It was a rumor that began in Chinese solo-queue, according to most. A gold-funneling strategy that put support champion Taric in the mid lane to facilitate Master Yi in the jungle. After a few more patch changes, including a large midseason update, rumors and whispers gave way to solo-queue, scrims and finally the North American League of Legends Championship Series stage.
Much to the delight of casters Aidan "Zirene" Moon and Clayton "CaptainFlowers" Raines, observers followed Echo Fox AD carry Johnny "Altec" Ru's Mundo sprint toward the top lane while top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon's signature Yasuo headed into the bottom lane, supported by Adrian "Adrian" Ma on Shen. Despite the unconventional swap, Echo Fox won that game and won its next match against Clutch Gaming by swapping Huni to the jungle and designing a composition around jungler Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett's Rengar.
"Even though I never played against Ornn in scrims, I was really confident on Mundo," Altec said. "I think I played really well in that game. Our team as a whole is really flexible. Not everyone is locked into one position. Even though I play AD, I can still play top lane or support champions."
Of all the five major regions, the NA LCS began following this trend second-to-last, with Taiwan's LoL Master Series picking it up later. While China, South Korea and Europe started testing the new metagame, NA still leaned toward the familiar: AD carry champions in the bottom lane and more standard compositions, especially after non-standard bottom lane picks had a somewhat rough time.
Only Echo Fox has consistently defied the region's willingness to return to the status quo, swapping players when necessary based on champion pool over role as the team saw fit. Echo Fox joins China's Snake Esports and a few other teams willing to play in a completely different way by focusing around players rather than set roles.
"It was something we were really hesitant to do at first," Echo Fox head coach Nick "Inero" Smith admitted. "We were like, 'Ah, this has to be awful.' So we just tried ways to beat it and figured out ways to do it well. We did this with multiple players at first."
Altec also said that he wasn't initially sold on strategies like gold funneling when 8.11 first came out -- the most important thing for him and Echo Fox in practicing different compositions was that each player was comfortable with their champion choices. When Echo Fox wanted to gold funnel around a marksman, the team made Altec the focal point. When Echo Fox wanted to play around Huni's Yasuo, the team sent Altec to the top lane on Mundo. When Echo Fox wanted to funnel resources into Dardoch's Rengar, the team sent him top lane and had Huni play jungle Taliyah while Altec played a more standard, pushing bottom lane champion in Lucian.
"It's not even that I'm not doing well but that I can't play the champion to its maximum strength, where a player like Huni can because he's played Yasuo for like five years," Altec said. "We had discussions about role-swapping and stuff. It's not even really role-swapping; it's just putting the players on their best champions and putting others on a stable champion where they're not going to lose."
"This kind of snowballed into everyone saying, 'I'm better at this champ, I think I should play that,'" Inero said. "And we didn't pay as much attention to role, rather than, 'You play this champ, spend the next 20 games learning it to a good enough level and hope for the best.'"
Three weeks into the 2018 NA LCS Summer split and with Rift Rivals looming, Echo Fox is still one of the only NA teams that has continued to experiment with a variety of players in different positions depending on what compositions the team wants to run. Altec said, although playstyles vary from team to team, Echo Fox is more flexible than all other NA teams.
"There are some players that only play AD carry in bot lane, and if they're put on a different role, it's probably 10 times worse. It's really uncomfortable for them," Altec said. "So I just think that our team as a whole plays a lot more off-role, which allows us to be able to have a playstyle like this."
"In terms of NA culture, and I don't think [Echo Fox is] perfect at anything at all, but there is a huge hesitation for any type of change," Inero said. "You'll see it on Twitter for teams as well. When something big changes on a patch like -- 'We're adding plants to the jungle' -- everyone is like, 'This is awful. This is the worst change you've ever made.' If the staff are unwilling to look for what's good and try to find it, and players are just looking at every change as making their lives harder, their practices are going to lean that way too."
Echo Fox's Week 2 loss to OpTic Gaming was the first time that the team had played a funnel composition into a funnel composition.
"In the past two weeks of scrimming, no one's played it against us. It sucks, and it's just the culture of practice. Teams are so hesitant to changing and practicing that."
Inero added that playing a champion considered off-role can be a large ego boost for any LCS player. In order to keep players bought into trying out a variety of different compositions and off-role picks, he has appealed to his players' ambition and desire to beat their opponents in the most defining way possible.
"There's a certain ego to every single player and that was really important when I was looking at players in offseason and their champion pools," Inero said. "So when these guys had the opportunity to play another role they were like, 'Man, I've got this chance to destroy this guy and I don't even play his role.' They all feel that. When Josh got to play Rengar top he was just hyped because he doesn't even play that role. The guys just all want to change it up. It's different, it's fun to them and it's that ego stroke that they all want."
This attitude was reflected in Altec's obvious pride in his Week 1 Mundo game and his words for European teams at Rift Rivals.
"As a team, obviously we want to win and show that we're better than all these EU teams. Even though G2 is playing gold funnel, we're going to show that they can't do that against us."
Editor's Note: Tanner "Damonte" Damonte will be starting for Echo Fox in the mid lane during Rift Rivals.