2023 GSL Code S Season 3
Final Day Preview: GuMiho, Classic, Dark, SolarStart time: Thursday, Nov 02 8:00am GMT (GMT+00:00)
One of the most unpredictable seasons of GSL Code S will come to a close on Thursday night, and there's one big question that should be on every fan's mind: Will this season leave us with one last surprise?
Even though championship favorites like Maru and Cure have already been eliminated, Dark still remains to hold the fort for the establishment. Dark has been called the "Final Boss" for good reason in the past, and he remains a formidable obstacle between the three underdogs and a truly unexpected conclusion to the season.
Classic, GuMiho, and Solar can all make the case that this is their season of destiny. Classic and GuMiho are former Code S champions who are rediscovering their old form, while Solar is a champion of other competitions who might have finally broken his Code S curse. All three have defied the odds to come this far—one of them might go all the way.
GuMiho: The Perfect Stormby Mizenhauer
The word most often associated with GuMiho is chaos. Five letters that perfectly describe his play. Chaos, because his frenetic movements disrupt his opponents' plans. Chaos, because he can swing a losing game in a single move. Chaos, because sometimes he’s the one that loses hold of the reins. Chaos, because what he's doing doesn't even make sense sometimes—it just works.
GuMiho was forced to lean into his unorthodox style of play early in his career, when he was the GSL's first and only random player in 2010 (the GSL soon revised its rules to disallow random). With relatively mediocre mechanics by Korean StarCraft II progamer standards, GuMiho was smart enough to realize that he couldn't compete with the very best in the world in a contest of speed and precision. Throughout StarCraft history, there have been plenty of players who have found themselves in GuMiho’s position. Most of them bashed their heads against the insurmountable wall of superior mechanics, and now barely exist in the consciousness of fans as a result. But a few of those players, like GuMiho and sOs, realized it was futile to play the so-called 'top' players at their game, and decided to bend the game to their own will instead.
GuMiho's career story isn't entirely about an iconoclast successfully bucking against the system—more often than not, the system put him in his place. He started off well in Wings of Liberty, earning a famous all-kill against SlayerS in the GSTL finals and going as far as the Code S semifinals in 2012. But, like many of his eSports Federation (remember that?) brethren, he was swept aside in the wake of the KeSPA invasion and spent much of 2013-2016 bouncing between Code B and Code S.
That’s not to say GuMiho wasn’t on to something. On many occasions, he demonstrated that superior opponents could be defeated when forced outside their comfort zones. It didn't always matter if opponents had his unusual builds scouted, because they couldn't guess exactly which build he would pull out. It didn't always matter that he was attacking at more locations than he could multitask properly, because the sheer chaos induced could bring opponents down to his level. GuMiho’s playstyle, while unusual, kind of worked.
He enjoyed some minor successes here and there, especially in international tournaments where he made a few deep runs into the top four. Even in Code S, he made a couple of top eight runs seemingly out of nowhere. However, he was always brought back down to earth due to his lack of consistency. GuMiho may have invented a playstyle, but he was a long way off from perfecting it. There were just too many variables, too many factors that needed to go in his favor. 2015 GuMiho was not yet capable of realizing his vision, but that didn’t mean it would stay that way forever.
In the summer of 2017, GuMiho finally put it all together. Realizing trickery and confusion were not enough to consistently beat the best in the world, he made a small compromise and worked on revamping his mechanics. This didn't mean GuMiho magically upgraded his hands to the INnoVation or ByuN level. But he did improve them enough to give himself a more solid base to work from, making his unorthodox style that much more powerful.
In a championship run no one saw coming, GuMiho defied the odds and exceeded expectations from the word "go." He wasn’t supposed to take out TY in the Round of 8, just like no one expected him to defeat Maru in the Round of 4. Many declared he was the easiest opponent soO had faced in the Code S finals, but that turned out to be wishful thinking. GuMiho beat each and every one of them. After years of hardship, he was finally the best player in the world.
And, then, just as quickly, he wasn’t.
Six years passed. Six years, including eighteen months of military service, during which GuMiho never made it back to Code S finals. Six years of chasing, but never experiencing the joy he felt that summer night. Six years of trying to replicate that summer, only to discover that lightning doesn’t strike twice.
And, here we are, six years removed from the Summer of 2017 and the highlight of GuMiho’s career. Unlike last time, when GuMiho rocketed to the top of the scene, this version of GuMiho has been nearly two years in the making. Every post-military journey in StarCraft II is different—GuMiho's has been one of both slow and abrupt recovery. He looked utterly hapless when he initially returned in late 2021, forcing his playstyle without a chance to make it work. But, eventually, GuMiho's form stabilized, and he started to have outbursts of brilliance. A top four finish in Code S Season 3 of 2022. A playoff run at IEM Katowice 2023. A runner-up finish at ESL Masters Summer. And, now, back-to-back Code S semifinals.
Only three other players have reached the semifinals twice this year (the others being Maru, Cure and Dark), so this is no small accomplishment. For whatever inconsistency GuMiho still shows in other events, he has looked exceptional in this current season of Code S. He has gone 4-0 in matches, beating soO, herO, Solar, and Cure. His TvP, which was a weakness on paper, was vindicated in a hectic series against herO in the RO16.
That TvP will be tested once more against Classic, which is somewhat a mirror match in the non-StarCraft sense. Classic, like GuMiho, is a military returnee who is now playing some of his best StarCraft after a long recovery period. The winner will be whoever can reach an even higher level on the night of their match. Aligulac.com sees it as a near 50/50 (Classic having a slight edge with around 53% chance of winning), which seems fair considering we can't put a ceiling on these two former champions.
Should GuMiho defeat Classic he’ll have to face off against Dark or Solar in the finals.
Unfortunately, if he ends up having to play Dark, then he’d need the greatest miracle of his career to win. Dark is 3-1 against GuMIho since the release of the most recent patch and 24-3 against him overall in 2023 (including a brutal 3-0 sweep in the previous Code S semifinals). The situation is much better against Solar—Aligulac gives Solar a hefty 70% chance of winning, but the head-to-head match records actually favors GuMiho by 9-8 in 2023 (including a win for GuMiho in the group stage of this very tournament).
What GuMiho needs to win Code S is the perfect storm. He'll need to trick his opponents once or thrice with unusual builds, knowing full well that it can be a gamble he has no control over. He'll need one of those nights where his concentration is on point, because he can't afford to make any mistakes like the fatal unit throwaway that lost him a map against Solar in the RO8. He needs to stick to his guns and create chaos with multi-prong attacks, but he also needs to be just good enough on defense to make sure he's not taking even more damage in return (as in his famous ESL Masters win against Serral).
Will everything fall into place? Honestly, we have no idea. But, that's the beauty of GuMiho and his brand of chaos—you know that anything is possible.
Classic: Back Where He Belongsby Wax
As mentioned above, GuMiho vs Classic is a mirror match-up in terms of StarCraft II career arcs. Both players won GSL Code S championships in their first runs as StarCraft II progamers, and, after nearly two years of grueling post-military recovery, they're in position to capture that glory once more. However, this is hardly a perfect mirror, as there are a few major distortions in the reflection.
GuMiho's Code S victory in 2017 was a shot out of the blue, clearly the apex of a career that contained more style than substance. Classic, whose Code S title run in 2014 initially came as a surprise, has borne out to be a rather 'normal' champion. And by normal, I mean it in the most flattering way possible. Normally, Code S champions validate their win by going on to have even more success. Normally, Code S champions become historic greats. And, despite becoming criminally underrated in recent years, Classic indeed went on to have that expected, fantastic career from 2014 until he retired for military service in 2020. He won four more major individual titles, including the 'tier-1' SSL in 2015. He earned multiple top-four finishes in various tournaments, including a runner-up at IEM Katowice 2017. Alongside Stats, he provided the only glimmers of hope for Protoss during their darkest years of 2018-2019, and went into retirement with his fist raised defiantly in the air after eliminating Rogue from BlizzCon 2019.
Framed that way, maybe it's not really much of a mirror match at all. For the mercurial fan-favorite GuMiho, it's a pleasant surprise that he's in position to win another Code S. But for Classic, arguably the sixth greatest Protoss player of all time, there may not be much to celebrate just yet. The goal isn't to capture lightning in a bottle for this one run. The goal is return to where he belongs: being a perennial title contender.
While this season of Code S is Classic's post-military peak in terms of tournament placement, he's been showing glimpses of his prime form over the last few months. Gamers8 was a eye-opener, as he defeated both Serral and Reynor in the Swiss group stage to make an unexpected run to the playoffs (he was eliminated there by TvP monster Cure). What was especially meaningful about those matches was that Classic defeated the EU Zerg duo in fairly straight-up macro games. Even though Classic's most famous victory—his DT Blink rush against Rogue at BlizzCon—was an instance of delectable Protoss cheese, that had never been the main weapon in his arsenal. The best version of Classic had always been an all-around solid macro player, who only used cheese occasionally to keep his opponents on their toes (he's much, much closer to Stats than he is to sOs). For those two matches, it really felt like that version of Classic had returned.
On the other hand, those victories look like major outliers when compared to his results against the other top players in the scene. Classic's recent head-to-head results against the likes of Dark, Solar, Cure, and Maru are extremely grim, suggesting that he's still has a long way off from making a full recovery. In fact, his tournament run so far has been built largely on PvP, beating Creator twice in the RO8, and winning against herO and soO in the RO16.
The initial match against GuMiho projects to be fairly even—perhaps slightly in favor of GuMiho in light of his better results in Code S. However, both potential finals match-ups against Solar and Dark look extremely difficult, with Classic being 4-11 against Solar in 2023 and 5-18 against Dark (12-match losing streak).
Still, seeing is believing, and since Classic actually did show us championship level macro play briefly at Gamers8, I can't write off the chance that he'll once again play out of his mind on Thursday night. Personally, I think he should just go full sOs-mode like he did back in Code S Season 1 of 2019 when Protoss was at its lowest point. There, he improbably beat both Rogue and Dark in back-to-back playoff series, employing every cheese, proxy, mind-game, and dirty trick in the book. Protoss might be in a better situation now, but Classic himself is just as big an underdog—if not more so. It seems like the perfect time to resort to the dark arts.
In reality, I think Classic will choose to go out on his shield, trying to play the best, straight-up StarCraft possible. It's what made him a great player before his retirement, and, if he truly aspires to be great again, it's the only path he can take.
Solar: Curse Broken?by Wax
At long last, Solar has reached the promised land. Through his decade-long StarCraft II career and over 30 seasons in GSL Code S/A/B, not once had Solar reached the top four of Code S until this season. Depending on who you ask, it could be the most inexplicable fluke in competitive StarCraft history or the most painfully accurate signifier of a player's true level.
Let's take the more positive view first. It has to be a crazy outlier because Solar has been an extremely successful tournament player during his career. He won a championship in the SSL—a Korean major with roughly equivalent scale to Code S at the time—and won championships in tier-2 majors such as DreamHack and the GSL Super Tournaments. Not only that, but he placed top four or higher in countless other tournaments, including recently in the world championship-caliber Gamers8.
Total prize money won is a decent proxy for overall success (not just gold-medal counting), and Solar comes in at a very respectable 14th place with about $550,000 earned (using Aligulac.com's count). Going through that list, you have to get all the way down to #34 ranked Bomber to find a Korean player who never made the top four of Code S, and that's explained by Bomber even switching regions to WCS America mid-career. The only explanation for a player of Solar's caliber to have never reached the Code S RO4 before is that it's just the craziest fluke of variance, second only to soO somehow losing in six Code S finals.
Now, the more negative view: What's the chance that all of this is really just a coincidence? As much as "GSL preparation" and "GSL nerves" have been turned into cliches by the community, they're founded in fact. There's a reason a player like Rogue could play terribly in other competitions and somehow flip a switch and destroy his opponents in Code S. There's a reason ByuN could grind all day in online cups, but become overcome with his nervousness-induced wrist pain within thirty minutes of playing in the FreecUP studio. There's a reason Reynor is on the path to being one of the greatest players of all time, but has failed to make it out of the GSL group stages in his two attempts. Even if we can't put our finger on exactly why, the GSL stage is just different.
Sure, SSL was nearly equivalent to GSL in terms of prize money, tournament size, and duration. However, it didn't have anywhere near the same weight of history behind it. Maybe it's not something players realized on a conscious level, but deep in their minds, they probably weren't feeling the equivalent amount of pressure in the SSL. That's why Solar was able to win SSL, while failing to get over the RO8 hump for 10 years in the GSL.
Personally, I largely take the positive stance. As fans, we have a tendency to ignore the randomness inherent in StarCraft and ascribe inevitability to results. Only when faced with something truly incomprehensible, like Oliveira winning IEM Katowice 2023, do we accept that sometimes, cool s*** just happens for no reason. In the same vein, I feel that Solar has just had bad s*** continually happen to him in the GSL.
Alright, maybe not entirely without reason. I partially believe in a GSL curse for Solar, at least insofar as it might be a self-fulfilling one. Throughout many interviews over the years, Solar has tried to explain why GSL Code S is such a tough tournament for him. There's never a firm answer—sometimes it's nerves, sometimes it's his predictable playstyle, sometimes it's not feeling entirely comfortable in the GSL studio (hence the pajama pants he started to wear). Whatever the actual reason is, it seems clear that the 'GSL problem' is weighing heavily on Solar's mind, introducing an outside factor to a game where concentration is tantamount to victory. Paradoxically, just thinking about the problem IS the problem.
For Solar's sake, I hope breaking into the top four was enough to relieve most of this burden, to allow him to take on this tournament like the dozens of others where he's achieved great success. However, there is the unfortunate possibility that the pressure will only ramp up another notch as the championship comes within sight.
In terms of pure gameplay, I'm pretty positive about Solar's chances of winning Code S—he might actually be the favorite! He's presently the #2 ranked ZvZ player in the world on Aligulac.com, sandwiched between #1 Serral and #3 Dark. However, given Solar's recent string of victories against Serral in big ticket matches (yes, I know Serral broke the streak in the Kung Fu cup), and the fact that he went on a 16-match ZvZ winning streak between August and October, I'm inclined to believe that he's actually the best ZvZ player on the planet right now. Being the best ZvZ player only gives you a slight edge over other top players (unlike the other mirrors where Maru and MaxPax have shown us you can be virtually invincible), but it's still a meaningful edge for Solar nonetheless. As for their recent meeting in WTL, where Dark won 2-1, I'm not going to read into it that deeply as both players were most certainly being cautious not to give anything away ahead of their semifinals match.
If Solar can overcome Dark, then the finals would come down to match-ups. He'd be a strong favorite against Classic according to Aligulac, having a 76% chance of winning. The head-to-head backs it up, with Solar having a 11-4 edge in 2023 matches. A match against GuMiho could be trickier—Aligulac gives Solar a hefty 70% chance of winning, but the head-to-head record in 2023 actually favors GuMiho by 9-8. And, going by the eye test, GuMiho definitely looked like the better player in their RO8 clash, even winning the straight-up macro contests where Solar should have had the advantage on paper.
Of course, there's no such thing as pure gameplay—the mental side of the game is as intrinsic to StarCraft as build orders and hotkeys. On Thursday night, we'll learn how much Solar has truly improved in that regard.
Dark: The Final Bossby Wax
Finally, we have Dark, who enters the semifinals as the favorite to win it all. That position in itself should feel very familiar for Dark, as he's been one of the most consistently excellent players of the Legacy of the Void era. What's unusual is how he arrived in this position. Instead of Dark taking down his greatest rivals, he's stood by and watched as they've fallen around him.
The #1 championship contender, 7-time champion Maru, was bounced from the tournament on opening day after playing a series of unusually bad games. herO couldn't overcome the wall of PvP and was sent home by Classic. Cure, who briefly held the title of tournament favorite after Maru's exit, ended up being a sub-boss in Solar and GuMiho's RO4 quests. The only major elimination Dark played a hand in was ByuN's, inflicting a wound and leaving it to DRG to finish him off.
Undoubtedly, this is an extremely good stroke of fortune for Dark. He hasn't been playing especially well in 2023, at least not by his historically high standards. His streak of winning at least one major tournament every year—which he had kept going since 2019—is coming dangerously close to ending. A big factor was that he had a serious ZvT problem (like everyone else in the GSL), something that became extremely clear in Code S Season 2 when he lost one-sidedly to both Cure and Maru. Their elimination gives Dark's championship odds an enormous boost.
And, still, you can't say Dark doesn't deserve this. Luck definitely played a part, but a part of luck is being in the right place to take advantage of it. It's not Dark's fault that Maru canceled his building Command Center and walled incorrectly on a new map. He's not the one that made ByuN stubbornly 3-Rax his way to death against DRG. And, he can't help it if Cure lost fair and square to Solar in straight-up games. All Dark could do was beat all the opponents put in front of him according to the rules, going through DRG, ByuN, Bunny, and Classic on his way to the semis. As a result, Dark stands alone in the semifinals as a tried and true winner in the current era.
The toughest match for Dark should be in the semifinals. Solar, as mentioned in his section, is arguably the #1 Zerg vs Zerg player in the world right now. Solar having recently pulled off a 16-match winning streak in Zerg vs Zerg is absolutely insane—no one can sustain that level of dominance over the long term given the nature of the match-up, but Solar seems to have achieved a kind of revelatory understanding in the short term. Aligulac gives Solar around a 59% chance of victory, which is around the biggest edge I'd give to anyone in a top-tier ZvZ.
If Dark can take down Solar, then he would be rewarded with what projects to be a much easier finals match-up. To rehash some of the previous stats, he's 24-3 against GuMiho in 2023, including an extremely one-sided 3-0 in last season's semifinals. Dark was only slightly less dominant against Classic, going 18-5 against him on the year. Dark won his previous two Code S titles in one-sided finals bouts (both against Trap)—the third might follow the same pattern.
Going by the numbers and match-ups alone, there's a case to be made that Solar is the actual favorite among the remaining players, not Dark. However, Liquibet users are favoring Dark by over three to one against Solar headed into the semis. This strikes me as somewhat irrational, requiring you to really buy into Dark's aura as a perennial winner and disregard Solar's fantastic form in Zerg vs Zerg. Yet, I'm also inclined to be irrational as well. As I said, there's no such thing as 'pure' gameplay—the mental side of the game is always baked in. Say what you will about Dark's form, but he's never been afraid of the moment.
PredictionsGuMiho 3 - 2 Classic
Dark 3 - 2 Solar
Dark 4 - 1 GuMiho
Dark to win the Code S Season 3 Championship.