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With ESL One Hamburg behind us, all eyes are on the Kuala Lumpur major. Now that introductory tournaments of the season are out of the way, the relative ranking of teams is taking shape. With sixteen rosters from across the world, the KL major acts as a beacon to close the year out with one squad standing above the rest.
So which team will walk away with a trophy? Who will end with little more than tough losses? Does anyone have the potential to upset favorites? As a preview for the major, I’ve made a tier list (based on observations, results, and my own opinions) that ranks the different teams against each other and suggests what to expect from them.
Teams in this tier have a serious shot at winning the whole event. Versatility, lack of flaws, and at least one area that no other team can match brings them to the top.
Secret’s latest iteration has rapidly improved over the last month and a half. Their win at Hamburg silenced notions of ineffective drafting. More importantly, their powerhouse of star players (Nisha, MidOne, YapzOr) elevate with each event they play. This meteoric rise has emboldened the team and at times, they play with a cockiness that creates openings for the opponent to get an important pick off or two. Confidence can be a double-edged sword, afterall.
Secret has shown a strong understanding both of how to win all stages of the game and how to maximize every chance to come back from a disadvantage. Their creative approach and stride in form have Puppey eyeing another first place finish at a Valve-backed event.
The Paparazi/Ori duo has never been this good. Although Vici couldn’t close it out at ESL One, they certainly looked like an unquestionable second place. Hard to beat down in the early game and extremely difficult to deal with in the mid game, the Chinese juggernauts have an unparalleled ability to fight. Their success with engagements, even when playing from behind makes for some of the most entertaining games to watch. Overconfidence on this matter does show a sore spot for the group, as they simply don’t temper hot-headedness enough when on the back foot, occasionally leading to a string of bad engagements and sealing their defeat.
Drafting is also a positive for Vici. Not only are they versatile, but they have a knack for reading opponents and counter picking. Perhaps this helps to colour their loss against an unpredictable Team Secret. This nature makes VG a really good team at identifying and beating other really good teams.
It was a sad day for NA Dota when both Hassan brothers failed to get a visa for Hamburg. EG was lackluster without Suma1L and so they fell at the hands of an unstoppable Team Secret. With their full lineup, this is a terrifying roster with a skill level few can stand up to. S4 and Fly function as long-needed enablers for the incredible talent that Suma1L and Crit- possess. Arteezy is also a fairly stable carry and together, they play as a true unit. Their laning is strong and the potential to win never really drops off as games progress. A potential weakness teams can look to exploit is EG’s over-dependence on S4 playing well and opening the map for his farm-hungry teammates.
While not currently at the level of the Prospective Champions, the second tier is still filled with very tough competition. Typically teams at this level have an incredibly strong niche that can be exploited by either better teams or stylistically poor match-ups.
VP continues to impress as one of the longest-standing teams in history to routinely reach the elite level. Most recently, midlaner Noone has been enjoying tremendous success on comfort picks. Angling for the early to mid game as usual, Virtus Pro are fantastic at finding opportunities both in the draft and map that give them an edge over most teams. What really separates them from most early-oriented squads is a level of competence as the game goes later.
Despite all this, they still aren’t quite penetrating that upper echelon. Put simply, VG and Secret looked like more complete teams as the bracket progressed in ESL One. Akin to the old saying “can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, it probably makes most sense for VP to work on their strengths, rather than attempting to skill up in the mid to late game in such a short time frame.
It’s easy to take extreme ends of the spectrum when assessing LGD’s chances. On the one hand, they were dominant at TI8; on the other, they flopped at the PVP Esports Championship. I wouldn’t focus too much on the latter, since circumstantially, it’s unlikely to be a tournament they put much effort into. They still looked strong in the KL qualifiers, but we just haven’t seen much of them lately. These factors have to be taken into consideration. A free pass to theoretical top isn’t available, even to a TI finalist.
It is LGD though. Their early game power was second to none just a couple of months ago. If that wasn't enough, playing against OG improved their later game decision-making (especially around roshan) for the qualifiers. There’s a lot to like about this team and a prestigious tournament might tease out that potential we saw not so long ago.
Every season either Mushi or iceiceice pulls together an SEA super team, taking players from several countries and rising to the top of the region. This time it’s icex3 with Fnatic. Having both Abed and DJ together automatically brings the threat of taking over the game off skill alone. MP is also a much better pairing for Abed than EternaLEnVy, taking on more of the space-creation role.
Fnatic’s focus on comfort picks permitted Secret to poke holes through their draft in the PVP Esports Championship. An additional flaw is MP’s struggle with playing up to the par set by the rest of his team.
Forward’s finish at Hamburg is likely to leave a sour taste in mouth of fans, but you can’t put too much stock into a last minute stand in problem. Although midlaners are often more independent players, Xcalibur is not a one-for-one replacement to YawaR, whom not only has improved his play, but also adopts a critical enabling role in the team for Resolut1on.
Their performance in King’s Cup (although an online tournament) had Forward assuming a top 2 spot in NA. The acquisition of Universe has smoothed out some of the rough edges for the team, relieving much of the demand on Resolution to go god carry mode every game. We’ve yet to see them play as a full roster in an event of this caliber, but it seems reasonable to have high expectations.
Benching your mid player and swapping coaches right before the major is a pretty huge gamble to make when you’re not a bad team. While Dstones was underwhelming and the playstyle of the team felt too one-dimensional, making such extreme changes may result in Aster getting knocked out early.
Seeing how they approach the mid lane post-roster move should be interesting. Previously, Dstones was often given poor matchups with little to no support. To accommodate for loveyouloveme, they’ll either need to divert more resources from their primary cores, or hope that he’s comfortable with being sacrificed. In any case, Aster has all the pieces necessary to go far and until now, they’ve been among the best late game teams of the season.
Unlikely to make it far, but still relatively dangerous. This tier is called “upsetters” for a reason. Favorable matchups and inspired performances can result in unexpected victories against otherwise stronger teams.
Hamburg was a great tournament for paiN to participate in. Playing a high volume of matches gave them a chance to learn much of their own strengths and weaknesses. While still not at the level of other strong teams and with a questionable ceiling, paiN at least showed there was an upward trend when they focus on that early game sweet spot.
When their strides are controlled by teams like Secret or VG, there isn’t anything to fall back to and the team crumbles. Still, sticking to what they’re good at and coupling that with a lucky bracket draw or two could see paiN make it further than this tier suggests.
At times, Alliance look like they have what it takes to win against great teams, but there are critical elements that have been missing for too long now. Ironically, it’s their late game decision-making and lack of focus on how to turn an advantage into a win that keeps coming back to bite them. A quality that made the Alliance of old so dominant; and one that you’d hope coach Loda would be able to help them with.
While this roster can build advantages regularly, they struggle with maintaining leads or coming back from a losing position against better squads. The peaks that Alliance manages to reach can give them some hope with more discipline and a lot of practice, but it’s unlikely to land them with a comfortable finish.
An all-Filipino squad without Raven, Abed, or DJ is concerning. Those players regularly showcase explosive performances and stand out as the most skilled in their region. TNC is doing decent enough without them though. A runner up to Fnatic’s number one position in SEA, Predator tends to play off each other quite well. Likely due to the shared language and culture, their communication and teamplay stand out as primary positives.
Outside of that, their matches against Fnatic and EHOME indicate that they just get run over by fearsome opposition. Making a move to get at least one of the aforementioned players might be needed to match up against the higher tiers.
Not every team can reach top 8 and it would be above expectation to see any of these squads making the third round of the lower bracket.
March’s return to competitive play has brought back the aggressive “caveman Dota” that MVP.Phoenix was so beloved for. While entertaining to watch, it doesn’t seem conducive to success. One of J.Storm’s biggest problems is the lack of commitment to this style. Mostly, the team is on-board with relentless aggression, but from time to time, someone will commit and someone won’t. Even if your philosophy is far from the most effective, it’s important that everyone plays to it.
Looking to their performance against Forward in King’s Cup, J.Storm was totally dismantled in a very one-sided Bo5. It gives little hope for a deep run at the major when you lose on every front against a domestic rival.
Unfortunately for paiN X, there just isn’t anything to write home about. Competing in two regions and sitting far behind the number one team of both, this North American/Brazilian international squad often puts up a fight, but rarely looks like they can win. The ESL One Hamburg qualifiers demonstrated some potential, but only against other lesser NA lineups. All of their players are adequate, but none shine like the stars of the best teams. Their drafting is up and down, which leaves hope for a potential upset, but equally, they can get blown out before the game begins.
Presently, Gambit is a top 4 team within the CIS region. The gap between them and Virtus Pro however, feels like a mile wide. Watching them play against higher-ranking opponents has you entertain thoughts like: “oh, they played that fight decently.” Only to realize Gambit lost two heroes and couldn’t quite kill any on the opposing team. Whenever a game-changing clash arises, it’s the other team that finds the clutch factor, while Gambit falls apart.
Since the KL qualifiers, they haven’t managed a close series against even moderately good teams, while Na`Vi achieves flashes of greatness. Unfortunate that we couldn’t see the two go head to head in a grudge match at the major.
Winning at Dreamleague was fantastic experience for Tigers. The final series especially gave them plenty of challenge to learn from and should be invaluable going into the major. The bitter reality is that DreamLeague was filled with teams that didn’t manage to qualify for Kuala Lumpur. With a veteran captain like 1437, it’s hard to write this team off entirely, but there’s just not enough evidence to suggest Tigers is more than 3rd best in SEA right now.
Ninjas in Pyjamas
The annual player trade between Puppey and PPD has not been so kind to the latter. On paper, this lineup looks like a step up from Optic, but in practice it has yet to live up to its potential. Ace isn’t in top form and the team has yet to look synchronized in the mid game. Worst of all is that this team will be playing with a stand in. With so little time to practice together, it almost certainly will hurt them (as evidenced by the NA teams at ESL One). MinD ContRoL is a fantastic player of course, but the situation has to drop them down a tier.
This is a unit that comes close to finding its feet, before stumbling into a loss. Given the fact that all teams advance to the playoffs, there’s always the chance that PPD works his magic and has another classic lower bracket streak.
Mythos has been following the Dota 2 competitive scene since 2011 and has a keen interest in writing about narrative and playstyles of teams and players. He also casually follows CSGO, Brood War, Starcraft 2, and Overwatch. Follow him at @MythosWriting for more thoughts and articles.
Images courtesy of: ESL, Dota 2, PVP Esports, Gambit Esports, Liquipedia, J.Storm, TNC Predator