Photo: By Rich Lock for BLAST
I’ve been watching CS:GO for close to three years now. In that time I’ve spent countless hours watching and thinking about how one should model the macro aspects of CS:GO. After careful study, these are the core concepts and systems I’ve created to help me model and analyze the game. As the CS:GO Major is coming up soon, I hope that these concepts can help newer fans understand the subtleties and beauty of team Counter-Strike.
The Three Pillars, Pick, Trade, Flank
Fundamentally speaking I’ve come to believe that all aspects of team play and tactics are extrapolations of these three concepts: pick, trade, and flank. Each one those terms is fairly easy to define. Pick is the ability to get an opening frag for your team. Trade is the ability to trade kill or revenge frag your teammate in a skirmish. Flank is the ability to hit the enemy from an angle or direction that catches them off guard.
While the concepts are simple, when they interact and collide with each other, the game can create enormous depth. All top teams have a unique fingerprint that emphasizes each of the varying traits to different degrees and in how they execute them.
When I think of pick style Counter-Strike, the examples that spring to mind are Titan from 2014-2015, Na`Vi from 2015, and LG/SK from 2016. In all three of those teams I named, each of them had a world class AWPer. Titan had Kenny “kennyS” Schrub. Na`Vi had Ladislav “GuadiaN” Kovacs. LG/SK had Gabriel “FalleN” Toledo. All three teams ran a style of play that emphasized their star AWPers ability to find picks and force a 5v4 situation. They then used that to take map control which allowed them to do executes onto sites that emphasized their ability to trade frag into sites. In the case of Na`Vi and LG/SK, they were infamous for waiting until right to the last moment as it often emptied the CT-side resources and forced them to either make a gamble by either trying to get info or stacking a site, or playing standard and hoping that the crossfire on the site could hold.
The same pick style strategy is standard on the CT-side and is emphasized by teams that have a good AWPer. In the current era, Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz, Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev, and Tomas “oskar” Statny are the prominent examples. Between dev1ce and s1mple, they cover the two poles of a pick style CS team could deploy. In dev1ce’s case, he takes smart duels and plays within a structured system. In s1mple’s case, he is used to create space on his team and fill in holes. On Mirage, Na`Vi have a weak B-site defense so in order to cover it, they have s1mple switch to that site and defend it at times to create a gamble for other teams. On the CT-side, s1mple can play within the team or make solo aggressive plays that no one else would even dare to dream of. While AWPers are the standard of pick style tactics and strategies, this style of play is used with aggressive riflers as well. The best example from recent memory was Fernando “fer” Alvarenga from 2017. On both the T-side and CT-side, he consistently used his game sense, timing, and aim to find picks and win duels.
When it comes to trading the best examples are current Astralis and EnVyUs from 2014-2015. EnVyUs in 2014-2015 ran a 4-1 tactic that utilized the the individual skill of the players to break open sites and traded their way into them. The strength of the four pack then allowed Vincent “Happy” Cervoni to destroy teams with his lurking. As for Astralis, they are masters at doing a slow trade fragging style where they walk into a bombsite in tandem.
The most basic way to understand trading is to think of a theoretical hit on a bombsite like Mirage B. Five players come out on the B site against two defenders, one on short, one at bench. Both sides in this equations will be using the core principle of trading. For the T-side, if they lose the first player, that player will comm to the next and the subsequent player will trade him. The CT-side will trade that player and the third T-player will trade him. This leaves the situation in a 3v2 with the bomb down. That is just a basic scenario, but let’s add some examples to this.
Think of the Mathias “MSL” Lauridsen and Kristian “k0nfig” Wienecke combo of 2017. MSL wasn’t a skilled mechanical player so when he went in first, he often died. However k0nfig was an incredibly skilled player. So in this scenario MSL goes in and dies to the bench player, but he is able to create enough space for k0nfig to get the follow up kill, spin, and get the second as well. By creating the tactics and roles this way, the trading of that North squad becomes superior to the defense and they end in a postplant scenario of 4v3.
Another example to think about is the Marcelo “Coldzera” David and Epitacio “TACO” de Melo combo on this map. TACO often plays soft defense. Rather than going for the head-on duel, he will delay and keep himself alive for as long as possible so that Coldzera can bait him and for his team to rotate to the site. So if North is hitting the Mirage B-site and TACO
They were the two B players and between the, they had an inspirational level of teamplay that allowed them to perfectly play off of each other and severely damage any hit that went to that site. While trading seems like basic mathematics, in reality the outcome of any trade is hard to predict as various factors like timing, space, teamplay, skill, economy, and knowledge all change the way the game flows.
The third concept is flanking. In a game like Counter-Strike a player can fall within one shot or half a second either due to a headshot or a good spray. Because of that, the frag that has the highest chance of success is the one that the opponent cannot see coming and react to. Even if you’re the best player in the world, it won’t matter as you can’t shoot what you can’t see.
Among the three concepts, this is the hardest to unpack. When people think of flanking, players like Christopher “GeT_RiGhT” Alesund, Spencer “Hiko” Martin, and Happy come to mind. All three were players who made their name off of creating spectacular flanks from the lurker position. In general though, I consider it to be similar to the idea of space creation. For instance, a common tactic on Train is to split the outer site. One of the ways to do that is to take alley control with three players and then do a split with one player from pop, one from t-main, two coming from alley into the site, and one going around to CT-tunnels. In this way, the T-side has created multiple angles that cannot be covered at the same time from a single player. This puts stress on the players holding the site both individually and in terms of communication as everything will have to be on point to hold such an attack.
With these three concepts, you can extrapolate what what any particular tactic is trying to emphasize or what a team’s style is. For instance, when FaZe formed the superstar lineup their style was heavily based around pick and flank. They setup the default in such a way that GuardiaN and Nikola “NiKo” Kovac had room to get a pick on the T-side and should a pick happen, they generally used that to take more map control and find openings or flanks into the opponent’s defense. In the case that a pick wasn’t created, they often tried to drain the utility of the opposing side until both sides got to the point where neither had utility. This then created a bunch of aim duels and trading scenarios that should favor the FaZe side. Their CT-side worked much the same way. Pick, trade, flank. These are the three core ideas that explain how I model team Counter-Strike. While these are the three core pillars that can explain how Counter-Strike works, the four following principles are critical in understanding the execution of said principles.
Space is the most important concept to think about when trying to understanding what is a theoretically good play in Counter-Strike. It can mean a number of different things and is connected to every play that is made in the game. If we take the concepts of pick and flank, then a good example would be SK 2017. They ran a 1-1-1-1-1 default on Mirage. After taking map control, they had a player for palace, connector, window, cat, and B halls. Fer would then create space by controlling connector and often forcing the CT players in bad scenarios. This in turn gave space to the rest of the players to abuse rotations or have favorable angles as the CTs would then try to take map control somewhere else in retaliation. This is why teams like CLG emphasized slowing down Fer as much as possible on that map or outright killing him as without the point man, SK could not create the space they needed to close rounds.
One of the most famous examples is TACO on SK. When he was the entry fragger I’ve seen him sacrificed in a multitude of different ways. In one instance, when the team followed up on him, he’d run in wide and jumping to make himself as hard of a target as possible so that he created as much space and time possible so that the following player behind him had as much time and positioning as possible to follow up and trade him.
In another scenario, SK sometimes split their execute in two waves of utility. For instance on cobblestone, they’d throw the first wave they used and only sent out TACO. This created a fake as the defending team would then use all of their utility to hold off what they presumed to be the actual hit. So while TACO dies, he could in turn have wasted smokes, mollies, HES, and multiples flashes. Once the smokes fade, SK then re-execute again and create the perfect scenario for themselves to take the site thanks to TACO’s sacrifice.
The next principal to talk about is communication. This is the most ambiguous principle to talk about as we are not privy to how comms are structured or what is said in any particular game. So in order to analyze and model this, we have to break down all situations and categorize them into two types of information: known information and unknown information. For instance, I saw a Na`Vi game on Overpass where s1mple and Ioann “Edward” Sukhariev were retaking the B-bombsite. S1mple died in heaven to someone in pit and Edward had just killed someone on short and was coming into the site. Based on where his crossfire was looking, it was clear that he had no idea that the remaining player was in the pit area and he died.
From that example, we can know that there was a clear breakdown in communication, whether that be the team failing to communicate the situation to Edward or Edward failing to hear that communication.
The third principle to talk about is economics. The money situation of every round is critical as it details the limits of what can and cannot be possible in a single round. For instance BIG with full economy on T-side Train is different from BIG with overtime economy on T-side Train. In both cases, they can buy everything they want, but because you start with a bigger bank in overtime, BIG are allowed to take a higher risks and go for their double AWP pick tactic on Train which they used at the Major. Whereas in a normal full economy buy, they would never do that as the gain/loss value is far too high.
The best examples to think of when it comes to economics are Astralis and Na`Vi. Astralis is a team that can literally do every tactic and style possible. Because of that, when they are allowed to get to a full economy, that essentially means the entire playbook is open to them. They can do a dry hit onto a site, execute, play default, go for a pick style where they use the AWP, a lurker, or HE bombs, or even play a punish game.
How and what they do is combined with all information they have on hand. If they know for instance, that there is no way the enemy can afford an AWP in the next round, they can abuse that fact and have dev1ce look for picks or use pre-set nades to hit the likely spots of where a player is. If they know that the economy is lower, they can run a punish style where they take map control, bait out utility, and then wait for the CT-side to make a gamble for info and get a free pick. If the CT-side don’t do it, they then get the option of using all of their utility near the end of the round to completely break a site.
In a game like Counter-Strike, you have to limit the options of what the other team can do and the easiest way to do that is controlling the economy. In the case of Astralis, they have mastered the conservative approach towards economy which means they don’t take unnecessary peaks which means they lose less players per round compared to other teams. They also save more decisively than other teams and keep their own economy going which means they get to use their larger playbook more often.
In contrast to that, Na`Vi are more about breaking the opponents economy. They often forcebuy again and again and it works because they have the best duo in the game in s1mple and Denis “electronic” Sharipov. So if Na`Vi lose the pistol round, they can forceup, get those two players guns and rely on their skill to get a pick and snowball the game economically in their favor. Instead of expanding their own options, they limit the options of the opponent.
The final principle to talk about is skill. As this is an article about team Counter-Strike, I won’t get into the mechanics of what it means to be a skilled player. I will instead explain how skill relates to the principles of pick, trade, and flank. When it comes to skill, all teams try to do these two things: limit the enemies skill and emphasize their own. How that is executed changes completely from team to team and player to player.
For instance, when Astralis played Na`VI in the FACEIT Major Finals, they shut down s1mple on Nuke. After going over that VOD, I’ve come to the conclusion that throughout their entire T-half, they only ever gave s1mple one fair duel against Emil “Magisk” Reif, which Magisk won. In the rest of the half, they constantly isolated him from the action. If they did an execute on the upper site, they made sure to trade outside of the range of the AWP so s1mple couldn’t get in. When s1mple was playing outside, Astralis used their utility and forced him off the angles. When s1mple adapted and switched positions, Astralis pre-empted him and went somewhere else. S1mple was the win condition for Na`Vi, but Astralis entire system did not allow that to come into play in those finals.
Among all of the various factors that goes into Counter-Strike, skill probably has the highest variance of any of them. Some days a star player is hot, and some days they aren’t. It is up to the system and leader to find a way to make that skill shine consistently just as it is up to the opposing system and leader to deny and keep the opposing enemy team’s skill down.
Bringing it All Together
The game of Counter-Strike is always working on multiple different levels, many of which cannot be seen by the public eye. On the individual level, you have a single player’s understanding within their playstyle. Then there is the level of understanding a player’s role within the team. The understanding of how the team functions and how that dynamic works against the opponent. Above that is the mutual understanding of the meta and how their players and teams either subvert or comport to the meta.
When I started to watch CS:GO years ago, there was too much information to process. As I’ve come to study it further, I think these are the seven fundamental concepts that I’ve found to be the most useful in examining any particular round or game. While there is more depth in both micro and macro elements of the game, these are the core seven that I consider to be fundamental in spectating Counter-Strike. Hopefully this guide will help newer fans come to understand the depths and beauty that I’ve come to spectate in CS:GO.