How branching away from Uzi as the sole star has lead to StarHorn's success

Fans of Jian "Uzi" Zihao are quick to credit him with StarHorn Royal Club's recent burst of success in LPL, but a change in the distribution of kills tells a different story.

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This article was originally published on GameSpot's sister site onGamers.com, which was dedicated to esports coverage.

All images taken from Tencent streams.
All images taken from Tencent streams.

Old habits die hard, and this as true in competitive gaming as anywhere else. League of Legends Pro League teams have long been known to funnel gold onto their AD carry players in hopes that they can best protect them and allow them to maximize sustained damage output. This was especially true on Royal Club Huang Zhu during the second half of the 2013 season. Jian "Uzi" Zihao was regarded as a young prodigy in the AD carry role, and his team went to great lengths to ensure he had the tools and the tank line to succeed. Attempts to replicate this strategy in the 2014 season with two different rosters haven't led to standout performances. It is only now that SHRC is sharing kills with other members of the team that they have made a convincing case for themselves to represent China at the 2014 World Championship.

Bad Habit

During StarHorn Royal Club's set against Edward Gaming this week, onlookers were shocked to see EDG's AD carry, Zhu "NaMei" Jiawen give up several kills to Uzi and his lane partner, Yoon "Zero" Kyungsup. It might have been easy to conclude that Uzi had finally returned to heights many remember from the 2013 Season World Championships, where many felt inclined to call him the best AD carry in the world. In reality, NaMei's deaths had a lot more to do with the discrepancy of jungle pressure between EDG's jungler, Ming "Clearlove" Kai, and SHRC's jungler, Choi "inSec" Inseok. In the first game, inSec got first blood on NaMei, and Clearlove spent the first 20 minutes with a score of 0 kills and 0 assists.

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Focusing on the bottom lane has been a calling card of SHRC since inSec joined the team. In LPL games, Zero and Uzi have the highest kill participation of any member of the team at 70.8% and 70.2% respectively. Traditionally, the solo laners were left to fend for themselves, and Uzi and inSec were regarded as the team's primary carries. In an interview conducted by Ryan Luwei for onGamers, Uzi said he felt confident that, in addition to himself, inSec could serve as a carry on the team, and this was often reflected in their style of play. In the past 26 LPL games SHRC has played, Uzi has been given 38.3% of his team's kills. The only player in LPL to have received a larger share of his team's kills is World Elite's WeiXiao, who seems to be struggling in an attempt to solo carry a disorganized team.

The primary difference between Uzi and WeiXiao, however, is the amount of deaths. Both inSec and Uzi boast high death counts relative to the players occupying their roles on other top four LPL teams. Uzi's 2.92 deaths per game suggest that Uzi dies almost 30% more than san on OMG at 2.25 deaths per game. Often, SHRC has operated in the past by initiating fights with an apparent over-extension by Uzi or inSec, resulting in a team fight reset from Zero or mid laner Lei "corn" Wen in the form of a Nami Tidal Wave or Lulu Wild Growth.

Uzi caught in a Demacia Cup game against Young Glory forces out corn's Wild Growth.
Uzi caught in a Demacia Cup game against Young Glory forces out corn's Wild Growth.

This strategy has led to extremely mixed results. SHRC has seven draws on their LPL record, that is seven sets in which they have won one game and lost one game. This number is second only to Invictus Gaming's eight draws. Considering how iG traditionally has a reputation for splitting their sets in LPL, the fact that this number is so close doesn't speak to SHRC's consistency. Given how much gold the team funnels onto Uzi, it's surprising SHRC was as successful as they were. Whenever Uzi dies, SHRC is left without a massive gold investment. Uzi received nearly 40% of the team's kills and was responsible for more than 20% of the team's deaths. Only eight players in LPL have received more than 30% of their team's kills, and of these eight, only two are also responsible for more than 20% of their team's death count (the other being Young Glory's DianGun—and YG is in seventh place for a reason).

PlayerTeamRolePercentage of Team KillsPercentage of Team Deaths
WeiXiaoWorld EliteADC39.4414.77
UziStarHorn Royal ClubADC38.3520.32
KidInvictus GamingADC37.4417.31
DianGunYoung GloryMid34.5325.88
XQLGD GamingADC33.3317.68
CoolOMGMid32.7517.27
NaMeiEdward GamingADC31.0119.87
SmlzWorld Elite AcademyADC30.5914.57

Much of SHRC's successes in spite of their awkward playstyle could be attributed to Zero's performances. Nami and Thresh were often high pick priority champions for SHRC during the start of the split, and Zero used Tidal Wave and Dark Passage to reverse tight situations and allow SHRC to eke out team fight victories. Before two weeks ago, Zero had the most MVP points of any member on his team and was the only support player in the top ten of the LPL MVP standings—feats nearly unheard of on a scoreboard traditionally dominated by OMG mid laners.

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Despite Zero's efforts, however, SHRC remained in the middle of the table until Week 8 of LPL. They eventually settled into fourth place, which would place would grant them a playoff seed, but if they didn't become a top three LPL team, it wouldn't garner them a berth to the 2014 Season World Championships. If the team wanted a piece of the $2.3 million prize pool, something would have to change, and clearly the answer wasn't in giving Uzi more gold.

Corn Comes Into His Own

In the past, I have been critical of SHRC's mid laner, corn. His reputation as a play-making force in solo queue was at odds with his professional performances. He came from King before they managed to qualify for the LSPL this summer. In the Spring LSPL qualifiers, corn managed to outfarm his lane opponent, but his game impact outside the lane was lacking. Statistically speaking, this is consistent with corn's LPL performance. His kill participation at 66% is below that of the mid laners on the other top four teams who all manage to participate in more than 70% of their team's kills. Most teams would ban Yasuo and write corn off as a non-factor, considering the lackluster impression he left on his opponents with other champions.

This analysis overlooks another important statistic, however: the small share of team gold corn receives. If Uzi receives nearly 40% of SHRC's gold, at least one other member of the team isn't enjoying the benefits. Despite participating in 66% of his team's kills, the fourth highest kill participation ratio among LPL mid laners, corn only received 24% of the kill count on his score line: the lowest share of kills of any mid laner in LPL (exempting WEA mid laners who changed halfway through the season). InSec's focus on Uzi and Zero's lane, often diving 1v2 top laners on the opposing team or infiltrating the jungle with the duo in tow, left corn relatively gold-starved. While it's commendable to have game impact with very little gold, it isn't always possible. Corn instead strove to stay alive and maintained the lowest death count of any member of his team.

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Then the meta changed. While Uzi's positioning often punishes him in the team phase, the same risky plays in a 2v2 lane guarded by vision often work in his favor. The Uzi and Zero lane could push out san and Cloud on OMG with ease, and this freed up inSec to visit other lanes. As a result, corn became the beneficiary of many of his ganks. Given Cool's reputation as a map-pressure oriented mid laner, he was an obvious target for SHRC to tunnel onto and shut down. Corn proved himself more than capable of punishing Cool's low lane presence Twisted Fate pick on Fizz and ended the game with plenty of clips for a highlight reel and an impressive 6/2/2 score line.

This success transferred to his performances on Orianna. In the second set against OMG, a single shockwave started the reverse snowball that allowed StarHorn to find a way back into the game. He managed a Baron steal and then another strong performance around OMG's red buff for a near miraculous comeback. Then against Edward Gaming, his high-powered Ziggs and Orianna performances continued to shine. His synergy with inSec allowed SHRC to get the drop onto NaMei and EDG's mid laner, Ceng "U" Long. Corn's burst damage eliminated EDG's carries as soon as inSec's Rengar came out of stealth, and the opposition had no time to react. This play-making would not be possible without inSec's spread focus throughout the game, forcing Uzi to share some of his gold with a new star on the team.

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StarHorn Royal Club has been on a four game winning streak since they lost to World Elite two weeks ago. It's no coincidence that SHRC was suddenly able to 2-0 first and second place LPL teams as soon as corn was given the opportunity to pick up some early kills of his own. In SHRC's past four victories, corn has received a larger share of team gold than Uzi—though the ratios remain close.

Player%Overall Team Kills%Team Kills in Last Four LPL Games
Cola14.2616.87
inSec16.0614.46
corn23.6930.12
Uzi38.3528.92
Zero7.639.64

The increased spread of gold to corn allows StarHorn to have more damage threats when Uzi finds himself out of position. Though Uzi didn't die a great deal in these recent wins (he had a total of six deaths), the fact that the opposition didn't have a single target to focus allowed StarHorn to execute much more dynamic engagements. Not only that, but inSec's jungle pathing became less predictable when he began to visit different lanes, allowing SHRC to find more advantages in the early game. Instead of just watching the AD carry, EDG and OMG had to keep their eyes on the ball.

Carrying it Forward

Though SHRC defeated the top two teams and propelled themselves into a first place tie with OMG in the standings, they still don't have a sizable track record with their new strategy. Against Invictus Gaming in the Demacia Cup, most of the kills again went onto Uzi. Uzi picked up a total of 27 kills in two games, and they crushed through to win the best of three. This is largely down to the abuse of the Patch 4.12 Lucian pick. Unlike in most competitive regions where newly changed or bugged champions receive game-wide bans in competitive play, Chinese tournaments allow players to pick champions as soon as they hit the server. Lucian slipped into Uzi's hands both games, and he was able to use frequent Relentless Pursuits to correct his overzealous positioning and die considerably less. As a result, SHRC could put a great deal of gold onto him at relatively no risk.

This won't work on subsequent patches after Lucian's Relentless Pursuit is corrected, so SHRC will have to make a point of continuing to spread the gold to corn. Perhaps even Jing "Cola" Na will get a chance to shine; he has shown recent flashes of brilliance in the 1v1 top lane.

It's also no coincidence that OMG, the other team tied for first place in China, has a fairly even distribution of gold between their AD carry and mid laner. Yu "Cool" Jiajun receives 32.75% of the kills for his team, and Guo "san" Junliang receives 29.23% of kills. Even Gao "Gogoing" Diping receives a fairly large share of kills for a top laner at 19.56%. A more even distribution of gold allows a team to utilize more weapons in their arsenal. With even SHRC realizing the AD carry can't be the end-all, be-all of the team, there's evidence that the top Chinese squads are developing beyond their old habits to find greater success. A Chinese team will not win the 2014 Season World Championships, but they're taking steps in a direction that will allow them to develop more dynamic strategies in the future.

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