2021 GSL Code S Season 3: RO4 Match #2 Previewby Wax
Match Time: Thursday, Sep 30 9:30am GMT (GMT+00:00)
Our second semifinal stars two players who have carried the stigma of being mentally frail for much of their careers. Trap and Cure were once known as Jin Air's 'practice bonjwas' who couldn't get the job done in serious 1v1 competition, but they've risen to the top of the StarCraft II scene over the past two years. Yet, despite achieving success in a variety of competitions—even winning multiple championships in the case of Trap—they still don't command the same respect as the 'true' title contenders in Code S. With four runner-up finishes between them, it still feels like a matter when, not if, something will go horribly wrong for the pair. On the line in this match is a chance to challenge for the Code S title once more, and potentially wash themselves of that baggage for good.
The duality of online-Cure and offline-Cure is one of the TL.net community's many running jokes, but in the last few months, that relationship has taken a very cure-ious turn. Online-Cure, once the undisputed king of ESL Weeklies and a top-rated player on Aligulac.com, has been knocked off his digital perch after developing a deadly weakness to Protoss players. As for offline-Cure, he suddenly looks like the heir to TY, using a slew of filthy proxies and all-ins to end his streak of five Code S tournaments without a playoff appearance.
In fourteen games this season (Code A + Code S), Cure has gone for a 'non-standard' build in eleven of them (by my judgement, anyway), with seven of them involving proxied/hidden buildings. Apparently, the impetus for this change was his embarrassing Code A elimination against RagnaroK last season. Going by Cure's interviews, it seems like losing 0-3 to RagnaroK in standard macro games was what caused this epiphany. No matter how skilled and confident he was in standard play, he realized he needed even more of an edge to succeed at the Code S level. And thus, starting in season 3, he's found a way to get an 'unfair' advantage against nearly every opponent, no matter how lowly or mighty.
As one might expect given the nature of Code S, Cure leaned into this cheesy/strategic approach even more heavily in his previous quarterfinal match against PartinG. Some form of proxy-strategy figured into each and every one of his games (though one was more of a fake 1-Barracks proxy). Not only was it reminiscent of TY, but it also felt like Cure fully embraced the classic Terran mantra of "Just play like Maru (in 2018)."
Whatever you think of Cure's mentality issues in live tournaments—maybe you think they were always overblown, or maybe you think they're still a fatal flaw—it's clear that he's become a much more unpredictable and dangerous Code S player. It's a change that has allowed him to return to the playoffs and come as far as the semifinals—but will it hold up against a player as hardened as Trap?
There's never a bad time to make it to the Code S finals, but it feels more imperative than ever for Trap to make it now. In his last three finals appearances, he went in as the underdog against Rogue and Dark (x2) and was summarily crushed. Against Zest, Trap would be considered equally matched at worst, and perhaps even the runaway favorite at best. This is the lucky Terran-and-Protoss-only bracket that his fans have been praying for since 2019. It's possible that he may never have a better opportunity to win a Code S title ever again.
The greatest obstacle to Trap winning a Code S championship is himself—at least if TL.net previews such as this one are to be believed. Of course, the "Trap is a choker" narrative is far from being universally accepted—the man has won seven major championships in the last year, after all. Yet, his high-profile failures remain impossible to ignore: the three GSL finals losses, the reverse sweep against Maru in the semifinals, and the disastrous IEM Katowice 2021 group stage.
Personally, the main reason I worry for Trap is that he seems to believe in the narratives that surround him. Premier, major, tier 1, tier 2—these are just arbitrary tournament categories made by Liquipedia or the Korean community forums, and they have a limited objective basis. But every time Trap gives an interview that implies he won't be satisfied until he wins a "Tier 1" event, he's reinforcing his own curse by putting extra pressure on himself to break it. It stands in stark contrast to a player like, say, Serral, who has almost no use for narrative at all—it took a BlizzCon championship to finally get the Finnish Phenom to reveal that a moment was special.
Thus, we end up in the same place as we always do with Trap. He's still the best Protoss player in the world—Zest hasn't wrested that title from him just yet. It's just up to him to play like it.
Head-to-head and Prediction
Let's start by unpacking the usual numbers. Aligulac.com's ratings project this match to be almost perfectly even, with #2 ranked PvT player Trap having a 50.74% chance to win against #4 TvP player Cure. In terms of historical head-to-head record, Cure has a slight lead of 22W–18L in matches, while the former teammates are evenly tied at 5W–5L this year (Trap won their most consequential bout in the GSL Super Tournament).
Unsurprisingly, the raw win-loss stats favor Cure heavily due to his heavy participation in online cups that have weaker competition in the lower rounds, giving him a tremendous 165W–52L (76.04% win-rate) TvP match record on the year. Trap's major tournament-focused record is more modest, standing at 48W–28L (63.16% win-rate) over the same time period. Metrics that reflect fan opinion favor Trap rather heavily: TL.net Liquibet users picked Trap to win by almost four-to-one, while gambling sites are giving Trap around 70% implied odds to win.
I suspect that both Liquibettors and real-money bettors have been scared off of Cure due to his recent struggles in TvP. As mentioned before his RO8 match with PartinG, Cure's domination of the ESL Open Weeklies has been stopped almost entirely due to Protoss.
It's tricky to interpret this slide. On one hand, Zest has been responsible for a disproportionate share of Cure's recent TvP losses, which could mean that it's a specific player problem and not a general Protoss problem (It's worth noting that Zest and Cure have been practice partners as well). On the other hand, Cure has also dropped series against less accomplished Protoss players like Creator, Has, Zoun, and Astrea at a higher than usual rate.
There's also the issue of whether or not these online cup results are relevant at all to this current, GSL-focused version of Cure. After all, when he was dominating the ESL Opens and threatening to win all three regions in a week, he was still flaming out of Code S in disappointing fashion. Conversely, his recent decline in the ESL Opens has overlapped almost perfectly with his return to the Code S playoffs. So what if he's losing to Creator in online cup #45784?—He brought the proxies needed to beat PartinG in the GSL quarterfinals. This further strengthens the parallels with TY during his 2020 run: the two-time Code S champ treated online tournaments like throwaway events before bringing out his 'real' strategies in the GSL.
Trap has a mixed track record against this kind of strategic, early game-oriented Terran. Unlike a player like Stats, it's not always ideal for Trap to play a defensive style in hopes of playing a macro game. His early game defense is a tad inconsistent—he'll drop the ball and lose to a mine-drop straight up from time to time (even if he's done a theoretical counter build). Instead, Trap seems to be deadliest when he's the one going on the offensive, using his excellent micro to win skirmishes, pick off SCV's, and start a game-winning snowball from the earlier stages of the game.
Yet, I still think it might be best for Trap to adopt a firmly defensive mindset here. Against Parting, Cure didn't really win because his proxies hit the jackpot against an exposed opponent—PartinG actually scouted out Cure's plans and pulled off a reasonable-ish defense most of the time. It's more that Cure succeeded in making the games weird early against a similarly aggressive-minded foe, and played the games out better from there. I think there's potential for Trap to play a more cautious style and get easy wins by detecting and completely shutting down Cure's gambits. Zest's comments after his narrow 4-3 win against Rogue come to mind—to paraphrase: You run the risk of throwing games by forcing cheeses against the best players, and you have to know when it's better to fall back on standard play.
While I do appreciate Cure's attempts to channel TY in his approach, I ultimately doubt his ability to recreate TY's results. Cure might take a game (or three) in creative fashion, but I don't think he can win the battle of build orders in the end.
Prediction: Trap 4 - 3 Cure