After months of disappointment, North made a bold move by removing Magisk, a player considered Top 5 in the world only 7 months prior. The move came after a disappointing streak of tournaments for both North and Magisk, ever since the addition of aizy to the team.
There remained some optimism for North, since they replaced one great talent with another great talent: valde. An exciting prospect, he showed signs of promise on Heroic before being removed. Valde could certainly hold his own on the world stage, but could he fill magisk’s shoes? Would that be the optimal use of this prospect? How will North play, after such a long stretch of disappointment?
These questions lingered as all patiently awaited North’s debut at DreamHack Malmö, where they impressed with an appearance in the grand final, and Dreamhack Montreal, where they went home with a trophy. Clearly, North is doing something right. Their early success suggests important changes were made in their approach to the game, but what exactly have they changed?
For MSL, the solution was to swap valde into the majority of Magisk’s CT spots, at the time of his departure. In Mirage, he plays B Apartments. In Cobblestone, he plays the B bombsite with cajunb. However, playing the same positions as Magisk doesn’t mean playing them the same way.
Though there are crossover setups between the two riflers, Magisk played many sites, such as B Cobble, much more passively than valde. The former was placed in the Tree quadrant of the site, rotating backward when receiving T pressure, banking on a retake. In stark contrast, valde will begin most rounds on Terrace, keeping in mind the objective of preventing the bomb plant, not defusing it.
Much like with the k0nfig-MSL hold on Banana, Long is now an essential point of contention for North; an area that valde and cajunb will not willfully give up. Beyond simply positioning, a barrage of flashes, smokes, molotovs, and frags will be used to maintain map control and flush the enemies out of long. Unwilling to sit in smoke and fire, enemies have to either retreat or push through utility into the open arms of valde and cajunb. This is a case study of a common phenomena in the new North: their CT sides are much more aggressive, coordinated and reliant on utility.
Aggression isn’t the only feature of MSL’s CT overhaul. Another significant improvement has been versatility. Before Magisk’s departure, North had already started to use a double-AWP setup, in the hopes of creating a deeper CT side, catching the Ts off guard a few rounds per map. However, the wildcard was always in the hands of k0nfig: he was the second awper, and all those risky CT pushes, like Underpass in Mirage, were left for him. Basically, changes in the CT setup meant changes in k0nfig’s play. Since the addition of valde, CT setups have been much more dynamic for North in part because MSL has a new tool to use in aggressive CT plays. Yet, unlike many teams, that doesn’t mean more improvisation. Rather than having one or two drilled holds, North has three or four. Different positions and different grenade usage keeps the enemy guessing, all while keeping the troops in line. This proved to be remarkably effective in North’s Inferno against Immortals in the quarter-finals of DreamHack Malmo, as the Brazilians were incapable of coping with the aggression of North’s B hold all while being incapable of countering it, since it wasn’t a single hold. To counter such a versatile hold would take intimate familiarity with each individual setups and the way North cycles them, something impossible to figure out mid-game.
While there’s been a marked improvement in North’s defense, it’s dwarfed in significance by the changes they made to their offense. Though it was the pride of the Danish squad for many months, North had been struggling on T side by the end of their previous roster.
Let’s start with valde. He’s been largely put in lurking roles, which he plays much more passively than k0nfig previously had. That’s not to say that’s all he does. As will be discussed later, many of his rounds are spent in five-man executes. But on defaults, valde is usually lurking. He isn’t afraid to push aggressively if he feels it’s safe, and he’ll sometimes push right before North executes on the opposite site to keep the CTs guessing. Nevertheless much of valde’s lurking is about securing map control and preventing flanks rather than finding kills, particularly on Inferno and Mirage.
One of the most universal criticisms of North since aizy’s addition has been MSL’s decision to move k0nfig out of the entry role and into a lurking role. That decision has been reversed entirely. At Malmo, k0nfig was a dedicated entry fragger, consistently taking part in the first contact of the round. In an average gun round, k0nfig and MSL will entry, cajunb will AWP passively, and valde will lurk. The ambivalence comes from aizy, who will participate in different ways in different tactics. On Mirage, much of his time is spent lurking Palace, but he’ll also enter into site with MSL and k0nfig through connector if need be.
All of this is in a default round, in which North tries to maintain global map control. Yet much of North’s T side has developed into drilled site hits, involving all five players in a single early execute. This is probably the most unique part of North’s game, since MSL has proven time and again that he’s great at creating innovative and effective site hits. Through their large volume of hits, particularly on Mirage and Cobblestone, North have been able to use k0nfig in a defined entry role, something that suits him remarkably well. By practicing executes, k0nfig can learn what to do before he enters an official match, and doesn’t have to improvise as much as he would as a lurker, thereby alleviating his weakness as a poor decision-maker all while making the most of his incredible aim. Furthermore, valde’s proven to be excellent in clutch situations as well as being comfortable playing aggressively, making him a perfect late-round player once MSL, aizy and k0nfig have done the early work. Shortly put, this turn toward a high volume of executes has made the most of MSL, k0nfig and valde’s strengths, making it the perfect style for this roster.
Finding proper use of its players is great news for North, who are (finally) once again a dangerous team. However there are still worries about this team, and one shouldn’t be so quick to praise them boundlessly. There are concerns, as with any team, about their future.
The primary worry continues to be with aizy. He was pivotal in their series against Immortals at Malmo, anchoring the A site on Inferno, but his performance dropped off the following series against G2. This volatile performance seems to be trending upwards nevertheless, particularly with his consistent performance against Tier 2 teams at DreamHack Montreal. His form in the past 8 months suggest that this performance is greater than average, even if aizy has improved under the new system. If he can continue this level of play, North will be an elite team. If not, their CT side will take a big blow. North’s success on CT Inferno, which is one of their two best maps, was strongly reliant on successful defenses from aizy and valde, avoiding the hardship of retaking the A site. If aizy’s performance dip as it did against G2 in Malmö, their A site defense will take a massive hit.
The secondary concern pertains to North’s T-side style. They’ve got a lot of effective tactics, but constantly using the same tactics can lead to some heavy anti-stratting. The Banana setup that was so heavily lauded against Immortals was effectively countered by G2, who brute-forced through North’s short Banana smoke, knowing MSL would be right behind it at half-stack. MSL’s adaptation was to retreat onto site rather than contest Banana, consequently losing a lot of map control. Now, their Banana defense can be tweaked for the next LAN, but this example shows that a tactical team is always trying to get ahead of its opponents, preemptively taking into account the likely anti-strating they will face. That means developing new executes, creating fakes for your current ones, and creating alternative setups to respond to potential counters. A tactical team requires constant evolution and innovation to prevent getting countered.
Luckily for North, the two problems that have dogged them all this time seem to be alleviated now. Their assignment of roles is working in a way it never did on the previous roster, and their map pool too strong to allow a bad veto. The late-2016 lineup shows us that at their best, North is great on a large amount of maps, as that’s been the case so far. There remains concern as to whether or not they’ll find a map on which they’re the best in the world, having lost on both their best maps against G2. That said, Train is ripe for the taking, with SK, Gambit and Astralis all looking fragile on the map.
So long as North’s adaptive requirement is tactical depth, they are in good hands with MSL. However, if the roles ever stop working, if cajunb can’t AWP as reliably or if k0nfig can’t entry quite as well, there is reason to be worried. With his previous roster MSL has demonstrated a stubborn belief in his system, unwilling to swap out aizy for k0nfig on the entry role until seven months and a roster change later.
Overall, North have a strong roster with a great tactical mind at the helm. With k0nfig as their superstar, they’ll be a threat at every tournament they attend. Their shallow firepower will hinder them in their contention for the Number 1 spot, but North shouldn't have any problems staying on the upper echelons of the Top 10, as their final placing in Malmö and their trophy in Montreal suggests.
Though their firepower won’t carry them as far as their ambitions ask of them, North look much better on the whole. MSL has been playing at a decent level, as have aizy and cajunb, and valde and k0nfig have looked excellent. Their map pool is growing in size quickly, and they’ve now played Mirage, Inferno, Cobblestone and Train at a good level. They’ve shown tactical depth and proficiency on both sides of the map, and actualized their firepower in a way they never could with the previous North roster. That’s a marked improvement and an upward trajectory for a team who has finally realized the potential we saw last fall.
Photo Credit: Pierre Yves Laroche / DreamHack