Code S Season 1by Orlok & Wax
Semifinal #2: Cure vs INnoVation
GomTvT is back again! TY's victory over PartinG in the first semifinal has guaranteed us an all Terran grand final, the first since TY faced Maru back in 2018's Season 3. All that's left now is to find out which Terran will confront TY in the finals. Will it be Cure, the late bloomer of 2020? Or will it be INnoVation, a living legend who's looking for his fourth Code S title?
Everyone loves an underdog story. There’s nothing quite as inspiring as seeing the saying "hard work always pays off" come to fulfillment in real life, when we watch a player slowly but surely bring their skill level up and challenge the greats of the game. We love it, maybe in part because we can personally relate to those kinds of players. From the frustration of the grind to the joy of passing personal milestones, we share a type of experience with those players, even if we're leagues apart (both figuratively, and literally leagues apart on the ladder). And, when our progress halts, when we no longer have the time or energy to commit further to improving, we can vicariously continue our journey by following these players. In some small way, we can imagine their success being ours, and feel that we have overcome the odds together.
Enter Cure, the protagonist of this semifinal match. Cure, like almost everyone else, started out an underappreciated, behind-the-scenes contributor. He was invisible, unseen, just another one of the barely-known KeSPA trainees desperate for a chance. Brood War gave him nothing—he arrived too late in a mature scene to make a splash. The 2012 transition to StarCraft II pressed the reset button on the KeSPA scene, and Cure moved up ever so slightly in the world. He was no longer anonymous—now he was a sub 50% win-rate player for KeSPA's 8th Team, guaranteed a starting spot on the second-from-last Proleague squad due to the lack of any better options. You could call it progress.
Thankfully, Jin Air swooped down onto the scene in mid 2013, giving the 8th Team a much needed injection of sponsorship money, and giving the team goals beyond not finishing in last place. Top players were soon brought on board: sOs, fresh off his BlizzCon victory, as well as Maru, the wonderkid who had walked the OSL Royal Road. The new environment and influx of talented teammates seemed to help Cure. His role in Proleague diminished due to the strengthened roster, but he finally started to find success in individual leagues. In early 2014, he qualified for the first GSL Code A of his career. By late 2014, he had qualified for GSL Code S.
That tournament should have been a turning point in his career. He went on a miraculous run where he had a chance to to Royal Road, climbing all the way to the semifinals where he had to face none other than INnoVation. The Machine had no regard for Cure's dreams, and ended his run and brought him crashing back down to reality. And while that run ended in a 3-4 defeat to INnoVation, it should have been the start of a new phase in Cure's career. His days as someone stuck firmly below the mid-tier ceiling should have been over. Instead, flying so high and so fast seemed to melt Cure's wings, and he descended back into mediocrity.
That's where Cure has been remained for most of his career ever since, stuck in the lower rounds of GSL/SSL (or failing to qualify at all), and stuck as the #4 player in Jin Air's rotation. He's had a few bright moments: he reached the semifinals of Code S Season 1 in 2016, perhaps a beneficiary of the switch to LotV. He put in some clutch Proleague performances as well, being an overall positive contributor in Jin Air's 2016 title run. But the big picture of his career painted him as a firmly rank-and-file player. When Jin Air remained as the sole KeSPA team after the dissolution of Proleague, other Jin Air players such as Rogue, Trap, and Maru put up the best individual results of their careers. Cure didn’t seem to benefit at all, even as his teammates credited him as a valuable practice partner.
We don't know exactly what changed in Cure in 2020. All we know is that at the end of 2019, he left Jin Air to sign with Dragon Phoenix Gaming. What happened after that can only be described as a total, inexplicable transformation. He began tearing up online tournaments during the pre-season, grinding away in every kind of online competition (even playing the EU server qualifiers of IEM Katowice to win his spot). In online play, he put up absurd win-rates over an absurd volume of games that would impress even Bly. For a while, we wondered if this online prowess would translate to offline success. Players like SpeCial sung his praises, while others like HeroMarine noted that he seemed to be a notch below the absolute best Terrans.
While Cure's IEM Katowice and Super Tournament runs were mediocre, he's making the case that he's very much 'for real' in his current Code S run. He's returned to the GSL semifinals for the first time in four years, and he's playing the best StarCraft II of his life. His macro play is efficient, precise, and unstoppable—almost reminiscent of INnoVation in his prime. But he's also becoming a more cunning player in the GSL studio, bringing all-ins and proxies to surprise his opponents. Dear wasn't in his best form against Cure in the quarterfinals, but there was little to criticize about Cure's play in that 3-0 sweep.
The fascinating aspect of Cure's rise was that there wasn’t any drastic change in his style that led to this spree of destruction. He was always a player who strove to have a solid, macro-core, supplemented by the requisite cheeses to keep his opponents honest. Basically, his blueprint was that of all the Terran greats of the past. But, after being stuck on a plateau for six years, Cure simply just got better at everything. Maybe Cure's story isn't quite that of textbook underdog—his improvement was so sudden that it's still jarring to think about. But he certainly put in enough time in years past for us to know that his recent success is truly earned.
Cure looks to do what Trap did last year: finish his inglorious climb and finally put a history of toiling behind him. Maybe at the end of it, he’ll show us that the soft spot we have for underdogs in our hearts isn't a weakness, and that cheering for them can be worth it in the end.
The stature of a player like INnoVation is very much in the eye of the beholder. He's certainly one of the best players to ever play this decade-old game. How else can one rate a player with three Code S titles, over ten total major championships (depending on your definition of 'major'), and the fifth most career prize-money earned? However, it's very much up for debate what his exact rank is among the legends of StarCraft II. Depending on how one perceives INnoVation's shortcomings, he might even be the GOAT.
INnoVation's streakiness is his most notable flaw. He's been historically dominant during his peaks, which have lasted the span of a single tournament or nearly an entire year in the case of 2017. But he's also prone to spells of lethargy, when his engine seems to be running on idle mode. What does one make of a year like 2016, which he basically admitted was a sabbatical? Does it count against his record, or does it simply not count at all? We last saw apex INnoVation at the WESG 2018 grand finals (which confusingly took place in 2019), where he defeated Serral to win the $150,000 first place prize. Since then, intentional or not, he's again taken some time to cool down.
When INnoVation is winning, his robotic, macro-oriented style is seen as the pinnacle of RTS play, the other, contrasting side of the "just play like Maru/INnoVation" coin. When uninspiring stretches follow, we often critique him as inflexible and painfully limited in creativity. While INnoVation has adapted well to the various expansions and patches of StarCraft, this core playstyle has remained mostly static for his career. Even his all-ins could seem textbook—following some optimized algorithm formulated to keep his opponents from taking too many risks against him. In hindsight, looking at INnoVation's inconsistent and oft disappointing stretch between 2018-2019, we might speculate that lack of interest wasn't the only cause. Perhaps, his predictability finally caught up to him.
And then, in 2020, INnoVation suddenly decided to try something different. The INnoVation we've seen in this season of Code S seems like an entirely new person. Somehow, he seems both deeply cunning and delightfully whimsical in his choice of strategies. He two-based all-in'd Zest to oblivion online as an pump-fake before their GSL match, then hit him with a hidden-base macro counter in game one, and then finished him off with a one-base all-in in the following game. After Maru tried to hit him with a two rax reaper opening, INnoVation decided to take a different direction than just “macroing up” and went double proxy starport battlecruisers to seal the deal.
Of course, INnoVation has always showed some degree of strategic diversity—no one plays 100% as their stereotype indicates (except Has). But this time around, he's really pushing the boundaries of his creativity, to the degree that the SC2 community can't seem to decide if the builds he's using are actually good or not. There's no arguing with the end result, however. This combination of planning and improvisation has earned him a return to the Code S semifinals for the first time since his dominant, championship-winning run in Season 3 of 2017.
It's impossible to know the reason behind this change in mindset. In a short interview with Crank, he said that the pandemic left him with nothing else to do but think about StarCraft II, which birthed some of his strategies. As with all things INnoVation, we can't tell if he was being serious or not. Oddly enough, INnoVation stepped back some of his previous confidence after defeating Trap in the quarterfinals, returning to his more modest and measured interview style. While, we're at a loss to explain this swing in mindset, there's no doubt that his skills are peaking at the perfect time. INnoVation might not outwardly care about legacies and GOAT-debates, but maybe on the inside, he's thinking about what a fourth Code S title could do for his career resume.
From the beginning of StarCraft II up to now, Cure has always struggled against INnoVation. Cure trails 9-31 in all-time head-to-head match score, and has a zero-percent win-rate against INnoVation in offline matches (0-8). In fact, that 3-4 loss to INnoVation back in the 2014 Code S semis might have been the closest Cure came to toppling INnoVation in a live setting, which doesn't bode well for him at all. Looking at 2020 alone, the period in which Cure is enjoying an abrupt surge in skill, INnoVation still leads with a 11-4 head-to-head record.
Despite the one-sided history, there are still overall stats that say these two are evenly matched. INnoVation has a monstrous 74.07% win-rate in the Terran mirror, but Cure is right behind him with a 73.35% win-rate. In fact, Cure would have a higher win-rate had he just won their last head-to-head meeting: a losers bracket match in TSL5.
Easier said that done. That was a match that suggested their history still matters, even if there's not much separating the two in terms of overall TvT stats. INnoVation took a comfortable 3-1 victory—even with TvT being a match that can swing wildly on a single drop or engagement, he never really looked threatened in any of his wins. It was more 'old' INnoVation than the capricious fellow we've seen in the GSL, grinding Cure into dust with solid play (amusingly enough, INnoVation told Crank he “forgot” how to play TvT after his GSL matches with Maru, despite looking every bit the superior player in control and positioning). It has to be noted that the TSL5 match took place after their semifinal match in GSL had been determined. Neither player went for mech play at all during the series or went for any drastic all-ins—one has to assume they were hiding strategies, or at least trying to mind-game each other ahead of this GSL match.
Cure might be playing the best StarCraft of his career, but INnoVation still seems to have his number. The history between these two suggests that Cure won't be over to get over the wall of INnoVation by playing straight-up games. He has to take a page out of INnoVation's new playbook and hide multiple cards up his sleeve if he's to defeat him. Given INnoVation's new approach, one has to wonder if the series between two of the best macro Terrans will just end up being a bizarre, rock-paper-scissor battle of odd build orders.
In the end, we have to side with history in this prediction. Cure is much improved, but so is INnoVation. We hope Cure will continue his rise and come back even stronger next season, but we have to predict this particular match in favor of the Learning Machine.
INnoVation 4 - 2 Cure