What’s a Duke to a King – How SKT’s Toplane Approach Makes Them The Best

With SKT’s recent struggles in the League Champions Korea and the loss to Longzhu in the playoffs, it’s important to take a closer look at the World Championship winning team. The defeat against Longzhu Gaming wasn’t a total surprise, but the manner in which Faker & company lost was astonishing. For the first time in two years, SK Telecom T1 did not seem to be able to match their opponents and were completely outplayed both in the drafts and on the Rift. One of the most important factors of the defeat was the inability to control Khan in the top lane, which brings up the matter of the SKT Toplane situation. Let’s take a quick journey through the squad’s top lane history in the recent years, as the players in that position were changed most often and their styles were completely different.  

MaRin and the Tyranny Era

Our story begins in 2015, just after sister teams got forbidden and every organization was allowed to have 1 squad only. MaRin secured his spot on the SK Telecom T1 roster, despite a rocky 2014 season. Unlike Faker, the toplaner wasn’t a shining diamond in his debut split. After a year of competing in the best league in the world, MaRin’s ability to control his lane got better and he started becoming a big factor for his team. His mechanical skill was on a really high level, and the toplaner himself was known for his laning phase, which was almost unchallenged by any other player. MaRin was the key to the SK Telecom T1 lock – the team grew around him, with the toplaner becoming a leader and a massive voice within the roster’s structure.

MaRin was a two edged sword for SKT. Photo courtesy of lolesports

Unfortunately, MaRin’s playstyle had its flaws – the player required much attention from Bengi. He would always try to push his opponent and use that to create advantages for himself, which usually meant that he’d overextend a lot and be vulnerable to ganks. At first, that was much of a problem, one that the team could not easily solve. At that point, Bengi was Faker’s “right hand”, always hovering around the midlane, creating own and denying enemy vision to complement Faker’s aggressive, unforgiving style. Extorting as much pressure in the toplane, as in the middle part of the map was nearly impossible. SK Telecom T1 made it work though. As stated before, MaRin became the main voice within the team, ordering Bengi around, making him build vision and cover for him, while the toplaner abused his opponent, getting a massive lead. That forced Faker to play more defensively, or, in other cases, Easyhoon was subbed in. The “god of midlane” adapted well, and despite getting a low amount of resources, still managed to have high impact and be one of the main carries for the team.

Despite relatively small champion pool and being a very selfish player – a tyrant even – MaRin knew how to make his style work well. After getting huge leads, he’d keep his opponent occupied to make plays around the map. His notable strength was TP usage. MaRin had a sixth sense for good Teleportations, which would usually create insane advantages elsewhere on the map. While laning phase and dueling with the opponent was MaRin’s biggest asset, the ability to orchestrate a play was the most important for the overall result. It was always his TPs and flanks that turned the games around, allowing SKT for such dominance in 2015.

Duke of All Trades

Another chapter in the SKT top lane history is Duke, formerly of NaJin and kt Rolster Bullets. After MaRin’s departure from the roster, there was a big gap waiting to be filled. Being named Worlds 2015 MVP, MaRin had set the bar as high as possible. Duke seemed like the only player able to fit the gigantic pair of shoes left by his predecessor. During SKT’s impressive sweep through Champions Spring and LCK Summer 2015, Duke was stuck on NaJin, where he’d match and beat almost any other toplaner, despite his team not doing as hot. In the end, he received the LCK MVP award for his insane laning phase and mechanical prowess. Duke was on par with the likes of MaRin, Smeb or Ssumday and was able to make plays for his team, being the driving force for NaJin.

After Duke joined SK Telecom T1, it turned out that the formation’s play was not as good as expected. With Blank becoming a primary jungler, the squad needed to reorganize its approach. Despite being a monstrous threat in the top lane, Duke was relegated to playing tanks mostly with Poppy and Maokai on the top of his champion pool. That allowed for Blank to be more of a carry, and opposite to Bengi – Blank did not accept the fate of a “warding bot”. The team struggled, as it couldn’t find the right identity. Duke’s strong laning phase was often not utilized well, and the rest of the team was not able to make an impact. That was partially due to Duke’s lack of proper Teleport usage. The toplaner was able to TP decently, but sometimes he wouldn’t communicate with his team, which often resulted in lost teamfights. That was a worrying trend, which meant that SKT would not dominate the league at all, conceding the first place to the ROX Tigers.

After some time, the team’s cohesion became much better and the formation adapted to Duke and Blank. Teleport plays were still an issue, but the toplaner himself admitted, that he started paying more attention to the map. TPs were not crucial anymore though, as SKT managed to create a new style for themselves, with Duke becoming a split push threat, rather than a playmaker. Opposite to MaRin, Duke had a very good sense of wave management and vision and would very rarely die in a side lane. The toplaner had the highest cs difference at 10 minutes, meaning that he almost always had a big lead coming into the mid game. In the end of 2016, Duke was definitely one the best toplaners in the world with Smeb and Ssumday being the other contenders. The SKT player was not as committed to splitpush as his kt Rolster counterpart nor as versatile as the ROX Tigers toplaner, but he was more often than not, the most impactful of the three.

Duke is probably the most underrated SKT toplaner of all time, being a key factor to the team’s success in 2016. His laning prowess, ability to split push and create a massive pressure point, while having a very good teamfight presence and decent teleports, meant that SKT always had the advantage in the Duke parts of the map.

Duke was probably the best SKT toplaner of all time. Photo courtesy of KeSPA
The Huni and Untara Era of Duality

After 2016 there was a massive question mark over SKT’s roster. Duke and Bengi left, leaving a hole in the toplane with Blank who underperformed during the World Championship. Once again, SK Telecom T1 needed to find a new identity by acquiring another toplaner. Soon after, it was announced that the two players joining SKT would be Peanut and Huni. Both roster moves were very hyped, but there were many questions around them. While the jungler was thought to be one of the best in the world, many questioned his ability to fit in the SKT system. There were even more doubts about Huni. People did not think he could play tanks nor compete at the highest level that is LCK.

It quickly became apparent, that many of those doubts were unjustified, as the roster started well right from the start. Huni was able to perform on tanks and he even made a name for himself for many good showings. Peanut had to reduce his aggression, but would still be pretty impactful, often affecting the toplane. This made Huni’s life even easier as his laning phase was decent and amplified by the jungler, it became a massive advantage. That state of freedom lasted for some time, as SKT dominated the Spring Split.

During the break between Spring and Summer Split, SK Telecom T1 let Profit go and acquired Untara – an ex-CJ Entus, high ELO player. There weren’t any burning problems with Huni at that time – the toplaner laned well, his mechanical prowess was very high, making him a strong player. His teleport plays were decent and so was the teamfight presence. Issues started after the meta changed and was not in favor of SKT anymore. Huni did not perform on carries as well as tanks – he made small mistakes that would be punished by his enemies, and Peanut was unable to provide as much help as before. The jungler was struggling to adapt to the passive play of SKT and could not find the beat in the “new” meta.

At the same time, Bang and Wolf started having problems with their laning phase, often not being able to extort pressure, and even losing 2v2 duels. That caused SKT to concede pressure in 2 or even 3 lanes, which became a massive problem. The team couldn’t find an answer causing Untara and Blank to start appearing on the Rift more often. While Blank had many colossal performances and a high win rate, Huni and Untara both seemed uncomfortable. None of the toplaners had a distinctive style. Huni started playing more carries in the summer, but both players had Rumble as their most played champion. Untara would usually be a safer choice, but he never shone. Huni had massive performances, but he also made more mistakes, sometimes costing his team a game even.

Huni and Peanut were crucial to SKT’s 2017 spring split success. Photo courtesy of Invenglobal.com
SK Telecom T1 and the Ability to Adapt

The tough situation of SK Telecom T1 remains unsolved. The team has qualified for Worlds, but the latest performances haven’t been impressive. Many flaws were seen in Huni’s and Untara’s play. The latter couldn’t handle the much more skilled Khan, and the former didn’t seem to be able to control his lane well enough.

All of this may not matter because what SKT have going for them is their coaching staff and experience. Throughout the years, the team managed to adapt to many different styles and too many different toplaners. Not only that – SK Telecom T1 utilized every single toplaner’s skill set to the maximum. Both MaRin and Duke, despite being much unalike, were forged into powerful weapons, that SKT and kkOma used to perfection. The most important thing to notice here is that MaRin and Duke’s styles were completely different, but the team managed to learn how to play around their strengths. It is not only about the rest of the squad and its ability to adapt though – both toplaners were fitted into the SKT system. With MaRin it was all about playing around him, by constantly putting pressure around him, forcing Bengi to cover for him and making him a primary playmaker. In Duke’s case, it was more about the way the team gave him the freedom to split push and impact the map by extorting pressure and not by grouping with the rest of the squad. That is a completely different approach than with MaRin. In a way, both toplaners were played around – in the case of MaRin it was by giving him all the attention, and in the case of Duke, by giving him space and almost ignoring him.

With much time for preparation and to figure everything out, it is not unlikely that the SK Telecom T1 machine will be ready for Worlds 2017. Faker and company always managed to bounce back and it is very likely that this time won’t be much different. The biggest difficulty will probably be finally choosing and creating a solid roster between Huni, Untara, Peanut, and Blank, all of which have shared quite a bit of stage time. There are many strategical advantages of using this player or another, but making them all mesh with the rest of the squad, and creating a cohesive Worlds winning machine seems like a thing that only SK Telecom T1 would pull off.

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Tomasz Milaniuk

Tomasz Milaniuk is a Polish writer who has been spending his last years writing about the Korean and European esports scene. His ability to analyze games and the abilities of individual players have made him a valuable resource within the League of Legends and CSGO communities respectively.

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