The LCK was full of surprises this split, with bottom teams taking more and more games off of those above them. Hanwha Life Esports, T1, and Gen.G all looked promising coming out of the Split. They had their fair share of losses and rough spots (especially T1), but many of the LCK’s analysts thought that at least one of these 2nd-4th seeded teams had a chance of taking Damwon KIA, the Spring Split’s near-uncontested 1st seed.
Then, Damwon KIA absolutely slammed the opposition in both of their best-of-five sets. Two 3-0 victories. Gen.G’s games were close, but no team managed to take a single game off of Damwon for the entirety of playoffs.
Why does DK stand out in one of the world’s most competitive regions, and how have they maintained the same level of dominance they had at the 2020 World Championship?
Simply better than the competition
Damwon KIA have a pretty straightforward strategy when it comes to playing League. At least, on paper. DK almost always drafts a composition that scales well late game with teamfighting in mind. Sometimes BeryL gets to play something weird because Ghost got his hands on Senna, but it’s rare that DK go for hard-to-execute sidelane-heavy team comps. That’s the thing, though. No one out-teamfights Damwon KIA, meaning there’s no reason to pick anything else.
Even in the instances when they’re at a massive gold and experience deficit, DK somehow find pivotal teamfights just before the enemy team’s advantage hits critical mass (e.g., Baron + Elder Dragon, all inhibs down). Damwon know where the point of no return is, and they rarely cross it.
This clip from DK’s finals game against Gen.G encapsulates how strong Damwon’s teamfight presence is. Khan is the centerpiece for this team, and his heavy frontline combined with three long-range damage dealers on their team is just too much.
DK found their target and pressured into the enemy base immediately, no time wasted. If they need to ace, then they’ll ace. But DK always has objectives in mind, knowing full well that the turret and inhib is worth much more than throwing themselves at the enemy team.
Damwon also know how to take a fight from behind, even when the enemy team scales better in the late game. Khan’s Rumble gets picked early in the fight while the rest of DK secure Baron.
Ruler, Gen.G’s bot laner, is one of the hardest carries in the entirety of the LCK. There’s a reason he was targeted in the first clip, and there’s a reason Canyon finding a hit with his Nidalee spear in this late game teamfight was so crucial. ShowMaker’s Renekton shows up big as he wreaks havoc in the enemy backline, and Ghost’s Xayah takes down Gen.G’s frontliners before they have the chance to take her down.
DK is the only team that would take a teamfight like this with a teammate down and a worse late-game team comp, but they created an opening and found a well-earned victory.
Simple, yet complex
Even the strongest teams have weaknesses, although Damwon KIA’s are few and far between. Damwon KIA researched their losses and came up with the perfect way to cover their biggest weakness: Predictable drafts. DK were always strong as teamfighters, but that can make drafts predictable.
For their playoff games, DK weren’t afraid to pick those teamfight comps, but they were entirely free to put frontliners and damage dealers in whatever roles they wanted.
In other words, the surprising thing about DK’s drafts isn’t what they’re picking, it’s where the picks are played. At least, that’s true outside of Khan.
Stating the obvious here, Khan plays a lot of Sion. However, Gnar is arguably a more threatening pick. At least, Korean teams seem to believe that. Gnar’s pick/ban rate in Damwon’s playoff games was 100%. Granted, Damwon only had 6 games, but these games were also the culmination of an entire Split’s worth of research and preparation. If teams had room to ban Sion, they would.
It’s also important to note Khan’s generally low GPM on Sion. Despite being at a farm and lane disadvantage, Khan’s ability to make plays happen on the pick is near unrivaled. When it comes to Damwon’s drafting, putting Khan on a frontliner seems to be the priority. The only game that seemed close out of their set against Gen.G was the one where Khan picked Rumble. Though Khan is the keystone for DK’s draft, the other players are much more flexible.
Outside of Ghost, everyone on Damwon is willing to pick a frontliner. Canyon looks just as good on Udyr and Hecarim as he does Nidalee and Graves. ShowMaker’s a master of control mages, but he can just as easily look good on Renekton. ShowMaker didn’t play a single Renekton game this split right up until their final game against Gen.G, but his performance was so stellar that it’d be hard to have guessed. BeryL has played 15 different supports this split a number that’s high even for roles that have a bit more flexibility. Ghost’s strength on Senna enables BeryL to have pocket picks like Cho’Gath and Heimerdinger.
No matter what you ban against Damwon KIA, they’ll always be able to put together a good draft. They don’t care much about lane counters; rather, they focus on putting together a solid draft for themselves. DK’s mindset wouldn’t work if they didn’t have such a strong team synergy.
Unfortunately for any team against them in MSI, though, DK’s stalwart approach is a tough one to dissect. Conceptually simple, yet very complex to counter.
The Road Ahead
Many regions still need to play out their finals in order to fill out the MSI bracket, but Damwon KIA’s group is set in stone. Group C consists of Damwon, Infinity Esports (LLA/Latin America), DetonatioN FocusMe (LJL/Japan), and Cloud9. This means C9 will have one of the first opportunities to face Damwon KIA on the international stage. These are best-of-ones, but this group will likely show how far ahead Korea is in comparison to other regions.
In other words, keep an eye out for Damwon KIA in MSI’s knockout stage. Anyone who doesn’t keep up with the LCK will surely know Damwon KIA look just as good as they did when they took the world championship by storm, if not better.