Natus Vincere made a miraculous run at StarLadder i-League Invitational a week ago, making it to the grand finals of the event only to falter at the end against Vici Gaming Reborn. Virtus.Pro, which had looked disappointing in the weeks following its formation, showed brief moments of brilliance but only managed to claim 5th-6th place. Vega Squadron looked the strongest by far coming into the event but ended up in last place. Without a solid tournament win, the reality for fans of the region might be that no CIS teams receive invites to the upcoming Manila Major. With that in mind, here are rankings in order for each of these teams heading into the Manila Major European qualifiers.
I chose not to include the other possible European teams that might be competing in the qualifier – OG and Alliance – because their invite status to the Manila Major is unsure at the moment.
1. Natus Vincere: Hometown Heroes
Fans at the Kiev CyberSport Arena have always been kind to Na’vi, and this time was no exception. The crowd’s energy seemed to make Na’vi stronger, and the team rode the momentum all the way to the grand finals. Despite mixed results for the new roster leading into StarLadder, Akbar “SoNNeikO” Butaev rallied the team around strong drafts and a clear vision for the team’s direction in-game. Combined with the strong mechanical skill of the rest of the team, Na’vi looked unstoppable until Xu “fy” Linsen struck back and shattered the Ukrainian team’s aspirations for its first LAN win in 18 months. After a strong performance at LAN, however, Na’vi looks primed to bounce back and provide stiff competition in the European qualifiers for the Manila Major if Valve decide not to extend a direct invitation, and will most likely be the favorites to win a qualification spot.
2. Vega Squadron: Close to Greatness
The biggest disappointment of StarLadder was Vega Squadron, which looked formidable heading into StarLadder but fizzled out in a last place finish. While the team held its own against LGD Gaming, which seemed revitalized and prepared for its first event after the shuffle, Vega Squadron still ended up losing 2-0. After dominating the first game against Virtus.Pro, Vega looked lost against surprise Lycan and Broodmother picks from Virtus.Pro in the second and third games. Despite a lackluster performance on LAN, Vega still looks like the team to beat when it comes to online qualifications. Just after losing at StarLadder, Vega defeated Virtus.Pro 3-2 to qualify for ESL One Frankfurt. They were also one game short of qualifying for the DreamLeague Season 5 finals after splitting a series one to one with Na’vi.
Vega will be competing at the WePlay LAN finals Friday against fierce competition, where it will attempt to convert strong online performance into a championship. The number of online qualifications gives Vega the edge as the second strongest team in the region right now.
3. Team Empire: Teamwork over Everything
Empire looked like the clear losers of the CIS shuffle, with all of the players who took the team to Seattle in 2015 leaving for greener pastures. The new roster’s announcement was derided as a last-minute acquisition. The team picked up Roman “Ramzes” Kushnarev, a 16-year-old star carry player, and Vasily “AfterLife” Shishkin after they left Team Spirit. They also signed Yaroslav “Miposhka” Naidenov and Rinat “KingR” Abdulin for the support duo. The biggest surprise of the entire shuffle was Empire’s decision to bring back Roman “Scandal” Sadotenkov, who became infamous for allegedly refusing to stick to practice regimens on his previous teams.
Still, Scandal is mechanically skilled and has excelled on tempo-controlling mid heroes like Puck, leaving the job of carrying the game in Ramzes’ capable hands. While the team failed to qualify for any events since its formation, Empire did manage to retain its invitation to ESL One Manila. The team surprised the world in Manila with incredible communication and team play, defeating Secret twice in order to make the semifinals.
Many people might try and detract from the team’s victories against Team Secret, saying that Secret is still a new roster trying to find its footing, but that’s not fair. Team Secret played incredibly well, and almost managed to finish the second series with Empire 2-0 if not for KingR’s stolen Black Holes that were so amazing they made the top 10 plays of the night on SportsCenter. Many fans claimed Game 2 against Secret might have been the best game of the year so far. So no, Secret was certainly not a pushover, even though that team has room to grow. Team Empire went into ESL One Manila as a relatively unproven squad, but after its first boot camp, a strong finish at an international LAN, and another boot camp coming immediately after, it could be an incredibly strong contender for the Manila Major qualifiers.
4. Virtus.Pro: Shadows of Champions
The transformation of Virtus.Pro from Tier 1 team to simply average is a sad tale. They still show flashes of the brilliance that brought them onto the International stage – where they upset Team Secret in fantastic fashion – but the roster that was able to defeat the so-called best team in the world is no more. Artsiom “fng” Barshack is still an incredibly intelligent drafter. His decision to fourth pick Broodmother in the decisive third game against Vega Squadron led the team to easily close out the series and avoid elimination. That said, Virtus.Pro suffers against opponents for numerous reasons. Maxim “yoky-” Kim drew substantial ire from the Dota 2 community for his continued decision to not play offlane, the role that made him famous. It is disappointing to see the most innovative and talented offlane player be so insistent on playing the carry role, especially when Ilya “ALOHADANCE” Korobkin is so much more talented in that position. Virtus.Pro still has a long way to go and plenty of problems to fix going into the Manila Major qualifiers.
VP might be able to hold its own against Vega and Team Spirit on a good day, but Na’vi won all five of its previous games against VP and doesn’t look like it’ll be stopping the trend any time soon. Virtus.Pro is a possible contender for the second European spot at Manila if it brings the same drafting brilliance as against Vega on LAN, but otherwise it’s too inconsistent and might miss a major for the first time since the tournaments started last November.
5. Team Spirit: Middle of the Pack
Many players and analysts suggested that, at the end of the shuffle, Team Spirit would be the best team in the region. On paper, that should have been the case. Bogdan “Iceberg” Vasilenko is one of the fastest-rising mid players in a sea of talent. Artur “Goblak” Kostenko provides a strong voice for the rest of the team as captain. Ilya “Illidan” Pivcaev is a formidable carry who played with Virtus.Pro during its strong showing at the International 2015. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Spirit hasn’t been able to qualify for a single event since the new roster formed, but if unable to secure a good result at the WePlay LAN finals – to which they were directly invited – Spirit will be in a rough position for the upcoming Manila Major qualifiers. At that point, the team’s dominant strategy is to protect Iceberg at all costs and hope he’s able to carry the game on heroes like Invoker. If that fails, Illidan seems incapable of carrying the team on his own.
6. Power Rangers: It’s Morphin’ Time!
The mighty Power Rangers are eternal underdogs and dark horses of Dota 2. They burst onto the scene in 2013 when they suddenly started taking games off heavily-favored teams like Alliance and Na’vi, and ever since then retained a strange magic about them in underdog situations that is hard to describe. With the acquisition of legendary Magnus player Turtoi “Ar1sE” Ionut, the team’s fortunes have improved with wins against Polarity, Team Empire, Danish Bears, Fantastic Five and Ad Finem. Power Rangers are a dangerous team to underestimate, and despite their lower ranking on this list will be difficult to play against with elimination on the line.
7. Rebels: Quietly Climbing
Most people I talked to about the new team Rebels replied with “who?” So maybe you haven’t heard, but Ivan “Vanskor” Skorokhod is back with a new team after being abruptly kicked from Team Avengers just before the roster lock deadline, and he’s pissed. So pissed that he and his four teammates have been dismantling every team that gets in their way, including the likes of Alternate aTTaX, Yellow Submarine, Team Spirit, and Kaipi. In a short period of time, Rebels won both the NXTGAME Invitational and the fifth PDCup European series. Coming off a hot streak and plenty of practice against some of the stronger Tier 2 and 3 teams in Europe, Rebels might be flying just enough under the radar to avoid detection until it’s too late. Vanskor is backed up by strong Russian talent: Vadim “Sedoy” Musorin, Oleg “tmw” Kolesnichenko, Maksim “Shachlo” Abramovskikh, and Daniil “MeTTpuM” Gilev.
8. Polarity: Rejects and Remnants
Talking about Polarity, the new team headed by former Virtus.Pro members Ilya “Lil” Ilyuk and Alexander “DkPhobos” Kucheria, is difficult because no one really knows what to think about them. They barely played any officials since formation, meaning there isn’t much information from which to draw conclusions. The available results don’t look good. Despite a second place finish in the third Beyond the Summit European Cup, Polarity failed to qualify for any LAN events. It was most recently defeated by Danish Bears and Ad Finem in the ESL One Frankfurt qualifiers. Given their poor results, it wouldn’t be surprising if Valve did not invite the team to the regional qualifiers at all, instead forcing them to play through the open qualifiers and hope for the best.
9. Fantastic Five: Not so Fantastic
I desperately wanted Fantastic Five to be good. It just wasn’t meant to be. The team was dropped by its sponsor, Tornado.RoX, after failing to make it out of the group stage in the Shanghai Major qualifiers. Since then, Fantastic Five dropped Vadim “Sedoy” Musorin and Arseniy “ArsZeeqq” Usov to grab Alexander “XBOCT” Dashkevich and Roman “rmN-” Paley. I didn’t expect Fantastic Five to be championship level, but the team seems incapable of even remotely matching the strength of the other teams in the region. It’s a long way for XBOCT to fall, but the best move for the former International champion may be to take a break for this season and wait for another team to make him an offer once the current roster lock ends.
Photos courtesy of Patrick Strack/ESL, eslgaming.com