Thorin's Threads: 5 Story-Lines for Group A of ESL One Cologne
ESL One Cologne is set to be one of the great CS:GO events, as the ninth major begins next week. Will Astralis regain Legends status with a stand-in? Can MSL steer Dignitas to their first play-off appearance? Are CLG dead and buried? Will Gambit ever get that elusive big Bo3 series win? These are four story-lines for Group A of ESL One Cologne.
Counter Logic Gaming
1. Astralis and the throwaway major
After Astralis, then known as Team Dignitas, reached the semi-final of EMS One Katowice, in March of 2014, until now, every major has carried the expectation that they would be contenders for the title and yet their core has yet to even reach the final of a major. Time and time again, they've suffered heart-breaking losses in the quarters and semi-finals of the world's biggest events. The Astralis major choke is infamous in the game's history, to the extent that it has become an inevitability for fans and analysts alike.
This major carries none of those pressures and none of the weight of past majors or the record of never having gone the final stage of the game's great events. Bringing in Kjaerbye, who had already competed in the major qualification system with Dignitas, and thus was ineligible to play for Astralis at this major, means the Danes are attending with a stand-in. That stand-in, due to the circumstances of eligibility, could not have been anyone who was comparable to Kjaerbye's talents and thus Astralias have ended up with CS:GO veteran gla1ve.
gla1ve was once a significant name in the game, but as the tactician of Western Wolves over the first half of 2013. Since that time, a mixture of poor play on his behalf and a tumultuous reputation for developing problems with team-mates has seen him essentially side-lined in the Danish scene, left to play in the fourth best teams and only occasionally the topic of transfer rumours up the Danish hierarchy.
Coming in with gla1ve in tow essentially means Astralis are just going to Cologne to try and get out of the group successfully and earn their Legends status, afforded the top eight teams at the event, for another major. That status will mean a good seed at the next major, not having to qualify for said event and some juicy sticker money. That would be enough for Astralis, as it was for NiP when they had to use coach THREAT as their stand-in for MLG Columbus.
Thanks to an incredibly easy group, in the context of this being a world championship, Astralis has a very solid chance of getting out of their group. While they lack one of their new stars, they still boast device and dupreeh, two of the best players in the world and Xyp9x, always a contender for the world's best Support. karrigan has been very poor individually in 2016, but he still holds notable status as a good in-game leader and tactician.
Astralis still have more than enough talent to get out of the group stage, so then it just becomes a case of how far they can go. In a sense, I could see the lack of pressure freeing up the stars to simply play loosely and go wild individually. Likewise, there's a degree to which I could see gla1ve and karrigan working together to come up with good approachs to playing key opponents, with the brains of two reknowned IGLs to pick apart the enemy.
In all likelihood, the Danes will simply get out of the group stage and then lose in the first round of the play-offs, but with that having been their fate in a number of past majors, it will be a pleasant surprise to not have that be a massive disappointment for them and there will certainly be some room and opportunity for device and company to go nuts and possibly upset someone at that stage.
There's also the likely overlooked bonus that since Astralis play literally all of the maps now, perhaps excluding nuke, since Kjaerbye's arrival saw them adding in cbblestone, their previous permanent ban, they can essentially pick the maps gla1ve fits with them best on and make that their map pool.
2. How far have Dignitas fallen?
Earlier this year, Dignitas were a team who posed a legitimate threat to most top 5 teams, and seemed to be headed for a consistent status in the 6th-8th range in the rankings. That period of being a dangerous dark horse seems to have passed far too quickly and now they find themselves without even their lone super-star level player, as Kjaerbye departed to Astralis.
That trade did see them getting potentially hard carry cajunb, but the key word there is very much "potentially", where Kjaerbye's performances were near guaranteed. Dignitas were already sliding down the rankings, at times unable to even rely upon the cbblestone specialisation which had helped them climb so high, before cajun got there.
While there is still time for improvement and integration of cajun, who seemingly must become the consistent star if Dignitas is to go anywhere of note, there have been essentially no signs of hope as yet. This tournament will very much decide if Dignitas begins an upward turn back towards being a top team or sinks down to the realm of the mousesports, FlipSid3 and Gambits of the world.
Dignitas still have pieces of value. MSL is far from an individual talent, but his tactical approach is solid and gives Dig an edge against most teams in the mental department, even if he is prone to some Xizt level pick-ban biases. k0nfig has been massively erratic, but the upside has been that he has hit some high peaks of performance on single maps of play, so that helps in the fire-power department. Finally, RUBINO is a reliable soldier, who does what is asked of him and is a consistently decent pro.
Dignitas can get out of this group and likely should still be considered a very small favourite to, over Gambit, but their chances of making any deep penetration into the bracket seem very slim. It's up to MSL and company to prove otherwise.
3. cajunb's chance for revenge
The most exciting part of Kjaerbye's addition to Astralis, which was all but a certainly over the last few months, was that it was cajunb who went the other way to Dignitas. Had it been Xyp9x removed, I think Dignitas' future would have looked grim, as while he is a good player, he would not replace the raw fire-power they lost with Kjaerbye's departure. Those who remember cajunb at his best, last Summer and in early 2014, know he is a player capable of monster solo performances.
There was also the prospect that his removal, assuming he chose not to retire, would spur him on to want to prove he was one of the world's best players again and gain some revenge over his former team-mates in Astralis. While Dignitas has been shaky at best thus-far, being drawn directly into a group with Astralis and one which is hampered by both being unable to field Kjaerbye and having to use gla1ve, the scene is set for cajun to have his revenge.
4. Is there anything left for CLG?
CLG are a perfect example of the problems with Valve's seeding system of giving anyone who finished top eight at the previous major a top two seed for their group. The CLG attending ESL One Cologne bears little resemblence to the one which upset EnVyUs and reached the quarter-final of MLG Columbus. Firstly, they have lost JDM, their primary star, to Team Liquid, and have replaced him with koosta, a thus-far failed would-be NA prodigy from that very same team.
Secondly, the team removed servicable but a little over-rated role player Fugly to make way for a new fifth, but saw that deal go sour and themselves forced to insert coach pita into the line-up. In early CS:GO pita had some decent results, but he has not been a professional player for a long time, having been involved in coaching since 2014 with NiP. I'd wager this CLG wouldn't even have qualified for ESL One Cologne, had they been made to go through that process.
With JDM gone, the pressure paced upon tarik to carry is huge. While he has improved, in that respect, over the last few months, he has still not shed the reputation of a player who performs at his peak against fellow North Americans and not in big international competitions. Besides, it seems unlikely he can fill JDM's shoes as the primary carry, at least right now.
Last Summer, Cutler was a strong and solid all-around player, very much an NA KRiMZ, but the one you see before you is a shell of that player. Whether it was a stint as the in-game leader or other factors which stripped him of his level, Cutler has yet to return and no longer carries any weight to his name at this point.
CLG might even go without winning a map in this group, that's how dire their condition is. No amount of positivity can see them beating EnVyUs or Astralis and getting Legends status for a second straight major. If they can make any kind of meaningful dent upon this group, it will be a significant accomplishments in the context of expectations surrounding them. On the upside, there'll be plenty of time for sight-seeing in Cologne, with the Cathedral being a popular destination.
5. Gambit seek a meaningful Bo3 victory
Gambit are a deceptively good team at taking single map upsets off opponents who should be better than them, in terms of talent or ranking. Despite that reputation, the CIS squad has never won a meaningful Bo3 series against a notable opponent. In a group stage system in which the decider for second place is a Bo3, Gambit will have to either win two Bo1s or take such a Bo3 win at last.
There is some talent in Gambit's ranks, from the former super-star Dosia, who was one of CS:GO's top 5 players for the first year of competition, to the Kazakh duo of AdreN and mou, both of whom played 1.6 competitively and who have emerged as Gambit's two best players. mou has looked like the future star of the CIS scene for a solid year, but has never made that leap up in competition, ending up in that no man's land we often associate with WorldEdit's career. Against tier 2 opposition and in qualifiers, mou is money in the bank, but against top level opponents he seems to crumble of become ineffective.
The surprise of the Gambit era has been AdreN, as the player who was once more of a Support factor in the strong early Virtus.pro and Astana Dragons squads, has rediscovered his carry ways in this team. Back in 1.6, he was one of the great solo carries from unusual countries, once upon a time practically single-handedly beating Na`Vi, then the world's best, in a Bo3 series. In 2016, he has gradually emerged as one of the best fraggers in Gambit and seemingly their most reliable player right now.
The problem for Gambit is that only AdreN has been a consistent force in the last few tournaments, so their fire-power is highly variable from game to game. They do have solid strategies to execute, but only on a handful of maps, meaning their chances to win are massively dictated by the map pool of the opponent they face. If they can play two out of cache, cbble and train, then they have a chance, but otherwise they will find themselves in trouble.
Fire-power aside, Gambit struggles because they still run that old school slow execution approach that CIS squads were famed for in 1.6, gradually feeling out the map and then attempting to move onto a site. That is difficult to make work on maps you are not comfortable with and when you are facing a skill disadvantage, as Gambit will be against Astralis. Having CLG and Dignitas in the group maps things interesting, as they are a dangerous opponent for both, but the lack of Bo3 series experience, in terms of winning, means Dignitas have to feel lucky to have gained Gambit in their group.
In conjunction with this article, I've published a video breaking down the specific match-ups in the group and how I see them playing out, including my famous map pool break-downs. Additional articles and videos for each group will follow on each subsequent day.
Photo credit: Dreamhack and ELEAGUE