The Flare and the Shadow

As the summer is drawing to an end, so too are the two starleagues winding down. This weekend will play host to the rare double feature. The GSL's already had their year-end showpiece, and today's the turn of the SSL. With the Copa International and KeSPA Cup still to come, there’s of course more StarCraft 2 action to follow, but for the prestigious Korean leagues, this is the end.

There’s a certain cosmic irony at work this Sunday. Looking back, perhaps it was destiny that brought these two together. The brutal Challenge stage made sure that not a single Zerg player from those four groups was able to qualify for the Main Event. However, owing to their success in the first season, both Dark and Solar were seeded in the Main Event directly. Perhaps in another life, a different reality altogether, they would’ve met each other earlier on the winding path to the grand finals. Perhaps they would’ve reprised their encounter from the first season. One would’ve fallen, the other would’ve marched on.

Instead, it all comes down to this, the end of the road. It’s altogether fitting. The only two remaining Zerg players in the league, battling through a horde of Terran and Protoss opponents, only to meet each other on the highest peak. What makes this is even more special is the fact that in GSL not a single Zerg player managed to reach even the quarterfinals.

What exactly, then, is at stake here? It will be a chance for Dark to reprise his season one title, to defend his honor against any who would oppose his reign. Likewise, it will be a chance for Solar to turn things around for him, to nab the championship right from the hungry jaws of one of the top Zerg players of 2016. That big looming prize towards the end of the year, BlizzCon? Dark has already secured a spot for himself, winning the first season of the league. Solar is all but assured a spot, currently sharing a third place in the rankings with Stats. The reward this Sunday will be something far less tangible, but much more visceral and satisfying.

Forget the rankings, forget the standings, forget the future. Just for one night, forget everything else. This will be a brutal, bloody combat, a raw fight on the simplest terms imaginable, a fierce brawl to gain the only thing that truly matters for these two combatants. That fleeting, intangible accolade that only a select few on this world will ever manage to attain: prestige.

The Champion: (Z)Dark
ZvZ results since Cross Finals: 60.00%
Overall results since Cross Finals: 56.82%

The winner of the first season has returned to defend his title. SKT’s top Zerg now has in his grasp a chance to do something truly historical, a feat so rare it will be carved down in stone tablets to be passed down from generation to generation until the end of time. In StarCraft 2’s history, to witness another deed of such epic proportions, we have to go back five years, back when NesTea managed to win back-to-back Code S titles in the summer of 2011. Yes, winning a starleague title will always be a treasured accomplishment. Yes, this year such victories will qualify a player for BlizzCon, the ultimate challenge down the road. But there’s something special, something extraordinary about defending a starleague title. To make the finals twice in a row is excruciatingly difficult. To win two titles in a row is nigh impossible.

Can Dark really pull it off? ProLeague has only started to look good for him in August, even though SKT has fallen far from grace as a team. Arguably Dark has had a more difficult route to the finals compared to Solar. He’s taken down Zest, TY and Classic to reach these lofty heights; no mean feat. While Solar has faced mostly mid-tier players, Dark has had to carve his way through champions. It hasn’t been an easy journey, and yet here he stands, battered, bruised, still upright. If there’s doubt gnawing at his confidence, it’s that he hasn’t really been playing against Zergs all that much. A victory over DeParture in late July in Code S is not a bad result, but it’s not great either. However, it looks like the barren days of midsummer are over for Dark, and he’s the favorite for Sunday. He just needs to utilize his good performance against Terran and Protoss, and not fall victim to the mirror.

The Challenger: (Z)Solar
ZvZ results since Cross Finals: 20.00%
Overall results since Cross Finals: 58.06%

Solar remains an elusive character. From one of the best and most promising players of the early days of Legacy, his apparent slump was called out by many. Yet, miraculously, he’s made it even deeper in the second season of SSL. In the first season he famously lost to Dark in the winners’ finals, going 2-4 against SKT’s Zerg after carving a blood-splattered path through the other Zergs of the upper bracket.

On the other hand, his Proleague performance over the summer should be swept under the rug. He’s been fielded rarely, and not to a very good effect. Losses against Rogue, ByuL and Curious have stung. Losing against Dark in early July will have hurt even more. He’s won only a single offline ZvZ since the Cross Finals, against MVP’s Pet (most well-known for going 2-3 against HerO of 2016). He was soundly trounced by Zest and GuMiho in the first group of Code S, not making it out of the round-of-32. All the evidence then points to his flare waning.

And yet somehow Solar has stepped up to the plate when it comes to SSL. He took down both ByuN and Super in the groups, and crushed both Protosses in a convincing manner on his way to the finals. He’s also been much more successful online, going toe-to-toe against ByuN all summer long. It’s just that this will be a much more onerous challenge for Solar. A victory here would certainly be an upset to echo through the ages.

The Prediction

Mirror finals always have a certain trepidation to them. In an era long gone by, ZvZ especially was viewed as the worst of the mirror match-ups. Going all the way back to the days of Brood War, it felt more like a battle of nerves than a normal game. With both players droning intently, it was said that the one breaking down from the immense pressure would start gathering an army, leading to their eventual downfall.

With Legacy of the Void, things aren’t looking quite as dire. While ZvZ was not looked on kindly during the rise of Wings of Liberty, it’s now a welcome solace from the likes of PvP. Even so, the potential for explosive upsets is always there. One wrong move, one miscalculation, one careless harass. Suddenly there’s an opening, your mineral line is gone, your main army is split in two, and you’re left wondering where it all went wrong. Players of this caliber will take full advantage of any weaknesses. They will keep vying for position, probing, scouting, trying to find that one crack that will ultimately end the game in their favor. While neither of the two can be considered to be the best when it comes to ZvZ, maybe the finals will change our opinion.

There’s a problem however, and it’s something that we’ve encountered several times this year. The sample size for both players is extremely small. Both Dark and Solar have only played five mirror match-up games since the Cross Finals in May. Crucially, out of their last three encounters, Dark has taken the upper hand in two. If Solar is to be worthy of a title once again, he will have to bear the weight of being the underdog, the burden of losses heavy on his mind.

What’s more, he will also have to defeat a legend in the making. A victory for Dark would be so much more than just the title. It would mean encasing his name in stone in the annals of the game for all eternity. What greater honor is there for a player, really.

Under these auspicious stars, there’s really only one possible result that makes sense in the grand scheme of things.

Dark 4-2 Solar

(Z)Dark wins the Grand Finals of StarCraft II Starleague Season 2!