NaJin Sword looked unstoppable on each of the first two days of the MLG Fall tournament, and in the winner’s bracket final yesterday they handed their fellow Koreans on Azubu Blaze a lopsided defeat. Meawhile, CLG Europe looked like the most-improved team in League of Legends, adding early and midgame aggression to their already formidable late-game toolbox.
None of that mattered today. Azubu Blaze found their identity overnight, and unleashed complete dominance today.
For as good as CLG EU looked all weekend, their new gameplans deserted them against Blaze in the loser’s bracket final. They were badly out-laned and outfought, and in the the end they fell back on desperate turtling. It was not an unexpected outcome: Azubu Blaze dominated at the MLG League of Legends Arena earlier this year, and CLG EU are in transition in terms of strategy. Still, the 2-0 defeat was confirmation that as good as CLG Europe are, and as much as they are trying to add new weapons to their arsenal, they remain just short of the high bar set by the Korean teams.
Later, Shin “Helios” Dong Jin would talk about the western teams that the Koreans so often dominate, and he explained that he doesn’t think American teams or European teams are worse than the their Asian counterparts. Rather, teams like Blaze try to come into every tournament better prepared, and never laugh off competition. They may not have needed to gameplan and prepare so seriously against many of their western rivals (although Dignitas gave them a scare), since Blaze proved throughout the weekend that they are a superior team. Rather, the payoff for all their preparation and study came in how they played NaJin Sword.
Yesterday, Blaze looked hapless against NaJin Sword and Yoon “MaKNooN” Ha Woon. But in between duels with the Korean powerhouse, they seemed to come together as a team. Shy, on loan from sister team Azubu Frost, was suddenly the dominant top-lane presence he’d been in the Season 2 playoffs, zoning out MaKNooN and relentlessly chasing him out of the lane. Where before NaJin Sword had completely controlled the pacing of each match, and managed to outmaneuver their opponents, this time it was Blaze who seemed a step ahead. They dodged ganks, or made sure to lane so aggressively that they could almost ignore them. But most important, they kept MaKNooN weak.
Because Blaze had already lost to NaJin Sword, the final would be an extended series. All NaJin Sword had to do was win a single best of three, and the $16,000 prize would be theirs. If Blaze won the first best of three, they would simply extend the series into another best of three.
They proved more than up to that challenge, however. After decimating NaJin Sword in Game 1, Sword answered back with a brutal hit-job against Shy, double-teaming him at every turn. They seemed to carry that momentum into Game 3, where they made play after play against Blaze and built to a 3.5k gold lead. But everything turned against them, as Azubu Blaze somehow closed the gap, and then demolished NaJin Sword on a reckless attempt near the end of the game. Blaze charged through the middle turret and inhibitor, then pressed on to the Nexus towers, ending the game before Sword could respawn and fend them off. The series was on its way to a second set.
They didn’t know it yet, but NaJin Sword had squandered their best chance for victory. While they kept the next game close, they once again failed to hold their lead and to convert a marked superiority in kills into objectives, and Blaze were able to take a late-game Baron and once again drive through the middle to eliminate the Nexus.
The final game was nothing short of complete domination. Azubu Blaze were hyper-aggressive, led by Helios, whose double kill at 10 minutes set the tone for everything that would follow. While NaJin Sword were still able to get the odd pick, they effectively lost control of the entire map within 15 minutes. After Blaze took the middle inhibitor at 25 minutes, both squads grouped up for a final teamfight at Sword’s bottom inhibitor turret. When the two teams finally committed, Blaze’s Kang “Captain Jack” Hyung Woo proceeded to tear Sword apart, racking up a quadra kill and leading his team on a victorious attack on the nexus.
For Azubu Blaze, it may have felt like an overdue victory: NaJin Sword were the upstart team that derailed their hopes of making it into the Season 2 playoffs. It was also a victory where Shy was able to reassert himself in the top lane against one of League’s best, only a few weeks after being taken apart by Taipei Assassins’ Stanley. Blaze looked so good with this improvised lineup that they made a strong case for a roster swap.
Overall, it was a fascinating League of Legends tournament that felt both like a post-season catharsis and a pre-season event for Riot’s Season 3. MLG’s $16,000 prize may not be competitive with what Riot’s championship events put on the line, but it provided a number for the sport’s best teams a chance to start reinventing themselves for next year. Blaze, at least, proved they are on the right track.