On January 29th it was announced that René "cajunb" Borg would be benched from North’s active roster and that Daniel "mertz" Mertz would be replacing him as the primary AWPer. Replacing such a storied player with a virtually unknown one might strike most Counter-Strike fans as both strange and risky. Why would North add a rookie to their Top 10 team? For that reason, it’s worth getting into why cajunb was removed and why mertz was brought in.
When cajunb was removed from Astralis, many hoped he could reassert himself as a top player on a lower-tier team. In his first few months with Dignitas, he posted high frag numbers, and seemed comfortable as a primary AWPer. And while he regressed in the fall, cajunb remained a solid player for DIG in 2016. In fact, with the addition of Emil "Magisk" Reif in the fall, Dignitas rose to new heights by winning EPICENTER. The addition of Magisk and cajunb had injected the roster with much-needed firepower, and things were looking up for the Danish squad.
Yet, in 2017, now playing under North, this same team struggled to find the success they had flirted with a year prior. Magisk never was the same after the departure of Ruben "RUBINO" Villarroel in January, and cajunb continued his decline in performance. Over the year he posted a disappointing 0.67 Kills Per Round, a number that is strikingly low for an AWPer on a Top 10 team. And yet, this stale performance was credited not to cajunb as an individual player but to his usage on the team. Far from following the footsteps of SK Gaming and G2 Esports, North declined to use their AWPer in aggressive positions to find early openings. Because of this stylistic choice, cajunb couldn’t get a high frag count because he wasn’t placed in positions to get a high frag count. This explanation rang true to many ears, but as time went on it became clear that cajunb’s individual level had in fact degraded. In addition, cajunb and his in-game leader Mathias "MSL" Lauridsen were unable to find a way to turn his AWPing into a prominent and aggressive part of their game, something North desperately needed in order to add another dimension to their CT sides.
In comes mertz.
Fortunately for North, the offensive AWPer they lacked was playing for their academy team. One of the breakout prospects of 2017, mertz provides a combination of aggression and talent, which makes him highly touted among his peers. When asked for his bold prediction as to who will enter the top 20 in 2018, Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth named mertz: “It’s only a matter of time before he climbs the list.”
Aggressive doesn’t quite cut it as an adjective to describe mertz. He has a 26% entry usage, which is staggering for any player. His opening kill ratio is 1.57, which is not quite as high as it seems at first. AWPers in general will always have the advantage in this statistical metric, given the weapon they wield. For example, Nicolai "dev1ce" Reedtz has a 1.38 opening kill ratio against much greater opposition. Nevertheless, in combination with his high entry usage, mertz’s opening kill ratio speaks to his ability to find openings in the early round and capitalize on them. For this reason, mertz embodies all the qualities cajun lacks, giving North the CT dimension they lacked with a passive AWPer.
Predictably, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.. On North Academy, mertz was playing at a much lower level of competition than he will be moving forward. It’s unlikely that mertz will be able to poke so many holes against top-tier T sides, as teams will more frequently jiggle-peek, flash out, and meticulously avoid obvious peeks. As an aggressive AWPer, mertz will have to adapt significantly as time goes on. And while this isn’t beyond his skillset, we have seen AWPers in the past, like Rustem "mou" Telepov and Kenneth "koosta" Suen that strive against lower level competition and never quite find their groove against the best teams.
Perhaps more interestingly, the in-game leader of North, Mathias "MSL" Lauridsen, has never had an elite AWPer on his team. In an interview with HTC in November, he confessed that he hasn’t quite figured out how to turn an AWPer into a key piece of his strategies:
“I have always had a hard time integrating an AWP into my play style and setting him up to get a lot of frags. It’s one of the things I have put a lot of focus into after these tournaments and I think it will make cajun a lot better because he can get more room to work and some special tactics or positions to make him shine.”
Given the fact that cajunb has now been removed, it’s obvious that this effort was in vain. With the addition of mertz, however, MSL’s ability to make the most of his AWPer will be a significant factor in their success, if there is to be any. With the benching of Kristian "k0nfig" Wienecke, mertz comes into a team in need of a superstar, and as an AWPer and a rising talent, he will need to fill those shoes.
Given his predisposition for aggression and North’s need for CT firepower, North’s way forward is with mertz as its best player. As we’ve seen, there are significant factors that suggest that this will not happen. And yet, North is at this stage the perfect team on which mertz can assert himself as a legitimate star precisely because of their limitations and their needs. The move is bold, but the risk is exactly what North needed to break out of their stagnant performance, for better or for worse.