The Wonderful Wizard
I admit, I was cheering for TaeJa at MLG Summer Arena the whole way, and felt he was clearly the best player there. But coming into MLG Summer Championships in Raleigh, there's someone else I can't help thinking about, another player who played beautifully at Summer Arena. The wonderful wizard himself, Oz, enters group C holding a #1 seed. And waiting on the other side of the bracket, holding the group's other top seed, is the opponent against whom Oz worked his most fantastic magic: Stephano.
A little backstory first.
Over a month ago, backstage at NASL Season 3 finals, I sat staring at a tiny screen as Stephano tore apart SlayerS_Alicia in the finals. Just the day before, the French Zerg had shredded the two most iconic PvZ players in the world, MC and HerO, leaving the result of the finals as a foregone conclusion. No amount of sentry-immortal-archon toilet-colossus deathball shenanigans would've been able to save the dependable but overmatched SlayerS_Alicia in that situation. As the M83 faded and I packed up my bag in the half-light of the players area, I remember thinking of only one thing; if MC and HerO were unable to solve Stephano, than who could? More importantly, how could they do it?
Was it even possible?
There are two basic, overarching elements to Mill.Stephano's play. The first is straightforward and widely imitated. If you get an advantage against Stephano, he will play extremely safely with static defenses or low tech units, and rush tech structures at the extreme expense of army and economy. Occasionally we see Stephano marooned on two bases, using infestors to secure his third, and getting broodlords from there. This is in contrast with other zergs who often enter the BL phase with a bank, to whom the excess money is a nice cushion, but not all that necessary. Stephano has shown that if push comes to shove, get the broodlords first, and use those to secure your bank later.
The second element of Stephano's play is even more crucial. A huge percentage of Stephano's wins follow a similar script. The Protoss prepares an attack; sentry-immortal, void-ray eight gate, etc. This attack moves out, and at one point, fairly early on in the attack, it is overwhelmed by roach-ling. The Protoss is then in a hole, after which Stephano either kills them then and there with waves of roachs and zerglings, or else techs rapidly to broodlord-infestor and stomps his opponent down with the Zerg death cloud.
It's tempting to blame the Protoss in these situations, or else credit Stephano's seeming unparalleled macro and positioning skills. Indeed, none of this could happen without both Protoss' misplaced confidence, and Stephano's own prodigious mechanics contributing to some degree. But the real reason why this works, and why this pattern continues again and again, is because Stephano powerfully abuses the way Protosses have been conditioned to play by almost every other Zerg. By default, most Protoss players imagine themselves playing the phantom Liquid`Ret. [This is unfair to Ret, who plays more similarly to Stephano than is usually understood. However, his popular image is the easiest way to illustrate this example.] They assume that there is a supremacy of the economy; that a Zerg will prioritize building drones until the last possible second, and that the Zerg will aim to hold the Protoss attack by the slimmest of possible of margins. What this means for the Protoss attack is that there is only danger in miss-control, and that the act of attacking itself is a relatively risk-free endeavor. The widely-held assumptions we make about the importance of the economy is a Brood War mentality, (perhaps best encapsulated by the 'If you're ahead, get more ahead' mantra) and Stephano has abused it roundly. The difference is that for Stephano, the utter annihilation of the Protoss army is of much greater importance. The extra 5-10 drones can wait, instead, if that larva is spent on units before the attack even moves out, Stephano can kill off an attack the moment it moves into the open, usually setting the Protoss impossibly behind.
The implications are very straight-forward. What are commonplace and safe pokes and prods against most droning Zergs are opportunities to lose when you play Stephano. The metagame establishes a certain way of playing out a map and Stephano gleefully turns it into a forest of anti-timings.
Standard Stephano. Protoss players should avert their eyes.
Which brings us to our hero. Over the course of the MLG Arena weekend, Fnatic's ace Protoss Oz played Stephano on two occasions, taking the first series 2-1 and then taking the extended series with two more victories to post a 4-1 final score. Against a player who had looked untouchable in ZvP just a week before, Oz's domination was a huge shock. Was Stephano badly off his game? Is Oz secretly a better PvZ player than SK.MC and Liquid`HerO? It's impossible to confirm or rule out either of those explanations, but whatever the case, the games provided a much clearer blueprint for how to defeat the seemingly invincible Stephano. A handsome amount of creativity was involved, but in the end, Oz was just cerebral.
I don't mean Oz's gateway FE's, though they were beautiful. [Re-Watch the Series!] That style of play has already been shown to be viable by many others. SaSe's double gateway, +1 zealot, third base before core build, for example, is a work of art. NonY's toolbox of traditional gateway first builds also deserves mention. Gateway FE's aren't Oz's innovation, nor the silver bullet against Stephano. The really remarkable thing about Oz's play against the Frenchman wasn't his deviation from forge-FE, but the way he conducted himself in the games themselves, in which he took everything that we know about Stephano's style and reactions, and turned it against him.
To begin, Oz never risked his army unless he held an overwhelming advantage of some kind. Consider the fourth game overall, on Metropolis, in which Oz went for a super-fast +2 blink attack. Stephano was well aware of the strategy, yet wasn't quite aware of Oz's troop movements, and in the crucial battle of the game, Oz baited Stephano off creep and then sandwiched a slice of his roach army, killing it at no cost. It's remarkable how ordinary Stephano looks here. Without the ability to to bring to bear decisive force and engineer a single battle, Stephano suddenly looked like any other Zerg; fruitlessly defending Protoss aggression, but chronically just short on roaches and lings.
Throughout the series, Oz was a paradox; acting both aggressively and gun shy. He frequently moved mid-map, danced a bit on the creep, and then went home. In doing so, he forced Stephano to commit to defense, but this being Stephano, it was often over-defense, and that set the zerg even further behind. But if we ran these games in a parallel universe where Oz was less careful, we would've seen Oz move out, follow through with the attack, and get crushed by Stephano's deliberate overwhelming defense. It's clear to see that the real advantage that Oz gained was that he simply kept his army alive. This would allow him to pull a similar movement a short while later, but with more units, enough to crush the army that Stephano had made to counter the earlier phantom attack. This kind of maneuvering is quite simple; casters reference it all the time, usually to put a silver lining on a failed attack ("Well, he did force Kwanro to make a lot of units there, Dustin"). But the manner in which Oz executed it was deliberately tailored for the opponent. Not a moment longer than necessary did Oz expose himself to risk on Stephano's side of the map.
The pinnacle of Oz's performance against Stephano was the final game on Cloud Kingdom. It illustrated Oz putting on a lot of pressure with feints, but it also showed that you can still attack. By abusing Stephano's reliance on low-tech defenses, Oz had a tremendous amount of success at putting pressure back on Stephano.
Everythng that happened in that game occurred precisely because Oz intended it. He began the game by concealing his zealot numbers and chronoboosting out +1. Stephano responded with lings, not correctly understanding the composition he faced, and when he tried to counter, he only saw four stalkers blocking the wall. Oz added a twilight and got +2 and zealot charge. With sentries in the mix, and with Stephano having been juked into mass lings, Oz turned Stephano's formula on its head. The Zerg not only had over-committed to defense, but to precisely the wrong defense, which made canceling Stephano's third base trivially easy for Oz. When behind, Stephano proceeded exactly as you would expect; teching to infestors and later using their power to jump start his economy. But this is exactly as Oz was backing off, taking his own third, and getting storm. Once again, Oz was armed with the perfect composition, and ahead in army and economy!
Oz's plan was like an onion; as the game progressed, we discovered additional layers. Stephano predictably sat on his three bases and got brood lords, while Oz added gateways, his fourth, and robo tech. At the traditional 'pre-broodlord' timing, Oz struck Stephano's third, completely wiping it out, and trading armies. But as his zealots evaporated, Oz simply remaxed with stalker-colossus; exactly the right composition to deal with Stephano's broodlord turtling! The game would continue, for a handful more minutes, in part because Oz decided to end the game in style with mass carriers, and also because Stephano is good at being safe. But at no point of the game, save for the start, was the outcome in any doubt.
When I watch Stephano's games, I have this inevitable feeling that Stephano will somehow find a way. He never leaves an opportunity begging, and he is more diligent than anyone else in his map control. In that way, he reminds me of a BW player who has figured out the game to a great degree, and is suddenly free to experiment with the little stuff that matters within the parameters of the game. Once you know the rules, you can break them more effectively than anyone else. That's what Stephano does.
It's also why Oz's play was so refreshing. Oz didn't 'solve' Stephano like PuMa 'solved' countless Protosses by bulldozing them with 1/1/1, or how Fruitdealer 'solved' ZvT by roach rushing in GSL1. Oz's solution for Stephano was much more elegant and refined; it was a nod from one master to another that it would take more than the usual magic to take him down. Think Fantasy vs GGPlay. Even when Oz's builds were all-in or took huge risks, they were precisely calibrated ones. That's why we all wade through the often murky world of Starcraft II. Once in a while, someone comes to a tournament inspired, and reaches for the intricate and beautiful future that Starcraft II deserves.
Though formidable players like Grubby and viOLet are standing in the way, you can't help but feel Stephano and Oz are destined to meet again. Probably because they're in the same group. I didn't ask for these powers. We can only hope that Stephano will have learned from their past meeting, come with an adjusted game, and show us what a conversation between masters looks like.