Jin Air vs KT Rolster
Seven months after we kicked off the first Proleague campaign of Legacy of the Void, we're finally reaching the end of the line. Jin Air and KT have been the standout teams of 2016 by far, and both have been jostling for top dog status throughout the year. On that level, Jin Air taken the spoils so far—winning five out of six matches so far (3 all-kill, 2 proleague format)—but will the expanded Bo7 format play to KT's strength in depth? Join us for a piece on Jin Air's ascent to the top to cap off our series of articles on the four Proleague Playoff teams, as well as a preview of the Grand Finals.
From Eighth to First
This time last year, Jin Air stood on the precipice. This time last year, Jin Air left defeated.
From their very beginnings as a ragtag bunch of merceneries, left homeless by the collapse of MBCGame_HERO, WeMade FOX and Hwaseung Oz and thrown in the deep end together to fill the 8th team slot in Brood War’s incarnation of Proleague, the Jin Air Green Wings have always been outsiders. It was an experiment to be repeated later on with ST-IM, or EG-TL; bundle a whole load of talent together and pray they figure out a way to develop the cohesion required. Led by Jaedong, that was indeed what they did in the final Proleague season of Brood War, reaching a creditable 3rd place finish by merit of their star.
But as the transition to Starcraft 2 passed by, the team began to fracture. The team’s sole superstar in Jaedong ditched the team a mere three days before the start of the 2012-13 season for their rivals (TL-)EG, while Sea left for the other side of the partnership. Shorn of talent, they placed in the bottom half of the table in all six rounds, while only EG-TL’s map score (climbing slowly closer) kept them from finishing dead last when all the scores had been tallied up. Continuing to haemorrhage talented players after the end of the season, most notably TY to KT Rolster, things looked bleak for the rookie outfit. Built on a ragtag crew of old talent, the team seemed doomed to watch the world pass them by when the old blood scattered.
Then, in the close season came stunning news. Jin Air had purchased the squad as part of their push into esports, and they picked up as good a one-two punch as there’s ever been in the Starcraft transfer world, plucking Maru from nearly defunct Prime and sOs from the wreckage of Woongjin Stars. With Maru’s OSL title and triple top 4 finishes at the back end of 2013, and sOs’ BlizzCon title to cap the year, it was a new dawn for Team 8. Suddenly, there was star power coursing through the team’s veins; suddenly, they had players to be feared - old and new.
Pieces began to click into place one by one. Cure slowly began to develop into a reliable backup terran, peaking at the end of 2014. TRUE exploded into the public consciousness with his flashy zerg aggression, while Rogue’s quiet effectiveness underpinned the team’s Proleague hopes in a way most Proleague teams envied. Above all though, the twin lights of Maru and sOs shone the brightest—both placing in the top 3 of 2014’s winners’ rankings, effortlessly carrying the team to dizzying heights. Still, the playoffs proved to be one step too far. The war machine of KT Rolster rolled into battle, and while Maru would lead the way with one final act of defiance—beating TY, Sleep and Flash in the all-kill match to all but gift Jin Air the win—the old firm’s strength in depth proved too much to handle. In many ways, it was a trip all the way back to the start for Jin Air; dragged kicking and screaming to success by a pair of carries.
The solution to that issue proved to be simple. TRUE’s departure at the end of 2014 was barely felt at all as Rogue effortlessly glided into place as Jin Air’s premier zerg. About to embark on his run of 5/6 starleague quarterfinals in the calendar year, Rogue ascended the ladder to join Maru and sOs at the top of the Jin Air tree; now one among three. Their records were devastatingly consistent (27-16, 27-17, 26-14 for Maru, sOs and Rogue respectively), while they were only kept off the top of the table by Zest’s 28 wins. With three players of that calibre, how could they possibly fail to win?
The answer was SKT. After being denied by KT in the dying stages of 2014, it was their telecom rival’s turn to play the part of the bully in 2015. In Rounds 1 and 3, they beat Jin Air in the Round Finals, and even when SKT failed, it was CJ’s turn to block their way to victory in Round 2. At every turn, the Old Guard of KeSPA were fighting back. Jin Air had grown, but they were far from alone in fitting into bigger shoes. A stellar push at the finish line from sOs dragged them through the playoffs and into the Proleague Finals for the very first time, but once again, it proved to be another step too far. Dream defeated Maru in a marathon TvT, while INnoVation held on against sOs’ aggression. The dream was dead.
Jin Air were mocked, and rightly so. The team that should have taken flight seemingly resigned themselves to endlessly tumbling to the ground. Four finals out of five in the Proleague season, and they’d somehow contrived to lose all four. In a time where soO, ByuL and Dream had contrived to establish a Kong line in HotS spanning a three year period, the Jin Air Kong Wings showed that losing on the big stage wasn’t an affliction bound to individual competition.
Then again, they’ve been through worse. They’ve been through the disbandment of their original teams in Brood War; they’ve been through the paralyzing uncertainty of their sponsorless time on Team 8; they’ve been through times when they seemed to leak players on a monthly basis. When confronted with that history, how does a loss in a final even compare? Jin Air are the miracle team of Starcraft 2, and it’s a miracle that they’ve survived to the point where they dominate the teamleague arena like a colossus. It’s a miracle that Maru has managed to string together a ridiculous 21-4 record so far this year. It’s a miracle that sOs is peaking just when he’s most needed, as always. It’s a miracle that Rogue has improved like clockwork, progressing from Code A cannon fodder to being one of the two best zergs in Korea over the past four years. Jin Air have nothing left to prove. It’s been four years since their inception; three since they were picked up by Jin Air; two since they were transformed by Maru and sOs; one since they fell at the final hurdle. Now, it’s finally time for them to take the title that they deserve.
Grand Finals Preview
Cure <Frost> Trust
Lifetime record: 5 - 5
Last match: 1 - 0 (30/09/2015)
Cure and Trust have starred in the opening match for their teams before, and now they’ll be facing off on the grandest stage of them all. Of the two players, the Jin Air terran is probably the more recognized player, having reached the top ranks of GSL before. He’s a fast and dependable player, even though he ultimately seems to lack the killer instinct needed to become a champion. His Proleague record for this season confirms as much, with Cure contributing a positive net worth of map wins—especially in Jin Air’s last round playoffs match against KT. His recent individual performances don't invoke quite the same optimism though, as he was meekly eliminated from both Korean leagues early on.
Trust recently made a name for himself by proving his worth against KT’s arch rivals SK Telecom T1: Trust eliminated Impact in the first series and more importantly took out INnoVation as the starting player on all-kill day, providing his team with a critical early lead. The protoss hasn’t done better than Cure in the individual leagues, but his recent success—specifically against terran—might even give him the position as a slight favourite here. Trust showed solid defence against INnoVation’s cyclone build, an ability that will serve him well against a seasoned multitasker such as Cure.
Maru <King Sejong Station> TY
Lifetime record: 8 - 7
Last match: 1 - 0 (02/07/2016)
For many fans this will certainly be the duel of the day. We've been blessed this year with a handful of truly great TvTers—Maru, TY, ByuN, and INnoVation—and the last time these two met in Round 3, Maru took the victory, laying down his claim to the throne. Two months on though, TY has a chance to atone while stirring up the debate once more. Additionally, a defeat of Maru would deal Jin Air a huge mental blow, as he’s been their most valuable asset all season long, especially with sOs more or less in power saving mode for most of the season. As we've seen in the last three years, some matches in the grand finals mean more than a simple point on the board—INnoVation against SoulKey, Flash against PartinG, Maru against Dream—it's up to the team's star players to lay down a benchmark for how the night will play out.
It’s really hard to make out a favourite between these two: Yes, Maru has won their last two Best of 1 duels. And while on paper these two wins may look very nice, the results of Bo1 games cannot be enough to conclude anything critical. Outside of Proleague TY has had the upper hand in most of his recent TvTs—including a back and forth series against GuMiho—, while Maru suffered some losses in online competitions. These, of course, aren’t any more conclusive than SPL Bo1s. But overall the forms of both players should present us with a very even TvT game, which may very well be decisive for the entire final.
Trap <New Gettysburg> Zest
Lifetime record: 7 - 20
Last match: 0 - 1 (22/03/2016)
To answer your first question after reading the numbers of the lifetime record: Nope, this is not a typo. Since 2013 these two protoss players have met each other many a time in combat and Zest really has gotten the better of Trap.
With no regular Proleague, it's difficult to tell just how far down the rabbit hole Zest has fallen though recently. Elimination by Ryung and TaeJa in the GSL proved to be the end of his vaunted PvT streak, while Patience put paid to his PvP reputation. Losses to Dark and Classic in the Proleague Playoffs capped off a truly awful couple weeks for the KT Titan. With that in mind, this match probably won’t be a one sided sweep in favour of KT Rolster though; that morale crushing 1-3 defeat at the hands of Patience in SSL will be fresh in both players' minds. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know how Trap is doing in the match-up nowadays, as his last mirror match dates back to June—a 0-3 loss against his team mate sOs in Code A.
Since KT have played Stats two times on New Gettysburg against SKT, Jin Air may have expected to see him on this map again, which lead us to the possibility that Trap has practiced for a PvP showdown on this battleground for some time now. Looking at the historical score Zest has shown himself to be the superior StarCraft player and will be the slight favourite here—slump or not. Trap of course is apt to living up to his name, so being careful is certainly advised.
sOs <Frozen Temple> jjakji
Lifetime record: 8 - 0
Last match: 1 - 0 (10/08/2015)
Talking about potentially one sided matches: jjakji has never even won a map against sOs and will now face the GSL finalist in such an important context. And boy, the timing couldn’t be worse. Who knows, maybe jjakji could’ve actually beaten sOs earlier in the year when the protoss wasn’t playing very well. But now that sOs has finally come into championship form—just right for prize money harvest season—this could become a cruel display of his power.
jjakji’s last recorded game is in June, his last Proleague games date back even further to May and February, and he hasn’t won any of them. His best bet is probably going for some proxy shenanigans followed by some prayers to BoxeR and Flash. And even with divine interference it would be an uphill battle, as sOs has recently dominated every terran opponent he faced aside from ByuN. It’s pretty safe to say that jjakji upsetting sOs here would be a huge win for KT and one of this year's biggest upsets.
Creator <Dusk Towers> Stats
Lifetime record: 0 - 0
Last match: N/A
Even though we do have quite a similar situation here, the chances of a Creator victory are much better than jjakji’s odds. The protoss player was nigh on invisible on Jin Air’s roster this season and is also lacking any individual results, but he always has been a dangerous foe in the PvP match-up. Unfortunately, he stopped playing any official matches in the mid of July after being fairly active in online tournaments—in fact one of his last series is a 2-0 win over sOs—making it hard for us and his opponent to find any relevant information about him.
In contrast to that, Stats has been very much visible for the entirety of this year, even making a claim to the title of Korea's best player after the first Cross Final event. After a few minor PvP shakeups against SKT’s Classic and MyuNgSiK, the KT player redeemed himself against these very culprits on the second day of the Telecom War, taking the protoss duo out in commanding fashion. In the matches he showcased both his strategical and tactical superiority, by not only being able to get faster upgrades than his opponents, but also taking much better engagements with superior positioning. If he can show the same prowess against Creator, a solid victory should be assured even if his opponent is in good shape.
Rogue <Overgrowth> Leenock
Lifetime record: 5 - 2
Last match: 2 - 0 (16/10/2014)
If we get this far, this series might be decided by a ZvZ of all match-ups. Fans of both sides will need to ready some popcorn or sugar coat their fingernails to make for some enjoyable side distraction, as we might see some very close and intense ling-baneling clashes in the early game on Overgrowth. Leenock is known for his excellent control in such scenarios and might actually be the deciding pick by the KT staff, should things really go this way. With players such as Rogue and the Leenocktopus involved, we can be certain of a lot action happening over the course of this potentially very short game.
Should early game action really occur both players will have to show not only precise and fast control—as every unit counts in these situations—they’ll also have to prove their mental fortitude. The efforts of everyone on the team during the entire year might have been for nothing, if there is one critical baneling explosion or missed ling run by. Going into the later game, there are several possibilities how this duel could play out: Both have shown in the past that they like to mix things up from the normal roach-ravager chess battles, and might go for mutalisks, which could result in action-packed chases around the map or exciting basetrades. It’s hard to say which of these things are going to happen and who’s going to win, but this ZvZ has the capability of bringing fans to the edge of their seats.
JAGW in SPL 16: 8 - 2
KT in SPL 16: 5 - 5
Neither Cure nor Trust will probably return for the ace match on Frost. Jin Air have mostly set their hopes on Maru for the entirety of this season, but the resurgence of sOs gives them the opportunity to pick a different ace and maybe surprise KT Rolster one last time this year. KT could put their hopes into TY, but Stats has been their greatest asset this year and likely has the best chances to take home the ultimate win.
Jin Air have had the upper hand in most of their playoff series against KT Rolster, but Grand Finals haven’t been generous to them so far. The Kong genes might still be in their minds somewhere, ready to take over and crash the green plane at the zenith of its flight. Some of the matches should be really close, some are likely to be quite one sided victories. Should things go sour for one team however, should upsets happen—as unlikely as they might be—, this Grand Final could spiral into craziness quite quickly. In the end Jin Air have played the better season however, and should be able to prove that with one last triumph.
Cure < Trust
Maru > TY
Trap < Zest
sOs > jjakji
Creator < Stats
Rogue > Leenock
Maru > Stats
JAGW 4 - 3 KT
Time until Proleague