumday, Flame and Looper have taken his spot and players like Lourlo, Hauntzer and Zig have continued to improve. The same can be said in the jungle, as Contractz, Akaadian and Chaser have all arrived while Inori and Moon have grown as players. Mid lane saw the return of Hai and the move from EU LCS of Ryu, while Doublelift's departure at adc is cancelled out by the arrival of Arrow. Simply put the talent level in the NA LCS has risen, and CLG's talent hasn't improved at the same pace.
That's not the only issue though, as the change in the meta has really hurt CLG. Split push comps were far more common in the Spring Split of 2016 than they are now, as tanks are the primary top laner of choice. Darshan has not looked nearly as impactful on Maokai (10 of his 19 games) as he has on Gankplank or Shen. More damage comes from the jungle now, but that hasn't suited Xmithie's play style either. Ignoring the overpowered and often banned Rengar, Xmithies best game have come on Olaf and Lee Sin, while hes struggled on Kha'Zix and Graves.
Aphromoo is the primary shot caller on CLG and that perfectly suited his play-style when he could play an engage or tank support last year. This year he's had issues with mage supports. In a pregame interview before CLG vs Fox, aphromoo said that the team has had issues adjusting, as last year Xmithie and he would be the engage, while the meta has changed that to Stixxay and Darshan. The change in identity is a large part of their struggle.
The question we need to answer is is it time for CLG to push the panic button? They're outside a playoff spot with the halfway point of the season coming up this weekend. That being said, they're only win away from Phoenix1, Echo Fox and Immortals, who all sit at 4-4. If CLG wants to make the playoffs and have a chance of banking some needed World Championship Points, the time to panic isn't here but the time to change and adapt is.
While the meta may not perfectly suit CLG's strengths, there are ways to make their strengths suit the meta. For starters I'd get Darshan back on split pushers whenever possible. His Gangplank game was very good and his Shen is also top tier. The team can simply do more with their solid communication under this strategy than many of their counterparts. I'd also be open to Darshan trying out a Fiora or even falling back onto Ekko in that role. To balance that out, I'd have Xmithie playing more tanks. He hasn't played a single Rek'Sai or Gragas game this year, and while those aren't top tier junglers they do suit his play style more. I'd try to get him on one of those, or Olaf or Lee Sin on most games. Due to the high level of high impact junglers, I'd do my best to make sure that Rengar and Kha'Zix are banned every game. If you can force the enemy onto Graves, Lee Sin or Ivern, he'll have a much easier time being impactful.
The team needs to do a better job playing around their bot lane, which is their strongest role. Stixxay and aphro are both top tier at their roles, and they need to do a better job removing pressure from them. Currently the other team can focus on shutting down the botlane, with the understanding that their mid and top laners will probably come out ahead without help. Getting Darshan onto a split pusher solves some of that, but being available for roams or counter ganks is incredibly important. I'd also consider getting aphromoo onto a better play maker than Lulu (0-3) or Zyra (0-2). While his Thresh and Malzahar have been strong, and he's got a perfect winrate on Miss Fortune, a Bard with the ability to make picks and set the pace of the game may be his best option.
Which brings us to Huhi. CLG has found the most success this year when Huhi plays a high threat target. He has 100% win rates on Katarina and Ekko, with the team also preforming well when he's on Aurelion Sol and Syndra. His next best champion in terms of win rate is Orianna, who the team focuses on over fear of a shockwave. I'd try to get him one of those high priority targets for every game. If the team is focusing on killing him, it gives Stixxay space to operate and when he's got space the team is successful. Huhi doesn't have to win lane to be able to provide that, just farm well and look scary and it gives the enemy something to think about.
This week CLG plays Immortals and Liquid, in two very winnable series. Their best bet to win those series is to have a strong split push game, ban out Kha'Zix and Rengar, setup aphromoo on a play maker. CLG needs to stop responding to the meta and start developing a new meta, one that works better for them.