Over the weekend, Astralis won IEM Chicago. This is their seventh LAN victory in 2018 and another trophy to add to the Age of Astralis. What makes this victory special is that Astralis didn’t dominate the field this time around. In previous tournaments, Astralis were able to innovate the meta and consistently come up with something new that put them on the cutting edge of CS:GO knowledge. Hence, one of the questions that people had concerning this Astralis lineup was how well they could fare when under heavy fire.That question was answered at IEM Chicago as Astralis were put under adversity and still pulled out the victory. It is through the midst of that struggle that we can see the core of Astralis’ greatness.
Greatness is an elusive quality that is hard to define. There are many paths to get there and every path that has been taken has been unique to the circumstance and the individuals that forged that path. For me however, the real test of greatness comes in adversity, in struggle. Consider for a moment some of the all time great players and teams in CS:GO.
The two best examples that come off my mind are NiP and Fnatic. The first dynasty to ever reign in CS:GO was NiP. Many remember their 87-0 run and how they ruled the world, but that wasn’t when the term NiP Magic was coined. NiP Magic was coined after their fall from the heights. When VeryGames had taken over their spot as the best team in the world, that was when magic came into the era for that was when NiP had to pull off incredible magical plays. From their fall in late 2013 to 2016, we’ve seen this team always pull off some miracle tournament that could only be explained by magic. Their masterpiece series over Fnatic at MLG X Games Aspen, their tournament victory at IEM Oakland against SK in 2016 or their epic victory over FaZe at IEM Oakland 2017.
While the lineups changed over time, the magic did not. When I look back at it now, what we call magic was actually the inherent greatness of what made that original team the greatest champions of their day. Though it is a bit harder to draw those lines given how many changes were made. A more concrete example is the dynasty that followed NiP, the Fnatic era.
The Fnatic era with: Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer, Freddy “KRIMZ” Johansson, Jesper “JW” Wecksell, Robin “flusha” Ronnquist, and Markus “pronax” Wallsten is still hailed as the greatest lineup of all time. Their era extends from the latter half of 2014 through to most of 2015. What people seem to misremember was that they were dominant throughout. That wasn’t the case. They were nearly unstoppable in the first eight months or so of their reign, but soon after they were constantly challenged, with the most notable challenger being TSM. However the reason we extend their era all the way to September of 2015 is because of their victory at ESL One Cologne Major.
That was a Major in which Fnatic had arguably no rights to win. This is a team that was on the verge of being eliminated in the semifinals. They had lost the first map and Virtus.Pro were close to ending them on the second. That Fnatic was no longer the dominant version we saw tof the earlier phase. At the same time, they were fighting against the ultimate distillation of the Virtus.Plow. Fnatic were on the verge of losing, but at the very depths of despair, frustration, and rage, they called the pause. In those few minutes they recomposed themselves and came charging at Virtus.Pro and stopped the plow in its tracks. They pulled out the miracle, the thing that defined them as winners and champions, and took the victory.
This quality was something that the core of Astralis notoriously lacked. They were infamous for losing in high pressure situations. When they were playing as TSM, they were the only team in the world who could dominate Fnatic in the head-to-head and they could have become the best team in the world, but lacked that critical championship mentality to break over the edge.
Even the Astralis 2017 lineup, the one that had: Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz, Peter “dupreeh” Rasmussen, Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander, Markus “Kjaerbye” Kjaerbye and Andreas “Xyp9x” Hojsleth were never able to truly get over the hump. When they peaked early on in the lineups history, they were able to win titles and even the Major. However they were unable to establish an era. While they no longer straight out choked games, they didn’t have that special quality of character that pushed them over the line to win titles.
In 2018, Kjaerbye left Astralis and they got Emil “Magisk” Reif to replace him. Since that change, the Age of Astralis has been established, however that particular question remained unanswered. The Age of Astralis wasn’t built on clutch plays. The Age of Astralis was built off the perfect balance of roles in the team, the incredible teamplay, the tactics, and the ability to innovate and be at the forefront of the meta. They dominated teams in such a way that almost no match ever got to the point of being close to begin with.
That is what makes this IEM Chicago so special as this tournament was a struggle for the team. In terms of individual skill, the team didn’t show up the same way they had for the FACEIT Major. On top of that, their preparation didn’t look great. When Astralis usually has a break between LANs, they come to the next one with fresh ideas and new takes. At BLAST, Astralis were knocked out in the group stages, though it was a bo1. However the time between BLAST and IEM Chicago was three days, so there was no time to prepare. Across both events, it looked like Astralis hadn’t been able to go into the lab and come up with some new ideas. This was confirmed in a Xyp9x interview with HLTV,
“…the preparation up to BLAST wasn’t the best. We had a few things going on behind the scenes which were out of our control and stuff like that.”
With the individual skill not being at it’s best and the preparation not giving them an edge in the meta, IEM Chicago became the staging ground to see what was at the core of Astralis’ greatness. The game that told us the most about this was the semifinals against Fnatic. Fnatic had recently done roster shuffles and the lineup that came to IEM Chicago was: KRIMZ, JW, Richard “Xizt” Landstrom, Simon “twist” Eliasson, and Ludvig “Brollan” Brolin.
Fnatic showed a level of play that was incredible. JW rolled back the years as he played the role of either aggressive AWPer or lurker. KRIMZ was his usual sublime self. Xizt pulled off some magical moments that were reminiscent of his NiP days. Twist returned to form and showed why he was one of the most desired talents in the Swedish scene for years. Brollan had shown a good performance despite being a rookie. In terms of style, it reminded me of the heydays of Fnatic. A level of relentless aggression and seamless teamplay that overwhelmed the enemy with skill and coordination. By the end of the first map, Astralis had barely edged out the win 16-14 and that was a map where Astralis had to pull out some heroics from their players, especially dev1ce to even survive.
Fnatic then went on to win Mirage in a close manner and by the third map, the atmosphere was at a fever pitch. Fnatic looked like they could slay the kings of CS:GO in their first outing as a squad. In the first half of inferno, everything seemingly fell into Fnatic’s hands. They broke the economy of Astralis’ CT-side and in the 8th round when Astralis finally got their full buy together, Xizt pulled out a double kill via wallbang into the apartments. By the time the half ended, it was 11-4 in Fnatic’s favor.
Fnatic were on point, whereas no one on the Astralis side had been having a great series. It was at this moment, the question that had lain dormant finally popped it’s head again. How clutch were Astralis in the highest pressure moments?
It was a firefight as Astralis started to pull out all of the stops. But each time they came up with an answer, Fnatic punched back. If Astralis started to get a few rounds going, then Fnatic would subsequently go on the offensive and get the opening picks to turn the tides. In the 22nd round, both KRIMZ and JW found opening picks across the map. In the 23rd, Twist stopped the Astralis offensive on B with his AWP.
In the 24th round, the situation was bleak for Astralis. The score was 14-9 in Fnatic’s favor. Fnatic had full economy and Astralis had no choice but to bet it all on the forcebuy. This was the moment that looked to define Astralis and their ability to fight under pressure. They answered beautifully as they broke open the arch side and wrapped onto B. The round looked won, but JW was able to steal the round due to the positioning of the smoke, bomb and the postplant positions of Astralis.
At 15-9, Fnatic needed one more round. One more round to take the series, one more round to slay the king. One more round that Astralis refused to give them. Astralis fought back and grinded their way back into victory on slim margins. The 25th round had them hit B where the fight stagnated and in the 3v3 situation, with everyone at B, Astralis called for the rotate back. Dupreeh pulled off the critical kill that allowed them to retreat and get back to A.
In the 29th round, Astralis tried to pull a fast one on Fnatic. Xyp9x had gotten an early pick as Twist had pushed apartments to get some info. Astralis decided to fake A and hit the B site, but Fnatic called the move and were able to rotate in time. It was a bloody battle that ended in a 1v1 between Brollan and Xyp9x. Brollan tapped the bomb, but Xyp9x called his bluff and refused to peak out. The clutch minister had delivered again and Astralis took it to the 30th.
The 30th round for me defines it all. After KRIMZ got an early pick onto dev1ce, Astralis took map control and then bet it all on a B execute. This was the moment where history changed for CS:GO. In one round, how we look at and talk about Astralis completely changes. This was the shot of shots, the buzzer beater, the moment that defines greatness. Astralis had pushed it all the way back, but it would all mean nothing if they could not convert.
This is the moment that defines the greatest teams. When we look back at the previous eras, it was insane play and synergy that defined the greatest of Champions. When NiP pulled out magic, they would win off of a crazy individual play that was seemingly impossible. When Fnatic stopped the Virtus.Plow, it was of a similar story.
For NiP and Fnatic, their greatness in adversity came from something intrinsic. Something instinctual. A place where their experience, talent, and composure all combined to create the perfect play at the perfect time to make the match theirs. That is how I would define their core greatness.
For Astralis, the story was different. There were incredible plays from individual players. Every player had some individual plays that pushed Astralis back into the series and map. Some of the most notable being Dev1ce’s impossible 2v5 hold on Dust2 against Fnatic earlier in the series or Xyp9x’s clutches. But with everything on the line, Astralis didn’t bet it all on a single player’s ability to clutch out the round on a single play.
They bet it all on their practice, their system. In a 4v5 situation they set up their B execute. One they had practiced countless times before. Where every player knows their role, every nade must land, and every move was practiced. As the three mollies, two smokes, and three flashes rained down from the skies, I saw the core of what makes Astralis great. NiP had magic, Fnatic had composure, and Astralis had their system. As dev1ce notes in his HLTV interview,
“Knowing that every little decision you make, peaking or shoulder peeking, or whatever it is, it all matters in the big picture. The amount of focus required to win a lot of rounds in a row is an art, and we’ve practiced it a lot. That and the experience that Xyp9x, dupreeh, and I have with the previous mental blocks we’ve had and how we’ve worked through them. We know what it takes and we know we have what it takes.”
Astralis have skill and they have incredible team play, but all of that is a result of their inherent system and philosophy that fuels their process and results. Some champions are born clutch and never need to learn it. In the case of many of the Astralis players, they were different. They had to fight and struggle the entire way. They were mocked for being unable to deal with the pressure, being unable to close out high pressure games. However all of their failures, all of their practice, all of it has finally come full circle. In one of the highest pressure matches they’ve encountered, Astralis bet it all on their system and came out victorious.
There is something beautiful in that. That at the end of the day, that at the very core of what makes Astralis great isn’t necessarily their innovations, skill, or teamplay. Those are all effects of the process they have created. What makes Astralis stand above all others is their approach and complete belief in the system they’ve created. The right players for the right roles, the right in-game leader, the right coach, and the right practice. All of that put together has shored up any mental weakness they’ve had from the past and they’ve proven their mental strength in adversity. They’ve shown that even on their off day, that they can come out victorious. That the very core of Astralis’ greatness isn’t from a sublime talent or skill, but from the system and their belief in it.