The Final Pieces: Astralis to the Stars

The story of the Astralis core has always been one of “almost.” They were almost winners in every tournament where they reached the semifinals. They almost possessed the skill and teamwork to rival the giants of the scene. They almost had the momentum to become champions. On paper, Astralis’ core was unquestionably one of the world’s best. The team was famed for its consistency, the ability to make it out of the group stages out at every event. Despite stalwart performances at the beginning of tournaments, the group could never convert that into a massive win on LAN. This culminated into the statistic that despite the massive amount of LANs they attended, they had never won anything that had a prize pool of $250,000 or more. For a long time, Astralis was synonymous with choke, a position that was only temporarily superseded by Liquid’s MLG Columbus Major “run.”

That story has ended. After making two critical roster moves in 2016, Astralis catapulted from the afterthought of other teams’ championship runs to the winners of the ELEAGUE Major. This is the story of how Astralis flew to the stars.

Grounded to Earth

At the end of 2015, TSM’s CS:GO team was coming off one of its most successful years, with a slew of first and second place finishes while being at least semifinalists at almost every tournament it attended. Most of those championships were claimed in smaller tournaments such as Fragbite Masters and CounterPit; when it came to the grand events like DreamHack Cluj-Napoca, TSM struggled to replicate the same results. Despite those obstacles, TSM was undoubtedly one of the best teams in the world. It spoke to TSM’s class that it could claim victories over every top-tier team during that period, from NiP to the legendary incarnation of Fnatic. In fact, they were considered Fnatic’s bane, as TSM beat them in the finals of four separate tournaments.

Going into 2016, many expected to see continued success. The coreNicolai dev1ce Reedtz, Peter “dupreeh” Rothmann, Andreas Xyp9x Højsleth, René “cajunb” Borg, and in-game leader Finn “karrigan” Andersen — showed no signs of separating. TSM had accomplished everything imaginable for a professional team — except one thing. For all their tenacity when it came to other tournaments, success at the Majors was elusive. All their attempts in 2015 ended in failure: knocked out of the quarterfinals of Katowice by NiP, barely edged out of Cologne by EnVyUs in the semis, once again eliminated by NiP at Cluj-Napoca. It was the final hurdle for TSM, one that supporters fervently hoped the team would overcome.  

Whatever dreams and fears clung to the roster heading into the 2016, they would be realized on a new organization. After disagreements with TSM about salary, the organization and players parted ways. The players went on to establish a team from independent investment and reemerged as Astralis.

The rebirth had a rough start. Astralis continued to make it out of groups and placed highly in tournaments, just like it did on TSM. Team cohesion remained untarnished, and the players themselves performed above par, yet the big wins didn’t come. Time and time again they made it into the semifinals only to lose all momentum and keel over in defeat. Dreamhack Leipzig, IEM World Championship, MLG Columbus. The collapses could be predicted like clockwork. MLG Columbus in particular, where they were defeated soundly in the semifinals by Natus Vincere, seemed to be the final straw. All confidence broke down within the team. Once a palpable threat at every event, Astralis started getting its worst results. As the team slumped into a perennial cycle of quarterfinals, many of the players’ forms dipped. The only one who maintained consistency was dev1ce. Backed into a corner, they were forced to make a change.

The Rise of the Young Danish Star

“I don’t feel pressure.” – Markus “Kjaerbye” Kjærbye

Kjaerbye was the first piece of the puzzle. He was on Dignitas, the second best Danish team at the time, which was led by Henrik “FeTiSh” Christensen and then later Mathias MSL Lauridsen. This team had promise but was never able to fulfill that potential because its star players were continually poached by larger organizations. In 2015, Dignitas’ big star player was Philip “aizy” Aistrup. By the end of the year, he was bought out by FaZe.

This left a gap in the Dignitas roster, which was instantly filled by Kjaerbye. It was a shocking revelation, as he had struggled on LAN for a long time on Copenhagen Wolves. But the shift in roles and a newfound confidence led him to excel. Before long, he was branded as the next big Danish star and given the nickname “young dev1ce” within the national scene.

Even when his team crumpled under the pressure, it never affected his own game. This was best exemplified at DreamHack Malmo when Dignitas faced an ailing EnVyUs. The rest of the team crumbled under the pressure, but Kjaerbye tried his best to drag the team to victory. Here was a fantastic player showing he would not crumble under intense pressure. Astralis was interested in a player with such mental fortitude, and offered a trade for cajunb. The deal was sealed last May.

Despite the trade, Astralis’ struggles continued. No one could deny Kjaerbye’s skill, but it wasn’t syncing well with the rest of the team. The results continued to plummet, and it slowly became clear the problem extended beyond one individual. Karrigan was no longer able to control the team, and the team had lost confidence in his leadership. They needed a different IGL, someone new — or perhaps maybe not.

The Return of the Veteran

I took a three-month break from CS where I started working full time. In the beginning, it was alright, but the longer it went, I felt like I had to go back and follow my dream. But this time going all in. After the three-month break is when I made my decision, that I would not stop playing CS before I have given it everything I had.”Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander.

gla1ve

By the time Gla1ve came to Astralis’ attention, he was no greenhorn. He had been playing on and off since Source for a bevy of semipro teams, occasionally joining the roster of a notable one. In particular, he was the team leader of Western Wolves back in 2013, regarded as a top-three team at the time. It was the early era of CS:GO and despite their skill and results, WW was unable to make it work. Despite having teammates like Pimp and MSL, both the players and the scene were too young for real commitment. It was hard to keep everyone focused when there wasn’t so much on the line, and it slowly crumbled. Since then, gla1ve was exiled from the top competitive level of CS:GO. He was left behind and could only watch from the sidelines as he toiled away endlessly at this game he had no idea if it would ever pay off.

“But even though I stopped believing, I feel like there was something inside me that always knew that if I really tried to, I could make it,” he told Tomi “lurppis” Kovanen last month.

The forced break from top level competitive CS:GO made gla1ve re-evaluate his own game, and he subsequently learned how to improve his own individual game. He eventually made it back with a contract with CopenHagen Wolves in 2016; from there, he slowly shifted teams until he appeared on Heroic. He reaffirmed himself as a skilled player and helped them become a borderline top 10 team in the world. Interestingly, gla1ve never took the role of IGL while on Heroic. The leadership duties were given to Marco Snappi Pfeiffer instead. Nevertheless, these performances put gla1ve on the map and were part of why Astralis decided to bet it all on him. On Oct. 24, he was picked up by Astralis to be their new in-game leader.

Take Off

Gla1ve instituted a much more structured approach to the entire team. He made sure that everyone knew their roles in the game and what to do in every scenario. With these adjustments, he took a team that was dropping out in groups and quickly morphed them into the best team in the world.

He proved to be the spark Astralis lacked. Dev1ce remained the superstar and the player that could take over entire games for them. Dupreeh’s form was reinvigorated under gla1ve’s system.

“We believe in him,” dupreeh told Slingshot last week. “That’s the main thing. He has a lot of great strategies and mid-round calls. He’s a really good fragger at the same time, so he’s really a stable player in many ways. I wouldn’t say he’s a role model, but he has so many good qualities as a player and an in-game leader that he’s very easy to look up to. The confidence he brings to the team, when he says, ‘I know exactly how to call that. Just listen to me, and we’re going to win this match.’ That’s what he says, and you’re like, ‘Sure. Let’s do that.’”

Simultaneously, gla1ve and Kjaerbye teamed up and became the duo that took map control for the team. The final piece was xyp9x, one of the best support players in the world. He facilitated his team perfectly and could at times pull the team out of the fire with clutch plays.

Astralis reached the semifinals of IEM Oakland, losing to SK in a close 2-0 series where it almost broke SK’s long winning streak on Train. At ELEAGUE, Astralis defeated its longtime nemesis, NiP, and followed it up by beating SK in the revenge series 2-0 and breaking SK’s Train dominance. Just as it looked like they secured first place, they were stopped by a completely on fire OpTic team in the finals.

That didn’t deter the new, focused Astralis. In a week’s time, they rematched OpTic and crushed them in the ECS Season 2 Finals. Going into the Major, experts heralded them as the strongest team in the world.

The Run to the Finals

The CS:GO Majors hold a symbolic value unmatched by any other tournament in the world. It is where pressure reaches unbearable heights and even some of the best teams and players in the world crumble under it. For Astralis, this was the final test. They had broken the NiP curse, they had broken SK’s Train record, and they had finally won a huge premier tournament. The ELEAGUE Major was the chance to cement their names in CS history.

The group stages were a struggle from the very beginning. On the first day Astralis was shockingly upset by Godsent, who came into the tournament with mercurial performances amid reports of roster changes. Unfortunately (or arrogantly) the Danes left Train, Godsent’s best map, in the pool with full confidence that it wouldn’t make a difference. The Swedes shellacked them 16-6 and dropped Astralis into the lower bracket. Despite being forced to face OpTic and SK on the way back, Astralis rallied back with a 3-2 group stage record. That put them against a revitalized Na`Vi in the quarterfinals, the team that had utterly destroyed the group stage 3-0.

Going into the match, the entire community had switched its tone. The group stage had convinced it that Na`Vi was the favorite to win the entire tournament; 92 percent of the pick-ems were placed on Na`Vi. Instead, Astralis showed why it’s the world’s most complete team in a convincing 2-1 win. The semifinals were an even more emphatic victory as Astralis won Fnatic’s map pick (Cache) and then demolished them on Nuke. To put that into perspective, Astralis don’t particularly care for those maps. Cache and Nuke are their fifth and sixth best maps.

There was only one last test, one last team that stood between Astralis and the trophy.

The Final Test

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In many ways Virtus.Pro is the opposite of Astralis. For some time, Astralis has been a consistent well-oiled machine. You always knew what kind of performance they were going to put on (commendable) and how well they were going to do (better than most). Their primary weakness was their ability to deal with pressure in the largest stages. They couldn’t kick it into the highest gear when necessary.

With VP, you never knew what to expect from them at any given time. They could bomb out of a tournament one week, then go on to win the next. They constantly switched roles, positions, AWPs and in-game leaders like a demented juggling act. In only the past year have they stuck to a single IGL. But when they were in plow mode, they were nearly unstoppable. Virtus.Pro’s greatest strength is that they rise to the occasion without fail. They will never mentally check out of a game. If you want to win against them, you will have to rip the victory out of their cold dead hands. Perhaps that’s why the two cores of each team have had such an incredible rivalry against each other and produced some of the best games in CS:GO’s history. This conflict and tension in ideals and playstyles sparked the extra level of gameplay that elevates a great game to among the most memorable.

And this final was among the greatest series in CS:GO’s history. The two teams pushed each other to their absolute limits. For Astralis it was their first ever Major final against the most experienced team in CS:GO. It was against a team that don’t have the word “quit” in their dictionary. For Virtus.Pro, it was their first Major final since their fateful victory back in ESL Katowice in 2014. Neither team backed down, and it created the most explosive finals in Major history.

Dev1ce had been in God mode for the majority of the tournament, but Virtus.Pro largely shut him down. In his absence, Dupreeh and Kjaerbye had to step up — Kjaerbye most of all. After losing Nuke, Astralis was in a tight spot. For a moment it looked like Virtus.Pro was going to close out the finals 2-0, but they were stopped by Kjaerbye. His play under such pressure was always a possibility, but partially hypothetical. He had proven he could excel in the playoffs, but the ELEAGUE Major finals were an entirely different level of tension. His clutch plays over the final stretches of Overpass won Astralis that mount. The other player who came through was Xyp9x, who stepped up with one of the biggest plays of the tournament, stealing a critical round from Virtus.Pro with an impossible 1-v-3 clutch comeback.

With the series 1-1, it went to Train. In many ways Train was the perfect map for the final battleground. It was here that Astralis had killed SK in ritualistic combat to make themselves the best Train team in the world. Train was also the original home map of Virtus.Pro and one of the maps where Virtus.Plow was strongest. They showed that in the opening sequences of the game as they won the pistol with a brutal B rush. They penned Astralis within CT spawn and that was pretty much the story of the first half. Virtus.Pro stayed on the attack and Astralis had to pull out some miracle plays to even get to six rounds. They proceeded to lose the pistol on T-side and the first rifle round.

It was now gla1ve’s turn to step up as the in-game leader. The first sign of a comeback came when he blindsided VP’s defense with a force buy on the 20th round. He knew that Astralis was in no position to trade rounds with the traditional slow play. From there Gla1ve’s tactics continually threw Virtus.Pro off-kilter, as the team elected for bumrushing over calculated, slow offense. The riskiest decision of the game was when the game was tied at 14-14. With everything on the line, gla1ve called a full-on rush onto A-site. Few IGLs would’ve had the stones to commit to it. The gamble paid off and Astralis went on to close the game 16-14.

To the Stars!

In many ways, this was the perfect tournament to demonstrate why Astralis are the best team in the world. They have the deepest map pool in the game and they can win on both CT and T sides. The dev1ce, dupreeh and Kjaerbye triumvirate is one of the strongest in the world. Xyp9x is one of, if not the best, support players in the world. Gla1ve is one of the best fragging in-game leaders who manages to pull it all together. Unlike the previous iterations, they have the extra elements they need to take them over the line. Before, when Astralis choked, they imploded and became more and more passive. Now they have Kjaerbye making devil-may-care plays under pressure and gla1ve calling some of the boldest plays in the world.

There are no questions left for this team. Even with dev1ce having a mediocre final, they’ve shown they can beat Virtus.Pro at their best, and for Astralis the sky is the limit. With this victory, Astralis have taken off to the stars.

All photos courtesy of Turner Sports/ELEAGUE. Cover illustration by Slingshot

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