2021 GSL Code S Season 3: RO8 Day 1 Previewby Wax
The intensity in Code S is set to ramp up a notch as we head into the single-elimination playoffs. The first day of quarterfinal matches features a duel between two players at starkly different points in their careers, followed by a brutal rematch between two title contenders.
Quarterfinal Match #1: Zest vs DreamMonday, Sep 13 9:30am GMT (GMT+00:00)
It's time for scary hours to begin for fans of Zest, as every series now threatens to be his last before his mandatory military service. At the same time, there's reason to be cautiously excited, as Zest has a chance to go out in an unprecedented blaze of glory. While most players retire as drained, worn-out husks of their former selves, the 10+ year veteran of pro-StarCraft has been remarkably driven in his final year. Losing to Reynor in the grandfinals of IEM Katowice 2021 would have been a perfectly understandable reason to take his foot off the gas—instead, Zest has continued to grind games out like a 17-year-old hungry for his first success. Up to now, the high water mark for glorious exits has been Classic's top four run at BlizzCon 2019. Playing in his final Code S tournament, can Zest set the new standard?
Standing in Zest's way is Dream, a player who is in a radically different situation. It's been almost two years since Dream returned to StarCraft II after finishing his military service, and alongside a handful of fellow 'returnees,' he's been toiling away to prove that they can still challenge for championships in the GSL. Ex-military players have made a lot of progress in that regard, with Armani, DongRaegu, and Dream all reaching the top four of Code S in the past couple of years. Dream was actually the one who came closest to reaching the grand finals, but fell short after committing a couple of heartbreaking errors against Rogue in game seven of the semifinals. In the big picture, this 'generation' of returnees has already achieved great success—it's almost unbelievable how much better they're doing compared to MMA, TaeJa, and earlier players. But why should Dream be content with that? He was knocking on the door of the finals five months ago, and anything else is a step back.
Fan sentiment favors the departing legend here, and so do the numbers. Zest is 41–20 in all-time matches against Dream, having the upper-hand during both halves of Dream's career. In 2021, the record skews even more heavily in Zest's favor, as he holds a 11–3 match record on the year. While most of these matches were in smaller online events, he did also win their only premier-tier clash in the group stages of IEM Katowice (2-0). In terms of Aligulac.com rating, Zest is currently the #2 PvT player in the world (3096 rating) while Dream is the #6 ranked TvP player (2844 rating), which gives Zest almost a 70% chance to win according to the Aligulac's Glicko-based formula.
Personally, I'll be watching closely to see if Dream sticks to the 3-Rax TvP style he relied on versus sOs in the group stages. After the RO16, Dream was adamant in saying the ByuN-inspired 3-Rax style was the best way to play TvP—perhaps a controversial opinion in some circles. Now, I doubt Dream was trying to play as simplistic a mind game as "I'll say I like A in my interview, but do B in the actual match, nyahahaha!", but I do feel like he's planted the seed for some mind-games. Whether it's a Marine-Mine drop or a Thor-Marine all-in, I expect to see some interesting mix-ups after that initial Reactor-Barracks. As for Zest, I'm not sure if there's much to glean from his 238904739 matches against Cure in the ESL Open Cups outside of "Zest is really good at PvT." He's got a wide enough range of openers to keep any Terran player honest, and seems comfortable going for both mid-game kills and more protracted games. As with every Zest preview, I'm obliged to say that he's not the most finesseful player in the world. However, given the fact that he regularly makes micro look like an overrated skill (hi Clem), I won't belabor the point. No, the much more important skill in PvT is "Zealot backdoor at the absolute worst time for Terran," which is something Zest might be the absolute best in the world at.
Prediction: The X-factor of the series is Dream's BO5+ series planning. While he failed to get out of the group stages in Code S Season 2, you still have to give him a lot of credit for Season 1 where he completely broke Bunny's brain with his build order mix-ups in the RO8, and then almost upset Rogue in the semifinals. If Dream can take the first map against Zest, and use that to set up his combo of follow-up builds, then he has a chance of scoring a one-sided upset. However, given the overall gap in their TvP's, and Zest's own experience in preparing for countless BO5+ series, I still have to give him the slight edge.
Zest 3 - 2 Dream
Quarterfinal Match #2: Dark vs RogueThe second quarterfinal match features a world championship-caliber clash, as Code S Season 2 champion Dark goes up against Season 1 champion Rogue. It's also a rematch from the previous season's quarterfinals, where Dark barely took a 3-2 victory in the best series of the playoffs. Fans may have been surprised by Dark's reaction at the time, as he seemed to get emotional about overcoming his long-standing nemesis. It didn't really line-up with their historical head-to-head record, where Rogue only had a slight lead. However, when you looked at their absolute biggest matches, the Code S playoffs and the World Championships, you could see how Rogue had left an indelible mark on Dark's competitive soul. It may have been a relief for Dark to defeat Rogue in Season 2, but going by his interviews, it doesn't seem to have changed how loath he is to face him. Likewise, Rogue wasn't happy to draw Dark in the quarterfinals, though his reasoning didn't seem quite as personal—he simply preferred to face PartinG.
While Aligulac.com gives Dark a 57.95% chance to win, I'm not sure if that means much in the context of this match-up. This is far from a normal ZvZ, played under normal conditions with normal assumptions. Just think about how wild and unconventional their Season 2 clash was! For those who don't recall, Dark started the series off by going for a 12-Pool, Zergling+Drone all-in that ended in a draw. Then, in the regame, he did the exact same strategy, managing to scrap out the win the second time around. Rogue then struck back with two all-ins of his own, one being a quintessential GSL-preparation build that exploited the 'standard' gold-base expansions on Blackburn. After that, the Zerg duo settled into two macro games to close the series out, with Dark narrowly prevailing in the end. Overall, the series was a good reflection of how the two Zergs are similar as players: They're the best macro Zergs in Korea, but have absolutely no qualms about unleashing the filthiest all-ins if they think it's the best path to victory.
The most important factor in any Rogue match—and ironically the least knowable one—is his motivation level. In that regard, he made some very interesting remarks in his RO16 interview, saying he had more "passion" this season. He also vowed to be better at analysis and preparation this time around, perhaps regretting how Dark had gotten the better of him in build order fights last time around. As we all know, a highly-motivated, max-effort Rogue is the single scariest player in all of StarCraft II—GSL and DHM combined. Yet, we also know that we can't always take his word at face value. If you recall, he vowed last season that he wouldn't suffer his usual championship hangover, which he technically fulfilled by getting out of the group stages. However, he still got embarrassed by Percival in the RO16 by losing a map to the GSL rookie, and ultimately he was eliminated from the RO8 by Dark in the playoffs. While I believe that Rogue is practicing harder than in the previous season, I'm still skeptical if his motivation level is anywhere near his Code S or IEM championship runs.
Regardless of Rogue's mindset, he seems to have caught Dark at an opportune moment. By the time Dark plays Rogue, it won't even have been 24 hours since Dark played Trap in the DHM Fall Finals playoffs (which ended in a 0-3 loss for Dark). What a stark contrast! On one hand, we have Rogue thumping his chest about how much better prepared he'll be for Dark, while on the other hand, Dark heads into the match after spending an entire week preparing for and playing in a totally different tournament. Dark fans might vainly hope that Dark was actually focusing on the GSL all along (thus explaining his listless loss to Trap), but given the "focus on the match ahead of me" mentality of most progamers, it seems extremely unlikely.
Prediction: Like Reynor vs Serral, Rogue vs Dark shouldn't be looked at as any other ZvZ, and rather be considered its own match-up. Amusingly enough, this particular match-up is an even more volatile knife fight than regular Zerg vs Zerg—it's a knife fight with poison frog venom on the blades, fought on a creaky rope-bridge suspended above an active volcano. If all the conditions were equal I'd say this is basically a coin flip. However, I think the preparation advantage will tip the scales in Rogue's favor, as he's had several days to think about this match-up, while Dark won't even have had a single full day.
Rogue 3 - 1 Dark