Mid-Season Invitational Preview
After a few weeks off following the Spring season we’ve got our first international action of 2021 live from Reykjavik, Iceland starting on Thursday, May 6th. For the new folks, the Mid-Season Invitational is a tournament where the Spring season winners from each of the competing leagues for each region. The prize purse starts at a base of $250,000 (US) with the scale of skins and accessories for each team contributing additionally to the prize pool but perhaps more importantly, the winner will earn an additional regional team slot for the World Championships in the Fall. Riot has also added an additional slot to the highest ranking league in the global power ratings after the tournament (unclear on details here). With bigger prize pools and additional slots at the World Championship on the line, the goal is to make this less an exhibition and more a premier international event than it has been in the past.
The tournament is taking on a slightly different format this year with two separate “group” stages.
First is the actual group stage. Each of the twelve representatives are put into groups of four except for Group A which will be three teams because the VCS representative could not attend. The group stage will be best-of-one, double round robin for Groups B and C and quadruple round robin for Group A due to the size of the group.
After the group stage will be the “rumble” which is just a single group, double round robin best-of-one. The top four teams out of six will advance to the best-of-five bracket playoff.
The patch is 11.9 and both Gwen and Viego will be DISABLED.
Let’s meet each of the teams attending this year’s event. Afterwards I’ll be grouping them into tiers and rankings as well as discussing any futures positions I’ll be taking.
The Linchpin Player has the biggest impact on the teams’ performance and isn’t necessarily the best player on the team.
Royal Never Give Up (LPL – China)
Roster: Xiaohu, Wei, Cryin, GALA, Ming
Coaches: Poppy, Tabe
Spring Regular Season Record: 29-8 (1st)
Playoff Record: 9-8
Team Archetype: Multi-carry, top-centric, prefer to scale
Linchpin Player: Xiaohu
Royal Never Give Up had a rough time battling through an extremely competitive LPL playoff bracket. Whoever emerged from the LPL was going to be tested so this isn’t as much an indictment as it would be elsewhere in the world.
In his debut season transitioning to the top lane, storied veteran Xiaohu turned in a season worthy of league MVP candidacy despite struggling at times during isolated matchups during the playoffs. However, he’s far from the only star on this team. Wei has been arguably the only candidate in the conversation with Canyon for best jungler in the world over the past eighteen months and has done so across multiple teams and rosters. Another veteran, Ming, also turned in an MVP caliber season. GALA was maybe the “weak link” on this team and he was your literal Spring Finals MVP. Cryin isn’t to be forgotten either although he has taken a bit of a backseat on this roster compared to his time with eStar last season.
RNG are an extremely good team. They also faced arguably the toughest test to get here but they get a little predictable at times with their tendency to play almost blindly toward Xiaohu. It’s something that can be taken advantage of like FunPlus Phoenix did. That said, very few teams have Nuguri or anyone remotely near that level in the top lane so I think teams are going to be hard-pressed to really crack the armor of the raw talent level on this roster. RNG are also a very intelligent macro team despite their sometimes predictable approach to the game.
I’ll be discussing it more in my tiers below but despite my doubts about RNG being the “best team in the LPL”, they are, without a doubt, the second best team in this tournament.
MAD Lions (LEC – Europe)
Roster: Armut, Elyoya, Humanoid, Carzzy, Kaiser
Coaches: Mac, Kaas
Spring Regular Season Record: 10-8 (3rd)
Playoff Record: 9-4
Team Archetype: Multi-carry, prefer to play uptempo and take risks
Linchpin Player: Bottom lane (Carzzy/Kaiser)
The young guns overhauled part of their roster during the off season and despite a rough patch in the middle of the season, particularly for their bottom lane, managed to turn it on and perform at peak level when it mattered most; in playoffs. There’s a reasonable case to be made that Rogue should have won game five in the finals but either team would have been a respectable representative at this tournament.
MAD Lions are willing risk takers which can make them look brilliant at times but frequently gets them in trouble as well. The bottom lane in particular go through phases where it seems like they just coin flip level two no matter what happens. In a given game it makes them excellent as a punch up underdog as this team has a tremendously high ceiling but they sometimes struggle with consistency.
This isn’t the same team that had a disappointing debut on the international stage at Worlds last year. That team didn’t have any international experience which was my main reservation for them going into the tournament. Four of these players have now played internationally, Armut a number of times during his time in Turkey’s TCL. Elyoya is the only true rookie now. Expect them to not have the same degree of nerves this time around.
Still, I think we’ll know pretty quickly which version of the MAD Lions we’re going to get in this tournament. If they’re “on” or they have “it” then they’re live to beat anyone, including the tournament favorites but if they aren’t in similar form to the one they were in during playoffs I’ve got questions about their game-to-game consistency at this level of competition. Luckily they’ve dodged the top dogs in their group although they drew the two most difficult wildcard region teams. More on that later.
DAMWON Kia Gaming (LCK – Korea)
Roster: Khan, Canyon, ShowMaker, Ghost, BeryL
Coaches: Kkoma, PoohManDu
Spring Regular Season Record: 33-10 (1st)
Playoff Record: 6-0
Team Archetype: Adaptive, have the tools and willingness to do whatever is optimal
Linchpin Player: Canyon (usually), can be anybody depending on plan
A new coaching staff, a new top laner, a new look, a different approach, and the same results. DAMWON Kia had, in my opinion, the best single season performance of all time last Summer and into the World Championships. They were so much better than just about everybody in just about every measure to a degree that I didn’t think was possible in modern League of Legends. They might not have the same eye-popping traditional metrics that the 2020 iteration did but they’re actually more impressive in a few areas and are one of the few teams that have better numbers almost across the board when you isolate their performances over the course of the second half of the season OR just against elite teams in their leagues.
DAMWON are the deserving favorite in this tournament. They’re just the most fundamentally sound team in the world. They almost never make critical errors, minimize losses on the map better than anyone, and show poise and discipline in every situation. Their versatility and depth of champion pools and strategies just makes them a nightmare to get advantages against in draft and even if you do you still have to execute to near perfection to beat them. DAMWON adapt seamlessly to a full spectrum of strategies and opponent play styles. They play against their opponents more than playing “DAMWON’s way.” Whatever the most efficient way to attack another team is they’ll do that and because they’re at such an elite, world-class level in just about every facet of the game they can do this without hold ups or time to adjust.
DAMWON had a few “sketchy” losses this season if you look strictly at the teams that they lost to but do yourself a favor and go back and watch every one of their losses. It required top percentile range of outcome performances from their opponents to even have a shot and they still managed to win a lot of those games. Literally, all but one of their losses was a 90th+ percentile performance (metrics) by their opponents. This team doesn’t lose easily.
I don’t see any of the teams in this tournament beating DAMWON in a best-of-five unless we see a severe underperformance AND a severe over performance. In a given game? Sure but they just have too many weapons at their disposal and they’ve continued to improve over the course of the Spring split. Keep in mind, DAMWON have traditionally been a weaker Spring team in every iteration of this roster. It’s not the same tournament but the Mid-Season Cup last year was when they turned the corner. I’d expect something similar this year.
Cloud 9 (LCS – North America)
Roster: Fudge, Blaber, Perkz, Zven, Vulcan
Coaches: Reignover**, Mithy
Spring Regular Season Record: 29-8 (1st)
Playoff Record: 9-8
Team Archetype: Mid-jungle hard carry, uptempo
Linchpin Player: Perkz/Blaber duo
This is going to be an unpopular part of this post but I don’t even think Cloud 9 were the definitive best team in the LCS. Compared to the other rosters at this tournament they’re severely lacking outside of Perkz and Blaber and this will be the international debut for Blaber. That said, it doesn’t mean they won’t have success here but I’m just not seeing it for Cloud 9.
So why am I so down on this team?
They rely way WAY too much on Perkz and Blaber completely steamrolling the early and mid game. As a matter of fact, they’ve shown very little outside of that and lost almost every game in which that didn’t happen. They’re going to have a much more difficult time doing that at this level than they did on domestic soil. Fudge improved a lot over the course of the season but I think it’s fair to say that he’s severely outclassed in this tournament. Cloud 9 won’t be able to hide him as effectively on this level. The bottom lane also has a history of struggling in high leverage situations although you could make the argument that they shook the proverbial monkey off their back with that finals performance.
With this in mind, it’s certainly possible that Perkz and Blaber really are just that good and will take over a few of these games but I just don’t think you can rely on that alone over the course of a multi-week tournament while taking a step up in competition. Cloud 9 are almost certainly going to get out of their group because Detonation FocusMe and Infinity Esports aren’t exactly stronger wild card representatives but how they’ll fare in the rest of the tournament isn’t something I’m optimistic about.
Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) Talon (PCS – Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Southeast Asia)
Roster: Hanabi, River, Maple, Unified*, Doggo**, Kaiwing
Coaches: Helper, Winged
Spring Regular Season Record: 17-1 (1st)
Playoff Record: 9-0
Team Archetype: Traditional scaling two-core
Linchpin Player: River
** Doggo (from Beyond Gaming) will be filling in for Unified for this tournament
Before the 2020 season the PCS merged the LMS and other Southeast Asian leagues (besides Vietnam) into a consolidated “super” league. The result was, as expected, an elevated level of overall competition. The PCS doesn’t receive a lot of Western acknowledgement or coverage so a lot of people haven’t watched these teams very much besides international competition. I’ve watched every one of the top three teams’ games for this season. The PCS is on par with the Western leagues and doesn’t receive the respect it deserves because it hasn’t put the results up in recent years. It’s a better league than the LMS was in its’ final seasons and the LMS was by far the best of the non-majors and frequently outperformed the LCS and sometimes the LEC. That’s right about where I have the PCS.
But what about Talon as a team?
PSG Talon just can’t catch a break. They had issues getting their full roster to the World Championships in 2020 and had to use substitutions. Now Unified suffered a collapsed lung and will not be able to attend MSI. It’s a damn shame because, to me, Talon are on par or better than the top Western teams and there’s a chance we might not ever get to see them internationally with their full lineup (although I have hard time not seeing this team at Worlds 2021).
Talon dropped just a single game all Spring. Sure not every game was a complete shellacking but the top five teams are all pretty good in the PCS so I’d argue that dropping just a single game this season is more impressive than anything any of the Western teams have done this season. The entire roster also has international experience besides Doggo who is filling in.
Speaking of Doggo…
Doggo came up through the AHQ development system before they were picked up by Beyond Gaming who were the other PCS finalist this season. He’s just 18 years old despite playing professionally since January 2019. Doggo was arguably the best ADC in the PCS not named Unified but despite being a “downgrade” is not all that far from Unified’s level.
So yes this is a downgrade but perhaps not as much as the masses would lead people to believe. They’re also very familiar with one another from competing and studying each other all season as rivals. They’re also going to have a few weeks to prepare together.
I’m very bullish on Talon going into this tournament and think they’ll probably surprise a lot of people that aren’t paying much attention. I’ll be discussing it more in my tiers below but it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them come out of their group in first or even end up being the third or fourth best team in this tournament regardless of where their results end up. They certainly aren’t being priced that way but more on that later.
Unicorns of Love (LCL – Commonwealth of Independent States)
Roster: BOSS, AhaHaCiK, Nomanz, Lodik, SaNTaS
Coaches: Sheepy, Invi
Spring Regular Season Record: 10-5 (4th)
Playoff Record: 6-2
Team Archetype: Multi-carry, aggressive
Linchpin Player: AHaHaCIK
The Unicorns of Love weren’t quite as dominant as they were last season. With Gadget moving to play in EU Masters they brought in French ADC Frappii which really threw off their communication which was previously all in Russian (according to LCL caster @ShortyGoergeLCL). Still, they were amongst the top teams in the league but by playoff time a change was in order and Lodik, formerly of Gambit, was brought in. To some it wasn’t really a doubt that UOL would take down the LCL but this entire situation explains their optically unimpressive season.
UOL were unbelievably good in 2020 to the point where a lot of people thought they could make some noise and pull off an upset or two at the World Championships. That wasn’t the case. It didn’t take an expert to see that despite their unique and creative drafts and aggressive stylings, UOL were simply outclassed individually. Their top side of the map has some dynamic playmakers and they’re certainly not afraid or intimidated but it’s fair to question how they’ll measure up at this tournament. I have UOL as better than the other wild card league teams besides Talon but a full tier below the top five.
Gillette Infinity Esports (LLA – Latin America)
Roster: Buggax, SolidSnake, Cody, Whitelotus, Ackerman
Spring Regular Season Record: 12-6 (2nd)
Playoff Record: 6-3
Team Archetype: Traditional scaling two-core, some carry top
Linchpin Player: Whitelotus
While names like Josedeodo and Newbie are more familiar to most of the Western audience, Whitelotus has been arguably the best player in the LLA for many years now. That said, this summary is rather simple. The LLA combining Latin America North and South a couple years back was a clear upgrade for the region, the overall quality of play here is still severely lacking. Infinity were the best team in this league and they had a raw gold per minute in wins similar to that of a mid-standings LCS team and against must weaker competition. Buggax, Whitelotus, and Ackerman are some of the best players this league has ever seen and SolidSnake and Cody have stepped in to have great performances as well but the strength of competition makes this tricky to evaluate. The LLA is a competitive league within itself but the overall quality of play is not remotely close to the same level as even the other wild card leagues.
They’re not the worst team in the tournament… and I think they’ll probably get a few wins in the group stage against the team that I actually think is the worst, but I don’t think Infinity will make it out of groups.
Istanbul Wildcats (TCL – Turkey)
Roster: StarScreen, Ferret, Serin, HolyPhoenix, Farfetch
Coaches: Robogod, Janus
Spring Regular Season Record: 14-4 (2nd)
Playoff Record: 6-3
Team Archetype: Slightly unorthodox two-core, mid game focus
Linchpin Player: Serin
A few familiar names and a few new ones make up this representative from Turkey. Most people recognize HolyPhoenix and Farfetch but the other names might not be as familiar. Unlike the LLA, Turkey’s TCL has traditionally showed well internationally relative to other smaller region leagues and the depth of the league an willingness to import talent has helped elevate the overall quality of the league. In short, the strength of competition is slightly stronger than a lot of the other wild card leagues. That said, the talent is more spread out than it has been in previous years with a lot of quality players across 9 out of the 10 teams in the league (sorry Aurora). Because of that, Turkey isn’t sending a truly concentrated roster of stars so they might not pack quite the punch that teams like Dark Passage, Fenerbahce, and SuperMassive have in years’ past.
That said, the Wildcats did win this league and had to battle to do so. They’re more tested than a few of the other smaller league teams and for that they get an upgrade but unfortunately for them they’ll have to get through both the MAD Lions (Armut/Turkey revenge narrative anybody?!), and PSG Talon. I don’t like their chances but I do think they’ll probably 2-0 our next team….
paiN Gaming (CBLOL – Brazil)
Roster: Robo, CarioK, Tinowns, brTT, Luci
Coaches: Nova, Dionrray
Spring Regular Season Record: 11-7 (4th)
Playoff Record: 9-5
Team Archetype: Wild
Linchpin Player: Tinowns
Oh Brazil…. So the thing you need to understand about Brazil is that all of their economy measures are hyper-inflated because there are a lot of ridiculously high kill games in the league overall. CBLOL might not be quite as bloody as the VCS but they’re the next in line.
Historically Brazil has had success internationally with some famous upsets by teams like Kabum and INTZ but in the past four years that hasn’t been the case at all. The CBLOL is an incredibly entertaining product but speaking strictly from a game play and analysis perspective it’s not good. That said… this is a team full of players with a surprising amount of international experience and Tinowns is a player that could probably be playing in the LCS so I wouldn’t put it past them to make some noise here. My concern with any of the Brazilian representatives is consistency. Simply put, the league is wild, the games are crazy, and there isn’t a lot of high level strategic structure going on so I have my doubts. I have paiN above Japan but that’s about it.
DetonatioN FocusMe (LJL – Japan)
Roster: Evi, Steal, Aria, Yutapon, Kazu, Ceros (sub, mid), Gaeng (sub, support)
Spring Regular Season Record: 12-2 (1st)
Playoff Record: 6-2
Team Archetype: Multi-carry, scatter
Linchpin Player: Evi
Detonation FocusMe are the class of Japan’s LJL but the level of competition here is not very strong outside of their only real challenge in Rascal Jester. More concerning is that their numbers aren’t exactly “blow you out of the water” strong for a team that finished the regular season 12-2.
DFM are stylistically a much different looking team than previous iterations you may have seen in previous years. They used to be a fundamentally sound, scaling team that preferred to minimize variance and control the game. They still control the game but they do so through individual prowess. Evi, Yutapon, and Aria are arguably the top three players in Japan so they sort of just outplay their competition individually and that works for them. They play a lot of “tankless” or support tank compositions with a lot of damage and champions that give the individual players agency to outplay.
DFM are a fun team to watch but the problem with these sorts of “win lane-win game” teams is that if they’re not being tested against world class players it’s tough to rely on being able to do that consistently when they take a step up in competition. DFM are going to have to really impress on an individual level to make any noise in this tournament. Japan is the world’s youngest server and they’ve struggled to perform well internationally. I don’t see that being much different here, particularly with the style of game that DFM are employing this season.
Pentanet.GG (LCO – Oceania)
Roster: BioPanther, Pabu, Chazz, Praedyth, Decoy
Spring Regular Season Record: 13-1 (1st)
Playoff Record: 6-3
Team Archetype: Prototypical 2-core with tank top, some carry jungle
Linchpin Player: Bottom lane duo Praedyth and Decoy
Pentanet play a very traditional form of LOL often opting to play around and funnel resources into their talented marksman Praedyth. It’s a simple plan that works for them. The current metagame fits right in with how they want to play and they have just enough depth to their champion pools to completely take them off of this strategy but the fact that they’re so linear is something that good teams are going to prey on, particularly teams that have elite top lane talent that can pick on a predominantly “tank only” player in BioPanther. That said, it’s difficult to tell if this is truly a limitation or just a matter of simply not needing to do anything else domestically to have success.
The Oceanic region has delivered some talented players to us in recent years and they’ve shown arguably the best of the “small” international wild card leagues in the past three or four years with better performances than all but Turkey’s TCL and the PCS/LMS. Pentanet are linear but a very fundamentally solid team that I’m rating as the “best of the rest” in this tournament. They are exactly what we expect from a good team from one of the smaller leagues. There was no question whatsoever that they were the best team in this league and they did what good teams do and smashed the competition. Even if you think that competition isn’t quite as strong as previous years, there are a handful of the other smaller region leagues that don’t have top teams that dominated as hard as Pentanet did.
S Tier: DAMWON (S+), RNG
A Tier: PSG Talon, MAD Lions, Cloud 9 (A-)
C Tier: Pentanet.GG, Istanbul Wildcats, Unicorns of Love
D Tier: Infinity Esports, paiN Gaming, Detonation FocusMe (D-)
I have a hard time seeing DAMWON not taking this tournament down. I think FunPlus Phoenix were better equipped and more versatile than RNG are and that DAMWON are going to be able to punch holes in them before the game even starts. The only chance I see for one of those two S Tier teams not taking the tournament down are if MAD Lions continue to play in peak form. Talon I think are probably a more consistent look but might not quite have the same ceiling that MAD Lions do. Cloud 9 should be competitive but I don’t see them winning this tournament in basically any circumstance.
From there it’s a BIG drop off in overall level from the top five.
Futures and Pre-Tournament Betting Positions
Region of Winner: LCK @ +100 (11 units)(from Twitter on 4/18/2021 LPL finals)
This is -200 now
I put this wager in (and into the spreadsheet after a Tweet) a few hours after the LPL Finals solidified RNG as the LPL’s representative. It remained at that +100 number even when it moved to DAMWON for more than two weeks before jumping a few days ago. Get in on this stuff early folks.
While I think RNG are a good team, I mentioned earlier that I think FPX or even TOP Esports were better equipped to take down DAMWON for a handful of reasons. This looks like an extremely heavy position but my anticipation was that the odds would be significantly worse than this for a finals moneyline or even a later pre-tournament futures market and that turned out to be true as DAMWON are a -200 favorite to take the tournament down.
There’s a case to be made for DAMWON at that -200 number which is roughly where I think the moneyline for that final will be if it does end up there. If you think there is an reasonable chance that we get a MAD or Talon as a finalist then taking this now isn’t a bad look and you’ll have a great plus money position to middle it or hedge later on. I don’t like it quite as much at this new number without some extra work but wanted to touch on why I took such a heavy position three weeks ago.
To Reach Finals: PSG Talon +2200 (0.5 units)
Group B Winner: PSG Talon +240 (2.5 units)
As I mentioned in my preview of Talon, I’m quite bullish on the top PCS teams and despite the ADC substitution I think the region is being criminally underrated ESPECIALLY BY THE BETTING MARKETS. Talon can beat the MAD Lions even if they’re in good form, if MAD aren’t quite as sharp as they were during playoffs then, contrary to popular opinion, I actually think Talon are a better team. The Wildcats are a wild card here and paiN are weird enough to steal a game but that could be off MAD Lions who are significantly higher variance game-to-game than Talon are. This is similar to worlds last season where we cashed Liquid to win Group A in play-in’s because they were a more consistent performer.
From there it would take a reasonable draw out of the “rumble” stage for Talon to win one series, perhaps off of side selection if they do well in that stage, and end up in finals.
MAD Lions to reach finals +500 / to win +1400 (through region of winner)
I could see this given their ceiling but I think too many things need to go right for MAD.
Cloud 9 at all
I just don’t think we’re getting good enough odds to warrant a position on Cloud 9. If you’re going to play Cloud 9 play them to win Group C +840ish.
RNG at all
Again, price. It’s close but no cigar for me. You could wager on RNG to make the finals but what’s to say they don’t meet DAMWON before finals?
I’ll be back later this week with a full writeup on my early positions (including these) but this was my opening salvo for game sides that showed value to myself and the model:
Talon +131 vs MAD Lions (1 unit)(first meeting)
Istanbul Wildcats -145 vs paiN Gaming (1.45 units)(first meeting)
Infinity Esports +124 vs Detonation FM (1 unit)(first meeting)
Parlay: above three @ +774 (0.5 units)
Talon -222 vs Istanbul Wildcats (2.22 units)
Talon -244 vs paiN Gaming (2.44 units)
Istanbul Wildcards -120 vs paiN Gaming (1.2 units)(second meeting)
Talon +122 vs MAD Lions (1 unit)(second meeting)
DAMWON -417 vs Cloud 9 (4.17 units)(first meeting)
Infinity Esports +127 vs Detonation FM (1 unit)(second meeting)
I believe in accountability. For years I’ve tracked all of my picks publicly. 2021’s selections will be via this spreadsheet but it isn’t updated until AFTER the games have started. The Esports Department subscribers get the first look.
Check out The Gold Card Podcast and can find me on Twitter @GelatiLOL
(all lines from Nitrogen unless noted otherwise)