When Team Liquid face off against Astralis in the IEM XIII final their core not only enters the final as an underdog, by virtue of this being Astralis’ era and the Danish team displaying dominance over the entire scene, but more significantly due to the American side’s map pool match-up woes against Denmark’s finest.
Team Liquid are a squad with one of the best map pools in the game, but their strengths all run headlong into Astralis’, while gla1ve and company can likely side-step any potential punish picks by nitr0’s boys. Being the little brother never looked more daunting than it does today.
With the final being a Bo5 (Best-of-5) series, a quality ban is at even more of a premium, with no second round rotation of bans and more maps to be tested on in the contest. “Styles make fights” is the principle often cited in combat sports and while that concept certainly applies in CS:GO the more important principle is how teams’ map pools match up.
Team Liquid have had cache as a sleeper map in their pool, growing over the year as they won it despite it typically being opponents picking it into them. With their emphatic stomping on it of what had, in the tournament as a whole, looked like a fearsome FaZe Clan, the map might be one Liquid want to play in this final, but it has been Astralis’ permanent ban since the Danish side lost the IEM XIII Sydney final on it much earlier this year.
With Astralis’ nuke so unbeatable, having literally not lost on it offline with this line-up on any of the 23 occasions they played it, many will suggest Team Liquid should ban it, but that ignores that Team Liquid has been using train as their permanent ban for many months now. Astralis have consistently shown themselves up to the task when teams have tried to force train against them, with it being a map which was one of their least played only a few months ago and thus a naive hope for weaknesses in the Danes’ map pool.
For Team Liquid, who have committed to no longer playing train, leaving open train poses more danger than risking leaving nuke in there, being as TL are themselves a very good nuke team.
For Team Liquid the good news about the final is that there are legitimately four maps on which they can hope to contest Astralis and potentially win, should they outplay them. The bad news is that they are not favourites on any of the four, despite considerable strength on some of them – such is the nature of how far Astralis is ahead of the scene in terms of map pool strength right now.
The four maps are inferno, mirage, dust2 and nuke. Needing to win only three of five maps in the series, Team Liquid will have their chances, those just aren’t good chances and they are not expected to get close to that magical number.
A hotly contested inferno
On inferno, TL are legitimately one of the world’s best teams, contending with Astralis for that title. There’s also the positive note that TL won the map the last time the two played offline, in one of the best maps of the FACEIT Major London. The bad news is that Team Liquid have lost two high profile inferno games to FaZe, at EPICENTER and here at IEM Chicago, in the last few weeks.
Astralis have also lost the map to FaZe at this event, but beyond that they can boast 13 wins in their last 15 games on the map. When this map is considered one of your better chances to win a game in the series the severity of the map pool mismatch begins to become clear. There’s also the historical context that this TL line-up has lost the other four inferno games they played against Astralis.
The leaking mirage
On mirage, a map Team Liquid have played in all incarnations of their line-up, Team Liquid have a number of reasons to be hopefull. Firstly, they have won one of the three games the two have played on it, albeit at the first event Liquid fielded TACO at, losing the last two meetings. Secondly, Astralis are on a two game offline losing streak on it and have lost a total of five of the last eight times. Finally, TL can feel confident from their comprehensive stomping of FaZe on it just yesterday, with the map having emerged as FaZe’s new home map and yet the all-star line-up being unable to put up any resistance on it.
Rolling dice on dust2
dust2 seemed like another viable hope for a hole in the Astralis map pool, in a similar vein to train as the Danes had not played it often or emphasised it themselves. That approach proved futile the first four times it was played, including two attempts from TL, but North hung a 16:1 on device and the Danes to give the rest of the scene some hope. At the FACEIT Major London Astralis’ flawless 16:0 of MiBR, who had been heavily emphasising the map, put an end to such dreams. Astralis have added another two wins on the map since to bring their total to 8:1 offline on it.
Team Liquid are a solid enough side on the map, which admittedly has been variable for even strong teams on it and seem practically every top team shocked on it, but their two losses to Astralis on it coupled with their epic breakdown again mouz on it at ESL One New York do not create a feeling of comfort for NA’s finest.
Storming the impenetrable nuke fortress
The eye test for Astralis on nuke is incredible, with their terrorist side amounting to one of the most impressive displays of tactical and strategical understanding ever seen in this game. Add in that the Danes are a perfect 23:0 on it and have beaten TL directly in all five games the TACO line-up have entered the server against them in and suddenly it’s not difficult to have sympathy for those who think Liquid should simply ban the map and gamble any other in the pool.
The main problem with that logic is both that Liquid would likely have less chances of winning on train, due to their own deficiencies there and Astralis’ solid record there, and Liquid are legitimately a top nuke team. Their 7:7 record on it starts to look pretty impressive when you put aside those five losses to Astralis, unquestionably the best team in the world and on that very map as well. With nuke as such a viable map for Team Liquid, and the rest of the pool so troublesome in this particular match-up, they know they need to win maps Astralis is also proficient on. It’s not as if Astralis will remain undefeated forever, so logically a quality nuke team like Team Liquid would be one of the favourites to hand Astralis a loss on it.
It’s not a punish pick to select something you are weaker than your opponent on, it’s just gambling. Picking a map they are stronger on but you are very stronger is simply the price of playing a better opponent – you will need to outperform them but then what did you expect going up against a team gunning for best to ever play this game?
With cache and train banned, the other map to round out the five to be played is overpass. The positive for TL is that Astralis have taken a number of key losses on the map in recent months, losing four of their last six offline. The negatives are that, firstly, Astralis’ core have always shown a strong understanding of how to play the map and comfort on it, and secondly, TL have only played the map five times all year and lost the last three times they attempted it. Remember, this was TL’s permanent ban prior to swapping to train.
Form is a factor
No matter which way TL chops it up, there’s no good news in the pick-ban phase. Either they’re hoping to gamble for wins on train, dust2 and overpass, or they have to go into the meat of inferno and nuke and try to score wins against the world’s best. A more abstract detail which may encourage NAF and the others, though, is that Astralis have looked vulnerable in the last few weeks. At Blast Pro Series Copenhagen, in front of a home crowd, they failed to make the final and in Chicago they have already lost a Bo3 series 0:2, to FaZe, and were taken to the limit by FNATIC over three maps in the semi-final and even could have been beaten 2:0 there.
For a Team Liquid squad still seeking their first big international offline title, this will either be another chapter of disappointment or the monster breakthrough they have been seeking all year long – on the maps they’ve been the best on and against the team who is not only the best in the world but also their most difficult opponent to play against.