StarCraft Brain: Zest, the Meta Changerby Seracis
When we think of top Protoss players in the 2020/21 EPT season, Trap is of course the first one who comes to mind. Many fans will also think of Stats due to his impressive consistency and lingering hype from his clash with Serral at BlizzCon 2018. However, the player who had the biggest impact on the game was a fallen legend, a Protoss who lost his status as the best player in the world a long time ago: Zest.
The Kingslayer didn't have the most successful career after his longtime team KT Rolster disbanded at the end of 2016. In 2017 and 2019 he didn't qualify for BlizzCon at all, and he even fell out of GSL Code S in one particularly bad season (quite the fall for a two-time Code S champion). Furthermore, Zest's image as a player changed as well since KeSPA disbanded. We all make fun of the 'Zest bank' quite a bit—long ago Zest was a solid macro player, but nowadays he floats several thousand minerals in the first 10 minutes. Where once he was known as a master of safe defensive play, he's instead become an aggressive player who relies on his micro and game sense more than ever.
But even though Zest's general reputation has changed, he still has some distinctive traits that make him a uniquely dangerous player. His refined build orders, his decisiveness, and his killer instinct—all these have become more pronounced than ever in the 2020/21 EPT season. And he has one more weapon few would have expected coming into the season: creativity.
The Unexpected Finalist: Glaive Adepts at IEM KatowiceIt all started at IEM Katowice 2020 with Zest's unexpected run to the finals, where he recorded an impressive PvZ winning streak against Rogue, soO, Reynor, and Armani in the group stage, and then Serral in the semifinals.
This was largely thanks to a soon-to-be notorious new strategy which revolved around four Gateways, a Warp Prism and the Resonating Glaives upgrade. The Protoss player would attack the Zerg’s third base while constantly warping in rounds of four Adepts, shading them into the other Zerg bases. If the Zerg army was too weak or out of position, the Adepts could shade in and destroy an entire Drone line. If the Zerg overcommitted to defending the shades, the Protoss could just hold back and maybe even kill the third base. These extreme scenarios usually don’t happen anymore, but at the time, that was pretty much how most of the PvZ games looked went. It took the efforts of DRG and others to figure out an efficient response to the Glaive Adept opener that allowed the Zerg to defend without being put automatically behind in economy, or in an all-in position.
Zest was not the first player to use a strategy of this type. We saw a variation with 5-Gate Glaives in the fall of 2019 from Harstem and PartinG. However, the post-BlizzCon balance patch reworked Resonating Glaives to give a temporary attack-speed boost after completing a shade, effectively banishing this style into oblivion. While the Glaive change was reverted in a matter of weeks, by the time IEM Katowice 2020 came around, the PvZ meta had temporarily settled into normal Oracle openings combined with Protoss trickery such as 2-base Immortal all-ins or Immortal/Shield Battery contains.
The 4.11 patch had also specifically addressed the late game in PvZ, which Protoss players had wanted to avoid at all costs in 2019. But since there were no Premier tournaments until Katowice 2020, it was only there that Zest helped reveal to what extent the matchup had truly changed.
The biggest surprise came in the semifinals when Zest beat tournament favorite Serral (VOD) with, among other things, his new trademark build of 4-Gate Glaives. Just like Reynor and his Korean colleagues, Serral was unable to adapt to the new build. Not only was stopping the Glaive Adepts hard enough, but the follow-up could be anything ranging from a Dark Shrine, a Blink Stalker/Immortal push or even just a standard transition into Chargelot/Immortal/Archon.
Zest's run had an anticlimactic ending, as Rogue then absolutely dismantled Zest in the Grand Finals with early game all-ins. The Jin Air Zerg had already played Zest earlier in the tournament (losing in the group stage), and by the time of the finals, had nearly twenty games of Zest’s PvZ shenanigans to study. So instead of accepting his fate and trying to adapt to the 4-Gate Adept variations, he just killed Zest before the Protoss could play his game. Hence, the build was later optimized multiple times to make it safer against early aggression and also allowed Protoss to get its first warp in even faster at 4:20.
While Zest finished in second place, his run had major consequences. The whole PvZ meta revolved around this one build order for the next few months, as it forced a certain response by the Zerg player to not lose the game or fall significantly behind. Players even developed a fake-Glaives, 3-Gate DT drop which looked exactly like a Glaives build, which hoped that the Zerg would skip Spore Crawlers to better defend against the Adepts. Even though 4 Gate Glaives eventually fell out of fashion as Zergs figured out optimized responses, it still shows up occasionally (alongside its variants) in major tournaments, especially on short maps.
The 2020/21 season had barely started, and Zest had already shaken up an entire match-up. But it wouldn't be the last time Zest changed the meta.
Darkness descends!… for Terran playersZest also introduced a groundbreaking innovation in PvT with the usage of Shadow Stride-upgraded Dark Templars in a non-memey way. For this, we have to go a few months forward from IEM Katowice to May's TeamLiquid Starleague 5. Zest had fallen to the lower bracket of the tournament, and had become a bit of a running joke among casters along the way after playing a proxy Dark Shrine against Terrans in almost every game. After HeroMarine fell 3-0 against Zest's DT openings, the Protoss was confronted with a more challenging opponent as he had to face the reigning Code S champion and arguably the best player in the world in TY.
Before we get into Zest's match vs TY, some context about Zest's TvP: Zest really has a remarkable ability to be the only top Protoss player to make the heavy gateway style against Terran viable and also get deep runs in tournaments with it. I’m not talking about a mid-game gateway style that quickly techs into double-Robo Colossus/Disruptor. I'm talking about opening with limited splash damage (storm or 2-3 Colossi) and committing hard to 12+ Gateways and sticking to it without transitioning (Zest's latest series in a premier event against Bunny in the 2021 GSL Super Tournament 1 (VOD) also proves that nothing has changed in this regard today).
Back to the match. At this point in time, TY had just won his first GSL Code S, beating PartinG and Stats along the way. Both Protosses, while different in style, were well-known Colossus advocates in the matchup, be it as Stats on 2 bases defensively or as a transition after an aggressive 4-Gate Blink opening à la PartinG. Zest, on the other hand, was a big believer in early third and fourth bases which allowed him to produce more units and build a bank for more expensive and experimental transitions. One of which would be unveiled here in this revolutionary second game vs TY at TSL5 (VOD).
The Kingslayer went for the proxy Dark Shrine once again, but the early game passed without anyone taking a decisive lead. Zest got two initial Colossi, but stuck to his style and didn't tech to more splash damage options like Storm or Disruptors. He even refused to build a second forge for armor upgrades, even though he was setting himself up to rely on mass Gateway units. Who could have expected his eventual plan: mass Dark Templars with Shadow Stride (better known as DT Blink)??? Now, while this was extremely surprising for most of the global audience, word of Zest's bizarre +2 blink DT strategy was already going around in the Korean community (TY himself talked about it on an earlier stream). But this TSL game was the first time that a pro player brought this style to light in a major tournament game.
As the game went on, Zest's focus on attack upgrades, his early DT blink upgrade, and his immediate reconstruction of Dark Shrines every time TY destroyed it made a lot more sense. Zest sent run-by's with giant DT hit squads (sometimes more than 10) to destroy TY's expansions in seconds. All the while, he was defending his own bases with a Gateway army and a single Colossus that survived the early game. The DT's would suddenly pop up in the real fights, where their high single target damage proved extremely valuable against the Tank-heavy composition TY favored at the time.
"If you tell me that he is winning this game with 15 Gate, no armor, triple dark shrine, I'd be laughing like nah that's not a thing" - Rotterdam, moments before Zest beats TY with 15 Gate, no armor upgrades and triple dark shrine.
Maybe feardragon was right all along. Zest's direct rush to DT's and Shadow Stride never became a real meta build, since this kind of rush obviously relies on the element of surprise. However, the concept of mass Blink-DT run-by's in the late-game lived on. Not as a meme, but as a common, reliable technique to destroy the Planetary Fortress expansions of Terran that are otherwise extremely difficult to break. Every top player in the world started using this harassment option in longer PvT games, thanks to Zest’s creative approach.
Paving the Road for a Protoss Powerhouse: Void Ray Openers in PvZPerhaps the biggest change we have to thank Zest for, however, is the use of Void Rays in PvZ. As every Zerg player is acutely aware of right now, Void Rays received a cost reduction, a higher movement speed and a shorter build time last summer with Patch 5.0.2. After the PvZ meta was dominated by 4-Gate Glaive Adepts, few were initially inconvenienced by a breath of fresh air in the meta.
The mass Void Ray opener made its debut in a major tournament game in September of 2020, when Zest faced Solar in GSL Code S Season 3 (VOD). As with any novel strategy, it's impossible to 100% say a certain player was the sole 'inventor', but Zest was certainly the one to popularize it. Zest started with a Void Ray first to deny all scouting, added a fast third base and two more Stargates after that. He then went up to eight Void Rays before transitioning into fast Storm to survive Hydra timings, and then quickly transitioned into Skytoss with the three completed Stargates. I suppose this general outline will not be unfamiliar to readers as Protoss players all over the world copied this style and still play it today.
Void Rays hard counter older, conventional Roach/Ravager all-ins, and are also quite good against Nydus Worm strategies. They also force the Zerg player to invest a lot in anti-air, be it more Spore Crawlers or multiple rounds of Queens, as Voids inevitably fly over the map to try to snipe important buildings such as the yet-to-be-finished 4th Hatchery. And, of course, the strategy transitions easily into the fearsome Skytoss composition.
As Void Rays lose a 1vs1 against a Queen, a lot of counter-strategies have been developed that revolve around mass Queens, either walking them slowly across the map, popping them out of a Nydus in an uncommon position, or flying them across the map in Drop-Overlords (the German Taxi). Back in September however, Korean Zergs still tried to counter this new style by teching straight into Hydralisks, or they were still content to try and play late-game ZvP.
Zest was eventually eliminated from the GSL after he fell to Armani 2-3 in the quarterfinals (VOD), with the points he scored being ironically by Twilight openings and not Stargate builds (Zest reached the Skytoss phase, but hadn't quite perfected the seemingly unbeatable army of the present meta). However, the consequences that his games had were undeniable.
Just as it was the case with his other two big inventions, every Protoss player in the world started copying this Void Ray style. Obviously the build has since been modified a lot. The more modern variant with only 2 Stargates became famous in December through games of Stats in the 2020 GSL Super Tournament 2 (VOD) and Zest himself at TSL 6 (VOD). The amount of Void Rays built also started to vary between 2 and 12 but the general idea stayed intact.
The true power of this style was only realized by most spectators after DHM: Last Chance 2021 where Trap took down Serral 4-3 in the finals (VOD) by taking three maps with the 2 Stargate build, including an easy hold against a Hydralisk/Baneling bust in the deciding game. Trap also went on to eliminate current Korean Zerg hope Dark in 2021 GSL Super Tournament 1 (VOD), again thanks to the 2 Stargate build. Thus, Trap won three championships in seven weeks (including his earlier win in 2020 Super Tournament 2), and became one of the top contenders for IEM Katowice.
It appears that for the first time since the removal of the Mothership core, Protoss has the upper hand against Zerg in the late game. Without a creative player crazy enough to try and refine a strategy that allows a smooth transition into Skytoss, we may never have arrived at this place where Protoss can fully leverage this advantage. So, even though Zest himself didn’t win any championships in the 2020/21 season, he certainly played a big role in helping Protoss win championships again.
One last hurrah?What can we expect from Zest at the upcoming IEM Katowice 2021 event? If you had asked me two weeks ago, I would have told you that he might go on a decent run, but there would be no chance that he would reach the round of 4, let alone win the championship. But now, I actually give him a shot. He put up a solid run in the GSL Super Tournament Season 1, and even though he lost to Zoun’s cheeses in the semis, he looked absolutely unstoppable in his PvT matches during the earlier rounds. And then, he won the championship at WardiTV 2021, where he defeated Reynor, INnoVation, Cure, and TY in the playoffs while dropping only a single map.
There is also the possibility of another meta-changer, even though I find it rather unlikely that this will happen in PvT. He constantly shows new slight variations in his playstyle but nothing completely groundbreaking. Most of the players he plays in the countless online cups that he participates in are also Terran players, so if he showcases a new way to play this game, I would expect it in the other two matchups. But then again, maybe he has been hiding something special for the World Championship?
If Zest’s path to the finals is filled with Terrans and if he can avoid cheesy Protoss players, I can see the possibility of Zest lifting that IEM World Championship trophy once again. And even if it doesn't come to that, maybe he graces us one last time with a final meta-changer before he has to dedicate himself to the mandatory military service later this year. But the impact that Zest had on this game will never be forgotten.