Right before the Quarterfinal matches, we got to talk with Gabriel "Invert" Zoltan-Johan about the unique meta development at this year's Worlds compared to the past, as well as NA's problems and routes for improvement. Invert has been coaching for a while, spending a couple years in collegiate and then a couple with FlyQuest.
He has been known for his deep understanding of the game - but also for his flashy sense of style. He wanted to use this Worlds as a place to learn, and has been intent on analyzing the metas and strategies in order to better coach his team next season.
Note: This interview was conducted right before Quarters, and has some thought-experiments that have now already been realized. The discussion applies to all of the Knockout Stage, as well as development throughout the Group Stage and Play-Ins. It is relevant to the next matches, but some theories may have already been proven true or false. It's like you're living in the future.
How do metas form at Worlds? More specifically, what have been the unique things about this year from years past?
I think the fact that there were two different boot-camps in two different regions definitely plays a huge part in what kind of meta we're seeing because the play-ins and the group stage is the beginning of that experimentation rather than the end of that experimentation, as you see those two different ideas start to emerge and start to clash.
You saw that at the tail end of the group stage, you had specific picks to Europe that were very different than the picks you saw coming from China and the picks coming from Korea. I also think there is something to be said about that issue of unique champions, insofar as I do think the mantra of last year where teams play to their own style and own identity has been turned up to 11 at this year's worlds.
So last year in the Group Stage, you had that stirring speech from Jakob "YamatoCannon" Mebdi and all that other stuff about, "the teams that play their style, and the teams that buy into their own culture and their own way of winning are the teams that will do the best." I think you see that at this year's Worlds through and through. I think people took that mantra last year, really fleshed it out throughout the year, and now you're seeing that develop at this year's Worlds.
And I think that's why we are seeing so many unique champions as well, beyond the new champions, the very different bot lanes - the Sona/Tarics, the Garen/Yuumis, that kind of stuff. So I think that makes meta development and the evolution of the Worlds meta at this year's Worlds particularly interesting compared to years prior.
What is your expectation for Knockouts then? We always see a shift, with individual mini-metas in these series, how do you think that will play out?
Yeah it is definitely more tailored to the competition. I think because it is so tailored to the competition you'll actually see different metas develop in different Quarterfinal matches, which will be really cool.
A really good example of this will be GRF vs IG. So IG is like "The Solo Lane Team." They'll play through their solos, they'll give them the flex pick. And Griffin is the team that you can play through every lane, except top for the most part.
Though Sword has done better than expected so far.
Yeah for sure, and especially because of all the turmoil around Griffin, right?
But then you have crazy stylistic similarities in other Quarterfinal matches. I think Tim "Nemesis" Lipovšek is a player who likes to roam, I think Kim "Doinb" Tae-sang is also a player who likes to roam. Maybe with different champions, like Twisted Fate vs Sion or Ryze, but that still holds true, right?
Yeah I think each Quarterfinals will have its own defined meta. I don't know which will be the best right now. It seems like there's a lot of different things that can bring success and it all goes back to what your team is comfortable with and what style your team wants to play.
We've seen more bot-centric focuses do well at this year's Worlds, in some cases, and we've seen more solo lane focuses do well, and jungle focused teams do well, like Griffin who plays really hard through their jungler. Solo lanes, you've got your IG and G2.
Fnatic - when they're not playing mages - but when Martin "Rekkles" Larsson is on ADCs, they play very well through their botlane. And then even Splyce, we can't forget they're a Quarterfinal team! Kasper "Kobbe" Kobberup has does really well for himself and Splyce plays very well through their botlane as well. They're even putting Tamás "Vizicsacsi" Kiss on weakside picks, the Gangplank, the Cho'Gath to just make it easier for them to move into the skirmish state of the game with the strong bot lane that they've had a lot of help influencing.
So I don't know, but I think that's what makes this Worlds really exciting too. We have some picks that are standing out, and some picks that you can plug and play into these different styles we are kind of talking about, but everyone coming in with pretty diverse playbooks is really exciting to me.
Yeah it's definitely been more broad this year. Do you think that's more due to the separate boot-camps or more because of Riot doing a better job cultivating more options?
I think both can be true. I think Riot has done a decent job with balancing this year. I think there are some hits, but also some big misses. I think, you know, they let Aatrox be a priority pick for like two years now. Even pre-rework, right? It's meta for two years, that's some misses. Xayah/Rakan floating in and out, Kai'Sa since last year at Worlds has been a really big pick.
Some misses there. Some hits - I think the Galio stuff just to get him out of the meta in general, pretty good hit. The Gragas buffs to bring him in, the Lee Sin buffs, slowly but surely to bring him in.
Those Lee buffs are controversial though!
Haha, I mean sure, but at the very least, bring him up. I don't fault Riot for buffing these champions right before Worlds either, I mean I want to see Kim "Clid" Tae-min play Lee Sin! I want to see people play these awesome champions that are high execution that are really fun to watch! But just the stally, grindy champs - like Xerath vs Ziggs every game, that kind of shit - there's room for it as a strategic diversity, but if it's every game, it kind of sucks right?
Even Heimer has some early action, I saw Sun "Cody" "Cody Sun" Li-Yu get a 2v2 kill in lane as Heimer! So I think Riot is doing a decent job. Again, some hits, some misses. But I do think they've had a particular focus on providing an entertaining meta at the very least, and we are seeing that play out and we are seeing teams take that concept and mix in the kinds of things that we talked about previously like different region bootcamps and teams playing to their style.
Ekko, Surprises, and... Tanks?
I want to talk about Ekko, he was practically first picked in the first four games of the Play-Ins and lost all four and then was never seen again. It was rumored he'd maybe be picked up by stronger junglers from the Main Event, but he wasn't. Do you think his complete dropout was deserved, and do you think he could make a sneaky comeback in the Knockouts?
Okay so there are two things that made Ekko pretty strong. The first is you could play Ekko into Syndra as a soft counter. You wouldn't get hit by anything, you could assassinate her, etc. The issue with that is now Syndra can be flexed bot, and you can't really do that with Ekko. So that's one reason why he fell off.
The second reason is think about the kind of junglers being played at this year's Worlds. A lot of them are quicker clear playmakers that are able to impact lanes early. So Gragas, Elise - pretty high priority. Lee Sin - very high priority. These are champs that level 2/level 3 can figure it out and do stuff on the map.
Ekko - while he has an actually decently fast clear - is unable to do that same thing with his gank pressure on map. I'm not sure what his dueling with other junglers is like necessarily, but it's probably not fantastic. I think that's kinda pushed him out of the meta. Just the way he is impacting the map early isn't good enough compared to these other junglers.
So we probably won't see him in Quarters. Maybe there is some comp that actually makes him work, but I can't think of anything at the moment.
Has there been anything surprising about the development that you just didn't expect?
There's a few things. So obviously the rise of Kayle is super interesting to me. I didn't expect that at all, and I didn't expect it as a triple flex certainly. But in general, it looks like teams cannot punish it and it's allowed to scale pretty well.
I think the rise of Gangplank is pretty obvious in retrospect. A lot of teams have good Gangplanks that go to Worlds. I think Gangplank is a tough champion to outright hard-counter. But I think the way in which teams are trying to counter Gangplank is really poor right now and I hope that we can find better ways of countering it in the future.
For example, people are playing Gnar and Renekton, and those aren't real counters. In fact, Gangplank is pretty comfortable in those matchups. Teams right now who are still in the tournament have very good Gangplanks, but they also have very good Rumbles.
Rumble is notoriously a very difficult matchup for Gangplank because he can pressure early, he doesn't get chunked out because of his W, he can affect the map, he is a very good teamfighter, and he can blow up the game before level 13/14 where Gangplank gets pretty strong. And he can also limit his impact on the map because he's always pushing him in.
I'm not sure who else has that high pressure into Gangplank, but seeing that more would be pretty interesting. Ryze too, Ryze works into Gangplank. People are playing scaling picks like Vladimir. That'll eventually do well in the side lane and stuff, but yeah.
In the mid lane, I'm surprised we aren't seeing more Irelia, but I think that's due to two reasons. One is people are forced to leave Akali open. Two, Irelia has bad matchups into both LeBlanc and Akali, so that's part of it. Her matchup into Qiyana is okay - but it's not great. And teams aren't as willing to flex the Irelia into the Syndra as they are willing otherwise, so normally you can play Irelia into Syndra and it's a really good matchup for Irelia. But if you can put Syndra bottom and you can't put Irelia bottom, that's also difficult.
But that was one of my predictions is I thought Irelia would be a little more prominent because people wouldn't let Akali and LeBlanc through. But it turns out people are okay letting those champs through and just getting Irelia out of the game as a result.
Bottom lane is not really that surprising. I expected Heimer, Xayah, Kai'Sa... Garen/Yuumi still. I mean C9 played Sona but I think it was not that great, so... The jungle meta was pretty expected too honestly.
Yeah your jungle commentary earlier made a lot of sense. Any thoughts on the lack of tanks other than Doinb and Vizicsacsi?
Haha! The Sion mid. Ummm, I just think that bruisers and "tanky" damage dealers are the meta right now, and it's really hard for tanks to play the game because of champions that have true damage or use conqueror like Gangplank or Renekton and just outsustain tanks the entire time in the sidelane. And if they can do that, that means the tank can never get a window to group with their team and teamfight. And if they can't do that, that means tank are really useless right now. So that's a major issue.
There needs to be a rebalancing of Bruiser items, stuff like Black Cleaver and Shojin - which they're already removing the latter. They need to be rethought of or reconfigured because all the percent reduction is kind of what's pushing tanks out of the meta right now. The fact that it's so cost effective and so cheap and their base damages aren't even as high as GP Q with Grasp. And then they eventually get outscaled because those champs are Vlad or GP, or they're conqueror takers.
And then also, people are playing Taliyah, Elise, Gragas, Lee Sin, so if you're getting punished early, getting pushed in and then you get dove, you're useless for 25 minutes. Because you're not getting the gold or experience to outpace their botlane, which means that you're paper to them.
Just gotta play Ornn!
Well that's the thing though. He used to be a tank, like a really beefy tank with the shield, so you had consistent damage reduction. Now you have passive damage reduction, so his tankiness is a little less obvious, and he is more of a bruiser because of the percent health damage on his W and passive than he is a tank at the moment.
Any big brain predictions you want to throw out there?
I'm expecting a lot of Gangplank. I'm expecting a lot of Kai'Sa, Xayah. If not trades, then pinches, so one team pinching it then taking the other. Yeah, I really don't know what to expect, but I'm kind of excited about that.
And each Knockout should be different?
Yeah that's my expectation too, the draft shouldn't look very different, but moderately different in every round.
Does Pantheon make it through?
No, Pantheon does not make it through at all, that is my hot take; cold take. Refrigerated take?
You don't think anyone will have some secret tech?
No that champ is too broken for sure.
Problems in NA and How to Move Forward
Okay, fine! Well I do want to talk about North America. Any quick reactions on the performance? Did you expect all three teams to get knocked out, and what are your thoughts on that?
No, I believed in North America, and I'm very sad about the fact that they are not making it to the Knockout Stage at all. I just put my faith in the North American teams because why not, you should be supportive of the region you're from and hope that they do well.
Yeah I agree. But moving forward, there's been talk on how NA needs to improve - some good, some bad. Do you have any unique take that you think would make NA better?
I think there are good ideas sprinkled through the discourse, but you kind of have to wade through to find them. So one of my ideas immediately based on the idea that players need more reps is that I think Academy should be best of three while keeping the LCS at best of one.
I don't have the figures in front of me or anything like that, but there's a reason why they moved the LCS to best of one, and it makes sense. But Academy doesn't have the same stringent restrictions to have to stay best of one, and there's also precedent not to have to mirror the LCS schedule, in the form of Super Weeks in Academy.
So yeah moving it to best of three to get the players more reps, and get the players in that "best of" environment and get them focused in that way, that could be pretty interesting.
I think that there is something to be said about the way we approach scrims. I think we could make scrim culture more professional and encourage learning outside of scrims. And what that looks like depends on the team and the player and how they retain information.
I think the way coaches approach each other is also something that can be changed or improved. It's something we can use growth in. Coaches helping other coaches come Worlds time. I mean I had a previous thing to pitch myself and help a Worlds team out and volunteer to both help myself grow and help a team as a result.
I think there can stand to be more opportunities of that nature. If coaches are willing to help other coaches and grow the quality of coaching in the scene. That's not to say "X, Y, and Z person is a bad coach." I don't think that at all, I don't know the methods of a lot of these people. But I think that's part of the issue, right?
Not only do we not know, but we can't trade what's effective. Whether it's a training method or handling of conflict or whatever. And I think if we want to see our players grow, we should want to see our coaches grow to help that. And whatever method that may be, I haven't fully thought of how yet. But I think the theory and philosophy behind that is pretty sound.
They have a "Streamers Camp" we should do a "Coaches Camp!"
Well funny enough, Riot did that in Spring of 2018, and it was one of the most helpful things in my career.
Well there you go, lets do it again!
Yeah or something! Hahaha.
Then to end on a fun question, if you could import any single player, who would it be?
Okay I'm not going to say Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, but I think Faker is the obvious answer. So if we are removing him from the equation, Heo "ShowMaker" Su.
Wow, I just published an article claiming Faker was the MVP listing ShowMaker as a backup so I'm feeling great.
Yeah! ShowMaker, and Chovy would probably be my other. The LCK mids.
Reminder: This interview was conducted before the Quarters. (Sorry ShowMaker.)
Catch the Semifinals next weekend with the LPL showdown between FPX and IG and the MSI Semis rematch between G2 and SKT. And follow us on Twitter for more coverage of the event!