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Golden Guardians are officially headed to the 2023 Mid-Season Invitational Bracket Stage. GG punched their ticket to the next round of MSI 2023 with a clean sweep of Pacific Championship Series representative PSG Talon in the Last Chance Qualifier best-of-five series at the conclusion of the Play-In. The organization continues to build on what it established as the best roster in its history during an epic run to the finals of the League Championship Series Spring Playoffs.

Golden Guardians have experience when it comes to exceeding expectations. Nearly every season, GG is looked at as a bottom-two team that, more often than not, has qualified for the postseason. Despite this, GG was not able to make it past the first round in any Playoffs until this Spring — the organization’s sixth year of operation. GG was often viewed as a mid-tier competitor despite being initially valued as the worst team in the league. Now, they’ve finally established themselves as a top team in North America.

GG found success in the Spring Playoffs because they were able to showcase a second style of play not previously seen this season – one that has been highlighted by the re-emergence of Eric “Licorice” Ritchie as an elite LCS top laner. GG played almost exclusively through mid lane and bot lane in the Spring Split, but when further commitment to that style led to a stumble towards the end of the split, Licorice asked his team to trust him to carry.

“When we were having problems, my coaches wanted to go to a standard playstyle: tank top, carry bot, carry mid. They wanted to play the game that way, and I was always like, ‘I don’t know guys’,” Licorice told Esports Illustrated after Golden Guardians’ 3-0 win over Evil Geniuses in the lower bracket of the LCS Spring Playoffs.

It’s not a coincidence that the two teams who made it to the finals of the LCS Spring Playoffs are the only ones who were able to play through all three of their lanes consistently. A big part of GG unlocking Licorice as a carry threat on the roster is the flexibility of Kim “Gori” Tae-woo, who is almost always on a carry champion for Golden Guardians. However, a flex K’Sante pick emerged for the squad in the post-season, with Gori often piloting the Pride of Nazumah when Licorice was given a favorable carry matchup.

In the past, North American teams at international events have fallen into the trap of becoming more passive and playing too cautiously in the midst of higher stakes and stronger opponents, but that couldn’t be further from the truth for Golden Guardians. Instead, they’ve fully indexed into their strengths and continued to build upon them.

A New Path Forward 

Golden Guardians’ playbook for the majority of this spring started with jungler Kim “River” Dong-woo playing through or around Gori to get a mid lane advantage. Then, support Choi “huhi” Jae-hyun — the most roam-heavy support player in the LCS — would coordinate with the mid-jungle duo to further capitalize on the initial advantage. The resources gained would then be funneled into AD carry Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes as GG’s primary damage source while Licorice was left to his own devices on a weak side top laner.

In the Spring Playoffs, Golden Guardians showed they could play around Licorice and index more resources and attention towards the top lane — oftentimes with Gori on the K’Sante so that the team composition would still have a reliable engage threat with plenty of tank stats.

At MSI, it seems like Golden Guardians have been able to combine elements of both styles, regardless of which type of composition they draft. Licorice has been incredible on tanks like Poppy, but has also flexed strong teamfighting on the new flavor-of-the-meta top laner, Kennen. Gori can still play tanks and has spent as much time at MSI playing a control role on picks like Lissandra as he has smashing his opponents individually on picks like LeBlanc.

Golden Guardians is even continuing to push their limits at MSI 2023. In the final game of their Last Chance Qualiifer sweep against PSG Talon, GG drafted K’Sante mid, Maokai jungle, and Ornn top and showed that they can also win games with Stixxay as the only true damage threat. While it could be considered a risk to try a new composition with the threat of elimination on the line, GG were up 2-0. Rather than close out the series with a more comfortable setup, the LCS 2nd seed took the opportunity to continue developing nuances to their identity in their final step towards the MSI 2023 Bracket Stage.

A New Challenger Approaches

In the first round of the Bracket Stage, Golden Guardians faces a tall task against the champion of the League of Legends Pro League, JD Gaming. Most fans and analysts will see JDG as the clear favorite, but GG exceeded expectations against the other Chinese representative at the tournament, Bilibili Gaming. In the Play-In, GG brought the series to three games when all onlookers gave them no chance at even making it competitive. 

GG has spent its entire history as an organization battling against low expectations. This year, confidence in their identity and commitment to developing it has taken the team all the way to the main stage of their first international competition.

Who is to say it can’t take them even further?