Every once in a while, there comes a team. A team so incredible that you feel privileged to bear witness. A team or core of players that has an indescribable, almost magical effect upon you. A team that can can make you believe, regardless of objective analysis or circumstance. It doesn’t matter how many rounds they are down, how beaten they’ve looked throughout the rest of the game, how incredible the other team has played or will continue to play throughout the game. In your heart of hearts, you know the team will win because they are the greatest. In recent years, the three teams that were embodiments of this tautological ideal were Fnatic, SK, and Astralis.
All three teams or cores of players defined ages of competitive history. Each of their paths were unique as they had different compositions of players, play styles, strengths, and weaknesses. However, the general pattern of their competitive history is similar. All three teams rose up in the world through unique strengths that defined them. For Fnatic it was their loose playstyle, adaptive mid-round, instinctive teamplay, and superstar player Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer. For SK it was a tactical role-based system, masterful powerplay, a teamplay built around the ideals of Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo, and their superstar Marcelo “Coldzera” David. For Astralis, it is a balance of perfect roles across the board, a structured tactical system, teamplay informed by that tactical system, and superstar AWPer Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz.
In the case of all three, they took over the world and defined the meta. They were the great paradigm shifters of their respective times. After their conquest, they sat upon the throne under the Sword of Damocles. In this analogy, the sword is a metaphor for every other competitor in the world. They became the world’s number one target and every team in the world wished to take them apart. In order to achieve that aim, the other top teams of the era studied their methodologies, analyzed them, and assimilated them. At that point in time, each of these teams lost their advantageous edge in the meta as the other teams either copied or understood the mechanics of what they did.
For teams that become number one in the world, this is the hardest moment. Keeping the throne and staying one step ahead of the world as the entire world guns for you. This is the moment that separates the one-time winners from a great teams. From great teams to consistent world contenders. From world contenders to era defining teams.
In the case of Fnatic, teams slowly understood their style of play, their global teamwork, and how it functioned. In SK, they understood the mechanics of their tactical role-play system. One that could simultaneously be defined as structured and loose. Each player and role had a place within that system, but within those roles each player had a level of individual freedom and choice as all five players understood what they should do in respect to the enemy team, each other, and the positions on the map. For Astralis, their mastery of utility, slow play executes, and rotational plays have all been studied.
Once the paradigm shift is over, that is when you see the true greatness of a team. The seeming ability to win in any moment at any time. In the middle half of 2015, Fnatic struggled to fight off the wolves as they tried to bring the era to a close. Teams like TSM, Virtus.Pro, and EnVyUs all came to try to kill the king. Despite that, Fnatic still managed to win LAN tournaments like DreamHack Tours, Gfinity Spring Masters, DreamHack Summer, ESL Proleague Season 1 Finals, and eventually the Major.
That Major victory was to be that specific lineups last LAN victory together and I was lucky enough to witness it all. During that period of CS:GO, I came under a spell. A completely irrational belief that Fnatic would win regardless of circumstance. I had seen too many series, too many games where things looked like they were turning south for Fnatic only for them to pull out some incredible play out of nowhere to take a round and forcefully take the game. The apex of this was at the ESL One Cologne Major where they made huge comebacks against Virtus.Pro in the semifinals and against EnVyUs in the first map of the finals to take that tournament. By the end of the run, Fnatic were an exercise in tautology. The only reason to pick Fnatic to continue winning was because they always had. That they could somehow pull out some big victory from behind and once again come out the winners time after time. Though they didn’t do it with the Markus “pronax” Wallsten lineup, they continued to do it once they got Dennis “dennis” Edman into the team.
In the case of SK, the story was similar. From 2016 to 2017, they were consistently one of the top teams in the world throughout this time period regardless of which iteration we are talking about, whether that be with Lincoln “fnx” Lau, Joao “felps” Vasconcellos, or Ricardo “boltz” Prass. While the stars and fifth players changed in and out causing massive shifts in the map pool, the essential style of the team remained similar. They used a combination of one aggressive star player that could make space and then used the system to enable Coldzera to clean up and close the round.
Among the three different lineups, the boltz lineup was the one that had the closest feeling to the Fnatic of old. The lifespan of that particular lineups time at the top was particularly short, essentially from October to December. However during that period, they pulled out insane, improbable victories throughout their runs. Their first place at EPICENTER where they took Virtus.Pro to five maps and won in double overtime. At BLAST where they faced off against Astralis in the finals in a three map epic where they won again in overtime. At ESL Proleague Season 6 finals where the beat FaZe 3-1 in a close series that nearly went to the fifth map, if not for insane individual performances.
By the time 2017 was done, the community was head over heels for this lineup. It was hard to blame them as the play of that SK lineup was so entertaining. Their defining characteristic as a team was pulling out victories in the dying rounds of the highest pressure matches in the most epic fashion imaginable. It was like watching a sports movie play out in real time. They made you believe that regardless of how dire the circumstances looked like, that they would prevail every single time. For the span of three out of the four tournaments they attended during that run, they did.
In CS:GO now, the team that gives me this aura, this feeling that they can never lose is Astralis. In the first six months of their reign, Astralis had an aura of invincibility. They were in domitable and it felt conclusive that they were going to outplay the team. That aura of invincibility has been replaced by an aura of inevitability. At IEM Chicago and ECS Season 6 Finals, the world has caught up with Astralis. Astralis have struggled as teams have gotten better and their ideas of CS:GO have become rote throughout the competitive scene. At the beginning of their run, they were consistently destroying teams with nades before they even got close. Now, teams have learned, countered, and adapted as much as they could from what Astralis has shown them in those six months.
Astralis no longer look invincible, but paradoxically I feel more convinced than ever that they will continue to win. There is no great analytical reason, in fact I can’t think of any at all. Astralis aren’t evolving at the same rate as they did in their first six months. Instead of dominating the opposition, they have to grind out rounds and have played close against multiple opponents, the most prominent of which were Fnatic at IEM Chicago and SK at ECS Season 6.
What those matches did show me though, was Astralis’ ability to win. They exude the exact same aura that all of the greatest winners have. That even on their worst day, they can pull out the victory. That in order for a team to beat them, they have to their entire souls to beat them, and even then it isn’t enough. Fnatic had Astralis dead to rights twice in their bo3 semifinals at IEM Chicago. They could have won the Dust2 map if Astralis hadn’t pulled multiple heroic plays throughout the game to edge it out. On Inferno, Fnatic were up 14-9 and stole a round away to get to match point.
For any competitor, the breaking point isn’t when you get destroyed, it is when you almost succeeded to only have the victory swiped away from your hands. However Astralis didn’t let it affect them and pulled out an inner strength the likes of which we hadn’t seen before to take it to overtime and win it all.
At ECS Season 6, they did it against MIBR. in the finals. The first map was on Inferno and in the 29th round of the game, MIBR pulled out a double AWP tactic that completely surprised Astralis and two players were picked off in the beginning of the round. This broke the Astralis economy and the game looked to be heading into overtime. However in the final round of that match, Astralis pulled out the victory as MIBR jumped through the smoke at top mid to only find dev1ce and Emil “Magisk’ Rief on the other side with Czeds. The two of them cleared out MIBR and took the map.
In the second map of the series, MIBR were up 15-11 on the T-side of Overpass. Astralis had no money so they were on a forcebuy. MIBR were in a 4v3 situation, but Peter “Dupreeh” Rothmann was able to finagle a double kill as MIBR entered the A-site with his CZ and dev1ce was able to convert a 1v2 with a scout and a usp. From that point on, Astralis were back in business as hero play after hero play commenced. They pushed the game into overtime and continued the massive heroics. In one round, dev1ce would win the postplant situation in overtime with a triple kill. In another, Astralis improvised a bomb plant and postplant situation in a 3v4 scenario that was perfectly executed by the squad. In another overtime round, Astralis was down in a 4v5 situation only for Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander to perfectly time his push through the smoke to break the entire MIBR hit and get a quad kill.
Both Fnatic and MIBR played the absolute best I’ve seen them all year. Even then it wasn’t enough to put Astralis in the ground. Both teams had Astralis on the ropes. One more pistol, one more clutch, one more anything could have been the difference between victory or defeat in those series.
However that single round is the hardest round to get in today’s game. The final round against Astralis is the difference between heaven and hell, the sky and the earth, between victory and defeat. It is fitting in a way that this new face of Astralis we have seen in the past two tournaments comes against Fnatic and MIBR. That they were the ones to push Astralis to their very limits. After all, while the rosters have changed, many of the players that had this similar aura of victory about them are still within these teams. Players like: Freddy “KRIMZ” Johansson, Jesper “JW” Wecksell, FalleN, coldzera, and Fernando “fer” Alvarenga.
For those players, they were on the winning side of that equation back during Fnatic 2015 or SK 2017. This time however, they were on the other side of the exchange. Where before they were “that team”, now they played and lost against “that team”.
To be witness to this level of greatness is a privilege as teams like this come around rarely. A team where things like analysis and logic is not enough to understand it. Where their strength is so unfathomable that it cannot be put into words. Where plays and rounds grab you by your soul and refuse to let up. That regardless of how much chaos you put Astralis into, that they will find a way out. No matter how many rounds they are down, no matter the weaponry, no matter the momentum, that they will make you believe they will win. There is no reasoning, only induction. They have done it before, they will do it again. They always win and thus they always shall. Like Fnatic and SK before them, Astralis are now a tautology. The winner is the champion and in this word, there is no greater winner than Astralis.