BOSTON – In a 3-1 final that may have featured one of the greatest games of professional Dota ever, OG put paid to the fairy-tale tournament run of Ad Finem, and claimed the team's third Major title.
Their victory at Boston's Wang Theatre on Saturday night completed the team's turnaround following a crushing disappointment at The International in August, where OG collapsed in the early stages of the tournament after dominating professional Dota for almost the entire year following their upstart win at the Frankfurt Major in late 2015. The setback led to several departures among the three-time Major-winning roster, and it seemed like OG's era of supremacy was likely at its end. Yet at the end of 2016, as at the end of 2015, OG are once again on top of pro Dota.
That much is clear. With the totally unexpected Ad Finem finishing in second place — after knocking off Newbee, LGD.Forever Young and Digital Chaos — the Boston Major has left a lot of other things about the Dota landscape in doubt, and disarray.
The cycle of Dota
"You know, we have a cycle," said Tal "Fly" Aizik after the team's victory. "So we win the Major, then we lose the next one, then we win the Major, we lose at TI. So ... the cycle continues!"
He laughed as he cataloged the trophies that OG has collected so far, as well as the ones he still covets. "But this time, with these two, it's no Mystic Staff," he said, referring to the Shanghai Major trophy that eluded OG early this year. "So we can get the Eaglesong, and the Reaver hopefully, but ... I dunno. You get on this momentum, and, ya know, sometimes you have it, and sometimes you don't and this time we had it."
They most certainly did. After delivering a decisive defeat to MVP Phoenix in the Ro16, and surviving a near-death experience against WarriorsGaming.Unity, OG looked just about unstoppable. Their tournament victory looked like a certainty on Saturday morning as they crushed all the life out of Evil Geniuses, and crushed the hype out of one of the tournament's most anticipated matches.
But something weird was happening on the other side of the bracket, where Greece's Ad Finem team was steadily working its way toward the grand finals against all expectations. They surprised China's Newbee team, and then clawed another 2-1 victory out from under LGD.Forever Young. Even then, OG did not expect that they would face the Greek squad for the title.
"I did not expect Ad Finem. I saw this other side of the bracket, and I was myself pretty sure that a Chinese team was going to make it to the final," said Johan "N0tail" Sundstein. "I was surprised that the semifinals was DC-Ad Finem, but there's a lot of surprises from teams. Like I thought WG.Unity was heavily underrated, and I also saw the Ad Finem games. Like, these guys, they've got their own understanding of Dota, and their own answers to heroes that nobody else has, and they know how to run it."
Ad Finem's run also changed the tone of the tournament. The Boston crowd slowly rallied behind the dark horse contender, and by the time they handed a sound defeat to Digital Chaos, they won home-court advantage from an audience that wanted to see Ad Finem take it all the way. Even if you couldn't see the screen, suddenly you could tell what was happening in an Ad Finem game by the way the crowd roared, and groaned with every change in Ad Finem's fortunes.
But their fortunes would change, and swiftly, once they met OG in the final.
The final itself wasn't that close, yet it also featured what will probably be an instantly legendary Dota match. All because of one game: Game three.
It was clear from the first two games that OG outclassed Ad Finem. They simply had too much depth from the draft through to execution, and Ad Finem started to crack under the pressure from an opponent who denied Ad Finem any weaknesses to exploit. Both games were beat-downs, and it looked like Ad Finem were trapped in a death spiral.
But Ad Finem redeemed themselves in an epic third game against OG; a 79-minute bloodbath where the two teams had 114 kills between them, and fought most of their battles with the knowledge that a false step would doom them. With everything riding on making sure that Madara's Luna had the space and position to lay down thermonuclear levels of damage against a slightly more balanced OG team, Ad Finem waged a canny guerilla war against their favored opponent. Sneaking a barracks from under OG's nose at a time when OG seemed poised to seize control of the game, Ad Finem managed to start putting creep pressure on OG.
But even as Ad Finem managed to find scattered kills, and favorable engagements, OG kept finding ways to even the game back out. The danger of late-game engagements began pushing both teams to play more pragmatically. Buybacks became the most precious commodity in the game, and every attempt to close things out with a decisive battle instead ended with a flurry of kills, buybacks and hasty retreats.
It was the best-played Dota of the tournament, and it pushed OG and Ad Finem to their limits.
"These super late-game games don't happen as often, and I think the experience comes in handy," Fly said. "People start to talk about these situations that are not seen in a normal game. Where you see buybacks being abused. I think it's a big part of experience, entering the super late-game."
Ad Finem kept chipping down OG's base, however, and eventually OG started to go under. Their map presence was curtailed by the arrival of mega creeps in their base, and Ad Finem eventually pecked the Ancient to death in order to claim victory in an instant classic of a game.
"Yeah. I was smiling after that game a lot. The late-game ... I think we all agree that the late-game was actually high-tier Dota from both sides," N0tail said afterward. "It's always nice to have those games."
As grueling as the game was, the negative result didn't rattle OG. JerAx said he mostly had fun during the long pitched battle against Ad Finem, and then the team quickly re-centered. "These games are tiring, but after we finished I had fun doing it. Our coach said to us — Seb said — 'Refresh, and everything's going to be fine.'"
It was. OG seized control of game four with a series of close fight wins that left Ad Finem increasingly behind. After their heroic victory in game three, Ad Finem were finally beaten in a lopsided deciding game.
The result doesn't diminish their achievement. N0tail came away deeply impressed. "Huge respect for them," he said. "They were super underrated going into this. A super underdog, also.
For me it was no different. I viewed them as a team that was likely to go out 16th or eighth — Top 16 or Top 8. They proved everyone wrong."
"I knew we could win the whole thing, but I know we weren't viewed as favorites," Fly said after the tournament. "And I think it's much better [that way]. I've been in positions before where you're the favorite for the tournament, and it just adds pressure on you. And this time we kind of fly under the radar."
The focus, he said, was on teams like Wings, EG and Virtus.pro. He actually thinks the expectations game played into OG's hands. "There was less pressure on us, more pressure on the other teams, and we kind of just ... Yeah. We made the most of it."
Sébastien "7ckngMad" Debs added that the mounting pressure in the tournament increasingly aided the confident OG, giving them an edge in drafting and strategy.
"There's one thing with LAN events and these big events, like Majors or TI. It's actually way easier to draft, I think. And the later it goes in the tournament, the easier it is if you actually realize that [the people you're playing] are all pressured. They're super pressured. Whatever confidence they can grip, they will."
So as a tournament goes on, he argues, more teams start gravitating toward comfort picks, and heroes who are believed to be favored in the current meta. As much as that might bolster players' confidence heading into games, it's actually a slow death in Dota.
"It weakens them! If you don't get that weak, then you're stronger than them, strategically speaking," he said. "You could tell, like, these finals ... People banning Alchemist, and Naga. It's because teams won with them but–Look, if you replay the tournament from the beginning — same patch, same teams. It just comes down to who's winning, and who needs confidence. It's a mental thing. I think it's very underrated how impactful it is."
"And you can see it in The Summit, and here," Debs added. "Like in The Summit, VP got to the finals, and the meta was completely different. There's no such thing as meta. Patch impacts it, and once the patch is stable it's only these mind games, and which teams are stronger mentally."
On that cold Saturday in Boston, the strongest team in Dota was once again OG.