The Cauldron #5 – The Tyrant’s Last Reign

“The Cauldron” is a weekly column which addresses topical concerns, expresses opinions not represented elsewhere or holds court on matters which have been bubbling away inside me for seven days.

“Everything flows, nothing stands still”

It’s fascinating to contemplate the way time shapes our perspective of significant moments. Like the movement of the sun across the sky reveals hidden sides of an object and casts others into the shadows so time and the procession of events within it colour our memories, attitudes and opinions of and towards key moments. Talk to any StarCraft: Brood War fan now and they’ll tell you in an almost matter of fact way that Flash is the fifth bonjwa, South Korean slang for one of StarCraft’s dominant players whose greatness is undisputed by the community, and that 2010 was his year. The year in which he fulfilled his destiny and potential by becoming one of the greatest players of all time. It can appear that elementary from our perspective near the end of the year.

And yet the year started with the same lofty hopes and immense expectations, which were the seeds of such opinions and attitudes, only for the Flash train to be derailed and questions asked about whether it could ever be set aright to complete its journey to the final destination of Brood War greatness. Yet after Flash’s impossibly dominant 2010, the best individual year of any player ever in the game’s decade long history, we must re-examine that moment in time when everything held in the balance for Flash. What had seemed like the coronation of the next dominant player instead became another chapter, the last successful one so far, in the legendary legacy of Jaedong. The moment I’m referring to is of course the Nate MSL finals.

Hype glorious hype

On January the 23rd 2010 the Nate MSL final was played and anticipation in the lead up had reached fever pitch across the entire SC:BW world. This wasn’t just any individual league final this was one which had history-shaping consequences written all over it from the moment it was set. On one side you had the favourite, Lee Young Ho, a Terran who appeared unstoppable in his relentless march towards the title. A player with history and everything else seemingly on his side. On the other was Lee Jae Dong, a Zerg who had wallowed in the warm embrace of destiny already for just over two years. No better finals matchup could have been arranged in at that moment.

It was the first ever time the LeeSsang-Rok (Flash vs. Jaedong) would be played out in the final of one of the two main leagues in competitive SC:BW. It was the ‘Ultimate Weapon’ against ‘The Tyrant’. It was not just Terran vs. Zerg, the most spectacular matchup in BW history, but the best Terran of all time against the best Zerg of all time. It was the #1 player of the moment against the #2 player for all the marbles. It was a two time OSL champion against a three time OSL and one time MSL champion. And yet the latter, Jaedong, came in as the underdog. Not just the underdog but heavily favoured to lose and perhaps even be embarrassed.

A few hours later and Jaedong stood receiving his second MSL champion’s badge and a cheque for 50,000,000? (~$44,300) as his rival held back tears of regret and awaited his second place cheque. The day everyone had said would be about Flash turned out to be about Jaedong. Knowing what we know now about how the rest of 2010 would turn out let’s look closer at what has thusfar proven to be the last reign of ‘The Tyrant’.

Do you know who I am?

Say what you will about Bisu’s time in the sun but back in January of 2010 it was Jaedong who was truly the bonjwa who never was. Here was a player so good, so impossibly talented and so adept at winning that despite not being a bonjwa he had not only matched ‘The Maestro’ sAviOr’s individual trophy haul of four titles but none would argue he had exceeded the former’s skill level and taken the Zerg race to a higher level. And yet this legendary player found himself with a mountain to climb and many there were who said his time had come to an end and he would make way for the rise of the player destined to be the real bonjwa of his generation.

This was the same Jaedong who with deteroriating eyesight, which would later force him to get lasik surgery, had overcome slumps to become only the second player in history to win back-to-back OSL titles. In doing so becoming only the third to ever receive the prestigious golden mouse for three OSL championships, StarCraft’s most coveted award. The same Jaedong who had been to five individual league finals (3 OSL and 2 MSL) already and lost on the biggest stage only once, and in circumstances where many agreed the map pool was amongst the worst for ZvT ever. The same Jaedong who had never lost a fifth set in a Bo5 series in his entire career. The same Jaedong who had been voted KeSPA player of the year in each of the previous two years.

Yet despite all of the aforementioned Jaedong came into the Nate MSL as an underdog, the player who had the deck stacked against him from the word go. What immense behemoth could possibly have blocked out enough of the sun to extinguish Jaedong’s radience in the eyes of the BW world? What impossible momentum could his opponent have possessed to make people overlook the most clutch player of all time?

The ‘Ultimate Weapon’ was locked and loaded

Everyone has seen the destruction Flash has wrought in 2010 but the Flash who came into the Nate MSL final was in some respects even scarier. Considered by everyone to be the #1 player in StarCraft Flash had won the OSL title that season and along the way defeated Jaedong 2:0 in their quarter-final series. Flash’s game was at a level few could even have dreamed of, with his ELO beyond that of anyone else in history. In TvT he had recorded the longest winning streak ever with 22 wins, ending on January 10th.

In TvZ, the matchup the final would be played in, Flash was 26-4 (86.67%) since the beginning of October 2009. During that time he had recorded an individual best 12 win streak and three of his four map losses were single maps dropped in series he won overall. At no point in that time did he lose two maps in a row to a single Zerg. In fact Flash hadn’t lost two straight maps to a Zerg in a series since September 14th of that year, over four months prior. Flash’s lifetime winrate against Zerg stood at 70.27%. Impossible numbers, mind-boggling numbers, numbers which make you despair if you’re next in line to face Flash. What could Jaedong’s record say in return? Not much as in the same time period he had only played 7 maps against Terrans and he was a fairly underwhelming 4-3 (57.14%) at that.

Then there was the maps. Putting aside the always exaggerated screams of racial imbalance there was nobody who would not readily admit that the map pool for the final was great for a Terran and difficult for a Zerg. That would be a problem for any Zerg playing any Terran and yet here was the best Zerg facing the best Terran who was in the best form. It’s unsurprising the way popular opinion’s skewed.

Jaedong didn’t just face Flash and an unfavourable map pool, he even faced three of the four bonjwas (BoxeR, iloveoov and sAviOr) who had picked Flash to be the winner in the series. It wasn’t just the old school who had their opinions either as stork, one of the four great players of the modern era, also backed Flash as the champion. Never before has a player with the accomplishments of a Jaedong seemed so outmatched on paper and from every conceivable angle. Is this a good time to mention that no Zerg had ever won five titles?

‘The Tyrant’ gives nothing and takes everything

Jaedong has had so many great moments in his career which are so significant and so high profile that they stand as great moments in SC:BW history itself. From his royal road victory over Stork to win the EVER2007 OSL, complete with the famous ee han timing sequence, to his back-to-back OSL titles, including a truly incredible comeback from 0:2 down to Fantasy to win 3:2. Whether you call him a bonjwa or not Jaedong was amongst the top 3-4 players to ever play SC:BW already at this point in time. And yet this Nate MSL final for me stands out as a defining moment in his career. If it proves to be the last truly significant one then perhaps it is fitting as we saw everything that makes Jaedong great manifest and on show in full force here.

With all the talk of Flash’s inevitable victory there were even comments made that if he were to win the first map then he might even embarrass Jaedong and sweep him 3:0. Instead it was Jaedong who came right out of the gate and struck first blood forcing Flash to type out. In the second map Flash showed his brilliance with a beautifully timed d-matrix’d dropship attack which turned the game to his favour and knotted the series. Yet if Flash fans had felt like the first map had just been nerves we must look back and now see that in the context of Jaedong’s truly dominant performance this map could well have gone his way too but for Flash’s uncanny ability to strike at the right moment.

The third map is sadly remembered as an infamous one and has seen much argumentation back and forth. Yet I don’t think it’s even necessary to indulge speculation about the effect of the power outtage on the result. Jaedong not only won this game but if we look at the way he played it we should rightfully call it one of the all time great ZvT performances. In a major finals, in a swing game with the series tied, Jaedong took the map everyone said was most imbalanced against him Odd-Eye, the same map he had himself thumbed down to prevent playing twice, and he outdueled and outclassed Flash on it.

The delay which cost viewers around an hour cost Jaedong more as Flash fans were, understandably, so hurt that when the series resumed and Flash lost in a build order loss on the fourth they didn’t want to acknowledge Jaedong’s accomplishment. They felt robbed and forums filled up with debate about the power outtage in the third game rather than the fact Jaedong had done what practically everyone had been saying was impossible only hours before. He had vanquished Flash in a final with Flash in his best ever form, on maps which were unfavourable and in the face of overwhelming statistics backing him his opponent.

Jaedong was clutch, Jaedong was magnificant, Jaedong was the champion, Jaedong was ‘The Tyrant’. What should have been a very tough series he might at best have won in close fashion instead became one in which he was the better player in at least three of the maps and one he won in highly impressive fashion against the player who was only a month or two from beginning on his ascendancy to bonjwahood. Whether you call him a bonjwa or simply the best Zerg to ever play SC:BW be sure to remember that day in January of 2010 when Jaedong put on his last great performance. What Flash has become since, undeniably a godlike figure for most of this year, should help colour your appreciation for a great performance from another great player.

Whether he that proves to be the last moment he reigned or not never forget that Jaedong did reign and against impossible odds!