At long last, we've arrived at the end. After one last week of hard-fought games and unpredictable twists, Stats and Maru have earned their spots in the GSL Code S Grand Final. Despite starting in January as underdogs, both players have continued to up their games throughout the GSL season, advancing at times where their demise seemed certain. Online games, offline games, long-term record, short-term record: the duo rendered all of the statistics irrelevant as they clutched their way through round after round. After such a wild ride to the grand finale, we're set for what could be one of the most explosive finals in GSL history.
Stats’ run through 2018 was a veritable roller coaster ride. He entered the first GSL of the year looking battered and bruised after his 2017 season ended in shame at BlizzCon. He had entered the final event of the 2017 season as the #1 overall seed from Korea, but he was unceremoniously booted from the group stage after suffering defeat at the hands of SpeCial and TY.
2018 brought a new patch, a new meta, and a chance for Stats to begin his recovery. He easily qualified for GSL Code S, but his form was cast into doubt when he failed to qualify for IEM Katowice, IEM PyeongChang, and WESG 2017. Of course, those were brutal qualifiers, with only the best players in Korea earning the right to compete for big money at international events. But Stats had been the #1 seed at BlizzCon just a few months ago. That was the level of play—and the version of himself—that Stats was being judged against. Things got even worse for Stats when he traveled to Katowice to compete in the live qualifier portion of the IEM World Championship, only to suffer an embarrassing elimination at the hands of Poland's souL.
In the midst of these troubles, GSL was a sanctuary. Anywhere else in the world, Stats was capable of losing to anyone. In AfreecaTV's FreecUP studio, Stats was capable of beating anyone. He cruised through the RO32 and RO16 group stages of Code S with nary a hiccup, and continued to defy the odds by defeating Classic in the RO8. At that point in time, it would have been fair to call Classic the best Protoss player in the whole world. The whole world—minus the GSL studio.
Stats proceeded to get eliminated from the online Olimoleague and Ballistix Brawl tournaments with losses to Ragnarok and Impact—both players eliminated in the Code S RO32. Of course, Stats followed those matches with an unthinkable upset: he defeated soO—one of the greatest Code S players ever—after falling behind 1-3 in the Code S semifinals.
Once more, Stats faces a difficult opponent. Stats has proven himself in top-tier PvP and PvZ by defeating Classic and soO, and he has respectable 62.50% and 65.62% win rates in the match-ups over the last 2 months. However, he has yet to pass a significant test against an elite Terran player, and his PvT win rate over the same period has remained lackluster at 46.15%. His two most notable PvT's in recent memory are losses from IEM Katowice. One was the aforementioned loss against the far less illustrious souL, and the other was a comprehensive late-game beatdown at the hands of Maru. Not one to mince words, Maru offered some ominous words after the series "I thought I couldn't lose if it went late."
Stats and Maru faced off at IEM Katowice in what might be a preview of the GSL finals
Maru, on the other hand, has had a more traditional hero's arc after starting the year with all the odds stacked against him. All the Terrans cried doom and gloom immediately after the 4.0 patch, but it was Maru—not INnoVation—who shone forth as the sole light in the dark. Cries of "Just play like Maru" echoed throughout the StarCraft II universe, in equal parts irony and sincerity.
The state of Terran was not the best going into 2018, with many of the race's aggressive options becoming curtailed over a period of time. Unit changes and playstyle adjustments made it harder for Terran to take the initiative in the mid-game, unless they wanted to commit to an almost all-in style. All of that should have made life harder for Maru, a player who built his reputation on aggression, micro-management and multi-tasking. This did show in the initial online qualifiers for IEM Katowice and PyeongChang, and even in some of Maru's losses in the early rounds of the GSL. But as February turned to March, Maru reinvented himself. He was still dangerous as ever in the early game, able to carve out leads or end games outright. However, he became more dominant than he had ever been in the late-game. Maru had never been "weak" per se in late-game TvZ, but it was never his foundation for that match-up. Now, it's become a huge strength and win-condition that every opponent is forced to play around. Say what you will about Ravens and Anti-Armor Missiles—few would have expected Maru to be Terran to abuse them to their greatest extent. Solar, Elazer, Nerchio, Scarlett, Serral and Dark (x2) have fallen to Maru in succession. His two wins against Dark earned him gold at WESG 2017 (and $200,000) and his spot in the GSL finals.
With a ridiculous 77.50% TvZ win rate and 72.22% TvT win rate in the previous two months, Maru is definitely one of the scariest players to face right now. However, his TvP seems rocky in comparison—at least statistically. It's his worst match-up over the same period with a 61.29% win rate, but one must wonder how much that matters. Maru's losses have come against strong Protoss opponents such as Classic, herO, as well as his old rival Dear. But Maru has plenty of wins against elite Protosses as well, beating sOs, Stats, as well as his old rival Dear. And unlike Stats, Maru has made short work of opponents he "should" defeat.
In terms of head-to-head, neither player has a significant advantage. Maru and Stats have squared off numerous times in the past, and they currently sit at an even 21-21 in terms of games (via Aligulac.com) with Stats holding a 6-5 lead in BO3+ series.
As such this battle will come down to form and preparation (a cliché, but no less true for it). Maru clearly has form on his side, but Stats has shown outstanding preparation and clutch mentality throughout his GSL run. Given how both players love throwing their opponents curveballs in the form of early-game aggression, it's easy to see a lot of these matches ending early. Stats will have had time to study their series from IEM Katowice, but one can't help but think Maru should still have a slight lead in the late-game given the incredible play he's shown us in TvZ. Some understanding just transcends match-ups.
While it seems counter-intuitive to bet on him, I do believe Stats has what it takes to win the finals. Protoss has a stronger early game and more map presence than Terran. Through his GSL run, regardless of the match-up, Stats has proven that he can seize the advantage in the early game (both with proxies and less devious strategies). Maru has not shown the best early game scouting or game sense against all-ins, and he is liable to lose some games without being able to put up a fight. Furthermore, while Maru’s late game is strong, I don’t believe it is strong enough to prevent Stats from finding a way to take 1 or 2 games off of him. Lastly, Stats' overall preparation and flat out ability to defy all expectations has just been absurd this season. How many times can we say he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat before we realize he was the favorite to win all along?
Stats 4 – 3 Maru