Ever since their entry into the European League Championship Series in 2015, the Unicorns of Love (UoL) have been an eternal underdog team. From their explosive performance at the 2014 Intel Extreme Masters tournament versus North American darlings Team SoloMid, to their crazy playoff run in their inaugural split, and their second finals appearance two years later versus G2 Esports, UoL have always had the odds stacked against them. Without the resources or infrastructure of the bigger teams, UoL nonetheless managed to win the hearts of countless European fans by proving that they had what it took to survive alongside the teams at the top. More importantly, they knew how to do it in style. This is why many fans are in a strange position: for the first time ever, UoL doesn’t have a single member of their original core roster.
Yet, in true scrappy Unicorns of Love fashion, after an abysmal record of a single win and eight losses which left them firmly at the bottom of the league, and with fans bemoaning the loss of Europe’s underdog darling, the comeback has begun. Over the last three weeks, UoL has managed to pull together for a crazy five game winstreak, leaving them tied with two other teams in sixth place: the lowest position at which a team can advance to the playoffs. Unfortunately for Unicorns fans, their struggles are far from over, as the final two weeks of the split will see UoL running a brutal gauntlet of four of the top five teams: Fnatic, G2, Vitality, and Misfits. To see if they can make it, lets have a look at how they earned their two victories this weekend, versus H2K and FC Schalke 04.
UoL V H2K – A new side to the Unicorns
Their previous game against a far weaker version of H2K was UoL’s only victory in the first half of the split, and they did not start the rematch strong, displaying lane deficits, desperate engages, and giving up an embarrassing first blood to a roam from H2K’s support while Unicorns of Love jungler Jonas “Kold” Anderson attempted to clear a ward. What salvaged them, however, was surprisingly astute shot-calling and macro play. A solid botlane gank from UoL towards the end of the early-game managed to deprive H2K of their toplaner’s teleport, and they utilised this advantage just a few minutes later. Using a well-placed deep ward and a fast collapse they turned a pick of their jungler into a counter-attack that let them snatch back two kills and seriously pressure for the first tower of the game.
Their real break came a few minutes later. Following the baron spawn, UoL made a concerted push for vision in H2K’s nearby jungle, using it to get a surprise pick onto H2K’s jungler. This allowed UoL to utilise their high-dps champions in Azir and Tristana to pivot and take an ineffectually contested baron at 22 minutes into the game. A baron which, in conjunction with the recently buffed item Banner of Command, UoL was able to use to take out H2K’s midlane inhibitor less than 2 minutes later, before H2K had lost a single sidelane tower.
From this point, UoL took firm control of the game. H2K was consistently unable to stop UoL’s pushes, often being too busy scrambling to answer sidelane pressure. When they did try to mount a straightforward defense, UoL’s usage of buffed minions allowed them to grind down towers while avoiding a fight. Though H2K would later in the game fight back with some well-coordinated engages, they were never able to entirely flip the game as at almost every point, UoL had cleverly set up side lanes to exert pressure that H2K had to answer. After having applied constant pressure for the majority of the game, UoL eventually managed to force an advantageous fight and snatch the win.
What was interesting about UoL’s play is that after the initial baron, it felt like UoL should’ve been capable of winning teamfights at most points in the game, due to their scaling champions, strong peel and engage tools. Yet for most of the game, every straight up fight for H2K that did not start with an overstep seemed to go in their favour. UoL therefore did everything they could to avoid fights, or to make H2K’s teamfight wins too costly to do anything with, using macro to cover for their perceived inability to teamfight. At almost every juncture, UoL chose to disengage and rely on the map pressure that they were so effectively building up advantages with. What we saw was a UoL that seemed to understand their weaknesses and play very effectively around them; a quality that’s encouraging in a team coming out of such a poor early season.
The word that best describes their play this game would be ‘decisive’. The Unicorns of Love were not, in many senses, playing to the calibre of a top team, but they were playing with the confident shotcalling of one. After a passive early game, they always seemed to know what they wanted, and weren’t afraid to be opportunistic in getting it, using chance picks enabled by their strong vision game to pivot onto objectives like baron or vulnerable towers. Once they began, they were able to smartly use objectives and pressure to dictate the pace of the game and take the win. Most importantly of all, they proved that they had the ability to play a macro game, a skill which will undoubtedly be useful against teams good enough to not take poor early fights.
UoL v S04 – Return of the Unicorns of Old
After their previous game, one could reasonably expect to see UoL attempting to expand on their macro strategy, potentially while attempting to shore up their passive early game and teamfighting weaknesses. What one certainly couldn’t have expected, unless they’re a true unicorns fan through and through, was UoL entirely abandoning all attempts at map pressure and carefully established vision and getting down and dirty with FC Schalke 04, good old Unicorns-style.
Though UoL once again lost or tied their lanes in the early game, they did show a more proactive side. Kold abandoned his previous strategy of getting caught in the river in favour of some strong gank attempts, and helped UoL secure both first and second blood. However, unlike their previous game, where they were able to constantly prevent H2K from taking any valuable objectives, these ganks came at a cost. With Unicorns of Love midlaner Fabian “Exileh” Schubert roaming up to assist in a gank that was over by the time he arrived, this allowed Schalke to snatch an early uncontested infernal drake.
Despite many early attempts to make plays and earn kills, only some of which were successful, none of this proved enough to establish an early lead. While UoL picked up some clean kills, Schalke was able to ultimately establish an early game advantage. They did this with picks of their own, effective responses to failed ganks, eyes on objectives and winning or even lanes all contributing to Schalke sitting on a small gold lead and two infernal drakes at 18 minutes into the game.
This wasn’t enough to deter UoL though, who took advantage of Schalke’s long early-game ultimate cooldowns after losing a fight to force another one almost immediately. By combining a forceful teleport-aided engage, smart positioning, and a well-timed flank on a split team from Exileh’s Veigar to rout Schalke. Of course, just as for the original Unicorns, just because a fight is over doesn’t mean the fight is over. UoL determinedly dived deep into enemy territory with the power of Eun “Totoro” Jong-seop’s Tahm Kench, securing more kills, staggering Schalke’s respawn timers and pushing towers hard.
In the old Unicorns of Love days, the word that defined their playstyle was ‘momentum’, and it was hard not to feel like the spirits of the old Unicorns were guiding the newer squad. This one teamfight win quickly turned into a first tower, which then turned into two more towers, which then turned into a masterfully executed teamfight outside the baron pit, which itself turned into an uncontested baron. By the end of this all, UoL had in the space of 3 minutes turned a small gold deficit and the terrifying prospect of facing a scaling team with two infernal dragons into a 5000 gold lead and utter control of the pace of the game. Just as in their win versus H2K, the baron proved to be the point at which UoL took control and refused to let it go.
However, in every other way, UoL’s performance here was wildly different from their previous game. Where vision and map play were used to outmanoeuvre H2K, brute force and scrappy skirmishes were used versus Schalke. While UoL had previously played scared and favoured disengages, here used the full force of their gold lead to be constantly in Schalke’s face. The game ended shortly after UoL used their map dominance to take a second baron, following with a determined push bot simply never ending, breaking through the base and smashing Schalke’s feeble attempts to defend. The UoL of this game was a familiar one, a squad unafraid to fight and reluctant to ever stop. It was a UoL who embraced the style that has taken them so far in the past.
What’s the take-away?
What makes these games so interesting is how UoL won both in such different ways. With some teams, this could be taken as a promising sign of versatility, yet UoL used each game to show strength in exactly the area they showed weakness in. With one game being all about the macro at the cost of an ability to effectively teamfight, and with the other showing a UoL who could confidently fight, but had to use brute force to crack the base.
What promising similarities there were between the two games could be seen in their decisive and opportunistic shotcalls. In both games, UoL saw a chance and went for it without hesitation, using these critical windows to blow the games wide open. It’s also likely no coincidence that these windows both occurred near baron around the 20-minute mark. This, alongside the Unicorns of Love’s confident usage of Banner of Command in their first game, suggests that they had a good read of the meta coming into 8.4. UoL may have already played their hand for the 8.4 patch, however. As good as they may have looked, it’s hard to imagine next week’s opponents in teams Vitality and Fnatic willingly engaging in risky teamfights near baron, and they’re less likely than lower-tier teams like H2K or Schalke to slip up and provide those crucial openings.
The Unicorns of Love have earned themselves a real chance to make a claim to that last playoff spot. Their chief competitors in Giants and Roccat also have difficult schedules ahead of them, each playing three of their four final games against heavily favoured teams. In this chaos, they most certainly have hope: five-game winstreaks from previously bottom-tier teams tend not to happen by freak chance. They’ve begun to come together as a cohesive team, with players like Totoro and especially Exileh rising to the challenge. Nobody can say which version of the pink power ponies will show up in the next two weeks, but the finish line is in sight. It’s up to them to gallop over it. All we can do is hold our breath.
Featured image courtesy of LoL Esports.