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Road to the finals
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For the eight teams attending the StarLadder i-League StarSeries finals this weekend, the stakes could not be higher. It is the final LAN tournament before the invites for The Kiev Major go out; for most of the rosters present, taking home first place means bypassing the bloodbath of the perennially tense regional qualifiers. For other teams that are shoo-ins for invitation—namely, the most recent Major winners, OG—conquering StarSeries means establishing themselves as lasting powers on the global stage. And make no mistake - the competition at the top is some of the stiffest in recent memory. With the exception of Team VG.J, every team here has won a LAN title since TI6. For all the hopefuls, underdogs, and favorites in Shanghai, the road will be tough, but the prize sweet.
Breaking their long hiatus this weekend on home turf has the potential to bring back the cred they have lost over a lackluster early winter and a nearly-totally absent 2017. The stakes of their performance, however, are fairly low in the looming shadow of the Kiev Major. It would be an unprecedented move for Valve to not invite the current Aegis holders, barring an out-of-bounds roster shift, so it would not be out of place for Wings to take the weekend to put some more of their experimental theorycrafting into practice. Now that the time for the champs to lace up and return to the ring has arrived, they must decide which punches to pull and which haymakers to throw.
OG’s flexibility has always been one of their strong points, be it n0tail’s unconventional carry picks, Fly’s mastery of defensive supports, JerAx’s legendary Earth Spirit, or any of the wide assortment of heroes that ana and s4 have excelled with in recent games. Perhaps it’s this deep hero pool that has given them their recent success in these early days of Dota’s latest era. As the landscape of patch 7.02 begins to cool, can OG still stay one step ahead of the meta? A victory in Shanghai would cement their reputations as born-again contenders, and not as just another flash in the pan.
Following their LAN win at DreamLeague Season 6, Team Liquid has swallowed up qualifier victories both here at StarSeries as well as in the qualifiers for DAC. Notably, they have been the only team that has been able to beat FATA-’s new team, B)ears, who looked bulletproof to the rest of the competition in the Western European leg of the qualifiers. Now that Liquid has finally ironed out all the kinks that held them back, this tournament can serve as the breakout moment for the new roster. With Kiev looming ever closer, locking down an invite with a win here scores the horse boys a much needed vacation from yet another qualifier grind.
After taking 5th-6th place at Dota Pit back in early January, however, signs of a comeback began to dim. Gone were the days of their direct invites, as they returned again to the grind of qualifiers against the best Europe had to offer. While they did qualify for StarSeries with a convincing cushion of points between them and Cloud9, they were unable to repeat their success in the following weeks during the DAC Western Europe qualifier. With invites for Kiev looming in the near future, this may very well be Team Secret’s last shot to avoid the jaws of yet another regional qualifier. Can Puppey work his magic and orchestrate a performance that will remind us of the Secret of yesteryear?
It’s hard to believe that it has taken this long for VG.J to get their moment in the sun. With an initial roster consisting of three TI finalists (Fenrir, rOtK, and Agressif) and the emerging talents of Nono and hym (both of whom had been incubating within the Vici Gaming ecosystem), the hype surrounding the new team sadly dwarfed the reality of their performances. With the addition of an another up-and-coming player, Freeze, and the reunion of Fenrir with his old buddy fy to replace the former new comers, VG.J seems to have finally found the recipe for success. This weekend in Shanghai can provide this team with their big break; whether we get the dominant new VG.J or the withered potential of the old VG.J will remain to be seen.
The competition at StarSeries is undoubtedly stronger than WCA, however. Present are both the grand finalists from TI6, the most recent Major champions, the winners of WESG, a fellow Chinese squad looking to stage a similar breakout performance, as well as two European teams looking to put their post-Boston changes through their first field test. iG.V’s strength is in their persistence, and as the one year anniversary of the squad’s inception draws nearer, the greatest birthday gift they could gives themselves is the same kind of performance that secured them WCA and punched their ticket to Boston so many months ago..
2017 has been fairly kind to SUNSfan’s boys, though. In a huge upset over Newbee that went the full five games in the grand finals, DC took ESL Genting away from other favorites such as Virtus.pro and their familiar Chinese rivals, Wings Gaming. Not two weeks after their first LAN win, though, DC was sent home packing from Dota Pit after a painful first round loss at the hands of Team Secret and elimination in the lower bracket, compliments of the then-ailing Team Faceless. Unable to secure direct invites to either StarSeries or DAC, Digital Chaos had to overcome Team NP in deciding matches for both tournaments’ American qualifiers, but only secured a berth for StarSeries. Despite their Genting win, it would not be a stretch to see DC as a team on the border for an invite to Kiev. A win at StarSeries would mean not only a bright future at the next Major, but also their position comfortably near the top of NA.
The Pinoy team has already shown that they can perform on LAN, as their victory at WESG saw them crushing through their group and producing decisive victories against teams like Alliance and the newly rebranded Cloud9. In the wake of the downfall of teams that once ruled over the SEA region (namely Fnatic and MVP), TnC has used this renewed confidence to become a major regional player, in the ranks of Team Faceless and WarriorsGaming.Unity. Qualifying for StarSeries in an incredibly thorough fashion via the round robin format has confirmed just this. Despite following short in the DAC SEA qualifiers, TnC go to Shanghai as a worthy competitive force, perfectly capable of surprising us all again with another deep run against the world’s best.
The first match of Group A is will be a harsh reminder for Fly and n0tail, as TnC was the team to send OG home after a stunning 2-0 upset in the lower bracket of TI6. Momentum will play a big part in this series, and with OG coming off of a win at Elimination Mode and being in generally great form, expect a series more like the TI6 group stages, where OG 2-0’d TnC. The other match, pitting iG.V against Team Secret, will be a bit more interesting. Both teams have recently failed to make the cut for DAC, but since the closest the two have come to butting heads in the past was when iG’s main squad 1-0’d Secret at ESL Genting, it’s hard to gauge where the two stand. Most likely, it will go the full three games, but I would not be surprised if Vitality takes it 2-1.