There are already whispers that this matchup might reach the lofty, lauded heights of the 2016 semifinals between ROX Tigers and then SK Telecom T1. While ROX may have long left the LoL scene, one of the combatants remains in T1 - and they’re up against the reigning world champions and LCK title holders in DWG KIA.
Both teams have looked in world-beating form, both have the weight of remarkable dynasties behind them, both crushed their own quarterfinals in dominating 3-0 fashion. It is no exaggeration to say the winner of this match is the favourite for the whole championship. It is no exaggeration to say we may be waiting on the greatest series ever played. The ROX v SKT references are not being made lightly.
Let’s get into the teams:
T1 - The Gods of Old, the Return of the (Demon) King
An old team made new, T1 may still be captained by Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, but the rest of the team are young, hungry players looking for their first championship. For context, three of T1’s current starting lineup would have been 11 when Faker won his first Worlds in 2013.
Nor has it been a smooth road to the semifinals of Worlds. T1 have shuffled through 11 roster permutations this year and parted ways with their coaches Yang “Daeny” Dae-in and Lee “Zefa” Jae-min just before playoffs. For even more spice, Daeny went on to join none other than DWG KIA, his former team, who already had former SKT coach Kim “kk0ma” Jeong-gyun at the helm. Nonetheless, the growth of this T1 roster has been remarkable.
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From a dangerous, but obviously flawed team that lost to DK in the LCK finals 3-1, T1 have refined themselves over the last few weeks and months to become a legitimate contender and possibly the only threat to DK left. T1 have defined themselves this year as being a ruthless early game team - by most estimations, the best in the world. There is no other team that snowballs as hard and as consistently as T1 does. Even against DK, T1 led 3 out of the 4 games they played in the LCK finals.
The issue that plagued T1 was their propensity to overcommit to mid-game plays around neutral objectives and passivity if they didn’t get the snowball they were so proficient at starting in the early game. They were, to put it bluntly, not clean - especially the later the game went - and gold advantages covered a multitude of sins.
The T1 that faced DK in the finals is not the T1 that faces them now. While the early game strengths are still there, better than ever, T1 have shown much-improved form around those previous pain points of mid-game objectives and significantly lower error counts in later game scenarios. Back that up with much-improved drafting, and T1 is a much more well-rounded team than the one that we saw in the LCK.
Core to that are both Kim “Canna” Chang-dong and Lee “Gumayusi” being on dominating form. A meta that allows Canna to play the likes of Jayce, Kennen and Graves, and Gumayusi to prioritise Aphelios (a champion he’s 15-3 on all-time) is one that T1 are happy to be playing in. T1’s ability to transfer pressure into carries in either side lane is championed by said carry players being consistent threats with the resources they receive. Add in a mid, jungle and support that have been exceptionally active in getting those lanes ahead, and T1 have found a recipe for success.
What was interesting about T1’s victory over Hanwha Life Esports in the quarterfinals were the differences in playstyle we saw. Canna was asked to play a significantly lower resource game (especially in terms of jungler attention and roams) in favour of hyper prioritising gold on Gumayusi, while Faker was asked to play two very opposing styles across the series.
The Orianna in game one was tasked with holding Jeong “Chovy” Ji-hoon in lane and not impacting the map (a far cry from his roam heavy styles from the group stage), leading to Chovy’s first CS deficit at 15 minutes, while Lissandra was the choice for games two and three into Chovy’s LeBlanc. Lissandra certainly nullifies LeBlanc later into the game, making her attack angles and timings very challenging, however in lane LeBlanc can still bully out the ice queen pretty hard.
Faker’s willingness to take a difficult lane matchup in order to set the team up for success, and then pilot his way through a challenging game state is a major boon for T1.
The last thought must be directed to T1’s major advantages they’ve been finding in the draft. They’ve been able to find answers to Yuumi lanes via Apehlios paired up with specifically Lulu for Ryu “Keria” Min-seok, able to have priority in lane and then polymorph Yuumi’s carrier in fights. Likewise, Poppy for Moon “Oner” Hyeon-joon has been fantastic at denying the likes of LeBlanc and Lee Sin with her ability to deny dashes.
Versus HLE, T1 seemed to come out ahead from the draft phase in arguably every game. If they are able to diminish the prowess of high priority meta picks while simultaneously showing they can take and pilot those same meta picks, their options in the draft should give DWG KIA pause.
DWG KIA - the LCK harbingers, the reigning World Champions
There was a running joke that the LCK was a one team region, and that team was DWG KIA. In spring, it even seemed kind of true - DK won the LCK with Khan largely relegated to Sion duty, before going to MSI and being somewhat exposed by Jang “Ghost” Yong-jun and Cho “BeryL” Geon-hee getting regularly manhandled by opposing bot lanes.
Then, of course, summer happened and then Worlds Groups happened. Three out of four teams qualified as a number one seed out of groups for the LCK and HLE came out in second from theirs. And leading this dominating resurgence to form? None other than DWG KIA.
If T1 is the historical face of the LCK, then DK is its current one. They are the reigning Worlds Champions, back-to-back-to-back LCK champions, and MSI runners up to boot. They are the team to beat at Worlds, and if T1 can’t do it then it looks increasingly likely that no one can. That’s easy enough to say, much harder to do. There's a terrifying possibility this roster goes undefeated at Worlds.
Core to that is the sheer prowess of its players. It’s no exaggeration to say DK’s top side of the map is the strongest in the world right now. Kim “Canyon” Geon-bu and Heo “ShowMaker” Su are no strangers to being considered the best in their roles, but Kim “Khan” Dong-ha has often been more contentious, with a list of “almosts” to his name that makes for frustrating reading. Having been runner-up too many times, Khan has come to dominate at this World Championship - his last before Korean military service puts a halt to his playing career.
Khan has been having a tournament to remember, putting out some career-high performances. While his lane dominance on his signature pick Jayce is still as crisp as ever, the likes of his Kennen and Graves sparked despair in opposing teams as well. MAD Lions were eviscerated by his Kennen during their series, despite shutting it down in lane. He even got a pentakill on Lucian top earlier on in the tournament.
Even better, Khan has regularly had Canna’s number. DK in general have had T1’s number, with a 15-1 record against them over their last three title defences, but in recent matchups, it has been Khan’s lane advantage over Canna that have often caused T1 the most strife. Canna certainly looks a much more complete player than he has in the past, but Damwon fans should still be eyeing their veteran (and dominant) top jungle matchup with confidence. Add in ShowMaker’s ability to run everything from LeBlanc to Kassadin, and you have two of the most potent solo lane threats in the world - ShowMaker is on current form, the best player in the world by most estimations.
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If T1 can’t manage to contain DK’s topside, things begin to look gloomy for them, and while Gumayusi and Keria have been exceedingly dominant, Ghost and BeryL are not slumping the way they were at MSI either. Ghost’s Jhin and Draven in particular may cause some drafting headaches for T1.
That said, DK do need to be wary of bleeding out in their early game. While in the end, they defeated MAD 3-0 in their quarterfinals match, they dropped the ball heavily in the early periods of game two and had to rely on Kennen engages to turn the tide, and nearly allowed MAD to teamfight their way back in other scenarios as well. T1 on the other hand are infamous for their early game prowess (a reminder that T1 led three out of four of their LCK finals matches against DK) and have looked much cleaner in the mid game - DWG KIA cannot afford to cede early game advantages to T1 the way they did against MAD at points.
Matchup to Watch - ShowMaker v Faker
If ShowMaker gets agency, T1 are in dire straits. If Faker can continue to prove his playstyle flexibility to contain, or even overpower ShowMaker, then T1’s sidelines suddenly have a much easier time of it. Keep your eyes on Twisted Fate and Azir priority for both on top of the usual high priority picks of Ryze, Irelia and LeBlanc.
Verdict: DWG KIA 3-2
This series is so desperately hard to predict. Neither team have had a true challenge yet at Worlds it feels like - DK are the reigning champs, but T1 have levelled up in the hyperbolic time chamber. The question will be if it's enough. If Faker can either roam or contain ShowMaker, if Canyon pops off on Lee Sin, if Gumayusi is switched out for substitute Park “Teddy” Jin-seong… there are a lot of variables to account for.
The end result is a series that may well come down to edges secured in pick and ban. T1 have shown they are ready and willing to leave open priority picks like LeBlanc and Yuumi because they feel they have answers to them. T1 in general has often come out ahead in the draft thus far in the tournament.
All the same, if DK can secure strong jungle matchups combined lane pressure for their solo lanes, and take Gumayusi off Aphelios for that matter, T1’s current drafting prowess may find itself much more strained versus DK. Lee Sin for Canyon, in particular, must be accounted for, and Yuumi is still a big question mark - yes, T1 have shown they feel they have an answer, but will it work against DWG KIA?
In the end, while it is by the finest of margins, DK look like they have this series - and Worlds - in their hands.
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Featured image courtesy of Riot Games and Getty Images.