It's the grand finals of the Smite World Championship 2016 later today. Half a million dollars is on the line for the winning team (plus you get a massive trophy with a detachable hammer) and, as of yesterday's semi-finals, the matches just got a lot more tense and interesting. Before the final kicks off let's take a look at the mindgames and the comebacks which have led two teams to the brink of Worlds victory. Spoilers ahead!
The first of the two semi-finals had pantomime villains/perennial North American underdogs Enemy facing off against European crowd-pleasers Paradigm. The trend of the four games was generally for an incredibly close first twenty minutes in terms of experience, gold and kills but for Enemy to gradually build a lead as they exploited opportunities better and made better calls than their opponents. Game 3 was the exception to the rule and allowed Paradigm to walk away with one victory to their name in the series.
A moment emblematic of the series for me was in game 1 where Paradigm manage to wipe out the entirety of Enemy. Instead of using that opportunity to take towers and build map control they went for the far higher risk/reward of killing the fire giant. It's kind of a miniboss which bestows some powerful buffs and advantages if your side takes it down. But instead of paying off for Paradigm, Enemy's support player and captain, PainDeViande, headed in, held the team back and kept the fire giant engaged long enough that the rest of Enemy could come back in and net the objective for themselves. You can see it about the 34minute mark in the video below:
"It was a win/win situation for me to stay there," PainDeViande explained later. "[Paradigm] are already low from tanking the fire giant and my damage so chances are if my teammates can make it back fast enough we can do it and if they can't I don't really lose anything because I can just back off."
In terms of why the matches played out as they did, PainDeViande adds that Enemy had started playing mindgames with their EU opponents well before the semifinals.
"We had the advantage of being scrim partners with them and picking different stuff than we usually play so we started on mindgames before the tournament happened. So going into these games, as you've seen, we got pretty much everything we wanted except for game 3. When you get everything you want and play to your playstyle it's much easier to win."
Part of what Paradigm said after the games seems to back that up:
"In terms of picks and bans we felt like we had a good understanding of what we wanted to do and what they wanted to do because we'd been scrimming them. They really go for picks on the mid lane but they switched it up a bit and went for picks on the jungle and support. We had a hard time adapting to that because we had a really good time in practice against them so props to them."
But they stopped short of agreeing they'd fallen into an Enemy trap. Paradigm's coach Dazer responded directly to a question about it and responded "That is not true in the slightest in my opinion." For him, performance on the day was the bigger factor. "We're generally well-practiced dealing with how they play but today we didn't really play to our full potential and didn't show what we're capable of."
Enemy go on to the finals (a decent sweet sixteen birthday present for their hunter, Vetium) while Paradigm will be regrouping ahead of the next competitive season.
"We've seen how important it is to scrim a lot," Paradigm's support player, Trixtank, told me during their press conference. "From my perspective I still feel like we haven't figured out the metagame completely and how to deal with different things, like the Khepri/Zhong Kui combo. That's something where we just need to be more prepared. I think this experience will make us stronger and hopefully we'll come out a lot better in Season 3."
The Cloud9 vs Epsilon series was hands-down the best of the competition. Game 1 featured the first real comeback of the whole tournament with Cloud9 coming back from a significant deficit, splitting up their opponents and taking objectives until they were firmly back in command. But instead of becoming demoralised at losing what looked like a sure thing, Epsilon set their game faces to MAXIMUM SRS BSNS. The results ping-ponged between EU and NA victories but eventually Epsilon scored a 3-2 victory and kept Europe in the competition.
Speaking to the teams afterwards it was a case of each trying to figure out an unfamiliar playstyle and Epsilon managing that better. Epsilon's support, iRaffer, said of Cloud9's split pushing play in game 1, "It took that loss to understand what was going wrong." Solo laner Dimi added: "We're exeptionally good at teamfighting. Because Cloud9 split push we had struggles."
For Cloud9's part their hunter, BaRRaCCuDDa noted, "[Epsilon] had a playstyle we weren't accustomed to so they were pressuring parts of the map we weren't used to being pressured and their drafts were completely different from everyone in NA so it was really hard to play against them."
In game 4 Epsilon picked Fenrir – a highly mobile and highly grabby wolf – and played it to devastating effect alongside similarly grabby beetle Khepri and off-meta curveball Cupid (joyful stuff for me as Cupid is my main). It had been one of Epsilon's pocket strategies and was originally up for deployment against their scrim partners, Fnatic.
"It's not something we've played too much but it's something that's worked once or twice for us," said iRaffer. "We thought we'd definitely bring it out at some point – versus Fnatic we knew we had to keep strats and that was one of them. But we didn't have a chance to play it versus them because the games were pretty stompy. So it was kind of a pocket strat but we have plenty more. Hopefully we can show you tomorrow!"
I asked Cloud9 whether they considered banning Fenrir and, if so, why that didn't happen for game 5.
The short answer was "Uh…"
The longer answer from BaRRaCCuDDa explains how complex it can be to make adjustments between games and to pinpoint what's losing you a game:
"I said ban Fenrir and we had a comp designed to ban Zeus and for some reason we were more afraid of Zeus than we were the Fenrir. It's a mixture of everyone's points of view as to why we're losing each game so it's hard to argue one point or another. Even now everyone has different reasons for why we lost because everyone has different points of view. The Fenrir and the Isis were definitely huge parts of why we lost and game 5 we could have banned the Fenrir but there still could have been a million other reasons as to why each team might have lost."
The former world champions' exit from the competition has at least highlighted one area for improvement, though. "I would say we definitely need to dive into each of our god pools further," says BaRRaCCuDDa. "I really think we need to expand into more mid picks and more jungle picks and just have more pressure there. That's one of the main reasons Epsilon did so well against us. They're playing unconventional picks that we're not used to playing against."
As for the grand final, on hearing that Enemy had been hoping to face Epsilon and not Cloud9, Epsilon simply responded, "Good for them…"
Enemy have spent the tournament (and previous fall events) proving themselves as a team not to underestimate, punishing anyone who didn't prepare to take them on adequately. Epsilon, meanwhile, have shown themselves capable of playing varied drafts and adapting to what their opponents are doing. They also outlasted Cloud9 across a gruelling five-game set as well as outplaying them.
Whatever happens, though, I'm hoping to see more of those pocket strats. Especially if it means I get further vindication of my Cupid-based lifestyle.
SWC grand finals start at around 3.15pm ET (8:15pm GMT) today - here's the Twitch link.