Reflections from the Western Clash

RozaiNews

After three intense days, the IEM Katowice Western Clash came to a dramatic end with a best of 7 series in favor of Team Dignitas, the unanimous favorite to win leading up to the event. While Dignitas experienced a relatively easy weekend leading up to (but most definitely not including) the final series with Zealots, the most interesting stories from the Western Clash come from the rest of the teams in the tournament. No one could have predicted the sheer number of upsets that occured this weekend, along with the meteoric rise of North America’s competitiveness with Europe.

LAN events do wonders for shaking up the meta between regions and help establish a world-wide pecking order. In the wake of such a climatic event, it is important to reflect on the implications of the Western Clash and what it means for each region and the game altogether.

NORTH AMERICA

What happened?

The North American region was represented this year by Tempo Storm, Team Twelve, Team Freedom, and HeroesHearth Esports. Going into the event, many, including myself, held little faith that North America would survive to day 2. The only source of hope rested on Tempo Storm, who seemingly had the best possible matchup against the 4th place EU team of Zealots. North America had not taken a single series off a European team since 2016, leaving little enthusiasm for even the most die-hard NA fans.

This was all changed on day 1 of the Western Clash. Surprising everyone, Team Twelve earned the first NA victory of day 1 by beating Method in a clean 2-0. This sent Method to the lower bracket to face HeroesHearth, who had lost their first series against Team Dignitas 1-2. HeroesHearth hammered the nail into the coffin for Schwimpi and friends in an exciting 2-1 victory.

Tempo Storm would prove to be the real game changer for NA, however. They defeated Zealots in a decisive 2-0, but the real excitement came from their 3-1 take down of Fnatic. Psalm’s “x-factor” on Maiev, Malthael, and Genji proved to be tough competition and difficult for Fnatic to draft around.

In the end, Tempo Storm was the only North American team to make it to the semi-finals, making HGC history in that act alone. Unfortunately, Dignitas proved to be too much for them in the upper bracket semi-finals, bumping Tempo Storm down to face the Zealots once again in the lower bracket semi-finals. Zealots, having blasted their way through the lower bracket, had the momentum behind them to earn revenge against Tempo Storm 3-1.

What did we learn?

Most importantly, North America is not to be taken lightly anymore. When it was all said and done, the North America vs European game count for the Western Clash would end on a competitive 13-23. Even though Europe once again claimed the two spots in the Grand Finals, the gap between NA and EU is certainly closing. While the 2017 “rosterpocalypse” may have been a stressful experience for fans, the results have clearly repositioned players on to teams where they can achieve the best results. What’s more, for the first time in recent memory, North America was confident in their own gameplay to tackle the European teams without “cheese strats”. No The Lost Vikings nonsense from BlizzCon and no double boss rushes on Warhead Junction (though the map isn’t in this year’s map pool). Every North American team stood strong, drafted smartly, and played cleanly. Some were more successful than others, but it is a clear step in the right direction for establishing North America as a respected region around the world.

When considering each NA team, Tempo Storm is clearly a step above the rest. What makes this new Tempo Storm roster so interesting to watch and difficult to play against is that the triple threat of Fan, Glaurung, and Psalm seems to have few restrictions in terms of their flexibility, hero pools, and play-making potential. “Superstar” teams such as this historically have been unsuccessful in Heroes of the Storm, but Tempo Storm is breaking the mold. They still have more to refine as they iron out their shot-calling and target focus (lots of big personalities to balance), but Tempo Storm is going to be the team to watch in the weeks leading up to the Mid-Season Brawl.

Unfortunately, Team Freedom was the only North American team who did not survive the first day, failing to achieve a single map win against Fnatic or Zealots. They never seemed to find their footing, falling behind in one to three level deficits in nearly every game. For a team with such outstanding macro play as Team Freedom, one can only expect that something went wrong in their draft preparation or they simply had an off day. They have a lot to take away from this event, and will certainly come back swinging.

Team Twelve continues to impress, but it seems as if they still have a ways to go in their drafting and roster synergy. Goku is one of the best solo laners in the world, but Team Twelve has yet to find a response to enemy teams countering Goku’s efforts and focusing him down. I think the current roster has potential to rise above their 2017 status, though they have yet to display the coordination and execution that made them such a threat.

HeroesHearth is one of my favorite teams to watch. I have a special place in my heart for teams bursting their way through the Open Division, particularly for Khroen and McIntyre who were left teamless after their rosters exploded in Phase 1 of HGC 2017.They managed to knock out Method, and take a game off of Dignitas, proving they have the skills to compete on the global stage. Nerves played a clear factor in their matches this weekend, so as Ishboo and BBJ gain more experience in LAN events and they iron out their infrequent awkward drafts, I expect HeroesHearth to have a more solid part 2 of Phase 1.

Europe

What happened?

Europe was represented this year by Team Dignitas, Fnatic, Method, and Zealots. Zealots had mixed results in the weeks leading up to the Western Clash, placing themselves in the middle of the pack. They were, however, the only team to defeat Dignitas, earning their spot in the Western Clash in the very last week of league play.

Method, who had displayed increasing levels of synergy and execution each week of league play, unfortunately experienced lackluster results in the Western Clash. They were the first European team to lose to a North American team since 2016 and were subsequently knocked out of the tournament by another NA team in the lower bracket. It seemed as if many of the North American upsets on day 1 were the result of low draft priority of Maiev by the European teams. In their series against HeroesHearth, the Maiev-Zeratul combination of Arthelon and McIntyre proved deadly. It seemed as if Method had an off day, but they may have also underestimated HeroesHearth, who rose to the challenge.

Fnatic started the competition with mixed expectations, as Quacknix, their drafter and shot-caller, went home sick with a viral infection on the morning of day 1. BadBenny stepped up to fill Quack’s leadership role, while Fnatic subbed in Sonic as the ranged flex. Sonic is well known as a Grandmaster #1 Hero League player of exceptional skill, but has never participated in or even regularly watched competitive play. No one knew what to expect, but he would impress the casters and viewers alike with his play throughout the tournament. While Fnatic’s adjustments would prove strong against the lower performing teams of the weekend, the limitations in coordination and shot-calling failed to overcome the later stages of the tournament.

Team Dignitas performed as expected for the Western Clash, blasting their way through the winner’s bracket and only dropping 5 maps in the process. Even against the unpredictability of Tempo Storm, who dominated Fnatic and the eventual second place team of Zealots, Dignitas continued to show that they benefited the most from the EU roster swaps.

Though they did not win the tournament, Zealots is the team to look at the most from the Western Clash. Their first series was self-admittedly one of poor preparation and lack of respect for Tempo Storm, who defeated them 2-0. They refocused and came back hard for the rest of the lower bracket, defeating Team Freedom 2-0, Team Twelve 3-1, Fnatic 3-0, and Tempo Storm in a revenge series 3-1.

Day 3 was certainly exhausting for Zealots, as they would play 13 games over the course of about 9 hours. Dignitas started their Grand Finals series against Zealots with a default 1-0 lead, as a result of their clean path through the upper bracket. Games 1 and 2 went over to Zealots, as the outstanding Blaze play from Zarmony would earn them decisive team fight victories in the late game. Dignitas returned the favor in Game 3 on Infernal Shrines, with spectacular rotations of Bunker, Sanctification, and Divine Shield to counter the damage from Cris’s Gul’dan. Dignitas steamrolled over Zealots in Game 4 on Tomb of the Spider Queen after Zealots were punished for a siege camp attempt during the first webweaver phase. In Game 5, Dignitas allowed Maiev, Medivh, Stukov, and Garrosh back into the hands of Zealots, which opened the door for a mind-numbing barrage of silences, displacements, and taunts. Zealots used their first curse to invade underneath the bot fort and snowball their way towards a keep within 10 minutes. Outstanding merc camp and boss control rotations led to a decisive victory.

The final game of the Grand Finals took place on Towers of Doom. Zealots, with Tyrael, Leoric, Stukov, Tracer, and Medivh, chose to sacrifice a few of the first tower shots in favor of better macro control and late-game focus. This enabled them to gain a level-lead over Dignitas, however their combination of Diablo, Blaze, Malfurion, Tychus, and Genji enabled them to close the gap in experience with some clutch mid-game team fights. With 4 core points for Zealots against 20 for Dignitas, Zealots executed top-tier map control and team fight expertise to close the gap to 4-2. With their backs against the wall, Wubby urged Dignitas to take the top Sapper camp, which provided the necessary buffer to stop the bleeding and enable the final game-ending scenario. Both teams displayed remarkable understanding of ability rotations, positioning, and map awareness. It was truly a sight to behold. It all came down to a single bell tower in the bottom lane, in which a remarkable back and forth team fight resulted in a loss for the Zealots. While the trophy can only go to one team, Zealots brought Dignitas to literally the closest possible ending and should be commended. The game was decided by split-second decisions and a few button clicks. This could have been either team’s championship.

What did we learn?

It is hard to say much about Fnatic and Method from this weekend. Fnatic’s substitute issues put a giant asterisk on any result they achieved; however, Mene showed exceptional skill on Maiev, proving that he doesn’t need to be relegated to the mage role. BadBenny still seems uncomfortable in his off-tank role, and the strains placed on him this weekend with the absence of Quacknix certainly didn’t help that. I think that if Fnatic is going to reclaim their former dominance, they will need to iron out their drafting goals a little more and refocus on the macro gameplay that made them a force to be reckoned with.

Schwimpi continues to be the star of Method. It is visible when he is digging in deep to make the plays for his team. The Maiev meta certainly affected the heroes on which he makes an impact, and Method did not seem prepared for North America to have such disciplined usage of her.

Zealots is proof of why the Crucible system is good for the HGC as a whole. Since their Crucible victory over Synergy after climbing out of the Open Division in 2017, Zealots has consistently competed with the best of the best in EU. They deserve to be in the HGC. Each player is proving to be outright scary in each of their roles, with Shad absolutely setting the bar for Stukov play this weekend. Adrd continues to surprise teams with his flexibility, turning Medivh and Tassadar into devastating, play-making heroes. Mopsio seems to finally have a team that can match and account for his aggression, while Zarmony serves well as a competent solo laner and outstanding off-tank. Cris continues to be one of my favorite players and streamers to watch, though he often gets caught out of position with his over aggression. Zealots as a whole seems to have one of the best understandings of ability rotations, as they rarely overlap abilities. This is made clear when running Tyrael, Tassadar, and/or Medivh, as they know how to pace their shielding for optimal effect and negating dive attempts. They also have top-tier execution of zone control and positioning, using portals and Tassadar Psionic Storms to gain the most advantageous positions against their opponents. I have no doubt that European teams will begin to adopt their playstyle, and that Zealots will have a defining place in the meta for the next part of Phase 1.

What is there to say about Dignitas that hasn’t already been said? Dignitas literally has the best players in every role on their roster. Snitch continues to be the greatest flex player in the world, enabling Dignitas to respond to nearly any draft. Zealots have found the chink in their armor, however, as they found a way to keep pace with Wubby’s strong solo lane play and stand toe-to-toe in team fights. Even in victory, Dignitas is the type of team to learn from their series against Zealots and will certainly patch up any bugs in their system. I’m terrified of how strong this team will be throughout the rest of HGC 2018.

Overall Takeaways

  • The important takeaway from all of this first part of Phase 1 and the Western Clash is that any team has the potential to beat any opponent on any day. All it takes is clean play, solid prep, and focus. That is the sign of a healthy league.
  • North America doesn’t have to resort to cheese to win against Europe. They can team fight with the best.
  • Believe it or not, the meta IS shifting somewhat. This weekend we saw:
    • 15 different tanks being played, with 10 of them being used more than 4 times.
      • Blaze and Tyrael were the most predominant choices for the weekend, with Blaze at a 93% popularity and 58% win rate, and Tyrael at an 84% popularity and 48% win rate. Blaze + Tyrael proved to be a devastating combination that too many teams let through.
    • Almost no Lucio. Are you happy now?
      • Of the 8 healers used, Malfurion, Uther, Rehgar, and Stukov were the most predominant. None of them achieved higher than a 52% win rate.
    • Similar assassin meta in the top 4 picks, but a wide diversity below that.    
      • Maiev was either picked or banned in EVERY game, with a 12-6 record (66%).
      • Tracer, Genji, and Greymane are still popular. While Tracer and Greymane may still be too powerful (60% win rate), Genji’s nerfs seemed to have a significant impact (36% win rate)
      • Hanzo and Malthael all but disappeared this weekend.
      • Every mage was played except for Kel’Thuzad.
      • We saw 3 Thrall games and 3 Kerrigan games.
  • It may be just about time to retire “NA LUL”... Maybe.

Russell (Rozai) Greene is a composer, arranger, and music educator with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in music education. He is the flex player and captain for the amateur Heroes of the Storm team Lords of the Exodar. An avid watcher of the HGC, Rozai’s articles for Trolls.GG include guides, HGC coverage, and the popular Music of the Storm segments.