Ninjas in Pyjamas is a zombie. Technically Friberg is still alive (even if the stats say otherwise) and the team occasionally stumbles into tournament wins, but they have been expunged of whatever original magic made them the darlings of the CS scene. Ever since their utter collapse against Vega Squadron in the Eleague Major qualifier, fans have come to accept the inexorable conclusion it was a sign of the future. Rampant inconsistency plagues their individual members; their shallow map pool turns any prediction into an exercise of walking on eggshells; strategically and tactically they have not evolved in years. Losing on Cache has transformed from a shocking upset into a discontented shrug. It happens every week, whether to the best competition in the world or a mix team with a few days of practice between the current roster.
The problem is not one of fecklessness or incompetence. You only need to watch GeT_RiGhT’s face at LANs to see he still cares deeply about winning, how much it hurts to fail at things NiP would’ve considered instinct a few years ago. Yet NiP as an organization lacks an overarching sense of direction to shake them out of lethargy. They’ve fallen prey to that most dreary of prerogatives, the preservation of the status quo above all else. As an institution preserving its brand and fanbase NiP is as vibrant as Groucho Marx in his prime; as a team dedicated to winning above all else, it is a corpse animated by routine and a steady influx of cash. After every failure, the public admissions are the same: we’ve let down the fans and ourselves, we promise to work harder to make the name proud, no player is exempt from responsibility, etc. At this point few take NiP’s missives prima facie instead of being examples of regurgitated PR drivel. Genuine contrition would consist of substantial roster changes, a radical shuffling of roles, attempts to restructure their T side. Instead a new fifth player is announced, the honeymoon season commences, and we wait for the celebration period to peter out so things can go back to normal.
Fortunately for everyone else in the EU Minor qualifier, this is where the metaphor falls apart. It would be an unnerving prospect to face an opponent driven by indomitable hunger. Teams like Virtus.Pro and Fnatic made their reputations off a stubborn refusal to lose, and Ninjas in Pyjamas themselves were famous for making comebacks in their heyday. This version hasn’t displayed much resilience whatsoever. Despite being favorites to advance to the Minor, they are vulnerable to the Bo1 format. The sheer flood of different teams they could face makes it impossible to do adequate research, while the competition has plenty to watch when it comes to the Swedish legends. Skill alone should carry the Ninjas in the Minor but there are some gaping holes in their gameplay that can be exploited with minimal effort.
First and foremost, Ninjas in Pyjamas has a predictable map pool. Overpass is their primary ban due to their stunning ineptitude on T side. For reference the last time NiP played Overpass was at the StarLadder Season 3 Finals; the last time they won on it was at IEM Oakland last year. Similarly they don’t play Mirage whatsoever. These have been their traditionally weakest maps, so it’s no surprise NiP don’t want to resort to them in their current condition. With Dust 2 out of the equation and a strong reluctance to play on Train, their active map pool consists of Cache/Inferno/Cobblestone/Nuke.
4 maps would be enough to breeze through the qualifier if NiP was competent on all of them. However, Cache and Inferno come with some severe caveats. On both maps, their T side often turns into a liability; games are often decided by whether NiP can start off on CT side. Their lack of varied site executes often forces them to fulfill certain prerequisites early in the round e.g. getting quick control over mid on Cache. Combined, NiP has a habit of excelling or floundering on those maps. It’s not a bad P/B strategy when playing an extended season in EPL or ECS, but the enormous risk may dissuade them from relying on it here. I expect them to lean towards Cobblestone and Nuke. Most EU teams don’t play Nuke on a regular basis (only the Danish and French teams show proficiency on it) and Cobblestone has been a reliable fallback, even including those recent embarrassing beatdowns from North and Liquid.
If Mirage and Overpass remain permanent bans for NiP, the safest strategy would be to ban Nuke (unless you are Heroic or EnvyUs) and a combination of Cobblestone/Train or Cobblestone/Cache. This is an ideal approach for iGame, NiP’s first opponent in the Swiss system, as their main maps are Train and Inferno; PENTA and Space Soldiers certainly wouldn’t mind it either. Teams that don’t feel comfortable with T side on Cache ought to try exploiting NiP’s paltry T tactics on CT-favored maps.
The second option available to teams is to imitate how PENTA knocked Virtus.Pro out of EPL: show an utter lack of respect. A common reason lower-tier teams lose to their betters, although neglected as an explanation in post-match analysis, is intimidation. Players become so neurotic about screwing up against more seasoned, acclaimed players that they screw up anyway. Aim evaporates, executes that were flawless in practice fall apart, and communication comes to a halt. By contrast, PENTA treated VP as if they were a pub team in MM. HS face-rushed players at every opportunity, kRYSTAL never stopped peeking no matter how ill-advised, and suNny took a hot dump over his opponents. VP themselves looked disorganized and indifferent to the outcome, but PENTA’s disrespect proved the difference between a close result and a blowout.
This type of no-frills aggression looks promising against a team with NiP’s specific problems. NiP right now frequently lose motivation and willpower when they fall behind early in a game. They get sloppy, disregard whatever structured tactics they have, and attempt to out-muscle the enemy in firefights. Get_Right and friberg have been big disappointments throughout 2017, unable to find consistent form. Friberg’s woes stretch back much longer but Get_Right’s low point exceeds the Marianas Trench—when he’s bad, he’s unbearable to watch. Usually NiP’s victories are a result of f0rest +1 going off, with the rest of the team funneling kills to Draken. But what happens if that extra player never has impact? What we’ve typically seen from Get_Right and friberg this year is a reliance on starting hot. Whenever they get shut down early on, they get discouraged and the frustration carries over throughout the rest of the game.
A team like North Academy or Outlaws should not beat NiP in most Bo1s. Hell, they should have no chance in a Bo3. However that assumes the match is decided purely by skill and intelligence. There’s an added layer of pressure on NiP that no one else in this qualifier feels. The vast majority of teams here are outsiders looking in; the Major qualifier is a pipe dream, and they can play as if they have nothing to lose. It’s NiP that has to contend with a tarnished reputation and bitter criticism. It’s Get_Right, friberg, and Xizt who must deal with underperforming tournament after tournament and the self-doubt that accompanies it. NiP is still stumbling on the fumes of past glories, yet it won’t take a beheading to cripple this former powerhouse. XANTARES playing lights out for one half could do it. Replace his name with ScreaM, Tabsen, jkaem, REZ, or six other names and it still holds. Win the knife round, get them on T side on a map like Inferno, and they might implode. Shut down friberg and they have no way to break into a site.
There’s good reason why fans wait for the Minor qualifier with apprehension. Their beloved team, no matter how much common sense and the numbers lean in their favor, is a bundle of meat barely held together by skin. They are better than every other team here on their best day...which comes every two weeks. In the meanwhile, NiP is capable of anything. They can outlast Astralis and get crushed by a mix team on the same map. They can win 5 rounds in 53 at their nadir. It’s uncomfortably feasible that they could be worse than Outlaws or passions for 40 minutes. With how competitive this stage of the Major has become, one lapse in performance could mean everything. If their opponents do their homework and challenge them without reservation, NiP could find themselves in an unprecedented situation: watching a Major from home.