Early NA LCS power rankings projected Cloud9, Team SoloMid, Team Liquid, and potentially Counter Logic Gaming as favorites to war over top spots. The season so far certainly hasn’t shaken out as planned for the league’s most classic and respected organizations, and under the radar, Echo Fox and Clutch Gaming finished Week Five — just over the halfway mark — in the Top Four.
While Echo Fox’s aggression is well documented, as this team crushed its start to the season, more questions linger around Clutch Gaming’s recent rise. Clutch spent Week Four locking onto enemy mistakes with late game scaling compositions, but they opened Week Five first-picking a fast-clear jungle champion and selecting in one of the most oppressive early game duo lanes in Xayah and Rakan.
Clutch’s new Week Five “clutch factors” comes from a draft that allows them to tunnel on a laning centric mid matchup with strong sides to collapse on the jungle. They carried it out by transferring bot lane advantages mid and using smart resets on tempo to look–finally–like North American contenders.
Skarner became the king of Clutch’s new system, as he has one of the fastest jungle clears in the game. This pick finally brought back a taste of 2017’s Nam “LirA” Taeyoo, with Clutch invading opponent blue buffs on spawn. To ensure Skarner would get proper backup without counter, Clutch went back to banning out mids first rotation (something that gave them success the previous week as well).
In both blue side games against FlyQuest and Team SoloMid, Clutch banned high roaming, play-making, and side-laning mids: Ryze, Galio, and Taliyah. While it initially came off as target bans against FlyQuest’s Song “Fly” Yongjun preferred style of high roaming mid play, banning these side lane picks allowed jungle and bot lane to play more aggressively in general without fear of retaliation from mid lane. Not only do Ryze, Taliyah, and Galio have global abilities that allow them to engage on a side lane quickly, but they also have fast clearing abilities which guarantee them priority. From blue side, these champions are difficult to counter, even with safe bottom lane picks like Braum.
Banning these mids opened the opportunity to play Varus or Xayah and Rakan aggressively and go for buff invades with LirA even when FlyQuest opted to last pick its support. It also left mid matchups to more laning focused choices, something Fabian “Febiven” Diepstraten has historically preferred. Additionally, it raises the likelihood of blue side mid lane getting the counterpick, as with mids limited in the initial phase, the enemy mid laner may feel pressured to pick his champion in first rotation.
Clutch can get priority mid and bot in this manner, opening invades on strong side without fear of global retaliation. It made Skarner comfortable enough to use his fast clear and starve out Clutch’s North American opponents.
Skarner’s extremely fast clear in the jungle allows him to often back before his opponent jungler, buy his Tracker’s Knife, and get wards on the enemy’s side of the map first. That sets up effective invades and protects the other side of his map from retaliation. Without at least two strong lanes and invade opportunities, Skarner falls off.
Earlier in the split, Clutch often seemed to lack communication on invades. Wards weren’t well setup, and the enemy team would force LirA out or get an easy kill if he over-extended without his side lanes having priority. Against FlyQuest, this still happened at least once.
LirA and the rest of Clutch chose to invade when bottom lane and mid waves were resetting, which allowed FlyQuest to react quickly and disaster to strike. Clutch are still working out the kinks, but they had already improved the formula when they faced TSM the next day. Mike “MikeYeung” Yeung’s blue buff invade was countered by Clutch’s bottom lane securing blue for Febiven.
In both games, Clutch then transferred bottom pressure to mid easily, opening the map in such a way that picks became plentiful as long as they layered control wards deeply in the enemy jungle. In their drafts, Clutch also ensured they had longer range forms of engage for Skarner to follow up: Varus’ ultimate, Rakan’s all-in, Zoe’s sleep, Ornn’s Charge, and Camille’s Ultimatum. Nearly every champion Clutch drafted had a tool to open the way for Skarner to run in and pull out a target.
That also made their composition very well-suited to baiting Baron facechecks. If Clutch got tempo advantages, they could clear out Baron vision and force the enemy team to facecheck. That’s when Skarner really shines, as with a lead, a low amount of purchased Quicksilver Sashes converts any pick into a Baron.
The Clutch formula was fairly simple, but it was executed well. Clutch saved bot lane picks for last, baited opponents into providing a counterpick mid, and made sure that Skarner wasn’t the only source of engage in their compositions. They had smart backs and didn’t overextend with a lead. Skarner cleared faster than Sejuani, and as long as Clutch could close efficiently, it was a strong formula for the opening week of Patch 8.3.
But does this have sticking power? Considering Febiven’s tendency toward laning carries in the past, the heavy mid lane banning feels partly like a crutch. Clutch aren’t the only ones to do it, and it backfired slightly when Cloud9 felt happy to save its mid lane pick until late phase. Of course, Cassiopeia didn’t function well against poke and disengage, but if Clutch are willing to exhaust the mid pool with bans, they can still limit Febiven’s control and LirA’s ability to invade if enemy teams want to play chicken.
Despite having red side, Team SoloMid also didn’t use the ability to counterpick support. Xayah and Rakan have very few difficult matchups, but even taking a hit in late game team fights to ensure LirA’s tendency to invade can be punished may have worked out for them.
It’s also unclear whether Clutch will continue to have as much success with this kind of strategy without Skarner. With more careful decision-making and banning the Galio pick that ended up punishing Clutch in Week Four, Clutch do look improved and more capable of transferring leads. But small and simple execution mistakes like Colin “Solo” Earnest’s near 1v1 death against Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell continue to plague them. They have also benefited from failed top lane flanks on the part of FlyQuest and Team SoloMid’s absent-minded lane assignments in sending four top to defend a siege that never happened, thereby leaving mid open for Rift Herald.
It’s good to be skeptical, especially considering the head-scratching turnarounds from Week Four. But even so, Clutch snuck into third when no one was looking. Even with only a Skarner centric bottom-to-mid strategy on the table, they’re a team begging to be noticed.
You can follow Kelsey Moser on Twitter @karonmoser