Thorin: The Mystique of the Moscow Five

Moscow Five was the best League of Legends team in 2012 and revolutionary in their defining impact upon the competitive scene and global meta.

They were the kings of team-fighting, seemingly never too far behind to rule out the possibility of turning any game. Their innovative picks and game-breaking counter-jungling philosophy defied experts and fellow professionals’ conception of League as a game.

The feats they accomplished will reverberate throughout history, and only the modern-day G2 have come close to paralleling their uncanny ability to improvise on-the-fly and overcome even the strongest Korean teams.

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Playing together for around 25 months total over a two and a half year span, M5’s legendary line-up of Eugene ‘Darien’ Mazaev, Daniel ‘Diamondprox’ Reshetnikov, ‘Alex Ich’ Ichetovkin, Eugene ‘Genja’ Andryushin and ‘Edward’ Abgaryan (formerly known as ‘GoSu Pepper’) won six of the 15 tournaments they attended, winning half without losing a single game.

They played in the final of nine tournaments in total and, in 14 of the 15 events they went to, they made it to at least the top four. The only failure being the final tournament, at which they finished in fifth place and promptly broke the team apart.

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The best team in the world in 2012, they were dominant with 15 series won and only 5 lost, winning almost 69% of their games in a playoff setting. Even into the LCS era, where they experienced much hardship in their circumstances and contrasted with their peers, Gambit remained one of the West’s very best. At the time of their dispersal in April 2014, their life-time series win-rate was at 68%, their match win-rate at 70%, and their total games won at 108-53, an epic 67%.

Despite being the world’s number one team and ever a fan favorite due to their infectious play-style, Moscow Five remained one of the most mysterious teams in esports.

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As unusual as their play and philosophy could appear inside of the game, this group of majority Russian players seemed almost mythical in their elusive nature.

Having interviewed four of the five Moscow Five players over the years and had a number on my talk shows as guests, I’ve collected together many strange and curious tales of this truly great team. Let’s peer together through the veil of Moscow Five’s mystique and find out how League of Legends weirdest champions operated.

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Dawn of an Empire

Initially playing under the name Empire, the soon-to-be Moscow Five players qualified for the Intel Extreme Masters tournament 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine.

Alex Ich, Genja and Darien were known for having played together in the first good Russian team and being high ranked in solo queue. Still, Diamondprox and GoSu Pepper were unknowns, and so Empire’s qualification had been a surprise, famously spawning a wild wombo-combo simply known from then on out as “The Empire.”

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In the lead-up to the tournament NA favorites, TSM heard from other top European teams that M5 were the best team, and their own scrims against them confirmed as much. At the tournament itself, Moscow Five ravaged the field – losing only a single game and in the Final to said favorites TSM.

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Their unique brand of counter-jungling, which Jungler Diamondprox had begun to display, was intriguing but potentially gimmicky. At the IEM World Championship a month and a half later, they were unbeatable and destroyed the field without losing a single game. With all of the best Western teams in attendance and Korea not yet established as a world power, Moscow Five was the best League of Legends team in the world. Their stunning sweep ensured an aura of invincibility surrounded them, as they could end a game in 20 minutes.

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Even this origin story contains details that seem to beggar belief.

Alex Ich, Genja and Darien had played with GoSu Pepper, as Edward was then called, only to reject him in favor of another player. Later, they changed their minds and allowed Edward to join, but only as a Support. Edward was only 1,400 Elo at the time, making him an irrelevant solo-queue presence. He even said, a year later, he didn’t really like the Support role before then, but that the team needed a Support. They also needed a Jungler and it was Edward who scouted out Diamondprox.

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At the time of being recruited, Diamondprox was a 1,750 Elo player who essentially only played Udyr. Players like Genja were well over 2000 Elo. Diamondprox was nowhere near at a professional level and had played something like 60 ranked games total, instead choosing to focus on having fun in normals. Diamondprox not only did not know the Jungle role well but didn’t even have all of the Runes.

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As he later relayed in a story about TSM Jungler Brian ‘TheOddone’ Wyllie, who he sometimes just calls ‘Oddone’: “I learned from TheOddone reading his guides, let us say, I learned how to set up masteries, runes and how to build heroes. Mostly heroes I’ve never played before. For example, during one of our tourney’s I had to play Rammus and during the champion selection, I checked Oddone’s guide, set up my runes and won. No problems. Thanks to Oddone.”

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At the time of qualifying for IEM Kiev, their first event today, Diamondprox later admitted he was still afraid of playing ranked games and was a shy guy; running counter to his public persona of being the impossibly confident maestro whose arrogance belay a deep understanding that made him the best.

Transforming the jungle

Key to their early tournament success was Diamondprox’s Jungle revolution of counter-jungling, denying the opposing Jungler his camps and attacking him directly where possible.

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This was an idea coming out of practice time. Diamond says “I once noticed Alex Ich playing a ranked game and invading the enemy blue buff, so I thought ‘Why not try it on every Jungle champion?’”

That thought, coupled with other members in the team using Clairvoyance, a now-removed Summoner spell which lifted the fog of war in a specified area, allowed M5 to have a better idea of where the enemy Jungler was at all times and thus control the game that way.

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With Diamond on strong duelist champions, as opposed to the Maokai’s being spammed by the tanky supportive Junglers of the time, M5 was a hard counter to so many top professional sides.

Oh, and Diamond also didn’t play Maokai because he had a limited number of champions and has since said he doesn’t think he owned the champion at the time.

I’m reminded of a story the great film director Orson Welles told, that when he arrived in Hollywood with a contract to direct movies he worked with the best cinematographer and cameraman at the time. This fellow told everyone else on the set not to tell Orson when he was suggesting something which could not or had not been done at that time. So Orson Welles was free to attempt all kinds of daring and innovative cinematic techniques because he simply didn’t know he was doing so.

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Similarly, Diamondprox was not a tenured and experienced professional Jungler, so he did not see his own play as unorthodox or bizarre. With Alex Ich and Darien roaming and helping him get aggressive positions, a new kind of jungling was born and the world changed forever.

Without needing to fear the enemy Jungler, M5 could also pick unlikely off-meta champions and still farm up, with some of the best individual laners in the game, to reach team-fights with their necessary items.

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A new Gambit

Moscow Five looked to have hit their peak and began sliding down the other side when they came into the Season 2 World Championship in 2012 as the favourites only to lose in the semi-finals in a shocking upset to Taiwan’s Taipei Assassins, who packed their own innovative punches to tip the series their way.

Losing to talented misfits Curse.EU at Tales of the Lane in 2012 and then finishing out the year with a respectable but far from world-beating fourth place at IPL, losing the rematch with TPA and also being beaten by eventual champions World Elite from China, M5 seemed figured out or burned out.

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Rival Snoopeh, of CLG.EU, put the dip in form down to M5 not having gone to Korea to face the best Asian teams, as CLG.EU and other top Western sides had. It seemed a fair point, as NA’s best was TSM and they had famously never won a game against a Korean team.

Then came another feat of Moscow Five which is still revered to this day.

Firstly, though, came the death of the Moscow Five organization, with the CEO arrested and investigated for credit card fraud. The team moved over to the newly created Gambit Gaming.

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Even this move carried mystery that perpetuates to this day. Despite having only a Russian League of Legends team, this new organization was referred to as being based in the United Kingdom. Yet their ownership was unknown, their funding was unknown and when later asked about the organization, Edward, appearing on Summoning Insight, jokingly ended the line of questioning by saying “sorry. Little English.”

The message was received.

Gambit Gaming headed to IEM Katowice in January of 2013 needing a big win to gain back their status as a potential world number one.

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It didn’t seem likely to come at this tournament, though, as they lost to elite Korean side Azubu Blaze in the group stage and then were incredibly beaten by a Curse NA side not even fielding their Mid laner.

Down 0-2, Gambit had to win a crazy tie-breaker in which they needed to beat a certain winning time, and incredulously they did.

In the play-offs their bracket was Azubu Frost and then potentially a rematch with Blaze in the final, should they even reach there. Frost were the reigning champions of Korea’s domestic league and had been runners-up in the final of the World Championship the previous year. Gambit arrived that day a different team than had played the group stage. They swept Frost 2-0 with ease and moved to the Final, where they would repeat that feat and easily push aside Blaze 2-0 and win the tournament title.

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Not only had they beaten two of Korea’s top three teams, with both reaching at least the semi-final of that season’s OGN Champions tournament, but they had beaten them back-to-back over consecutive days. These were sister teams and so were sharing information about what happened yet still proved unable to prevent their fellow players from being similarly thrashed.

This was at a time when Western teams were struggling to beat the best of the Koreans.

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In truly Gambit fashion, the Russian side had won by identifying that the late-game style of Blaze and Frost revolved around certain picks other teams simply did not deny them. Banning those champions out, Gambit then picked their own off-meta champions and the Koreans collapsed in on themselves without the ability to play the way they had practiced.

Modern-day G2 have since shown some of these qualities and philosophies towards playing Korean teams and their current line-up has never lost a series to Korea’s best.

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As if to again highlight the intuitive brilliance and almost naive daring of the Russian team, Diamondprox admitted to later having looked up the item strength of Locket of the Iron Solari before using it on Xin Zhao in a live game and against the Koreans.

Just as G2 has been known to pick champions they do not actively play with or necessarily even practice with, so M5 showed brilliance through their improvisation going into a match. In their IEM World Championship Finals win over top NA side Dignitas, they opened the first game by having ADC Genja playing Urgot 1v2 in lane, allowing Edward’s Alistar to roam into the jungle with Diamondprox and do damage.

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Had these tactics come out of a genius level understanding of wave management and roaming timings?

No. Edward tells the story that Genja had played Urgot in solo-queue with a particularly annoying Support and so had simply banished the Support from the lane. The mad scientist of ADC then decided to try this approach in a Finals game offline.

M5 were a team that, due to their strengths at team-fighting, saw the game as being about controlling dragons and barons and the fights that could be started around them. Edward even said Genja would complain if he attempted to push a turret down, as the ADC wanted to extend the laning phase and farm more without increased gank threat. This was not League of legends as anyone else in the world saw it.

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Behind the curtain

One could be forgiven for imagining, as so many peers and experts did for many years, that M5 were the most dedicated and intelligent team in practice. In fact, Diamondprox told me they would not plan anything for him in scrims, simply perhaps discussing early gank potential.

Furthermore, with such incredible chemistry in team-fights, famed for their aggression that Krepo described as “if you give them a finger then they take the whole arm,” one might expect M5 to have been a tightly knit group of friends who got along.

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Instead they had numerous divisions within the team and most notably both Diamondprox and Edward did not get along, due to personal reasons; and Edward and lane partner Genja had their differences due to having practically diametrically opposed playing philosophies.

Where Genja wanted an ultra-conversative style and to farm up for teamfight items, Edward felt that a forwards-moving aggressive style to smash lane opponents was the way to win. Alex Ich later pointed out that during their championship years they had often thought about changing their line-up, due to problems, but that their manager, Konstantin ‘Groove’ Pikiner, a former Counter-Strike professional, assured them that their specific five-man lineup was special and should remain together.

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M5’s mental edge was that in offline games they were tilt-proof. Alex Ich described Darien and Genja as “robots” who were “not afraid of anything” when they played offline.

Moscow Five’s five man line-up was as unique as they come.

Top laner Darien would pick champions he did not practice, so willing he was to simply accommodate the draft. Looking at his interactions with and clear chemistry with Jungler Diamondprox, it would be easy to credit him with some of the innovations that had created counter-jungling.

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Diamondprox instead said that his tendency to gank top came from Darien’s incessant fighting and sometimes even going 0-10 in scrims. In a particular match, Diamondprox managed to kill world class Top laners’ Rumble, a near ungankable champion early, with Nocturne, a champion with poor early gank pressure, three times.

This led to the conclusion that the Top lane was the easiest to gank, especially as practically no Top laner understood advanced wave management concepts back then. Darien was also able to gain unique leads or find farm where it shouldn’t be by pushing past the tower and proxy farming the wave on the other side.

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Similarly, experts would praise Darien for applying pressure to the map from his lane, so that he would draw attention from others and the rest of the map – most notably the bot lane, would be free to farm.

Diamondprox told me Darien did understand that by going forwards always he did help his team, but agreed that Darien did not have this macro conception of map pressure in the way some might have hoped.

A key responsibility of the Top laner, especially into Season 4, was to manage the Teleport situation of the lane. He was to time the Teleport use of the other Top laner, so he could communicate when his team had or did not have the advantage of that extra spell. And thus either could come join in a gank on the other side of the map or their team must play more conservatively. Darien never timed Teleports for the other player and didn’t keep his team up-to-date with his own status.

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Edward tells a story of the enemy heading to their lane and asking Darien to Teleport, only to be told “I don’t have Teleport, guys. I will push Top.”

There has never been a Top laner like Darien.

Edward himself, despite being considered a top three Support in the world, did not time lane opponent’s Flashes or summoner spells until 2014. His philosophy went “if he comes to the lane and he knows I have flash down he will go in on me and I’ll just shit on him. If he comes back and knows my flash is down then I’ll shit on him again.”

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When I pointed out to him that the legendary MadLife, Support player of Frost and considered the best in his role in the world, was timing summoners and even the ultimates of the other team, Edward hilariously remarked: “I wish I had the ultimates of the enemy team.”

A monster on Thresh and at aggressive playmaking, Edward was paired with the infamous Genja in the bottom lane. Genja was a player who picked the champions he thought were good and played the way he thought was most effective.

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He was a mad scientist of picks, itemization, and playing philosophy. To the extent, he felt playing solo-queue was sometimes a complete waste of time and preferred to theory-craft instead.

He was said to play the champion Ashe so much in solo-queue because the team had asked him not to play it in official games. Genja would become notorious for playing one champion over and over in solo-queue and no matter the match-up or overall team composition. Years later, having retired, he would play Randuin’s Omen Corki in every role he was given in solo-queue.

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The relationship between Edward and Genja was absurd for such a good team with so much success. At the bootcamp for their first-ever tournament, they had played 30 duo queue games together to get up to speed. In the two years following that, Edward says they didn’t play that many combined. Genja was far from an amicable teammate too, as he told me in an interview that if Edward went too aggressive and risked dying, then Genja would simply back off and let him die. This was the Russian’s way of conditioning his support to play the style he wanted from him.

These were players who were not at all alike but left that at the door to find success in the server.

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The LCS era

With the LCS beginning in early 2013, Gambit remained an elite side, but finished runners-up and generally lost any hope of being again called the best team in the game.

Not well enough highlighted, though, was their uniquely taxing travel schedule. Unlike the other LCS teams, whose organizations had gotten them apartments in Cologne, Germany, where the LCS took place and thus were practicing with only a short car ride to the studio as their travel requirements, Gambit could not obtain visas to live in Germany, due to their organizational status coupled with being largely Russian nationals.

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This meant that for their weekly LCS games, Gambit players would have to fly in, play the matches and fly out again, losing valuable practice time and overloading their bodies with extra strain.

Mid laner Alex Ich would take a three-hour train ride to Moscow and then a three and a half hour flight to Cologne, making for around an eight hour travel time which would have to be repeated again each time.

Support Edward put on a brave face but had an even more daunting set of circumstances. He would travel from Omsk, five time zones away from Cologne, to Moscow, and then to Germany.

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This travel schedule also placed more pressure upon their personal relationships, which were already shaky enough.

Playing from home they could finish practice or leave the room when tempers were ignited. Stuck together for days at a time there was nowhere to go. Gambit had been a team that had thrived off intense bootcamps, championship glory and then going their separate ways to depressurize.

At their heights, Darien and Genja would barely even play solo-queue to individually practice.

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That they finished with a 21-7 record in the split and then made it to the fifth game of the Final suddenly becomes a miraculous feat to be added to their long history of defying expectations and overcoming challenges placed before them.

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