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10 thoughts going into MSI Groups

The tournament of champions heads to Hanoi. Can defending World Champs IG ward off all challengers?

Have any international events been played since Worlds six months ago? Nope. Has that stopped fans from different regions from arguing against each other about who is better? Also nope. But in less than two days, we will finally see all of the revamped rosters slam into each other for the first time this year. Each of the major regions have sent their respective super teams -- TL, G2, and SKT -- to take on reigning World Champion, Invictus Gaming. They are joined by the host region, Vietnam’s Phong Vũ Buffalo, and a new-look Flash Wolves, who are coming off their seventh consecutive LMS title despite major roster upheaval. Here’s 10 thoughts going into the MSI Group Stage!

1. IG defend the throne

You know how Cersei was just sitting on her throne sipping wine and re-watching old episodes of Friends (this is canon) while everyone else was training and fighting and saving the world from the [checks notes] snow zombies? That’s IG. After winning Worlds last year in dominant fashion (sweeping FNC in under 90 minutes of total game time), they’ll return the exact same roster to Hanoi. All across the globe, we saw the biggest teams in the scene try to match that by revamping their rosters, which includes massive changes from SKT, G2, and TL. All of that for a chance at international glory -- and there’s no bigger opportunity than to take down the defending champion. IG’s Sping Split wasn’t without worry, though -- they were uninspired out of the gate and only truly ramped up towards the end of the split, losing more regular season games this split than all of last year combined. You might argue they still haven’t actually finished ramping up, but MSI will be a good chance for them to wake up. As was true at Worlds, solo laners TheShy and Rookie are still going to be the key players to watch. Anyway, all of this is crap and the real reason anyone is excited is ROOKIE VS. FAKER. Don’t let the big brain analysts fool you into thinking ROOKIE VS. FAKER isn’t the only thing that matters. Like, is TheShy the best player in this tournament? Probably. But he isn’t ROOKIE VS. FAKER. It’s going to be, as the kids say, big poggers. And if either of them pick Nautilus, I will unplug the power so we can get a remake.

2. The sole dynasty

I want to start this with a quote from Brian Phillips:

“Who’s spent the least amount of time in the machine? Underdogs, right? And who’s spent the most? Winners. Underdogs seem like they still have some connection to the world the rest of us live in. It’s winners who have had their very nuclei converted into television. And no team in recent sports history has won as relentlessly as the Belichick-Brady Patriots. That’s why it was so outrageous when some people around the Patriots tried to position them as underdogs during the playoffs. You can be behind per the betting odds; you’re not an underdog if your atoms are made of T-Mobile ringtones.”

You can basically replace Belichick-Brady Patriots with kkOma-Faker SKT and that’s how I feel about this team -- right down to the telephone company ringtone. The machine here is the spectacle that winners partake in -- often -- because they play on the biggest possible stage so much. The confetti. The fireworks. The tens of thousands of fans throwign their voices into the esports abyss. Even here in Vietnam, locals tell me they’re not sure if PVB or SKT is more popular. So no matter how you slice the dice, the team with the most suffocating aura outside of the game is SKT. You combine that with the fact that the Faker/kkOma combo has made every single final at every single international event they’ve attended and you’ve got yourself a black hole of attention. IG may be the defending champs, and G2 might have all of Europe daring to dream of hoisting the trophy, but neither of them have had to triumph over SKT on a stage like this. This roster, of course, has been completely revamped from the disappointment that was 2018 and the heartbreak that was 2017. While Faker will draw all of the fanfare, the reality of it is on the Rift, this team might actually revolve even more around new ADC Teddy and former Worlds Finals MVP Mata. But it’s been a year and a half since this team made it to a major international event -- they will be hungry to bring glory back to both themselves and to all of Korea. And so, for good reason, all eyes will be on mid.

3. Europe’s high expectations

This team has so much talent that Caps isn’t even their best mage player. It’s clearly Jankos’ Morgana. Actually, if you are on social channels at all, then you might be led to believe that the G in G2 stands for Geesus. And… well, they’ve kind of got a point. If you haven’t watched G2 play at all this split, then you’ve really missed out one some of the funnest League of Legends I’ve ever watched. They’re like that super jock baseball pitcher that can also hit (looking at you, Ohtani). The LEC Spring Final finished in under 80 minutes and included an 18 minute clincher over what was pretty indisputably the second best team in EU. It was the fastest game in EU history, and for it to be in the Finals is some kind of stupid. Across that set, we saw G2 employ a Sona/Taric strategy and then counter it with a funnel comp, and then we saw Neeko bottom. Perkz turned a lot of heads this Split when he announced he would swap over to bot lane to make way for Caps to join their roster, and while the experiment hasn’t been without hiccups, it’s going to be their greatest weapon on this stage. He might not be the best ADC, but he may very well be the best bot lane player in this stage thanks to his prowess on mages. To me, this will be the most exciting team to watch in the Group Stage. They’ve played loose all year, but now will be the time to clamp down. The biggest question mark will be around whether substitute support promisq can fill in for Mikyx, who is suffering from wrist injuries at the moment. It’s a big loss at a crucial moment for G2, but they’ll need to prove that the sum of their parts can’t be affected too negatively by this.

4. Swimming in Liquid

I could try to convince you that TL will do well here (and I actually believe that) but at this point I think most NA fans have already drowned in the bottom of the half-empty cup. So no one will believe me! NA fans may never learn to trust again. Liquid kicked off their MSI run with a strong 3-0 over Vietnam’s Phong Vũ Buffalo. A lot of the focus will be on the weird skirmishes throughout the set, but I wouldn’t mistake that for outright poor play from TL. All-in-all they won, like they have done all split, in the team phase of the game. They controlled the objectives much better than PVB, and that’s what I’d look to from them at this stage as well. This has not been and will not be a team that just outplays their opponents with crazy risks, and I think that discipline will come in handy during the Group Stage, which can often be hectic. What has plagued NA teams in the past is their inability to make a proactive play on the map, but I think this TL squad is actually quite good at rotating to the right objectives on time. They’re not a particularly flashy team, so I think hype for them may be a bit pale compared to the three other teams I’ve talked about already, but not being flashy doesn’t mean you aren’t good. And more importantly, this is arguably the best team NA has ever sent to an international event (alongside 2013 C9 and 2016 TSM), and if this team doesn’t do well, then maybe NA is doomed forever. Surely Doublelift will make it out of Groups this time, right?

5. New generation of wolves

The entire old core of the Flash Wolves -- Karsa, Maple, and SwordArT -- have now all left for the LPL, and combined with MAD and G-Rex going a combined 0-12 in the Worlds Group Stage, fans of the LMS have been understandably pessimistic (to say the least) about their region. But the problem [blessing] of international events is that try as you might to temper your hopes and expectations, the very moment you see your tteam on stage and cracking jokes in pre-game, you can’t help but jump in headfirst. All it takes is for them to smile once and suddenly you’re decked out in armor and ready to charge into the depths of the underworld for them. And then you see them get a kill or maybe you even see them win a game -- as was the case here with the Flash Wolves knocking off Vega Squadron 3-1 to advance to the Group Stage. And just like that, if only for brief stints, you let yourself imagine the “what-if” scenarios. But unlike previous years, expectations for the Flash Wolves aren’t sky-high from their region. Though they eventually came out on top in the LMS this split, it was largely thanks to a late surge. Finishing in second in the regular season was a sharp contrast to them going a combined 31-3 in individual game scores last summer. ADC Betty and top laner Hanabi are the only returning members from that team, and for many of us who haven’t followed the LMS as closely this year, it’ll be interesting to see just how much the team can lean on them. I think having to play the Play-in was good experience, and having more pressure lifted from their shoulders should let the team play a little more carefree. The Flash Wolves’ fan banners read “Keep the Faith,” and this year they’ll be asking for more of that than ever.

6. Buffalo stampede

One of my favorite old school League of Legends videos is this “When the Q lands” Lee Sin play. This is also a good summation of what PVB is like as a team. The VCS is the bloodiest region in the world, and while PVB isn’t as fight-heavy as some of their counterparts, they’ll still bring a lightning-fast tempo to the Group Stage. We saw this on good display in their set against TL, where they seemed happy to take any fight they could get. They’re like a cat at 4:00 am bouncing up and down the walls as if possessed, except all the time. Whereas some teams might fight in order to achieve something more after the fact, PVB seems to pick fights for the sake of generating a pick, which is theoretically a good way to generate gold, but sometimes that means they lack critical positioning to take a good fight at key objectives. Fight on the back foot for long enough and eventually you’ll get knocked out, no matter how proficient you may be at it. But they also demonstrated mental resilience and a bit more patience in denying VEG the reverse sweep. It is very difficult to stymie the momentum of a team coming back from an 0-2 deficit, but they managed to do it in a much slower-paced game than we were accustomed to seeing from them. That tells me this team is capable of evolving and adapting as the Group Stage wears on, which is something that has eluded Vietnamese teams in the past, who responded to struggle by pressing the pedal even harder. They’ll also have a massive home crowd behind them -- a week in front of thousands of Vietnamese fans will be a first, and perhaps that’ll be the x-factor in propelling them forward.

7. My favorite MSI narrative

I love watching futility, which means I love watching a team pour everything they’ve got into something and still fail. There’s just something so perfectly human about that. Which also means I love a good “bad” guy, and in the history of League of Legends, there is no one better at crushing dreams than Faker and SKT. The song “Amor Fati” by Epik High begins, “God doesn’t love me,” which is what I think of lately when I think about how MSI is full of champions among champions. Each region has sent what might be called their best team ever, and it is only fitting that Faker is here to serve as their foil. The god of the Rift. On paper, I think I’d agree with many analysts that suggest they don’t look like the most frightening team, but as I said earlier, SKT is more than a stat sheet or a replay. There are tons of great storylines here. PVB is trying to win in front of their home crowd. The Flash Wolves are trying to prove that the LMS is not dead. IG is trying to build a legacy. G2 is realistically within reach of the top of the world -- something Europe has long been denied. It is less than a stone’s throw away. And TL has been built to redeem nearly a decade’s worth of North American failure. You can narrow down on players and find equally compelling stories -- like Betty as the last wolf or Doublelift pining for his first Group Stage triumph. But the ultimate narrative for me is for Faker and SKT to deny all of this. Maybe after Worlds last year, teams don’t fear Korea anymore. They don’t fear a Faker who does not seem as dominant as he once was. But you know -- I think it is not death that we fear but the fact that we have no control over it. It is inevitable. And what is Faker but inevitable.

8. My least favorite narrative

Well, always it will be EU vs. NA. There are two ways I approach this. First is that historically, there is no competition. EU is clearly and unequivocally better than NA when it comes to producing results, and many of the biggest series between the two regions at international events have gone in favor of EU. The most recent example is last year’s Semifinal between Fnatic and Cloud9. The second angle, however, is that yesterday’s result has no bearing on today’s. League of Legends is a game that evolves on a bi-weekly cycle for one, and for two, every single time you load onto a new instance of Summoner’s Rift, the slate is wiped. You can’t carry an advantage from one game to the next. At least not physically. And so for all the hoopla about who was better, it doesn’t matter in identifying who is better now. That won’t be answered until they clash. Even still this narrative always devolves into ridiculous arguments. Like, does it matter that America does Pizza better even though it’s Italian? Not at all. I think it’s fine for the banter to exist, and so long as there are rivalries, this is how it’s always going to be, but maybe it’s not an excuse to be so hostile to each other. I also realize this is futile to ask for, but if you choose to flame, then at least make it funny!

9. Keys to the game

Flash Wolves:
1. Every time Betty starts fighting, start singing, “Whoa, Attack Betty, bam-a-lam!”
2. Remember that Wolves are in fact not lonely, but pack animals

G2:
1. Put Jankos on Morgana
2. Before randomly picking Perkz’s champion, at least limit the pool to good ones

Invictus Gaming:
1. Give Wang Sicong a hotdog
2. Play montage video of IG’s seven years of failures before Worlds 2018

Phong Vu Buffalo:
1. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should
2. Hit the damn turret!

SK telecom T1:
1. Make sure Faker shows up to stadium
2. Convince Teddy he’s on Jin Air again so he 1v9s

Team Liquid:
1. Steve pays off every other team (Disclaimer: this is a joke and we DO NOT endorse such behavior)
2. Steve pays off the guy who wrote the disclaimer (me)

10. Final Predictions

Brain says Invictus Gaming. Gut says SKT. Magic eight ball says TL. EU says G2. Person next to me at random Vietnamese cafe says Phong Vu. And my delivery lead, who is Taiwanese, says Flash Wolves. Let me know who you’ve got winning MSI!