IEM Katowice quarter-finals preview
The first two stages of the Major are behind us and the quarter-finals are set to kick off on Thursday with the first two pairs. Here is our preview of the first round of the playoffs at IEM Katowice.
Natus Vincere vs. FaZe (Thursday, 16:00)
Initially, there was some worry as to what Na`Vi would show up in Katowice after Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko's self-deprecating interview in which the veteran in-game leader stated that a top-eight finish at the Major would be a "decent result", but now there should be no doubt that his team are in good enough shape to go far after they went 3-1 in the New Legends Stage. Na`Vi's only loss was in a series to Liquid, which was to be expected given the history between the two sides, while they beat G2, Vitality, and AVANGAR – three teams who didn't make it through.
Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev led the pack during the previous stage (surprise, surprise), while Denis "electronic" Sharipov was stable but has yet to put in a big performance at the Major. When it comes to the 20-year-old, you have to consider whether his heart is fully in it when his wife could be giving birth any minute now, but that hasn't been a big issue thus far as Egor "flamie" Vasilyev has been stepping up his game with a few great maps, especially in the triple-overtime affair against Nathan "NBK-" Schmitt's team that swung the map in Na`Vi's favor.
On the other hand, FaZe have looked anything but convincing. Their close losses to Renegades and AVANGAR will tell you that already, but even their win against Complexity was way too close for comfort as the team barely escaped elimination, while the deciding series against Cloud9 saw Nikola "NiKo" Kovač & co. let a game they led 15-4 on the Terrorist side of Cache go to all 30 rounds. Those are some worrying signs for FaZe ahead of their quarter-finals affair against Na`Vi and a big reason why Zeus's squad look like the clear favorites in the opening match of the playoffs.
It's also hard to see where FaZe could go with the veto. They have been dynamic, banning their opponents' best maps almost every time, which should mean they will remove Overpass to counter Na`Vi's Cache ban. However, it could go almost anywhere from there depending on where FaZe are comfortable. The most likely course of action seems to be a Dust2 pick from Janko "YNk" Paunović's side, while Natus Vincere could go for Mirage and aim for Train as the decider with an Inferno ban in the second rotation. However, Nuke could play a big part as FaZe have left it open against Cloud9 and Renegades (two teams who barely play the map, to be fair), so keep an eye on how they approach the map in the upcoming veto – we could see this lineup play it for the first time.
Liquid vs. ENCE (Thursday, 19:50)
After starting the year with a title-winning campaign at iBUYPOWER Masters, Liquid have lived up to the status of one of the main favorites of IEM Katowice, coming in for the second stage as one of the Returning Legends. There, they went 3-0 as expected, although with each win being quite close as the North American side played out two narrow Overpass matches against AVANGAR and NiP, and a best-of-three series featuring a tight Mirage encounter with Natus Vincere.
ENCE have been in Katowice a week longer, having taken part in the the first stage as a team who came from the Europe Minor. The Finns have had a rollercoaster of a ride, kicking things off with a 2-0 record in the first stage before losing to Renegades and just scraping by Winstrike to advance to the last-16 stage, where they had to come back from a 0-2 start following another loss to Renegades and one to HellRaisers, stepping it up in series to beat BIG, G2, and AVANGAR.
Even without the Finnish side looking shaky, there would be no question as to who should be going through to the semi-finals from this series. Liquid are on a quest to claim their first Major trophy as one of the two best teams in the world, while for four of ENCE's players this will be the first playoff appearance at a tournament of this magnitude. There is no awkward playstyle clash or surprise factor playing in the favor of Aleksi "allu" Jalli's team, as they are very sensible in their approach, something the North American side is simply better at and very much used to even if they have never faced ENCE before, and they have better individual players across the board on top of that. The only way Aleksi "Aleksib" Virolainen & co. have a reasonable chance is if Liquid start underperforming without any warning whatsoever.
This series will be important to watch nonetheless because it could be a big tell on the map pool of Liquid, who have yet to play Nuke and Train with this lineup, which could very well change in this series. With ENCE having a 12-0 record on the latter, it seems obvious that Eric "adreN" Hoag's team will ban it, while the Finns could try to have a stab at Nuke to try to take advantage of Liquid's lack of experience on it. The North American team has multiple avenues to try, and it almost doesn't matter which one they'll choose because they are bound to get two maps they are very comfortable on in the series with Cache out of the picture as ENCE's permaban.
Renegades vs. MIBR (Friday, 16:00)
After impressing in the first stage of the Major, going undefeated after beating AVANGAR, NiP, and ENCE, Aaron "AZR" Ward and company continued to surprise in the second with another strong run, which saw them clinch a playoffs spot with a 3-1 record, with their only loss so far across both stages suffered at the hands of Astralis. But even that series looked quite promising from the Aussie squad, at least the start of it, as they came back from a 5-14 deficit on Mirage to take a map off the Danes.
Renegades have surpassed everyone's expectations with their run already, especially considering what a marathon it has been for them, as they had started it with a bootcamp in Poland before the Minors began and have stayed there since. Aleksandar "kassad" Trifunović's men have clearly capitalized on all of that preparation, as their strategies are looking polished and detailed, the map pool is stronger, and most of the individuals look in solid shape.
We have quite a different story on the other side in MIBR, who avoided every official appearance since the new-old lineup got together at the end of last year and have only played four maps, all of them at the Major. Their debut went horribly wrong, as Cloud9 stunned them 16-3 on Inferno in the opening match, but the Brazilians quickly warmed up to the competition and went 3-0 from that point, defeating Complexity, G2, and NiP to retain Legends status on the back of great showings from Marcelo "coldzera" David, who was the second-highest rated player of the second stage with a 1.38 rating.
This clash might be the hardest of the four to predict simply because of the lack of information on MIBR and their map pool, as they played Inferno three times, Mirage once, and Train once, while Renegades have proven how strong their pool is by playing six maps throughout the first two stages (all but Overpass). The Oceanic team could be looking at Cache – a map we haven't seen MIBR on and one they have vetoed almost as much as their presumed permaban in Nuke – or Mirage, which they also like very much, while for MIBR Inferno seems to be as much of a favorite as it is for Renegades, which could just mean they'll leave it for the decider and pick something else. In any case, because of how little we know of the Brazilians' strengths, Renegades look like they have the upper hand in the veto, which puts a bit of a twist on this series.
Astralis vs. NiP (Friday, 19:50)
Much like Liquid, their rivals Astralis have delivered on their promise by going 3-0, although it wasn't all smooth sailing for the Danes, who lost a map in the process due to a very poor Terrorist half of Mirage against Renegades in the third round. That was the only worrying sign for Astralis throughout this second stage of IEM Katowice, as they won all of the other four maps more than convincingly, so much so that they added another 16-0 victory at a Major, this time against Cloud9 on Train.
NiP struggled in the first stage against some of the lower-tier competition, scraping through to the second with a 3-2 record. As they went up against tougher, more established opponents in the New Legends stage, they seemed to step things up with wins against NRG, HellRaisers, and Vitality, while losing a close Overpass with Liquid and a series to MIBR to go 3-2 once more and claim Legends status for the first time since MLG Columbus 2016.
For Astralis, it has been all about their impeccable basics and fantastic teamplay as usual, while NiP has (just as characteristically) relied much more on some individual performances, mainly from Patrik "f0rest" Lindberg and Fredrik "REZ" Sterner, who were in great shape throughout most of the first two stages. The star duo will need to keep that up against the best team in the world for the Swedes to have a sliver of a chance, but even then the odds will be stacked against them.
NiP will essentially start the series down 0-1 no matter whether they'll risk banning Nuke, which would result in a Dust2 pick from Astralis, or playing it. It's a losing situation either way, so they'll have to make the most of it and pick Mirage for their best chance of equalizing the series, as Train has been quite shaky for them at the Major. Astralis's incredibly strong map pool allows them to go anywhere they like for the third map and still be heavily favored, especially with NiP's Overpass record also looking shoddy, but we have seen the Swedish side go against similar odds in the past and still get away with some close results against the Danes, so there is still some hope for them.