2021 GSL Code S Season 2 - Grand FinalsStart time: Thursday, Jul 29 9:30am GMT (GMT+00:00)
After six weeks of fierce competition, we're down to one final battle with everything on the line. Trap, the undisputed king of tier-2 events, will try to finally claim a grander prize, and dispel all doubts about his ability to win at the highest level. As for Dark, he looks to further his already impressive legacy by adding a second Code S championship to his trophy case.
Narrative Voodooby Wax
In the harsh and competitive world of StarCraft II, perseverance isn't always rewarded. Hundreds of progamers have passed through its history, many of them toiling for years without leaving a lasting imprint on the game. But on those occasions when the StarCraft gods deign that toil must be repaid with glory, that glory is often blinding. TY, who was once derided as 'the youngest washed-up player' in Brood War, hit a massive double-jackpot in 2017. soO, tormented for years by his silver curse, performed what can only be described as a miracle at IEM Katowice 2019. Rogue, a long-suffering benchwarmer in Brood War, became the greatest big-match player in the history of the game.
Trap, a thirteen-year veteran of StarCraft, is still waiting for his turn.
That may seem odd to say about a player who's won six major tournaments (seven, if you count NeXT Winter) in the last eight months, but it's clear that he still feels unfulfilled. After winning DreamHack Last Chance 2021—the third championship in his current run—Trap made a shockingly honest admission to Korean caster Crank that he needed to win a tournament like Code S to feel like a true champion.
Those words have almost become a curse—Trap's run of domination continued, but only in tournaments smaller than Code S. Trap has become the king of the so-called "Tier-2" events, which is better than being a king of nothing, but not exactly the most prestigious distinction. Once I heard GSL caster Park Sang Hyeon actually say the words "Tier 2" during a GSL Super Tournament interview—effectively denigrating the GSL's own competition live on air—I knew that things had passed the point of no return. Even if Trap had wanted to change his mind and say "actually, I'm totally happy with these $8,000 1st place prizes," it would have been impossible. The bar had been firmly set by the community, GSL, and Trap himself—it's Code S or bust.
And there, the dread starts to seep in for Trap fans, or really any StarCraft fan with an ounce of sympathy. 'What if Trap isn't mentally tough enough to make his dream come true?' One immediately looks back to his complete meltdown in IEM Katowice 2021 group stages, where Trap entered as the favorite after winning nearly every major tournament in the lead-up, but ended up leaving with barely a shred of dignity left. One thinks about his collapse against Maru in last season’s Code S Semifinals, where he blew a 3-0 lead to give up a reverse-sweep. One then looks even further back to 2019, when Trap lost in two consecutive Code S finals and inherited the second place curse from soO. Whether it’s fair or not, those handful of failures loom so much larger than Trap's many championships.
It’s especially infuriating when you consider how composed and clutch Trap has been in those “Tier 2” events. Of the seven championships he’s won in 2020/21, four of them went all seven games, with Trap keeping his cool until the very end. Discussions about player psychology are often fraught—some players will readily tell you when they’re tilting, but others play their emotional cards closer to their chest. Trap has not spoken in detail about this particular problem, giving only polite vows to play better in his next match. I can only hope that Trap has found a way to improve his mentality, the same way he brought his in-game skills up to world-class level. At the very least, a player who has persevered like Trap deserves to play to the best of his abilities in a Code S finals.
If you want to know what one big victory can do for a player’s legacy, you need to look no further than Dark. He, too, was once on the verge of kong-dom, with the word ‘consistent’ wielded against him like a sarcastic cudgel. Despite the incredible level of skill he showed in-game, it was actually the one SSL title in 2016 that shielded him being full-on mocked as one of soO’s brothers-in-arms.
Then, 2019 came, and Dark earned eternal vindication. By winning Code S title and a BlizzCon title in the same year, Dark was anointed as a legend of the game. His legacy was put beyond any reproach or doubt, and ‘most consistent Zerg of LotV’ went from being a backhanded compliment to a wholly sincere one. All of Dark’s finals losses from the pre-BlizzCon phase of his career seemed to be amended into narrow losses to great players, if not forgotten completely.
Dark also attained an aura similar to that of the legendary INnoVation, where no matter one’s form, fans are always willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. He was no longer bound by any rational thinking derived from win-loss records, Aligulac.com rating, or the awful game he played literally yesterday—he could still be trusted to raise his game to a championship level at will.
The dumb—and wonderful—thing is, that kind of thinking actually seems to be correct. After winning BlizzCon 2019, Dark went an entire year without winning another championship. Then, in TeamLiquid Starleague 6, he went through the most difficult elimination gauntlet since Leenock won MLG Providence in 2011, if not even surpassing the Leenocktopus’ achievement. On a smaller scale, Dark went through yet another stretch of poor results after TSL6, which he abruptly snapped out of by ending Clem’s 22-match undefeated TvZ streak in TSL7.
Besides that upset against Clem, there was no results-based reason to believe Dark would be in the Code S finals any time soon. Yet, now that he’s here, it doesn’t feel like a surprise at all. When he beat Rogue in the quarterfinals and insinuated the hardest part was already over, it seemed like he was being awfully dismissive of PartinG and Trap. And yet, I'm inclined to believe him, charmed by that big Dark energy. After all, Dark is a winner, why shouldn't I take him at his word?
Therein lies the contrast that makes this match so enticing. In one corner we have Trap, the far more accomplished player in 2021, who we still struggle put our faith in. Facing him is Dark, who's barely achieved anything in 2021, but is already starting to look like the next Code S champion. Let's see how much substance there really is to this narrative voodoo.
Head to Head and Predictionby Poopi
Trap’s play was far from perfect in the group stage as he narrowly advanced with a 4-3 map score, but he made a statement with his playoff matches. After dominating sOs 3-0 in the quarterfinals, he demolished Bunny in one of the fastest best-of-sevens in GSL history, inflicting a painful 4-0 to the terran player in less than 30 minutes in game time. The first game was the only one that vaguely looked like a macro game, after which Bunny had to tap out quickly to well-executed Blink Stalker and proxy Void Ray strategies on the next three maps. Dark had a much more difficult match against Rogue in the quarterfinals, barely triumphing by a 3-2 score. But after the match, Dark said Rogue was the toughest obstacle on his way to a championship, and proved it by destroying PartinG 4-0 in his semifinal match.
This finals is difficult to predict for a variety of reasons, but the two players’ inconsistent PvZ performances might be the most confounding factor. Trap looked great in June’s NeXT Season 1 Tournament, defeating both Serral and Solar on the way to the championship. Days later, he lost 2-4 to Reynor in the winners’ final of TeamLiquid Starleague 7, only to come back from the losers bracket to clinch a 4-3 victory in the grand finals. Those two tournament runs seemed to cement Trap’s status as the best Protoss player in the world, equally dominant in all three match-ups. Unfortunately, things took an extreme turn for the worst in July. First, he was upset by Scarlett and Lambo in DHM Summer Finals and went crashing out of the group stage. Then, he lost a pseudo-BO7 to Lambo in the World Team League Playoffs, causing AfreecaTV to get eliminated in the first round.
Dark has also had his share of ups and downs in ZvP. There was a brief period in May-June when he seemed to be hard-countered by Zoun of all people, but Dark corrected that by taking him out in TSL7. While Dark further enhanced his reputation in TSL7 by taking down the red-hot Clem, his tournament run ended anticlimactically as he lost 1-4 to Zest in the final six. Then, nearly a month passed until Dark had to play his next serious ZvP match: his 4-0 demolition of PartinG in the Code S semifinals. Dark’s sparse PvZ record in the past month makes it hard to interpret this result—his ZvP could be back in top form, or PartinG could simply have been a great match-up for him.
Aligulac.com sees Dark as a slight favorite with a 56.43% chance of victory, but that’s a pretty slim margin at this level of play. Trap’s overall PvZ win-loss record in 2021 isn’t especially impressive, coming in at 83W - 56L in maps (59.71% win-rate). However, he has been incredible in BO5+ matches, with a dominant 9W - 2L record, losing only to Reynor (2-3 in Theatre of Dreams #2, and 2-4 in TSL7). Trap’s BO5+ victims include most of the top Zergs such as Reynor, Serral, Dark, and Solar—Rogue is the only player he didn’t get a chance to face in such a setting. Interestingly enough, Trap’s map score in those BO5+ matches is actually quite poor at 35W - 24L (59.32% win-rate), showing that while he never dominates top Zergs, he always seems to find a way to clutch out a victory when it matters.
On the other hand, Dark has had more success in ZvP in terms of pure win-loss record, going 62W - 35L (63.92% win rate) in maps and 21W - 10L in series (67.74% win-rate). When we look at BO5+ ZvP series, Dark has been slightly worse than Trap with a 9W - 4L record, but has a slightly better record in maps at 34W - 20L (62.96% win-rate). However, when you consider that a higher proportion of Dark’s BO5+ wins came in smaller tournaments like ESL Open Cups, Trap has clearly performed better in high-stakes PvZ matches.
In terms of head-to-head record, Trap leads 19W - 12L in matches, including a massive seven-match winning streak which only recently ended in the WTL. That winning streak basically overlaps with the period in which Trap reached his current, dominant level, including victories he took on the way to major tournament titles. Their last major BO5+ match came in Super Tournament 1—an older match from a bygone meta (VOD), but it’s worth noting that Trap was able to beat Dark with a strong early/mid-game timing as well as two Skytoss games, demonstrating his mastery of the match-up in multiple situations.
Avoiding PvZ so far in the playoffs could be a double-edged sword for Trap. While he didn’t give away any strategies or special all-ins, it also means he went two rounds without needing to focus on PvZ practice. Conversely, Dark is coming off of intense ZvP practice (and probably has some builds left in his arsenal due to the quick 4-0 nature of his win), but he did give Trap some study material. Given progamers’ frequent complaints about how they’ve expended all their builds versus a previous opponent, this blade might cut more deeply into Dark.
Dark’s recent drubbing of PartinG shouldn’t be too worrying for Trap—PartinG’s biggest strength is still PvT, though he’s in the top three of Aligulac’s PvZ rankings behind Trap and Zest. Dark wasn’t really in danger of losing any games, but perhaps wasn’t as ruthless about finishing PartinG off as you’d expect from a top Zerg. By subjective measure, he looked a tad behind the ZvP level of Reynor and Serral—both players who Trap managed to beat in important matches.
I don’t think the PvZ upsets by Lambo and Scarlett will matter that much for this finals—everyone has seen those games, and Trap is sure to have shored up the vulnerable timings in his 2-Stargate builds (or won't go for the greedy versions so often). Also, Trap will be able to play without ping issues, which really unlocks his Oracle use and Adept harass, and generally expands the ways he can threaten Zerg in a meaningful way. I’m not concerned that Aligulac.com considers Dark the slight favorite—I would say that Trap is actually the favorite on paper, having beat all the top zergs including Dark in long, meaningful series this year.
What does concern me is that this is a Code S finals. Indeed, Trap reached the finals two times already in 2019 and failed to win Korea’s ultimate title. He collapsed 0-4 to Rogue in Season 3, and lost to 2-4 to Dark himself in Season 2. Even considering the fact that 2019 was one of the worst eras to play PvZ, the memories might still scar Trap.
The mental factor is bound to play a huge part in this match, and it might be the sole reason some fans are predicting Dark to win—or more accurately—for Trap to lose. For all the advantages I’ve laid out for Trap, he still did lose to Dark in their single most significant match ever in the GSL finals. However, Trap has grown a lot since these two crushing defeats in 2019, and surely his multiple victories in premier tournaments have helped him build confidence. While it was a different match-up, Trap’s trampling of Bunny was the scariest performance of the semifinals, showing that he's getting better at bringing his A-game to the AfreecaTV studio.
Another major hang-up for Trap is his complete implosion at IEM Katowice 2021, a tournament he arguably entered as the favorite. In the immediate aftermath of his group stage elimination, it certainly felt like Trap might be critically, irrevocably flawed. It contrasts deeply with what we think of Dark, who authored perhaps the most clutch tournament run in a decade in TSL6. However, with some distance, perhaps IEM could be seen as a learning experience—maybe even the ultimate lesson Trap needed to prepare for his third Code S finals.
The last match I want to touch on before making a prediction is Trap’s most recent PvZ BO5+ series: his TSL7 grand finals match against Reynor. The most remarkable thing about the match wasn’t the all-around, every-phase-of-the-game excellence that Trap showed. No, it was the manner in which Trap managed to survive a 1-3 deficit and win in a 4-3 comeback. This is why I think Trap has learned from the past and grown a lot in terms of mentality, and not just in skill. I believe that this time, both finalists will be psychologically ready, and doubt that either of them will choke.
Dark is a proven winner who has claimed championships as both the underdog and as the favorite, online and on the biggest stages in the world, and against every type of opponent. For fans who believe in going with the player who’s tried and true, Dark is the obvious pick.
But I believe that Trap has now demonstrated that he’s exorcised his demons, that he’s capable of playing at 100% of his abilities under pressure, and that he is the best PvZ player in the world. Trap has all the tools he needs to finally win his first Code S championship trophy and vindicate himself forever more.
Prediction: Trap 4 - 2 Dark