Cloud9's 3-2 win against Team Liquid in the finals of the 2021 League of Legends Championship Series Mid-Season Showdown was the result of a far more contentious series than initially expected. TL showed a previously unseen level of team synergy against the dominant C9 and pushed the series to match point after game 3, but C9 tied the series up to force a game 5.
Despite its struggles at the start of the series, Cloud9 won the fifth game even more convincingly than the fourth, and the main reason was a level 1 strategy that involved North America's first lane swap of 2021. Called a '500 IQ play' by color caster Isaac "Azael" Cummings Bentley, this unexpected strategy wasn't just an extremely smart team play, but also put nearly every member of C9 ahead of their respective counterparts before the two minute mark.
C9's game 5 level 1 was all it needed to pull away from TL and win the series, and with it, its second LCS championship in three splits. It was without a doubt the most pivotal moment of the series, as well as the smartest play executed by any LCS team in recent memory, so let's go in-depth on the brilliance of this play and the conditions that were met to allow it to happen in the moment C9 wanted to execute upon it.
Cloud9 had made it a point to heavily pressure Team Liquid's primary carry in top laner Barney "Alphari" Morris in the first four games. C9 jungler Robert "Blaber" Huang and top laner Ibrahim "Fudge" Allami coordinated to secure First Blood in the top lane all four games — three of those on Alphari— so top lane had been established as a contention point well before the final game of the series. However, the draft phase in game 5 gave C9 the perfect condition to execute a lane swap.
What was that condition? The top lane matchup, of course. Fudge locked in his fifth champion in five games on Sion, and Alphari pulled out his fourth of the series by selecting Cho'Gath. Generally speaking, Sion is more resilient in a lane swap that nearly any other top lane champion because of his two-part passive, which makes him very difficult to dive safely, and his area-of-effect abilities that allow him farm effectively in nearly any situation.
However, C9 took things a step further than simply sending Sion to the bottom half of the map to allow AD carry Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen and support Philippe "Vulcan" Laflamme beat up on Alphari. The team's immaculate level 1 execution resulted in advantages all around the map for several members before minions had even started fighting each other.
Cloud9 started the game with a standard level 1 line of scrimmage. Fudge and Blaber hovered around the upper portion of Blaber's jungle with mid laner Luka "Perkz" Perković, and the duo of Zven and Vulcan went out to the upper and lower half of the bottom side river, respectively. Upon arrival, Zven and Vulcan both dropped wards in the river — Zven's in the 'death brush' next to the dragon pit — and recalled immediately afterwards.
After recalling, Vulcan swapped out his Warding Totem trinket for an Oracle Lens and the duo walked to the top side of the map as Fudge began to meander towards the bottom side of Blaber's jungle. Simultaneously, the trio of Zven, Vulcan, and Blaber hid in the uppermost brush on the top side river completely unbeknownst to Team Liquid.
As Fudge began fighting the Blue Sentinel on C9's side of the map, Blaber, Vulcan, and Zven invaded and killed TL's Blue Sentinel to get Blaber a blue buff, but they weren't done there. Alphari had began to push the top wave while Blaber continued to take Team Liquid's top side jungle camps. and Zven and Vulcan came up the river behind Alphari to secure First Blood on TL's top laner for the fourth game in a row.
All the while, Fudge was securing Cloud9's blue buff while simultaneously leashing the Blue Sentinel closer to the Gromp. Fudge then maximized the value of Sion's two-part passive: When Sion dies, Glory In Death puts him into a 1.5 second stasis before he is revived as a zombie with degenerating health.
At the longest, Sion can maintain this form for a full minute before immediately dying. He can use basic attacks but cannot use summoner spells during this time, and attacks at a fixed 1.75 attack speed, is ghosted, gains 100% bonus life steal, and deals 10% of the target’s maximum health as bonus physical damage on-hit, which is capped at 75 against non-champions.
Sion is not able to benefit from any healing or health regeneration outside of life steal during his passive, and all of his abilities are replaced with the second part of his passive: Death Surge. Death Surge's active allows Sion to gain 50% bonus movement speed that decays over 1.5 seconds. In death, Sion is more of an individual threat than when alive, albeit only for a short time.
Fudge got the most out of the passive by starting Ruby Crystal instead of a standard starting item for tanks like Doran Shield for more health and died to the Blue Sentinel on purpose before using his passive to to secure Blue Buff and also kill Gromp. Upon respawning, Fudge TP'd to bot lane with a blue buff, and with Blaber returning to the top side of his jungle, Cloud9 had taken three of the four jungle quadrants on the map and secured First Blood on Alphari, losing nothing in the process.
We've already looked at the headlines of the plethora of advantages Cloud9 gained in this level 1 play, but the importance of each advantage in context of the series cannot be understated. Especially in the case of the three-buff against Jonathan "Armao" Armao.
Normally the jungler for Team Liquid Academy, Armao was called up to start against TSM due to health issues affecting the performance of Lucas "Santorin" Larsen. Armao was impressive in TL's win over TSM, especially given TSM's famiiarity with him after multiple seasons together, but against C9, Armao had the series of his career. Blaber was often ahead in pace in the early game, but Armao came up clutch time and time again with smart teamfighting and objective steals
It's this reason why one could argue that depriving Armao of half of his jungle was the single greatest advantage gained from the level 1 play, not only because it put Armao behind pace against Blaber because of Blaber getting a leash from a Tristana/Alistar duo, but also because Armao wasn't able to counter by getting Blaber's blue buff because of Fudge. On Udyr, Blaber already had the fastest clear on the rift, and at the three minute mark, he had his biggest lead of the series.
Ultimately, a lane swap puts a top laner at a disadvantage, but on Sion, Fudge was able to mitigate that disadvantage better than nearly any other champion in the same situation. Sion's resiliency makes him an excellent weak side top laner, and in depriving Armao of any answer to Blaber's first clear, Fudge also made sure he got some gold and experience under his belt before Teleporting to bot lane.
Fudge didn't just lose next to nothing, he also had a much easier time in the lane swap thanks to the blue buff he was able to secure for himself. Sion simply cannot be punished in the ways that Cho'Gath can in a lane swap, and things went from bad to worse when Alphari was killed at level 1 and then had to Flash at level 2 after Teleporting back to top lane due to the 2v1 pressure.
To recap, Fudge lost about as little as one can lose in a lane swap as a top laner and helped Blaber put Armao even further behind during the series of his life. In addition, despite already securing First Blood in top lane in games 1-4, C9 found a way to put TL's top laner even further behind in game 5. Zven and Vulcan both gained an advantage in killing Alphari, particularly in the form of a 400 gold infusion for Zven's Tristana.
While Perkz's Sylas wasn't directly part of the advantages gained by C9, the advantages gained in nearly every other area of the map aside from mid lane allowed him to find roaming opportunities to carry the game on The Unshackled to the tune of a 10/2/6 KDA ratio. C9 was simultaneously able to unleash the strongest facets of its team identity while completely shutting down the ace top laner and overperforming jungler that had made the difference for TL throughout the series.
As pointed out by play-by-play caster Clayton "CaptainFlowers" Raines, Cloud9's level 1 play becomes even more impressive when you consider that C9 was down 2-1, and opted NOT to utilize this strategy when facing elimination in game 4. Sure, the conditions were significantly better for the play in game 5, but it wasn't like C9 drafted Sion for Fudge in game 4 and hoped for a tank vs. tank matchup. C9 deliberately opted to pull out the lane swap only after winning game 4.
In C9's championship press conference, strategic coach Alfonso "Mithy" Aguirre Rodríguez answered a question asked by Inven Global regarding the idea for the lane swap and the methodology behind the strategy.
"Basically, we think Sion is very strong in this meta," Mithy explained. "He'd been showing up a lot; almost every game in the LEC, so eventually, I thought of the lane swap because it's something that has been done in the past. It's something coaches of mine used to annoy me with and run drills for. "
Mithy wasn't the only one familiar with the strategy. Perkz interrupted his strategic coach and former teammate mid-senence to remind him that it was in fact Perkz that RGE had used this strategy against when he was a member of G2 Esports in the 2020 League of Legends European Championship Summer Split.
Right! It was against Luka," Mithy exclaimed before going on to explain that C9 tried it a few times in practice against Cloud9 Academy to see how it would work, and that game 5 was when they felt it really mattered to try and use the strategy. Of course, there could also be another reason why C9 chose to deploy this strategy in the final game of the series.
When asked about his tendency to continue to play aggressively throughout a series instead of playing more cautiously, Perkz made a greater point about player mentality throughout a series and how that fortitude can be shaken. "When the series goes longer, some players do have a tendency to become more scared," Perkz said matter-of-factly before changing his tone.
"After game 4, I saw Team Liquid's faces and I knew we were going to win. I didn't want to mention it to give my teammates false data or anything, but they looked really destroyed after losing game 4."
If the coaching staff picked up on what Perkz did as well, it's possible that TL's perceived lack of mental fortitude after losing game 4 was a factor in using the strategy for game 5. Regardless, it worked, and C9's last win of the series was by far its most convincing.
In a series where Cloud9 was pushed far harder than expected by Team Liquid, with a substitute jungler, no less, C9's level 1 zombie Sion lane swap wasn't just the defining play of the series, but a reassuring glimpse at the world class preparation, execution, and mental fortitude that the team will surely need at the 2021 Mid-Season Invitational.
All images by: Riot Games