Astralis at the Stockholm Major: Last hurrah, or new dynasty?
Will this be the final Major for our game's greatest ever core, or the beginning of a new chapter in their history?
Astralis are the most successful organisation in the history of Counter-Strike. That is undeniable; the litany of tournament wins, the months upon months spent at the very top of the world rankings, the Majors to their name. Four Majors to be precise, the last three they have won on the bounce. At this point, with two years having passed since the last, it is almost difficult to remember anyone but Astralis winning a major; indeed, many newer fans of the game watching now will have never experienced anyone other than the great Danes winning. The Stockholm Major gives the legendary core that has powered this incredible period of success another chance to further etch their names indelibly in the CS history books.
With all of that context in mind, somebody who stopped paying attention to competitive Counter-Strike in 2019 could be forgiven for thinking that Astralis must be coming into this major as the red-hot favourites, and the thought of anybody else winning it must be far from anyone's mind. They would of course, be wrong.
2021 has been a bizarre year for Astralis, there is no getting around that fact. They started by kicking off their year with relative success, placing top-two at the BLAST Global Finals, only being bested by a phenomenal lower bracket run from a Aleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev-powered Natus Vincere. Form after this event quickly dipped, a run of underwhelming finishes that belied the team's stature and pedigree seemingly coming out of nowhere; whilst 2020 had not been a peak year for Astralis, and saw members of the team battling with burnout, it was still filled with tournament trophies and months spent as the #1 team. This period culminated with an immediate exit at the BLAST Spring Showdown, the team capitulating at the hands of OG, a top-10 team in the world, but one that a full strength Astralis would brush aside.
Soon, a bombshell would drop that had already been hinted towards in an interview before the tournament, and would explain the sudden slip in form. Nicolai "device" Reedtz was leaving the team. The world of CS stood still for a moment, as it contemplated the unthinkable. The trio of device, Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen, and Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth, that we had grown accustomed to watching dominate the scene, would finally be separating after nearly eight years together and having won just about everything there was to win in the game. Having already written history together, they would not see it through to a shot at a fifth major title. Astralis were losing not just a world-class AWPer and regular top-three player in the world, but a talismanic presence, a key part of the identity of the team.
Their star player leaving for pastures new seemed it may be but the first domino, as other rumours began to circulate. zonic was also looking to get out, a potential replacement coach became embroiled in scandal, and the core was supposedly on the course of breaking up. These distractions were not only unhelpful for the current form of the team but also hurdles that would stand between them and further etching their name in the history of the game with the return of Majors looming.
The consolidation period has not been smooth sailing either, as first the team attempted to move on without bringing an AWPer into the fold. Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander quickly realised that returning to the top without a dedicated AWPer was unlikely, and thus Philip "Lucky" Ewald was brought on board. Even this manoeuvre proved to be anything but simple, as first Xyp9x was placed on the bench to make room, before being brought back into the team to stand-in for gla1ve as his child was born, only to then remain in the team in favour of Lucas "Bubzkji" Andersen upon gla1ve's return.
So the person we talked about earlier who hasn't paid attention since 2019, having been given all of this new information, might be forgiven for thinking that Astralis have absolutely no hope of getting anywhere near this Major title, and should be thankful for even making it to Stockholm. Once again, they would be wrong.
The immense success and experience of the core of gla1ve, Xyp9x, dupreeh, and Magisk cannot be understated, and they will be further motivated to prove that they can succeed without device; "device leaving the team gave me a lot of motivation," Magisk said in an interview just after the move. "It gave me the hunger to prove that it wasn't the correct decision." This is still 4/5 of the team that won three Majors on the bounce and countless other tournaments across years of play, and it would be foolish to underestimate them. They are also a core that has dipped in form previously, suffered through the difficulties of the BLASTralis era, and still come out the other side to dominate once again. Considering the sheer number of Major debutants, many of whom are playing their first notable LAN even, the experience of Astralis could be an absolutely vital factor in giving them an edge over the competition.
Their IEM Cologne run should not be forgotten either. This event felt like something of a warmup to the Major; the first LAN in a long time, featuring all of the best teams in the world competing in a robust format. The great Danes smashed all expectations, storming to a top four finish that featured marquee victories over nemesis Heroic, a FaZe team on a heater that would make top four themselves, and then world #6 Virtus.pro. They eventually lost to a G2 in red hot form, and it was in extremely close fashion, going to three maps and only losing the decider 16-14. If an Astralis not at the peak of their powers can perform like this, and let us remember this event was prior to the acquisition of Lucky, then what might they manage at a Major with a dedicated AWPer and time to work on a new system?
Of course, we must also explore the play of the newcomer. Lucky has settled surprisingly well into the team, especially for an AWPer who was not posting the astronomical numbers at tier two of players like Volodymyr "Woro2k" Veletniuk or Ilya "m0NESY" Osipov. It was always going to be an impossible task to replace device, a player of near unrivalled consistency in almost every statistical area of the game, and Astralis and Lucky have made the intelligent decision to not attempt to. Instead, Lucky has carved himself a niche in the team built around several key aspects of his play.
Firstly, he is a strong clutch player, being second in his team for successful clutches both at EPL and BLAST, and being first for his team and second at the entire event for IEM Fall. Secondly, he rarely dies, posting very low DPR numbers across all three tournaments, something incredibly important for a player that wields the most expensive gun used in pro play. Thirdly, he is surprisingly effective in finding opening kills. He had the highest success rate in opening duels for his team at EPL and BLAST and was second at IEM, whilst being second for opening kills per round at the former two, despite having generally low attempt percentages compared to his teammates.
All of these features of his play make him, above all else, a stable presence. He does not have stellar ratings, or kill totals, or damage stats. He is reliable, and this is exactly the kind of presence Astralis need from a rookie if they are trying to construct a winning formula ahead of the Major with precious little time to prepare.
Astralis have also, maybe most importantly of all, settled some of the transfer rumours hovering over the heads of the squad. gla1ve has been tied down with a three-year extension to his current deal, with Xyp9x only recently extending his own contract into 2025. Bringing stability to a roster that looked on the verge of collapsing cannot be understated in terms of its importance, as it will only serve to further motivate two veterans to build another dynasty that will last in the long term and be something they can be proud of.
Looking to the Challengers stage itself, where Astralis will begin their journey for a fifth Major title, signs also look promising. They will be considered among the favourites to advance to the next stage, and considering they only need two map wins and a best-of-three win to do so, it seems likely that they will get the job done. Beyond this, everything is up in the air; the field will be incredibly strong for the Legends stage, and the added pressure of it being a Major skews any potential predictions.
One thing is certain. This Astralis core will not go quietly into the night. They will fight tooth and nail, and gla1ve will use every resource and ounce of cunning at his disposal, to create a winning formula that can do justice to the legacy they've created, and give themselves a chance to build upon it further. Write off Astralis at your own peril, because the greatest core of all time arrives at this Major with everything to prove.