SK Telecom T1 and Misfits meeting in the League of Legends World Championship quarterfinals was already foregone conclusion by the time Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan and Nubar "Maxlore" Sarafian stepped forward and shook hands on the Wuhan Indoor Gymnasium stage. When impeccably-dressed OMG mid laner Xie "icon" Tian-yu pulled Misfits' name from the Pool 2 fishbowl every other Pool 2 team had already been drawn. Misfits' only road led to SKT. SKT's only road to another Summoner's Cup ran through Misfits.
In one corner, the defending World Champion, a pre-tournament favorite to win it all, with three Worlds titles, two Mid-Season Invitational titles and six Korean titles to its name.
In the other, a team that just qualified for the European League of Legends Championship Series this year with no major titles, a pre-tournament favorite to be eliminated in the group stage.
Misfits didn't follow the plan. After losing their first group stage game against Team WE, Misfits instead did what countless teams fail to do year after year at Worlds: they adapted.
"Our first game against WE showed us how inactive we were being. We believed that we won draft, and so we waited and expected to win, which is a terrible mindset to approach a Worlds-level team with," Misfits coach Hussain Moosvi said. "It was passivity brought on by the stage we were at. We immediately switched gears after and started playing like our usual proactive selves.
"The improvement in Week 2 in that sense was not as sudden as it may have looked. We were proactive in every game except for WE Week 1, and our Week 2 drafts were more early-game-oriented, so that aggressiveness was more obvious."
The 2017 World Championship is riddled with teams that have overly-relied on scaling into the late game and waiting for their opponents to make mistakes, despite it resulting in losses. For some, like Misfits' Group D adversary Team SoloMid, those losses meant missing a spot in the quarterfinals. Others, like SKT, escaped with strong late-game macro play despite early deficits.
This will be the greatest challenge for Misfits in taking on the telecom giant: finding some way to maneuver around SKT's near-perfect mid-to-late game map movements and impressive teamfighting. This begins with the legendary mid laner Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, but not by giving mid a lot of jungle attention or pressure. In fact, if Misfits decide to focus on killing Faker in the mid lane, the game could already be lost.
SKT has struggled mightily to find any semblance of synergy between top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon and jungler Han "Peanut" Wang-ho. Bae "Bang" Jun-sik and Lee "Wolf" Jae-wan also haven't been performing at the level expected of the SKT bottom lane, although the current Ardent Censer meta has been beneficial to Wolf specifically.
If Misfits attack SKT's side lanes early, especially on the top side of the map where Barney "Alphari" Morris will take on Huni, the European squad will likely have an easier time accruing early leads. This also ties into Misfits mid laner Tristan "PowerOfEvil" Schrage's preferred playstyle well.
"My playstyle is different to most mid laners," PowerOfEvil said. "I prefer to get my teammates ahead instead of myself, but I feel that fits our playstyle pretty good. I am someone who is happy to make that sacrifice of giving up one wave for a kill on my ADC. Especially in this current meta, sometimes one kill can snowball into multiple turrets. I am certain that this is going to help us against SKT since it makes me pretty unpredictable and hard to read. It's hard to predict if a LeBlanc is just waiting in fog or actually moving or even just basing to get tempo."
Misfits will have to find a way to exploit SKT's side lanes through PowerOfEvil and Maxlore while somehow maintaining mid lane pressure, something that grows exponentially more difficult against the defending World Champions the later the game time. The EU LCS Summer runner-up has learned a lot since its 3-0 loss to G2 Esports in the finals but will have to grow at an even quicker rate in order to take down SKT.
Unlike TSM, SKT will not abandon side lane pressure so Misfits can easily prepare for Baron. Unlike the Flash Wolves, SKT will not fritter any early advantages away. SKT's side lane attention improves with time, and it knows exactly how to control the map with side lanes while setting up for mid-to-late-game dragons and Barons.
"Our strengths match up well against SKT, and our weaknesses match up well for them," Moosvi said. "Friday will come down to execution."
Moosvi admitted that he was excited when he saw his team would take on the defending world champions because of how different the two teams are in playing style. As the rest of the world immediately counted SKT the default winner, partially based on the organization's pedigree, Moosvi saw an opportunity for his team to grow en route to a possible championship.
This attitude has permeated every Misfits interview onstage or off. This team is not in China to just to learn or improve; it's there to defy expectations and win it all.
In order to knock out the reigning champion, Misfits will have to play at and beyond a level that the team has only shown previously in inconsistent, short bursts. By contrast, the members of SKT are acutely aware of their team's weaknesses and have already shown signs of shoring up their early game through smarter drafting. This hardly negates the team's top side issues, but SKT's mid-to-late-game macro should be able to close this series out, unless Misfits show significant improvement from its group stage performances.
On paper, like the bracket matchup itself, this series seems like a foregone conclusion, but in practice, Misfits will likely give SKT more of a fight than the current holders of the Summoner's Cup expect.
"History sets up the storyline, but analysis should be based on current events," he said. "SKT looks really strong, but they've shown more weaknesses this Worlds than ever before.
"We've had our eyes set on the Bird's Nest from the start."