What’s next on Team Liquid’s wild ride? Spring split goals and summer speculation

The NA LCS 2017 spring split is truly a gift that keeps on giving. Just when it seemed that a clear bottom tier of teams was becoming established, Team Liquid broke out into a pre-roster lock transfer frenzy that threatens to upset the balance of power in unpredictable and exciting ways.

Though I didn’t believe Team Liquid needed to do anything drastic, they naturally went and did it anyways. Piglet gave up on evolving himself as an AD carry to better fit the meta and just moved to the mid lane instead, Youngbin came in as the bandaid AD carry, and Liquid proceeded to edge out a 2-1 victory over the limp-looking Immortals before falling 2-1 to a similarly unimpressive Echo Fox.

Despite earning one series victory, it was clear that the new iteration of Team Liquid was unlikely to be an improvement on what had come before, so they went out and made two even bigger desperation moves, paying Team SoloMid an unknown but definitely large sum of money for the rights to field Doublelift for the remainder of the spring split and also picking up Adrian from Phoenix1 to bolster the support position.

To judge these moves and their implications, we have to separate our lines of thinking into two phases. First, how have Liquid improved their chances of reaching their goals in the spring split? Second, what does this tell us about the potential summer incarnation of the team?

Spring: Eighth or Bust

One caveat off the bat: we don’t know whether Adrian will be involved at all this split. The Team Liquid announcement mentions that Matt will be starting in week seven. It’s possible we’ll see Adrian for weeks eight and nine, but it’s also possible he won’t join the team until they start their pre-summer prep work.

With or without Adrian, though, Team Liquid’s latest moves have pushed them at least a few places up the power rankings of on-paper rosters, especially with Adrian’s departure weakening Phoenix1 and the Immortals reeling. As long as they don’t completely bomb their synergy, it’s definitely possible to reach eighth place, or even seventh, and avoid the Promotion Tournament. A playoff spot might be wishful thinking, but in this year’s NA LCS who can really say anything with certainty?

The main reason Team Liquid can be confident in climbing out of the basement is that renting Doublelift is an absolute coup: he was the consensus best AD carry in North America last year, in basically every phase of the game. Piglet was one of his stiffest competitors—before he was derailed by drama—but will now play alongside him from the mid lane.

One of North America’s dirty little secrets this split has been the general weakness of the AD carry position, and I’m not talking about game balance. Arrow has been very good for Phoenix1, delivering on his KT Rolster pedigree and thriving in a meta that suits him perfectly. Beyond Arrow, Sneaky and Stixxay are solid players, but they’re not quite superstars, and no one else has really stepped up to match them in the “tier two” category. Piglet should have been in the conversation, but his mentality didn’t hold up in an unfavourable meta. That’s left a void Doublelift should comfortably slot back into as a competitor with Arrow for the number one spot (rust and communication permitting).

The next three weeks will be all about making Piglet comfortable in the mid lane and gaining as much value as possible out of the rental period on Doublelift. Stylistically, that shouldn’t be too difficult: Doublelift should be able to keep his lane pushed just as effectively as Piglet did, but we probably won’t see as many free deaths from Doublelift: Piglet’s mindset has always been to own the lane and kill his opponent, while Doublelift has been more balanced in his ability to control the lane through CS advantages.

As for the rest of the roster, Reignover has been (slowly) learning how to play to the bottom half of the map better. He has the option to continue doing so, knowing Doublelift can reward those resources, or he can go back to playing to the top side of the map to cover Lourlo while trusting Doublelift to manage the bottom lane more safely than Piglet had been.

Whichever side of the map Reignover favours, Piglet will continue to factor into his pathing plans. Piglet and Reignover worked together reasonably well in week six, especially against the Immortals, and we also saw some roams to the mid lane from other members of the team. A stronger bottom lane will free up some more options for Piglet to roam for tower dives, or for Matt or Adrian to roam to help Piglet.

Later in the game, the carry partnership between Piglet and Doublelift will probably revolve around Piglet taking more risks and Doublelift doing more cleanup. That should work well, and if opponents target Doublelift more intentionally we’ve seen that Piglet knows how to find openings for team fight flanks and big plays, even if his micro on mid lane champions is still a bit hit or miss.

(As an aside to the speculative thinking about Doublelift and Piglet, it’s hard not to take this opportunity to image a world where Team Liquid had retained Fenix instead of Piglet as their second import, isn’t it? Say what you will about Fenix’s weaknesses in roaming and utility play, but he was one of the strongest 1v1 laners and pure damage carries in North America, and he hasn’t dropped a beat playing in the Challenger Series with Gold Coin United, where he put up a +13.0 CSD10 and 688 DPM in the regular season. It’s not fair to criticize Team Liquid for letting him go, since the weakness of the AD carry role was hard to predict back in November/December, but imagine what Reignover could accomplish with a mid laner like Fenix instead of the still-acclimating role-swapped Piglet.)

On the support front, to complement Doublelift, Team Liquid will need to instill the right mindset into his laning partner. Matt is an aggressive player, too eager at times to pull the trigger on all-ins and too often punished for roaming the map without proper backup or vision control. He leads the league in total deaths, though in fairness his death share of 24.7% is only sixth-highest among starters, behind Svenskeren, Pobelter, Hai, and others. Matt will need to be coached into a different style, or led into it with strong communication from Doublelift. If that evolution takes root quickly, it might work out well—there was a time in 2016 when Matt and Piglet were firing on all cylinders and Matt’s aggression was being harnessed for some effective playmaking—but the more natural solution to the playstyle problem would simply be to put in Adrian, who has always preferred to play a defensive game with heavy vision output and low death counts. On top of that, Adrian spent a year playing with Reignover, so he’d likely slot into the team’s setup relatively seamlessly.

Adrian may not return this spring, but thinking about reuniting him with Reignover leads into a discussion of the second phase of this roster rework: what might happen once the offseason comes around?

Summer: The New Immortals?

It’s a given that Doublelift will head back to TSM for the summer split: TSM stated as much in their press release. That will leave Team Liquid with a hole at AD carry, a competition at support, and an ongoing Piglet problem as they decide whether to keep him in the mid lane or do something else entirely.

Support should be the easiest part of the conversation. Either one player definitively wins the full-time starting role, or Team Liquid run a rotation a la Samsung Galaxy. On paper, Matt and Adrian are a good stylistic tandem, with one serving as an aggressive playmaker and the other playing more for control and vision. The correct decision at support will entirely depend on how well both players fit in with what the team is doing at AD carry and mid.

Of course, that’s where things get interesting (and purely speculative!). Adrian’s familiarity with Reignover implies good things for the summer split if Team Liquid retains them both, which is a pretty safe bet. For an AD carry, assuming Piglet doesn’t make the move back, the next logical place to look would be TSM’s sixth wheel, WildTurtle, who is part of that rare breed of mid-tier domestic AD carries, so valuable for LCS roster-building. Don’t forget that WildTurtle also spent 2016 playing with Reignover and Adrian, and that team wasn’t too bad, eh?

Sure, Team Liquid could continue to think bigger and fish the international market for a new AD carry, but that would mean breaking off their long-term relationship with Piglet, and in that case they would need to sign a domestic mid laner. All things considered, WildTurtle is a serviceable resource who could certainly be bought from TSM for the right price, even if TSM say they intend to run a six-man roster. (If Doublelift can be bought, so can WildTurtle!)

Now we’ve produced a reasonable scenario where Team Liquid’s provisional summer roster is Lourlo, Reignover, Piglet, WildTurtle, and Adrian/Matt. If Piglet stabilizes well in the mid lane, maybe this is Liquid’s final landing place. Then again, maybe Piglet won’t work out as a mid laner and will either move back to AD carry instead of WildTurtle or leave the team entirely. That would open the possibilities of either a) signing away the underperforming Pobelter and running with “2016 Immortals + Lourlo,” which would be truly memetastic, or b) using the second import slot to go big game hunting for a new AD carry or even a top laner (though I think Lourlo is a valuable enough domestic resource to hold on to).

The possibilities from here really open up. Realistically, a lot will be decided by how well Piglet, Matt, Adrian, and Lourlo play in the next three weeks and during offseason tryouts. Judging by how hard Team Liquid have worked to make big moves to avoid relegation, it’s unlikely they’ll be content with any simple solutions for summer. They could blow everything up even more, leaving all of this speculation completely off-base. The only certainty is that they’ll continue to give us plenty to talk about—assuming they’re still around in the LCS to be discussed.

Photo courtesy flickr.com/lolesports.

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