"Awoo! Awoo! Awoo!"
Chants from the roaring crowd heralded the beginning of Game 3 of the Dota 2 Boston Major grand finals. Ad Finem, a Dota team from Greece, had risen from mere qualifier squad to the tournament's Cinderella.
The underdogs went on to fight a drawn-out, hour-long slugfest with two-time major winner OG. A team fight in the Dire's broken base left a window open: a bare Ancient, with only two alive to defend, and Verros "Maybe Next Time" Apostolos left the sole survivor of Ad Finem to land the final blow.
Apostolos knew the throne was low, and the fight had been close. In a moment, he knew what to do.
"When it's times like that in the game, everything just blurs out," Apostolos said. "You're so focused, you don't really know what's happening. My teammates could have been saying something, and I didn't hear it. I was just really focused on the play and really confident that I was gonna do it, so I just went for it."
One final swing of the totem from his Earthshaker brought down OG's Ancient, and with it came even louder chants from Ad Finem's newfound fans. For a brief moment in Boston, everyone was a fan of this team.
"I believe no one expected us to [make the grand finals]," Apostolos said. "Ninety-nine percent didn't expect us to do that. But that was one of the greatest moments I've experienced."
Although OG ultimately won the Boston Major crown, Ad Finem nearly took the heavily favored champs the full five-game distance, losing 3-1. It was Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed. No fighter's goal is to simply last the round, though; Apostolos and Ad Finem want to not just play the best but beat the best, and they almost did.
To know Ad Finem's climb to the top in Boston, you have to understand their roots. For the Greek squad, hailing from a region not known for producing Dota talent compared to their geographical neighbors, the journey to the grand finals started months prior in the Manila Major qualifiers.
Twice, Ad Finem was snubbed from attending a Valve event. For Manila, it was a 3-2 loss to Team Empire, and at the International, a 2-1 loss to Escape Gaming. Each time, Ad Finem was only one game short, a single map from seizing their shot. Other teams would have cracked and crumbled under the pressure, swapping out players and reorganizing in an effort to fix unseen problems. But for Ad Finem, it was simply a matter of time and experience.
"The pressures of getting through officials, when the stakes are high, that helps you grow," Apostolos said. "That's what we were missing, and still are missing, in comparison to other teams: experience. When the stakes are high, you have to stay cool and not joke or something."
Ad Finem continued honing their play, gradually moving up in the standings with every international appearance. A 7-8th place at Summit 5 led to a 5-8th at the FACEIT Invitational, then a 5-6th at Northern Arena BEAT, leading all the way into the major in Boston, where Ad Finem stood victorious over 14 other teams in second place. It was a tiring sequence of events, with the team traveling, competing and scrimming, often away from home. Burnout was a real concern.
"After we won the EU qualifiers for the Boston Major, we were really burned out," Apostolos said. "There were misunderstandings. We didn't want to play a tournament. We wanted to just chill and take a week off, but we had to do another tournament, DreamLeague. We had to play a lot of games there and were just really burned out and performed at not even 50 percent of what we should have."
Ad Finem finally made the cut for a Valve event, the Boston Major, and even took second place. Still, Apostolos is not satisfied.
"Losing always sucks, so even though we're second and I'm really proud of what we did, our goal is becoming the best team. So I'm still not 100 percent satisfied with what we did," he said. "I still believe that we should have played better. We didn't play as good as we should have. Maybe it was the pressure, I don't know, but we should have performed better in the finals."
A good deal of the work done to reach the grand finals was adjusting to a new play style. Apostolos characterized Ad Finem as an aggressive team, one that doesn't give the opponents time to breathe. Every lead is pushed to its limits. Although effective, Ad Finem's aggression can be a double-edged sword.
"That's something that has backfired a lot of times because when you play so aggressive, it's a high-risk, high-reward style of play," Apostolos said. "If you're ahead and play a bad fight, even if you're ahead, they outplay you and you lose a fight, you give it all back. That's something that has sometimes -- a lot of times, actually -- cost us games."
Prior to the major, the team worked on new strategies and drafts, including Alchemist-based compositions. Having the ability to switch it up and play a defensive style helped Ad Finem win a couple times, according to Apostolos. Against the giants of Boston, it certainly helped. An Alchemist draft was what beat Newbee, securing the Game 3 upset that launched Ad Finem's climb through the bracket.
But Ad Finem is still known as an aggressive, fast team, and in that sense, Apostolos is the spearhead of the team's offensive.
New role for supports
Apostolos made a name for himself on several heroes at the major. Whether it was his Bounty Hunter picking off another courier, the Mirana that completely shut down lanes and rotations or an Earthshaker making the final swing of the game, Apostolos displayed clever rotations and unabashed aggression.
A greater shift in Dota 2 has been taking place for a while now, where four-role supports babysit less and become playmakers in their own right. OG's Jesse "JerAx" Vainikka, Virtus.Pro's Ilya "Lil" Ilyuk and EG's Ludwig "Zai" Wahlberg are examples of players using this new tactic, as is Apostolos. Discussing the likes of Ilyuk, Apostolos went into more detail on the expanding roles of four-role supports.
"[Ilyuk] is really good, mechanically skilled, and they know he's going to have an impact on the game," Apostolos said. "Same as us, but we don't give so much farm. Sometimes, like with Mirana, I'm going to farm a lot and become a core, and sometimes I'm going to be a nuisance as the enemy team, annoy them as much as I possibly can and delay them."
Across multiple games, Apostolos elicited cheers from the crowd, picking off couriers and punishing cores who thought they could jungle safely on their side of the river. Preventing teams from getting items that could combat Ad Finem's aggression, Apostolos made use of mobile, less cool down-reliant heroes to pressure complacent farmers in a play style he believes is being shaped by the ever-changing meta.
"It's the game enabling us to really become a core and become a threat," he said. "If you're really good at your position, you should be able to become a threat, even if you're a four position or a five or whatever."
Learning the new patch
Two European teams stood at the top of the Dota pantheon in Boston. Although OG took home their third major victory, Ad Finem dealt incredible damage to the old guard of the EU scene on their way to the top, surmounting Team Liquid and Team Secret in the qualifiers -- two teams that would have been greatly favored prior to The International 6.
"... even though we're second and I'm really proud of what we did, our goal is becoming the best team. So I'm still not 100 percent satisfied with what we did." Verros "Maybe Next Time" Apostolos
"There's definitely been a switch of power," Apostolos said. "It's not like it used to be. Another reason why that is, is that for the next major, there's going to be a different major qualifier for CIS and Europe. Teams with guaranteed spots before now are going to have to fight for it."
While those powerhouse squads that fell in the Boston qualifiers are working on new rosters, Ad Finem will stay intact for the coming spring major in Kiev.
"I don't think it crossed anybody's mind," Apostolos said. "We've stuck through so much together, so many disappointing losses, right on the verge of qualifying. We didn't think of disbanding or switching players then, so why would we ever do that now?"
Instead, the Greek squad will head back to the lab. A new Dota patch means a great deal of homework needs to be done, though Apostolos said he will take some time to spend with family, friends and his girlfriend. Still, the patch is flitting around his mind.
"When you get away from the game, at least for me, I have even more thirst to play," Apostolos said. "Now I'm gonna start grinding a lot, have even more will to start playing and find out how the patch works, to try everything out."
A great deal of work will be required for Ad Finem to get their legs in the new patch. According to Apostolos, a player needs to play at least 300 public games to find out at least the first 30 percent of how the metagame is shaping up in a new patch. The team's goal will be to do their homework and then reconvene to start working out the other 70 percent.
"Then we have to come together and discuss, theorycraft a lot and play a lot of different strategies," Apostolos said. "But most of all, I believe that now that we saw what it's like to play against the top teams in front of a big crowd and seen how it is, we should stay humble. And secondly, we should strive to get back on that stage and next time become the winners -- instead of second place."