The most played out rivalry through 2018 was the battle between Liquid and Astralis. Astralis was the best team in the world and for 2018, Liquid was either the 2nd or 3rd best team in the world with an ability to beat every team in the world outside of Astralis. Unfortunately for Liquid, the team they have played the most has been Astralis. Through the entire year, the two teams have played against each other across seven different LAN events. In that time, they have faced off against each other for a total of 12 different encounters. Two best-of-ones, seven best-of-threes, and three best-of-fives. Outside of one best-of-one at FACEIT Major London, Astralis have come out on top in every single encounter. While we will never see this matchup play again as the Liquid lineup has changed, it is worth looking back to see what the mental mind games were between these two teams when it came to their map veto as it will be a blueprint for how top teams could handle the map veto against Astralis moving forward.
One of the most talked about points has been the map veto strategy that Liquid has employed against Astralis as they have let Nuke through multiple times in the map veto. The stats seem gargantuan for Astralis as they are currently on a 27-0 win streak on LAN, however the thought and strategy behind Liquid’s decision is a bit more nuanced. For now, I will explain the thought processes behind the map veto before the ESL Proleague Season 8 Finals happened as Liquid changed their strategy in that best-of-five and at the same time revealed a hand that has ramifications down the line for all the top teams headed into 2019.
To begin, first we have to understand the evolution of the map veto. We’ll start at ESL Proleague Season 7 finals as that is after nuke came into the map pool. The veto followed was as follows:
Astralis ban Mirage
TL ban Overpass
Astralis pick Nuke
Liquid pick Inferno
Astralis ban Train
Liquid ban Cache
Dust2 left over.
Astralis’ reasoning on banning Mirage in the first matchup was because Liquid had won that map against them in the previous bo3 at DreamHack Marseille. Additionally, Liquid had yet to build any kind of strength on either Train or Cache. Those are both maps that Astralis traditionally like to avoid. As the year moved on, both teams evolved their map pools. Astralis started to play Train by the time the FACEIT Major begins and moved Cache to their permaban. At the same time Liquid moved Train to their own permaban and started to play Cache.
This sets up the dynamic of their late-2018 map veto battle. For Astralis, banning cache is a no-brainer as they don’t play the map and no team in the world has been able to punish them for not playing the map.
As for Liquid, this is the first hurdle in the map veto section. They currently have two choices, they can either let Nuke through or they can let Train through. This is a terrible dilemma for Liquid as while they are a top 3 team on Nuke (behind Astralis and Mouz), the difference between them and Astralis still feels massive on Nuke.
If they let Nuke through, then Liquid know that Astralis will pick it and will have to face Astralis at their peak ability as that is their best map. However if they ban it, Astralis can hard punish them with a pick of Train.
The problem with Train is that it is a map that doesn’t theoretically fit Liquid’s style of play. To understand why, we have to look at the composition of the lineup and it’s team style. The lineup is: Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella, Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski, Russel “Twistzz” Van Dulken, Keith “NAF” Markovic, and Epitacio “TACO” de Melo.
While they haven’t played the map in a long time, I imagine the CT-positions fall along these lines. TACO will be the B-site anchor. Twistzz will play alley. EliGE will be the aggressive T-main or popdog player. NAF and nitr0 will switch off between being the rotator, AWPer, or support. In terms of a double AWP setup, I’d think they’d be fine as they can juggle it between four of their five players, so overall I think their CT-side would be good in theory, though it would require time to gel and that is time taken away from other maps that naturally fit the squad better. The problem for Liquid is the T-side.
This is a structured tactical map that doesn’t allow for as much individual skill to shine outside of a primary AWPer. The problem with Liquid is that they are running a hybrid rifling style. While they can pick up the AWP, it’s usually used in a passive tactical position rather than an offensive pick-oriented one (with the exception of NAF sometimes using it on inferno). In general, Liquid’s best maps are ones where they can play a structured style that allows for individual skill to shine. That’s why maps like Cache, Mirage, and Inferno are among their best maps. While the team is varied enough to do structured executes, it doesn’t seem to be their preferred playstyle and they need maps that enable their star riflers as their riflers are the fulcrum of the Liquid engine.
So when we consider Train, it’s easy to see that riflers are generally muted when it comes to that particular map as Train is an AWPer’s playground on the CT-side. So even if Liquid have a potentially good CT-side based on their lineup, it doesn’t look good for them on the T-side. Against Astralis in particular, dev1ce has been a menace for Liquid’s T-sides as he consistently gets picks or controls the map with his AWP. That would only be emphasized on a map like Train. So while I think Liquid could have played train prior to the ESL Proleague Season 8 Finals, you can see why they avoided it against Astralis. On top of that, no other team in the world could punish Liquid for having Train as their permaban map.
On the other hand, Nuke plays into Liquid’s hands far better. They already have a fairly strong CT-side established. On top of that, this is a map that usually nullifies the strength of the AWP to a certain extent on both sides of the map outside of a few exceptions like dev1ce or s1mple. Liquid have shown a fairly good proficiency on the T-side of the map and historically speaking, can play close to Astralis on the map if they are in good form.
So while the impulsive reaction to the continued losses to Astralis may point to banning Nuke,in terms of relative team strengths, it made sense for Liquid to continue to letting Nuke through. Another way to think about it is thinking of the probabilities. What is more likely, a top 3 team on Nuke upsetting the best team on Nuke or a team that doesn’t play Train upsetting a top 3 team on Train? While it’s technically possible that Astralis wouldn’t pick Train as a punish pick, I think that’s fairly unlikely given that Astralis understand the relative differences on Train as well and Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander rarely makes a mistake in map veto.
As for Liquid’s pick, I think the choice must always be either Mirage or Inferno. There are two reasons for this. Liquid is a team that likely has some level of confidence issues given how many matches they’ve lost against Astralis in the past, so having them play on their two best maps. On top of that, I also think those are the two maps that Liquid have a chance of winning on against Astralis. Looking through the records, Liquid seem to agree and rotate between the two, likely based on how many new things they’ve developed on a particular map in recent times and their own recent historical performances on said map.
Next we get to the second round vetoes. For Astralis, the choice is easy. They should either ban Inferno or Mirage, depending on which one Liquid picked in the first phase of picks. As I’ve said before, those are the maps that emphasize Liquid’s strengths the most so while they have to get rid of whichever one they don’t pick in the second phase. This is what Astralis have done in the previous bo3 series they’ve played against Liquid. At ECS Season 5 they banned Inferno when Liquid first picked Mirage. At FACEIT Major they did the same. At ESL Proleague Season 8, they removed Mirage when Liquid went for Inferno.
As for Liquid, this is where they are allowed to make a gamble as they can either remove Dust2 or Overpass. Both are problematic for Liquid. Astralis is one of the better teams on both maps. Overpass is more structured and fit Liquid’s style of play a bit more, but emphasizes dev1ce’s AWP. Dust2 is volatile and Liquid have been unable to find solutions on how to win when their CT-side economy is in the dumps on that map. For this last pick, there is no right answer for Liquid as I think Astralis is favored to win on both maps as dev1ce being one of the best AWPers in the world gives Astralis an advantage on the CT-sides of both maps.
When looking through the map veto like this, it’s fairly clear that Liquid are at a disadvantage from the outset. While they are good on Nuke, Astralis are doing something historically great on the map. Cache, Inferno and Mirage are their best chances of upsetting Astralis, but Astralis permaban Cache and remove whichever one Liquid don’t choose in the second phase. On top of that, Astralis themselves are fantastic on both maps as well. Finally, Liquid will have to upset Astralis on either Dust2 or Overpass.
However at ESL Proleague Season 8 Finals, the paradigm has changed for both teams. In that finals, Liquid finally bit the bullet and decided to bane Nuke. In exchange, Astralis decided to punish them with a first pick on Train.
On this map Liquid blew out Astralis on Train as they won 16-8 with 11 rounds won on the T-side. While Liquid did get money control early on, the primary reason for Liquid’s victory was because of their tactical approach. As I stated earlier, in general riflers are muted on Train as AWPers can generally blow them out if they try to hit the outside site. What impressed me about Liquid’s T-side was that their tactics, their smokes, and their style of executes took all of that into account. They were consistently able to use smokes to cut off the typical angles that an AWPer would use and use that to close the distance and find angles that completely surprised Astralis throughout the half.
Liquid were surprisingly good and that seemed to throw Astralis off their game. On top of that, dev1ce didn’t perform particularly well, though was partially because Liquid had also nullified him at times when he did have the AWP. While I think the tactics and style of play Liquid used are repeatable, the biggest problem for them is the Astralis system. Astralis won’t chock it up to bad form on the day and will look back at those demos to try to find solutions to the problems that Liquid. That has always been Liquid’s biggest problem in the Astralis matchup is that because they play Astralis the most of any given team, Astralis has the most information about them as well. This has created an escalating war between the two teams as they continually try to find small advantages and up to this point, it has all been in the favor of Astralis.
Still this victory showed a potential path to victory for Liquid and for the other top teams in the world. By increasing the variability of the map veto, Liquid were able to blindside Astralis and take a map victory that no one saw coming. Though Liquid’s lineup has changed now since TACO has left the team, they can still use the same type of trick to try to one-up Astralis. If they had chosen to stick together through, these could have been how the potential map veto coudl have played out for these two teams:
Astralis ban Cache
Liquid ban Nuke
Astralis pick Overpass
Liquid pick Mirage/Inferno
Astralis ban Inferno/Mirage
Liquid ban Train
Final Map Dust2
Astralis ban Cache
Liquid ban Nuke
Astralis pick Train
Liquid pick Mirage/Inferno
Astralis ban Inferno/Mirage
Liquid ban Overpass
Final Map Dust2
Either scenario is far better than when Nuke was in the pool. This map veto strategy was then duplicated by Na`Vi at the BLAST Lisbon finals where Na`Vi decided to ban Nuke. In retaliation of that, Astralis punish picked Cache, but in that series Astralis were able to successfully win Cache 16-9.
With those two series, it is fairly clear that Astralis have been thinking about this scenario for a long time as they must have realized that either one of two things was going to happen. Either someone was finally going to beat them on Nuke or teams were going to ban it. Danny “zonic” Sorensen confirms this idea as he tweeted:
Obviously easy to say now but I disagree. Playing 7 maps we have to punish teams that leave their perma ban open to us. I still think it made sense against liquid as well.
— Danny Sørensen (@zonic_cs) December 15, 2018
Astralis understand that one of their biggest strategic advantages against the world is that they have the ability to choose between Nuke and a hard place. As 2019 goes underway, this mental battle of the map veto could be pivotal in either ending the Astralis reign or extending it even further than anticipated.