Photo: By Helena Kristiansson for ESL
If we were going by the eye test alone, Astralis looks to be the perfect team. On paper they have an incredibly balanced lineup of skill across the board with the correct roles for every player across arguably all seven maps (even though we haven’t seen them play any cache). They’ve just finished the most dominant year any CS:GO lineup has ever had in 2018. There are a vast array of ways to dissect, analyze, and discuss the how, what, and why of the Astralis lineup. The aspect I want to focus on in this article is their T-side. For me it’s one of the most intriguing aspects about this lineup as the deeper I dive into it, the more I feel like I’m drowning in the depths of what Astralis are capable of. For the Astralis T-side, nothing is true and everything is permitted.
According to legend, these were the famous last words of Hassan i Sabbah. How you interpret that maxim is up to you. In the context of CS:GO T-side, I’d say that there are no true universal maxims in what is the correct answer. That everything can be used within the right context or meta. That is potentially one of the reasons why Counter-Strike as a game has survived for so long as each generation has brought the game their own answers that are both reflections of the past and new unique takes that show their individual identity as players and teams.
I believe Astralis are the epitome of this ideal in CS:GO. Consider a moment their players and their respective roles. The current lineup is: Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz, Peter “Dupreeh” Rasmussen, Andreas “Xyp9x” Hojsleth, Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander, and Emil “Magisk” Reif. These are the respective roles or areas by which they divvy up responsibility on the T-side in terms of roles.
Dev1ce: AWPer, rifle lurker, sometimes entries.
Dupreeh: Aggressive lurker, map control player with gla1ve, and entry player
Xyp9x: Supportive wing player, closer
Gla1ve: Map control, entry pack, lurker
Magisk: Passive solo player, lurker, potential entry pack player
Each player’s has a specified role within the system that allows them a comfortable place on nearly every single map. There is no role that doesn’t fit a particular player’s strengths in the context of their own individual play and in the context of the team itself. This is the base synergy that Astralis work with. In terms of a default, they have dev1ce and variable lurker players. In terms of supportive end players, they have gla1ve and Xyp9x on both ends of the equation. A sacrificial entry fragger and the person who enables the others through passive play at the back. They have a level of aggression in Dupreeh and gla1ve when it comes to taking map control. This is balanced by Magisk and xyp9x being more passive map control players. Finally, they also have a variable entry pack set as that role is infamously inconsistent, but with so many players able to come in and out of that role, they can easily switch it up if needed.
This team essentially has a balanced set of every individual tool you’d need to build a tactical T-side. On top of that, they have the best coach-leader pairing in the game with Danny “zonic” Sorensen and gla1ve at the head of the operation. With this many tools, Astralis are able to pull out every type of call and tactic anyone has pulled in history to a remarkable effective degree.
Their basic default and teamplay combined with their continued practice regime to innovate their play puts their default at a level similar to Fnatic of 2015 or SK in 2017. If we’re talking about 4-1 style calls, they have the strengths of LDLC/EnVyUs, but have far more variability in terms of the play style of the lurker and the entry pack. If we’re talking about executes, they’re probably the best the game has seen already and can only really be compared to Astralis of 2017 or potentially Mathias “MSL” Lauridsen’s North lineups. If it’s the slow default map control into last second execution, they match that of Na`Vi in 2015. Or they can use their own slow style execute they pioneered in 2017 which allowed them to do fantastic mid-round calls and rotations.
Duncan “Thorin” Shields once called them the GSP of Counter-Strike. That they had an incredible toolkit to disarm, frustrate, and diminish the strengths of the opponents. When I tried to analyze and break them down, the team they reminded me most of was Wings at TI6. To understand that analogy though, first I’ll have to explain the concept of tells.
In poker, tells are physical reactions that a player unconsciously have that trigger under a specific set of circumstances. For instance, if you have a great hand then a new player may start tapping their foot on the ground out of excitement. While esports is played in video games, tells still very much exist. One of the most concrete examples I can give is the Starcraft 2 player Park “Squirtle” Hyun Woo.
In the game of SC2, players have to execute build orders and each build order is unique in what advantage it gives a player, whether that be tech, army, or economy. Because of that players understand that information is at a premium and if a player can read the build order of the opposing player, they can come up with a counter-strategy to beat them. Squirtle understood this concept and so in a group filled with Terrans, he came up with a single opener. In every game, he opened with an observer and stalkers in PvT. The point of this was to deny any potential scouts. From there he had essentially four different tech paths. One led to a gateway all-in. Another led to a blink stalker all-in. A third led to an immortal bust. The fourth was a DT drop.
Each tech path required a wildly different answer than the one before. Against a gateway all-in, the Terran needed bunkers and an army. Against blink stalkers, they needed Marauders, Against an immortal all-in, they’d want marines. Against DTs, they’d need detection.
In the game of Dota2, Wings broke the game and in a sense we can say that all of Dota2 history can be written as pre-Wings TI6 and post-Wings TI6. No one knows how they did it or by what process they came to think of it, but that Wings team in 2016 came up with the idea of open Dota. Before they played, a majority of heroes and players followed along certain archetypes and roles. While there was still a large level of freedom, people were a bit more set in the rules and ideas of what had happened before. In the case of Wings, they broke every rule. They played the most open style of Dota2 anyone had ever seen as all of their players had an incredibly high understanding of the mechanics of their heroes, their itemization, and how those heroes interacted with all other heroes.
That playstyle was incredibly enigmatic to figure out, especially in the draft. One of the most famous memes to come out of China that year was of Peter “PPD” Dager trying to figure out their draft.
In five different games, they chose 25 different heroes. They only repeated three picks, each one twice: Elder Titan, Timbersaw, and Rubick. Outside of that, they had no repeating heroes. In Dota2, the draft is a simulation of how each team models and thinks about the game. What happens then if you have a team that can draft anything and play anything? In that case there are no tells as to what kind of heroes Wings like to play around or what kind of style of play they liked as they had every tool in the book and thus could play whatever they wanted.
In that sense, Astralis may be the closest analogy I’ve seen to Wings. When I broke down Astralis’ T-side, I looked at the six different maps they liked to play: Nuke, Train, Inferno, Dust2, Overpass, and Mirage. While they have a ridiculous win rate on all of them, I’d say that the three maps where I’d rate their tactical T-sides the highest are Overpass, Inferno, and Nuke. I believe that is no accident. The way those three maps are structured perfectly play into Astralis hands as a team that can both do everything and be at the cutting edge of the meta.
So what differentiates those three maps from Train, Dust2, and Mirage. I’d say it is how much map control Astralis can take. I’ll skip Nuke for now because that’s a unique case. In the case of Overpass and Inferno, I’d say that Astralis can consistently take large swaths of the map and force the CT-sides into be penned into small areas with little to no information. On Overpass, Astralis can consistently take long, mid, connector, and water. On Inferno, Astralis have continually shown they can take banana and top mid control. In contrast to that on Train, the Ts don’t have really have as strong of an equivalence to that. While popdog acts as a connector for the Ts to rotate from B to A, it is an area that CTs can generally control with ease. Even then, if they let it go, they aren’t punished nearly as hard as when the Ts have control of connector on Overpass.
In the case of Mirage, the Ts can take mid control, but in order to do it they need three or four players to safely take it. Even then, the CTs players can either limit how far the containment goes or counter attack to the sides, whether that’s through controlling B halls, palace, or T-ramp. While Mirage is still a very strong t-sided map, it doesn’t fully allow all of Astralis tools to shine. As for Dust2, it cedes a lot of control to the T-side which is why it is a T-sided map. Because of that, it’s harder to differentiate Astralis’ T-side from other top Dust2 teams as it’s an easier map to dominate from that side.
Now we can get to Nuke, Overpass, and Inferno. What I think makes Astralis excel so much on these maps is the fact that they are essentially doing what Squirtle did with his build order or what Wings do with their draft. In all three maps they have specific timings (that evolve from tournament to tournament) through which they take map control and from there they have all of the options by which they can choose.
For instance on Overpass, their opening hand can be something like they use smokes on short and the toilets area every round. From there they’ll have a few variations as to how they take the rest of the map. They can go long and sweep through, go through mid and then take long and connector control, go from mid to crunch on connector and water, or do a B execute.
If they just take all of the map control, then the CT-side will have to think of the a multitude of setups. Are Astralis going to do a 4-1 strat, are they going to do the Na`Vi style last minute execute, are they going to do their own slow style hit, or full execute? On top of that, the variations of how they place each of the players means that there is no singular setup that can counter every variation that Astralis could throw at the opponent. This style of play also extends to Inferno. But it is on Nuke that we can see Astralis’ Magnum Opus.
Nuke is known as the most CT-sided map in all of CS:GO history. While there have been endless discussions as to what side is better to start on in Counter-Strike: T-side or CT-side, no discourse has ever been attempted on Nuke. It was clearly always better to start on the CT-side as that was by far the easier side. There are multiple reasons for this. If you run out hut or squeak, you’re liable to die. If you go out yard and push too far, there are too many holes to check so CT players can easily break anyone that is going that way. Ramp and secret are generally considered the best options, but both are essentially transitional points of defense and allow for the CTs a chance to get a kill or fall back with the info and call for rotates.
What Astralis have done on the map is remarkable. I believe their T-side strength comes down to three factors. First is the strength of their slow style executes on the upper-side. Second is their ability to communicate and model the entire map in their minds and thus abuse rotations to a degree no one has ever matched. Third, they have the ability to completely obscure any kind of tells that they have when it comes to map control.
In the case of the first, Astralis are notorious for strong executes, but what makes them incredible is how methodical they seem to be. For instance, if they execute on the upper site and someone like Magisk gets one or two picks, they can do one of two things. They can continue pushing if they’ve already taken a lot of the ground or if Magisk just happened to kill two players at heaven before the push really gets underway, they will backtrack and avoid any trade scenarios. This in turn works into their second strength which is communication. Even though I’m talking about their T-side, Astralis CT-side is also the best we’ve ever seen on Nuke. In an HLTV interview Xyp9x said that he believes the reason for that is because of their communication, “I think the secret on Nuke is our CT side, we know when to rotate and when to back up and I think we have the best setups, as well. Nuke is a lot about rotations and getting your communications right.”
Astralis understand the minute details of where communication breaks down on the CT-side and have fixed them with their own game understanding. If that’s the case, then they also understand what kind of scenarios breaks communication down and can exploit that against opponents. It is why we so often see Astralis out-rotate and out-position the CT-side.
The third factor is the ability to obscure tells. In this instance, I’ll give three examples of map control Astralis are liable to use. The first is the typical yard smokes that lead to secret. The second is no yard smokes. The third are the execute nades they throw onto the site. In the first example, Astralis have eight different variations they can run from that play if we assume that gla1ve is sent solo. The variations increase if they send one, two or three players with him, but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll assume that gla1ve is sent by himself.
This is a list of variations of how the round can play out from this point:
- Astralis take ramp and do a 4-1 onto the B site
- Astralis take ramp and this allows for gla1ve to lurk onto yard, B-site or to wrap on heaven/hell
- A pick happens and Astralis play rotational CS
- They deny any information a secret player can get and then do a split onto the A-site
- Gla1ve denies any information a secret player can get and they execute onto the A-site
- They fake a split onto the A-site and go B
- They do an Execute and after getting into a power play advantage, play off rotational CS
- They do a last second execute onto one of the sites after taking map control of secret/yard and ramp.
The moves get more complicated the further we go down as variations also include different individual plays they make, the utility they use, and how they shift the players in a split. What makes Astralis remarkable is that this is only one part of one branch of their playbook for Nuke. As I’ve noted before, they also have variations for when they use no smokes or for A exec nades. I won’t go too much into detail, but essentially all three branches play into each other. For instance, in the variation where they don’t use utility outside, Astralis are still willing to take yard control. This means that the CT-side still have to respect that as an option whereas for other teams this is a tell that they are going ramp or executing on the A-site. If Astralis are using exec nades on the A-site, they can use it to mask the fact that they may be rushing ramp room or they are rushing two players outside yard in the form of Xyp9x and Magisk. So now their A nades are no longer a tell that Astralis is actually going onto the A-site or the ramp room, but they can also be going yard and can be hitting from main, heaven or hell.
With the base they’ve started with, they have the right players in the right roles to allow them to use any type of tactic in the book. Then you combine that with their training methodology and the tactical minds of gla1ve and zonic and you see that they have essentially created an entire playbook that is incredibly hard to anti-strat because every tell they give you with their opening hand could mean a multitude of different things. That if they counter too hard in one way, one of the other variations will counter them in turn. That is the beauty of watching an Astralis T-side as they have such incredible depth to what they can do and what they’ve prepared that their sublime ability can swallow entire teams like the ocean and leave them drowning. When I watch an Astralis T-side, I come to understand that for them nothing is true. They do not need to adhere to any specific style of play. That for them everything is permitted.