Cloud 9, the spirit of Wings

The defending champions will not be attending TI7 but if there’s one team that will carry the torch for them it’s Cloud 9. Wings were fundamentally defined by their innovation and, in a similar vein, creativity is the most powerful weapon in C9’s arsenal.

One important nuance must be confronted immediately. Wings played the most unique heroes of any team at TI6. C9, in contrast, played the least heroes of any team in the TI7 NA qualifier. Is this not the opposite of creativity? No, playing a lot of heroes is diversity. Often conflated with creativity, diversity is something altogether different. For example, VP displayed immense diversity in their win at the Summit but this was not a product of creativity. They wanted to silence critics by making a point about the depth of their hero pools.

For diversity to reflect creativity, the motivation for such varying picks needs to be a genuine belief in various (unconventional) ideas. Diversity can be a result of creativity, and in the case of Wings it clearly was, but there are many other ways for creativity to manifest itself. Ultimately, the creativity of Wings was the result of rejecting common assumptions about the game and confronting each decision — about picks, items, or playstyle — on its own merits. No doubt a taxing process, they showed that not relying on heuristics can give you small advantages with each decision which eventually add up.

This approach to the game is very apparent in C9 as well. Of course, this is nothing new. EternalEnvy and Aui in particular have a long history of viewing the game as a blank canvas and trying to figure out the best ways to win. Easy examples can be found in the weekly reddit threads displaying shock (and disapproval lol) at a strange item build Envy used in a pub. But a rejection of prevalent norms is nowhere more obvious than in the case of farming efficiency. This is a team that will spend weeks theorycrafting and testing which item builds and farming patterns will best improve their economy.

And this is another fundamental similarity between C9 and Wings. For the one common thread in all of the TI champions’ drafts last year was some explicit idea about how to outfarm their opponents. This could mean picking gold-cheating heroes like Alchemist, Doom, or Bounty Hunter, aiming to kill tier 1 towers faster than their opponent à la Drow, unusual (then) itemization like Drum first Batrider, or simply choosing compositions that can make better use of the map’s resources. Wings had an overtly economic approach to the game.

You might think this is trivial, that every team will try to get richer than their opponents to win. But there’s an important distinction to be made here. Most teams try to gain some advantage in the more general sense — a laning advantage, a map advantage, a timing advantage — and succeeding in doing so will naturally lead to a gold advantage. Gold is one of many ways in which they try to get ahead. Here I’m talking about a deliberate focus on gold itself as primary, the type of advantage trusted to win you the game.

The difficulty for this version of C9 is that their old ideas about efficiency are mostly outdated. Current meta picks like Clockwerk and Nightstalker coupled with the existence of shrines makes split-pushing easier to punish than it was a few years ago. People are also just smarter about understanding the movements involved — they’ll suspect that Aui is halfway across the map hiding in trees. More importantly, the jungle has been super nerfed, meaning it’s usually inefficient to spend too much of your time in there.

Thus, in order to force a gold advantage you need to look elsewhere. For the current C9 it looks like the solution to this problem is mostly in the draft. One way or another, this team is committed to having three heroes that farm a lot. Most teams vary between two farmers and three farmers depending on the game. The team also ensures that two, if not all three, of their farmers can push waves out quickly, absorbing farm a lot quicker and thus taking the reduced jungle farm at no opportunity cost.

In the vast majority of their drafts one of their support players has a level 10 or level 15 gold talent. Meanwhile, the team had at least one Hand of Midas in every game of the qualifier bar one, including fairly uncommon pickups by EE on Dusa and Razor. One game even saw 6 position Pieliedie with a once-in-a-lifetime Midas purchase.

With the exception of faith_bian, none of the players on Wings were the best in their position in 2016. C9 are in a similar position. They’re not going to beat you by being technically better on a one-to-one basis, they’re going to beat you by being smarter than you. Aui will have a bigger impact than your 4 because he’s spent weeks analysing his own roaming patterns. Pieliedie is gonna die in very clever ways. Envy is gonna Rapier your ass. They’re going to kill Roshan a lot.

And in doing so, they will keep the spirit of Wings alive.

If you missed the first two previews you can find EG’s here and Fnatic’s here.

Anthony is a former Dota 2 coach and commentator. He is currently studying towards his Masters in Public Health.