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A Soaring Phoenix1 Topples an LCS Titan

Team SoloMid went up against Phoenix1, and most viewers shrugged. This was a foregone conclusion. Team SoloMid had 14 wins, crushing the competition and reigning as the titans of North America. Phoenix1 were, well, Phoenix1. They had lost their first nine matches, they were a seemingly cobbled-together team thrown onto the LCS stage at the last minute. Fans and critics agreed that the best they could hope or was to avoid relegation.

Where other teams talk about mental toughness and self-confidence, P1 coach Charlie Lipsie mustered up this faintest-of-praise when talking about his squad: "Some of the players, since they were on TiP, they're kind of used to losing. So it doesn't hit them so hard."

After the last few weeks, Phoenix1 better get used to winning, because they’ve proven that they have what it takes to take anyone down - even the kings of North America.

Turning things around

Game one panned out exactly as expected: Team SoloMid crushed Phoenix into ashes. But a spark started flickering to life in the picks and bans for Game 2, when Phoenix jungler Inori locked-in Rengar. Was this a desperate Hail Mary, or part of a master plan? Nobody knew, least of all TSM. As the night progressed, Phoenix1 just kept hurling curveballs at TSM, going with unpredictable picks and forcing the more successful team to ban out niche picks like Rengar. With Rengar off the table, the team was able to keep Malzahar in their grasp, and it also proved that TSM was shaken - they didn’t have a counter prepared at all!

Rumble, Sivir, Braum, Malzahar, and Rengar aren’t a typical composition that you would see on the LCS stages. Rumble has fallen out of favor in the meta from the days when he was a feared pick in the hands of players like Balls and Rumble, Malzahar is still a new pick since his recent rework, and Rengar has been very unreliable, only seeing success in a few rare cases like with Reignover. Despite this, Phoenix1 seemed confident.

Phoenix1 took Game 2 in just 27 bruising minutes. There were multiple factors behind their success, but all eyes were on Inori as Rengar. The jungler went 12-2-7, tearing through TSM’s ranks. He wasn’t alone; the reworked Malzahar, piloted by Pirean, rolled behind him at 8-2-9. Both champions excel at taking out key targets, and the new Malzahar's area control and voidlings sealed the deal and turned small advantages in team fights into crushing victories.

Even after Game 2, not all was lost for TSM. Team SoloMid has dropped games throughout the season, including against Echo Fox. It all came down to the final game of the series, and most still had faith in Team SoloMid... including former top laner Dyrus, who swore that he’d shave his head if Phoenix1 were to take the game.

The draft for Match 3 was truly spectacular, and a large part of Phoenix1’s success comes down to their picks. TSM banned out the Rengar, but as Inori revealed in the post-game interview, that was no skin off his back - he had never planned to lock in Rengar. He suspected that TSM would have prepared a counter. With Rengar taken out, he took the Void Burrower Rek’sai, and Pirean locked in as Malzahar once again. Gate took Braum, which would shut down poke and help lock down team fights.

The real picks of note were Mash on Twitch and Zig on Gangplank. You’ll notice that neither of these picks see much prominence in the LCS, and there’s a reason for that - the meta may not favour them compared to stronger picks... but they’re comfort picks for Mash and Zig. Zig was a notorious Gangplank one-trick during his time in solo queue, and Mash has returned to Twitch again and again throughout his career.

This is fascinating because it almost never happens. When players make the jump from Challenger to the LCS, they’re fully expected to put down their one trick and staple "pocket picks" in favour of the meta-favored choices. A one-trick player who relies on his favorite is often regarded as selfish and dragging his team down. Consider Dignitas’s Azingy, who was known for his Karthus and Zac in Challenger, but rarely busted out these “fun” picks in LCS play. Seeing Gangplank and Twitch was unexpected, but they turned out to be brilliant picks. Maybe it was because of the way they could burn through objectives, maybe it was because they further threw off Team SoloMid.

Forging an identity

Here’s the catch: this is going to be the single greatest story people tell about Phoenix1 for years to come, the victory that gives their team meaning… but it’s not their peak. There were multiple fights and points in the game where Phoenix1 were outplayed by Team SoloMid, including a prolonged fight in the bot lane where they nearly took out both Biofrost and Svenskeren but were unable to seal the deal on either. There’s still room for improvement with their mechanics and their team fighting, and for a time, it seemed as though Team SoloMid would be able to exploit these opportunities and turn the game around.

The phoenix prevailed, however. They were able to pick up kills around the map and translate those into objectives, burning through Barons at the speed of light. TSM swept in to try to contest a Baron, and Phoenix1 turned around and not only took down Nashor but the rest of Team SoloMid, with a nearly untouched Twitch dancing at the edges of the fight and pumping his foes full of poison.

Game 3 was a classic David versus Goliath story, although instead of a slingshot, the giant was taken down with poisoned bolts. Afterwards, Doublelift took most of the burden of the loss onto his shoulders: “Aw, man, we just sucked, dude,” he said, before analyzing the factors behind the defeat: TSM's struggle to adjust to changes i the mid lane meta and, crucially, a failure to respect Phoenix1 in the second game.

TSM will comfortably bounce back from this loss, although they may have to deal with some teasing memes. Phoenix1, however, have forever changed their identity. The team started out as a joke, and have turned that into being the Kingslayers of North America. Their actions will reverberate throughout solo queue (expect to see a lot more Rengars and Twitches in your game), and through the rest of the LCS. Top teams are already taking notice, and this series will be remembered for a long time to come. The moral? Do not disrespect the Phoenix. Tonight they blazed back to life in North America.

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