Sweeping Serral in the Finals, Dark wins TSL 6Dark won a match that was over a year in the making, and in the process, reaffirmed that we're back to parity at the top of StarCraft II.
On November 1st, 2019, Dark defeated Reynor 4-1 in the grand finals of BlizzCon to become the WCS Global champion. It was a moment of redemption for both Dark and the Korean StarCraft II scene: Dark washed away the pain of his defeat to ByuN in the finals of BlizzCon 2016, and Korea reclaimed its pride after ceding the trophy to Finland's Serral in 2018.
Dark showed the elation one would expect, hoisting the Gosu Trophy over his head. But just moments later, during the post-match interview, he gave a more atypical response. "Reynor is a good player, but I wanted to face Serral and prove [my ZvZ]. I'm a bit disappointed because I couldn't do that..."
Over a year later, Dark would finally have his opportunity. As TeamLiquid Starleague 6—the final major tournament of 2020—came to a close, Dark found himself facing off against the Finnish Phenom in the grand finals. Of course, TSL6 was a stage of an entirely different nature from the 2019 Global Finals, with a much smaller prize pool and held entirely online due to a global pandemic. Still, one important detail had stayed the same: Serral entered the tournament in a two-way race with Reynor for the title of best ZvZ player in the world, while the Korean contingent looked to challenge them. Serral, unintentionally, had waited as Dark's final test. Perhaps Dark had kept those words from 2019 in mind, or maybe he had forgotten them entirely. In any case, he was more than up to the challenge. He took down Serral in a shocking 4-0 sweep, leaving no doubt about his abilities. The 'proof' of Dark's prowess was in the ZvZ pudding.
Despite the final scoreline at the end, Dark's journey had been anything but easy. The reason why Dark hadn't been able to take on Serral sooner was due to his own disappointing performances. Everyone knew where to find Serral: in the championship picture of major international events. Dark just hadn't been able to get there in 2020. He had been poor in the GSL as well, only reaching the playoffs in one out of three seasons. All of this was reflected in his rather modest seed at TSL6 (based on EPT points), which saw him clash with Serral early on in the RO16.
Dark and Serral face off in the RO16 (Time: 3:30:40)
Though the outlook for Dark was grim going in, he revealed a hand that seemed to leave Serral without any outs early on. Mutalisk play flummoxed the Finnish Phenom, letting Dark get out to a surprising 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. However, Serral showed his famed resilience and pulled his way back into the match, taking down Dark with a Roach all-in in game three and then punishing Dark's choice to play out a ground-based macro-game in game four. Seemingly chastised, Dark went back to Muta-Ling-Bane in game five, and jumped ahead to what appeared to be a commanding lead. However, Serral dug his heels in and established a thorny defensive line based on Hydralisks, Lurkers, and Vipers, leaving Dark unable to finish the game. Dark was left with no natural unit to transition to except Ultralisks, and unfortunately for him, Serral's meat grinder was industrial-grade. Serral dodged a bullet and completed the 3-2 reverse-sweep, while Dark was sent down to the bottom of the losers bracket.
After a grueling run through the losers' bracket, Dark earned a grand finals rematch against Serral where neither player would have a second chance. As it turned out, Dark's hard-fought but ultimately futile effort in the RO16 had not been in vain. His Mutalisks—or at least the threat thereof—seemed to haunt Serral throughout the finals. Three out of the four games saw Serral play as the aggressor, but Dark's defenses proved to be more than up to task. The series started with Serral pulling out a 'macro' Pool-first strategy on Lightshade, which Dark parried with some difficulty. No matter—Dark's riposte with a swell of Speedlings ended the game in abrupt fashion. Game two on Romanticide saw Serral take an all-or-nothing approach, staying on Hatchery tech and looking to kill Dark with Roaches, Banelings, and Ravagers before Mutalisks could get out on the map. Dark defended with aplomb, leaving Serral with no choice but to GG out when his last wave of attackers broke upon Dark's fortifications. The third game on Deathaura showed why Serral could hardly be blamed for taking such measures. Dark was allowed to play Muta-Ling-Bane vs Serral's Hydra-Lurker in a relatively 'normal' game, which resulted in Dark running amok and using the superior mobility of his composition to pick his foe apart before the defenses were fully set.
Dark challenges Serral once more in the grand finals (Time: 7:33:00)
Up 3-0, Dark's victory seemed all but certain—only the reverse sweep from the RO16 hinted at the possibility of a miracle. There would be no half-measures taken for Serral, as he opted for a fast Zergling-Baneling bust as his final gambit. Dark, catching whiff of the stratagem at the last second with an Overlord, scrambled to construct a multi-layered wall of Evolution Chambers at his natural. It turned out that Dark reacted just in the nick of time—his makeshift wall bought him just enough breathing room to hatch Zerglings, while his Queens focused-fired down Serral's crucial Banelings from safety. Once Dark's Zerglings were out, the game was all but over. Serral had no choice but to play catch-up from a massive Drone disadvantage, and it was not long before he faced an overwhelming force of Dark's Roaches. Maybe out of frustration, maybe relieved to begin a well-earned winter break—or maybe just because he just hit the Caps Lock by mistake—Serral signed his final surrender in big, capital letters. GG.
The ideological rivalry between Korean ZvZ and European ZvZ had cooled off significantly in 2020, but Solar and Lambo used their broadcast time during TSL6 to rekindle the flames. Ironically, it wasn't any region that won the debate. Instead, the sole victor was Dark, playing his own unique style. It wasn't so much that Dark showed a preference for Mutalisks—it was how he went into Mutalisks. Lambo pointed out a seemingly small quirk in Dark's play that might have gone unnoticed by casual fans, but something that could make all the difference in the mind games of pro-tier Zerg vs Zerg: Dark went Lair before Evolution Chamber, while the European standard was the opposite order. In the post-match interview, Dark revealed that his Korean peers had also been skeptical of his approach, telling him he was taking too great a risk. According to Dark, he may have been the only one who had been playing correctly all along. "I've thought this style of ZvZ was the right one since around a year ago. Since I won against Serral like this today, I think everyone else will use my style as well."
While Dark's grand finals performance was certainly impressive, it was equalled by the strength of his overall run. Due to his RO16 loss to Serral, Dark had to fight his way through a brutal losers bracket gauntlet, taking down a murderer's row of players in PartinG, Rogue, Reynor, ShoWTimE, Maru, and ByuN before earning his grand finals rematch against Serral. As commentator ZombieGrub noted, it was probably the greatest losers' bracket run since Leenock's world-beating rampage at MLG Providence 2011. But why even limit it to double-elimination? When looking at the totality of Dark's TSL6 run and the quality of opponents he defeated, it was also one of the most difficult tournament runs of all time.
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For Dark, the TSL6 championship seemed to inject him with a much-needed shot of confidence—something you would rarely expect to hear about a player who carried himself with so much swagger throughout his career. However, 2020 had been a difficult year for Dark, who had failed to live up to expectations as Global Champion. In the post-match interview, he said "...I think I practiced about as much as I did last year, but because I put so much pressure on myself things just didn't work out. As the losses kept coming, I lost faith and trust in myself. In this TSL tournament, I tried to play without pressure, believe in myself and play out the strategies I had prepared. The results were good, so this championship is meaningful to me in a lot of ways. IEM Katowice is going to be held in February of next year, and if I can keep my current momentum going, I think I can win the championship."
TSL6 was a poetic end to a one-year arc in Dark's career, and a reminder of a declaration he made earlier in his career: "Until the day StarCraft II disappears, I'll always be a player who is a title contender." But it was also a larger reminder about the nature of competitive StarCraft II. So much of our viewpoint still seems anchored in 2018, where only two players felt like true title contenders, and the players who 'should' win usually did—such was the impact of that year in our collective memories. But for the rest of the history of StarCraft II, the scene has been full of amazing players, all of them capable of playing great games against each other, and any of whom might beat another on a given day. Dark's run wasn't an indictment of Serral, Reynor, ByuN, or any of the other players he defeated, nor was it a sign of Dark's ascent to an insurmountable peak above all others. It just another reminder—alongside ASUS ROG, King of Battles, and WCS Winter—that we're back in an era of truly fierce competition.