Kim "Soulkey" Min Chul cannot catch a break. No sooner has he made an epic, but unsuccessful, qualifying attempt for the IEM World Championship then he's trapped in some kind of nightmare-match in Proleague. It was the Zerg vs. Terran equivalent to the three-hour Protoss vs. Zerg standoff between Sébastien "FireCake" Lebbe and Grzegorz "MaNa" Komincz. Except Firecake and MaNa eventually ended their game, while Soulkey was forced into a draw and subsequent regame.
Soulkey's opponent for Monday's game was Kim "Reality" Ki Hyun, a Terran player from the Samsung Galaxy team. This round was all-kill format, which follows the old arcade rules of "winner stays.” Unlike the standard Proleague format, where picked players go up against one another, all-kill usually sees teams bring out their biggest guns first. After all, a player like Soulkey is fully capable of taking down an entire roster of StarCraft players in quick succession.
At this early stage of the 2014 Proleague, the stakes weren't terribly high for this game. But you wouldn't have guessed that from the ruthlessness both Soulkey and Reality displayed, heedless of the fans and teammates caught in the crossfire as the two played for three straight hours.
Playing Not to Lose
Soulkey is one of the best Zerg in the world, and Reality seemed to make a calculated decision early in their game on Star Station to go with a mech build, then build chains of fortifications to hold the Zerg master at bay. Then he'd starve him out.
Soulkey spotted the move too late to destroy it in its infancy, so he invested heavily in Swarm Hosts. It was his only real option, since just about any other build he could use would have been destroyed by a wall of Siege Tanks, Planetary Fortresses, Missile Turrets, and Ravens. Instead, he settled in for a long game of sending Locust swarms at an impregnable wall, while Reality waited until the map was effectively stripped of resources, then started inching forward with his inexorable mechanized force.
The MaNa vs. Firecake match was longer than this one, but somehow it didn't seem quite as bad because you couldn't see the players' dead, slack faces, nor the dawning horror as the audience and other players realized there was no endgame here. There was only the supply counter, slowly counting down from 200 as the two players inflicted small, irreplaceable losses on one another.
Reality's plan almost worked. There were a few key moments when he almost found a decisive advantage. He surprised Soulkey with a mob of Banshees at one point, and they could have devastated the Zerg if only Reality had known how bad Soulkey's air-defense was. But the moment passed as the Banshees squandered their advantage on creep tumors and redundant buildings. Later, he seemed to have a critical mass of tanks and Ravens, and nothing Soulkey did could breach their defenses as they advanced.
But Reality could not afford mistakes, and he kept making them. A Thor would be left out of position here, or a Raven would get Abducted there. Bit by bit, Reality's advantage started to vanish.
Eventually, they stopped the match to discuss a draw, but the two players were forced to play on with the scraps of their armies. At this point, Reality threw in the towel by retreating back up the ramp into his base and refusing to come down. Soulkey couldn't do any damage to him there, and Reality couldn't come down. The officials declared a draw and then, to the disbelief of the crowd, a new game.
Everyone seemed to be having a pretty good time by this point, except for Soulkey and Reality. Someone bought the audience snacks to get them through the six-hour broadcast, and everyone knew they were witnessing history (even if it was maybe the wrong kind of history).
Astonishingly enough, Reality tried to do the exact same thing in the regame. Except this time, Soulkey was having none of it. The moment he spotted the mech build, he went into Infestors and Ultras and just started crushing the Terran player. He'd lock his expensive mech units in place with Fungals, then send the Ultras in to tear everything down. Reality was holding on, but each defense left him farther behind until Soulkey finally broke him.
SK Telecom went on to win the playoff, and they went on to face their old rivals from KT Rolster in the round finals. But that almost seems beside the point next to Soulkey and Reality's endurance battle. It's surely not the kind of thing that will bring joy to anyone at Blizzard, who are already on the defensive about the Swarm Host. This kind of game is kind of a nightmare from their perspective: Swarm Host sieges have mostly been at their worst in the European scene, but now they just managed to derail a Proleague round.
It's not entirely the Swarm Host's fault, however. Reality made a calculated decision to play a negative game. He couldn't beat or break Soulkey with that build, or at least, he couldn't do it with anything other than the kind of slow, grinding advance he tried. When you have a player decide early to run a build that can't win unless the other player effectively commits suicide, the stage is set for a standoff. Reality almost succeeded in wearing Soulkey down, but he ultimately failed for the same reason he went mech in the first place: Soulkey is too good.
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