Ahead of ESL One Cologne Mamoon "TeaTime" Sabri takes a an in-depth look at four of the most fancied teams heading to battle it out at the Cathedral of Counter-Strike. In part three of his Cardinals of Cologne series, it's Astralis
They had an era. They had the title of the greatest of all time. They dominated all of 2018, but they were never able to grasp the papacy. The Cathedral of Counter-Strike: ESL One Cologne, had rejected them time and time again, deeming them unworthy. Astralis crumbled under their own weight, and decayed in search of comfort. Would the halls of Cologne welcome them into a new era, a new period of dominance, as the new wielder of the sceptre? They had been rejected when none worshipped the church of Counter-Strike like they had, would they be accepted as the sinners that people had thought them to become?
Enter, the third Cardinal of Cologne: Astralis.
The Cardinals of Cologne
Then - ESL Pro League Season 7
Nirvana - a transcendent state. What should never have been achieved in Counter-Strike had been achieved. Astralis, the legendary chokers, the team that had come dangerously close to having an era, looked like they were more than ready to come into their own. Even going back to 2015 where they were under the banner of TSM, the team who regularly beat the number one Fnatic, discussion was being had that they were the ones to naturally inherit the number one slot. While they had briefly held the title of the best in the world later on in 2017, it was not quite firm enough to be an era.
Related: ESL One Cologne 2019 schedule and brackets
Analysts weren’t ready to crown Astralis just yet though. They’d had one of the most dominant tournaments ever at Marseille, where they were undefeated save for one map given away to Liquid. So dominant were they, that people started thinking back to FaZe, wondering whether we’d see another team as all-conquering as when they assembled their super team. There had already been one era denied, with FaZe unable to close out the major, that people were not willing to say anything with certainty yet.
Perhaps they were right. At IEM Sydney, we saw Astralis again only losing one map en-route to the finals to Mousesports. No small feat, considering Mouse were still considered by many to be a top three or four team in the world. The finals should have been easy pickings - but they were denied. Karrigan, oh genius Karrigan - the man who would forever be Danish kryptonite, managed to completely sweep them. Each game was stretched to a minimum of thirty rounds, but a 3-0 was a 3-0.
Now came the finals of Pro League, Season 7. Now, began the dance of Liquid’s death.
Astralis were a work of art. Utilities had been revolutionized, and a roster that took synergy to a whole different level was put in front of the world. Coupled with a format where there were best-of-three’s galore, Astralis put the fear of Danes into the world. Across five maps leading into the playoffs, they only had one where they lost more than ten rounds.
This wasn’t just against pushover teams - they had to face the legendary SK Gaming, with four major winners and defending champion in Stewie2K. They had to dismantle Liquid - the roster that was shaping out to look at least as good as Cloud9 had last year - when they were considered a gatekeeper team to the top five.
The scalps they’d have to take kept on gaining notoriety. FaZe clan awaited in the semi-finals. The very same FaZe who had 3-0’d Astralis in the finals of Sydney. The very same FaZe who had some of the best players in the world, and one of the greatest leaders of all time. Across two maps, FaZe only managed to take a grand total of nine rounds. How could anyone compare to these creatures of myth and legend?
Legends continued to be written, as Astralis found themselves face to face with Liquid - a team that had been knocked down many pegs by them already. However, this was a new, rejuvenated Liquid. They had fought long and hard to get here, and finals are a different beast to group stages. Liquid hadn’t just 2-0’d Mousesports and Na'Vi, the third and fourth-ranked teams in the world to come and fail again the way they had before.
The answer came in the very first map. Device came through with one of the highest individual player rankings ever in a final. A ranking of 2.26, twenty-two kills and seven deaths, and 133 ADR as an AWPer came to the party. Astralis took the map 16-1. All hope was lost, surely Liquid couldn’t do it. The rest of the series was more competitive, showing surprising levels of mental fortitude from the Americans, but it ultimately ended the way it was destined to: a 3-1 series win over Liquid, and another tournament in their pocket.
Again, only a single map lost across the entire tournament.
Now - ECS Season 7 Finals
The stage had been set. Astralis - whose previous year had made them candidates not just as the greatest CSGO team, but one of the greatest esports teams to have existed - had roused the mob. How could a team of such lovable characters, who had redefined Counter-Strike to its core, and were sportsmanlike almost to a fault, invoke the ire of the community?
BLAST Pro Series.
The BLAST series had gone from a fun, gimmicky tournament with a wacky format meant to break the humdrum of normal events, to the single biggest disruption to 2019’s calendar. Not only had they made it so much of the calendar year was occupied by events compromising the quality of CS to make a better casual-viewer experience, they had Astralis tucked away in their pocket, only playing their events.
Astralis had won IEM Katowice 2019 - their second major in a row. After that, it should have been a continuation of total domination. This was not the case. From the fourth of March till the 11th of May, Astralis played a grand total of two best-of-three’s in an arena, or in the playoffs of a big event. This was not like watching your favourite team die of old age, where they went down fighting to the bitter end. This was not like when Fnatic, or SK had becoming overripe, and were winning tournaments by the sheer grit and determination of a champion.
This was Astralis taking the heavyweight belt, and refusing to allow any title contenders. The CSGO world was up in arms, and no amount of PR statements would ease the pain. There was no help to be sent, and nothing could be done. Even worse? Their second best-of-three in front of a big crowd, was a rematch of the previous Major’s finals against ENCE. Not only had they lost 2-0, they’d even lost their 31-0 Nuke streak.
Unsure and unsteady, the Danes headed to London, for their first non-BLAST event since Katowice - discounting the European EPL qualifiers. They had already lost their number one spot in the rankings to Liquid, but many still viewed them as the “legitimate” holder of that position. This was to be their crucible.
The first map was a layup. Astralis was face-to-face with FURIA, a team who, although on the rise, should never be able to beat them. They were good enough that people would take a win to be a projection of strength, but not good enough that they posed a real threat to the team. When the best-of-one veto ended up bringing Nuke up again, fans heaved a sigh of relief. Everything looked perfect.
FURIA chopped off Astralis’ heads
And perfect it was. Astralis started the map out nicely, got themselves a good lead going into the second half, and were up 14-9 before calamity struck. Out of nowhere, Furia on their CT side started to take control. Round after round they won, be it by preventing Astralis from entering site, or by playing perfect retakes. It wasn’t even the T side where Furia could pull some oddball shenanigans off and you could blame it on them. This was just Astralis being tied up to a tree, and struck till they bled candy. And did it rain candy. Furia took the map win 16-14, a comeback that would have been impossible for the best teams in the world not so long ago.
Things returned to normal course, with Astralis able to 2-0 NiP. But even then, Astralis showed signs of decay. Having lost two maps of Nuke in a row, NiP were brazen enough to let the map through, and Astralis keeled by not picking it. When all was said and done, they were able to get the series win over a significant opponent, and Inferno had been a hallmark for Astralis even in the past.
Now the Danes were warmed up. The field was weak, and their next opponents were FURIA - who had returned to the battlefield defeated by NRG. When Furia weren’t even able to close Nuke out against NRG - the map where they bested the mighty Astralis, it had become clear that their earlier victory was just a one-off courtesy of the variable nature of best-of-ones.
The series began the same way it was seemingly destined to end. Astralis cleaned out Furia on Inferno, and although Furia looked reasonably good - it didn’t seem sufficient to really knock them down. Unfortunately, the rest of the series was completely different. Mirage saw Furia cleaning up the Astralis terrorist side from start to finish, but again, that’s just Mirage right? Astralis had never really been as diamond-hard on Mirage as they had been on other maps.
The last map, fittingly, was Nuke. This was decapitation. FURIA chopped off Astralis’ heads, making Liquid the kings of Counter-Strike beyond argument.
Astralis had fallen.
Then - London Major 2018
Astralis had won event after event. Post EPL Season 7 they managed to close out ECS Season 5 without any troubles either, as well as the ELEAGUE Premier. The only two events where they’d been defeated were at the hands of veteran, low-fragging in-game leaders who had suddenly looked like rookie, all star players.
At Cologne, Astralis fell to a Zeus-led NaVi on Inferno - the third map in a best of three - in the semi-finals. It required not just a concerted effort from all of NaVi in totality, but from Zeus individually as well. Not only did he literally have what was probably the best performance in a playing career spanning more than a decade, but even some of the reads that NaVi were making with their gamble plays were ridiculous.
In short, not something that was likely to happen multiple times over. Should NaVi have liked to defeat Astralis, they’d need something different to make it happen. Astralis were eliminated in the quarter-finals.
The second event they’d lost was to their Danish countrymen underdogs, North. This too, saw MSL switching to an AWP role and getting MVP for the tournament for how well he performed. Not only that, but they beat Astralis twice over, both in a 2-1 series, to take the full tournament and leaving Astralis in second place. However, given that demos would be out for teams to study MSL to a point where he’d now no longer have the element of surprise, a repeat of this kind of performance was also unlikely at best.
The Danes, who had defeated Liquid in a total of three finals already, and had barely dropped maps to most teams, were the undoubted favourites heading into it. With their era already secured in the eyes of most pundits, all that was left was to secure it and silence everyone saying that they needed to win a major first.
What a way to do it as well. Courtesy of extenuating circumstances, Astralis had bombed out the last major far below anyone’s expectations of where they should be. They therefore now had to fight through the New Challengers stage as well, adding another potential few best of one losses that could knock them off their perch. This being before the format allowed for best-of-three in all elimination games, the possibility of a great team being upset was incredibly high - particularly when all the teams were gunning for their heads.
Still, Astralis breezed past. The new legends stage came around with the team remaining unflustered save for a loss to NiP. NiP had always been a team who had the potential to take a game or two off them though, and it happened on Mirage - a map they were never as great on. What raised a few eyebrows, and Moses’ hopes, was the map against Liquid in the Legends stage. Liquid started off incredibly strong with a 13-2 half on the terrorist side of inferno, but capitulated to a point where they ended up 15-15.
Now though, a new side of Liquid had been seen. Where they’d normally bend the knee and let the rightful king return, now they stood up strong. NAF - the wild card - got angry and said fuck it, and went off to get an AWP. With that, Liquid got four rounds in a row to close out the game 19-15. America finally had hope. Had Liquid, who without a doubt had a mental block, found the player to take them through it?
Of course, the true test of that would be in the semi-finals - which Astralis reached after making quick work of FaZe, reuniting with Team Liquid. The world awaited, as the analysts said that this was Liquid’s best chance ever to defeat them. Why wouldn’t it be? Not only had they taken a map off of them where they’d had to regain footing, they had found the winning formula from Dreamhack Masters, where North had beaten Astralis twice in a best-of-three! The information was there, and the mental block was being chipped away. Not just that, but an incredibly dysfunctional FaZe clan had managed to get 14 and 12 rounds respectively against them! Surely Liquid had a chance.
It had been enough for Astralis. They were tired of people doubting them. They were tired of people having hope. They rocked the world with near perfect games back to back from Xyp9x and Gla1ve respectively. This wasn’t just a victory; it was a statement. Liquid didn’t even get 16 rounds across both maps. Astralis were just too good, and continued to be just too good in the grand finals where NaVi got the exact same amount of rounds that Liquid did in two maps.
Astralis were the major champions, their era had been carved into the stone slabs of Counter-Strike history.
Now - ESL Pro League Season 9
Astralis had fallen. The Danes were down. ECS had proved that the era was well and truly gone. Still, the general narrative was that Astralis were still a top three team - and likely to beat Liquid. ESL Pro League didn’t have ENCE or Vitality - the other of the elites - in attendance, making it primed to be a field where they could save some sort of face. At the very least, they could prove themselves to still be a top-two team.
The groups were set up nicely for them. Liquid and Astralis were on opposite sides, and neither had competition that would be considered good enough to edge them out of a bo3 series without it being a significant upset. The narratives were set, and both teams were due to meet comfortably in the finals - where Astralis, even if missing out on the trophy, would have a respectable finish leading up to Cologne.
The tournament began, and at the very beginning it become clear that Astralis would be foiled by North yet again. Team Liquid had been rocked out of their boat in the opening best-of-one. Insignificant to their overall chances, but removing the option of them being confirmed as one of the semi-finalists. Already, Astralis could potentially face them there.
Things went from bad to worse though. Astralis had shown strength against teams who had no business contesting them - Heroic and a broken Cloud9 - and now faced off against an NRG team with an in-game leader whose head had already been guillotined off. At this point, they were going in with sheer brute force mechanics. Brute force panned out though, and in the winner’s bracket group decider where it would be determined whether Astralis made it to the semi-finals or fall to the quarters, they were able to clean up 2-1.
As luck - or lack thereof - would have it, Astralis immediately found themselves matched up against Team Liquid. Not only had they displayed weakness upon weakness recently, Liquid had continued to look increasingly better with their appropriate integration of Stewie and his interaction with entrying.
The first game began, and suddenly people remembered everything. Liquid had never defeated Astralis in a tournament without a major asterisk being attached (in the case of iBuyPower Masters). Astralis started the game off on Liquid’s map pick, looking untouchable. They were up 14-5, and the world watched with bated breath, as it became surer and surer that they were back. Overpass - a map which Liquid had seemed to have perfected - was being dominated.
The road didn’t stay smooth though. Liquid started fighting back on their CT side. They were not beaten down. This was not the team that had lost four finals and been eliminated even more times from tournaments in 2018 by Astralis. This was a team that had gotten a taste of what being number one was like, and they weren’t willing to give it up. Astralis ended up winning the first map, but barely edged it out 16-12.
The second map, Inferno, was Astralis’s map pick. Gla1ve, at ECS, had claimed that he believed their inferno to be the best in the world. This was still a map where they had maintained dominance. Unfortunately for them, their claim over being the best in the world was a shoddy one. Where Overpass started off with Astralis delivering a masterclass on Liquid’s map pick, Inferno was much the same with reversed roles. The score at the end of the first half? 14-1 to Liquid.
It was done, the Americans had fought back. The new king might have bled, but he stabbed back with equal vigour. The third and final map of the series was Vertigo - a notoriously terrorist sided map at the top level. Astralis began on the right side of the knife round, and seemed relatively unshaken by their previous devastation. The first half may have gone heavily their way in any other map with the 11-4 scoreline, but Liquid were there to show us exactly how T-sided the map was. Again, it was just a masterclass. Liquid closed the game out in regulation time, not even letting it go to 30 rounds. Astralis had been defeated in the quarterfinals, before they could even prove themselves to be a top-three team.
There would be no saving face.
Then - ESL Pro League Season 8 Finals
The Danes were unstoppable. They’d already won three tournaments since the major - only losing at a single BLAST event on the road to EPL Season 8. Not just that, but they’d somehow managed to become one of the top contenders for the Intel Grand Slam, despite missing multiple ESL events that would have allowed them to net the additional million dollars much more easily.
The wake of their destruction was littered by wins over Team Liquid - who had been forever doomed to second position. It simply didn’t seem possible for Liquid to ever beat Astralis. NaVi was not much better. Despite having the best player in the world bar none, NaVi couldn’t do anything against Astralis’s neutralizing style of play. Even FaZe, who had once had their number, were in such disarray that there seemed to be no threat whatsoever.
Astralis strolled into the finals, knowing the title was theirs for the taking. They had the swagger of champions. They had the aura of legend. Not only that, but Astralis had somehow managed to shape the discourse around them so strongly by just existing, that people would degrade every team that wasn’t them. Why? Simple: It shouldn’t have been possible for a team to win that much. Fans couldn’t wrap their heads around how ridiculously dominant they had been.
It had been so incredibly rare for Astralis to even let maps look close, that fans automatically assumed that this era of Counter-Strike was just weak. They assumed, that since Fnatic and SK in their respective eras had competitive games, those were just times when teams were better.
They were wrong. The Danes were on a whole new level, one we’d never seen before.
Nothing of repute happened in the tournament. They were a force of nature, shooting through the ranks of teams who had once believed them to be peers. A clean 2-0 to finish out the group stage saw Astralis in the semi-finals, and knocking Liquid down to face NaVi in the process of doing so. Neither map looked even vaguely competitive.
Liquid, now on the other side of the bracket, had been left to deal with NaVi and MiBR, while Astralis leisurely brushed past Mousesports to reach the finals. Pundits and casters tried to paint narratives on how this was the tournament where Liquid had the chance to get an extra $100,000 dollars by denying Astralis their grand final victory, but even the fans knew this was half-hearted storyboarding at best.
There were no overtimes. There was no magic comeback. Liquid weren’t worthy. Astralis won the Intel Grand Slam, and cemented themselves as the greatest team to ever play Counter-Strike.
Now - ESL One Cologne 2019
Their wings gone, Astralis can no longer soar. Instead, they limp their way to Cologne. Their body and soul may be hurt, but damaged more than anything else is their pride. Cologne will be the biggest calendar event of the year. There’re teams upon teams who will want to fight the old gladiator while there is still glory in conquering him, and there’re just as many who will want revenge for times gone past in the Colosseum.
The discussion has gone from, “Is Astralis ever going to be beaten?” to “Is Astralis the best?”, to “Is Astralis top three?”, and now is dangerously close to “Is Astralis going to go for a roster change?”
Their time is not yet gone, they still harbour hope. Defeat might have been tasted more than ever before for these five players, but there is still a chance for one last fight to the top - one last era. Astralis aren’t done yet. The stars may be falling, but they’ll be damned if they don’t go for one last blaze of glory.
Will the Halls of Cologne provide redemption to their tarnished legacy?
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Pictures: Copyright ESL | Helena Kristiansson