Welcome to my 2018 NA LCS Spring Split Preview Series! I’ll be releasing my thoughts on each team during the 10 days before the season opener on Saturday, January 20th.
Now, the second contender: Counter Logic Gaming
The departure of star support Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black in the offseason marked the end of an era for Counter Logic Gaming. His absence leaves a hole in the CLG spirit that won’t soon be filled.
Aphromoo had been with the team for five years, helping build the modern CLG from the ground up while insisting on a level of team unity that would set the organization apart from its peers. Culture fit mattered as much as a player’s skill, and those that couldn’t acclimatize were booted (if admitted at all). For aphromoo and CLG, the team always mattered more than the individual, a stark contrast to organizations that built entire rosters around one star player.
That team-centric mentality has served CLG well. During his tenure as the primary shotcaller, aphromoo led CLG to two NA LCS championships in Summer 2015 and Spring 2016, plus a fantastic second-place finish at MSI 2016 where they were beaten by SK Telecom T1. Now, the overwhelming CLG fan favorite has left the building, unable to turn down the money and change of environment offered by NaDeSHoT’s 100 Thieves. And good for him; a player of aphromoo’s caliber should be able to enjoy the rewards of what he’s accomplished. But for CLG, the road goes on without him now, and it remains to be seen if the winning mentality he fathered will last.
Whether CLG can continue to contend or not will largely be determined by how well the remaining members synergize with new blood. Shotcalling duties will likely be handed over to top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaya, the team’s most senior player. One of the best split pushers in the league, Darshan effectively creates laning pressure by himself on champions like Gnar or Camille, then spends the rest of the game pushing waves and preventing a 5v5 engage by the opposition until the opportune moment. With his experience, Darshan has an excellent sense of where to be on the map, when it’s time to create space for an objective, or when a teamfight is advantageous.
Darshan’s ability to champion his favored bruisers will come down to the compositions CLG decides to run. If they can force new jungler Kim “Reignover” Yeu-jin on to tanks more often, Darshan might snag an occasional Jax or Fiora. But Reignover hasn’t shown the willingness or ability to play tank junglers recently. Before being benched for Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett on Team Liquid late last year, Reignover spent 86 of his 94 Season 7 games on carry junglers like Kha’Zix (28 games), Elise (12 games), Olaf (10 games), and Graves (9 games), compared to only seven Gragas games and none as Sejunai or Jarvan IV. True, Liquid needed all the carry help for AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin they could get, but the fact is Reignover doesn’t excel on tanks. Season 8’s jungle meta should be more forgiving of that fault, but it does limit the choices the rest of CLG have inside champ select.
Reignover is an upgrade at jungle over both Dardoch and Omar “OmarGod” Amin, but for different reasons. Where OmarGod lacked the experience to consistently execute certain mechanical plays (Gragas casks, for example), Reignover brings a wealth of knowledge and skill forged from his days on Fnatic and Immortals. Dardoch might give Reignover a run for his money mechanically, but toxicity ate away at his starting job until his position became untenable. Reignover is willing to be a cog in the machine; perhaps too willing sometimes, considering that he was brought aboard a floundering Season 7 Team Liquid to lead that team and failed to do so.
Luckily for Reignover, CLG’s solo laners are a massive improvement compared to his Liquid days. Complimenting the uneven risks Darshan sometimes takes top is the metronome of the mid lane: Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun. Though the champions might change (you never know when that legendary Aurelion Sol will appear), Huhi’s excellent play rarely wavers. When was the last time Huhi lost CLG a game? None of his major in-game statistics jump off the page—neither great, nor terrible—but all belie both his consistency in lane, and his effective roams outside of it.
One of the trickiest parts of being a mid laner is appropriately distributing the advantages gained in laning phase to the side lanes, and Huhi is a master at it. It’s part of the reason his Aurelion Sol is so devastating. Immaculate mechanics are just a bonus; to truly extract all value from the pick, a mid laner must already be an excellent roamer because Aurelion Sol’s kit magnifies that tendency better than anyone. Sol’s Comet of Legend allows him unparalleled movement across the map; he’s the roaming mid champion. Expect to see Huhi reunited with his dragon friend in Season 8, but the danger that reunion poses alone in pick/ban is already a boon for CLG. Against what other team in the world do you first round ban Aurelion Sol?
The CLG bot lane is under new management, with Vincent “Biofrost” Wang replacing aphromoo at support. Formerly of Team SoloMid—where he laned with aphro’s old teammate Yiliang “Peter” “Doublelift” Peng—Biofrost has massive shoes to fill yet again (his starting job at TSM came at the expense of veteran Bora “YellOwStaR” Kim in Summer 2016). Biofrost grew significantly under the tutelage of Doublelift and Jason “WildTurtle” Tran, gaining playmaking confidence on tank supports like Braum and Tahm Kench. His lane-mate is Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes, who will have to prove he can win lane without aphro’s presence or a reliance on Ashe, his most-played Season 7 champion that seems firmly outside current Season 8 meta.
If their bot lane can become a large enough threat that opponents will have to account for them—thus giving Darshan space to split push—CLG will be a strong side and virtual locks for a playoff spot. But like Cloud9, CLG’s real goal is Worlds, especially after coming up short in the regional finals last year. With several good-but-not-great teams cluttering the top of NA LCS, gaining significant Championship Points in Spring to improve their international chances will be invaluable. If CLG can stay united and integrate their new parts into a harmonious whole, there’s no one in the NA LCS they can’t beat. It’d be a fine tribute to their departed leader, and the culture he built, if CLG could successfully persist without him.
CLG Academy Roster:
Top: Kevin “fallenbandit” Wu
Jungle: Omar “OmarGod” Amin
Mid: Jean-Sébastien “Tuesday” Thery
AD Carry: Osama “Auto” Alkhalaileh
Support: Lee “Fill” Hyo-won
Coach: Sami “Rico” Harbi
Next, money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy a fantastic roster…