A week ago, I would not have been writing this. TNC came into the International as a team on the up. Second place at Starladder, third at Galaxy Battles, and a commanding first in the TI7 SEA qualifier. In the latter half of the season they’ve enjoyed a successful surge in strategy following the recruitment of Kips and later 1437 as coach and captain respectively. Accordingly, the team had every reason to be full of belief and confidence as they arrived in Seattle.
OG, on the other hand, have struggled since their victory at the Kiev Major. Patch changes undermined their understanding of the game and they’ve since battled to figure out how they want to approach the game. This is a crucial weakness for a team whose success has often hinged on having a superb understanding of how they want to play, frequently feeling confident enough to signal their plans in the first phase of drafts.
Player for player, OG probably have an advantage over TNC. 1437 and Fly match up fairly evenly, both bringing a lot of experience to the team and both understanding their role very well. Raven is every bit the carry that N0tail is, once the game gets going. But he is a player who often struggles if pressure is applied to him during the laning stage. This is significant because s4 and Jerax are two of the best players alive in their roles, the exact roles responsible for pressuring the enemy safelane.
They’re also superb playmakers. And while the same can be said for Tims and Sam_H, Tims is only a recent breakout of 2016/2017 while Jerax has been the best in the business for that same period. And nobody wins a head-to-head comparison against TI winning, two-time Major winning S4, widely considered to be the smartest Dota player alive by friends and foes alike.
Player wise, the advantage that you might have expected TNC to have is between Kuku and Ana. While Ana has not deserved much of the criticism he’s received this year, it is true that he’s not been a strong laner. He’s tended to make up for this with his fantastic decision-making and teamfighting later on in the game. But since the introduction of an extra creep to the mid lane, winning the lane itself has become more and more important. And Kuku is an excellent lane dominator.
But Dota is not a game of individuals, and as TI7 approached it was clear that TNC had a far stronger sense of identity than OG, usually a decisive factor at this level of play.
The roles have been reversed
In the space of a week, TNC’s confidence has appeared to dwindle. Worse yet, Kuku’s confidence has appeared to dwindle. His two most played heroes during the group stage, QoP and Tinker, both achieved only a 50% win rate. This is significant because these heroes typify his preferred playstyle. They’re the heroes he’s meant to the best on. And the results are not just incidental; Kuku has struggled in his lane much more than anyone would have expected.
Perhaps facing (and getting beaten down by) Sumail in his first game of the tournament led to a knock on his confidence. It’s difficult to know if a player lost confidence and thus performed worse than usual or if the reverse occurred. In any event, TNC’s first match at the main event saw Kuku playing Alchemist and Broodmother. To me, this is a further sign of waning confidence on his part. To be clear, Kuku is not the drafter and the team certainly discusses plans as a whole. But if there is one player in TNC who gets to play the heroes he wants it’s Kuku.
So why do Alchemist and Broodmother suggest a concern? Alchemist is a hero Kuku has plenty of experience on and he’s perfectly capable of playing it well. TNC probably saw iG beating Liquid with it and thought ‘hey, we can do that’. However, it is not a strategy the team has used much recently — it’s only Kuku’s second time in the past six months. And there is a growing tradition of Filipino teams using Alchemist as something of a crutch at big international events. Normally, it’s been a sign that they don’t consider themselves as strong as their opponents.
What’s more, as the Alchemist player, it was on Kuku to be calling the shots, deciding when the team would group up and when they’d farm. And it certainly looked like TNC missed a crucial window in the game. Around the time Sam_H picked up his Blink Dagger TNC had an overwhelming teamfight advantage coupled with an equally overwhelming farm advantage on Kuku.
This felt like the time to make a move, and yet for the most part the team continued to farm. We did see a few attempts to breach the high ground, and credit must be given to LFY for creep-cutting and split-pushing very effectively. That said, it seemed as though Kuku simply wasn’t ready to make the commitment required at the peak of TNC’s advantage. The game was always going to become more about Terrorblade and less about Alchemist the longer it went — so a farming approach surely needed to have a predetermined end.
Things got much worse in game two. Kuku is not a Broodmother player. Sure, he’s played it a few times in the past (though not at all in over a year of pro play) but there’s a difference between playing Broodmother and being a Broodmother player. Broodmother players find ways to apply pressure even against counterpicks (like Bristleback, LFY’s preferred counter in the game). Broodmother players understand which parts of the map to take control of during the mid game. And teams who use Broodmother understand how to force important trade-offs with the hero.
But both Kuku and TNC as a whole looked uncomfortable with the pick. LFY were the team to take an early tower advantage with the Broodmother failing to apply significant pressure to any lane, despite several lane swaps. Subsequently, Kuku was repeatedly picked off while trying to camp the enemy mid lane. It felt clear that this pick was a mistake, and likely one resulting from psychological pressures — compounded by the fact that they’d just lost a very close game.
The bottom line is that Kuku is not playing his comfort heroes, and not showing confidence in the way he’s using the heroes he is playing. If he’s supposed to bring an edge to TNC when facing Ana, this is a huge concern.
On top of this, it’s worrying to see TNC choosing to approach LFY with an Alchemist draft followed by a Naga draft. These are drafts that try to win the game via inevitability rather than playing a whole lot of good old fashioned Dota, something the team usually excels at.
Those familiar with Magic: the Gathering, will know the distinction between ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ strategies. Fair strategies are those with a lot of ‘play’ to them, offering dozens of game-defining decisions and adaptations. Unfair ones are those that sort of automatically win provided the opponent doesn’t have a suitable strategic response. That TNC would opt for the latter, after spending months predominantly excelling at the former, is a confusing choice and one that raises further questions about their current mindset.
And while TNC have shown signs of crumbling, OG look to be on the rise.
Despite narrowly missing top four in their group, OG suffered only one clean defeat — at the hands of a dominant VP side. Obviously, 1–1s are not as good as 2–0s. But you’d rather have a bunch of 1–1s than a few 2–0s and a few 0–2s when you’re headed into a bo3 format. And being better in longer series is hardly new for OG, a team with a brilliant coach able to help the team adapt significantly during any given series.
The green dreamers displayed further signs of improvement, with a commanding win over Infamous. The team’s return to form is best corroborated by a revealing comment made by 7ckingmad in his interview with Cybersport after the group stage.
And some teams have opened our eyes, I can tell you the biggest adjustment was before Game 2 against LFY, where we completely changed our approach to drafting and playing. And coincidence or not, that was probably the best game we’ve played here. We were able to defeat them pretty convincingly Game 2. So hopefully we learn from that.
If lacking direction was OG’s biggest issue coming into the event, then finding it should be a huge boost to the team. It is not uncommon for teams at big events to learn the most from facing the strongest opponents. But there is an immediate contrast here between OG and TNC. OG lost one game against LFY, learnt from it, then returned the favour. TNC, after losing a close game against LFY, responded with a bizarre Broodmother pick and achieved a much more convincing loss as a result. In other words, the losses had the exact opposite effects on the teams — another likely indicator of the relative mental strengths of the teams.
TNC entered TI7 with a strong identity and a lot of confidence. Anything less than a top 8 finish will be an underperformance for them. OG arrived with very little identity and a lot of uncertainty. Despite all the titles under their belt, they were always going to have to fight for a place in the top 8.
In the space of a week, the roles have been reversed. Just like last year, TNC will be the challenger. But unlike last year, they won’t come in on a high but rather the lowest low they have reached all season.