Games in Motion: Dignitas vs Cloud 9 HyperX

Up until this week, I was noting a very worrying trend for LCS matches; I was getting bored. Games lacked a certain competition that usually glues me to the screen; while players can do some wonderful plays in one-sided stomps, I’m a lot more engaged when I’m on the edge of my seat, knowing that the balance of power can shift at any time.

Perhaps that’s what made this match between Dignitas and Cloud 9 HyperX awesome. Dignitas’ run up until that point was rough, as they were thoroughly trounced at the Battle of the Atlantic and ended their first three LCS games with a 1-2 record. Cloud 9, on the other hand, are regarded as the strongest North American team, winning the Season 3 Summer Split and avenging their World Championship loss against Fnatic at BotA.

All predictions pointed to a pretty one-sided match, and a Cloud 9 victory.

But that didn’t happen.

Week 1: North American League Championship Series

Dignitas Cloud 9
Zed (1) Kassadin (2)
Kha’Zix (3) Kayle (4)
Yasuo (5) Annie (6)
Jinx Shyvana
Thresh Elise
Dr. Mundo Riven
Gragas Leona
Vi Lucian

The pick and ban phase told a big story in terms of what each team was looking to do; Dignitas spent all three of their bans on mid-lane champions, denying C9’s Hai any comfort picks. Cloud 9 answered in kind, taking Kayle and Kassadin away from Scarra, and keeping an Annie support from disrupting the diving composition they wanted to build.

With Hai cut off from many of his regular champions, Cloud 9 made the call to choose Riven in order to fit with their theme; each of their picks had abilities to chase and lock down their opponent with crowd-control, letting Cloud 9 outlast engagement and kill those trying to escape.

I don’t want to say that either team lost the game within the pick phase, since no one was forced onto champions they were particularly uncomfortable with. I don’t doubt Hai’s ability to play Riven, but what we’ve seen from these LeBlanc/Zed/Riven mid choices is that they need to snowball quite hard in order to survive.

The game started with a familiar “line of scrimmage” set up, transitioning into a traditional 2v2 bottom lane. From there, the early game progressed pretty evenly; each side got their initial farm without much incident. Early aggression was deflected by supports in the bottom lane, while mid and top traded when they could.

Things picked up at the five-minute mark with a timely gank by Crumbzz’ Vi on Balls’ Shyvana. CruzerTheBruzer’s Dr. Mundo got a great first blood, which gave him a little boost to fend off the Dragon Lady’s relentless push.

The commentators pointed out two things that were extremely relevant: Balls’ goal in the early game was to bully Mundo and take the top tower. He was unable to do so because of Cruzer’s under-tower last-hitting and Vi’s gank killing his momentum. The First Blood gold also let Mundo start building tanky right away, which kept him from getting forced out of lane.

While this was going on, however, Cloud 9 equalized the momentary advantage by taking Dragon immediately and sending Riven to keep their top tower from taking too much damage. Both of these actions kept a snowball from forming, and almost reset the tension of the match.

This game had a very distinct ebb and flow. When Scarra swung momentum in Dignitas’ favour with a solo kill on Riven, it was hard to celebrate; fans know how good Cloud 9 is, and that they could take that power back whenever they wanted.

To their effort, LemonNation’s Leona and Sneaky’s Lucian tried to do just that soon after in the bottom lane with the help of Meteos’ Elise, but great positioning by KiWiKiD’s Thresh allowed Imaqtpie’s Jinx to escape despite her Flash being down. The Box took up such a large portion of the bottom lane that Sneaky was kept on the other side of it; without any major source of damage, the gank was called off.

Moments later, a counter-engage by Vi left both teams with little health, but no kills; even a roaming Gragas couldn’t find anything due to Sneaky’s timely Flash. Opinion on the roam was a bit split, as the commentators lamented that Scarra couldn’t pick up any kills; however, as Coast Gaming’s Alex Penn pointed out:

Scarra burns 3 summoners and pulls Hai away from mid. Great roam. #LCS
— Alex Penn (@alexpenn) January 19, 2014

Cloud 9 took the second dragon of the game with a bit of a Cold War standoff; no one from Dignitas engaged, which is almost a little strange. For those of us who’ve followed the team for a while, this kind of restraint is a marked improvement; losing multiple members at that dragon fight could have easily meant a revitalized Cloud 9.

It was clear, however, that Dignitas wanted to take advantage of a trend we’ve seen emerge from Cloud 9; the latter is successful because all of their lanes are individually strong. However, when placed in a situation when they’re working from behind, or when one lane loses convincingly, it may be difficult for them to catch back up.

Hai’s Riven had an especially difficult game, with Dignitas punishing him repeatedly to the point where he was a non-factor in later team fights. While I don’t want to single this out as the chief reason they won, a Riven without any items is like a LeBlanc without items: significantly less scary.

On the other hand, Scarra’s Gragas getting fed was exactly what Dignitas needed. It was clear by the mid-game that he was out-damaging Riven with only a couple of Doran’s Rings and a partially completed Zhonya’s Hourglass. He was also instrumental in dispersing her dives with Explosive Cask, leaving Hai on the outside of most melees.

By the fifteen minute mark, Dignitas stood with a five to zero kill score, but less than a 1,000 gold advantage. Checking the gold totals, many matches were even despite C9 lacking in kills.

The scoreboard also told another interesting story: Crumbzz’ Vi had been involved in all but one of those kills, and it was clear that he was a key reason they had a lead at all. Vi was able to close gaps or immobilize key targets at just the right time; despite Cloud 9’s champions being suited to the chase, they had to burn these gap-closers to avoid Vi’s wrath, putting them on cooldown.

While the small lead in gold was a testament to Cloud 9’s game sense and farming ability, I feel like there was a point where they got frustrated and tried to force some team fights without the necessary vision. A 6-1 lead crept to 10-3 in Dignitas’ favour after an engagement lead to the deaths of Vi and Thresh, but allowed Dignitas’ Jinx and Gragas to mop up.

The important thing to note here is that Dignitas made a concerted effort to peel for Imaqtpie, letting him get crucial ramp-up auto-attacks on Jinx‘s minigun. QT’s always been a slippery character (usually on Ezreal), but playing an escape-less Jinx seems to have put those senses into overdrive. There was no hesitation or over-commitment; it was a nice, pleasant balance that netted him a big lead over his lane opponent.

The rest of the game felt a bit surreal, as I’m not used to Dignitas playing consistently enough to avoid heartbreak. They traveled as team, focused down appropriate targets, warded competently and genuinely out-fought Cloud 9.

All these little advantages came together quite nicely: Imaqtpie’s Jinx was a damage source and focal point for Cloud 9, allowing Scarra’s Gragas to focus on laying down AOE damage and disperse dive attempts with his Explosive Cask. By this time, CruzerTheBruzer’s Dr. Mundo had three tank items of his own, adding considerable bulk to their frontline, while both KiWiKiD’s Thresh and Crumbzz Vi provided engage and disengage.

It’s like someone basically injected Dignitas with a steroid that allowed them to play these champions and their composition’s function to the best of their ability.

They also somehow were able to siphon Cloud 9’s brainpower, as Dignitas didn’t panic when they were suddenly faced with a huge lead. There was no Dignitoss at Baron, costly tower dives, lengthy chases or unnecessary lonely roams. When they took down an inhibitor, they accessed their ability to get another one; when they were turned away from a push, they picked another lane and shoved safely.

Their eventual gold lead gave them a cushion of damage and tankiness that Cloud 9 just didn’t have; Ball’s Shyvana couldn’t provide a necessary front line and LemonNation’s Leona was not an equivalent substitute. Their victory was not flashy, but systematic; they put themselves in a position where victory was the only option, and executed.

I’m proud of Dignitas in this match because they did not win with a crazy level one fight, nor did they play some outlandish composition that Cloud 9 had trouble countering. You could see each individual player shining in their own way – especially KiWiKiD, who has been steadily improving his Thresh. In the end, they made better choices than they usually do and simply outplayed the North American champions.

It’s not every day that you can say you did that; I just hope that this isn’t some one-time greatness that we’ll never see again.

In short, Dignitas:

  1. Defused Shyvana and kept her from taking an early tower; this kept her from finishing Blade of the Ruined King quickly in order to progress to tank items
  2. Killed Hai repeatedly, and kept Riven from farming an advantage back
  3. Forced attention onto QTPie’s Jinx, allowing Scarra to remain relatively untouched.
  4. Chose smart engagements with Vi and withheld skills (Flash and Explosive Cask, notably) until they were absolutely needed
  5. Remained calm and took objectives when the necessary vision groundwork had been laid. No knee-jerk reactions to equalize Cloud 9’s progress

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