SSL Grand Finals
The time has finally come. The first season of the 2016 StarCraft II StarLeague is drawing to a close, and this coming Saturday we will at long last crown the champion of the biggest championship of the year. Or, that is, the biggest championship of the year so far. Because let's be honest: the first SSL of 2016 has been a rather strange affair, all things considered.
Where the other big-league Korean tournament, the much older and more storied GSL, has seen a wide variety of playstyles, upsets, and strategies, the SSL has felt somewhat rushed. The first finalist, Dark, emerged from the upper bracket to reach the highest echelon of the tournament almost solely on the back of his ZvP performance. He flawlessly took on three protoss players before triumphing over Solar 4-2 to win the Upper Bracket finals. The second finalist, Stats, meanwhile, has had to beat the same amount of Protoss players (and one of them twice), but he’s also been pitted against two Zergs and a Terran on his journey, making his path to the finals both more contested and more varied.
Of the two, Stats has had to endure much more to finally come out on top. Compared to his opponent's, the challenges placed before Dark have been made to look inadequate, his own abilities nearly insurmountable. But that’s an innate part of playing the game: sometimes fates are fickle, and none more so than bracket seedings. Of course, we shouldn’t—and couldn't—take away their accomplishments. Both Dark and Stats unquestionably deserve their respective spots in the grand finals. They’ve worked for them, they've paid their dues, they’ve faced the odds and come out on top. All that remains is to see who will prevail.
In essence, the grand finals puts two very important things at stake. Of course, foremost there is the title itself, first of its kind for the year. Becoming the inaugural LotV champion is an enticing prospect, and no one wants to stumble on the finish line. Nearly six years after the fact, Fruitdealer is still remembered for his first league victory, and Soulkey is still remembered for prevailing over INnoVation, even when there are three years' worth of championships between then and now.
Secondly, the winner will qualify directly for the WCS Global Playoffs, to be held in the fall. The question of which should be considered more prestigious -- a Korean league or the annual Global Finals -- seems to be a moot point for players, who covet victories in both. Securing that slot now, so early, would take an enormous weight off the backs of either finalist. Granted, there are WCS Points to console whomever falls on the finish line, but that will surely seem a poor man's prize when the winner can surpass every future struggle for the rest of the year.
Second prizes are seldom particularly attractive when one has eyes on the first prize, and it is the first prize alone these two will fight for. Anything else is the shadow of an afterthought.
SKT’s Dark has finally made a name for himself this past spring. He deservedly nabbed the Rookie of the Year award from Proleague last year [E/N: Shoutout to Valdes for calling that one], and while 2015 was all about his future potential as a player, his results this year have been convincing. They are, finally, enough to stand firmly on without looking to the future, to greener pastures. After absolutely plowing his way through the SSL Upper Bracket, he stands on the precipice of the true success reserved to a handful per year, and all that hard work, all that waiting, is about to pay off in a big way.
But for a man with a reputation built on potential soon to be realized, it is also important to note that he did drop out of GSL, finally knocked out by Losira in the second group stage. For Losira, it was the latest in a long, long line of predictably unpredictable successes. For Dark, it represents the first real chink in the armor that has seemed almost unbeatable up until this point. With GSL out of the picture, a defeat here would mean waiting a rather long time before another similar chance turns up. Dark knows that sometimes, these chances come only once.
Living up to his oft-touted potential has been all about mixing up styles. Dark has transitioned from a mostly macro-oriented Zerg to a more versatile brand of play, often opting for fast, aggressive attacks when the situation calls for it. Nowadays, he doesn’t scoff at cheese, but his choices still tend to be level-headed. He calmly evaluates any given scenario, and makes the best use of his ever growing bag of tricks, Dark should also be looking to throw Stats off his balance with unexpected plays. All things considered, his utter dominance (look and blanch at the win rate below) over Protoss players should peg him as the clear favorite to win the grand finals.
2016 offline record versus Protoss: 90.91%
2016 offline record total: 75.68%
KT Rolster’s Stats certainly took the scenic route coming here. Like an adrenaline-addicted climber, he’s has teetered on the precipice of doom several times during his run, somehow always just managing to pull his own weight to the next platform. Beating Hurricane and Patience, he quickly found Dark to be an impenetrable obstacle, and the Protoss player was sent to the lower bracket, where he was forced to wade through a puddle consisting of ByuN, Patience (which, fittingly for a rematch, was a rank slaughter) and Solar to climb to the grand finals. Where, like the season finale of a cheesy sports show, he will face the one that defeated him first to begin win.
While Dark is ruthlessly gunning for the trophy, Stats’s year so far -- like previous years -- has been unpredictable and uneven. He never made it to Code S, stopped by DeParture, but he put the final stop to Solar’s frightening reign in ZvP during the SSL Lower Bracket final. As always, he remains a staple of KT’s Proleague line-up, and a rather successful one at that. Stats is certainly hailed as one of the best Protoss players in the world, in spite of all ups-and-downs. On paper, Zerg seems to be his weakness, but if you can forget his defeat against Dark for just a second, remember that he has very recently won against Solar, Curious and Rogue. Statistics can only tell you one part of the story, and never the future, but it would be a grave mistake for anyone, Dark most of all, to disregard the Protoss finalist at this point.
2016 offline record vZ: 43.75%
2016 offline record total: 60.47%
Final Thoughts and Prediction
Dark and Stats fought each other in the semifinals, and Dark made it clear he was uninterested in detours. He walked over the Protoss not once, but three unceremonious times in a row. On both Lerilak Crest and Prion Terraces, Dark read his opponent perfectly, committing just the right amount of units and exploiting Stats’ flawed building placements to power down and cripple Protoss infrastructure, leading to two swift victories, so similar that they were hard to tell apart. Stats’ play felt almost complacent at times, not really believing Dark capable of such unbridled fury, and he paid a heavy price for it. Dark’s aggressive, decisive style also played murder on Stats’ mind, and the Protoss player was coming apart at the seams in the third game, foolishly engaging a much superior army at precisely the wrong moment on Ulrena.
This time around, Stats will need to maintain perfect focus, or the match will be over before it can begin. Looking at the percentages, Dark should be the one to take this, without contest. Based on their most recent encounter, again, Dark should be the one to come out on top with bloody hands and a wide grin. However, sample sizes are so small as to be nearly insignificant, and if we include all match-ups, general form comes down to a more manageable 15% difference. Besides, ZvP percentages will have been skewed by their previous match-ups, and things do change quickly in Starcraft. Months ago, the two did face off in the GSL qualifiers, and Stats was able to take down the Zerg, but the time between then and now might as well have been years. Aggressive timing attacks have been the Achilles heel of Stats over the course of the season, and it remains to be seen if he’s adequately prepared. Maybe he will finally put those phoenixes to good use.
If the crushing 3-0 loss still looms in his mind, and his resolve remains shattered, no amount of cajoling will be able to convince Stats that he’s worthy of the title. He has been David to Dark's Goliath once already, and David could never have killed the giant if he hadn't taken the shot. The question is if Stats dares -- if he can -- take the shot at all. A hungry Dark will be probing every nook and cranny in relentless search for cracks and weaknesses. What’s certain is that Dark will come at the Protoss player, hungry for glory, with everything he has.
Dark 4 - 1 Stats