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Forecasting Fnatic's Future off IEM Katowice

It's been a bit of a rough spring for Fnatic's loyal fanatics. The opening weeks of it must have been something like a hangover: while everybody was drunk off the revelries from the team making it to the semifinals and locking in Europe's place as the second-strongest region in the world, plans were already in motion to tear apart that winning formula. By the morning of the new competitive season, what a headache it must have been – Huni, Reignover and Yellowstar alike had flown off for the greener grasses (and paper monies) of North America, leaving behind Febiven and Rekkles to take over what was left of the single most dominant team in EU LCS history.

Since then, well. The results speak for themselves. They were only just able to chisel out a niche in the middle of the standings in Europe. The roster that flew over to Katowice, Poland, for the IEM World Championships was not expected to perform well at all, not with two of China's best teams in attendance along with the usual Korean threats. At the start, things looked as if they would continue about as expected for Fnatic.

Divided We Fall

China's Qiao Gu Reapers had gone weeks undefeated for a multitude of reasons. Strong players, yes – DoinB dazzles the crowd as much with his mechanics as he does with his hair – but far more than that. Their "inversed" map control's given rival teams fits for weeks: rather than focusing towers down as fast as possible, they deliberately allow a lane to "lose" by solo queue standards, encouraging a tower to fall as soon as possible, then freezing the resultant lane deep on their side of the map so that AD carry Peco can farm all day without giving any gold up to the enemy team. Given the quality of their team, that made them almost insurmountable come the late game.

For IEM, they discarded all that and went with Uzi instead—the only Chinese player so far that's managed back-to-back World Championship playoff performances. Also a Chinese player that's exemplified the region's stereotype for aggressive pedal-to-the-metal early game plays. And that was enough to beat Fnatic in the group stages.

Fnatic support player Klaj, to be frank, has not been a great replacement for former Fnatic captain Yellowstar. And, certainly, there's two ways to take that: one, Klaj is a rookie whereas Yellowstar's attended every single World Championship since League of Legends as an esports existed. Two, even Yellowstar's not doing too hot this season, out under the Californian sun, so it's debatable that even if Yellowstar stayed, Fnatic's bot lane would still be comparatively weakened.

Even so, Klaj sticks out as the biggest example of what's troubling Fnatic as a whole. When left to his own devices, he's got a really bad habit of getting caught out, like what QG did nine minutes into their group stage match. He was wandering through the lower river, scouting for a good ward spot, or Vision wards to knock over, and found himself caught alone one-on-three instead—entirely avoidable given that Fnatic'd gone through the trouble of warding out the paths leading up to that point earlier. It's not all Klaj, though—in their first few games, Fnatic had a very difficult time with the simple act of working together. Three minutes after that, Qiao Gu's quick collapse on Fnatic's attempt on Rift Herald furthered their lead.

Fnatic lost that first match against QG 40 minutes in. Their rematch started out on a similarly rough fashion – first blood due to a total lack of vision control bot lane, allowing Swift to sidle in and catch Rekkles and Klaj unprepared. Fnatic, feeling the pressure, reverted to a stratagem that was more definitive of the organization's 2015 career than that of the current squad: they death-bushed Uzi.

Pulling Together

The Fnatic Death Bush is a tried and true trick—and it's stupid to the point of clever. All it really constitutes is for three to five members of the team to set up camp in a ward, usually the outermost one in the side of the lane, and wait for an unsuspecting enemy player to push up to it while farming. Once they're within radius, they're dead, flattened like roadkill under a barrage of fireworks and spell effects. It was a classic trick during xPeke and sOAZ's tenure on the team, and while it didn't really lend to any overarching strategic intent, it did have a habit of disrupting both the current plans for the enemy team as well as their mental readiness.

In Uzi's case, opening him up also meant exposing a major weakness in QG's defenses. With him as the only vanguard in that lane, Fnatic was able to smash through upward through the jungle, a five-man wrecking ball that sent the Chinese team packing back to their base, wrestling control of the map back over to the European squad.

From that tipping point, Fnatic looked as if they finally found the answer to a riddle they've been mulling over for weeks. Though Qiao Gu, in classic Chinese fashion, was still dominant in the straight head-to-head fights, Fnatic was starting to find their groove with ambushes—and countering ambushes. The second game of the rematch, for instance, had Gamsu outsmart a four-man dive on him in top lane, abusing Nautilus's natural tankiness to cannily lock people down under turret fire. What should've been a clean double-kill instead turned into a rout.

Not just Gamsu either. Spirit, who's mostly spent his time in the EU LCS playing independently of his team, was now alternating his roams with either Rekkles and Klaj, or Gamsu—hunting safaris that punished QG's attempts at map play in five-minute intervals.

Slow Burn

By the time they faced second Chinese team Royal Never Give Up, with the flame wreckage of Qiao Gu Reapers behind them, Fnatic had ascended to a new level. Their team play and coordination's finally come together in such a way that even the trigger-happy Chinese teams have to respect them – the fight in the top lane tri-bush in game three 21 minutes in being a microcosm of how far they've come, smoothly alternating positioning to spread Royal's damage out and out-gun them bit by bit. Fnatic found themselves far higher up in the IEM Katowice standings than anybody ever expected of them, face to face against SKT T1 in the grand finals.

And then they got steamrolled 0-3.

There's no shame in that; everybody else lost badly as well. There's a reason why even a Korean team floundering in the middle of the standings back in Seoul is heavily favored to win an international tournament: the level of play over there is intimidatingly high, and you can count the number of non-Korean teams with positive records against them on one hand. But from their struggles and unexpected successes at IEM, there's a few interesting takeaways about Fnatic's future fortunes.

One, they suck at the short game. In fact, they should do what they can to avoid the "standard" opener, where duo lanes face off duo lanes near Dragon, the top laners are off in their own little island, and the junglers just farm all day until they hit level six and finally gank somebody. Normally, such a setup would favor the team with strong independent mechanics, and the likes of Rekkles, Spirit and Febiven are all good for that. But Fnatic's biggest weakness is when they have to go off and do their own thing, independent of the rest of the team—Klaj and Gamsu, in particular, are relatively easy to catch out and punish.

But that's only true for game one, and only true for the start of the game. There's two reasons for Fnatic fans to have some faith coming into the playoffs—and into the summer. One, that demonstrated teamwork at Katowice is particularly potent in the mid-game. Fnatic surviving to that point relatively hale and hearty is poor news for the opposing team: between their death bushes and roaming hunts, it's hard not to default to reactionary play versus Fnatic, which is exactly the same thing as saying that you're giving up control of the game to them.

Second, Fnatic clearly improves over time and under a greater number of games played than the regular group stages of the EU LCS. And this is where things get interesting, because this is the very last split that the EU LCS operates under the best-of-one system. Starting in the summer split, they'll finally match the rest of the world in having multi-game sets. Fnatic, then, gets that many more games to evolve their strategies and gameplay against any one team.

Most teams in the EU LCS aren't SKT T1. Most teams can't even call themselves equal to Qiao Gu or Royal. Take Fnatic lightly at your own peril.

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