Gone, but not to be forgotten: The legacy of Astralis, the greatest team of all time (Part 1)
As the most successful team to ever grace our game was finally laid to rest this year, we look back on the legacy that they have left indelibly etched into CS:GO history.
The Astralis lineup that won three back-to-back Majors was, without a doubt, the greatest team to ever touch the game of Counter-Strike. Their dominance was unparalleled, they drove forward the meta of the game, and they forever cemented their place in the pantheon of the greatest teams.
However, many will not understand or appreciate their full history, their rise from talented also-rans to indomitable masters of all they surveyed. The tale of the core of that Astralis team, of Nicolai "device" Reedtz, Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen and Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth, goes back all the way to 2013.
Come with me on a stroll down memory lane, as we follow the journey of that fabled core as they rise through the ranks of the CS:GO elite and eventually cement themselves as legends of the game.
The early days — learning, growing, and choking
device, dupreeh and Xyp9x began their journey in the Danish scene on CPH Wolves and then Dignitas under the leadership of respected CS:Source IGL Henrik "FeTiSh" Christensen. The early days were a tale that is common of talented youngsters, of impressing but never quite fulfilling their full potential. The major issue suffered by this squad, and by device in particular, was choking; they seemed to drop in level significantly whenever they got to the business end of a tournament.
By 2014 they were cementing themselves as one of the top teams in the world, but they still suffered from nagging underperformance when it mattered most, and they seemed to specifically struggle against Ninjas in Pyjamas. Take the EMS One Katowice Major as a case study; they came into the event in red-hot form, spanked iBUPOWER, Reason and HellRaisers on their way to the semi-finals, only to be spanked themselves by the Ninjas.
February of 2015 is when the rise truly began, with the arrival of Finn "karrigan" Andersen and the switch to playing under TSM. As the leader himself admitted in an interview with Duncan "Thorin" Shields in later years, the team were very receptive to all of his ideas due to their perpetual underperformance. His arrival also seemed to inject some confidence into them, and they set about cementing themselves as a top-two team in the world, winning events more regularly and finally managing to take important series wins over perennial nemesis NIP. They even spent a couple of weeks as the number one team in the world, briefly snatching the top spot from fnatic after a storming run at the PGL Season 1 Finals, sweeping that event with 6 map wins, 0 losses. But there were two major problems that would haunt this iteration of the team — consistency and Majors.
They would win tournaments and generally place well, but there were annoyingly frequent blips — a 7-8th at ESL ESEA Pro League S1 for example, which included an embarrassing defeat to Brazilians Keyd, who counted Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo and Fernando "fer" Alvarenga among their number, some time before they became top CS:GO professionals.
It also seemed they were simply cursed when it came to the Majors. Their first swing under the TSM banner was a miss at ESL One Katowice 2015, which was understandable; it was still early days with karrigan at the helm, and they received an unfortunate draw in the form of — you guessed it — NIP in the quarter-finals, where they fell 1-2. The next Major, ESL One Cologne, saw them suffer in the semi-finals at the hands of the Frenchmen of Envy, the squad that seemed to be slowly joining NIP as a team that the Danes could never beat. The final Major under the TSM banner was the most egregious, DreamHack Open Cluj-Napoca, as it was the one even karrigan later admitted that they had entered as favourites and No. 1 team in the world. Fate is a cruel mistress, as once again they were pitted against bogey-team NIP in the quarter-final and went out of the tournament with a whimper, 0-2, managing 10 rounds at best.
It wasn't long after this that the switch to the Astralis banner came. There is plenty that can be said, with the benefit of hindsight, about the fanfare that surrounded this switch to a supposedly 'player-owned' organisation, but that's probably a topic best saved for another time. What it meant for the players was the switch to an organisation based in their homeland, one that most certainly appreciated them far more than TSM ever did, and one that could hopefully push them on to greater heights.
The move was followed by more top placings without quite touching the heights of the peak-TSM days, always a top-four team but struggling to kick on. Another Major failure, this time a top-four at Columbus, seemed to sour the atmosphere within the team, and a severe slump in form followed this. Placing 9-12th at DreamHack Masters Malmö and 7-8th at Pro League S3 was simply not good enough for a team of Astralis' calibre, and a roster move was the chosen solution, with Markus "Kjaerbye" Kjærbye coming in for René "cajunb" Borg. It was something of a strange move, considering cajunb had always been more of a role-player in the squad and Kjaerbye was a rising star of the Danish scene, dropping 30 kills on a regular basis and posting 1.50+ HLTV ratings. It seemed, with device and dupreeh already the designated star players and Xyp9x being the third star and middleman, they were cramming too many players that would need resources to succeed into the squad.
Unfortunately, that seemed to be confirmed by the run the team went on immediately after acquiring Kjaerbye, a string of decent but uninspiring top-fours and 5-8th finishes. It looked inevitable which head would next be on the chopping block, and sure enough, after crashing out of ESL One New York with a single map and flopping at the WESG regional finals, karrigan got the boot. Rumours that the team were losing faith in the in-game leader's loose calling style were already flying behind the scenes, with karrigan admitting he had given in to the team's desire to play a more structured style leading up to the New York event.
A new leader, a new dawn
Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander, an IGL previously bouncing around the Danish scene, came into Astralis, and the upswing in form was almost immediate. The team began performing well in the ECS regular season, went to IEM Oakland and made it to top-four, grabbed second place at the ELEAGUE Season 2 event that followed, and clinched their first trophy mere months into gla1ve's tenure with a victory at ECS Season 2 Finals. This run of form saw them climb to the No. 1 spot in the world once again, and they entered another Major at the pinnacle of the CS:GO mountain.
Somehow, they didn't quite feel like favourites for the ELEAGUE Major 2017, though. The image of perennial chokers still followed them, as they were a team who could still beat themselves inside their own heads before even connecting to the server. There were many in the scene who were weary to predict Astralis to win this Major, despite everything pointing to the fact that they were indeed the favourites. Their opening game did little to soothe concerns, as they were convincingly battered by the Swedes of GODSENT, and they had to claw their way back in the Swiss system from not just this but another setback, the next coming in the form of a painful 17-19 overtime loss to previous Major winners, the Brazilians of SK.
As if they were fated to dispel the 'choke artist' label that had been applied to them, and more specifically to device, Astralis' run at this major was characterised by the team battling through tough challenges. No match was more indicative of this than the final, a three-map slog against the legendary Polish Virtus.pro line-up where the Danes had to come back from a map down, grinding to their first-ever major victory with two 16-14 wins. It didn't even matter that device had gone missing in the final, as young upstart Kjaerbye led the way and in doing so secured himself a Major MVP medal.
You'd be forgiven for expecting this to have been the start of the Astralis era. They seemed to have everything going for them; they were the No. 1 team in the world, they had just secured a Major title, the young rifler they had brought in had carried them to that title, and they legitimately had four players who could vie for a spot in the HLTV top 20. The Astralis era was teased, as at the next three tournaments they won IEM Katowice, placed top four at DreamHack Masters Las Vegas and second at StarSeries Season 3. That made three wins out of seven tournaments, a Major included, and a further two runner-up finishes. After this, however, the Danes began to falter.
They failed to make the finals of ESL Pro League Season 5. A top four at ECS Season 3 saw them slip off the top of the world rankings, and this was followed by the PGL Major Krakow. Top four was all they could manage here, bested in the semi-finals by a Danylo "Zeus" Teslenko-inspired Gambit, who would go on to win the whole thing. Astralis were supposed to have developed beyond suffering this kind of upset, but surely they would recover from this and kick on?
Between Krakow and the next Major, ELEAGUE 2018, Astralis did not win a single event. They managed only two top-two placings. They had regressed to pre-TSM levels of results, earning regular playoff berths but never managing to win anything. There is something of an asterisk next to this period, as they did see device leave the team for a period with medical issues, and this obviously affected their placings, but in any case this is not a successful few pages in the Astralis history book. This period culminated with the frankly shocking performance upon device's return at the ELEAGUE 2018, as they failed to make it out of the Swiss group stage, managing a single laboured 16-14 win against fellow Danes North, with three losses where they failed to make it to double digits.
You would think that this would have signalled roster moves in the near future, and it did, but not for the reason you might expect. Kjaerbye did end up leaving Astralis for North, but it was on his own terms; he was not kicked from the team and the rest of Astralis were expecting him to re-sign, along with themselves, to the org for another year. gla1ve, when breaking the news on his Twitter, said he was left "speechless" by the move. It seemed a shocking transfer, as despite an underwhelming year, Astralis were still comfortably the best team in Denmark; Kjaerbye even looked aware of this fact himself, commenting of the move that "sometimes in life you need the courage to take a step backwards in order to move forward." Astralis were left scrambling to find a fifth, as the roster lock for ESL Pro League was mere days away.
Enter Emil "Magisk" Reif.
... To be continued in Part 2.