Header to Worlds 2021 as LEC's #1 seed, MAD Lions are looking spectacular. Penned by a lot of pundits to be a semifinalist contender, the Lions are looking to convert an MSI runner-up finish into something even bigger in Iceland next month.
After their championship run at LEC Summer, MAD Lions' head coach James "Mac" MacCormack sat down with Inven Global to chat lessons learned from MSI, the year overall, and what Europe's #1 seed needs to do to stand against the Asian opposition.
Congratulations on all of the success you guys have been having as a team. I think most people assumed you guys would be good, but I don’t think many would’ve predicted this result. Did you personally expect this result? What was the turning point for you when you realized MAD could be the best team in Europe?
Coming in from last year, we obviously had very good building blocks and fundamentals. And we felt that if we could upgrade a couple of things, in terms of some niches that we were lacking, then we could really level up and be the best. I think we saw some glimpses of greatness last year.
I'd say the first time I knew we were going to be a top team — which to be honest, I would have already predicted anyway — was actually the first week of Spring bootcamp. It was very clear that we were going to be a top 3-4 team. I think that week, not many teams could match us.
I would say the first time that I really felt super confident about the team — about our ability to consistently reach our ceiling — was our first playoff series. We played our first game in the playoffs against Rogue in Spring. And we played it really passively, we were indecisive, we were taking too long to make decisions. We weren't on the same page. And after the game. Elyoya came off stage and was like, "We're diving bot next game, I don't give a s**t. Make sure you have the wave ready, I'm gonna go kill these guys." And then he did it. And I think that type of mindset is something that has pervaded the team from that moment onwards, where when we go into playoffs, it's just different. People are always stepping up, taking responsibility for making the big clutch call in the most difficult moments. I think that moment was definitely emblematic of the beginning of that.
"Very often, younger organizations coming into the scene would invest large sums of money to try to secure previous big names who are perhaps not at the peak of their careers."
What is your opinion of the state of Europe as a whole? It seems that younger teams — or at least ones that have invested in younger players — are doing the best. Do you think if a team like G2 makes no major changes that they can come back to top form, or do you see this as the start of a major shift in the league?
I think we've already started seeing a shift in general in terms of the way that people prioritize developing talent and the way that they look at young talent versus old talent. You really saw that slowly begin post-franchising and then in 2020 with MAD having success, I think a lot of teams (especially the lower teams in the table) changed from the mindset of "Let's try and get some big flagship stable veterans."
Very often, younger organizations coming into the scene would invest large sums of money to try to secure previous big names who are perhaps not at the peak of their careers. I think Excel is a really good example of that. SK is a good example of that as well. Where if you compare the average age and experience level of SK and Excel's players — Misfits as well I would say — from 2019 to 2020, 2021, I think you'll see a pretty stark difference. Because the lower table teams in the league have started to realize that it's probably better for them to take a high risk, high reward approach and try and find successful rookies to gamble on.
Last split, when I talked about the new additions to the team, some of your players stated Armut was just mostly a really good guy and was willing to adapt to different situations. But throughout plays, Armut really came into his own. He performed better than he ever did. Why do you think this happened? Was it a direction of the coaching staff? What caused this change?
I think there are a lot of factors that go into that. The biggest one that you just have to give Armut credit for is that he's just a clutch player. Armut shines in the most difficult and highest pressure moments. He has a lot of fun in those moments, and he's such a big character. He's so confident in those moments that I think it really carries through to the way he plays. That's something that you could even see at Worlds last year. He became very well known because he had all these crazy, flashy 1v3 plays under tower and solo kills and stuff like this.
Aside from that, I think Armut deserves a lot of credit for how hard he has worked this split. He's been very vocal about the fact that he was super burnt out from League in general and didn't really want to play more League of Legends. He took a break and took his time. And at certain point in the split — maybe week 5 to 6 — he just kind of flipped the switch and started working his ass off.
"I had a lot of personal failings at Worlds last year. I think I buckled under the pressure in a big way. So I felt very vindicated by MSI."
I think Vizicsacsi also deserves a lot of credit for the work that he did during playoffs, coming in and helping Armut with how he wants to play his matchups. Vizicsacsi also knows the top laners in the league very, very well. He's played a lot against Wunder, a lot against Odoamne, so he was able to give a lot of historical insight and perspective on how those players are likely to play.
It was impressive you guys made it to Worlds last year, but obviously it didn’t go the way you probably wanted it to. Now, your team is different, but what are the main lessons you personally learned at Worlds last year that you can apply to do better this year? What do you want to prove there?
I had a lot of personal failings at Worlds last year. I think I buckled under the pressure in a big way. So I felt very vindicated by MSI. I wouldn't say I feel like I have anything to prove going back there now because I think we've shown that we can deliver in high-stress situations this year, time after time.
The main thing for us is just seeing how far we can go, how much we've improved since MSI, how much we've improved since the beginning of the year, and how good we can be as a team on an international level. That's always going to be the question. That's the biggest concern rather than necessarily feeling like we have something to prove.
A lot of people criticized MAD’s macro at MSI. Do you feel a lot more prepared in that regard? What did the improvement process look like for Summer?
There are a lot of things that we've improved on significantly. One thing that we really struggled out with MSI was actually level ones. I remember we had like 10 different level ones planned and we completely flopped all of them. There were a bunch of games I remember against PSG where we knew that they were going to level one invade us. And then, they did it in exactly the way we knew they were going to and it completely fell apart. It happened twice against them, actually. In one game, we managed to pull it back, in one game we didn't. In one game we got completely steamrolled just from level one after actually prepping for that level one.
There were pretty big weaknesses in the way that we approached the game and I think that's something that we definitely have curtailed and addressed. Aside from that, I think our mid to late game macro has always been pretty good. But in Europe in general, there aren’t many teams that play the game in a similar style to us when it comes to the mid and late game. We're obviously a very skirmish-heavy, very teamfight-heavy, very fast-paced team.
"NA teams play incredibly slowly and incredibly passively, which is a big, big problem. If you go internationally [...] you will find yourself very often in situations where the game just feels impossible."
I think the only other team that plays like that is Fnatic, but they've not been consistent with it over the course of the year. That's probably where you see the big difference in how MAD looks in Europe versus how MAD looks internationally. Speaking from experience, we scrimmed DAMWON something like 30 times at MSI. And you tend to get a feeling as a coach — I've watched our team play hundreds and hundreds of games — for when you're going to win a game or when it’s a draft or a position where our team will usually win a game from this type of position.
That read that we have as a coaching staff internally when watching our scrims is pretty accurate when we're watching in Europe. And it was kind of flipped on its head when we went international because not many teams play the way that we do in the mid to late game. And not many teams can teamfight the way we can. DAMWON was one of those teams where even in a good position in late game, I couldn't tell you which team was going to win because usually, it would just come down to someone making a really insane play in the team fights. One team would get a stun and the other team would win the game.
There has been a lot of debate recently regarding LCK vs. LEC teams. A lot of people think LCK has degraded this year — what are your thoughts?
I think it's very clear to see that DAMWON is head-and-shoulders above the rest of their region. DAMWON is legitimately a very, very good team on an international level. They're very solid in all stages of the game. I think they have a lot of great balance in their roster as well as their playstyle.
Outside of that, all of the other teams in LCK are just less complete than DAMWON. I don't know if that makes the region worse. For example, I'd say T1 has a fantastic early game. There are lots of things that we can learn from T1 for the early game. Maybe it is unfair to compare a #1 seed to not a #1 seed, but I would say that MAD Lions' team fighting is perhaps better. And our mid to late game is perhaps better. So outside of DAMWON, I wouldn't say that there's a team in the LCK that I view as being kind of a complete team that's good at all stages of the game, super meta resistant, and very flexible. Although T1 is certainly a good team, for sure.
I wouldn't say the LCK has gotten significantly worse. But I wouldn't say it's gotten better either. Perhaps LPL has just gotten better, I don't know. Perhaps LEC has gotten better, although I'm not sure I believe that.
Cloud9's Jack said he thinks all their teams are going to make it out of groups. What do you think of this prospect?
Well, I don't want to be rude to Jack, but I'm not sure if he's been watching the games that closely if that's what he thinks. NA has a long way to go. This is one of NA's better years in terms of their ability to actually hold against the other teams. And some of the teams actually play decent League of Legends that could perhaps stand up internationally. Maybe 100 thieves. I don't think that Team Liquid or Cloud9 are there yet. But it's possible. It is possible.
I think that the biggest problem I see for NA is that they don't play a style of League of Legends that can be adapted and can actually succeed internationally. NA teams play incredibly slowly and incredibly passively, which is a big, big problem. If you go internationally — and I have with teams that have played like that in the past, I was on Splyce 2019 — you will find yourself very often in situations where the game just feels impossible. Because if you have a lead at 10 minutes, nothing happens for 25 minutes, and then you team fight and often lose because you're playing against really good teams. And if the enemy team has a lead in 10 minutes, then you lose in 20. So you won't win many games playing League of Legends like that.
"I wouldn't say the LCK has gotten significantly worse, but I wouldn't say it's gotten better either. Perhaps LPL has just gotten better. Perhaps LEC has gotten better, although I'm not sure I believe that."
What about your guys’ playstyle, what are the biggest adjustments you need to make to face top Asian teams?
It's always the case when you go international that teams punish you for the things that no one else has punished you for domestically. So I would say our early game still has a long way to go. That's something that we adapted a lot at MSI, but it's very hard to stay above the level of your competition by a significant margin when people don't punish you for things. When we went to MSI and started scrimming, we got kind of bodied in a lot of our early games by RNG and DAMWON, and then we learned from them. And by the time the tournament ended, I would say we were actually pretty 50/50 in the early game against them.
But that's something that has certainly slid back in Europe, because I think teams — not all but maybe 6/10 teams — are pretty clueless in the early game, to be honest. That's something we're gonna have to adapt to. We can get away with a lot in Europe where we can lose an early game and then just win the game by team fighting, because our team fights are really solid. Outside of that, I think we're at a pretty decent level. I think, generally speaking, it just comes down to coordination, meta read, and then improving a couple of bits and bobs.
But it's not like when you go to an international tournament, you're going to reinvent yourself as a team. You don't have time for that. It's just about consolidating on the good work that you've done so far, making sure that you get a really good read on the meta, and making sure that you can hopefully use that to be able to innovate, exacerbate your strengths, and cover for your weaknesses.
All images via: Riot Games
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