ESL New York is the first marquee tournament following the StarLadder Berlin Major. In terms of form, it features the three best teams from the StarLadder Berlin Major: Liquid, NRG, and Astralis. The story for ESL New York will be how Liquid and NRG will prepare for the potential rematch against Astralis after being defeated at the Berlin Major.
The Astralis Resurgence
Before we can get into the grit of what happened in the Astralis games at the Major, we need to understand where Astralis’ form was before the StarLadder Berlin Major. At IEM Katowice, all five players were in peak form. In addition to that, Astralis map pool was unstoppable. Astralis had two unbeatable home maps: Nuke and Inferno. They had a very good record on Dust2. Their Train was good in the context of the scene as only Na`Vi and ENCE really played the map, and in the case of Na`Vi they often preferred playing inferno as their pick anyway. Their only potential weakness in the pool was Mirage and Overpass. Mirage was one of their better maps earlier on in their era, but had slowly slipped out of their grasp. As for Overpass, tactically it looked good, but it was the map that gave teams the best upset potential against Astralis. Cache was Astralis’ permaban, but they proved they could play and beat Na`Vi on it at BLAST Lisbon.
After the Major concluded, people expected Astralis to be even stronger than before as Cache was rotated out of the map pool and Vertigo was put in. Analysts theory-crafted that the architecture of the map favored an execute and structure heavy style, which was Astralis’ bread and butter.
Instead, Astralis took a prolonged break where they only attended three BLAST events in a three month span. With so few games played at BLAST, ring rust accumulated on the players, new teams started on the rise, and the AUG meta came into play. This hurt the individual form of the players. Among the five, only Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz and Emil “Magisk” Reif were close to their peak 2018 form. Outside of them, everyone had a decline. Andreas “Xyp9x” Hojsleth was still good, but no longer winning every clutch that came his way. The biggest individual difference was Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander and Peter “dupreeh” Rasmussen. This especially hurt their aggressive entry potential as the two of them were responsible for many of the opening duels for the team.
This translated into a weakening map pool across the board. Nuke fell from grace as ENCE and FURIA beat Astralis on it. Mirage, Dust2, Overpass, and Train all started to fall. Mirage was already a vulnerability at IEM Katowice and it became worse during this period. Dust2 became worse due to the falling individual skill and teams like Liquid and Vitality becoming stronger on the map. ENCE and NRG rose up to become better Train teams than Astralis. Overpass had become the specialty of Liquid and Vitality. Over the three month span where Astralis wasn’t taking the game as seriously, their rankings across the entire map pool. The only exception was inferno, where they were still the best inferno squad in the world. Among the seven maps, inferno was the least affected by the individual forms of dupreeh and gla1ve as the map lends itself more to Astralis’ impeccable utility and rotations.
The Legends Stage of StarLadder Berlin reflected Astralis’ post-IEM Katowice 2019 form. Astralis got two easy wins against DreamEaters and G2. In the third round, they lost to NRG in an epic quintuple overtime which put them on tilt as NRG smashed them 16-4 in the second map of Overpass. Astralis fourth round game was against CR4ZY where they won on Inferno, lost another quintuple overtime game on Dust2, and smashed CR4ZY 16-5 on Vertigo.
The form of the five players looked largely the same, though dupreeh had a fantastic series against CR4ZY. The map veto looked similar to before with Astralis banning Mirage and picking either Nuke or Inferno. In retrospect, Astralis could have been saving strats for the playoffs as they setup a clever trap for Liquid that no one could have seen coming.
The Liquid Defeat
Astralis ambushed Liquid strategically and tactically. Up to this point, Astralis had only played Vertigo once at the Major where they smashed CR4ZY 16-5 with a large T-side. Liquid on the other hand had gone 5-0 on Vertigo and won their last encounter against Astralis. As that was the case, Liquid likely prepared for the series working on old data that looked to be correct based on what Astralis had shown in the Legends Stage.
Liquid probably imagined the veto would like something like this:
Astralis ban Mirage
Liquid ban Train
Astralis pick Inferno/Nuke
Liquid pick Overpass
Astralis ban Dust2
Liquid ban Vertigo
Last map is Inferno/Nuke
In this scenario, Liquid should win Overpass and have good chances to win both Inferno and Nuke. Instead Astralis chose Vertigo as their first pick. From the outside, it looked like a joker pick that showed a lack of confidence from Astralis. Up to that point, Vertigo was a joker pick that underdogs used to try to steal a win from better teams. Instead of picking their perceived best map, it looked like Astralis wanted to roll the dice.
As it turned out, Astralis had played a trap card. Astralis had cards that Liquid didn’t know how to answer. Their triple molly T-side execute denied all of the typical passive positions that Liquid wanted while ensuring Astralis a bomb plant. Their B-site execute utilized Xyp9x as a late lurker that completely blind-sided the defense. On the CT-side, Magisk’s flanks down ladder surprised Liquid, which forced them to be cognizant of their flank for the rest of the half. They had aggressive B stair takes that left Jake “Stewie2K” Yip isolated. Dev1ce and gla1ve used multiple setups behind the A-ramp smoke on the A-site which confounded Liquid the entire game. Astralis’ tactics had netted them a 16-8 victory on Vertigo.
The trap card didn’t spring until the second half on their T-side. Overpass was a closer affair with LIquid winning their T-side 9-6. Astralis then pulled out a second trap card on Overpass as their tactics started to get into gear. Astralis’ B-site executes consistently broke apart whatever setup Liquid had on the site and Liquid were unable to adapt quickly enough to stop the Astralis machine from rolling them.
The NRG Defeat
After beating Liquid in the quarterfinals, Astralis then beat NRG on the semifinals. At this point, Astralis had no reason to hide their Overpass, so in this map veto they picked Overpass into NRG instead of Nuke. Once again, the NA side were the favorites going into the match, but Astralis smashed NRG with a 16-10 victory on Train and a 16-9 victory on Overpass.
Astralis’ victory over Liquid was a combination of superior tactics and surprise. NRG knew what Astralis was bringing to the table, but couldn’t match up. After reviewing the games, I’d pick out three factors as to why NRG lost this series. The first was a lack of discipline, which hurt them in the first pistol round as they did a triple peek against dev1ce which let dev1ce get a triple kill and save the round for Astralis. The second was their lack of preparation. The third was their experience as the only person who played to their level on the NRG side was Vincent “Brehze” Cayonte. Everyone else was far below their average.
Liquid’s Potential Strategic Choices
In competition, losses are often road signs that can point a player or team in the direction they need to go towards. They tell the losing side where they need to improve and where their weak points are. Both of these series highlight potential areas where Liquid and NRG can improve.
In the case of Liquid, it is worth mentioning that outside of Jonathan “EliGE” Jablownowski, no one else was in their pre-player break form. While that was a factor in why they lost, I didn’t bring it up before this as I don’t consider it the primary factor. While better individual form could have made the match closer, Astralis’ tactics and teamplay were superior on the day.
That form will likely go up as the season resumes, but for Liquid they have to consider strategic adjustments against Astralis. Prior to the Berlin Major, the map veto was fairly static. With the addition of Astralis picking up Vertigo, Liquid now have a strategic option to make as they must decide which map to ban: Vertigo or Train. Whichever map they do ban will likely become the punish pick of Astralis going forward, so they will have to practice it.
If Liquid go the Vertigo route, they will likely add the Astralis CT-setups and the utility to their playbook. They could have someone do Magisk’s flanks down ladder to expand their aggressive options. The bigger problem for Liquid is how they want to reconfigure their T-side as they have three problems: How to hold the map control around B without letting Stewie2K get isolated and killed, how to deal with CT-side flanks, and how they want to deal with the aggressive CT-side setups of Astralis. The third is likely the most important as it will likely require some level of utility, but if they expend too much, their actual execute onto the A-site will weaken dramatically.
Liquid could also go Train, though that’s less likely given their general aversion to the map. Even so, it’s an option they may consider as even though this lineup has never played it on LAN, the previous Liquid lineup with Epitacio “TACO” de Melo pulled it out as a wildcard in the ESL Proleague Season 8 Finals and beat Astralis on it 16-8. While Stewie2k is a far different player from TACO, it is an option that Liquid could go to.
The other thing Liquid need to consider is their T-side on Overpass. They need to figure out how they want to stop Astralis’ B-execute. There are a few options at play. They can try to pre-empt it by attacking Astralis before they can get going. Liquid used this to some success in the actual match as they were aggression towards long, mid, and connector try some success in the actual match, but they were one-off rounds that didn’t have a consistent answer behind them.
They could potentially try to find counter-nades that can stall out the Astralis attack. For instance, in the 25th round, Liquid got an opening pick on dev1ce towards park and when the nades started to rain in on the site, Stewie2K used his smoke on the toxic molly to delay Astralis long enough for the rotations to get there. Astralis use a slow-roll execute, so it’s possible to time nades in such a way to disrupt Astralis flow and make it a chaotic situation. The final thing they need to consider is how to deal with Astralis’ flex smokes. In the 22nd and 24th rounds, Astralis used the same opening smokes, but had completely different tactics behind them. In the 22nd, they used a B execute that isolated the players at the B-site, while in the 24th, the crunched onto toilets and killed Liquid’s setup there.Going into ESL New York, Liquid will need to find tactical answers to what Astralis are doing.
What NRG need to face
Where Liquid’s conundrums are largely strategic, NRG’s problems are largely philosophical and character driven. I noted that the lack of discipline in the first pistol was a sticking point that NRG needed to correct. The reason I tunneled into that particular round is because it’s arguably the easiest thing to fix as every player knows that the theoretical best play was to not peek and give dev1ce the chance to win the round. While the triple peek isn’t a bad play, it likely only has a 95-99% chance of victory compared to the 100% chance of victory not peeking has.
This is almost never a problem, until you run into the single time it happens and it can then snowball the game. This is exactly what happened to NRG as Astralis ran up a 8-0 scoreline. What is worse about this particular pistol is that it got dev1ce an AWP in the second round and that stopped NRG’s second round forcebuy dead. That in turn let Astralis get to the double AWP setup with full utility which was critical in enabling their defense.
Astralis had learned a few things from their previous encounter against NRG in the group stage. They figured out that if they denied early map control to NRG, especially towards ivy with an early smoke, that NRG became predictable and easier to control across the map. With the double-AWP setup, they could have dev1ce hold the B-ramp and this freed up Xyp9x to move around the map. He could either help Dupreeh and gla1ve take early control of T-main or play at CT tunnel, which countered NRG’s heavy 3 man splits from ivy. Even with Astralis’ better preparation, NRG made a great accounting for themselves. Once the economic game evened out, NRG got 5 rounds on their T-side. If NRG don’t screw up the pistol round and let Astralis snowball the economy, we could have seen a third map in this particular series.
This gets into the second problem, preparation. Peter “stanislaw” Jarguz is the in-game leader of NRG and has stated he believes anti-stratting is a losing gamble. His reasoning is that if you put in a lot of time in anti-stratting and if the team plays completely different, then there is no plan B. While this is a fine theory in general, it hurt against Astralis in specific as this let Astralis stay a step ahead of NRG tactically through Train and Overpass. Astralis used similar tactics and ideas on Overpass as they did against Liquid, but NRG didn’t come prepared with any answers. Gla1ve was surprised by the lack of preparation and said in an interview afterwards, “There are different ways of preparing. Theirs is talking on interviews. Ours is actually preparing.”
The final and most important factor is experience. NRG is an aggressive and individualistic team. While tactics are important, their primary win objectives comes down to player performance, particularly from their star trio of: Brehze, Cvetelin “CeRq” Dimitrov, and Ethan “Ethan” Arnhold. While Brehze played amazingly, CeRq and Ethan underperformed massively in the semifinals compared to how they did in the rest of the tournament. This is probably a lack of experience coming into play as tournament nerves has haunted these young players since they hit the international stage last year when Damian “daps” Steele was their leader. Until the young stars can start performing on stage, NRG cannot win championships.
Once they do though, then NRG could challenge both Astralis and Liquid. They’ve shown that they have what it takes to be beat both teams. If they can add some finishing touches to their team, there is no reason why they can’t be the best team in the world.
Going into ESL New York
I’ve outlined the various problems that Liquid and NRG need to address in their potential rematch against Astralis. Liquid will need to rethink their overall map veto strategy and fix up their CT-side of Overpass. NRG need to reconsider how they want to prepare for Astralis in specific and hope that their young players can start delivering on high pressure situations. What I didn’t go over though was what Astralis will do in the meantime. What made Astralis awe-inspiring in 2018 was how they used their time between tournaments to come up with new tactical or strategic innovations that defined the meta of the game. CS:GO looks to be a three way race between Liquid, NRG, and Astralis to see which of them can close out the year as the best team in CS:GO. With other teams finishing up their roster shuffles like Vitality and FaZe, we could potentially see one of the most competitive fields in CS:GO history