Even though it's still weeks away, the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship has already featured some of its very best games thanks to Thursday's Asian qualifier. While Lee "CliMax" Byung Ryul ultimately won, it was Kim "Soulkey" Min Chul's extraordinary run through the 32-player bracket that made Thursday's StarCraft so memorable.
Soulkey vs. the World
It didn't feel like Soulkey was working through a bracket so much as he was going on an epic, monster-slaying journey through pro StarCraft. He was a progaming Scott Pilgrim, facing one impossibly devious rival after another. No sooner had he defeated one than the next was ready to challenge him.
Soulkey's day started with a game against Lee "INnoVation" Shin Hyung, the Terran mech-master who rewrote the book on StarCraft in the early days of Heart of the Swarm. He's faded a bit as balance patches have undercut his preferred playstyle, and more so as players have learned how to counter him. But he was on top form against Soulkey as they went through a ninety-minute best-of-three.
To the Limit
It was exhausting just to watch them push each other to the limit of their abilities. Soulkey demonstrated how the Swarm Host can effectively paralyze an opponent, making any movement across the map slower and more costly just by forcing units to group up long enough to fend off waves of Locusts.
The problem for INnoVation and his preferred mech build is that it doesn't have any speed to close the distance with the Swarm Hosts. He never quite solved it, either. With his third game he tried to throw more muscle into his air attack, emphasizing Ravens and even Battlecruisers, but Soulkey kept splitting his attacks too effectively, doing the damage he needed to before INnoVation's army could arrive to save the day.
Soulkey may have won the series, but it had required a finals-caliber effort just to advance to the round of 16. With potentially four more series left to play, had INnoVation forced Soulkey to take a Pyrrhic victory?
Not an Easy Road
Not quite. Soulkey took a far easier 2-1 win over Kim "EffOrt" Jung Woo, a CJ Entus second-stringer. Then he managed to 2-0 the Jung "Bbyong" Woo Yong, one of CJ Entus' better SC2 players and a regular GSL Code S competitor. But his reward for all of this was a semi-final series against Won "PartinG" Lee Sak, the 2012 world champion, who recently looked incredible at Red Bull Battle Grounds. The stage was set for another great matchup, and they did not disappoint.
PartinG outmaneuvered Soulkey beautifully in their first game, punishing his Swarm Hosts repeatedly before wringing a concession from the Zerg player. He tried to follow up with an early Zealot harass in Game 2, but Soulkey came straight back at him with an old-school Zerg rush. His troop of Zerglings arrived at PartinG's base before he could complete a wall-off or bring out any defensive units.
With two fast games down, and a ticket to a $100,000 tournament on the line, both PartinG and Soulkey gave each other their absolute best in their long third game, as Soulkey fended off repeated attacks while PartinG kept evolving his composition to try and find a recipe for victory. But Soulkey's defense was too meticulous and all PartinG could say was, "MY 100,000" as he GG'd. It had been a master-class in Zerg vs. Protoss.
One Last Gasp
Even with PartinG out of the way, Soulkey's work was not done. He had one more series against another Zerg, CliMax (who usually plays under "Rogue"), and at last Soulkey's strength seemed to desert him as CliMax beat him 3-1. But after running a gauntlet that included two of the most successful StarCraft 2 players of the last year, Soulkey should be forgiven his loss. Rogue may have won the day, but Soulkey still showed why he was the top-ranked StarCraft player in the world.
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