24 minutes in, Zdravets "Hylissang" Iliev Galabov finally found his opening. With the total confidence of a true veteran he flashed directly on top of Elias "Upset" Lipp’s Kai’Sa and activated Braum’s Glacial Fissure. His team’s follow up was immediate. The certainty and assurance that came with experience was in full effect, as Mads "Broxah" Brock-Pedersen dove the backline on Nocturne and Gabriël "Bwipo" Rau’s Viktor flashed to secure the execute on Schalke 04’s franchise AD Carry.
It was terrifyingly precise. Despite Schalke’s main source of damage taking an early exit, the ensuing fight was bloody. Nonetheless, the sole rookie member of Fnatic’s lineup stood inexplicably victorious in the aftermath, having faced down three members alone and eliminating two. The sole survivor was forced to retreat.
This was Week 2, day two of the 2019 Spring LEC double round robin. Flashes of the sheer talent available in this roster were still coming through in spite of Fnatic’s 5,200 gold deficit and just one kill to their name against Schalke’s 10. Fnatic lost this match and ended the second week 0-4. This stands as Fnatic’s worst starting record in the entire history of Riot controlled European League of Legends. In spite of this, though every Fnatic member received criticisms, the calls for specific player replacements were not made as they typically are of struggling teams. This wasn’t just a talented roster, this was an evidently talented roster. The players had the faith of the fans, the fans were just waiting for the them to get their act together.
Last weekend, they managed to get their act together.
Fnatic’s 2-0 this weekend is their first 2-0 of the season and an absolutely necessary step if they are to keep their playoff dreams alive. It required changes from their early week performances, and that change wasn’t totally immediate. One critical element to this evolution was the total sacking of Bwipo’s lane: a player who, in his debut one year ago, found significant attention from his team to his Sion lane – not the typical champion you expect find the focus of your own team’s resources.
Those times are long gone. Bwipo has sacrificed multiple waves and lane advantages on everything from Sion to Jayce to make impromptu TP plays for the benefit of Martin "Rekkles" Larsson in the recent weeks. Though impromptu for him, the transfer of resources always went to a late game champion in the veneer of Sivir or Tristana. Fnatic’s strategy switched slightly this weekend, but their mentality remained. Instead of dragging Bwipo down from level two onwards, this time Fnatic simply completely ignored him and allowed the opponent to sack his side of the map for control.
In the first game against Origen, Rekkles and Hylissang evidently didn’t need his help. Some arguably lazy pathing from Sheriff and Mithy (a Q from either to check the brush may have saved them from Galio) resulted in a very early kill, and the subsequent loss of pressure allowed a devastating level 2 dive from Broxah. Rekkles snowballed his lead to four kills before Bwipo was even sighted on the bottom half of what was already Fnatic’s map. When he was, he didn’t even get an assist. He lost three turret plating.
Discussing the sacking of Bwipo cannot be done without bringing up the current state of top lane. A lot has been said of mid lane’s apparent lack of damage and snowball potential, but top lane is severely weighted against resource heavy champions. While Urgot can secure early level push against Sion, there is a point in the game where Urgot can lose almost all turret taking pressure against a Sion, and Bwipo’s sacrifices did not prevent the matchup reaching this state. A similar event occured in their match against SK Gaming, though this time it was Werlyb on the Sion falling far behind in his matchup. Fnatic clearly still carried that loss – their third to the inexperienced SK lineup – with them.
In the second game he found himself similarly ignored, this time on Yorick. Yorick is in an exceptionally strange place right now where he becomes an unstoppable machine on his Trinity Force spike, demanding significant attention. Fnatic again played hard around their bottom side while Bwipo fell further and further behind. It didn’t matter. On a single item, he bounded up mid lane to take a 3v4 victory in their favour, before pressuring sides. Only a matched grouping could contest him at this point, and Bwipo would own whichever side of the map he chose to play on
The player on the other side of the map wasn’t Tim "Nemesis" Lipovšek. The typical 1-3-1 mid game setup would see both solo laners making up the 1’s, yet Fnatic’s approach this weekend had Rekkles making up the other side while Nemesis held mid on Zoe both times. Instead of more standard setups, Rekkles was placed on TP AD carries both times. This allowed a lot of flexibility for his side lane play, allowing him to continue in this role long after the laning and swap phases of the game had ended and shifting Fnatic into a sudo 3-1-1 setup.
The ability to shift into this 3-1-1 setup around Rekkles paid huge dividends in the Vitality match. Daniele "Jiizuke" di Mauro on Fizz was unable to acquire turret pressure with his pushes of the top wave, as Rekkles/Hylissang would be able to match the push before the latter vanished into the fog of war. Rekkles would frequently extend for additional waves that would be inefficient in any other setup, and demanded a response by at least one of Vitality’s solo laners. The windows Vitality had in their groupings were slim, and the fact that grouping became their best option nullified their mid laners pick potential to a large extent. The Vitality game was far from a clean Fnatic close, but it still demonstrated the strengths of their new style.
Outside of this, the usage of TP allowed for easier collapse compositions even earlier in the game. This was most significantly displayed in the game against Origen, where both the semi-global nature of the Kai’Sa’s ultimate combined with the TP summoner spell allowed Rekkles to clinch kills in the mid lane and river area with rapid succession. It was acceleration like we hadn’t seen from Fnatic this split. It was incredibly oppressive to watch, and incredibly effective on the ground.
Collapse was coming from the mid/jungle too. The Zoe pick was significant. Everybody has seen Bwipo’s comments on EUphoria with regards to the importance of mid lane priority. It cannot be understated; Schalke 04’s poor performance was born largely from a loss of pressure in their mid lane, and Rogue’s turnaround was nipped in the bud in a similar fashion. Though Broxah was on an easy collapse champion like Nocturne, he too would find himself gated if the opposing mid laner could lean towards whatever side he wanted to play to and make the situation at best a 3v3, at worst a 4v3 in his opponent’s favour.
Zoe is a pick that may not always gather hard roam priority, but it is a pick that will completely deny it for the opposing mid. Unlike G2 who will utilise mid priority to make frequent side lane plays on champions like LeBlanc, Nemesis’ task was to ensure that Broxah would be free to play to his side’s control without fear of his opposing mid laner. Zoe also provides significant control over neutral objectives in the early phases of the game, winning out on river contests with her ridiculous poke. Lastly, she can hold mid lane alone against more standard 1-3-1 setups with her exceptional wave clear.
Rasmus "Caps" Winther has been called a great ‘enabler’ of Broxah, and in Fnatic’s old systems, he would find himself on champions like Syndra that could perform a similar function. It’s interesting to see this element work it’s way into Fnatic’s current iteration, as a large argument for why Fnatic used to exist in this Rekkles-oriented manner was Caps’ inexperience in knowing how to play sidewaves mid-late game. Perhaps with a new mid laner, this method will provide sufficient time for similar results, or perhaps it’s a fact of the current meta that playing resource heavy on your ADC for the great majority of the game happens to also be the optimum strategy.
Boom and bust
That it is a fact of the current meta is a happy coincidence, but one that also spells where this turnaround could end. It is also a fact of the current meta that top lane is in flux, but that run will end on 9.4 as Conqueror comes into the mix. High priority champions like Jax, Riven and their ilk will come into the fold and could demand a shift in playstyle on that basis alone that would undo the Fnatic that has been developed over the last weeks.
This is the point of worry. It has taken over half the split for Fnatic to develop into a playstyle that we saw teams like SK Gaming and Misfits Gaming take games with in their opening runs. If future patches shift the meta in different directions, how long will it take for the current Fnatic roster to find what works for them? Their current upwards trend has not come about as a result of increased understanding of fundamentals – their mid-late game sidelane control is and always has been strong. Their current upwards trend is a result of finding a pocket of strategy that suits them as-is.
There is a reason we are still talking about Fnatic. The organisation has never failed to make playoffs in its entire run. As a legacy, Fnatic have an absolutely dominating one as the single most successful organisation in a league that has only ever been won by two teams multiple times, and three overall. Their current head coach has not lost a single split since he has been on teams. People expect, even now, that ‘in the end Fnatic wins’.
So cast your mind back to those early struggling games, those first few weeks. Fnatic’s glimpses of greatness were not examples of a promising future; they were reminiscent of a proven past. What comes with a legacy like Fnatic’s is not the pressure to prove – that’s already been done, including by these players – but the knowledge not just that you can be a top team, but that you are one. Even when they began 0-3 in their first week they were simply a top team that was struggling. The end is not in sight for this team. Six years of the EU LCS and beyond has taught them that. Everybody is beating everyone right now, and that is when Fnatic do their best work.