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Lessons we learned from the MSI Group Stage

Tom Matthiesen

The Mid-Season Invitational has concluded its Group Stage and locked in the six teams for the Rumble Stage. Royal Never Give Up, Pentanet.GG, MAD Lions, PSG Talon, DWG KIA, and Cloud9 are still in the race for the trophy. With one week of action behind us, let’s make a pit stop and evaluate what lessons the first round has taught us.

MSI 2021.

The MSI Group Stage taught us that minor regions don't give a damn about power rankings. Image courtesy of Riot Games.

Mixing major and minor regions is a great decision…

Heading into the tournament there was a lot of skepticism towards mixing the major regions (China, Europe, North America, and South Korea) with the smaller regions. Previously at MSI events, the eight minor regions were split into two groups of four, the winners of which had the ‘honor’ of playing with the big teams in what has now been renamed to the Rumble Stage. Given the general results we had seen in the past whenever a major region champion would clash with the champion of a minor region, many expected the groups to be a wipe—yours truly included.

Though the opening day seemed to reinforce those expectations, the minor region teams clearly had other plans. Pentanet.GG, paiN Gaming, Istanbul Wildcats, and DetonatioN FocusMe all surprised the viewers in different ways. From narrowly losing and making top tier teams sweat to actually taking games off title contenders and exposing their flaws, the Group Stage was hectic. The gap between levels of play was not so large at all, and one can only hope that in future events there’ll be more mixing of the regions. The MSI Group Stage was a fantastic advertisement for League of Legends esports in the smaller regions and gave many of their fans more reasons to be excited about their teams.

… but the Group Stage format still sucks.

That said, we can’t look at the MSI Group Stage’s set-up and not criticize how it determined who would advance to the Rumble Stage. And yes, you’re right, the point that a Double Round Robin, best-of-one format sucks is not a new lesson. But good lord, were some of the match days boring yet again. RNG played many more games than they needed to—imagine if their redundant games had been replaced by just a full-blown best-of-five between Pentanet.GG and Unicorns of Love?

Or what about Group C, where DetonatioN FocusMe and Cloud9 were fighting for the second ticket to the Rumble Stage? At the end of the Group Stage, the score between the teams was 1-1. It would be a thousand times more entertaining to see them settle the score directly against each other, but now everyone was watching an already-qualified DWG KIA play an already-eliminated Infinity Esports to see if DFM would still be in the race. With such a small number of games per team per group, it should not come down to other teams’ performances. Unfortunately, it’s wishful thinking that Riot will change this aspect of the format anytime soon.


Image courtesy of Riot Games.

Rumble does not reign alone

Moving away from the format and into the actual games, there’s a yordle who we need to reevaluate our stance on. Before MSI kicked off the consensus was clear: Rumble is absolutely broken as a jungler. When RNG jungler Yan “Wei” Yang-Wei got his hands on the champion in his first match, against Pentanet.GG, everyone was convinced: this champion is a must-ban. However, as the tournament progressed and teams scimmed against each other and played on-stage games, Rumble began to increasingly make his way through the pick and ban phase. With success, teams started to prioritize other picks and Rumble’s win rate dropped.

Though undeniably a potent champion still, Rumble was not the sole king of Summoner’s Rift in the MSI Group Stage. Whether this was because of an overestimation or something else is unclear. It’s possible that, when teams play the champion perfectly, Rumble is as broken as initially thought. However, if the Rumble pick requires a huge investment of time just to gain a few extra percentages, that time can also be spent on practicing more tested and comfortable champions in the jungle. Given how short the event is, optimizing strategies with a known variable (drafting around Udyr, for example), might be more beneficial than expending all resources to learn new ones.

DFM was heavily underrated

Team tier lists and power rankings were seen everywhere leading up to the Mid-Season Invitational, so too on Hotspawn. LJL champions DetonatioN FocusMe were not expected to do anything of significance in Iceland. Japan had never made it to the next stage at an international event—the region finished last in their group in the latest events. While mid laner Lee “Aria” Ga-eul got a bit of attention, the team was destined to end last in their group still: their support player for the event was Kazuta “Kazu” Suzuki, who had to come out of retirement to join the team.

Instead of rolling over, DFM took destiny in their own hands and gave it a good shake. With astonishing bravery and gal they took the fight to group favorites DWG KIA and Cloud9. Cloud9 was toppled, as you read earlier in this article, and even DWG KIA almost fell to the Japanese champions. Once jungler Mun “Steal” Gun-yeong gets his residency this Summer and Yang “Gaeng” Gwang-woo can join as the actual support player, DetonatioN Focusme will be complete. At the World Championship, this squad will be one of the favorites of the minor regions.

DetonatioN FocusMe.

Image courtesy of Riot Games.

Oceania has more willpower than Riot Games

Pentanet.GG has grown into the protagonist of MSI this year. Riot Games went back on its commitment to help develop smaller regions when it saw that the return of investment was low, and pulled the plug from the Oceanic Pro League. ESL Australia got the rights to create an Oceanic competition: the League of Legends Circuit Oceania. But the real blow to the region came from the second change: all Oceanic players now counted as part of the North American player base. With their players not taking up an import slot anymore, the import-hungry LCS teams scraped the top talent off Oceania away from the region.

It was almost cynical of Riot to invite the LCO champions to the Mid-Season Invitational. Yet, helped a bit by the absence of the VCS, Pentanet.GG stole the viewers’ hearts. RNG was clearly much stronger than the Australians, but Unicorns of Love had exploitable weaknesses. In what was essentially an extended best-of-five between Pentanet.GG and Unicorns of Love, the Australians had more stamina. Riot may have taken the resources out of Oceania and kneecapped the region, but Riot will never be able to take away their willpower.

No team is a clear favorite anymore

The final lesson learned from the MSI Group Stage is that we need to re-assess the aforementioned tier lists. Prior to the event, DWG KIA was the clear favorite to take it all, with RNG as a close second. However, the Group Stage has shown us that it’s still far from certain who will lift the trophy on May 23rd. Reigning World Champions DWG KIA ended their group with a 5-1 score, but had a lot of trouble with DFM and even Infinity Esports made the Koreans sweat. MAD Lions experienced the same, dropping just one game but only narrowly escaping many of their games.

On the flipside, Cloud9 bounced back impressively from a terrible 1-2 start to MSI. Going 3-0 in the second half of the Round Robin stage, taking down DWG KIA in the process, the North Americans look revitalized and are arguably the best-adapted team in Iceland right now. PSG Talon was a team many looked out for already, and largely lived up to expectations: substitute bot laner Chiu “Doggo” Tzu-Chuan has fit in perfectly with the roster.

The biggest question marks arise from Group A. RNG was barely tested in the eight games they played in their group, and one can only wonder how they’d have faired if GAM Esports would’ve been able to attend the event. Neither Pentanet.GG nor Unicorns of Love gave RNG a full workout. The Rumble Stage is full of uncertainty, with upsets looming over the six teams.

The Mid-Season Invitational starts its Rumble Stage on Friday, May 14th, at 3 PM CEST.