Does Astralis 7-man Roster add Strategic Depth?
It has been two months since Astralis started to implement their plans for a CS:GO team with multiple bench players. At the beginning of the experiment, it looked like the new bench players were more placeholders than rotation players, as core players like Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander and Andreas "Xyp9x" Hojsleth had to take a break from competition to deal with burnout, and Astralis needed anyone to fill out the roster. This was particularly true with Jacob "JUGi" Rask Hansen, an AWPer who at best we can say had a lacklustre career for the past two to three years.
As time went on though, Astralis recruited more notable players like Patrick "es3tag" Hansen and Lucas "Bubzkji" Andersen. With the addition of Bubzkji, Astralis dropped JUGi faster than BLAST dropped NEOM. Finally, gla1ve has returned to active duty, and with Xyp9x potentially returning, it is now time to consider the strategic implications of Astralis' 7-man rotation.
The three core issues: Leadership, Player Fit, Intangibles
When Astralis announced their 6+ man roster, it sparked a lot of theory crafting of how exactly such a roster would work. The most common ideas that floated around were dividing lineups based on maps, using substitutions to manage burnout, or using competition for spots to motivate players to continue practising. All of those issues are important, but as I've watched Astralis across the last two months, the three biggest strategic implications that Astralis will have to answer is their leadership, player fit, and the intangibles.
Leadership: The Magisk and gla1ve "rotation"
When Astralis first announced the addition of bench players, they tried to sell the idea that everyone was to be equal. As Danny "zonic" Sorensen put it in an HLTV interview, "es3tag will be a part of the team on equal terms with everybody else." Equality sounds nice in the abstract, but in practice, it is impossible. In gla1ve's particular case, he is the greatest leader in CS:GO history. No one can fill his role, and we saw the effects of that when Emil "Magisk" Reif had to become the in-game leader when gla1ve took a break.
Astralis' results dropped dramatically after gla1ve took a break, and Magisk had to become the in-game leader. To be clear, this isn't a knock against Magisk as he was given an extraordinarily hard job. He had to become the in-game leader, swap roles, and try to captain a team that was missing both gla1ve and Xyp9x as individual players, while having JUGi and Marco "Snappi" Pfeiffer as replacements. Contextually speaking, I thought he did fine.
The essential problem though is the difference in level between Magisk and gla1ve's ability as an in-game leader. In the three tournaments where Magisk was the in-game leader, he used an individualistic zoning style of play. Astralis got their individual players into specific areas at specific times to make individual plays, and then play off that. It still had a good level of execution and thought, but it was uni-dimensional and relied on player skill more than tactics or team play.
In contrast to that, gla1ve can use the same type of zoning offence, but adds a level of depth that makes it hard to read what he will do next. We saw this in his first game back against compLexity on Train.
In the 4th, 7th, and 11th rounds, gla1ve called for two-man pressure down ivy. In the first set, he used the pressure to catch the B players off guard with a contact hit from upper-B. He tried the same tactic in the 7th, and when that failed, he decided to adapt the tactic later on in the half. In a typical round, the CT-side defence try to pressure popdog and T-con in the mid-round to get force fights, get info, and figure out how they want to setup their crossfire defence. In compLexity's case, they particularly like this style of defence as it utilises their individual skill as fraggers. gla1ve seemed to read this as he had the two-man pressure down ivy hit a faster timing which put Nicolai 'dev1ce' Reedtz in a position to get a pick on the hinge support player of the CT-side defence. From there, gla1ve called for a pop flash to clear and trade T-con, and then used a smoke to bypass the player at ebox and create multiple angles of attack as his team spread out for the split.
This is only a single sequence of a single style that gla1ve can run. Outside of that, gla1ve uses fast plays, slow plays, mid-round calls, changes of pace, isolations, zones, and more to break down the offence. Given everything I've laid out, it's pretty clear that while Astralis might say everyone is equal, as a leader gla1ve is more equal than the others. Strategically and tactically speaking, no other player or leader in the squad can provide the level of depth or versatility that gla1ve can. While Magisk has proven he can lead when gla1ve needs a break, when push comes to shove, Astralis will have gla1ve be the primary in-game leader.
Player Fit: Es3tag, Bubzkji, and Xyp9x
The second strategic implication to consider is player style and fit. There are a multitude of potential lineups, so we need to narrow the scope. I'm going to look at the strategic implications of player fit by looking at the styles of three players: es3tag, Bubzkji and Xyp9x. I chose es3tag and Bubzkji as they are the newest additions and I picked Xyp9x as he is currently benched, so Astralis has to fill the gap he has left behind.
Es3tag and Bubzkji were star players of their former teams, es3tag for Heroic, and Bubzkji for MAD Lions. Both es3tag and Bubzkji played higher fragging positions on CT-side (outer yard on Nuke, mid on Mirage, outer on Train, etc.). They differentiate on the T-side as es3tag played in the pack on Heroic while Bubzkji was MAD Lion's playmaker and lurker more often than not.
In contrast to them, Xyp9x is the support player of Astralis. He plays all of the low-fragging roles and plays a far more passive role on the T-side. This means that while es3tag and Bubzkji are better star players than Xyp9x, in the context of Astralis squad, they are a worse fit. Their skillset and style create imbalances in Astralis that other teams can exploit.
The most obvious example of this is Train. In the last two outings at EPL 12 on Train. In the first week of matches, Astralis played against compLexity and FaZe. Against compLexity, Astralis fielded Bubzkji where Astralis narrowly lost 17-19. Against FaZe, Astralis played es3tag where they won 16-5. You can see the obvious imbalance on the CT-side position as no one on Astralis can play the B-site like Xyp9x.
When Bubzkji was playing, Astralis had gla1ve play the B-site anchor. While this fortified their outer yard defence with Bubzkji's skill, it created a weakness on the inner site. On the surface, this weakness seems to have disappeared when Astralis played FaZe on Train as they won the half 12-3. While the score was good, there were strange imbalances in Astralis' defence that makes me think Astralis were hiding the Xyp9x-shaped hole in inner. The biggest indicator of this was dev1ce's AWP.
Dev1ce made his name as a versatile mobile AWPer, and one of his greatest strengths is that he avoids creating obvious tendencies in where he AWPs. You can't say that about his game against FaZe as he focused heavily on defending the B-site. Dev1ce played around the inner site in the 7th, 10th, 11th, and 13th rounds, dev1ce was AWPing at the inner-site, and it was obvious enough that by the 11th round, Helvijs "broky" Saukants predicted his early pick from upper band posted up on him for an early pick.
It seems to me that even though es3tag and Bubzkji are good players, they cannot play the exact same way that Xyp9x can. While Xyp9x is the most extreme example, I suspect that similar issues will pop up with the other players as well as no two players are alike, and they cannot be swapped and interchanged without affecting the entire balance of the whole.
The intangibles are harder to analyse, as we are looking far into the future where LANs become the norm again. However, it's worth considering as it gets to the heart of the matter. When I think of Astralis, the two biggest intangibles that come to my mind are preparation and peaking at the right moments. In terms of preparation, no squad has ever been as good as Astralis' G.O.A.T. (dev1ce, dupreeh, Magisk, gla1ve, Xyp9x) lineup. Additionally, no other lineup has ever been as good as those five at peaking at the right moments, which is why they have won the most Majors of any lineup in history. Es3tag and Bubzkji are good, but neither are tested at the highest levels of play, endurance, and pressure. We don't know if they will rise to the occasion or crack.
Another thing we have to consider is that peaking at the right moments requires that the team keeps up the chemistry that they have, and it seems like that will be a much harder task to accomplish if players keep rotating in and out. We saw how badly Astralis slumped during the BLASTralis period due to ring rust, and if one of the G.O.A.T. lineup is subbed out for too long, it could hurt the chemistry of Astralis' best lineup at a crucial moment.
There and Back Again
As we've gone through each of the strategic implications: leadership, player fit, and intangibles, there is an overarching theme. Namely that while es3tag and Bubzkji are good and that while Astralis can technically rotate around all seven players in various iterations of lineups, strategically it doesn't beat out Astralis' G.O.A.T. lineup.
So what does this mean for Astralis in the future? I suspect that Astralis will continue experimenting with different variations regardless of the fact that the original 5 is the best version of themselves, as rotating players gives Astralis more leeway and flexibility in dealing with player slumps or burnout. If es3tag or Bubzkji reaches the next level of play, they could potentially add an entirely new dynamic to the team we haven't seen. While the idea of a 7-man roster is intriguing, it doesn't add much strategic depth or threat compared to the G.O.A.T. lineup. If all things are equal (burnout and player form), at the end of the day, when the chips are down and with everything is on the line, Astralis should field the G.O.A.T. lineup - as it's the greatest team we've ever seen.
Images via DreamHack | ELEAGUE