A lot has changed for DAMWON gaming since they first showed up at the Worlds stage in 2019. The rookie team that was hailed as 2018’s scrim gods returned home with the Summoner’s Cup, League of Legends’ most prestigious trophy. They achieved this feat, no less, by winning the only major tournament of the year held on LAN, pulverizing any doubts around their consistency or quality of play in the most critical moments.
We saw Ghost coming in as the new ADC, Zefa stepping into the Head Coach position, Canyon performing insanely well and Showmaker maintaining his level as one of the best mid laners in the entire world. But this article isn’t about the many facets of our World Champions, it is instead about the evolution of their most irreverent member: Jang Ha-gwon, or as you surely know him: Nuguri, the “raccoon dog”.
A Kleptomaniac top laner
Anyone who watched Worlds 2019 will remember Nuguri as the greedy Klepto top laner. He seemingly utilised the now deleted rune Kleptomancy on every single champion, building Cull in most matchups and popularising the most ridiculous Vladimir build to date. He was basically a lite version of TheShy: cocky, aggressive and with incredible mechanical talent.
Despite the undeniable flair that the playstyle brings, Nuguri never reached the unattainable heights of individual prowess that IG’s top laner did, and the negative sides to this approach to the game were one of the major weaknesses shown by 2019’s DAMWON. The most glaring example of this was the series against G2 in the Quarter Finals, which Nuguri finished with a total of 18 deaths in 4 games. He got permanently punished by G2’s superior macro play and insisted on the greedy playstyle. His talent was undeniable, but could he evolve as a player and become another carrier for the torch of South Korea’s never-ending dynasty of legendary top laners?
His evolution was even better than anyone could predict. It essentially happened parallel to Damwon’s own development. As Nuguri himself pointed out in an interview, one of Damwon’s biggest problems in 2019 was their one-dimensional playstyle, essentially a mirror of the top laner’s issue. They were mostly known for their uncanny ability of making any teamfight look winnable, no matter how stacked the odds were against them. Yet, if you watched this year’s Worlds, you’ll see how much this has changed. Damwon was one of the most versatile teams in this championship, despite maintaining their primary muscle: extremely powerful mid and late game teamfights, especially around objectives. One of the catalysts for this diversification was Nuguri, whose champion pool and playstyle changed as much as his team’s.
The once “greedy Klepto abuser” played Ornn more than any other champion during the World Championship and even pulled out the top Lulu, one of the most interesting flex picks in the tournament. This change highlighted the new plan for DAMWON gaming as they adapted to almost perfectly fit the jungle-focused meta. Showmaker controlled the laning phase while outclassing basically every mid laner in teamfights, Beryl frequently roamed while Ghost farmed safely, Canyon hard farmed and contested every scuttle and Nuguri was mainly a teamfighting-focused tool that could not be punished while Damwon played the bottom side of the map for Drakes. Despite the more supportive nature of these picks, Nuguri’s excellence still showed in how well he piloted the champions in the crucial mid to late game teamfights, with a lot of highlights shown especially on Ornn.
The legacy continues
LCK returning to the top of the world with a star top laner seems only fitting, especially given the incredible legacy and success of top laners that came out of the region. What began with legends like Maknoon and Reapered and was carried on by players like Smeb, Marin, Khan Ssumday, is now reaching even greater heights through the talents of Kiin, Summit, Canna, TheShy and Nuguri. Even when it isn’t the best region in the world (which is the case now, despite Damwon’s win), the LCK keeps developing some of the best players in the game, and when it comes to Top Lane, no other region comes even close. Nuguri, despite being in the early stages of his career, is already cementing himself as one of the greats. The sheer talent he shows coupled with the incredible development he underwent in a single year is what I consider the beginning of another incredible legacy.
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Despite his confident and aggressive playstyle in the server, Nuguri seems to be an extremely humble player, a trait he shares with most of the legendary top laners who came before him— with the ever-present exception of TheShy. Although his team was dominating the region and later the world, in most interviews Nuguri consistently showed a desire to learn from his peers and frequently emphasized how good the other Korean top laners are. In this interview with Ashley Kang his admiration for IG’s top laner is evident, highlighting the skirmish-heavy playstyle as one of the points that keeps him entertained. This willingness to learn from others played a big part in the transformation Nuguri had from the player he liked being, to the player DAMWON needed him to be. Instead of looking flashy and mechanically impressive on the server, Nuguri chose to play for the team and win.
When asked about the now infamous Lulu pick, Damwon’s top laner explained that it was rising in priority in solo queue so he decided to work as much as he could to learn the match ups and how the champion overall works in the top lane. In an interview with InvenGlobal, he shared his preparation: “In terms of the research process, I watched the top lane Lulu one-trick streamer a lot, and even watched replays to study tips on the champion, runes, matchups, etc.”. This pairing of raw talent with immaculate work ethic was one of the main factors that propelled him from exciting rookie to World Champion in a matter of 12 months. And let’s not forget, he performed to his highest level, practiced as much as he could and maintained his development just mere weeks after undergoing surgery to treat his collapsed lung.
Nuguri’s legacy is still just beginning, even though it already looks enviable. At only 21 years old, the top laner has never played for a team other than Damwon and has shared most of his time on stage with his current teammates. The World Championship and the regional dominance will never be forgotten, but to truly join the ranks of the “gods of top lane,” Nuguri must maintain this form and eagerness to improve. With Damwon gaming announcing that their coaching staff is changing heading into 2021, the challenges are already placing themselves in front of the top laner. Greatness is never easy to achieve, but Nuguri won’t be content with anything less.
Keep rising, Nuguri. Next year it will be TheShy who’s looking up to you.
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Images courtesy of Lolesports' Flickr.
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