...and why they might still be the best team in the world.

20:00, 13 Apr 2020

Na`Vi won IEM Katowice and catapulted themselves to the top of CS:GO. Since then the world has changed as CS:GO has gone from LAN to online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This transition was particularly rough for Na`Vi as the core of the team hadn’t played in an online series in years. Na`Vi finished fourth at ESL Proleague EU Season 11. It was a stark contrast to their victory at IEM Katowice 2020. Where IEM Katowice showcased all of Na`Vi’s strengths at their best, EPL EU 11 showcased the strategic and tactical limitations of the Na`Vi squad.

Contextual Factors to Consider

Before I break down the strategic and tactical limitations of Na`Vi, we first need to consider the contextual situations of the games. All games are now online and online games do not affect players equally. There are technical aspects like time, ping, and mental condition. Veteran players who know how to deal with pressure can use that difference to take victories that would otherwise be impossible (Jung “Mvp” Jong Hyun’s entire 2012 career in SC2 is a testament to this). On the other side of the equation, there are players like Ismailcan “XANTARES” Dortkardes are brilliant online, but cannot transition that play to LAN. 

Another factor to consider is the EPL EU 11 format. While Na`Vi finished fourth place in the tournament, that is solely based on the rules of the tournament. By the end of the second round-robin phase, Na`Vi, Astralis, and Mouz all went 3-2. While Astralis and Mouz have a better round differential, this isn’t a concrete evaluation of skill difference between the teams. After all Astralis beat Mouz, Mouz beat Na`Vi, and Na`Vi beat Astralis. In a different set of tie-breaking rules or in a situation where tiebreakers were played, we could have seen Na`Vi pass through this stage. 

Even given this context though, Na`Vi did have flaws in their play. Flaws that both Mouz and Fnatic exploited in the second phase round robin.

The Mouz and Fnatic Game Plans

Mouz and Fnatic are completely different styles of team. Mouz is a mixed international squad filled with skilled players and brought together by Finn “karrigan” Andersen’s leadership. Mouzy is a hybrid between individual skill, tactics, and strategy. Karrigan uses a wide variety of tools to exploit strategic weaknesses he sees in the defense. After studying the roles, tendencies, and form of the opponent, he uses a combination of individualistic dueling, cutting flanks, executes, adaptations, and gamesmanship to lead his squad to victory.

Fnatic are a traditional Swedish team that like to use team play and individual skill as their bread and butter. Maikil “Golden” Selim brings this together with a fast and loose calling style. While not as comprehensive, his system gets the most out of his players as they are in their best respective roles. 

The Mouz and Fnatic styles are disparate from each other and this led to some different approaches. Mouz found holes in Na`Vi’s playstyle to exploit, while Fnatic looked for common dueling areas to let their individual players shine. What was especially surprising though wasn’t the differences between how Mouz and Fnatic played against Na`Vi, but the similarities. 

While each team used different tools, the overarching theme was the same. To beat Na`Vi’s T-side you have to deny them the entry duels they want, let them run down the clock while Na`Vi use up their utility, and then force Na`Vi to do a last-minute hit onto a site.

s1mple

Mouz’s CT-side Strategy

Mouz used this strategy on the CT-sides of both Nuke and Dust2. On Nuke, Mouz tried to avoid direct firefights at the beginning of rounds. Instead they played a more passive style, used their utility to control the rotations and then setup crossfires and forced Na`Vi to win at the end of each round through brute force. 

If this sounds familiar to you, it is because it’s akin to the gameplay that Karrigan used with FaZe back when he was in control of that team. The difference is that Kirill “Boombl4” Mikhailov doesn’t have karrigan’s ability to read or manipulate the rotations of the CT-side over the half. So where karrigan’s FaZe could still surprise opponents or setup isolated trades, Boombl4’s Na`Vi often needs to rely on their sheer firepower and trading potential to win out their rounds. Given Na`Vi’s ridiculous firepower though, that is usually all they need. In this particular game, I believe FaZe were in the right positions, but Na`Vi’s raw firepower won the trades anyway. In the end though, Mouz capitalized on a few mistakes from Na`Vi and clinched the map. 

While not that effective on Nuke, Mouz’s game plan worked wonders on Dust2. On that map, Mouz’s primary default was an initial 3-2 with David “frozen” Cernansky rotating back from the A-defense and moving over to the B-site after the initial stages of the round. This default gave Mouz the stability they needed to hold any fast rushes out long, but once that risky stage of the round was over, they used utility and passive positions to deny Na`Vi any easy duels around short or the long doors. After Na`Vi failed to get any sort of opening picks going, they went for B-to-mid splits at the end of the round and ended up running into triple stacks. Na`Vi only caught on to this in the final rounds of the half.

Mouz finds holes on the T-side

Another big thing to consider was how Mouz exploited Na`Vi’s CT-side on Nuke. Throughout the last few months, Mouz have slowly started making Robin “ropz” Kool more of an opening duelist. While he doesn’t take traditional duelist spots, he has become one of Mouz’s best and most consistent weapons at getting opening duels. On Nuke in particular, Mouz like to have Ropz find opening picks at squeak door early in the round.

Na`Vi seemed to anticipate this tactic as they consistently had a player down in vents and/or main. The one time Mouz used ropz as an opening dueler in the half, Na`Vi shut it down. What’s interesting is that Mouz didn’t use ropz as their point man in this game. Instead they shifted gears as they used a double lurker strategy throughout the half. This exploited a number of vulnerabilities that Na`Vi had throughout the half. In the 5th round, frozen lurker into main and caught Denis “electronic” Sharipov. Karrigan consistently found himself in good positions whenever he lurked out into yard.

By the end of the half, Karrigan had created a mental anchor that weighed in Na`Vi’s mind about the potential risks of someone lurking out in yard. So when Mouz threw the outer yard nades in the 15th round, Egor “flamie” Vasilev rotated outside at heaven to get info and Mouz timed their hit to take advantage of this and win the round.

Fnatic one step ahead of the Banana Game

In the first game between Na`Vi and Fnatic, Fnatic looked like they were on the verge of losing as they had gone 4-11 on their T-side. Despite that, Fnatic made the comeback, largely due to their banana control. By taking control of banana, Fnatic were consistently able to rotate the correct amount of players to the A or B site. Fnatic kept banana control for so long because they were one step ahead of Na`Vi for almost the entire half.

The banana game unfolded like this. In the 20th round, electronic rushed banana and died by himself, so in the 21st, electronic and boombl4 rushed down banana to win the trade and the round. Fnatic then used a bunch of molotovs from top mid and banana to take it. Na`Vi realized that they needed to have banana control to win easier T-rounds, but so did Fnatic. So in the 24th round, Fnatic started using HE stacks at the beginning of rounds to chunk the Na`Vi players and then stall them with the rest of their utility towards the top of banana. This seemed to fluster the Na`Vi players as they messed up their utility and had to take mid control dry, whereupon Fnatic punished them with a pop flash play. 

By the 26th round, Na`Vi started to play a much cleaner game, but it was too little too late. One bad flash in the 27th caught electronic blind when Na`Vi were doing a B hit which let Golden get the first free kill, let him reset for the second, and let Fnatic rotate over to win the round.

S1mple hugging.

Fnatic’s outer yard duel

The biggest difference between Fnatic and Mouz was how they approached yard on Nuke. On the CT-side Mouz played a more passive style, while on the T-side they abused rotations.  In Fnatic’s case, they had Ludvig “Brollan” Brolin go out and win duels against electronic on the T-side and have Jesper “JW” Wecksell cause havoc on the CT-side.

While not as strategically intense as Mouz’s gameplan, the results were just as effective. What’s more it shows a clear flaw in Na`Vi’s gameplan, an overreliance on firepower. Electronic is one of the best players in the world, but he isn’t s1mple. S1mple is a god, while Electronic is a mortal. Electronic’s consistency will never be rock solid as his role is too volatile for that. Another problem is that electronic isn’t so far ahead of his peers that other star players can’t beat him at his own game. Many of the top teams have players that are close to his level or can outright beat him depending on the day. Players like: Nikola “NiKo” Kovac, Havard “rain” Nygaard, Jonathan “EliGE” Jablonowski, and Nemanja “huNter-” Kovac are all near or around his level. In the case of NiKo, NiKo would likely be the favourite in that particular matchup.

If electronic is having an average or bad day, Na`Vi lose out on a lot of their opening picks, 5v4s, and map information. He is a key element that helps Na`Vi unlock the map and with him out of the picture, they need to rely more on Kirill “Boombl4” Mikhalov to get that information (Boombl4 while one of the best fragging in-game leaders is more inconsistent than electronic) or for s1mple to go supernova.

A lack depth in strategy or tactics

In these two series in particular, I was struck by two things that Na`Vi severely lacks. The first is strategic adjustment. When Na`Vi played Mouz, they were unable to adjust their CT-side default to deal with the double lurking style that Karrigan used. This problem cropped up two more times: once in the Dust2 map against Mouz and again vs Fnatic on Inferno. In both instances, Na`Vi failed to read how the CT-side was playing until the final few rounds of the half where it was too late to mount a comeback. 

The other issue is tactical depth. Na`Vi are unable to create T-sides where they can force the CT-side to adjust to them. This is an element of their play that has existed in them since Boombl4 has become the leader and as he is still young in the role, we will have to see how Na`Vi evolves in these aspects.

Na`Vi could still be the best in the world

Na`Vis victory at IEM Katowice catapulted the team into contention status. In terms of firepower they are the best in the world. S1mple is the greatest player in CS:GO history and the s1mple/electronic duo is the best star pairing in the game. What’s more, Na`Vi seem to have a good matchup against Astralis as they’ve beaten Astralis three times now: at BLAST, at Katowice, and at EPL EU 11 (though EPL being online, it’s up to the reader to decide how much relevance to give it).

Given all of that, Na`Vi should be the best team in the world, but their strategic and tactical flaws limit Na`Vi’s ceiling. Teams like Fnatic and Astralis can get away with having slightly worse form on the day as they can use teamplay or tactics to compensate for the difference. Na`Vi cannot as they need their firepower to blitz through the top teams and to be fair to them, I’d argue that they have the best firepower in the world. 

While I’ve criticized Na`Vi for their lack of strategic and tactical depth, when you look at their competition, their outlook is fairly positive. There are only three teams that have the right combination of tactics, team play, and firepower to beat Na`Vi consistently: Mouz, Fnatic, and Astralis. Among those three, Astralis’ firepower has been fairly inconsistent and Na`Vi are winning that head-to-head. Outside of them, I’d favour Na`Vi against everyone else: G2, FaZe, Vitality, Liquid, EG, or 100 Thieves.

All things considered, Na`Vi seem to have the best chance against the entire field and given that context, they may still be the best team in the world. 

Images courtesy of ESL

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