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From a disappointing 2017 League of Legends World Championship quarterfinals loss as Longzhu Gaming, 2018 Kingzone DragonX was born. Support Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon, AD carry Kim “PraY” Jong-in, mid laner Gwak “Bdd” Bo-seong, and top laner Kim “Khan” Dong-ha were joined by former ROX Tigers and SK Telecom T1 jungler Han “Peanut” Wang-ho to complete the roster of the freshly-branded Kingzone DragonX.

It was a perfect marriage of styles that experienced a few hiccups in the beginning of the season — former Longzhu starting jungler Moon “Cuzz” Woo-chan stepped in for Peanut a few times early in the split — but looked unbeatable by the end of the split. Aggressive, invade-heavy junglers like Olaf were back in the meta and this suited Peanut’s natural playstyle. Khan learned better Teleport timing and better flanking angles for Kingzone’s teamfights. PraY and GorillA further established themselves as the best bottom lane duo in South Korea.

Kingzone DragonX entered the 2018 Mid-Season Invitational on the back of a historically dominant season. They stormed through the regular season with an 83 percent winrate, dropped only two series (both without starting top laner Khan), and lost only eight games total during the regular season and playoffs combined.

Yet Kingzone’s group stage performances at 2018 MSI left a lot to be desired. Kingzone have dropped half as many games in the five days of the group stage than they did in all of 2018 LoL Champions Korea Spring. In a surprise turn of events, the LoL Master Series’ Flash Wolves have become tournament darlings with a newfound ability to transfer their peerless bot side map control into other advantages around the map.

This is the first year that SK Telecom T1 is not South Korea’s Mid-Season Invitational representative. Kingzone’s performances haven’t been as poor as 2016 SKT’s MSI groups run, but now they find themselves an unlikely underdog in the eyes of many for their semifinals series against the Flash Wolves. Much of this is matchup-based analysis; however, another large part of this is due to how audiences view Kingzone as a team in the absence of the SKT mystique.

Kingzone DragonX march onto the EU LCS stage in Berlin, Germany at the 2018 Mid-Season Invitational (courtesy of Riot Games)

Around the MSI event, SKT developed a reputation for inevitably winning, despite shaky group stage performances and jungler substitutions (or lack of jungle substitutions). Regardless of what SKT looked like in the regular season, they were still favorites to win in South Korea. Similarly, regardless of SKT’s group stage record and placing, they were still favorites to win MSI. Yet, the first year that SKT attended the tournament, they lost to EDward Gaming.

SKT was LCK’s first ambassador team to MSI in a year where South Korean League of Legends was at its most vulnerable and the LCK itself, much like the MSI tournament, was in its first year. Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan, Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan, and Bae “Bang” Jun-sik followed their jungler Bae “Bengi” Seong-woong around, mimicking his sleep schedule to shake off their jet lag. At that time, they were still unused to international events, unlike Bengi and mid laner Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok. They went 5-0 in the group stage, won a close 3-2 against Fnatic in the semifinals, and lost to EDward Gaming’s clever Game 5 draft in the finals. Still, after SKT’s 2016 performance where they finished fourth in groups and still swept Counter Logic Gaming in the finals, and 2017 where SKT quickly swept Flash Wolves in the semis before beating G2 Esports 3-1 in the finals, MSI became SKT’s tournament. With 2015 long forgotten, part of the SKT mystique — their ability to always adapt and win behind the best player to have ever played the game — is owed to the team’s performances at MSI.

MSI is a punishing tournament. Each region only sends one representative, and the double round robin group main stage is played between six teams across five days. The four teams with the best records play in a bracket playoff round nearly a week later. It’s particularly punishing this year now that this week has been cut in half. The top four teams only have two days — not including travel time — to prepare than a full four. MSI hasn’t been this spartan since its inaugural year, where each team only played each other once in groups, and the bracket stage began a day later, giving teams less than 24 hours of practice time and rest.

Since 2013 SK Telecom T1 (arguably 2012 Azubu Frost, despite their finals loss to the Taipei Assassins), South Korean teams have been expected not only to win international events, but to obliterate their opposition in a manner that leaves no doubt as to what region is the best. SKT set this standard even with their 2015 MSI loss to EDG. Now Kingzone must live up to it. Instead of an unbeatable aura, Kingzone still carries the team’s failure as Longzhu at Worlds.

Kingzone DragonX mid laner Gwak “Bdd” Bo-seong at the 2018 Mid-Season Invitational (courtesy of Riot Games)

There were always holes in Kingzone’s play. Even the most dominant teams in history make mistakes that are punishable by opponents. What made Kingzone so oppressive was the team’s ability to capitalize on opponents’ mistakes while making fewer mistakes themselves. During the 2018 MSI group stage, Kingzone have made more mistakes, drafted somewhat curiously at times, and have looked behind their opponents in Level 1 strategies.

More concerning than any narrative of indomitable South Korean teams or Flash Wolves as “Korean Killers” is that 2018 Kingzone’s mistakes have been 2017 Longzhu’s mistakes. Khan has struggled to find strong flanks, and his Teleport play has been suspect. When teams attack the bottom side of the map, it destabilizes Kingzone’s entire gameplan since the team heavily relies on GorillA and PraY to maintain consistent advantages in the bottom lane. Kingzone returned to Cuzz in their final few matches in order to facilitate Bdd, yet this was easily pulled apart by the Flash Wolves in particular, who Kingzone will now face in their upcoming semifinal. Cuzz will always lack the pressure that Peanut brings. The tradeoff is how the team plays around Bdd, and Kingzone have failed to execute more Bdd-centric compositions cleanly. Throughout Kingzone’s struggles, they have rarely been afforded the same verbal leeway in post-match discussions that’s somehow always been given to SKT at international events.

Kingzone have two days to prepare beyond the multiple global compositions on which they have looked most comfortable. Yes, Kingzone’s inconsistent group stage showing is cause for concern, but the sky isn’t falling yet. Since the team has tried a variety of different looks in the group stage, they’ll likely be able to adjust across a best-of-five, even with the fact that the Flash Wolves have a naturally strong matchup against Kingzone. Regardless of who you’re picking in the Flash Wolves/Kingzone semifinal, it’s important to evaluate Kingzone as they are — not as just another South Korean team, and not in relief to SKT’s prior dominance.

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