WUHAN, China -- Week One of the League of Legends World Championship group stage in Wuhan, China, began and ended with Royal Never Give Up, the only all-Chinese League team competing on its home soil. And RNG gave the home crowd something to cheer for in the beginning, in the end, and in between.
At its core, Royal Never Give Up's recent success relies on having a lead on mid laner Li "xiaohu" Yuan Hao to ensure that its team composition will scale and be competitive in the late game. If both side lanes fall behind, xiaohu has the ability to force opponents off waves. RNG will sacrifice objectives to ensure xiaohu has control so it always has the ability to contest vision in river and set up mid lane plays later on.
At the start of Worlds, Royal Never Give Up's victory over 1907 Fenerbahçe Esports showcased a shaky early game, and fans only had lukewarm optimism. But by the end of the week, RNG had given the League Champions Korea representatives their only loss of Week One and toppled the European League Championship Series No. 1 seed, G2 Esports.
"We tried to play more steady," rookie support and lead shot-caller Shi "Ming" Sen Ming said following RNG's match against Fenerbahçe, "and it was my first time playing at Worlds, so I didn't want to make mistakes."
Royal Never Give Up's scaling Kog'Maw and Ryze composition in that match set the tone for the tournament. With Ardent Censer taking over, scaling AD carries became kings in the meta, and RNG, known in the LPL for picking strong lanes and blowing open the game early, stepped in line seemingly without skipping a beat.
"We were not too worried about our team comp because we knew that late game, we would definitely win," Liu "Mlxg" Shi Yu said after its match against G2 Esports. The team that began the LPL with strong lanes and playing aggressively, this week, became the shining example of the meta, and with a world-beating AD carry like Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao, it had all the tools to do so.
"I think this meta really suits me," Uzi told Eefje "Sjokz" Depoortere on the English language Worlds broadcast, "since AD carries are really strong."
RNG continued to draft compositions that scaled well, with its Galio, Jarvan IV, Tristana and Janna composition against Samsung Galaxy, and then its Twitch, Janna, Sejuani and Maokai composition against G2 Esports. Yet in all three games, RNG ensured it could get an advantage in the mid-jungle two-on-two.
Against both Fenerbahçe and Samsung, xiaohu played both sides of the Syndra-Ryze matchup, but Mlxg picked Rek'Sai for early ganks against Fenerbahçe and Jarvan IV into Samsung's Sejuani. Both jungle picks could exert a lot of pressure in what is a volatile Level Two matchup between the two mid lane champions. When xiaohu fell behind slightly against Fenerbahçe, Mlxg focused a lot attention on ganking mid and getting kills for xiaohu -- even at the expense of vision around neutral objectives like the Infernal Drake.
"We were trying to get vision in the jungle and deny vision from Fenerbahçe," Ming said after the match when I asked him why the team initially put so much emphasis on getting kills for xiaohu. He said the team didn't feel comfortable contesting any objectives without waves or vision in place.
If a team doesn't have a strong champion for contesting vision or wave control, it's hard to set up a transition for Baron or dragon. That can actually make a kill in isolation worth more than a dragon if it enables setting up the map later. On a champion like Ryze -- in the case of the game against Fenerbahçe -- the global pressure can make it difficult for a team to send an enemy champion mid to push forward in the lane. Even if Uzi wasn't in position, xiaohu would exert more threat the longer the game went on.
After that, a lot of RNG's decision-making came through more clearly. In the match against Samsung, Mlxg only cleared his two buffs before invading the enemy jungle and harassing Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong. This pressure allowed not just xiaohu but Uzi to play far forward in lane and gave them agency to force RNG's opponents back, as Mlxg could react more quickly in the event of a two-on-two. In the precarious Ryze and Syndra matchup, that gave xiaohu an advantage in lane.
By maintaining this advantage, RNG had a method for holding mid if Samsung looked for a collapse with Twitch, Sejuani and Rakan, all of which are champions with very strong pick potential. That allowed the rest of RNG to freely punish the side laning Ryze and Maokai before Baron spawned. By appearing in side lane to catch out Lee "Crown" Min-ho and force him to burn his ultimate twice to escape, Mlxg removed Samsung's ability to use the Ryze ultimate to flank and collapse mid.
Samsung's Maokai and Ryze kept trying to transition control from side lanes to river and mid lane, but Royal Never Give Up was initially content to simply push the mid wave as a group to reset (not push and crash the wave against the enemy turret) to avoid mispositioning and let Samsung make a play with a Teleport flank that could have turned the game around. With Royal Never Give Up's impressive wombo combo team composition, that was Samsung's only recourse for getting back into the game.
"When we lost [to RNG] yesterday, we were playing for late game," Jo "Corejj" Yong-in told ESPN after Samsung's close win against Fenerbahçe on Sunday, "so we wanted to play for early game this time."
In many ways, Samsung lost to RNG in the draft phase. Galio, Jarvan IV, Tristana and Janna set up a really strong composition with powerful individual champions and good synergy in teamfighting that had a lot of disengage to prevent flanks from Samsung. With multiple losing lanes, Samsung also bled out quickly and waited for the fights that won RNG the match.
But principles that RNG applied against Samsung appeared again in its final match against G2 Esports -- even with losing side lanes and a losing jungle matchup.
With a weak jungle matchup, RNG couldn't afford to take an even or slightly unfavorable matchup against Luka "PerkZ" Perković's Ryze. Xiaohu instead went for the powerful Jayce pick to keep control of the mid lane. He purchased pink wards early to keep Mlxg safe as Kim "Trick" Gang-Yun's Rek'Sai faced off against Sejuani and kept the raptors entrance well guarded.
"Our main purpose was to stably scale," Mlxg told ESPN after the victory. "Their team composition for early and mid-game was definitely stronger than ours, and they can counter-jungle us, so it was very important for us to clear the vision for our jungle."
After surviving the laning phase, xiaohu's Jayce had enough of a lead to pressure any matchup in side lanes. As a result, Uzi and Ming could again push the mid lane to simply reset the minion wave. This set up their trap with Twitch to get picks as RNG kept the river diligently swept.
Throughout the tournament, RNG have purchased three Sweeping Lenses as a team, and Mlxg was the first player in both the matches against Samsung and G2 to trade in his Warding Totem for a Sweeping Lens. RNG made sure to cover its own jungle and river to force G2 to over-extend if it wanted to push the mid wave to tower.
In an effort to get mid control, G2 AD carry Jesper "Zven" Svenningsen pushed out mid and then pushed an extra wave to keep sending G2's minions toward RNG's turret. This standard approach should have allowed G2 to transition to control jungle and river vision. What RNG did instead was keep pressure in side lanes and soft reset the mid wave. With control of side lanes, RNG kept vision in the river and set up traps mid to catch out members of G2. G2 could not send single members mid without getting picked off by a flanking Twitch, which forced the European squad to stay grouped.
If G2 extended too far forward in a group, RNG could take advantage of Twitch's Runaan's Hurricane build with multiple auto attacks benefitting from Ardent Censer. Perhaps with more armor-centric itemization, G2 would eventually have been able to shut down Uzi's damage potential, but a full item Twitch with Ardent often comes out ahead.
But because xiaohu got control early and had the ability to get pressure in any part of the map almost solo, that was not a problem for RNG. At around 32 minutes, for example, xiaohu could push the wave all the way to G2's Tier Two mid turret, forcing G2 to react and give up its position around Baron. RNG quickly moved in and cleared out the wards in river to set up for mid lane collapses again. In all three games, RNG relied on xiaohu getting ahead early to make sure it could control minion waves and clear out vision. If it couldn't use xiaohu as an agent to force opponents to react to pressure, to pull attention to side lanes so RNG could control river with a simple soft reset in mid, or to keep jungle entrances cleared while Mlxg farmed in a bad matchup, it's hard to imagine how the team would react.
In the LPL final, when EDward Gaming switched up its approach to pick a snowballing Lucian or Leblanc in the mid lane, Royal Never Give Up didn't seem to have an answer. It couldn't put xiaohu in a side lane later, and RNG didn't have the ability to get its side lanes back into the game with a mid lane bridge to late game in place.
To attack RNG, then, teams might want to throw out the frequent tendency to draft a strong bot lane matchup on blue side or a strong top lane matchup on red side and instead prioritize a powerful mid-jungle two-on-two. If an opposing team can prevent xiaohu from getting ahead, it may be able to force RNG into an uncomfortable situation or - at least - reveal another trick in the team's arsenal.
"I really don't know [if I'm confident]," RNG top laner Yan "Letme" Jun Ze told ESPN after RNG's victory over Samsung Galaxy. "We just listen to the coach, so confidence depends on him."
If that's really the case, all eyes will be on Huang "FireFox" Ting-Hsiang to see just how RNG reacts when forced from its comfort zone.