Grand Finals Preview: Classic vs Maru
In January, the GSL announced the start of its 2019 season with word 'RE:Generation.' Serral's BlizzCon victory meant that for the first time in the history of StarCraft II, GSL Code S could not proudly proclaim itself as the home to the best player in the world. With that word, and the image of Serral silencing all his rivals, the GSL had charged its players with a sacred task: restore Korean StarCraft to its rightful glory.
Stats via Aligulac.com, match-up stats from 2018-11-20
|Head to head|
|7 Wins||9 Wins|
|27 Wins||27 Wins|
|4W – 3L||12W – 4L|
|10W – 11L||36W – 13L|
(Code S Season 2 RO4)
Classic 3 – 1 Maru
(Super Tournament #1 RO8)
Classic 2 – 0 Maru
(Code S Season 1 RO16)
Classic 3 – 0 Maru
(WESG Asia-Pacific Regional RO4)
Stats via Aligulac.com, match-up stats from 2018-11-20
The rallying cry was answered. Over the last three months, Korea's elite StarCraft II progamers have traversed the globe, dashing foreign hopes, claiming lucrative spoils, and reasserting their might. Though some of Korea's heroes were felled upon returning to their homeland, there's no questioning that they achieved their goal: The GSL rules the StarCraft II world once more.
Now, it's time to find out who rules the GSL.
Classic: The Last Chanceby Orlok
To grow old means to experience change, both voluntary and involuntary. Age alters our perceptions of events that we previously took for granted, demanding us to grow up and accept that the times are changing. For the 27-year-old Classic, the second oldest competitor in Code S, the specter of time has loomed over the road he has taken to what could be the last Code S finals of his career.
Classic is perhaps the most unexpected player to have made it this far. Even after strong showings in the group stages of the tournament, there was plenty of reason to predict his playoff elimination as he went up against powerhouses Rogue and Dark. Classic's PvZ was statistically mediocre, and it had been the cause of his demise in several 2018 events. His age didn’t make his prospects seem any brighter. StarCraft II might not devour the elderly quite like its predecessor Brood War—where careers peaked in the late teens and retirement came in the early twenties—it's still mechanically proficient youths such as Maru and Serral who establish dynasties.
To much surprise, Classic has advanced this far with a combination of sheer determination and strategic brilliance. Despite playing against two of the best the Zerg race had to offer, intricate series planning and preparation carried Classic to victory. He trashed the idea that the 'better' player react and plays a macro game, instead deploying an arsenal of Cannon-rushes, proxy buildings, Adept all-ins, and everyone’s favorite: the Soul Train. He pulled out all the stops, switching builds literally every game to edge his way forward. This style didn’t beget a pretty series, with Classic going the full distance in both the quarter and semifinals, but it got the job done.
While Classic's resourcefulness has been admirable, it also belies the increasing desperation of a man who's running out of time. For fans, military service is just an inconvenience, something that takes away our favorite players from the game. For the individuals actually giving their country nearly two years of their lives, it is much more than that. The individual is abruptly thrown into the ultimate collectivist society, one full of draconian rules. One must begin at the lowest rung of a social ladder, regardless of their accomplishments in personal life—a painful blow to self-esteem and pride. Korean progamers might have a relatively easier time adjusting to disciplined group life, given their years spent in team houses while training for Proleague. On the other hand, they have more ego to swallow, as top progamers enjoy a kind fame and fortune that's hugely abnormal for people their age. Even outside the money, there's a sense of accomplishment that you are a winner, one of the best in your field. And suddenly, they have to throw that away to start again from the bottom.
However, the most daunting aspect of service is not the service itself. Human relations, spiteful superiors, and physical drudgery are all obnoxious obstacles, but the passage of time helps smooth them over. The true difficulty lies at the end of it, when you're discharged with the unforgiving knowledge that the time for youthful dreaming is done. The rest of your life is waiting for you, intimidating in its vastness. And while all men must complete the service, you'll never lose the sense that you've been left behind. At the end of my service, I saw friends and acquaintances making huge steps in their careers with internships at major tech companies or the United Nations, or going on to prestigious grad schools. While they were making an impact in their lives, I had been shoveling dirt hills. I felt so far behind, and I realized that procrastinating was a luxury I couldn’t indulge myself in anymore. The time for fun was over.
At least 'normal' people have some sense of direction in how to resume their lives, whether it's finishing school or finding another job in their field. But professional gamers can’t come back expecting things to be the same, or have any expectations at all. Those who do try to return to the professional scene find it nearly impossible to replicate their past success—players like Kal and Fantasy ended up wallowing in mediocrity despite their passion, MMA moved on to coaching after giving it his all for a year, and even a player as talented as TaeJa is struggling in his return. Depending on timing, there's the possibility your game's pro scene won't even exist in two years. With military service being a forced retirement of sorts, it represents the end of the only dream some of these players have ever known: to be a progamer.
For Maru, this chance at another GSL title is routine. For Classic, it’s everything. He knows better than anyone that such an opportunity may never again come to pass, and he cherishes this opportunity much more than Maru ever could. That's why Classic's run has felt so stained with the desperation and urgency to leave one final mark in his craft. That's why Classic has prepared so diligently, why he's willing to utilize every dark art, and why he had to hold back tears after winning his duel against Dark: there might not be a next time. While rational thinking dictates that Maru should once again stand head and shoulder above another puny challenger, I can’t help but think maybe this time, it should be someone else hoisting the trophy.
Maru: Living Historyby Mizenhauer
StarCraft II has changed so much over the past six months that it’s easy to forget that just last September, Maru had cemented his status as best player in the world by winning his third consecutive Code S title. His victory over TY was, without a doubt, the most impactful of his three triumphs, with the outcome of the match teetering on a razor's edge from start to finish. In the weeks leading to WCS Global Finals, the excitement in the community swelled to a fever pitch. No player had dominated the Korean scene so absolutely and for so long, and expectations were sky high for him to deliver Korea its seventh and greatest Global Championship by humbling Serral at BlizzCon.
Maru’s Code S success in 2018 elevated him to a tier of his own, but it was that very greatness which made the year’s conclusion so deflating. With his scintillating final bout with TY fresh in mind, fans were more than willing to forgive Maru's poor showing at the second Super Tournament, the condition being that he succeed in a tournament that really mattered, the WCS Global Finals.
And, at first it seemed as if he would oblige. He won the tournament’s opening series against Lambo, and needed less than 13 minutes of game time to dispatch Neeb. Maru was nothing short of incendiary, and hopes of a Maru versus Serral final were at an all time high. But just six days later, Maru coughed up the upset of the year in the worst way possible.
Maru’s Korean dominance had been built on a number of factors, but his popularization of the proxy meta in TvP was one of the most vital. Its duplicity and versatility gave Maru the advantage during a time in which other Terrans were struggling to keep their head above water in the matchup.
As expected, he brought the same style to bear against teammate sOs. What we didn’t expect was for Maru to fall flat on his face. The crafty sOs once again had a trick up his sleeve. In game one, he went against 'standard' play and teched up on one base. It was a gambit that would have failed if Maru had gone for a quick expansion, but it this case it allowed him to easily rebuff Maru’s early attacks. sOs appeared to give Maru a chance to get back in the series with an ill-advised cannon rush on Lost and Found, but Maru bungled the game. On the final map, Maru got supply blocked after forgetting to build his second supply depot, an amateurish error that allowed a probing Adept to kill four free SCVs. Crippled so early on, Maru was forced into desperate 1/1/1 push that sOs easily quelled.
It was perhaps the year's most astonishing result, one which threw Maru’s status as world’s best into question. Maru’s situation worsened when Serral lifted the Gosu Trophy later that weekend, effectively stealing all the attention away from a player who had been in greatest-of-all-time debates two months prior.
RE:Generation was the tagline for the first season of GSL 2019, but it was unclear if Maru got the message. He qualified for IEM Katowice on his first try, though a 2-0 loss to INnoVation meant he had to fight back through the lower bracket to earn his spot. He made the cut in Code S as well, despite dropping a series to Dear. Seemingly unable to escape a qualifier unscathed, Maru seemed fortunate to have been gifted an automatic invitation to WESG 2018.
But at least the first live event went well, with Maru posting a solid result in his Code S RO32 group. RagnaroK and herO weren’t the most daunting of foes, but nonetheless he dealt with them handily and built some momentum before traveling to Katowice for IEM.
Yet, as had been the story the year before, Maru failed to deliver the same sublime displays overseas that he had in Korea. Despite entering the tournament as one of the favorites, Maru found himself in shambles after dropping the first three matches of Group B to Trap, Neeb and Leenock. Trap had been a historically tough opponent, but Maru had no business losing to the latter two considering he’d won seven matches in a row against Leenock (since June 2013), and had won and four of five lifetime matches against Neeb. There was just no way rationalize what was already the biggest shock of 2019.
Maru’s fortunes seemed poised for a reversal on March 8th, with a hand-sculpted GSL group providing him an ideal opportunity to bully inferior competition. But instead of sweeping through the group as anticipated, Maru was defeated by Bunny in the winner’s match. Maru slipped through into the quarterfinals in the decider match, but the fact that he was stretched to another game three against GSL RO32 punching bag Impact was cause for more worry than relief.
But hope shines eternal, and WESG gave the invincible Maru of 2018 another chance to reveal himself. But instead of shucking his slump and earning a long awaited showdown against Serral, Maru was dismantled by INnoVation in the semifinals. He scraped out a 3-2 victory against Scarlett in the third place match despite the Candian’s persistent Nydus shenanigans, but for the third time in five months Maru’s domestic dominance was starkly contrasted by his ineptitude away from his homeland.
Two weeks removed from his poor showing at WESG, it seemed as if the final curtain would fall on the age of Maru. His Code S quarterfinal opponent, Dear, had been excellence incarnate in PvT, logging an incredible twenty game win streak since late January. Maru had his incomparable Code S record on his side, but what solace could last year’s accomplishments really offer against such a towering opponent?
However, instead of putting in a toothless performance as he had at prior competitions, Maru reminded us of the quality which made him the champion of every Code S in 2018. Where Maru had drawn from an unending well of proxy strategies to unsettle his Protoss foes a year ago, he displayed a wider breadth of play against Dear. A pair of tank pushes and an audacious twenty widow mine drop evoked the best of Maru from 2018 and even ages past. Even though Dear took a map with a masterful late game performance on King’s Cove, there was no doubt as to who had been the superior player. It was the exact type of performance Maru’s fans had been waiting for.
With Dear out of the way, Maru faced off against his teammate Trap in the semifinals. The match was never hyped up as a clash of equals, but it proved to be even more lopsided than anyone expected. Maru outplayed Trap in every aspect of the game. He struck early and often, using harassment and sharp timings to keep Trap out of a comfortable rhythm. It was a vintage Maru performance, more reminiscent of the run and gun brand of PvT he showed in Heart of the Swarm than the guile and trickery he’d relied upon in 2018.
Maru's run through the playoffs reminded us that his ability to craft strategies aimed at a specific opponent is only exceeded by the peerless manner in which he executes them. It allows him to control the tone and direction of a preparation-based tournament at a level that no player has ever been able to achieve.
But as decisive and ruthless as Maru’s triumphs were, his march to the finals is even more noteworthy for its historical significance. With his victory, Maru booked a spot in his fourth consecutive Code S final, extending a run of form many thought would never be duplicated when soO originally achieved the feat in 2013-14. As much as we’ve been distracted by Maru’s failings overseas and in weekend tournaments, the Jin Air Terran continues to tread on hallowed ground in the confines of Code S. Or, perhaps, it's everyone else who dares enter the sanctified halls of the GSL, made blessed by Maru's presence.
As Maru prepares to take part in his fourth Code S final, and the 29th Code S final of all time, we know it will be one unlike any other. Hindsight has allowed us to see where all the valiant contenders from across different eras stand, and learn who the true legends of Code S are. But when Maru plays in the FreecUP studio, we're blessed with a rare form of clairvoyance: we know that this is history, and it's being written right now with every victory.