The Honing of NaJin Sword – An Olympus Champions Winter Retrospective
by OGN Commentator Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles
This article analyzes NaJin Sword’s growth and development over the course of the previous OGN season and assumes some familiarity with the teams and players. For additional information about the tournament, please visit this Leagupedia page.
You can follow MonteCristo on Twitter for updates on the Korean scene.
NaJin Sword stepped onto OGN’s stage in Seoul ready to claim the team’s first major title, after falling short of the trophy at both the Season 2 World Championship and MLG Dallas. Champions Winter tempered Sword, a brittle team that hardened into an eSports powerhouse capable of dueling the world’s finest. The transformation of Sword grew from desperation, from a fall from the winner’s bracket at MLG, and from defeats in Busan and Yongsan at the start of Champions Winter.
Like any good fairytale, NaJin Sword started in the ashes. They cut through the winner’s bracket of MLG Dallas with ease, relying on their tried and true “do dive” strategy of early aggression. Sword knocked long-time rivals Azubu Blaze into the loser’s bracket in a 2-0 rout, setting themselves up for a seemingly quick victory in the grand final. However, when Championship Sunday rolled around, Blaze came with a plan. They preyed on Sword’s transparent strategies, banning out Ssong’s roaming Evelynn and the Zilean he played to help MaKNooN carry. They steeled themselves against the dives from Watch’s Nocturne and Lee Sin, two of the only champions Sword’s jungler could play at the highest level. Sword lost two best-of-threes and the MLG trophy because they lacked versatility. Blaze read their opponents and punished Sword’s limited team compositions, their poor late-game decision making, and their reliance on MaKNooN to carry them to victory.
And so, the start of Champions Winter saw Sword reeling. I arrived in Seoul ravaged by jet lag, and hopped a train heading south with Erik “DoA” Lonnquist twelve hours after I landed in Korea. Champions Winter kicked off in a packed auditorium set against the backdrop of the Busan beach. Sword’s first match of the season rekindled their rivalry with Blaze, but their over-aggression and limited picks still dogged them. They threw away leads from the early game by pressing their advantage too hard, attacking under tier two turrets and feeding Blaze kills. NaJin Sword knew only one way to play League of Legends: do dive. They lost 0-2, accumulating zero points in their first group stage outing.
Weeks two and three saw the team return to OGN’s Yongsan studio in Seoul, and they yielded a mixed bag. They defeated GSG, an amateur squad that ultimately finished last this season, thereby scoring their first points in the group stage. Their next opponent, KT Rolster B, revealed all of Sword’s old flaws. KTB’s playstyle exploited Sword’s weaknesses perfectly, as the KeSPA team relied on safe lanes, stellar teamfighting, and a focus on the late game. The immortal Score from KT Rolster B eluded ganks and dives, escaping like Houdini from Sword’s attempts to box him in. The surging upstarts from KTB thumped their opponents and took a commanding lead in the group. That night MaKNooN escaped the studio before I could speak with him, vanishing into the streets of Seoul after another disheartening loss.
|The OGN Studio in Seoul|
The MaKNooN that I spoke to halfway through the Champions Winter season carried a downtrodden and beaten air. His typically upbeat nature, which I recalled from the Season Two World Championship, Dallas, Busan, and parties at the Curse Mansion, went into hibernation. While MaKNooN shines in interviews with his bubbly personality and playful banter, he remains a competitor at heart. In the lead up to a match, he withdraws into himself and carefully chooses his words, revealing the stoic, tactical leader that commands Sword in the booth. This MaKNooN, with a tinge of desperation, became all that I saw. He had no time for joking on camera with his team on the ropes.
Interleague matches came next with Sword squaring off against Team OP. Before the match, MaKNooN walked up to me and DoA and cryptically proclaimed that his team had solved its problems. He stormed into the booth with a wrinkled brow, and astonished fans with an entirely new strategy. NaJin Sword brought an innovative team composition to the table, fielding Jayce, Rumble, Cho’Gath, Caitlyn, and Nunu. Instead of focusing on early game kills, Sword demolished turrets as quickly as possible, preventing Team OP from defending by using Equalizer, Shock Blast, Rupture, and Ace in the Hole to whittle down their opponents during sieges. Sword used the same team composition twice in a row with devastating efficacy, winning each game in under 30 minutes. MaKNooN bounced out of the booth with a grin, hopped on stage to declare to me and DoA that NaJin Sword had analyzed their flaws and simply decided, “not to play the lategame.”
While Sword still had to face their demons and fix their teamfighting, this match demonstrated the first glimmers of the squad’s deepening skill and understanding. They added a new dimension to their play, showing they could win without racking up kills through ganks and aggressive dives. Ssong proved strong on a new champion, Jayce. Watch played Cho’Gath, a utility jungler, instead of his old staples Lee Sin, Nocturne, and Skarner. To this day, I remain unsure what magic potion their manager, StarCraft: Brood War legend Reach, cooked up to imbue Sword with these new powers. Regardless, the match against OP became the tipping point where Sword began gaining the momentum that crushed Frost in the Champions Winter final.
|The Dirtiest Farming in History from MaKNooN’s Rengar|
MaKNooN the showman returned in the next match against CJ Entus, as his top lane antics continued “the agony of the Longpanda.” The video of MaKNooN’s lonely Rengar dirty farming inside CJ’s base – in an attempt to draw inSec to top lane – became one of the highlights of the Winter season and foreshadowed a critical play in the finals against Frost. In both of Sword’s last two group stage matches, against CJ Entus and MVP Blue, they selected a variety of champions that excelled in poke and team fight situations. Cho’Gath, Caitlyn, Orianna, Jayce, Olaf, and Nunu formed the heart of Sword’s compositions as they practiced their late game synergy. They overcame CJ Entus 2-0, but split 1-1 with MVP Blue after attempting to use a poke comp against a cute all-in consisting of Shen, Pantheon, and Twitch. Since Sword already qualified for the playoffs, MaKNooN told me his team had focused on preparing NaJin Shield for their match rather than train for Blue.
NaJin Sword finished the group stage in third place, setting up a quarterfinal against the second place team from Group A, MVP White. I predicted a close match that would run a full five games. How wrong I was. Sword brought Kayle back to the professional scene in style, with Ssong’s Nashor’s Tooth/Liandry’s Torment build transforming the neglected angel into a priority ban worldwide. By selecting Kayle with the Curse of the Sad Bulletstorm composition popular in Season 3, Sword gained increased shred with Kayle’s passive and ensured Miss Fortune’s safety with Intervention. Sword not only improved on one the most prevalent Korean composition at the time, they demonstrated that they could operate it as deftly as the teamfighting giants like Azubu Frost, Azubu Blaze, and KT Rolster B. MaKNooN played Elise and Kha’Zix in the quarterfinal, seeming nigh unstoppable due to the positional advantage and executes provided by the two champions. Sword looked deadlier than ever with crisper calls, improved focus-fire, and more cohesive teamwork in their 3-0 sweep of MVP White.
|MaKNooN Swims to Victory|
While Azubu Blaze and Frost ground out an exhausting ten game semifinal, Sword prepared for a grudge match. KT Rolster B disposed of Sword in the group stage by avoiding early aggression and relying on their solid late game, but the rematch proved different. To my surprise, Sword played KTB’s game. MaKNooN out-picked his opponents, crafting team compositions that peaked after the 30 minute mark and stole several of KTB’s key champions in the process, particularly Ryze. Sword eliminated Mafa’s Blitzcrank, Ragan’s Olaf, and Ryu’s Twisted Fate with bans, shoving KT Rolster B outside of their comfort zone. They had the perfect counter prepared for KTB’s team compositions, including the effective use of Ssong’s Gragas to disrupt the positioning of Kha’Zix and Curse of the Sad Bullettime. The persistent Champions Winter conundrum of how to control the elusive Score was solved by loading teams with hard crowd control. Sword sliced through KT Rolster B – the team with an exemplary 11-1 record in the group stage – by winning nearly every game in champion select and finishing the double best-of-five semifinal with scores of 3-1 and 3-0.
William “Chobra” Cho and I conducted an interview with Pray and MaKNooN after Sword secured their slot in the Champions Winter grand final. I asked Pray what he thought about laning against Score, a fearsome AD carry who boasted a sky-high 15.8 KDA prior to the match against Sword. His reply shocked me: he looked at Score’s runes and masteries and mimicked them to beat him with his own style. Pray consistently outplayed Score in the series, even leading to a desperate bottom lane combination of Jarvan IV and Annie from a KTB team hungry for kills. At the end of the interview, MaKNooN offered a simple response to my question about playing against Shy in two weeks’ time: “I’m going to kick his ass.”
|Chobra and I Interview Pray and MaKNooN|
I no longer knew what to expect when casting NaJin Sword. The brotherhood of “do dive” consistently debuted new champions in the OGN playoffs with each passing round, picks that no team saw from Sword during the season. Ssong’s newfound versatility threatened Sword’s enemies, as he demanded bans almost to the same degree as MaKNooN. Champions Winter reforged NaJin Sword into NaJin Swiss Army Knife: a team with a tool for any situation. Sword simply presented too many mandatory bans: Kayle, Evelynn, Elise, Kha’Zix, and Shen. Most unsettlingly, teams never knew Sword’s objectives as they proved they could split push, play the late game, dive for kills early, play fast-push compositions, and more. NaJin Sword developed the most complete playbook in Korea over the course of the previous three months.
A knot of worry grew in my stomach for Azubu Frost, which seethed with greater vigor after IEM Katowice. Frost sacrificed practice time and fed NaJin Sword information about their compositions and tactics as they lost to the fiery Gambit Gaming. Frost gave Sword a gift in their loss to Gambit, as the Russians authored a guide to toppling one of the giants of League of Legends. At home in Seoul, Sword scrimmaged relentlessly with NaJin Shield, World Elite, and KT Rolster B, practicing in secret for the most important match of their careers.
A week before the grand final, the cracks in Frost’s facade deepened as KT Rolster B annihilated Azubu Blaze in the third place match, winning 3-0. KTB looked as confident, poised, and strong as they had in the group stage of Champions Winter. Blaze forced game five twice in their semifinal against Frost, nearly beating their sister team on both occasions. While Blaze suffered from lost practice time on their trip to Poland, their total defeat at the hands of the KeSPA powerhouse made long odds for Frost. After all, if Sword could beat KTB with ease then, perhaps, Frost might not prove a hurdle.
|DoA and I Sporting Korean Fashion
Photo credit: Matt Demers from ggChronicle
On February 2nd, I donned a glorious white tuxedo in the warren beneath Hanyang University’s Olympic Gymnasium. MaKNooN arrived with official NaJin calendars as gifts for myself and DoA, grinning while he spoke with us and theatrically posed for pictures. MaKNooN made sure I knew that he had signed every poster given to the VIP ticket-holders with “MaKNooN > Shy,” creating a bold prophecy. He proved the perfect foil to Cloud Templar who anxiously laughed and proclaimed his nervousness when I asked about his feelings on the upcoming match. I left the teams alone, instead choosing to snap photographs from the vertiginous heights of the stadium and chat with Reapered about the imminent games. I told the SK Telecom T1 player that I thought Sword would win 3-1.
DoA and I waited in the wings for the match to begin with NaJin Sword. The team remained silent, and MaKNooN copped the deadliest grimace a professional video gamer can manage as he stormed onto the stage for his introduction. The crowd pulsed with cheers and laughter during the interviews, twinkling with tiny hand-held lights in the dark of the arena.
|Sword and Frost Before the Final|
Champion select began as flames shot upward from the edge of the stage, and a familiar story unfolded. Sword went for a gambit in game one, mimicking the team composition that whipped Frost in Poland. The clever addition of Twitch, an import from the North American scene, formed the cornerstone of the composition, offering both exceptional damage in lane and late game teamfights. Sword’s gameplan emerged through the movements of Watch’s Xin Zhao: remove Cloud Templar from the laning phase. Cloud Templar’s weaker mechanics and selection of Amumu set him squarely in Sword’s crosshairs, as Watch and MaKNooN caught him in the same trap they laid for CJ Entus earlier in the season. MaKNooN’s Renekton hopped behind Shy’s turret for a little dirty farming while Watch lurked in the brushes, securing a surprise first blood for the crocodile when Templar arrived to help his ally. Sword capitalized on Amumu’s weakness in the early game, with Watch stripping his jungle bare and Ssong and Pray also racking up kills against Templar. With no effective ganks, Frost’s lanes folded against the aggression provided by Evelynn and Xin. Sword leveraged their early advantage into a punishing late game spearheaded by a massively fed Pray, cruising to a victory in game one.
Frost seemed to learn from their mistakes in game two, banning Evelynn and grabbing Shen with their first pick. Cloud Templar’s comfort on the Eye of Twilight promised an improved performance from the harried jungler, as well as a safer way to protect his teammates from Watch and Ssong’s aggression. Denied Evelynn, Ssong selected Twisted Fate to provide similar lane pressure to game one, while MaKNooN grabbed Rumble to divide Frost with the Equalizer. Watch once more chose Xin Zhao for his exceptional ganking and dueling potential, seeking to beat Frost with the same tactics. The second game came down to the wire, with Sword and Frost alternately winning teamfights even as Frost slipped further behind in gold and Pray racked up a double-digit kill total. Ssong unleashed a masterful Twisted Fate with clutch Zhonya’s activations that almost single-handedly won Sword the game. MaKNooN’s Equalizer as Sword’s nexus dropped to half health sent Frost packing to their own base and became instantly lionized as one of the most clutch moments in the history of League of Legends.
|The Famous Gambit Gaming/Moscow Five Invade That Eluded Frost|
Azubu Frost crumbled in champion selection in the third game. After the match, DoA and I learned from the referee that RapidStar randomed the Trundle pick as the timer hit zero. They had wanted Lee Sin. Frost tried to channel Gambit Gaming themselves with an early jungle invade from MadLife’s Alistar, but found themselves giving up first blood as Sword parried perfectly. The classic Gambit Gaming/M5 invade relied on the crowd control from Alistar coupled with the early dueling strength from Lee Sin, which Trundle could not provide. Ssong’s expertise on Evelynn and Pray’s acumen on Twitch overwhelmed Frost once again, and Sword accomplished a sweep of one of the world’s most decorated squads.
|Sword Hoists the Champions Cup|
As Frost’s nexus crystal shattered into a thousand glittering fragments, Sword rushed out of their booth amidst sprays of champagne. MaKNooN dried his tears on his forearm while NaJin’s owner soaked his jersey. I struggled against my own surge of emotions as the story of a desperate band of brothers reached its storybook conclusion with a dominant victory. DoA and I snuck off the stage before I endured a public breakdown, while the crowd roared for the first-time champions.
I love eSports not because I believe in their consequence, but because we can watch worthy people live their dreams. At the back of the stadium, DoA, Chobra, and I adopted an uncharacteristically quiet demeanor as Will translated Watch’s interview. Between sobs he told the audience about his family’s poverty and how much the prize would help his mother live a better life. We live in an era where video games hold that power, where fortune lies in wait for the passionate.
Congratulations, NaJin Sword on your phenomenal season.