After the Houston Outlaws versus Vancouver Titans Overwatch League Stage 2 match, Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles tweeted, “You will not beat the Titans in a 3-3 mirror. We literally have evidence stretching back to last summer to show this is true. Stop. Trying. For the love of God, stop trying.”

He then later clarified his point in a YouTube video explaining the importance of middling teams finding their own style of play rather than sticking to the meta. This particular topic is one of the most intriguing to analyze in esports as it hits the root of conflict all competitors must face.

What is the most optimal path to success in a competitive field: playing towards theoretical meta or playing to your own individual characteristics? In esports history, players have had to choose between playing to the meta or playing to their own strengths. There was Park “DongRaeGu” Soo Ho in SC2, MVP.Phoenix in Dota, Astralis in CS:GO, and Element Mystic/British Hurricane in Season 3 Overwatch Contenders.

Playing for the meta: BL/Infestor

We’ll start with BL/infestor, the test case for when everyone should play to the meta. The Broodlord-infestor era is the most imbalanced one in the history of competitive gaming. This composition dominated StarCraft 2 from 2012 to the end of Wings of Liberty. The style was predicated on massing a large amount of infestors, creating an unstoppable death ball comp, and then winning. The ease of execution relative to the strength of the comp made it the de facto composition that every Zerg player needed to play.

That is what makes this period of StarCraft 2 the ultimate test case for the conflict of playing towards your own style or towards the meta. Yet even in this era, where it was clear cut that every player should play towards the infestor style, there were instances where a player would have been better off sticking to their personal strengths instead. There are two good examples. The first was the group stages matches between Park “DongRaeGu” Soo Ho and Kim “Ryung” Dong Won from the GSL Season 5 ro16 group stages.

Prior to the BL/infestor era taking over Korea, DRG made his name with raw mechanics and beating Terrans with his muta ling/baneling play. He used his mechanics to speed up the tempo of the game and force action across the map. This forced the game into a contest of mechanical and tactical skill as the defending Terran had to simultaneously fend off DRG’s attacks and match his macro. When the BL/infestor era came, DRG made the switch like every other Zerg and while he wasn’t the best Zerg in the world, he was still a top player.

In this particular matchup though, the decision to play the BL/infestor style over the mutalisk ling/baneling style was questionable. Ryung was an above average Terran at the time, but he was exceptional at positional play. This emphasis on position was why he was exceptional at the TvT mirror matchup as it was about evaluating positional advantages and setting up or breaking siege lines. This was also why Ryung was bad at the TvP matchup as it relied far more in mechanical prowess and refinement.

So when it came to DRG vs Ryung on Whirlwind, DRG opted for a heavy mutalisk opening and transitioned into the BL/infestor composition. Ryung did good damage early on, zoned out the mutalisks and closed the game out. If we were analyzing this game in a vacuum without taking the player attributes into account, we could say that DRG’s loss was execution-based. His build didn’t account for early aggression from Ryung and he overcommitted to mutalisks, which tanked his gas count. This, in turn, hurt his overall unit composition as he didn’t have enough gas to make the requisite infestors to win the game. While all of these criticisms are accurate, they don’t take into account the specific attributes of the people playing the game. DRG is someone who was in love with mutalisks and fast mobile units with a natural inclination to force himself back into the game through high-pace action and multitasking. In this particular game, the meta and DRG’s natural inclinations went in opposite directions and he ended up making a compromise between the two polarized directions.

So if I were to take DRG’s style and individuality into account, I’d say the mistake he made during this match was that he compromised between playing his own style and playing the meta. Given the player he was playing against, I’d argue that instead of transitioning into infestors, he should have focused more on the mobility game. DRG should have built up lings/banelings, focused on creep spread, and set traps or flanks to catch out Ryung’s army outside of his base. From there he could have used his superior army count to force economic trades with Ryung and either run Ryung over, choke him out economically. If DRG got far enough ahead, he could have then transitioned back into BL/infestor to close out the game. By playing in this manner, DRG could have minimized Ryung’s positional speciality and forced the game into a contest of mechanics and speed.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that DRG did perfectly set up a BL/infestor game against Ryung without taking damage. There was no guarantee that he could have beaten Ryung on that map with that composition regardless given that we saw that exact scenario play out in the same group stage. In the very next round of that group stage, Ryung played against Lee “Curious” Won Pyo on Whirlwind as well. Curious was a far better BL/infestor player than DRG and did not take any damage in the early game. However, once he got to the end-game and pushed out, Ryung punished him. Ryung did not take the head-to-head fight and instead opted for a positional base trade. So when Curious attacked, he got the main three bases of Ryung, but Ryung smartly continued to expand southward. In the meantime, his more mobile army could raze down his base before he could do anything about it. (The counter to this, as it turned out, was making spine crawlers, uprooting them, and moving them with the deathball, but this addition to the strategy wasn’t found until later).

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As I’ve shown, even in the most imbalanced of metagames, there were times when it was better for a player to play to their own style rather than to the meta. The second example I’ll bring up is Lim “Nestea” Jae Duk. The moment BL/infestor era started, Nestea had a massive slump. The reason for this was that Nestea continually lost focus when it came to the end-game fight. The only time he was able to break out of that slump was his run at Iron Squid where he eschewed the BL/infestor style and instead focused on a heavy spine crawler-mutalisks base trade style that emphasized his particular strengths as a player.

MVP.Phoenix and Cave Man Dota

The next example I’ll bring up is the MVP Phoenix squad from Dota2. This lineup consisted of: Pyo “MP” No-a, Kim “QO” Sun Yeob, Lee “Forev” Sang-don, Kim “Febby” Yong-min, and Kim “DuBu” Doo-young. What makes this squad interesting is the context that surrounded their rise to global relevance.

Korea never embraced Dota 2 as an esport. Because of that, the region has very few players, no servers, and a complete lack of Dota history. However, they pulled out some miracle in their 2016 run. At Dota Pit, they beat OG and EG to win the title. At The International 6, they made a top six run and eliminated one of the favorites in the form of OG along the way.

What made this team spectacular was their adherence to their style of play. MVP could have opted into the European or Chinese style of play as was typical of many of the lower tier 2 and tier 3 teams. However, they realized that such doing so would lead to a dead end. They didn’t get to practice against those types of styles as a squad since they were based in the SEA region. This meant that they’d only be poor imitators of far better teams. Instead, they created cave-man Dota. MVP Dota utilized the wild aggressive inclinations of the MVP players and crafted it into a meaningful plan.

While we’ve seen aggressive teams before, in other regions aggressive teams used their team fights to secure objectives, whether that was taking down towers or setting up for Roshan. In the case of MVP, they used won team fights to set up for more team fights. This blistering fast tempo and pace completely caught teams off guard. What made this particular style of play genius for the MVP squad was that their aggression meant that they were often diving into enemy territory so even in the cases where they lost the fight, it was harder for opposing teams to punish them as they weren’t in position to take objectives after a won team fight.

By not playing into the meta and instead focusing on their own individual strengths, MVP Phoenix crafted a style of play that allowed them to pull off incredible upsets that would have been impossible otherwise.

Astralis Redefined the Meta

Astralis are the most dominant team in CS:GO right now, and arguably in the history of the game as well. From April 2018 onward, they have conquered the world through a combination of tactics and teamplay. What makes their rise so extraordinary is that before their era began, they were running against the historical trend of CS:GO.

Prior to 2018, the three CS:GO lineups that largely defined the game as the number one teams were NiP, Fnatic, and FalleN’s LG/SK. NiP and Fnatic were predicated on individual skill and team chemistry while the Brazilians were a balanced mix of skill, teamplay and tactics with one category being emphasized over another depending on their specific lineup.

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A vast majority of teams bought into the NiP/Fnatic system and they tried to emulate that style of play. Teams largely formed along national lines as they crammed together as much talent as they could around a loose tactical system. Unsurprisingly, a majority of these teams failed as they were merely playing into the wheelhouse of the best team’s strengths. For an outsider to take the throne, they either had to play the same game at a higher level or create a paradigm shift using their own individualism.

In 2018, Astralis did just that, using a systemic tactical approach to dominate the field by getting the right set of five players together who believe in the setup. This allowed Astralis to do three things. First, it let Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander utilize any type of tactic as he had every conceivable weapon in his squad. Secondly, the fact that every player bought into the system meant that all five of them bought into the idea of focusing on utility. Finally, their tactical mindset created a level of consistency that the loose systems of the past could not match.

These were all things that the old Astralis and TSM lineups had done in the past, but it all came together after Emil “Magisk” Reif joined the squad. If the team had opted to follow the meta and chose to follow the NiP/Fnatic/SK route, they likely still would have been one of the top teams. However, Astralis went all-in on their structured approach, which has allowed them to redefine the meta in their own image. The reason I bring this particular example up is to show how the conflict of meta and style can play out at the highest level of team esports. If Astralis had just tried to imitate the meta, they’d never have become the most dominant team in CS:GO history.

Season 3 Contenders

The final example I want to look at is from Overwatch’ Season 3 Contenders: EU and Korea. Both regions were in the midst of the GOATs meta and the exact same conflict played out at large for all of the teams. Every team had to figure out what their best chance at victory was, whether they should play GOATs or find a different approach.

Among the different teams at play, two particular teams stood out to me during this time span: Element Mystic and the British Hurricane. Element Mystic polarized their entire team color around the Doomfist of Kim “Sp9rk1e” Yeong-han. The community them for running an inferior composition at the time. However, when you looked at Element Mystic’s lineup, their choice to play the Doomfist was arguably the best one they could have made.

In the group stages of Korean Contenders, two teams stood out above the rest as the best GOATs teams: RunAway and GC Busan Wave. They had the team chemistry and playmakers needed to make the GOATs composition shine. Element Mystic could have either opted into the GOATs battle against squads that were already better at the comp and in terms of roster better suited, or they could try to find their own style of play and try to emphasize their own strengths.

Element Mystic opted for the latter and went all-in on the Doomfist. This style of play caught off GC Busan Wave in the group stages and they were able to run over GEEKSTAR and StormQuake in the playoffs to make it to the finals.

The other example to look at is the British Hurricane from EU Contenders Season 3. While the British Hurricane finished in the ro8 of the season, based off the eye test, they were the second-best team of EU Contenders Season 3 playoffs behind Gigantti. The Hurricane did this by playing around Daniel “Dannedd” Rosdahl’s Doomfist. Like Element Mystic, they opted out of the GOATS mirror and decided to play a style that emphasized the strength of their roster instead. While they lost the series to Gigantti, they were the closest to upsetting the EU Contenders Season 3 Champions.

So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: did the British Hurricane and Element Mystic make the correct decision? Given what I saw, I’d say yes. Both Gigantti and RunAway were playing some of the best GOATs in the world at that point (arguably at a higher level than many of the OWL teams). Given their rosters and the tools they had on hand, I don’t think either squad could have beaten the best teams in their region in a GOATs mirror. By playing into the Doomfist, both squads played an inferior meta, but it fit their natural strengths to a higher degree and gave them a better chance at becoming the best team in their regions. Put another way, if both teams had opted to play GOATs, I’d argue that neither of them could have gone as far as they did in their respective seasons. They didn’t have the players or natural chemistry required to play that style to the highest level and if they opted to play GOATS, both teams would have been worse off.

Meta, Style, and Self

Throughout various games in esports history, we see the conflict between playing for the meta or playing for one’s own style. It is one of the hardest questions to answer as it forces the competitor to have a level of self-awareness and evaluation that a vast majority of people lack. This is no definitive answer as each player or team must find their own way, For myself though, the same lesson appears again and again when I look across the vast array of games and players I’ve covered. The biggest upsets and the greatest dynasties are often the result of a team or player internally finding what makes them different and using that exceptionalism to become the best that they can be.