TheShy vs. Nuguri: South Korea's best top laners on display at worlds

After playing one game against Damwon Gaming's Jang "Nuguri" Ha-gwon, Invictus Gaming's Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok started experimenting with Kleptomancy, a rune Nuguri often uses on his champions. Provided by Rio Games

BERLIN -- From an outsider's perspective, Invictus Gaming's Kang "TheShy" Seung-lok and Damwon Gaming's Jang "Nuguri" Ha-gwon could be brothers. They're both professional gamers born in South Korea in 1999. They both play the same position inside the game, top lane, and are both regarded as two of the best at their role. Neither enjoys taking a backseat in a game, and both love to play the leading man, sometimes pushing the limit of what a champion can do on Summoner's Rift.

Yet, when the two were poised to face off for the first time in the group stage of the 2019 League of Legends World Championship, TheShy wanted to set the record straight.

They aren't similar players. Nuguri is not TheShy. TheShy is not Nuguri. They're different, with TheShy believing his way of playing the game was the superior method to play League of Legends.

"I'm going to be honest. Nuguri is a type of player that I really dislike," TheShy told Ashley Kang following a match at the world championship. "He gets ganked too often, and he doesn't seem to think about the risks around being ganked. He takes Klepto. Honestly, I really dislike Kleptomancy."

Kleptomancy is a rune, one of several add-ons a player can attach to a champion before each game. Some runes give speed boosts, others give a bit of extra damage in the early stages of the game or add some armor so a player can make it through the opening minutes of the game without being killed. Kleptomancy is essentially going to Las Vegas and playing the slot machines. Players using Kleptomancy forfeit stats or advantages in the early part of the game in hopes of gaining extra gold or the right consumable items to help them get a leg up at the end of the game.

Nuguri, by nature, is a gambler. As a player, he plays League at times like it's a one-on-one contest between him and his top lane opponent, pushing as far into the enemy's territory as humanly possible. If he gets sideswiped by a roaming member of the opposing side and punished for his assertive instincts, Nuguri returns and continues pressing forward, a mixture of complete confidence in himself and abilities while also exhibiting his lack of professional experience.

"I can give advice to top laners [who want to climb online]," Nuguri said to ESPN. "You must play as you don't have a limit. Many people will say top lane [doesn't] make a lot of impact around the team, so you have to think beyond it. You have to take the runes and take the items that give you a really, really late-game carry and impact the game completely, then you can be strong."

Before their first match versus iG, Nuguri was undecided how he would fare against TheShy, a reigning world champion and considered the best top laner in the world. Since they had never played before, the Damwon top laner believed it could go either way, smiling as he mused over the matchup with the man he has drawn endless comparisons to since becoming a full-fledged pro in 2019 by qualifying into the major South Korean domestic competition, League of Legends Champions Korea.

See the rest of the worlds schedule here.

Their first meeting on stage at the Verti Music Hall in Berlin felt like a heavyweight boxing champion wanting to show a promising prospect the ropes in the ring. Over the course of the almost 40-minute game between the two explosive squads, TheShy put on a near picture-perfect display on the ninja assassin champion Akali, weaving in and out of battles seamlessly, keeping his team in a game in which they had difficulty keeping up. TheShy won the battle but lost the war, Nuguri's gamble paying off at least in the ultimate result, with the up-and-coming Damwon Gaming taking the first game of the tournament from Invictus.

Born in South Korea but moving as a teenager to China, where he would eventually go pro with iG, TheShy comes off as a player loyal to his region. When asked what he thought about top laners in South Korea and the LCK, he said he believed that top laners lose some of their edge when playing in his home country's domestic league.

TheShy doesn't want to be known for his technical ability, unlike Nuguri. Nuguri relies on his pure raw talent to tape up the other holes in his games. When TheShy says he doesn't like the type of player Nuguri is, it's less about Nuguri and more so aimed at the people who minimize his ability to just having fast fingers and being precise on a mouse.

"People say I'm a mechanical [player], but I feel because I already have the idea planned out, I'm more of a theory player," TheShy said to ESPN at the Mid-Season Invitational earlier this year in Vietnam. "I have it all crafted out in my mind, but I get that the fans see that as mechanical. But it's more than just mechanics. It's more [tactical] thoughts."

Nuguri is still growing into his sky-high potential, navigating through his rookie growing pains by relying on those sound mechanics. That's not to say he isn't a smart player. He is, but more often than not, when Nuguri has his back against the wall, he relies on his technical prowess to pull him through. When he has been thrown off his game or targeted in a way that trips him up, he has shown the ability to crack under the pressure, a poor game turning into two, which then turns into a slump. During the first few months of the year, he was even subbed out for veteran top laner Lee "Flame" Ho-jong before eventually fully winning his starting job back in time for world championship qualification games.

"[Nuguri's] really stubborn, so it was hard to communicate with him," Damwon's coach Kim Jeong-soo told Inven Global in a pre-world championship interview. Even if there was something wrong, if he thought it was right, then no amount of words ever got through to him. The issue's gotten a lot better, and he now listens more."

Last year, Coach Kim led TheShy and Invictus Gaming to victory at worlds, claiming the Summoner's Cup in their home country of South Korea. After leaving iG, he chose Damwon in large part to their potential, thinking it'd be fun to see what he could do with players such as Nuguri and his fellow solo lane prodigy teammate Heo "ShowMaker" Su.

In interviews, the two players become more opposite of each other. TheShy, posture straight with an air of class around him, is blunt with his words and doesn't dance around issues. Nuguri, smiley and loose, comes off as the more approachable of the two, laughing even after a tough loss to Team Liquid at worlds in what would turn out to be their only loss in the group stage.

TheShy and Nuguri's second game in Berlin was similar to the first. TheShy gained the early advantage and bullied Nuguri in the laning phase before Damwon rallied around their top laner and won the game.

The biggest difference between the first and second game?

TheShy's runes. After his loss to Nuguri's Jayce in their first game, he went online and began experimenting with the rookie's gambling tendencies. He picked Kleptomancy for his Jayce against Nuguri the second time around.

"Since Jayce is less affected by runes, I tried it out," TheShy said to Inven Global on the final day of group stages. "It does hurt my pride a bit, but I'd have to admit that Klepto is a good choice."

Through the first three weeks of the world championship, no top laner has come close to the level at which TheShy is playing. Nuguri, his perceived rival, has been outplayed in both of the matches between the two star top laners.

But not only did his team win those two games, but he also got one of the most prideful players in the world to admit, for once, he might have been wrong.

The next time they face each other could be at the worlds final in Paris.

TheShy is still a level above the Nuguri, but now, finally, he has acknowledged him.

This is where the real rivalry starts.