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Liquid’s arduous journey to the Aegis started at TI5

Team Liquid defied all expectations to win TI7.
Team Liquid defied all expectations to win TI7. Photo by Alexander Scott/DreamHack.

Team Liquid won The International 7 against all odds and expectations. TI is the most prestigious Dota 2 event in the entire year. It is the tournament that makes or breaks the legacy of Dota 2 teams. For the Liquid players, this was especially sweet as most of them met heartbreak last year at TI6. It has been a long journey since then and all of it starts at the end of TI5 in the most dramatic roster shuffle of Dota 2 history.

Kuro “KuroKy” Salehi Takhasomi was part of Team Secret, the most successful Western team of 2015. An all-star conglomerate that had won every tournament leading up to TI5, Secret spectacularly flamed out at the main event. At the prompting of Artour “Arteezy” Babaev, many pros and Redditors blamed KuroKy for that disastrous implosion. To his credit, the target of blame didn’t immaturely strike back with puerile accusations of his own. KuroKy understood people were just lashing out in disappointment and bitterness. He tried to give a calm reasonable statement from his point of view and was called toxic and passive-aggressive in response.

As a result of that environment, KuroKy decided to form his own team. On Secret, he played support, but on his new team he decided he needed to take things into his own hands. For 5jungz, he recruited two cores that would eventually go on to win TI7 with him: Lasse “MATUMBAMAN” Urpalainen and Ivan Borislavov “MinD_ContRoL” Ivanov.

Neither player was a star in any sense of the word. Both showed some individual skill, but their successes were few and on forgettable teams. KuroKy believed in their potential and convinced both to join his team along with Jesse “JerAx” Vainikka and Adrian “FATA-” Trinks.

5jungz showed a lot of promise online and was soon picked up by Liquid. KuroKy’s philosophy for the team was the opposite of Secret. Instead of picking up established all stars to fill the roles and then swapping them whenever their form or the meta changed, he decided this would be his five-person squad for the entire year. The other four bought into his vision, and their faith eventually paid dividends. Despite a slow start, Team Liquid eventually became the second best team during the 2015-2016 season and a favorite to go deep at TI6.

The aspirations didn’t work out. Liquid was eliminated early, losing out to Fnatic in the top 8. FATA- then decided to take a break and JerAx opted to take a new role on OG, but MATUMBAMAN and MinD_ContRoL retained faith in the team, faith in KuroKy. In the offseason, Liquid recruited Kanishka “BuLba” Sosale and Amer “Miracle-” Al-Barkawi to fill in the missing pieces. BuLba was respected as one of the great minds of Dota 2 and had been Liquid’s coach for a few tournaments. Miracle- was regarded as an all star, arguably the best player of 2015, and the linchpin of OG. Like Liquid, OG collapsed at TI6. OG staked its identity on a heartwarming philosophy about friendship and unity, yet following the traumatic exit from the event, the team shuffled like everyone else. The new team no longer felt like home, so Miracle- decided to try his luck on a team he believed in. Going into the next season of Dota 2, Liquid on paper was one of the best teams.

In practice, the team collapsed. The team identity built with FATA- was gone. Miracle- was a different type of player, and BuLba had switched roles from off lane to support. The new arrangement didn’t work as BuLba hadn’t committed full time to being a support. In his place, KuroKy once again scouted for new talent. This time he scoured the ladder and stumbled upon a promising support named Maroun “GH” Merhej.

GH’s first tryout was at DreamLeague Season 6, where he performed incredibly well; Liquid picked him up immediately afterward. From there it was the same travails as the previous year. The team had all of the right pieces, but it still needed to figure out its identity. They were all strong players with specific hero pools and needed to play around each other to formulate an identity that cultivated the best versions of themselves.

Their efforts culminated in the first major win of the year at EPICENTER 2017, where they defeated Virtus.pro, LGD.Forever Young, and Evil Geniuses to take the victory. Heading into TI7, Liquid was once again regarded as one of the top contenders. The initial group stage confirmed expectations as Liquid crushed all competition with a 13-3 record. Liquid was seeded into the upper bracket and played Invictus Gaming.

Invictus defeated Liquid 2-1 with a firmer grasp on its own drafts and strategy. If this was a CS:GO Major or another tournament with a single bracket elimination format, the story would end there. But this is TI, the crowning apex of the Dota 2 season. It is dedicated to finding out who among all of the teams is truly the best, with a double elimination format coming out of the group stage. Liquid had one more chance to prove itself from the losers bracket.

Their first series was against Team Secret, pitting KuroKy against his former captain Clement “Puppey” Ivanov. Despite Secret’s own shaky performance leading up to the main event, it proved a tight series. Puppey showed his cleverness during the drafting phase: his last pick Spirit Breaker in Game 1 disrupted Liquid’s entire scheme. In response, Liquid switched it up and dealt with Secret accordingly in the following two games. It was a critical series as Liquid was still feeling out the type of style it needed to win TI.

Empire, the underdog CIS team, was the next opponent, a team tagged for early elimination in the group stages because of the use of an 11th hour stand-in, Roman “Resolut1ion” Fominok. Luckily Resolut1ion was one of the world’s best carry players. Although the situation was dire, he and Empire used a jittery patchwork of teamplay and ideas to make a run of it. The mere fact Empire made it that far was a result worth celebrating, capped by a monumental upset of EG in the previous round. More and more, Empire’s journey was looking reminiscent of Resolut1ion’s previous run at TI6, where he carried DC to the finals before losing. This time the miracle man was stopped as Liquid convincingly defeated Empire to advance.

The next opponent was arguably the biggest threat to Liquid’s run. Besides OG, Virtus.Pro had been Liquid’s greatest rival in the Western scene and was intimately familiar with how Liquid approached games. By that point, Liquid’s game plan was clear. It wanted to dominate the laning phase — at worst, coming out at a slight disadvantage — and run over objectives in the mid game once their cores came online, then secure the end game with a mobile carry hero on Miracle-/Matumbaman and a split pusher on MinD_ContRoL. Virtus.Pro was the strongest remaining team at securing the laning phase, and their series was arguably the best of the tournament. The two teams fought each other to the bitter end, with Liquid barely coming out the victor 2-1.

From there Liquid swiftly annihilated LGD, which had no answers for anything Liquid was doing. LFY was a far more stalwart opponent and considering its dominant run up to losing to Newbee, LFY had a real chance to eliminate Liquid. Liquid had the better individual talent and overall strategy, but LFY had the better team fight and coordination; in the end, the better players and strategy prevailed. LFY just didn’t have the depth of skill or hero selection to counteract what Liquid was doing.

By the time the grand finals began, Liquid looked like favorite and maintained its form to decimate the Chinese juggernauts 3-0. To Newbee’s credit, they proactively tried to adapt and find new ways to crack Liquid each game (and got closer each time). Yet overall the team synergy, strategy, plays and almost every pertinent factor swayed in Liquid’s favor. Where Newbee was hesitant, Liquid was bold and decisive. And such decisiveness earned Liquid its first ever TI championship.

For the majority of the players, this was an arduous journey in the process. The core members of Liquid had stuck together for two years, through both elated victories and mind numbing periods of disarray and doubt. For Miracle-, taking a chance on Liquid and not abandoning ship at the first sign of trouble turned out to be the best decision of his career. For GH, it was a stratospheric rise from ladder god to TI winner. After all is said and done, Liquid is the TI7 champion and the best Dota team in the world.

Cover photo by Alexander Scott/DreamHack

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