Standing in the Red Shadow

Astralis block the sun, but the red star will forever illuminate CS:GO

NOV 20, 2018

As they lifted yet another trophy in front of a crowd on foreign land, there was no doubt they had to be stopped. The confetti that rained sparkled blue, the trophy itself reflected silver, but undoubtedly, everyone stood in a red shadow. Astralis had just won IEM Chicago, their sixth big international LAN victory as a five-man team, and ninth as a four-man core. It marked the eighth consecutive month of their undisputed spot as the world's best Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team. And, in the eyes of most, validated their spot on top of the CS:GO pantheon as the best team of all-time.

The top-end of Counter-Strike competition has always been defined by its ‘elite’ sides. That is, the grouping of teams who clearly reside a level above the rest of the scene; the outliers. In the past, the ‘elite’ are the main opponents of the line-up who is number one. Often times, in lieu of a proverbial ‘king’, the CS:GO crown is contested evenly amongst this elite grouping. Before Astralis' reign at the start of 2018, everyone from the North American hopefuls in Cloud9 to the dueling mix-teams in Mousesports and FaZe vied for number one. The crown, in this sense, was never truly locked down. It was merely passed around a series of teams who were all great, but not all-time great. Fortunately or unfortunately based on your feelings towards them, Astralis however, is one of these special, truly all-time great teams.

They are the side who have most managed to distance themselves from the scrappy elite grouping as the number one team in history. If the best team is king, then the elite teams are usually the revolutionaries perpetually structuring a coup to overthrow them. There is never a lack of hunger to be the best; regardless of the pursuit. In this sense, Astralis has been the most effective at quelling the brooding and subversive elite. They are the king outlier of the elite outliers. It is not clear yet how they are going to be, or maybe more accurately, who is going to pull them back into the proximity of their peers.

This positioning, so far ahead of the pack, and for so long, can only be achieved through the complex layering of many factors. There is no shortage of individual nodes in the web of Astralis' game to analyse and pinpoint to say ‘this is the reason why they’re the best.’ The cynics that are bred under the thumb of their rule often point to the influencing forces directly outside of their control. Sure, they are the kings of the Counter-Strike kingdom they say, but is it even a kingdom worth ruling? They are definitely the number one team, but what does it matter given the weak field around them?

Tyranny over a house of titans

Many weigh the relative weaknesses of the teams around Astralis sometimes with more mass than the actual gravity of Astralis' own game. The stability of the top ten is more unstable than it has been in past eras of competition. While Na'Vi, FaZe, and North have all managed to best Astralis in separate series, none have managed to maintain their form at a level that justifies displacing the Danes’ number one spot. Na'Vi may have beaten Astralis at Cologne 2018, winning the event, but convincingly lost to them at the major and have bombed out of multiple tournaments since. FaZe 2:0’d Astralis in Chicago but couldn’t scrape together more than five rounds over two games against Liquid in the semifinals.

To say that Astralis rule because of the relative instability of their peers though, is both discrediting to Astralis and the elite themselves. They aren’t beating up on desolate, hobbling husks of rosters, they are effectively silencing some of the most dangerous, sharp, and intimidating sides in CS history. The Na'Vi which looks inconsistent tournament-to-tournament has the greatest player of all-time playing at his peak in a system geared entirely towards leveraging that impact. FaZe’s roster, even a full year after its creation is still capable of blitzing tournaments as if it was formed yesterday. Liquid’s stars are consistently breaking new ground for their region, with TwistZz comfortably entering the top three players in the world discussion.

These primary oppositions to Astralis' reign would, in many other eras of competition, be doggedly in-line for the throne. We’ve seen as much with FaZe in the past. It’s not the scene’s inability on-the-whole to produce world-beating talent, but Astralis' transcendent ability to suffocate this talent month-to-month. It’s no coincidence that NiKo, TwistZz, and s1mple - players with 13 MVP medals between them - all have scored some of their lowest ratings against Astralis. The Danes quietly put down the loudest, most explosive, audacious players of all-time and with both consistency and grace.

There is a large gap between FaZe/Liquid/Na`Vi and the rest of the scene, but more of a gap between these sides and Astralis. Whether or not the scene’s strength plays a factor in the ability of the elite to contest with Astralis is a different discussion. But the Danes can only beat those in front of them. And they’ve been presented, for nearly 10 straight LANs, with the absolute best individual talent, in some of the most refined, unique systems, in CS:GO history.

How the rule is set into stone

They are able to do as much, interestingly, not because of an ability to field game-breaking superstar talent of their own. Rather, they have a dense clumping of star talent that plays far greater than the sum of its parts. This isn’t to say that anyone on Astralis isn’t capable of delivering a superstar performance. Against Mousesports in Chicago, device had a monstrous 33 frag, 112 ADR, 1.7 rated game to carry them to a 2:0. These level of games can manifest from any of their players. Even gla1ve is yet to have a sub-1.0 rated tournament with Magisk on-board.

But big performances from big names isn’t what defines Astralis' game. They merely serve to add that extra frustrating gear to reach when their backs are against the wall. Instead, the key point to understanding Astralis - the base upon which their throne sits - is how these big names click together. You cannot rule a kingdom divided, and Astralis' central promise in their win conditions is coherence.

When Magisk replaced Kjaerbye and joined the four man core of Dupreeh, Xyp9x, Device, and gla1ve at the start of the year, Astralis made a choice. Rather than trying to slot Magisk directly into all of Kjaerbye’s old roles, the team opted instead to entirely rebuild their system from the ground up. In part, this was done to the desire of dupreeh who had long wanted the more impactful positions on CT-side Kjaerbye was often afforded. And in part because it would be the most effective way of integrating a new piece into their game. It’s easier to get everyone on the same page when you start writing the new book at the same time.

This isn’t to say that Astralis was some new beast of a team; Xyp9x could still clutch, device remained in-focus with AWP, and dupreeh stayed on-entry, always dangerous with a deagle . However, certain key set-ups would be built from the ground-up. Integrating even as talented a player as Magisk into Astralis' Overpass, or Mirage, and eventually, Nuke game is no quick process. And on all these maps, Magisk would be slotted into seminal positions, often times being the big-site anchor or the player to aggressively hunt for map control with device or dupreeh in-tail.

Initially, Astralis would suffer for choosing to take on such a radical infrastructure project. G2, Na`Vi, and FaZe would all easily beat Astralis in series at their first events having to integrate Magisk. Many forget how sudden the departure of Kjaerbye was, and that it wasn’t Astralis' choice for doing so. They were suddenly forced to make the adaption of building a new system, not allowed to carefully sit back and map it all out.

The payoff, in the long run, would be the foundation for their rule. With magisk properly set into the system, the structure as a whole with a more fresh feel and players all in their most comfortable roles, their team play was unrivaled. It felt that they somehow always had a sixth man on the server. Trading was watertight, map control and transitions off of it smooth, and overall sense of how to play the map theoretically sound. This basis allowed as time went on, for Astralis to mix-in more individual-focussed, greedy rounds into their game. They always had a reliable point to go back to should these sort-of rounds not work.

Astralis, through the manner of integrating Magisk, was dangerous at all points in the round, on both halves, across multiple different styles and from every member on the team. Most elite teams, however, share these characteristics. Such win conditions are merely the admission fee into the echelon of the elite. Transient tyranny requires far more.

Moving metas, mountains & history

Astralis may be defined as kings, but they’ll be more accurately remembered as renaissance men. To rule, they became an exceptional, once in a year team. To completely redefine what it means to be the best team in the world though, they pioneered, innovated, experimented and altered with the base concepts of playing Counter-Strike.

Layered on top of their resolute cohesion, system, map play, and star power is a revolutionary set of winning characteristics.

First and foremost of these - and most apparent when watching their game - is how widely and effectively they use utility. One of the reasons they don’t have a clearly articulated superstar force like NiKo, s1mple, TwistZz or KrimZ is because they have no need for one. It’s far more reliable and, in some cases, impactful, to have an incredibly wide consciousness of how to throw flashbangs and HE nades.

Across their pool, but mainly on Overpass and Inferno, Astralis, and specifically, coach Zonic, discovered a series of nade stacks. That is, where multiple players all throw their HE nades in one spot at a specific point in the round and from predetermined spots. Like an airstrike in real life, these stacks come totally unsuspectingly and often in vulnerable positions. They’ve been quick to adopt any new smokes that have arisen in the meta, most infamously being one of the first to deploy the top mid from CT-spawn smoke on Mirage.

These nades bolster their map play across an incredibly wide series of maps, of which they are capable on six, with their perma-ban being Cache. Of these, Nuke is the most infamous with their record as-of-writing being at an undefeated, unprecedented 24 wins, zero losses. It’s their consistency on Inferno, Dust II, and Train though, that drives their power in vetoes. Astralis have the option, given how many maps they seem indomitable on, to look at banning away the strengths of their opponents rather than hiding their own weaknesses. They can always threaten a Nuke match, and against MIBR, or FaZe, are guaranteed the Cache ban.

Their out-of-game innovation and coherence are as similar and powerful as their nade usage or map pool as well. While many teams have talked about taking time off between events, skipping certain tournaments in favour of rest, it’s been Astralis to actually back this up. Being on top of the pyramid, they’re afforded the luxury of invites to any event of their choosing. As such, they don’t need to hurriedly take and grab at opportunities just for the sake that they may not come around again.

We’ve seen Astralis consistently let their individual players recharge, their system evolve along with the rest of the scene, and their game recoup by missing big LANs. They have set the example for doing so and taken the conceptual idea into a winning reality. This option also alleviates the pressure on events for smaller teams to flex their muscles as we’ve started to see with StarSeries S6.

Kneel, please.

Astralis' reign, in-general, is more classified by the question of ‘when is it going to end?’ rather than ‘just how are they doing it?’ We seem more enthralled by the notion of who is going to slay the red beast, not how they became so scary in the first place, or what effect their presence is having on the scene as a whole.

Astralis' run as the best team in the world has come at a point in time where there is the highest number of teams operating on full-time salaries in history. From sides outside the top thirty to Astralis themselves, the overall level of competition has risen alongside the time and resources spent in try to out-compete a growing set of opponents. Astralis is, by nature of their dominance, laying the blueprint for success for these teams who have suddenly been given the opportunity to compete full-time.

They set the example of what an apex Counter-Strike team looks like not by hoarding individual talent or glorifying prodigious peaks of form. Instead, they play greater than the sum of their parts, use utility effectively, and make smart, calculated moves with their tournament schedule. Astralis has a wide map pool, and are the best team in the world on many maps but move to the pace of the rest of the scene when it comes to updates in certain map metas. They are a tyrannical king but they keep their ear close to the murmur of their people.

Importantly, these decisions to be impactful in very specific ways, are also incredibly replicable. A lower tiered Australian team can do the same nade stacks that can win Astralis an international semi-final in some no-name online league. You don’t have to be s1mple to simply take time off of events upon suffering burnout; to boot camp effectively; to study demos and VODs; or to play to what your teammates want.

They block-out the Counter-Strike sun, but in a way that isn’t alien. They’re frustratingly logical and coherent in the way they force the scene into their shadow. As such, very likely, the team that will topple the Astralis era won’t be some wholly brand-new foreign entity. The set of teams that will put out the red star will probably be those who are most influenced and effectively follow the method of Astralis themselves.

The Danes are, by winning in the way they do, essentially training their replacements and guiding the scene into a healthier, albeit harder to dominate pace. They are breaking the muscle fibers of the scene with each international win, but are forced to contest with its strengthened repairs at the subsequent campaign.

They are at once forever branding their image into the evolved structures and psyches of Counter-Strike players around the world by being the best to ever do it. Even if this may come across as boring in-the-moment, or too expected over the year, in years we’ll look and realise the turning point Astralis represented.

It’s not an era as much as it is a crucible forming the next evolved period of play. A time whose king may dominate in different colours, but will forever be situated and informed by a distinct red glow.

Photo Credit: DreamHack