Code S Semifinal #2 Preview - Maru vs Zestby Orlok and Wax
Start time: Saturday, Sep 08 4:00am GMT (GMT+00:00)
Maru: History in the MakingProfessional StarCraft II has given us countless memories. As one of the longest running esports, one might think we've seen all StarCraft II has to offer. We've seen tournaments of every format, mindblowing individual performances, and all sorts of sordid drama. However, eight years into the game, there's a player who seeks to inscribe a totally unprecedented achievement in the chronicles of StarCraft II. That player is Maru, and that achievement is the utter domination of GSL Code S.
Few players are as deeply ingrained into the fabric of StarCraft II as Maru. He made his debut at age thirteen in the first ever GSL, introducing himself as one of the cheesey, all-or-nothing players who defined the era. He required a few a years to mature and finally broke out in 2013 as a relentless attacker who could batter any opponent into submission. Accolade after accolade followed, including OSL and SSL championships in individual leagues, and a Proleague title with Jin Air. However, as is with all champions, his rise was followed by an inevitable fall. Once a raging inferno of offense, Legacy of the Void abruptly stifled his flame. Long-time fans feared it was the start of a process they had seen too many times before: a slow, irreversible downward-spiral into irrelevancy.
Thus, when Maru started to look like a title contender early this year, there was a healthy amount of skepticism. Perhaps his impressive showing at IEM Katowice was just an aberration, the final flash of a fading star. In reality, Maru was getting ready to go supernova. Combining the ruthless aggression of the past with suffocating late-game play, Maru soared back to the pinnacle of StarCraft II. He bested Dark in a thrilling best-of-seven to claim the $200,000 WESG 2017 grand prize. He infiltrated Stats' brain and made him self-destruct in the Code S Season 1 finals. He humiliated Zest in a 34-minute sweep in the Season 2 finals, becoming the first player since Nestea to win consecutive Code S titles. Not only had he achieve a late-career comeback—one of the rarest things in all of progaming—but he turned his late-career into his absolute prime.
Maru's latest match—a 3-0 stomp against GuMiho in the Code S quarterfinals—was demonstrative of a typical Maru match in 2018. Having spent days participating in the Asian Games instead of preparing for the GSL, and with relatively untested TvT in 2018, the match against GuMiho seemed like it would be one of Maru's toughest challenges of the year. Conventional wisdom suggested that, at the very least, Maru would have to fight tooth and nail to claim victory. But lo and behold, Maru blew GuMiho out of the water, looking completely unfazed throughout. He didn't just defy conventional wisdom—he kicked conventional wisdom in the teeth and warned it to never question him again.
Through this entire GSL season, all eyes have been on Maru to see if he can fulfill a seemingly impossible task and win three consecutive championships in Korean StarCraft's oldest, most prestigious tournament. All the pressure is on Maru—he’s the favorite, he’s the star, he’s the best player in the world. A semifinal win against Zest should be a footnote in history of his glorious conquest. Losing to an opponent he toyed with just months ago would end Maru's run as a living legend. His opportunity to become the greatest of all time could be lost forever.
Zest: Tireless PursuitThe last few years for Zest have been the all-too-familiar tale of a championship player gone to seed. After ascending to the summit of StarCraft II and enjoying his time as best in the world, Zest came crashing and burning down to the Earth after the end of Proleague and the dissolution of the KeSPA system. No longer the paragon of Protoss, he seemed forever doomed to the role of mid-tier filler—bringing his reputation but not the commensurate skill to tournaments.
This year has been... different for Zest. Perhaps Maru is not the only StarCraft II pro who will achieve an exceedingly difficult late-career revival this year.
No one really took Zest seriously headed into 2018 except his most die hard fans. His spell of mediocrity and stale, uninspired performances had persisted for too long, and the former Code S champion had long since become a group stage player. Even winning HomeStory Cup XVII during the winter break didn’t seem to mean much when it had been ages since he had impressed in GSL. And somehow, here he is in the semifinals of the last GSL Code S of the year, on his way to completing one of the most unusual, unemphatic comebacks in StarCraft II history.
Zest might not top everyone's “best Protosses of the year” list, but he's quietly matched Maru in being the only player to reach the round of eight or higher in every Code S this year. Even Stats, the typecast king of consistency, suffered Ro16 elimination in Season 2. sOs hasn't done anything of note since reaching the IEM PyeongChang finals, while Classic wasted all his early momentum with a series of high-profile losses. Despite all the criticism flung Zest’s way, he's outlasting each and every one of his peers by continuously grinding away. He may not be schooling opponents the way he did in his prime, but no one can deny that he's getting results.
Most of the uncertainty stems from Zest's PvZ, which could kindly be called 'sketchy' and more honestly described as a disaster. Unfortunately, this has caused his prowess in PvT and PvP to go largely unappreciated. Fans might think of Zest's 1-3 loss to ShoWTimE when they think of Zest in the PvP, without realizing he has a 70%+ win-rate in the match-up on the year. Similarly, Zest's 0-4 humbling at the hands of Maru obscures the fact that he has a 70% win-rate in PvT as well.
That's the bizarre nature of Zest's season. Every time he builds momentum, he seems to suffer a particularly embarassing loss. He broke through the stacked Korean qualifiers to reach IEM PyeongChang, only to put in a hapless performance against Elazer in the quarterfinals. After he defeated #2 Terran TY in a fantastic, seven-game GSL semifinal, he got his soul taken from him by Maru in the grand finals. In an esports tragicomedy, he was drubbed 3-1 by ShoWTimE after fans voted him in as Korea's Protoss representative in GSL vs. The World. While Zest's critics do have a valid point behind their mockery, we've unfairly lost sight of how good Zest has actually been.
Zest’s rocky road to redemption has him crossing paths with Maru for a second time. Zest took an obscene beating in their Code S finals match, capping the sweep off by throwing a lead in the only game where he looked like Maru's equal. Zest should be lauded for grinding his way to a chance at redemption, but he's still the overwhelming underdog in the rematch. It seems pretty likely that his fans will have to suffer the hope-humiliation cycle yet again.
On the bright side, Zest has had plenty of time to mull over that loss and study how PvT has progressed. Stats defeated Maru in GSL vs. The World by targeting the mid-game, intelligently dusting off Colossi as his weapon of choice. Neeb's choice of heavy Disruptor play against TY will not have gone unnoticed either. Furthermore, Zest enters the rematch without having emptied his entire PvT arsenal against a formidable opponent in the previous round, as he did against TY in Season 2. The case for a Zest victory is flimsy, but there is a case to be made. And hey, at least it can't go any worse than it did last time around.
For Maru, this match represents just another step in his ascension to legend. Should he win, the result will blend in with dozens of other triumphs, an ultimately forgettable detail in the larger tapestry of his greatness. For Zest, this could be the match that sees him reclaim the glory he has sought for so long, remembered forever THE pivotal moment in the second act of his career.
Prediction: Maru 4 - 2 Zest