Dota 2 has had one hell of a year. Closing out its second year with the Valve-sponsored Major system, experimenting with 2 week balance patch cycles, having OG pull the upset of the century, downsizing and streamlining the Major/Minor qualification process, and at 2018’s end, messy player drama that swept up fans, talent, players, governments, and ultimately Valve themselves. At the end of this tumultuous, winding 52 weeks, with the delaying of the tenth iteration of The Summit to 2019, the final stop for the scene’s top talent comes Moscow for the MegaFon Winter Clash.
2018’s final event falls into a niche that once served as the mile markers of a given professional season: A humble LAN, with seven of its eights slots direct invites and its other slot given to one team bold enough to best the rest of their peers in an invite only closed qualifier. No cross continental matches, just good old European and CIS team duking it out, an echo of a time before walled off regional qualifiers, DPC points, and codified transparency by Valve. It is in this final LAN, held in Russia’s frigid, snowy capital, that western Europe’s best will square off against TI8’s runner up, the champions of the Kuala Lumpur Major, North America’s newest upper crust mainstays, and... Natus Vincere.
It seems almost cruel to flag NaVi as the odd man out in the tournament’s billing. Having drowned in pools during the CIS qualifiers for the Chongqing Major (their second Major qualifier in a row finishing 3rd in their group), missing its playoff phase entirely to such well established clubs as NoPangolier and Empire’s Hope squad (whose more veteran squad, Faith, failed to clear Open Qualifiers), and then bowing out early in the Open Qualifiers for the forthcoming Minor in Bucharest, it seems that the team just can’t catch a break. It’s puzzling as to why exactly NaVi continues to falter, now sporting veteran captain Sonneiko with a one-two punch of their TI8 season break star Crystallize and newcomer MagicaL on their core roles. It’s not like the departure of Dendi, both the legendary face of professional Dota and the favored whipping boy of fan’s ire, can be ascribed to their stumbles, as his post-NaVi career ringing as a sub for teams has gone tragically poorly. One such team that he filled in for met their tournament exit at who else, but NaVi’s hands during the Maincast Autumn Brawl.
That team, Team Secret, has had a decidedly better time during this DPC season. And why shouldn’t they? These months following TI have been Team Secret’s hot zones since the team’s inception. Hell, if they didn’t grab a promising new core player from an otherwise under-performing mono-national team (see: w33, MidOne, MP, Ace, Nisha) and then finish second in the season’s first Major (see: Frankfurt, ESL Hamburg ‘17, Kuala Lumpur), the team would be horribly off script at this point. Speaking of familiarity, backing their newest acquisition from Poland are a cast of Secret’s greatest hits: the faithful crew of Yapzor and MidOne have stuck with captain Puppey following the org’s best performance yet at an International (5th-6th), all with fan favorite and prodigal offlaner zai returning to round of the roster. The two other non-DPC LANs Secret has attended this year (the PVP Esports Championship in Singapore and a revenge tour at ESL Hamburg ‘18) have been a pair of first place finishes for the team, and with that comes high expectations to now go three-for-three at MegaFon this weekend. It should be noted however that Team Secret will be playing with Eyyou as a standin for YapzOr who is taking a short break from Dota 2, presumably for the holidays.
However, to complete that trilogy of gold finishes, Secret will have to get over the hurdle that kept them back from ultimate victory at other LAN they’ve attended this year: the Kuala Lumpur Major. Reigning kings of Valve’s DPC leaderboards, Virtus.Pro are fresh off of their latest in an ever growing list of Major victories as they arrive to home soil to finish their year riding high. While it may seem redundant to have a team like VP go through regional qualifiers, as all teams must under Valve’s new format restrictions for their Majors and Minors, the relatively low caliber of talent in the CIS region mixed with the massive shift in game play introduced in patch 7.20 and its various sub-patches have produced some truly entertaining Dota from the VP gang as they explore the range of possibilities that the metagame has to offer.
On the other side of the coin, the quick rebound of VP from yet another just-short finish at The International stands in stark contrast to TI8’s runner-up, PSG.LGD. Since their stunning 3-2 loss to OG at TI8’s grand final, China’s finest have experienced a gradual downturn in results. Starting with first place qualification in the Chinese qualifier for Kuala Lumpur, they made quick work of two SEA teams at the PVP Esports Championship only to get blanked 2-0 by Team Secret in the playoffs to take home a 3rd-4th finish. Their performance at the Kuala Lumpur Major looked like they could be finishing out patch 7.19 strong, taking first in their group without dropping a single map and making quick work of Alliance in the first round of the playoffs with a pair of 30 minute wins.
Their hot streak would end by losing their next four games in a row, first at the hands of Virtus.Pro and then the killing blow delivered by Evil Geniuses right after, landing them at rest at 5th-6th place. Back home in China, PSG.LGD would find no respite from their playoff stage woes in the 10th season of H-Cup with a round one loss to Ferrari_430’s newest stack, Mr. Game Boy, and ultimate defeat at the hands of Sylar’s Team Aster. They head into MegaFon in better standings, however, having eked out a 3rd place finish in the recent Chinese qualifier for the Chongqing Major and determined to use this LAN as a way of getting back in the game.
Reversing a team’s fortune is no easy task, however. In a season that conjures memories of their first year under their sponsor’s banner, Team Liquid’s redemption tour for missing the year’s first Major is already well underway. Yes, the qualification for the DreamLeague Season 10 Minor was a tick in the win column for the TI winning squad, however labored their lower bracket playoff run ended up being. The choice to then forfeit their spot at the event to focus on their player’s health has proven to be the right call. With a dominant group stage showing during the European qualifiers for the Chongqing Major, a 2-0 waltz over Alliance booked them a guaranteed spot at the event in China, as well as a license to cheese their way through their seeding games again Team Secret and in their extra clowny rematch against Alliance in the lower bracket.
It should be no surprise that during these borderline meaningless games that team captain Kuroky took the opportunity to become the first player to play an official match with every hero in the game - including the recently enabled Grimstoke. The same flexibility and versatility that allows Liquid to fluidly swap Miracle and Matumbaman between mid lane and safe lane roles, combined with GH’s constantly innovative support play and Mind_Control’s rock steady offlaning allowed them to split their six functional show-matches evenly, all the while running oddities like Miracle on Techies, GH on Invoker, and Kuroky on Meepo. MegaFon will serve as only the fourth event Team Liquid has participated in this year, and this low profile on a new patch could serve to their advantage.
MegaFon’s final team, Forward Gaming, should look familiar to those who have paid close attention to the increasingly competitive North American scene in the past year. Containing much of the former VGJ.Storm roster, Forward has subbed out one scene veteran for another by swapping their offlaner Sneyking for the TI Champion Universe following Storm’s first round exit at TI8. Since their re-branding, Forward has become intertwined in a three way power struggle within their region with Evil Geniuses and J.Storm. In much in the same China’s top three teams of Aster, PSG.LGD, and Vici Gaming have taken up residence inside the past two Major qualifiers’ regional slots, Forward has had to consistently contend with their rivals for their spot in the limelight. Finishing second in both of the aforementioned qualifiers, first behind EG and then behind J.Storm, combined with a bottom eight finish at Kuala Lumpur does not exactly instill confidence for this crew in the face of TI finalists and multi-Major winners, but success in spite of expectation is how Forward has been surviving in their region and impressing on the larger stage. With the play making abilities of Resolut1on and MSS, coupled with the strategic brilliance of SVG and the veteran experience of Universe and Yawar, it should be no sweat tangling with the big shots.
So there it is. A handful of teams looking to propel themselves higher, salvage momentum, stop their bleeding, and most importantly end the year $300,000 richer. With the table now set for the coming DPC events, what better way to break in this brave new patch of 7.20 than with the perfect mix of high monetary stakes and low DPC implications in a live setting. May the hot action of this LAN keep us warm in these finals days of 2018, and lay the groundwork for an even better and more exciting year of Dota 2.