No one can choose where they are born. If you’re lucky you can choose where you die. But for most of us life is like being cast adrift in the ocean. We wander in the vast wild as forces beyond our control attempt to consume us, push us, prod us, kill us. All the while we try to stay adrift, try not to drown in the mess of the world. And some of us are able to swim, to dive towards the thing we have been searching for all this time. Something. Anything to hold on to, to strive for, to fight for, to dream for.
And in the microcosm of SC2, the struggle is no different. Players are constantly in search of what they want and desire the most. INnoVation left one of the best foreign teams in the world because he realized that to be the best in the world, he needed to go back to KeSPA. Others like Soulkey and Rain left KeSPA for smaller salaries and the chance to travel and see the world beyond Proleague. Players like Choya and Golden have retired and come back because the urge to play, to be part of SC2 in any way, shape or form was too strong.
Winrate71% vs. Terran63% vs. Protoss61% vs. Zerg
Earnings$54,950 USD in 2014
Yet many find that boring. Hard to identify with. Hard to grasp. And who can blame them? Taeja is as hard to understand in-game as he is out of game. There is no one game, no one moment that can tell you who Taeja is at his core. To understand who he is and how he plays, you need to see them all to understand why his terran play is on a different level, a different plane compared to any other player in the world.
When SlayerS released Taeja in 2012, only two groups of people realized how huge the news was: the ESV TV team and Team Liquid. When Liquid rushed to sign Taeja, they expected mass opposition from every team in the world. Instead they found no one. Not even the SlayerS team realized what kind of player Taeja actually was. To understand him, you'd have to see not just one game, not just one series, but a mass of games only found in online cups. Liquid was always watching, and in the greatest signing in all of SC2, they took on Taeja. In his announcement Nazgul wrote,
"With each and every game, a sense of disbelief gradually grew until it became downright shocking: How was someone with such a great natural feel for the game and the amazing mechanics to back it up, now a free agent?"
And a majority of those games came from the ESV Weekly, a small online tournament made specifically for Korean players to practice their game in online tournaments that pitted them against increasingly difficult opponents. It was in that series of online tournaments that Taeja honed to perfection the tools would one day make him one of the greatest terrans in the world. At the time I thought what made Taeja great was his mechanics, his multi-task, his micro.
I was wrong. At the only LAN finals I attended, I was witness to the first Summer of Taeja. The drive was long, the cast lasted about ten hours—with five hours of downtime—, my voice was hoarse from yelling Inca at every DT made, and I ended up getting sick. None of that mattered. I saw Taeja play live at IPL TAC 3 finals. I watched as he knocked down the best players in the world. Players like YoDa, Nestea, Seed, Yonghwa, Losira. I was awestruck. Yes he had great mechanics, great macro, great micro. But what stuck with me most was his consistent decision making. At any given time, against any given opponent, in any given situation Taeja assesses the situation perfectly and makes the move that will make the game his.
When Taeja plays, he is as water. He has no form. He can be utterly still in one moment, and a havoc of movement the next. He flows with ease throughout the game, absorbing blow after blow before crashing into his opponent in an overwhelming wave. What makes Taeja special isn’t his mechanics, or his micro, or his macro. It’s not the fact that he is one of only 3 terran players who feel comfortable playing TvP late game without resorting to SCV pulls. It’s not the fact that he was the only terran player to win during the blink era of protoss this year, or that David Kim mistook him for an entire race. It is that he’s been at or near the top of the terran race for 3 years and no other terran has ever imitated his style.
When a player reaches the top of their race, they not only become the target, but also the inspiration of their race. Their builds, responses, compositions get analyzed, dissected, copied and eventually imitated by the multitude of players across the world. It has happened to Nestea, MC, Mvp, Rain, INnoVation and most recently Zest. Yet no other Terran plays like Taeja. They can’t. It is more than a style or a build or a composition: it is a way of thinking. A mode where Taeja’s experience combines with his understanding and his instinct; a place of transcendence that lets him make the best decision almost every time.
It is that state of mind that has allowed Taeja to become the most successful SC2 foreign tournament player of all time. He doesn’t counter the opponent. Taeja lets the opponent play their own style in the best way possible and he out does them with that one extra step. Take for example his clash with INnoVation last year. The two players met for a long 50 minute tactical slugfest on Newkirk where action and fighting sprawled all across the map from the 12 minute mark to the end of the game. It strained both players to their very limits as they had to take into consideration: reinforcement routes, harassment, counter-harassment, army positioning, economical standing, expansion, resources left on the map, macro, micro. But it was Taeja who went that one step further and closed out the game with a 50th minute banshee. That one banshee would be the the pebble that caused the avalanche and eventually close out the game in Taeja’s favor.
And later on he played Rain and in their most famous match ever. Rain was a player famed for three things: His patience, his reactive defensive play and his map vision. Taeja took it all from him. In that game Taeja killed all 28 observers.
He made Rain blind. After taking his sight, he chipped away at his defensive play. Made Rain scared, frustrated and annoyed. Rain had played his entire career as if he was a wall. A shield. But Taeja found the cracks and he chiseled away at it while building his own iron wall where Rain had no chance to harass, no chance to storm, and no chance to fight. He took Rain's own style and used it against Rain. It is telling that the game ended with Rain being forced to take an uncharacteristically terrible fight against the one player in the world who had proved to be even more patient than he was.
Even more recently Taeja played Zest in an insane base trade on FoxTrot Labs. Zest a GSL Champion and a player known for his clutch decision making and control was completely outdone. Zest had Taeja nearly dead. With a perfectly executed immortal bust, the game should have been over. But Taeja did what no other Terran would do. In a split second, he assessed that his base was forfeit and instead of hopelessly defending, he loaded up in his medivacs and went for the base trade. He had changed the entire dynamic of the matchup. It was no longer a game of numbers, a game where the better army won, but one of strategical decision making. Even with the base trade, everything should have gone in Zest’s favor. He had a better army, more bank and more probes. But in that frantic scramble situation, against a player that had superior numbers in everything, against a player that had won 1 GSL, 1 KeSPA Cup and 1 Global Championship, Taeja proved he was strategically superior. Taeja moved his bases to the polar opposites of the map, making sure neither could be taken out instantly. Zest in his haste and impatience made the wrong move and expanded to the low ground natural. Only a mistake against a player of Taeja's caliber who instantly saw the weakness and exploited it over and over and over. Where Zest fell apart, Taeja kept making smart move after smart move until he left the GSL Champion bleeding on the floor.
That is the kind of player Taeja is. In a game as complex as SC2, thousands of decisions are made per game. It is impossible to make those split second decisions every time which is why players practice anywhere between 8-12 hours a day. And it is in practice where we learn what is optimal, what to do in any instant so that our play is as sharp as possible and we can focus mentally on other aspects of the game. Now imagine how many decisions have to be made per series. How many deviations you have to make per decision based on the player. How many series you play per tournament. How many times you have to come up with off the wall instant reactions to situations you have never seen before despite having played hundreds or thousands of hours previous.
It is in this arena, this chaos that Taeja thrives. Because at each juncture, at each moment, Taeja continues to make the right decisions and the right moves every time. It is that consistency, that intelligence that has made Taeja one of the greatest to have ever played. It is why when terrans are given a choice between playing like Taeja or playing like INnoVation, they all flock to INnoVation. INnoVation simplifies the equation. Here is the build order. You start attacking at this moment and never stop attacking. At this moment you pull the SCVs and you either win or lose. In order to play like Taeja, you have to to think constantly, unendingly, where do I scan, what do I scan, what do I build, when do I build it, how do I react to this composition, how do I defend, where do I move my units. Even one mistake, one bad decision will cost you the game.
Yet Taeja does this every time he plays in the booth, in every game, in every series. Against INnoVation, the greatest mechanical terran of that time, he turned the game into a massive complex game of economic and tactical chess and came out on top. Against Rain, a player known as a fortress of defense, he created an iron curtain that allowed Rain no chance to react, to counter Taeja's moves. Against Zest he turned small mistakes into landslide victories. Now imagine doing this against not just three of the best players in the world, but nearly all of them over almost 3 years with constantly shifting metas, maps, players, and styles. And that is what puts Taeja on a plane on his own. Taeja sees exactly one move ahead of nearly every game he's played. The right move. When you take all of that into account, you start to understand the enormity of Taeja's understanding, consistency, and strategic vision.
There is a common criticism of Taeja that he should never be counted among the greats because he has never won a GSL, a WCS. But no one has ever flipped the question. Can any GSL or WCS Champion ever do what Taeja has done? In 2.5 years he has won 11 Premier Tournaments (some as hard as any GSL), he has gotten 2 silvers, he has gotten multiple semi-finals and quarter final finishes. He has done this during a time when BL/infestor ruled the world, and during the protoss blink era. Taeja might not have won a GSL or WCS, but no GSL or WCS Champion has ever done what Taeja has done either.
And for Taeja this year is the end. A final farewell to the summer of his youth as he plans to retire and go finish his military service. No man chooses where they are born, but Taeja has chosen this year to be his end. To finish his SC2 career now and to end it on his own terms. Whether Taejas wins Blizzcon or bombs out, he leaves the scene as the greatest foreign LAN player SC2 has ever witnessed. And once he’s finally retired I predict two things:
1) No other player will ever win 11 Premier tournaments in 2.5 years. (At this point I’m not sure if any player can even just win 11 total)
2) We will never see a defensive macro terran who wins games off of his consistent superior strategic decision making like Taeja ever again.
Taeja entered this scene as a promising young talent, a member of the first class of players to ever play in the GSL Open Season 1. He leaves it on the grandest stage possible. Having played for nearly 4 years Taeja has accomplished more than many thought possible when he started. 11 Premiers, deep runs in GSL and WCS, a great team league player, one of two players to have had a perfect run in a tournament and one of the few to have stayed on top of the scene for 3 entire years. When we look back on Taeja’s career, we will wonder to ourselves, “The hell kind of player was this?”