Written by Mizenhauer
Between all the minor balance tweaking and complete redesigns, only a select few players can claim to have been championship contenders throughout Legacy of the Void. INnoVation had a period of dominance, and Rogue is enjoying a similar reign now. Others such as Zest, herO, TY and ByuN have shown brilliance in spurts. However, none of them have come close to matching Dark’s consistent excellence in LotV.
Right out the gate, Dark seized LotV by the scruff. With a victory over Stats in SSL Season One—Korea’s first premier LotV event—Dark rose to the top of the swarm. It’s not as if Dark was a new name, but we never knew he was this good. He showed predatory instincts and an understanding of the new expansion far exceeding that of anyone in the competition. The SSL finals also served as the coming out party for the ling/bane style that became a staple of ZvP. Back then, Dark didn’t have the post-buff hydralisks to lean on—baneling drops and zergling run-bys bought him the space required to tech directly to brood lords. He dominated a completely bewildered Stats in the finals, who was left pumping immortals as if they could do anything against Dark’s swarm.
Two years later, Dark is as influential as ever.
Since the launch of LotV, Dark has played in four premier event finals, SSL Season 1 and 2 in 2016 as well as BlizzCon 2016 and the second SSL of 2017. He has reached the penultimate stage of four additional events, IEM Gyeonggi, IEM Katowice, GSL Season 3 and the second Super Tournament.
Even INnoVation—whose tremendous 2017 WCS run included four major championships—can’t say he matched Dark in sheer consistency. Not when even he himself admits to punting on the 2016 season entirely. Only Stats can claim he equalled Dark’s staying power. However, in spite of Stats’ undeniable presence throughout LotV, many of his accomplishments are stained with the air of the mundane. On the other hand, Dark was the dynamo that powered the Zerg race through LotV, innovating strategies and playing some of its most thrilling games. When the technical score is tied, judges must break the deadlock by favoring the artist. Would it be a stretch to call Dark the second best player of the expansion? For those who rate consistency as highly as big moments, it's not a difficult question to answer.
Dark defeats Stats in SSL Season 1 to win the first Korean championship of LotV.
Still, there’s another way we could describe Dark, one that gets to the core of who Dark has become as a competitor. Dark was crowned SSL champion on April 9, 2016, but that once crowning achievement has become his desperate foothold to remain among the StarCraft II elite. Nearly two years have passed since Dark gave us that spectacular, unforgettable finals performance. Dark may be the second best player of LotV, but he bears another, paradoxical title: Dark is the biggest loser of StarCraft II’s third expansion.
That’s quite a statement to make given soO’s triple silver 2017, but it’s more than warranted. soO entered 2017 on the back of a forgettable maiden LotV campaign. He reached the finals three times over the course of the year, but was dismissed by many as the underdog along the way. Everyone praises soO’s prodigious mechanics, but it’s always as a qualifier before a piercing criticism of his play. 'No one's injects are as good as soO’s, but I wish he wouldn’t be so stubborn about his army compositions.' 'soO's mechanics are out of this world, but he really makes some questionable decisions sometimes.' A vocal portion of the community never gave soO a chance to beat Stats, GuMiho and Rogue. All the wins on the way to the finals were just him fumbling his way to disappointment.
Dark doesn’t suffer from such prejudices. Until Rogue's ascendence in late 2017, Dark stood alone as the ‘ideal’ Zerg player of LotV. All Zergs have the same tools available to them, but Dark seemingly operated on an entirely different level. His spell caster usage was second to none. His decision making in the late game was unparalleled. His ability to identify and master new compositions in an evolving metagame allowed him to keep winning regardless of the patch.
If soO’s losses come with a sigh and a shake of the head, Dark’s come with a gasp of disbelief. He’s been so good for so long that we expect him to win at every turn. Nevertheless, he’s lost as many finals in LotV as soO, while also slipping up in the semifinals four times to soO’s one. We tend not to notice, perhaps because Dark tends to looks magnificent even in defeat. He’s yet to put together a deflating final worthy of Kongs like soO or MarineKing. He’s always maintained his composure under the bright lights. BlizzCon was the only time Dark looked like he might be overwhelmed, unable to match ByuN’s opportunistic tactics. But even there, Dark scored a rare moral victory, winning a comeback on King Sejong Station in a best-of-tournament game.
Perhaps it's a notion we have belabored to the point of exhaustion, but perception is truly a fickle beast. soO—the most infamous Kong—reached the finals of two consecutive GSL’s in 2017, but many still fancied Dark the better Zerg at the time. And yet, at the end of the day, soO is 12-0 in GSL quarterfinals and semifinals, while Dark has never even reached the Code S finals. How about this view? soO is a winner who loses, Dark is a loser who happens to have won: Take that for perception.
Another moral victory for Dark in the GSL semifinals.
Second best player AND the biggest loser. It took a lot of work for Dark to somehow earn both those titles.
SK Telecom T1 was supposed to unlock the potential of boxer’s last son, but pulling Dark out of the mire of mediocrity was no simple task. Dark improved considerably after joining in SKT 2012, even reaching two KeSPA Cup finals in 2015. Still, Dark felt like more of a visitor to the championship scene than a legitimate threat to walk home with a trophy. At the end of Heart of the Swarm, he was still firmly entrenched as a second tier Zerg, behind the likes of Life, ByuL, soO, and even Rogue.
As mentioned above, Legacy of the Void changed everything for Dark. For a brief moment, Solar was the Zerg who seemed to be benefiting most from LotV (he played a big part in shaping the meta early on), but ultimately it was Dark who put all the pieces together. The quirky, overly complex ling/bane/roach/corruptor compositions he used in HotS evolved to another level in LotV. The expansion may have sped the game up in some ways, but Dark was allowed to spend less time macroing and more time making correct decisions—something he did at a more successful rate than anyone in the world.
To say that Dark has been the driving force behind Zerg strategies over the last two years would be an understatement. In 2016, Dark identified roach/ravager as the correction solution for Zergs in ZvT. His prodigious spell-caster control allowed him to reach a level of play other Zergs could not approach. Perfectly paired fungal growths and corrosive biles were highlight-reel worthy, but they was just one of Dark's many techniques. The subtleties of his play go underrated. For instance, ultralisks became more than bruising, front-line tanks in Dark's hands, instead leading raids on enemy bases or staying back as staunch defenders.
Dark and Rogue were the only Zergs capable of going toe to toe with INnoVation in the latter half of 2017, but Rogue was only operating on paradigms which Dark had founded. The bandolier of diverse cheeses, finesse with vipers and infestors, discipline against skytoss, and explosive incisvincess against mech—all that belonged to Dark before Rogue was ever hailed as best in the world.
Despite all that, Dark has only won one tournament in LotV, the very first one in Korea. ByuN famously denied him at BlizzCon, just as Stats came out on top of the SSL finals rematch match half a year ago. INnoVation has ended Dark’s run at the penultimate stage twice, while both Stats and herO ended Dark's hopes when dual GSL-SSL finals seemed like a realistic goal.
Each time, we left thinking ‘Dark is really good.’ That has never changed. Then, why isn’t he winning more? Dark saved himself from being branded as a Kong when he won his Starleague, but he is scarred nonetheless.
Dark’s 2017 WCS campaign ended in abject failure. There was trouble from the start, with Dark improbably dropping a map against Kelazhur in a 2-1 victory. He fell flat against herO—a player he was level with—in the winner's match. That sent him to a decider match against Poland's Elazer. Dark’s ZvZ has always been his weakest matchup, there was hardly need for concern. After all, he lost to Zergs like soO and Rogue, not upstart foreigners like Elazer. Dark was looking at another BlizzCon quarterfinal and a shot at redemption. He lost.
Two storylines collide; only one survives.
Dark didn’t have time to ruminate on his mistakes. The 4.0 balance patch landed with a seismic impact that sent the professional scene scrambling and community reeling. Dark found himself in familiar waters. The tinkerer who showed Zerg the way to play two years ago was back in the lab.
We got our first glimpse of the new-patch Dark on November 30th, in an eleven match set against GuMiho organized by ONPOONG. It was the first of seven consecutive showmatches he won against top-tier opponents to close out 2017. Dark went on to incinerate the 'preseason', going 22-5 in matches following his encounter with the Towel Terran. He qualified for IEM Katowice and GSL Season 1 against the best Korea had to offer (wins against TY x3, Dear x2, herO, Zest, Classic and INnoVation).
Dark stayed red-hot once the real competition started. He advanced to the quarterfinals of the GSL Code S without dropping a match. He took second place at WESG Asia-Pacific, only losing to the seemingly invincible Classic. For Dark, it was business as usual. At IEM Katowice, he'd have a chance to show what he could really do.
Losing to Hurricane in the group stage was an inauspicious way to start IEM, but Dark had more than earned the benefit of the doubt. He made it through the Round of 24 with a 3-2 record, with a win against INnoVation to reassure everyone that he was as formidable as ever. He was the favorite headed into his Round of 12 match against Trap, and the path to a championship was already taking shape. Another chastising for Serral, a brutal match against Classic, and then whoever came out of the opposite bracket in the finals… difficult, but all within reach for Dark, a man who had become synonymous with StarCraft excellence. And then, Trap woke everyone from their daydreaming.
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
In retrospect, no one should have been surprised that Dark fell short. After all, falling short is what Dark does best, besides being excellent. Dark has the capacity to go toe to toe with anyone in a macro game, right up until the point where he loses. His successful all-ins leave us praising his cunning, while the ones that fail leave us wondering if such a risk was necessary for someone so skilled. Losing to gateways proxied in his main during the WESG Asia-Pacific qualifier or failing to capitalize on a long held supply lead during his frantic encounter with Trap on Blackpink last weekend, reminds us that Dark has a proclivity for finding curious ways to crumble.
All the while, Rogue has been adding insult to injury. He's armed with all of the weapons forged by Dark, but wields them with even more precision and strength. While Dark has been finding yet more ways to lose, Rogue has been winning game after game through sheer force of will.
Dark has been certified against being a Kong, but he has been building a resume riddled with high profile defeats. He is 1-4 in finals. He has lost in the semifinals on five occasions. How much time do we allow before a player stops being a 'champion' and becomes a 'disappointment'?
So, here we are again, at the same place we always seem to arrive at with Dark. We still believe that he's on even footing against even the toughest opponents. We still believe he's a title contender in any tournament he enters. And so, it begins.
'The IEM Katowice loss against Trap was surely no more than a fluke, Dark should defeat Zest in the Code S quarterfinals. Classic looked vulnerable against Rogue. Dark should make quick work of him in their inevitable WESG rematch and win his first GSL title. It won’t be long until he returns to BlizzCon and claims the trophy that should have been his years ago.'
Inside, we may know that it's just wishful thinking, that there have been too many failures at critical moments to ignore. Yet, for Dark, and his three years of strategic ingenuity, riveting matches, and sheer all-around excellence, hope—even vain hope—is the very least he deserves.