May you live in interesting times, goes the Chinese curse, but from the perspective of a CS:GO fan, it’s exactly times like these which make the game worth watching. The top four in the world made it to the semis at the last event and they’re also in the playoffs of the Pro League finals, with further high-profile tussles in the group stages adding to the palace intrigue. You’ve got it all: the king tightening its iron grip on the throne once again, the three princes battling one another for a chance to strike at him, and the pretenders on the outside looking in for a chance to upset the delicate balance of power.

The king: Astralis

If you come at the Danes, you best not miss.

Say what you will about that time earlier this year when they were having a BLAST instead of competing in a serious manner, but it’s looking more and more like a self-imposed break rather than a dramatic downfall. Though the trophy-winning machine spluttered somewhat after Berlin, Astralis’ results and performances are both on an upward trajectory as of late, and that should be an incredibly scary prospect for everyone else in the scene.

You could say the same about their direct matchup with Liquid as well, one which they had absolutely locked down in 2018: their loss in the finals of iBUYPOWER Masters IV in January was perhaps the end of the beginning, and the defeat in the previous Pro League finals straight after the FURIA upset in the preceding event was the definitive confirmation of their slump even to the superfans. Since then, we got to watch the iron grip tighten again in real time.

astralis esl one pro league

At the StarLadder Major, their win over the North American side was based on counterplay rather than raw dominance, which was followed by a raw, bare-knuckle brawl in New York. For what little the BLAST Pro Series group stage matches matter from this perspective, their straightforward Nuke win turned out to be a relevant data point when analyzing the veto of yesterday’s upper bracket final. This one felt like one of those fistfights where somebody suddenly pulls out a switchblade. Picking Inferno into Astralis? Giving them Nuke? Floating Vertigo? Woah, champ. It was a close encounter in the end, but not of the kind Liquid envisioned. This match made it four on the trot for the Danes, just like in the good old days.

It seems like the interregnum is over. Laertes is missing in action.

The princes: EG, Liquid and Fnatic

I’m sure I’m not the only one with a draft in the drawer of an article examining the nascent EG-Liquid rivalry. Stewie and tarik, the Cloud9 expats on both sides vying for the sort of undisputed top spot they never had after Boston, two sides propelled to previously unseen heights off of a raw confidence boost, twin symbols of how North American Counter-Strike is finally fulfilling its long-time potential. Bold, brash, confident gameplay, great stylistic contrast to Astralis, something fresh and new.

So thanks, device and gla1ve and the rest of you, for pushing this one back in the queue.

That said, the confidence aspect is still worth examining, the intangible element which seems to best explain the growth of these two sides this calendar year. Liquid tasted victory when Astralis took a step back, going on to win six out of seven big LAN events in a row, with a second-place finish at cs_summit the only blemish on that beautiful summer which ended in tears in Berlin. Their thorough destruction of ENCE at IEM Chicago was nothing if not the product of pure confidence, exactly what they were missing at the major, and arguably ever since. As for the ex-NRG side, swapping orgs and moving on from their formative their IGL has been paying massive dividends. Though it was a contentious move at the time, replacing daps with stanislaw turned out to be a masterstroke, and it seems like these changes enabled the players to feel like CS:GO royalty – and to begin to play accordingly in the servers.

We may have had a laugh when tarik said they’d win the Berlin Major, but in terms of a mindset shift, it was a sign of things to come. Their core has a pretty decent record against Astralis, and the win at New York over the Danes in the grand final was one of the more comprehensive ones anyone has recorded over them in recent history. Their subsequent triumph in Belek showed this wasn’t just a fluke, but the double disappointments in China also established that there’s more work to be done for EG. How deep is their playbook and their reserve of confidence? The rest of December will tell us a lot about that as they close out the year at EPICENTER. If we see no upsets tonight, they’ll get another swing at the king in the semis.

Meanwhile, Fnatic deserves massive credit for unexpectedly elbowing themselves into this conversation. Lingering in limbo for what seemed like an eternity, their first “Golden era” at Katowice 2018 was cut short by internal politics. Just like the arrival of stanislaw, the return of two ex-players didn’t inspire confidence at first. It seemed a distinctly NiP-esque move, banking on goodwill and nostalgia instead of looking into the future and making hard choices.

Turns out, admitting you were wrong in the first place is one of the hardest choices out there.

Fnatic have been revelatory since Golden’s return, both on an individual and on a team level. Formless like water, loose yet not completely without shape, this roster packs enough punch to go up against the best of the CS:GO scene. It feels like there’s always someone ready to frag out or do something crazy, but they’re not quite as reliant on individual heroics as the Xizt-led iteration was. It’s a playstyle which separates them from the other top sides and feels like a worthy sequel to the old Fnatic showreels. Strong T sides coupled with leaky CT showings symbolize their approach so far. If you’re an optimist, you can point at this as a straightforward way to improve. You can also treat it as a glaring deficiency which will ultimately limit this side. Only time will tell the answer to that – and whether the internal dynamics have truly improved since the last time these players were together.

Also, an underappreciated aspect of their recent successes is the growth of Golden’s fragging potential: though his numbers are still in the red, his rating is on an upward trend and he’s much more capable of getting impact kills in big matches as he was in the past. He won 11 out of 16 clutches since his return to the Fnatic lineup, a decent chunk of which came against top-tier sides. Not bad for someone who was originally deemed surplus to requirements once he was shoehorned into the entry fragger role.

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Whether all this is enough to match the prowess of Liquid remains to be seen: it wasn’t the case at ECS and they remain the underdogs here as well. As of right now, their fourth place in the rankings seems realistic, not quite strong enough to reliably break into the top three but a cut above the rest of the field, capable of the occasional upsets against fellow royalty to secure some silverware.

The pretenders: Na’Vi and mousesports

Where to begin with these two? It wasn’t exactly a shock to see them get this far in Odense, especially with the quirks of the bracket which guaranteed one of EG, Fnatic and 100Thieves to go out in the groups, but the overall stature and the way mouz and Na’Vi qualified to the playoffs puts them in a different category than the other contenders for the Pro League title.

Though karrigan’s men deserve credit for their flawless run through the European groups – beating FaZe, BIG and OpTic with just a single map dropped to secure their spot at the first time of asking – and their remarkable comeback to win CS:GO Asia Championships 2019, they had by far the easiest run on the way to the playoffs here. Two wins over ATK and a 2-1 triumph over Renegades was enough to reach the quarterfinals, and you could easily argue that their close upper bracket loss against Liquid was their most impressive performance so far at the event. Of course, it wasn’t the first time they had a close defeat to the North Americans: cast your mind back to the major where two overtime heartbreaks confirmed their elimination in the final Swiss round.

That was their last meeting to date, and it’s been a rollercoaster of showings since, with oft-repeated discussions about the ceiling and the inconsistencies of this young side. To win the event, they’d have to carve a path through EG and Astralis, not to mention their eventual opponent in the grand final. It’s a tough ask, even if you give a lot of weight to their impressive demolition of tarik and co. at their very last event. The rematch today will be a telling and fascinating encounter in more ways than one: at StarSeries & i-League Season 8, stanislaw’s men showed great resilience and adaptability in their direct rematch against Fnatic, beating them in the grand final in straightforward fashion after a closer game in the upper bracket, with a 16-9 score on the same map they’ve lost 16-2 in the previous series against the Swedes. It means that the Overpass-Nuke one-two sucker punch mouz pulled in the veto is unlikely to work so well this time around.

As for Na’Vi, their grand experiment continues. We will never know how things would have turned out had they cut short Zeus’ long goodbye back when s1mple was posting those galactic numbers. Now, he’s merely one of the best players around, but also with less of an all-encompassing burden. With this setup, even Atlas can get away with a shrug once in a while. Criticize the new recruits as much as you want, even on their worst days they deliver more than Edward and their IGL did on an individual level at the end of their tenure.

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It’s no coincidence that it’s also GuardiaN’s first decent showing since his return to the side, and if he’s truly got enough left in the tank to keep on keeping on, that firepower and flexibility can definitely be enough to make Na’Vi title contenders in the future. Clearly, it took time to embed a young in-game leader – though let’s not forget that their last recent big event, the StarSeries & i-League Season 8 finals, turned out to be hugely disappointing. Their performances at the Pro League so far showed great promise, by far the best they’ve been since the roster changes.  Whether this uptick in form is due to the extra time they’ve had to work out the kinks in the setup or just the other side of the variance spectrum remains to be seen. We can see the future, but we don’t know whether it works just yet.

One thing is for sure: they are in striking distance in Odense. Also, on the easier side of the bracket. Their win against EG in the Group A upper bracket final was a real statement of intent, and they also benefit from being a dark horse due to the relative lack of recent events they’ve attended with this setup. (In that sense, there’s a silver lining of that horrible finish in Belek: there’s a lot less VODs for rival teams to analyze!) They already broke into the top four this event, guaranteeing they’ll finish ahead of either Liquid or Fnatic: it remains to be seen whether they will be able to do so in the rankings as well going forward.

The palace intrigue is set to continue long into the night. Interesting times indeed.

Bet on EG @ 1.57

Bet on Liquid @ 1.40

Odds are subject to change.

Photo credit: HLTV