IEM Katowice 2021 - Round of 24by Wax
Also read: Europe's Big Three - Preview with Lambo - North & Latin America at IEM - Zest, the Meta Changer
Group B Preview: Serral, INnoVation, SpeCial, Dark, TIME, BunnyStart time: Tuesday, Feb 23 2:00pm GMT (GMT+00:00)
For the third year running, Serral enters IEM Katowice as the favorite to advance from his RO24 group in first place. It doesn't matter that Serral had the worst year of his career since 2017, winning a 'mere' two major championships (the DH Summer and Winter finals). Legendary pros—especially the ones who have won BlizzCons or IEM World Championships—deserve the benefit of the doubt. But there's another reason that I consider Serral the favorite, and it's probably the same reason a lot of pros appearing in the IEM Katowice interview segments have pointed to him as the strongest player in the tournament. No matter what final standing Serral earns in a tournament, there's still an aura around his gameplay that makes him feel like the strongest player in the world. Few players look so frequently unstoppable, swatting down all of their opponents' desperate ploys before suffocating them with perfect macro play. Now, that kind of subjective measure of quality doesn't have much tangible value unless you can convert it into a trophy. But, hey, at least it will get me to single you out as the favorite to win IEM Katowice.
It briefly seemed like TvZ could be a problem for Serral back in the fall of 2020, when he gave up losses in best of five series to both Cure and ByuN in major events (a 0-3 sweep to Cure at that). But Serral rebounded in the winter tournaments, taking violent sweeps against Maru, TY, and ByuN (x2) across DH: Last Chance and TSL6. There are a number of strong Terran players in this group, but the very best Terrans who had a shot of taking down Serral were drawn into Group A. Hence, I don't see Serral having much of a problem in that match-up.
Still, Serral's not an absolute lock to take the 1st place spot out from Group B, simply because Dark is in the group as well. Dark famously defeated Serral 4-0 in the TSL6 finals—the only time Serral lost by that scoreline since he started winning championships. That victory was a good example of why we give world champions the benefit of the doubt. Dark may have had a very poor 2020/21 season which saw him finish at a peasley 9th place in the Korea standings, but he was still able to put together one of the greatest losers' bracket runs of all time to win TSL6 (defeating Rogue, Reynor, ShoWTimE, Maru, ByuN, and Serral). Is it likely that he'll go on such a scorching hot run again? Probably not. Should everyone at IEM be scared of the possibility? Damn right they should.
After the two Zerg favorites comes a quartet of Terrans. TIME was once again the stand-out player from China, earning his IEM seed by sweeping his three regionals on the year. Internationally, however, it didn't seem like he's grown much from 2019, as he's still stuck in the morass of strong foreigners who aren't quite on Reynor, Clem, or Serral's level. As ShoWTimE showed in Group A, that probably means you're going to put up a good fight but still get eliminated. TIME's best international showing in EPT 2020/21 was at DH: Winter Season Finals, where he defeated SpeCial and INnoVation in the group stages before losing in a close 2-3 series against Serral (reminiscent of his close battle with the Finnish Phenom at ASUS ROG 2019). Still, maybe that bodes well for him in this particular group, as he's drawn INnoVation and SpeCial as opponents once more.
Alas, 2020/21 has not been kind to veteran Terran SpeCial, who was once a standard bearer of foreigner hope. While he did manage to sweep the Latin American regionals, he couldn't deliver a noteworthy result in international competition. His most impressive outing was probably IEM Katowice 2020, when he fought through the open bracket and earned a 2-3 group stage record before being eliminated. I can't really pinpoint what's going wrong with SpeCial, as he hasn't lost his ability to craft creative all-in's that are impossible to predict (his one of EVERYTHING all-in against Zest in Code S was my personal favorite). One might say he's not as mechanically proficient as the top Korean Terrans—and now Clem—but that didn't stop him from making some amazing underdog runs in the past. In any case, a group stage exit could be on the cards for the Mexican Terran, unless he can make his brilliance in build-preparation pay off.
INnoVation is the third active legend in this group alongside Serral and Dark. 2020 was a strange year for INnoVation, where he didn't win a championship, nor did he completely mail it in like in 2016. Instead, it was the first year when he was aggressively good-but-not-great. Outside of a very brief stretch in May when he topped the RO16 group-of-death in Code S and made a finals run in TSL6, it never really felt like he was a true title contender. He coasted along with a top eight finish in nearly every event for the rest of the year, but never seemed like a threat against the true contenders (unless Stats decided to spot him a game or two with weird mistakes). There hasn't been much buzz in the Korean community about INnoVation deciding to 'turn it on' ahead of IEM Katowice, so the most likely outcome for INnoVation may be his eleventh round-of-eight finish in the 2020/21 season.
Finally, we have Bunny, who's a potential wild card in this group. If INnoVation has been cruising along in second gear, Bunny has been flooring it in the last couple of months (I can't drive manual shift so I'm just hoping this analogy works). After a tepid 2020 where he couldn't get past the group stages of Code S, Bunny strung together two top eight finishes in DreamHack: Last Chance and Super Tournament 1. Bunny was especially impressive in the former tournament, taking out both Reynor and INnoVation to advance in first place from his group. Though Bunny didn't have the toughest RO36 bracket at Katowice 2021, he looked pretty convincing in his games and qualified with a combined 7-2 record. Going back to that subjective appraisal of skill, I'm tempted to say he actually looks stronger than he was back in late 2018/early 2019, when he placed third at a HomeStory Cup and reached the Code S quarterfinals. Alright, maybe I'm getting a littttle ahead of myself. What's true is that Bunny is playing his best StarCraft II in years, and this would be the perfect time to peak.
Prediction: I'm going to go with completely conventional picks here, predicting Serral to take first, Dark to come in second, and INnoVation to claim the third and final playoff berth. Given Bunny's upward trajectory and sparks of creativity (in particular, I appreciated the audacity of a fast quadruple-expand he attempted in Code S, even if it didn't work out) and I debated picking him over INnoVation for the third place spot. However, INnoVation's insane consistency in reaching the RO8 in 2020/21 was just too much to ignore.
Serral, Dark, and INnoVation to advance, Serral to advance in first place.