International tournaments not only give teams the power to pit their play styles against one another and observe how they clash, but also develop their own ecosystem over the course of a few days. As teams at the Mid-Season Invitational progressed through Groups into bracketed best of 5s, a smaller international meta was born.
At the heart of that mini meta was Azir.
While the mid lane was perceived, prior to the tournament, to be dominated by the likes of Cho’gath, Ziggs, and Urgot, teams at MSI favored LeBlanc, Cassiopeia, and the occasional Azir, despite him falling out of favor in North America and Europe going into MSI. In the NA LCS Playoffs, Azir was limited to the Semifinals between Cloud9 and Team Liquid. He was completely absent, neither picked nor banned, across the entirety of the European Playoffs.
In contrast, China, Korea, and Taiwan never abandoned The Emperor of the Sands. Azir was heavily contested in the LMS Finals between the yoe Flash Wolves and ahq, earning a 100% pick/ban rate. He had the same popularity in Korea during SKTelecom’s gauntlet sets against CJ Entus and the GE Tigers. A favorite of Invictus Gaming’s Song “RooKie” Eui-jin and Snake Esports’ Lu “BAKA” Fan, Azir was also picked and banned frequently throughout China’s Spring 2015 LoL Pro League playoffs.
As a standalone champion, Azir seems to have everything: long-range wave clear with his ability to attack from afar with his soldiers, incredible zoning potential, and superior late-game scaling that keeps him relevant in the case of a poor laning phase. When combined with Nunu -- a rising jungle pick on post-Cinderhulk patches -- Azir is even stronger due to the buff from the Yeti's Blood Boil. With the huge amount of damage his soldiers do in the late game, more auto-attacks means a massive spike in deadly output.
Azir’s undoing is assassins, which teams in China, Korea, and Taiwan have learned to leverage in their favor during picks and bans by specifically banning the likes of Zed and LeBlanc. At MSI, Azir was never picked in a team’s first rotation, and was often saved for a last pick by the red side team, ensuring that an assassin was not picked to counter him.
EDWARD GAMING’S PAWN
Of the many champions that Heo “PawN” Won-Seok played in 2015 LPL Spring, Azir is notable only for a 50% win rate, tied with Nidalee for his lowest of any champion all split. PawN played so many champions – a total of 18 in the regular LPL season – that Azir is tied for his fourth most-played champion with a mere four games total. His modest 3.27 KDA on Azir doesn’t stand out, especially when considering his 33.5 KDA on five Lulu games.
When examining PawN’s larger body of work, Azir doesn’t pose a specific threat. PawN played him in one MSI Group Stage match, where he ended 8/3/9 in a rout against Team SoloMid. This may have provided enough reason for Taiwan’s ahq e-Sports Club to ban Azir first in all three of their Semifinals against EDG, but the ban stands out when considering PawN’s overall MSI performance.
PawN later played Azir twice against SKTelecom in the MSI Finals. In his first Finals outing with the Emperor of the Sands, he crushed Lee “Easyhoon” Ji-Hoon’s Lulu.
While Azir may not be one of PawN’s more publicized champions, the champion's more complex mechanics and zoning give PawN more opportunities to make the flashy plays that he loves. Beginning with Morellonomicon for both mana regeneration and cooldown reduction, PawN chose to build Rabadon’s Deathcap as his second core item for more damage, already well ahead of his lane opponent, Easyhoon.
Here, PawN shows off both Azir’s zone control and playmaking ability by using his Flash followed by Emperor’s Divide (R) to zone Easyhoon’s Lulu to her death.
PawN was not as fortunate in EDG's next game. SKTelecom substituted Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok in the mid lane, and he went on to play Kassadin into EDG’s Azir pick. Faker ended the game 6/0/12, mirroring PawN’s flawless KDA from the previous match. As Kassadin is an assassin-style mid with multiple ways of jumping on Azir -- in addition to PawN’s oft-reckless decision making -- PawN was unable to maximize Azir’s potential, even with the Nunu attack speed buff from ClearLove.
THE TALE OF TWO MIDS
One of the narratives surrounding SKTelecom at the Mid-Season Invitational was the team’s specific use of their two mid laners: the aforementioned Easyhoon, and Faker. Coach Kim “KkOma” Jeong-gyun was lauded for pioneering a winning method of implementing different players to stay one strategic step ahead of opponents.
Easyhoon locked in Azir against GE Tigers in their second LCK Finals game, ending with a 6.0 KDA and no deaths. Riding the momentum of their 3-0 Finals sweep of the Tigers, Easyhoon’s Azir was feared going into the MSI tournament.
However, as demonstrated at MSI, Faker’s Azir is just as good, if not better, than Easyhoon’s. SKTelecom had relied on swapping their mid laners to gain a tactical advantage in picks and bans throughout the tournament, but this strategy somewhat falls apart when opponents realize that your two mids have a more similar champion pool than they had thought initially. For SKTelecom, Azir serves as a primary example of how similar Easyhoon and Faker are when it comes to overlapping champions, with the latter owning a far deeper overall pool.
As teams return to their regions, they take with them lessons learned from the miniature meta at the Mid-Season Invitational. This includes both SKTelecom and Edward Gaming’s respective uses of Azir, especially when examining how to leverage his presence, or absence, in champion select.
Once the Summer Split begins, we’ll see if Azir takes a more dominant role on the Rift. Until then, make sure you catch up on all the play that happened at the Mid-Season Invitational over at the Lolesports spoiler-free VODs page.