Photo: Carlton Beener (via Blizzard)
*This interview was conducted via voice call. The content has been edited and condensed.
Wax: Looking back at WCS Austin now, how did you make such an impressive run? Was there a lot of luck involved?
MaNa: It seemed more of a surprise to everybody else. I was practicing really hard in the past few months and I had been seeing the results of my practice quite nicely. I could see the big improvement, but there was still a lot of stuff I needed to work on.
I think this was the tournament I came to with a higher level of play than before. Even though I made plenty of mistakes, I think it was the first tournament where people had to consider me a threat, even the best guys.
I think they were just not prepared. They were like 'ah, yeah, I know this guy. He used to be good but he's not good anymore.' I don't think they were taking me very seriously. Of course they wanted to win, but I think they just underestimated me a little bit. I planned EVERY series and pretty much every map in advance, and I thought my plans were smart enough to beat them. Well, I guess it showed in the games.
"I don't think they were taking me very seriously. Of course they wanted to win, but I think they just underestimated me a little bit."
Who else knew you were playing at a higher level? Everyone faces each other on the ladder, so don't they know each others' level pretty well?
Not necessarily. I think the ladder and tournament games are vastly different. I played a couple of online cups here and there, and the results weren't really bad or good either.
I was just getting to a high level. I don't think I peaked before the tournament, but I peaked AT the tournament. The practice that I got from the first group stage, second group, then the third one just improved my game up until the grand finals as well.
So I don't think anyone, even myself, knew what to expect. I just knew I was good, I knew I could perform, but I didn't know how well I would do.
You talked about being very prepared. For the RO16 match against Neeb, you would have had a lot of time. But how did you prepare for the day three gauntlet where you only had an hour or so between matches?
It's even less, it's like thirty minutes or so before the matches because you need to unpack and plug in right after the previous matches finish.
So for day three preparation, I knew I was going to face Snute first, so I didn't have to think about it too much. I know his style very well and he knows my style very well. It was just pure mind games inside the games. I didn't want to go into a full best-of-five—if I was to win, I thought it needed to be a shorter series. I just tried stuff that would finish things somewhere in the mid-game or in the early game.
When I was facing SpeCial, I wasn't really confident in my PvT. I didn't have any specific plan for that match, I just wanted to play well and get good practice. What to do in the games I would just decide on the fly, really. I didn't have too much prepared versus SpeCial, because I had lost already versus souL in the second group stage. That kinda hurt me, because he pretty much crushed me. I think I played okay, not super well, but good enough for me to be a winner in that series.
So I basically learned PvT in that series versus SpeCial. In the grand finals as well, it was just preparation from playing versus Snute before, and in the first group stage versus Namshar. It was just a collection of everything that I thought of before.
You mentioned you learned PvT on the fly versus SpeCial. Is that how different a tournament game is from a practice game or a custom game? That you can learn from playing live?
Yes, I think the biggest difference between a ladder or a custom game, and a tournament game at such a late stage of a tournament is that they want to win really badly. They will do everything in their power to win. In a custom or ladder game, it's like 'yeah, I want to practice this particular thing, and we'll see what happens.'
So people will do a lot of things differently, try to play with your mind, they'll try to prepare against your strategy if they know it. So ladder and a tournament game is vastly different. It's not something you can really prepare for, but something you just need to take into consideration when you are going into a tournament game—that things may be different than you practiced for.
In your interviews before facing Serral, you made it seem like you had no chance. Were those your honest feelings, or were you playing it up?
They were my honest feelings, because I can barely take a map off Serral on the ladder when I'm playing my best. Even if I am super far ahead on the ladder, he would just always win. But right before the tournament, I managed to win versus him a couple of times on the ladder, so it was the best time for me to have a chance against Serral. But even then, the chances were like 10 to 90 in his favor. And the statistics show that, because I think I took like only one map or two maps against him in the last ten matches or so.
What makes Serral so much better than everyone else?
From what I notice, he doesn't take any risks. He believes he's the better player and trusts in his late game. Serral's late game is very strong and he knows it, he knows how to use it properly. So there are very few games where you will see him go like 'Oh my god, I have to win right here right now.' No, every time he plays he's like 'I have an advantage, I'll back off a little bit and make sure I don't lose too much.'
He will seize opportunities, yes, but he will not take any unnecessary risks. I think that's what stands out for him.
So the Roach-Ling floods against you were calculated moves.
I'm pretty sure, yes. I'm pretty sure he knew what he could do at what timing. Like, maybe he was trying to learn on the fly, but he's a smart player. Even if maybe it was the first time or second time he was doing that, he knew what could happen.
You used the mass-Phoenix openers that started popping up last week. Do you think they give Protoss a little advantage for now, since Zergs are still in the adapting phase?
It's relatively new, I think Zest did it first in GSL. I tried it myself on stream and I didn't like it. I thought it lacked the opportunities to kill the Zerg or kill the Creep, stuff like that. But the more I played it, the more I understood it and what Protoss can do in exchange. I don't need to clear the creep, because it's good that I'm not dying, you know?
I think the strategy is pretty good, that's what I thought. When it comes to exploiting it, yeah it's still pretty new, but a lot of the Protoss players, pretty much every single player is playing it, or at least knows how to play it, so the Zergs are learning. I don't think it will become a go-to build because I think it's a little risky, and there are some things you can do against it. Of course I'm not going to explain what to do to counter it [laughs]. I think it's not going to be the new standard, but it's definitely a good strategy to have in your pocket.
How did you feel when you went up 2-1 against Serral? How shocked were you?
I was very proud of myself because I showed a different late game than what everyone is used to, and that is what I had been practicing for months. I had such good success with it, that I was so proud of myself that I came up with something different from what everyone was doing, and it actually worked versus the best ZvP player in the world. I was just feeling very proud.
You mean not going sky-Protoss and just sticking with ground?
So when I went up 2-1, I was like... I didn't really believe that I would be LEADING in the series.
I had thought, maybe if it's 3-0 I can win one or two games after that. I never knew I would lead in the series. It was the first time that I honestly felt that it was possible for me, it was realistically possible for me to win the grand finals.
But after those two games, he woke up—[laughs]—pretty much, and started to be the monster that he is, and he played... well, pretty much flawlessly after that, decision-making wise.
Photo: Carlton Beener (via Blizzard)
Do you think he played a bit sloppy in those two losses?
Yes, but I think it's because I kind of forced him to make mistakes. I think my tournament run caused his mind to react in a non-standard way. He thought I had some tricks up my sleeve that he needed to be afraid of; he played more defensively, and he didn't put any pressure on me. Meanwhile, I was free to do any kind of harassment, I was free to do any kind of defense as well. So I was playing my game while Serral was playing his game, but I was still putting pressure on him.
And yeah, he played a little bit worse than I expected, but maybe it was me playing a little bit better.
Were you disappointed to lose at the end? There were a few mistakes that could have swung some games: The wall-off on Lost and Found, the lost Warp-Prism on Darkness Sanctuary…
Darkness Sanctuary, I think the game was over already. I countered-attacked immediately, and even if the Prism lived I don't think I had any chance. It was just a desperation attack for show, at that point I already knew that I lost. But sometimes you just want to fight; maybe there's a 1% chance of winning.
So as for the disappointment, I think the only one map that I'm disappointed with is Lost and Found. I lost my Oracle to Queens very... maybe not 'sloppily,' because I was desperate to see what he was doing because I had very little scouting. But he had more Queens than usual in better position. The map didn't allow the Oracle to escape, not even with a recall, so I was a little bit sad.
I still went for a double-Stargate opening, and he went for Roaches, which I think was very good for me. But that was the first game where when he started to Zergling-flood behind Roaches, and I wasn't prepared for that. If the Oracle had been alive, it would have changed the game drastically. And I think, since I won the previous two games, and the map was pretty good for me as well, there was a good chance that I would have won that game as well.
I mean, we will never know, because that didn't happen. But yes, it does hurt a little bit, because it reminds me a little bit of WCS 2015 when I lost vs Lilbow 4-2. But against Lilbow I was 50-50, or maybe even the favorite in my own mind. Versus Serral, I had peace of mind, with a real possibility to win. It's just hard to play against him, so there's not THAT much disappointment.
So you think about the "what if" a little bit, but not too much.
Yeah, it's not a big deal because I was expected to lose by everybody. It would have been a great surprise for everybody to see me winning. But it's not a disappointing result to lose to him.
"...I have to do everything that I can and stop being a little bitch, and just practice really hard and just make a run again, come back to the top."
You had been going through a long slump before WCS Austin. What was the cause of that, and how did you snap out of it?
I think after 2015 when Legacy of the Void was released, I enjoyed the game but there were like drastic changes. I don't think I adapted very well.
And it was the era of very bad map pools with Hydra-Bane being the new thing for ZvP. It was so hard to deal with it because nobody knew how to deal with it. It caused caused Zerg to be OP. Then there was like a Baneling buff, Hydra buff—I think there were just a lot of balance patches that didn't go well for me. Even though Neeb was doing fine, ShoWTimE was doing fine, I was just not able to fight the odds. I was very upset about the game and I didn't have too much passion left in me. I was starting to question if I could still do it, if I still had it in me.
And a lot of private stuff was happening as well. Couple of medical issues, family stuff, moving to another city—just a lot of adult stuff, basically. This all affects your mindset and ability to perform well.
And when people keep telling you 'oh my god you're so bad,' 'you should end your career,' 'you don't belong here,' it hurts twice as much, because I know I used to be a championship player. Seeing myself so down, and barely a RO32 player, just hurt so much.
But eventually, I was like, this is the time. In two or three years, there's no way I'm going to be able to restart my career and be at my peak, so I have to do everything that I can and stop being a little bitch, and just practice really hard and just make a run again, come back to the top.
Was there one key moment you recall?
I don't really recall an exact moment, but I think I had a couple of talks with Team Liquid, and I was playing a little bit of Heroes of the Storm—
A little bit.
Yeah, in the summertime, a little bit [laughs]. I mean, I won the European Championship. So it was like, just a LITTLE bit, but maybe more than people expected. [laughs]
I think at that time, I was questioning StarCraft and my future a little bit. I think, maybe around that time, summer of 2017, was when I was severely starting to question my career and if I had the possibility to keep going. Since basically September, November of that year, I tried to pull myself together and finally do it.
Did playing in front of that Austin crowd take you back to Krakow?
Yeah, I was actually shocked, because usually when DreamHack starts with the first broadcasted matches, there's like five people, eight people watching. Maybe it's even friends or players sitting in the crowd. But this time, the crowd was pretty much full for the first games of the tournament and that's not what usually happens. Later the tournament went, the more people were there. There was like standing room only, and the crowd was quite passionate as well. It's not like CEBIT or IEM's back in Germany where there were no claps even for the grand finals. So that me a lot personally, to see a passionate crowd.
I know if I do something good, I will just be applauded for that. It's good to see this kind of recognition from the crowd. I like when people enjoy what I do. The better the crowd, the better I am, basically.
How have your goals changed over the years? Do you have a target in mind, or is it more "let's just do the best we can in the moment."
In the past, I had a goal of just winning one big tournament. It was like a dream goal, because I just wanted the thrill of the big stage, to be the winner for once, after having so many top three, top two finishes. And after I achieved that, I was like... Damn. I did it. And what's next? I'm not finishing my career, I want to do more.
But I never really strived for another championship. I wasn't putting my mind to being a champion after that first slump in 2013~2014. And maybe that was also why I wasn't able to perform well, because I wasn't set to do well.
My goal nowadays was more of 'just come back,' basically. Slowly, to the RO16, to the RO8. Consistently, I just wanted to be consistent. Because I don't think I have ever been that. Even though I was at the top level before, I couldn't be in the RO16, RO8 all the time. I got knocked out early a couple of times.
Mistakes happen, but they happened way more often than I wanted. So my goal was to be consistent, to be a contender, to get to the RO4 and the finals potentially. But first, just be consistent, and then maybe something more.
What kind of advice would you give to your younger self?
It's always easy to say when you know what's happened in the past, but…
If I had to help myself in the past, I would say: 'Fix yourself faster than you can. Because you are delaying things too much. The things that you have to do, to take care of. There's more coming in the future. So just do your things consistently, so you have time.
How should I put it... So that you can have peace of mind, so that there's nothing bothering you when you're practicing.
'Take care of your s***?'
Any final words to your fans?
After Austin, I have gotten so much positive feedback from all my fans, and so many comments about my play, how it was awesome, and how they want to go back to StarCraft. It felt like I was an inspiration for people to play StarCraft yet again. So it was a very pleasant feeling. I'm very happy that I could achieve that in Austin and cause you guys to play StarCraft, or watch StarCraft with a smile on your face.
So thank you for all the positive stuff you sent to me, it means the world to me. And I'm really happy that I could do that, and I hope I can keep it up for the next event.
I don't have too high expectations, don't expect me to be the best foreigner right now, just... I will just take it one step at a time, if I can achieve these kind of tournament runs in a couple of tournaments, you can have high hopes for me.
Are you going to apologize for creating more Protoss players?
[laughs] No, because we are already very few.
Acknowledgments and credits
Interview and editing: Wax
Questions contributed: Destructicon, Hexhaven, Olli
Interview and editing: Wax
Questions contributed: Destructicon, Hexhaven, Olli