Astralis and Na`Vi. For the near parental oversight kept on the likes of s1mple and the Danish core by analysts, this is a marquee match-up between two favourite childs. They share a trajectory to Counter-Strike’s pantheon. With both operating at the peak of their powers, a collision was imminent. What more fitting an arena for the soon-to-be baptised legends to battle than in the cathedral of CS - ESL One Cologne 2018?
Since their last encounter at Marseille, on one side, s1mple had risen to become a cultish deity, and on the other, Astralis formed into a cohesive, tyrannical God king. Three months had been building to this point to give us the undisputed best player in the world versus the undisputed best team in the world.
Na`Vi, even with the in-form and dangerous s1mple, electronic, and flamie in their ranks, were clear underdogs. Astralis had been on a near 24 game win-streak, which had yielded them the ECS and EPL Finals trophies in consecutive fashion. They were yet to drop a map in Cologne and the stage was set for the Astralis dynasty. Winning Cologne would give them a nearly impossible hattrick of 250k+ LAN victories over the most competitive pool the scene has known.
With potentially three back-to-back tournament wins, worshipers around the world were knelt and ready to welcome their new Danish Gods. Na`Vi were standing defiantly with their back straight and wasn’t. In a stellar 2:1 in the semi finals, the CIS powerhouse beat the Danes to do what no side had done against this prime-time incarnation of Astralis - make them bleed.
This result, however, was not a case of s1mple going Super Saiyan to single-handedly force a win. S1mple had a great series, for sure, but the larger narrative was watching Na`Vi form together under the crucible of Astralis’ pressure. Put under the stress of the best team in the world and refusing to break, Na`Vi as a unit became bigger than the sum of their already incredible individual parts.
A team as good as Astralis has a tendency to bring out the absolute peak of their challengers.
From the get-go, Na`Vi were looking to take the fight to Astralis and demystify the aura of the Danes. They actively picked into Astralis’ map pool, taking Overpass and allowing Inferno to be left over, tempting fate and giving the best team in the world their most comfortable battlegrounds. It was as though Na`Vi were David standing in front of Goliath while thudding on their chest screaming “show me what you’ve got.”
That’s a bold strategy, and everyone but Na`Vi thought it wouldn’t pay off for them.
Astralis’ Overpass has always represented a complex labyrinth of win conditions you have to either neutralise or trump in order to beat them. Towards A you have the god-tier pairing of device’s AWP and Magisk’s bathroom play. Together, they represent the most formidable defence since the revolutionary aggressive 1-2 play of FalleN and fer in 2016. On B, Xyp9x is a hyper-aware, site-locking star who consistently stops world-class T-sides through stellar positioning and an ability to pressure monster.
Then, you have all the trials and tribulations of an Astralis T-side, but on a map which rewards tight rotations, innovation around boosts/nades, and a stable mid-round. Astralis is able to blend together all three of these elements with the individual skill of having three, top ten players in the world’ spearheading their offense.
Na`Vi had a lot of micro-puzzles to solve before they could traverse the big maze of finding the win against Astralis on Overpass. The keys for Na`Vi came in reading Astralis’s plan, and pushing their own game with scrappy, individualised pressure.
Na`Vi were able to see-saw between volatile, explosive rounds that damage the more structured, methodical CT-sides of Astralis, and slow defaults to simultaneously read and punish any aggression. Undoubtedly, the credit for this, without knowing in-game comms, has to go to Zeus but also to players like electronic and s1mple who were crucial in buying their leader the space and resources to make the right calls. Without being able to match Astralis then push them onto the back-foot, it’s hard for Zeus to be afforded the momentum in the first place to dominate the macro.
Following an unsurprising Astralis win on Nuke - extending the Danes LAN win streak to 12-0, Inferno was the final map.
In a very similar fashion to the first map, it was the Zeus-led T-side and CT-side reads that drew the most attention alongside the pressure of his individualised stars. Astralis’ Inferno game revolves around their CT-side. Over half of their total wins on the map involve dominating 11+ CT round wins and often see their opposition crumble before they even switch sides. One pistol round slip-up in a situation like that hands the game to Astralis. It’s hard to gauge teams ability to consistently grind in this sense. Against Na`Vi, they’d have to.
In a fitting fashion, Na`Vi, the ones who picked Overpass into Astralis and beat them, then let them have Inferno and also start on CT-side, were also the ones who destroyed Astralis’ CT-side Inferno. Once again, Na`Vi proved that they were the underdog but with the bigger balls, posting an incredible 10 rounds on T-side against Astralis and then closing the game in a tight 16:13.
Similarly to the first map, on Inferno, the fight was taken to Astralis early on. Na`Vi lost the second round force, forced themselves into buying two hero AK’s for s1mple and flamie in the third round. They were then able to pressure Astralis’ defence and expose a series of over-extensions from normally rock-solid players like Xyp9x and set the tempo of their game early. Na`Vi were not only going to beat Astralis, but expose and make them bleed as well.
The game would end with a mixture of luck and veteran awareness from Zeus on CT-side. Zeus, with the rounds up from their T-side to take risks, would call gamble-stacks on sites to close the game. Electronic’s big plays at pit and apps at 10-11 and 10-12 would give Na`Vi the space to allow Zeus to call a three-man B-stack at 13:15, which would see Astralis fall into that trap and close the game.
These win conditions from Na`Vi in electronic’s star plays, Zeus’s intuitive calls, s1mple and flamie’s firepower and Edward’s trading cohesion on T-side weren’t sprung overnight. Analyst Duncan ‘Thoorin’ Shields framed the win in the post-match analysis as Astralis being pressured and fracturing and putting the focus on the Dane’s failure more-so than Na`Vi’s success. This might be misguided.
The big moments for Na`Vi that ended up breaking Astralis could not have come without the slow evolution of this team since the end of 2017. Electronic started out as a locked-down rookie slowly finding his place in the system. Zeus freeing him up more on T-side and allowing him to lead CT changes of pace a few months ago largely drove the pressure on Astralis. Electronic’s evolution as a player was just as crucial in this game as a potential underperformance from device.
Likewise, Na`Vi’s inferno game has been constantly pushed by the side since they formed at DreamHack Winter of last year. Since day one, this Na`Vi roster has been slowing honing their Inferno and building the models of play to beat the best team in the world on it. And it wasn’t just s1mple going nuts around top Banana to win this game. There were elegant changes of set-up, tight bits of teamplay and a total awareness of how to approach that third map that few teams in the world have.
Na`Vi truly played like an elite team and were afforded the few moments of fortunate that great sides demand. You create your own luck, as they say.
Na`Vi were bound together under the pressure of their own weighty evolution as a side and the gravity of their opponent. They proved that Astralis could be beaten, and did so in their own unique way, but not through the brute-force of s1mple, rather the special flavour of Na`Vi as a team.
This will likely be one of, if not the most important series of the year, and a landmark in the narratives of the scene’s biggest actors.
Na`Vi made Counter-Strike’s Gods kneel without having their own carry the weight of the action in the process.
Photo Credit: ESL