Week #159 of the Open Cups produced one of the more surprising results of the season, with Spirit winning the European competition for the first time since week #14 (April of 2020). The other two cups went to a pair of familiar faces, with herO winning in Korea while Dark prevailed on the American server.
The Korean Open was once again a small, yet high level affair, featuring players such as herO, Nice, Dark, Scarlett, GuMiho, and Oliveira. Early bracket highlights included a strong ZvT performance from Scarlett against GuMiho, where she showcased the classic Muta-Ling-Bane composition into a surprise Brood Lord transition. Scarlett showed that if Terran is unprepared for the movespeed-buffed version of Zerg's late game weapon, it's easier for Zerg to reap the benefits and force a GG. In game 2, GuMiho went for a proxy 3-rax, but overcommitted far into Scarlett’s main and was quickly surrounded and forced to surrender.
In the other parts of the bracket, herO toppled Oliveira 2-1 to cruise into the finals and Dark 2-0’ed Nice to face off against Scarlett in the semis. Scarlett had never won a series against the former BlizzCon champion up to that point (0-7 match record at the time), but took a step toward getting her first victory by narrowly winning game one after a Roach-Ling-Bane war. However, that seemed to awaken Dark's Ultra Instinct mode and he quickly turned the tide to win games 2 and 3 the way that only an angry Dark can.
This set up a finals (VOD) between herO and Dark that was nothing short of jaw dropping. If game 2 had been game 7 of the IEM Katowice Grand Finals, we might have called it one of the greatest games of all time, second only to the epic GSL finals game Mvp and Squirtle on Metropolis.
Game 1 was a bit of a strange one where herO seemed to be trying things out with some heavily committed Oracle play which allowed Dark to overwhelm the Protoss with a simple Roach-Hydra maxout. Game 2 was one of the most exciting matches we’ve had in these weeklies, and it could easily be the subject of a full-length review article. Just go watch the VOD—a written summary won't do it justice. For this recap, it will suffice it to say that Neural Parasite, Tunneling Claws Roaches, Disruptors, and outstanding Oracle control all played a part, as well as the new, faster upgrades for Protoss.
In game 3, herO was caught out by a sneaky Nydus worm in his main base that went unscouted forced a quick surrender. Game 4 saw the Protoss returning to his trademark Blink aggression off 3 bases which Dark was unable to stop from killing his 4th base. From this position, herO kept piling on the aggression and ultimately took the victory. Game 5 found herO once again displaying dazzling Oracle micro, killing many of Dark’s Drones early on and displaying his trademark double-Forge, Gateway-oriented man-style. Dark kept himself in the running, counterattacking and killing many of his opponent’s Probes in the later stages of the game with Zergling and Baneling runbys. Ultimately, it came down to one final desperation attack from herO that narrowly edged out the Korean Zerg with the help of some stunning Warp Prism micro.
New patch observations: The main thing I can say regarding the new patch is that regardless of any perceived imbalances, ESL Open results suggest the game is balanced enough that the better player will generally win at the highest levels of play. This week, herO once again showed that he has the drive, skill, and determination to make himself victorious.
As for gameplay specifics, the Disruptor nerf meant that the supermassive shots weren’t as devastating, and the fast Protoss upgrade timings allowed herO to assert map control just a little bit sooner.
The more interesting thing is how well the maps seemed to allow for players to outplay their opponents than in the previous pool. While many have criticized the map pool as being too large and therefore Zerg favored, it seems that the size of the maps and their well-designed chokes and middle areas have encouraged much more dynamic attacks and more opportunity to sneak up on outlying bases. Map vision and tactical army movement will be heavily rewarded on this map pool, which is really what RTS should be all about. Overall, this weekly got me unbelievably excited for IEM Katowice and I can’t wait to see what the best players in the world will do.
European Cup (partial bracket shown)
By all accounts, the European Open cup looked like it should have just been another Monday. The notable players were all there with MaxPax, MaNa, Harstem, HeroMarine, Spirit, and Reynor all signing up, as well as the usual deep pool of talented players from across the EU region.
There were multiple encouraging results for young up and coming players throughout the bracket. Nicoract and YoungYakov both took a game off of Harstem, Anticore took a game off of Krystianer, and Fjant took a game off of MaNa. Notably, Fjant has had some nice results in the weeklies, taking down the debonair sweaterman ShaDoWn 2-1 a few weeks prior.
However, all of these promising results pale in comparison to the juggernaut who showed up this week. A player that seems to always have the potential, but can never put together the results. This was the week of Spirit. His initial 2-0's over Arrogfire and Harstem were impressive but not jaw-dropping. However, when he stepped into the ring against Reynor in the RO4, the Spirit that showed up looked like ByuN and Clem had done the fusion dance. He showcased stunning ZvT in game one on Gresvan, taking down the Italian Zerg superstar in a grueling match in which he never took his foot off the gas. He then closed things out on Royal Blood with a proxy 3-Barracks.
While Spirit had taken down Reynor in incredible fashion, I wasn't totally convinced he could go all the way by beating HeroMarine in the finals. After all, ZvT and TvT are drastically different matchups, and HeroMarine is a TvT guru in Europe. However, Spirit was on a roll and could not be stopped on the week (VOD). It didn’t matter how the games started out—Spirit played with focus, precision, and with a decisive killer instinct that would have made Maru nod in approval. He overpowered the German Terran in 3 straight maps, showing a comfort that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen from the Polish Terran. For a player who has displayed issues with confidence and nerves, it made me ecstatic to see Spirit playing so well so close to IEM Katowice.
Now, of course, you have to take every Open Cup result with a grain of salt, but if Spirit can find a way to display this level of play and adaptability at IEM Katowice, everyone better watch out. If he could play at the same level as he did in this cup, I think he would be fully capable of a top 8 finish. Remember, Spirit has already shown that he can raise his level of play at IEM Katowice—in 2022, he survived the play-in stage and even beat Solar in the RO24.
To make any assertions about balance would feel inappropriate for the EU cup as Spirit deserves the whole limelight for his masterful performance. He ran the gauntlet without dropping a single map and joins an exclusive group of players who have done so in any weekly cup.
American Cup (partial bracket shown)
The Americas cup this week featured a strong lineup with Astrea, MaxPax, Cure, Oliveira, Dark, and Scarlett all competing. The notable bracket results included PiG once again taking down Astrea in a random vs. random affair, Epic taking a game off of MaxPax, MaxPax's 2-0 over Oliveira, and Scarlett taking down Cure 2-1. Dark seemed to still be steaming from his map loss to Scarlett in the Korean weekly as he took her down with extreme prejudice 2-0 to make his way to the finals.
HellraiseR was a pleasant surprise as well, making a deep run after playing his first Open Cup in nearly a year. After taking down Nice 2-0 and PiG 2-0, HellraiseR went on to vex MaxPax and send out in the semifinals. Unfortunately, the finals of the Americas cup didn't give us the thrilling action of the Korean cup or the magnificent underdog performance from the European cup. Dark decided that this cup was going to be straightforward and predictable, dismantling the Ukrainian Protoss in a series (VOD) that totaled less than half an hour of in-game time. Thus, Dark completed the second perfect bracket run of the week alongside Spirit.
New patch notes: There wasn't anything major to point out in terms of balance in the cup finals. The only notable thing is that HellraiseR seemed to actually be in a good position in game 1 against Dark after opening up double-Stargate Void Ray, then going straight into skytoss and killing the main hatchery of Dark. Unfortunately, this lead evaporated when HellraiseR lost all of his Void Rays in a bad exchange against the newly buffed Hydralisks of Dark.
Otherwise, it was also interesting to see Scarlett use another Brood Lord transition to catch Cure off-guard. Despite a strong defense from Cure (Twitch clip), it seems as though Terran players will need to adapt and anticipate/scout the transition more effectively than they have done in the past. Once again, I believe that this is a good thing for the game, as pulling off a surprise tech-switch into a large tier-3 army should give you a good chance of winning the game. It's not a perfect comparison, but if Cure can win easily with an unscouted Marauder-Hellbat push in the same series, then why shouldn't Scarlett be rewarded for doing something similar? This will likely introduce more strategic choices back into the ZvT late-game.