IEM Katowice: Group Stage Preview
Before IEM Katowice began, ShoWTimE would have probably liked the thought of three Terrans joining his group from the Open Bracket, given that Protoss arguably shine the most in PvT. He would have been satisfied with GuMiho and Dear as his starting opponents as well. They're good players, yes, but they're two of the more beatable Koreans in this tournament. His group took a turn for the worse, though, as the Terrans that did enter his group are probably the three strongest that attended the Open Bracket. Maru already showed off his more than capable PvT by taking out Stats to qualify in a very entertaining series involving nukes, ravens and battlecruisers. TY breezed through the offline qualifier without dropping a map and the thought of him returning to form for this tournament don't bode well for the other players in his group. Lastly, SpeCial had a grueling day of matches, with series against Zest, Snute and Bunny going down to the wire, but he certainly proved his mettle in the games.
This group is quite interesting as the Korean participants in this group have played against each other a lot recently. Dear finds in a group with the two players who eliminated him from the GSL—Maru and GuMiho. TY had previously defeated GuMiho to advance to the Ro16 of GSL. Dear, though, beat both them and Maru in the Korean qualifiers for this event. GuMiho took down Maru and TY himself to qualify from the North American qualifier, And Maru first beat Dear before being eliminated by him in the re-match. GuMiho even took out SpeCial in a recent Olimoleague, while in turn losing to Dear again in BasetradeTV's Starleague qualifiers.
The bloodbath above should tell you just how close this group really is. Maru and Dear might be favorites to advance in current form, but between TY, SpeCial, ShoWTimE and GuMiho, there is enough talent in this group to take them down. SpeCial and ShoWTimE are the wildcards in this. While the Koreans have already shown they can all beat one another, the two international players are largely untested against them. SpeCial showed quite capable TvT yesterday and will certainly have an idea of how TY, Maru and GuMiho play the matchup after practicing in Korea for a long time. ShoWTimE has had the benefit of being qualified for Katowice for a while, giving him time to prepare for GuMiho and Dear in advance, and thus focus all his attention on the PvT and PvP matchups. That might come in handy with no Zerg joining the group from the Open Bracket.
TY's TvT looked impeccable in the Open Bracket, but Lillekanin, souL and Ryung are not quite players of Maru and GuMiho's calibre, arguably not of SpeCial's either. With Maru eliminating them both from GSL, combined with his very impressive play in the Open Bracket, I'm inclined to call him the favorite in the group. All the other spots are impossible to call though. I can see every potential outcome in this group, which goes to show how stacked this tournament really is. Getting a six-man Round Robin group where every player has a realistic shot at advancing is extremely rare. So please don't hate us when this prediction comes crashing down.
Maru, Dear and GuMiho advance to the Ro12.
As a beloved event, albeit one with an uncertain future, SSL’s legacy is alive and well in Group B. Dark is a three time finalist, with one of those losses coming at the hands of Solar. Solar boasts a 1-1 record in his two final appearances, the loss incidentally to INnoVation, the third head of the Korean hydra headlining the second round robin group. Though their aspirations are the same, to lift the trophy on Sunday, their journeys to this juncture have been wildly different.
Dark enters Katowice by virtue of making it through the first Korean qualifier, wreathed in the mantle of best Zerg in the world. It’s nothing new for Dark. This is what we’ve come to expect ever since his emergence as an elite player with Legacy of the Void. He was promise unfulfilled, before he was a silver collector, but now he is as formidable as anyone in the game.
And yet, all that dominance has yielded a far barer cupboard than his former teammate and 2018 rival INnoVation. INnoVation’s talent is not up for debate. His skill is practically ineffable, but his recent loss to Scarlett (and Zest and DIMAGA and TY) leave us questioning if the old hiccups in the machine might be reemerging. INnoVation, one of the few players who can competently wield the ghost/liberator end game composition, possesses some of the best TvZ in history, but it won’t do him any good if he can’t shore up his defenses.
Dark and INnoVation may exist in shades of dominance and excellence, but that’s something Solar has never tasted, even at his highest points. Solar cuts a rather hapless figure, more akin to the wildly unpredictable Dear than his once upon a time SSL final opponents. Still, there is nothing wrong with a flickering flame if it can bloom into an irrepressible blaze for a moment. A moment is all Solar needs to make up for his dismal effort in the SSL Season 1 finals less than a year ago.
A Puncher’s Chance
Solar, Dark and INnoVation may be the talk of the town, but they aren’t the only members of Group B. uThermal, who hasn’t posted a result worth writing home about in over a year, was one of the four Europeans to earn a direct seed via the online qualifiers. His route was punctuated by a win over Serral, hinting at a possible reemergence on the second biggest stage in the WCS Calendar.
A return to power is a heartwarming concept, but it requires one to have done something worth measuring themselves against. Hurricane has never reached the top four of a premier event over the course of his career. The community is justified in doubting he can reach the playoffs here.
To call TRUE a one trick pony has to be a disservice to him at this point, but here we are, preparing for five matches of zerglings, zerglings, the occasional mutalisk in ZvZ, and more zerglings. TRUE doesn’t have a great shot at escaping through the group, but he does have a chance. He’s played INnoVation tough before and Solar and Dark are not invincible. uThermal is in TRUE’s wheel house and he might be favored against Hurricane. Not everyone can be the favorite, but it’s hard to not get the feeling that TRUE gets a kick out of ruining someone’s day.
Dark, INnoVation and Solar head into Group D as the clear favorites and should advance without any difficulty, with all three logging wins over the other three members. As far as how they fare against each other, Dark > INnoVation > Solar, so expect them to finish in that order, leaving Solar and INnoVation to fight it out in the Round of 12, while Dark broods in the quarterfinal.
Dark, INnoVation and Solar advance to the Ro12.
Terrans, Group C is not for you. You're not represented in this one, as four Zergs and two Protoss battle for three spots in the Ro12 bracket. Impact, to the surprise of many, was the first player to qualify from the Korean qualifiers, and he did so in some style—taking out soO, sOs and herO. Even though Impact is not usually your first name on the list of players expected to advance, that run goes to show the kind of form he's in. And, on paper, he should like his chances in this group as well. ZvZ and ZvP are both matchups where his highly aggressive style works very well. However, Impact is still very much an online player. He's quietly done very well on ladder and in online tournaments for a while, but has fallen short in most of his offline appearances, most recently a disappointing elimination from the Ro32 of Code S—albeit in a tough group with Stats and Classic. If Impact can bring his online form to Katowice, I can see him going through. But if he performs even slightly worse, he will not.
Rogue has fallen off. Since his BlizzCon victory, he hasn't delivered the kind of brilliance we were getting used to. Outplayed by aLive and Scarlett in the Ro32 of Code S, he was eliminated in the first round. Bunny 3-0'd him in the IEM PyeongChang qualifiers. These are all players that are already eliminated from or not attending Katowice. Gone are the days when Rogue dominated the Korean ladder with multiple accounts. It's hard to say whether it's complacency doing the damage or if others have begun to figure him out, but Rogue is not the same player we saw in Anaheim. In fact, if it hadn't been for his BlizzCon triumph and subsequent invitation to IEM Katowice (the only player to be invited to the event), Rogue might not even be here. Current form certainly doesn't suggest he could have qualified. That doesn't bode well for him in this group. But we all know what Rogue is capable of, and he has had some time to prepare. Perhaps he'll come surging back.
Nerchio is very hard to evaluate properly. He's done alright against European opposition, especially in ZvZ, qualifying from the European qualifier by defeating Snute, Elazer, Serral and Harstem (twice). On the other hand, he's almost entirely untested against Korean opposition, and the few times he has faced Korean players recently haven't ended well for him. This leaves him in a funny spot in a group with two Korean Zergs and Serral. I don't know how he'll fare, but Nerchio will need to bring his very best games to the group if he is to stand a chance.
Serral, fresh off his WCS Championship, might have a better shot at advancing from the group. His ZvZ is usually quite solid, but a 3-1 loss to Scarlett at IEM PyeongChang showed that he's not invincible in the matchup. His ZvP is perhaps less vulnerable, but Neeb and Zest are two very dangerous opponents to face. Similar to Nerchio, Serral's fate in this group is hard to predict. I would argue that he's the best non-Korean in the group, perhaps even the best player overall in current form, but with ZvZ being as volatile as it is and two quite strong Protoss opponents waiting for him in the group, Serral can't feel too sure about his chances to advance.
This group will be extremely telling for Zest. Our Power Rank mentions his PvZ weakness, and Group C will truly show whether he's overcoming it. With recent losses to Cham, soO, Scarlett, Elazer and Impact, plus a close series against Leenock, Zest's PvZ is what's truly holding him back at the moment. He's proven to be a very strong PvTer, eliminating INnoVation from the GSL recently and now making his way through three Terrans in the Open Bracket, and his PvP is always top notch. But PvZ will make or break his tournament success. And even though it looks bleak on paper, when Zest talked about "focusing heavily on fixing his weaknesses" to prepare for Katowice, he can't have spoken of anything other than this matchup. He will have had two days to prepare for essentially one matchup, and with good Korean Zergs already eliminated from the tournament (soO and Leenock, for example), there might be some practice partners there for him. If Zest can have his PvZ woes addressed by Friday, we may have to begin considering him a potential tournament contender.
Neeb hasn't really impressed in Katowice so far. 2-0'd by Hurricane in the Open Bracket, having to go through grueling series against RagnaroK and Patience, Neeb doesn't appear to have maintained the same form that saw him win three of the four WCS events last year. He is still a very capable player, though, and his PvZ was excellent last year. If he can bring that same level in the matchup, he could absolutely advance from this group.
This group is tough to call. ZvZ being ZvZ, all the Zergs could beat one another. The deciding factor in this group, to me, is how the two Protoss fare against the Zergs. They have an easier time preparing for these matches, as they can essentially focus on the vZ matchup, while the Zergs all need to consider both ZvZ and ZvP. That may just tip the scales in the Protoss' favor.
Zest, Serral and Neeb advance to the Ro12.
Bound By the Khala
Eight Protoss reached the group stages of IEM Katowice, but it’s very possible that the three in the best form were all placed in Group D. Classic, sOs and even Trap have a history of elite finishes behind them. They are all champions, with other impressive finishes under the belt. And yet, they enter the event as anything but equals.
The best player in the world at the moment, it’s impossible to ignore the monstrous shadow Classic casts over his fellow members. Be it statistics or the eye test, everything screams that Classic is a cut above. Classic has been buried beneath supposed mediocrity over the past few years, with his successes being disguised by the triumphs of others. But with an offline victory already under his belt in 2018, Classic is looking more and more like the SSL and GSL champion he is. With hype comes pressure however, and anything but a championship will be be regarded as a failure.
sOs is starting to get intimately acquainted with failure. The $100,000 dollar man is well on his way to shedding that mantle, preferring to do his best soO impression since winning BlizzCon in the fall of 2015. Since then sOs is 0-3 in finals. He’s lost to ByuN, INnoVation in GSL and most recently Scarlett in PyeongChang. The circumstances were different, though most would agree that sOs, the favorite before IEM Pyeongchang even began, was overwhelmingly advantaged over a Best of 7 against a foreigner. His general weakness over the course of the series was lost in the merriment that was Scarlett’s grand victory, but his deflating display begs the question if the man who once shone brightest in the biggest moments, no longer possesses the midas touch when it matters.
Trap is the lesser Jin Air Protoss, and he may have been eliminated from GSL only a few days ago, but a top three finish in the group would not leave anyone picking their jaw off the floor. Let’s not forget that Trap was the one who brought Dark’s ONPOONG reign of terror to an end and dashed the hopes of millions (thousands?) by eliminating ByuN from GSL. First place seems impossible given the presence of his decorated countrymen, but Trap merely needs to hold serve against the motley forces arrayed against him, so he and his Protoss brothers can march onwards.
Home Field Advantage
The effect of home field advantage is inarguable. Visiting players crumble while local heroes rise to unprecedented levels. Fervor and excitement abound as the storybook ending becomes reality.
Katowice has been anything but that for Elazer. One of the two remaining Polish players in the tournament, Elazer has never even gotten to this point at the IEM World Championships. Last year he stumbled before he ever had the opportunity to play before a crowd, nevermind experience the Spodek Arena atmosphere, but he’ll get a chance to do at least that this time around. Elazer’s 2018 WCS campaign has gotten off to a respectable, though unspectacular start. He will need to improve on those results if he wants to be the man for whom the home crowd cheers on Sunday.
You might remember Ryung as having lost to Stats in the 2017 GSL Season 1 semifinals. A select few might remember that he reached the same threshold in 2012. If you can’t remember anything Ryung did or who he played in the Open Bracket, no one could blame you. Never a phenomenal talent, people have made a habit of overlooking Ryung. While other names flash on the marquee, try to remember that Ryung reached the Round of 12 at this event a year after going 3-2 in his group, with one of those wins coming over a certain European Terran.
Like Elazer, there is no love lost between HeRoMaRinE and Katowice. Back to back losses to Ryung and Snute in the group stage put him on the outside looking in of Group A in 2017. That’s a distant memory however, for HeRoMaRinE is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the Open Bracket. That said, conventional wisdom dictates we write him off now that he’s made it this far. He was far from pinned to earn one of the three qualifying spots from Bracket 3 however, and while it would take a herculean effort to escape the group, if it all came down to a rematch between HeRoMaRinE and Ryung, the Katowice crowd could well be cheering for HeRoMaRinE as if he were an adopted son.
Classic is going to drop a freight train on Katowice, Elazer is going to beat sOs, who will actually wind up in third, but still come in fourth after losing to Trap. Group D is a group with four legitimate contenders for the three Ro12 spots and possibilities abound. Expect fireworks as the group winds down, even if the results are oh so obvious on paper.
Classic, sOs and Trap advance to the Ro12.