Plato’s famous allegory portrayed the world as a cave where the people inside could only see shadows on the wall in front of them. Those were the misshapen manifestations of the Forms, the eternal concepts that imperfectly filtered down to our reality. Without the proper intellectual training, man could not grasp the true nature of the Forms and mistook their pale imitations for the real thing; likewise, the audience was unable to see the figures in front of the fire. Ipso facto, they assumed the shadows that quivered in sync with the flickering flames were the authentic entities.
If StarCraft 2 is the cave, then Lee “INnoVation“ Shin Hyung is the puppet whose silhouette dances on the wall. In all of StarCraft 2 history, no one embodies the archetype of the standard Terran like him. This doesn’t seem like an amazing statement except that I mean it in the literal sense: INnoVation is the perfect standard Terran. His play style, his personality, his history, his wins, his losses — everything about him has a mythic air akin to a monster from a Greek saga. He adheres to the stereotype beyond anything the best “standard” players can offer. The community even nicknamed him “the Machine” because of his relentless mechanical play style and oatmeal-esque personality.
No one fits the standard archetype better than INnoVation. Among the current Zergs, Eo “soO“ Yoon-Su and Park “Dark“ Ryung-Won are the closest to the archetype. But soO often plays against the meta and has problems in end-game scenarios that preclude him from this designation. Dark plays standard Zerg more than soO, but compared to the best in any given era, his muta ling/bling play is found wanting. Jung “Rain” Yoon-Jong and Joo “Zest” Sung-Wook were the ultimate versions of standard Protoss, but not because they adhered to the rules of the Protoss meta. They created their own styles that were adopted by the competitive scene; the standard was rewritten in their image. This isn’t the case with INnoVation. While he has almost always been at the apex of his race in standard play, he has never been credited with revolutionizing the meta. He never made a strategic or tactical paradigm shift that changed Terran thought. He never remade the Terran race into his own image — he was always the image of whatever constituted ‘Terran’ from era to era.
For this reason I’ve called INnoVation the Ultimate Patch Terran. While others use the adjective “Patch X” as a derogatory term, I mean it in the most complimentary way possible. So long as the speculative strength of Terran is strong, so is he. That’s an incredible achievement when you consider how many years, metas and patches INnoVation has been a part of. This approach isn’t unique to INnoVation: the majority of players in SC2 and other esports try to play to whatever is the standard. The difference is INnoVation is the only one who can be exceptional by doing so. In his case, the race itself needs to be weak for him to do badly. He can play any standard style to its theoretical peak. He’s shown he can play both aggressive and defensive styles to their maximum potential. He did the former in 2013 with the parade pushes and SCV pulls, the latter in 2015 with Mech versus Zerg. At the same time, his falls from grace weren’t due to a lack of skill. They stemmed from the inability to fight against imbalanced matchups that swayed in favor of the other races.
If you look at the entirety of his career, you’ll see that INnoVation’s success is directly correlated to the fortunes of his race. He started off in the brood lord/infestor era, the nadir of Terran’s strength in WoL. But he was able to make Ro4 and Ro8 GSL finishes despite Terran’s weak state, using 3 base scv pulls to swarm his opponents before they could hit critical mass. His style transformed in HotS as he first did Hellbat drops against Protoss, then parade pushes and SCV pulls later on to win his championships. He peaked in the first half of the year, but slowly fell off as TvZ and TvP shifted to the enemy’s favor. He doesn’t return to the top until GSL Season 3 in 2014, after the widow mine was rebuffed and thors were buffed against mutas; he went on to win that event. By the time Season 1 rolled around, Zerg has once again regained dominance in the matchup. Once again INnoVation went into hibernation. He lay in slumber until the advent of mech play to defeat Zerg. Once that happened, he made a strong run to win the last season of GSL in 2015. 2016 was an anomaly as he admitted to playing LoL and not putting in the necessary practice for SC2, and we have yet to see how 2017 pans out.
This wasn’t an accident; it was by design. To understand what I mean, let me digress a moment to talk about his personality. This needs to be discussed because it sheds some light on INnoVation’s approach to the game.
For the most part, INnoVation is a completely wooden and robotic personality. He gives such monotone and boring answers that I’m not certain he could pass a Turing test. But there have been two interviews that have illuminated his approach to the game. Both were conducted by Waxangel at different points in INnoVation’s career. The first was during his original peak, roughly two weeks after he drubbed sOs into oblivion to win WCS Season 1:
Any particular reasons StarCraft II has been better for you? What was holding you back in Brood War?
Production is easier, and I think it’s a game based around micro and big engagements. Also, multi-tasking is a bit easier, so you can be more aggressive.
Since I’m a player who is very mechanics based, and I was very lacking in strategic and finesse elements in Brood War, StarCraft II has helped me in that regard. Players with good mechanics and fundamentals can put themselves in good situations, the game being fast paced and all.
INnoVation has astute, though blunt, self-reflection on his own strengths and weaknesses. Instead of using the equivocation or gentle self-deprecation that is the norm among Korean players, he is brutally honest about his limitations. This unflinching assessment is mirrored in a second interview he did with Wax three years later:
What was tough about being on a foreign team? When you were on Acer, they wanted you to go to a lot of foreign tournaments.
I don’t really like going to foreign tournaments, I don’t think they fit me. I didn’t actually have to go to many tournaments when I was on Acer. I’m just really bad at English, and I think those things… I felt like I was a burden to the team, being bad at English. From the team’s perspective, I think it was difficult to use me as a player. Personally, I’ve always felt a bit sorry toward Acer.
You have the image of being a robotic, stoic player among foreign fans. What do you think about that?
I don’t think it’s incorrect.
Do you like it?
I can’t say I do.
Shouldn’t you change something then?
Even when I try to change, I can’t.
INnoVation is unflinching in judging his own career and personality. He sees his time in Acer as a failure because he was rated the best player in the world when he signed on, but he never delivered to that level in international tournaments. He doesn’t like being characterized as a robot, but he can’t deny that it’s true. This personality quirk of evaluating yourself objectively is a rare quality in any person, arguably even rarer in a profession where competition and ego go hand in hand. Often it’s more convenient to accept the self-serving lie rather than the unvarnished truth. Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked on this conflation of memory and belief in “Beyond Good and Evil:” “I have done that”, says my memory. “I cannot have done that” — says my pride, and remains adamant. At last — memory yields.
Pride and ego override memory when we stake our identities on being right — being justified. It’s why so many people make excuses and justifications when they do something wrong or fail. This is doubly so for players whose entire careers are staked on making the right choices at the proper times. Confidence is crucial in any competitive discipline: if you don’t have it, you need to delude yourself into having it until you do. It is the rare player who can look at his faults strictly and find a way to improve them or work around them. This was one of the keys that made Jung “Mvp” Jong-Hyun the greatest player in SC2’s history. It is one of the keys that founded INnoVation’s style as a player.
His self evaluation is correct. INnoVation is the best overall mechanical player SC2 has ever seen. When it comes to strategy and tactics, he lacks the finesse and ingenuity that characterizes other top-level players. Additionally, he has some mental weakness in high pressure situations which he’s admitted to in the past. I’d also add that he is much better at long form tournaments that reward preparation (GSL, SSL, the now-defunct Proleague) than he is in international weekend events (DreamHack, IEM).
Given those three aspects, what is theoretically the best way to make INnoVation the greatest possible version of himself? Exactly what he has done ever since his inauguration into SC2. Play a standard game, take the game to a place where there are no pivotal strategic or tactical decisions to make, then overpower the other player through sheer skill. This emphasizes his strengths, shores up his weakness and gives him a plan that he can follow rotely. By minimizing the complexity of hard-to-analyze matches, it diminishes the pressure that occasionally foils him. In that sense, INnoVation has had his answer from Day 1 when he switched from Brood War to SC2.
Don’t get it twisted. While strategy and tactics aren’t INnoVation’s specialty, he has a very strong understanding of both. To the layman what INnoVation does may seem mindless. In the game, part of it is because he set it up that way. The key thing to grasp is that he does as much of his strategic and tactical outlining before the match starts. He takes all of the possible array of strategies and tactics that can be thrown at him and reduces them to a set of comprehensive variables. He essentially creates a flowchart way to play the matchup.
All the variations of his aggressive and defensive styles are about control. When INnoVation did the parade pushes and SCV pulls in 2013, he powered through defenses faster and harder than anyone could match. He attacked before his opponent could take the initiative and crushed them with superior mechanics long before the dreaded end game. There is a reason that almost all of his losses in 2013 were due to early game builds: that was the only time he couldn’t dictate the pace of a match. At the end of 2015, INnoVation recreated a similar style despite being forced to play defensively. When he played mech, he focused on reducing the total strategic/tactical options his enemies could execute. The entire approach was fundamentally based on getting to 4 bases and deflecting everything while assembling an unstoppable army. In terms of strategic blueprint, his mech plan mirrors his parade pushes of 2013: deceptively simple, set in stone, impossible to withstand. He refused to let the enemy take the game to a point where strategic or tactical insight would decide the outcome.
The best way to understand INnoVation’s style is to compare him to his antithesis. Yun “TaeJa“ Young-Seo was in many ways the opposite of how INnoVation approached the game. Both are considered two of the greatest Terrans to have ever played the game. Neither of them ever pioneered a paradigm shift with innovative new strategies or tactics. Both relied on a standard style of play that, on a superficial level, looked like recycling the same build. Both had two types of games: either they stomped the opponent so hard into the ground it wasn’t worth talking about, or they gave you a highlight-worthy match that tested their opponent’s mettle and skill to the breaking point.
That is where the similarities end. INnoVation was pure force, the Yang to Taeja’s Yin. At his peaks, INnoVation was the director of the game. He forced games along a predictable path that let him use his overwhelming mechanics to win; by nullifying his opponent’s options, he left them helpless when the knockout blow came. Taeja would let opponents do whatever they wanted. He’d drag the game out for as long as necessary and constantly tested the opponent’s strategic and tactical depth. He’d test them on every decision and if they made one wrong move in build order, tactics, strategy, economics or composition, he’d punish them and take the win. And Taeja seemingly found answers to everything. If InnoVation was unbreakable rock, Taeja was water.
It isn’t a surprise that some of the best games in SC2 history involve INnoVation or Taeja playing against a top-tier opponent. It’s no surprise that the best game to come out of SC2 was a battle between INnoVation and Taeja in a 2013 T-v-T, both at the peak of their careers. Those who believe INnoVation lacks strategic and tactical depth should watch that game. It was a constant slugfest as the two battled for economic, positional, compositional and strategic advantages throughout the entirety of the game. It also showcased INnoVation’s irrevocable weakness. He could play standard Terran thought to absolute perfection, but he was incapable of surpassing it. Taeja could surpass the limits of standard thought and find the right responses. He proved it in his brilliant game-winning move: once he realized that INnoVation’s anti-air had died, he made a banshee switch to close out the marathon of a match.
INnoVation also serves as the one of the most reliable barometers of greatness in SC2 history. Since INnoVation is the idealized form of standard Terran, he is the perfect test to see what makes the great players special. It takes brilliance to beat INnoVation when he is at his best. Among the great Protoss players, only two have had prolonged success: the previously mentioned Zest and Kim “sOs“ Yoo Jin. Zest is a brilliant player with an uncanny strategic and positional game while sOs is a mercurial off-the-wall Protoss that can back it up with strong mechanical play. sOs in particular is interesting as all of sOs’ wins against INnoVation have only occurred in weekend tournaments. Despite their success, INnoVation has beaten them an equal amount of times.
INnoVation’s two most memorable series against Zerg players involved Park “DongRaeGu” Soo-Ho and Han “ByuL“ Ji-Won. DongRaeGu gets the unique honor to be the only Zerg player to defeat INnoVation at the peak of his powers in 2013 while playing INnoVation’s game. He fought INnoVation’s parade pushes head-to-head with sheer mechanics and won. ByuL forced long drawn out fights, relying on his intelligence and grit to wear down INnoVation’s mech play in 2015.
Among Terrans, I’ve already mentioned Taeja. Next to him are Mvp and Lee “Flash“ Young-Ho. Mvp never beat INnoVation in a series, but his Game 4 comeback down 30 SCVs at the WCS Season 3 finals is still the largest comeback in SC2’s history. He did it through sheer intelligence, positioning and game sense. Flash is a strange player to examine, but T-v-T is the only matchup where you get to see glimpses of why he was the greatest Brood War player of all time. Before the proliferation of speed medivacs outstripped his strengths, Flash’s positioning, economic sense, strategy and tactics were exemplified in this matchup.
Even players who were never top tier can show their greatness by defeating INnoVation. This is what happened when Stork played against him in Code A for the first GSL season of 2016. Stork showed incredible class, strategy and grit to take that Bo5 win.
The greatest flattery I can give to INnoVation is that he accidentally ruined an entire generation of KeSPa Terran players. Because he was the Platonic ideal of Terran, everyone that came after him tried to imitate his style of play. From their perspective they saw this incredible standard Terran who played extremely refined, normal builds and executed them flawlessly. He built an entire flowchart system, so every Terran that came with him tried to copy his approach. They almost all, to a man, failed.
The KeSPA Terran is one of the strangest mysteries in SC2 competition. When KeSPA moved over in 2012 they effectively doubled the player pool size, so many believed that the future champions of each race would come from this crop. The KeSPA team house is rightly considered one of the best ways to improve in SC2, but for all of that they were unable to create any new Terran Champions. Here is the list of Terran premier tournament champions and runner-ups from 2013 onward, split them along the ESF/KeSPA line:
For the purpose of this list, all of those Terrans under the ESF banner are those who built their fundamental style before KeSPA joined the scene; even though some of them later moved on to KeSPA teams, the training was supplementary at best. From this we see that there is a massive difference between the number of Terran Champions from the pre-KeSPA age to the post KeSPA-age. It’s even more startling when you realize that the only multi-tournament winner from KeSPA is INnoVation.
Here is the conclusion I came to. INnoVation accidentally ruined all of the KeSPa Terrans because all of them, either by choice or by force, tried to play like him, but they were almost all pale imitations. The only two Terran players to have succeeded were Flash and Cure for brief periods time. TY is an exception as he’s always played his own style and there were tertiary reasons as to why he was never able to win until 2017. The mass failure of the KeSPA Terrans is one of the reasons why INnoVation is one of the greatest. An entire generation of Terran players looked up to him as their idol and failed to reproduce his success.
When I take a broad view of INnoVation’s career I see a man who was unable to talk to the world, a man who could only express himself through his game. He saw that he lacked the imaginative spark that some of the greatest players had, but he also realized he had incredible mechanics to compensate. He honed that into his main weapon. He constantly refined that blade by reducing the decisions the opponent could throw at him before the game even started. He became the ideal of what a standard Terran was supposed to be and brought ruin upon his opponents when he could enact his gameplan. At the same time he brought ruin to everyone who tried to imitate his style without his skill or understanding why he did what he did. INnoVation is Plato’s Terran. When the meta is right he is untouchable by the masses. Other Terrans become phantasms, hollow imitations of his greatness. Only the truly great are able to reject the illusion and turn around to face the real thing. Terran is INnoVation’s game and we are just actors in his play.
Photos courtesy of Shayla