The underperformance and hesitant first steps of newly minted Counter-Strike: Global Offensive rosters at DreamHack Masters Marseille could, to an extent, be excused and chalked up to inexperience. Players had come off the back of a break, systems of play still clearly needed tinkering and there was little data for tacticians to use to analyze opponents.
For many, the April 18-22 event was uncharted waters. IEM Sydney 2018, though, might host many of the same teams from Marseille but not as many caveats for failure.
The replacement of Dust II for Cobblestone into the IEM Sydney map pool after Valve's announcement on April 20 will cause a significant change nonetheless. The squads had only a bit over a week to prepare on the new map, making it a more volatile battleground that will, as Joshua "steel" Nissan said in a video on his YouTube page, "favor the underdogs."
Steel argued that even if the favored team is "stronger on every other map, [the addition of Dust II] gives the weaker team the opportunity to play it and perhaps upset the better team because they get lucky or the other team doesn't have the reps [playing Dust II], or the understanding of [the map layout]."
Cobblestone wasn't a specialty map for many teams, with most looking to work on the more dynamic and popular picks of Mirage or Inferno. For some teams, though, the removal of Cobblestone represents the removal of a useful pocket pick in their pool. Fnatic, Space Soldiers, MVP PK and SK Gaming all had Cobblestone as one of their most-picked maps and highest one with their highest win rates, and the exit of Cobblestone will hamper those teams' flexibility in vetoes.
But the addition of Dust II doesn't come without historical context. SK and Fnatic both have cores of players who have been historically dominant on the map and produced legendary matches on it that defined eras of play. Space Soldiers also has a looser, more duel-heavy style that might actually be more effective in the aim-focused areas of Dust II than in Cobblestone.
The mind games these teams can play in map vetoes will be a driving narrative in Sydney.
As pointed out by many analysts and commentators on Twitter, as well, the removal of Cobblestone will massively benefit IEM Sydney attendees Astralis, FaZe Clan, mousesports and Natus Vincere. All of these sides either struggled massively on the map or banned it outright before its removal from the pool. For Astralis and Na`Vi particularly, two teams on upward trajectories going into Sydney, a bolstered map pool is just another steppingstone to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
Changed map pool or not, though, Astralis will undoubtedly be the team to beat in Sydney. At Marseille, Astralis flaunted one of the most well-rounded, cohesive displays of individual dominance and macro decision-making in recent memory. Its sole tournament win was so impressive that there is no questioning its ascension into the world No. 1 spot despite only a single LAN result to go off of. By virtue of the team's two biggest contenders in FaZe and mousesports both suffering crises of confidence and form, Astralis is not only looking to be the best in the world but to do so by a large margin.
Astralis will be playing in a different tournament format and against an array of dark horses such as Fnatic and Na`Vi who can deploy Dust II to hamper the favored team's run. If the Danes can transcend these caveats while maintaining their spectacular level of play, they will have a chance, yet again, to become titans of the game. Astralis has not won back-to-back premier trophies since it did so with victories in the ECS Season 2 Finals in late 2016 and ELEAGUE Major at start of 2017.
Cloud9, SK, FaZe, and mousesports will all be looking to bounce back from their relatively poor showings in Marseille. While Cloud9 can boast a best-of-three victory over FaZe in the group stage of Marseille, the North American squad looked disparate against a solid Gambit Esports in the quarterfinals. C9's individual firepower, especially that of Tyler "skadoodle" Latham, looked good after the break, but the team lacked T-side depth to leverage its individual prowess into big results. Hopefully time off will allow new in-game leader Pujan "FNS" Mehta to fill out Cloud9's strat book and more efficiently use the powerful pieces at his disposal.
SK, having to now transition to English voice comms with Jake "Stewie2K" Yip on the team, will look to better integrate the former Cloud9 star into its infamously tight structure of play.
"When I first joined, it was pretty confusing for me because I'm not used to their system," Stewie2K said in an interview with HLTV in Marseille. "I didn't get a lot of explanations or direction, and it somewhat felt like they expected me to just know how to play in that system. In some scenarios, I know what to do, but there are also other times when I'm lost, so that's what we've been working out in practice."
SK enters this event as the defending champion after its 3-1 victory over FaZe this time last year at IEM Sydney 2017.
Both FaZe and mousesports will also need to look beyond the direct headshotting and clutching ability of their star players if they want to contest Astralis at IEM Sydney. IEM Sydney could be the nail in the coffin for both sides -- or an opportunity to prove that Marseille was a one-off.
Other dark horses populate the event, too. Sydney will be the first LAN for the new-look NRG Esports, the hottest roster full of fresh talent to come out of North American Counter-Strike in months. With star Bulgarian AWPer Cvetelin "CeRq" Dimitrov in stellar form, IEM Sydney is NRG's chance to become bigger than its online reputation. The up-and-comers have the toughest first matchup in the tournament against Astralis, but the lower bracket could potentially be where these players prove themselves as a legit international threat.
IEM Sydney 2018 is an event some people will try to mask with the asterisk of a short-notice map pool change. Don't be fooled, though. The event is a validating platform for the greatest teams of 2018 to either prove their worth or fall by the wayside.
Results on Australian soil could very well form the basis of high-profile roster moves and slumps in the coming months. It will be a battleground that defines a tournament-dense spring.