The League of Legends Championship Series returns to offline play for the first time in over a year this weekend at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. TSM and Team Liquid will play in the penultimate match of the LCS Mid-Season Showdown on Saturday, with the winner facing the undefeated Cloud9 in the finals on Sunday for a chance at representing North America at the Mid-Season Invitation.
TSM and Team Liquid have gotten the better of Cloud9 at times throughout the season, but if the level of play in previous weeks of the Mid-Season Showdown is any indication, it simply will not matter whether Team Liquid or TSM moves on to the finals: Cloud9 is going to win, regardless of its opponent.
After an initially bumpy start to the season, TSM's new roster has come together under rookie head coach Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg. Top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon has showcased impressive individual flexibility with excellent weak side play, and no other mid laner in the LCS does more damage than Tristan "PowerOfEvil" Schrage.
TSM's identity is very well-defined: the team cedes the early game as gracefully as possible to capitalize on the potent mid-game combination of support Hu "SwordArt" Shuo-Chieh's decision making backed by PowerOfEvil's excellent teamfighting. This is a reliable way to win for TSM more often than not, but the team has yet to show consistency on any other style of play to the same level.
This is not necessarily due to shorcomings of individual players. Huni has gotten more carry champions as of late, and PowerOfEvil has proven he can play far more than just the control mages that TSM prefers him on in his previous two seasons on FlyQuest and Counter Logic Gaming. TSM isn't ignoring any lack of dimension, either - PowerOfEvil was put on Lucian against 100 Thieves, and AD carry Lawrence "Lost" Hui's improved weak side play has allowed Huni more carry opportunities.
Despite individual flexibility, it simply didn't come together in the same way for TSM against 100 Thieves. TSM lost all four early games, and very easily could have had the series go to game five if not for yet another miraculous Baron Nashor steal courtesy of jungler Mingyi "Spica" Lu.
TSM has been remarkably lucky in these coin-flip scenarios in the late game, and the team is aware of it. Lost spoke to Inven Global about the trend of good fortune TSM often experiences in games gone awry:
"Honestly, it's kind of funny in a sense that a lot of our wins in the Spring Split and in this lower bracket are just randomly heisted off of a Baron steal or some other type of miracle play...We have this magic. We just heist wins out of nowhere. *laughs* And I guess, in this win, it showed up too. Maybe we have some genie that gives us this ability."
Luck isn't a win condition, no matter how good of an argument TSM has made in favor of the contrary. TSM heads into its series against Team Liquid having lost to TL earlier in the LCS Mid-Season Showdown. Due to its shaky performance against 100 Thieves, especially when drafting away from its bread and butter picks, TSM comes into the match against TL as a slight underdog, but its entirely possible that the team has learned enough from its last loss.
After all, Team Liquid isn't without its flaws, either.
TL heads into its match against TSM having just come off of a 3-1 loss against Cloud9 in the upper bracket. Due to the contentious nature of TL's 3-2 win over C9 in the finals of the LCS Lock In earlier this year, the series was far less close than expected, and highlighted Team Liquid's issues that have been plaguing the team since the beginning of the Spring Split.
TL does not suffer from the lack of dimension that would hamstring TSM against Cloud9. Even with jungler Lucas "Santorin" Larsen and mid laner Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen taking slight steps back from their respective levels of play showcased in the Lock In, top laner Barney "Alphari" Morris has emerged as far more than just a suitable replacement for Jeong "Impact" Eon-young.
Alphari isn't just buoying the weak side, he's a full-force carry threat and boasts some of the best laning stats in LCS history. Team Liquid is a team that has showcased the ability to carry through any role, and given the amount of individual talent on the team, the fact that Alphari is the most frequent carry of the team speaks to his talent. Team Liquid's issue, however, is inconsistency.
Despite boasting a 2-0 record against Cloud9 in the LCS Spring Split, Team Liquid dropped games to teams far below it in the standings like Immortals and Counter Logic Gaming due to throws either in the form of poor execution or an individual mistake such as AD carry Edward "Tactical" Ra's Rocket Jump blunders on Tristana. Santorin expressed his frustration for the nature of the mistakes the team made in spring in a post-game interview with Inven Global during the split:
"They're mistakes that you can't really account for because some of them are not consistent, but I feel like if we clean up that part of the game, we'd have a way better record that would match the level we have shown."
Due to TSM's head-to-head record of 2-0 against TL in the Spring Split and the one-sided nature of TL's defeat at the hands of C9 last weekend, it's easy to forget that TL 3-1'd TSM earlier in the Mid-Season Showdown. In addition, even Cloud9 jungler Robert "Blaber" Huang acknolwedged that Santorin had one of the worst post-season series' of his career, but that he expected him to bounce back against TSM.
"I think he had one of his worst series since I started playing against him," Blaber said after C9 beat TL. "I don't think he's a bad player at all, and I think he will bounce back very easily from this, but he definitely didn't show up today to the level I'm sure he wanted to. It felt pretty easy for me to play today."
Team Liquid facing off agianst Cloud9 in the finals is the most likely result, but whether TL or TSM, C9 will win fregardless of opponent. TSM has one playstyle that can standup to the likes of C9, and Team Liquid. despite showcasing the ability to play through multiple lanes, has not been able to on the same level of consistency as C9.
C9 is the only team in the league who can win through multiple lanes on a consistent basis, and in addition to the wealth of talent on the roster and the astounding rate of growth from rookie top laner Ibrahim "Fudge" Allami, the flexibility of all five starters are rarely matched by any of their respective peers, especially in the case of mid laner Luka "Perkz" Perković.
Perkz played a league-leading 13 unique champions in the LCS Spring Split, and in an interview at the end of spring, spoke on TSM and TL's limitations: "TSM and Team Liquid are strong opponents, but I believe that they are only good at a few champions and styles, unfortunately."
Perkz isn't necessarily familiar with this problem, but other members of his team certainly have experienced this shortcoming. Blaber spoke about how he felt this team's flexibility was a massive step up from C9 2020:
"It felt like we were kind of one dimensional. Either bot lane would carry or I would carry, and when we weren't able to do that, we couldn't really win games. This year, we're able to play through all of our roles comfortably. I think that's a big strength of ours. Our team has the biggest champion pool, by far, in every single role amongst LCS players right now, so it's just so easy for us to draft."
Team Liquid and TSM have proven they can challenge Cloud9 here and there, and both teams are poised to grow into true challengers after some more time for their rosters to develop. However, it is ultimately irrelevant who Cloud9 will face in the finals of the 2021 LCS Mid-Season Showdown because due to TSM's lack of dimension and TL's lack of consistency, Cloud9 will win. Regardless of matchup, expect C9 to win its second LCS title in three splits and move on to represent NA at MSI.