The SC2Improve Team League Season 4 (SC2ITL) group stage has been taking place since the start of Febraury. Through qualifiers and invites twenty teams entered the First Division all looking to claim some portion of the €2000 prize pool as their own, a prize pool which attracted some of the strongest teams in Starcraft. This made the competition fiercer and tougher than ever before, leading to many upsets and tense series throughout the weeks. As the final group stage matches get played out the final standings begin to solidify, confirming which teams made the top-4 cut off point for who will be playing in the single-elimination playoffs. At the time of writing over half of the playoff spots have been filled, but for this first article we focus on the first two teams which secured their position in the final eight, Axiom-Acer and Team Liquid.
The reformation of the old GSTL alliance between Axiom eSports and Team Acer, Axiom-Acer, was a large talking part at the start of the season. As the only all-korean team in the league Axiom eSports alone were already one of the teams heavily favored by many to win the entire competition. With the addition of MMA , the WCS Global Finals 2014 runner-up, from Team Acer they almost seemed untouchable on paper.
With all the hype built up around them a lot of people were expecting their first match against ROOT Gaming to be a fairly one-sided affair unless the Korean players from ROOT were able to get some serious work done. The match began with an upset when Australian Terran player iaguz took down Impact, the sole Zerg on Axiom-Acer, in a very standard twenty minute game. Axiom-Acer responded in style however as team league monster Heart came out and cleaned up three players in a row, including the two Koreans from ROOT. At this point, despite the initial upset, Axiom-Acer were looking as strong as they were hyped up to be and most viewers were already claiming the match was over. Upsets arose once again however as the ace player from ROOT, CatZ, took down Heart and MMA in quick succession in two matches which will probably be some of the most memorable in the entire league.
Axiom-Acer closed out the series and walked away with a victory, but the hype train behind them slowed significantly - if they dropped three maps to the foreign players on ROOT were they really going to be the team who would walk over everybody all season long? Well, yes they would be. They soared through the rest of the season barely having their armor dented racking up a match score of 8-1 and a map score of 34-14. Their single loss came from a heavy foreigner line-up from mYinsanity, but being the other team in contention for the top spot of the league it was not nearly as much as a surprise as the near-loss against ROOT. The only other teams to take more than one map away from Axiom-Acer were Baguette and Redbloods, but even in these matches Axiom-Acer always appeared to be in control of the series.
The real power-house for the team is Terran player Heart, who has racked up one of the most impressive records we have ever seen in the SC2ITL. Appearing in 6 of the 9 matches throughout the season he has rallied up a map score of 17 wins and 2 losses with all-kills against Cascade and Team Extreme Supremacy. The closest player to him on the team is Ryung, with a 7-2 score and an all-kill against Imaginary Gaming. These two Terran power houses have been doing most of the work for Axiom-Acer this season and between them they are responsible for 92% of the games won.
The really scary thing about Axiom-Acer is that they have a GSL champion in MMA who has just sat back and let the rest of the team do the work so far. He has the potential to come out and all-kill any team which looks at him the wrong way and will be a strong ace player during the playoffs. The only potential weakness of Axiom-Acer is how reliant on Terran players their line-up is, making it slightly easier to prepare against them and snipe them down, but with Protoss players Alicia and Crank cleaning up Team Gravity in the final series we see that there are definitely other options should the Terran front-line fall.
Team Liquid have always been at the center of the Starcraft scene and are unarguably one of, if not the most popular Starcraft team. It's been really great having them play in the SC2ITL, especially with how well they have been playing. In their first few matches people were wondering how their line-up would look, would it include their Korean players HerO and TaeJa or would just be an all-European affair? Well it turned out that they just don't need the Korean players, which should not come as a surprise considering Bunny and Snute are two of the best European players you could name.
Their first real test came in the second week of the competition against Invasion eSports. At this time Invasion were at their peak in terms of the strength of their roster, home to DongRaeGu, Super, GuMiHo, TOP and more. It was this line-up of Koreans which had a lot of people putting Invasion at the top of their lists when it came to who might win this season, but it was also this line-up of Koreans which weren't able to withstand the power of the Liquid Zergs as Ret, TLO and Snute powered through to a 4-2 victory.
This was as close as any team got to defeating Liquid, aside from Dignitas-Dead Pixels who swiped them aside with an all-kill from Patience. With a map score of 24-8 with two matches left to play Liquid have only dropped two maps to non-Korean players (Diffe and uThermal) and could still finish at the top of their group depending on the results from the final matches. The most impressive part of Liquids performance has to be that it really has been a team effort from all members - Snute leads the charge with a 7-2 score and one all-kill against Karnage eSports while Ret and Bunny follow with 5-2 and 5-1 scores respectively. TLO holds a 3-2 map score, meaning that everybody on the team apart from MaNa has a positive win ratio, but MaNa has only played one game and that was against Patience. Perhaps if his teammates gave him a chance to play more often by not killing the other teams before it's his turn, he too would be hosting a score similar to the others.
Heading into the playoffs the big question which will be looming is whether Liquid will begin to use TaeJa or HerO. If they have been almost untouchable already with only their European players how much stronger does their line-up become if they begin to include the Korean duo? Their potential roster is terrifying, they could send out Snute or Bunny as a starting player with the other to go second, then a combination of HerO and TaeJa to finish the job. Team Liquid have the potential to go to the finals, especially if they can secure the first place position in Group B and avoid a clash with Axiom-Acer in the semi-finals.
Make sure to check out all the SC2Improve Team League games live at http://twitch.tv/wardiii - the Playoffs are estimated to start the week beginning Monday 4th May! Further information will be released on the site and over social media.