Since the introduction of the wild card slot at The International 3, the wild card teams have not historically performed well at the main event; regardless, it’s an integral part of the tournament. The invite process for TI is not perfect — the same can be said about the format — but with the introduction of the wild card slot, and the open qualifiers introduced for TI5, Valve wants to make sure that no TI-worthy teams slip through the cracks.
This year’s wild cards features some familiar faces, such as Ionnas “Fogged” Loucas and Alexei “Solo” Berezin, but a good number of fresh faces as well. New talent means new story lines.
CDEC Gaming are one of the stand-out wild card teams, it’s roster features players that have played competitively for only one or two years, but they’ve established themselves as one of the most promising upstarts in China, arguably the most competitive Dota region.
They had their start as LGD-Gaming’s academy squad dubbed LGD.CDEC, with Lu “Maybe” Yao acting as captain, but the team has since parted ways with the organization, while Maybe was brought into LGD itself and has been flourishing in the mid-lane. Despite the loss of their midlaner and captain, CDEC’s performance never faltered. They recently took second place at G-League, ECL and the China qualifiers for the World Cyber Arena, causing a number of upsets along the way.
Next up is Europe’s Vega Squadron, the roster features Alexei “Solo” Berezin, known for his time on Team Empire and RoX.KIS, as well as Andrey “Mag~” Chipenko, the previous offlaner for Virtus.pro and Team Empire. The two veterans lend their experience to the team and they’ve shown strong performances against mid tier teams, but they lack consistency.
They’ve won a bevy of small cups, taking home a decent amount of money, but they’ve fallen short in higher profile tournaments. They were only able to attend the DreamLeague 3 LAN due to visa issues, and failed to make it through the group stage. It looked like a clear sign that the team’s inexperience at LANs got the best of them, but they also under-performed online in Dota Pit 3, where they finished last. But their lows do not speak on their potential, they earned their wild card slot very convincingly against some scary European teams.
The longest standing team among the wild cards is MVP Phoenix, which consists of some of the best players in Korea and Southeast Asia, though the team has not had the best luck when it comes to qualifiers. Of the seven they participated in, Phoenix qualified for none of them, either being knocked out by Team Malaysia, now Fnatic, or being upset by Rave. But they performed for the one qualifier that mattered the most and snagged the wild card slot for TI5.
The team largely had its start after the fallout of the Dota 2 Asia Championship. They were one of the longest standing teams in the scene, the best in Korea and a top contender in SEA, but they finished last with an abysmal 1-14 score from the group stage. The team split the roster in two and built two new ones, both stronger than the first.
Phoenix will be looking to make up for last year at TI4, where they came short against Team Liquid during the wildcard. With two slots up for grabs this time around, they have a strong chance if they can at least replicate their performance from last year.
The North American Rejects make a return to TI. They had a disappointing performance at TI4 as Natus Vincere’s US roster, but now under Team Archon, they will be looking to redeem themselves. Version 2 of NAR sees the return of Steven “Korok” Ashworth and Ioannis “Fogged” Loucas, but this roster looks ostensibly weaker than the Na’Vi.US squad. This time around, the team will have to fight through the wild card, compared to last year when they won the qualifier outright. As ever, the Americans are the underdogs in the competition.
The team is not without their strengths. They’re the winners of the fifth season of the Dota 2 Canada Cup, fighting past Summer’s Rift, Wheel Whreck While Whistling and eventually Boreal eSports in the Grand Finals. They were also the team that upset mousesports, the major favorites during the TI5 NA qualifiers.
Strengths: Pocket picks and quirks
Looking at the teams in a head-to-head match up, CDEC Gaming look the strongest. They’ve played the second most games in 6.84c, behind Vega Squadron, and they’ve consistently faced the top tier teams in China, such as LGD-Gaming and Vici Gaming, and even took sets off of them.
One of their few pocket picks is Ember Spirit, who has fallen off in popularity, but he’s seen a lot of success with CDEC. They tend to pick the hero in the safe lane, favoring more farm oriented carries as well as longer games, the latter possibly a side effect of the Chinese region. They tend to pick “on meta” heroes, but they’ve definitely done their research on playstyles and drafts from outside their region, successfully running Secret’s Tusk/Techies combo against VG.
Mentioned previously, Vega Squadron have played the most games in the patch by a fairly wide margin and, despite this saturation, they maintain the second highest win rate among the wild card teams. They’re also one of the few teams that have made good use of “off meta” picks like Ursa and Slardar. They’re two of the least-popular heroes in the patch, but they’re also two of the team’s most effective picks, holding 85+ percent win rates on both. They’re strong picks for Vega because they reflect their heavy emphasis on fast games, both heroes have early-mid game power spikes, but tend to fall off toward the late game.
MVP Phoenix is the wild card team with the highest win rate in 6.84c, at 66.7 percent over 18 games, though this is mostly due to these games only being played against mid tier SEA teams. They’ve mostly drafted “on meta” heroes during games, breaking out Templar Assassin on occasion, but they’ve been known to break out a safe lane farming Warlock as one of their pocket picks. They tend to distribute farm more evenly among their cores than any other wild card team, their three-core setup means that a picked off core is less of a dire situation and they can easily transition farm priority if need be.
Team Archon is the team that’s willing to experiment the most with their drafts, picking up 49 different heroes over 31 games. CDEC Gaming have about the same, but they’ve played about 20 mores games. They’ve found success with “off meta” picks like Sand King and a number of one-off heroes, such as Clinkz, Enigma and Treant Protector. They tend to play a more pseudo-4-protect-1 style with USH, who is one of the most impressive farmers in the game. He has the highest GPM of any of the wild card players and has the 6th highest GPM in 6.84c.
Each team has their own little quirks and pocket picks that set them apart from the rest, and each have favoring a modicum of aggressive play that’s encouraged by 6.84, but it’s their weaknesses that will likely be their downfall in the wild card matches and beyond.
The worst thing you could say about CDEC Gaming is that they are the least experimental of the wild card teams. They ran the Tusk/Techies combo against Vici Gaming, a testament their ability to adapt a unique playstyle, but it was an idea that wasn’t their own. They play standard, maybe even predictably, but they play well. Their Achilles’ heel may very well be non-standard play and pocket strats.
Typical of the European/CIS squads, Vega Squadron plays very aggressively, much more than any of the wild card teams and this shows in their average game times. In 6.84c, their average game length is 37 minutes, but when only counting games they’ve won, that number drops significantly to 29.5 minutes. Vega thrives in the early game, but the all-in style has a weak late game and teams with a more tempered playstyle can take advantage.
The biggest problem MVP Phoenix have going into the wild card matches is that they haven’t played a single official game since the TI5 qualifiers, which took place nearly two months ago. Not only that, but they’ve played the least number of official games in 6.84c out of all the wild card teams. Scrimmaging and boot camping can only make up for so much, Phoenix will be going to Seattle a little rusty.
With the lowest win rate for the patch, Team Archon is the weakest team going into the wild cards. A 54.8 percent win rate over 31 games can at best be described as decent, but it looks much worse when you consider that most, if not all, of those games were only played against other mid tier teams from America. Archon does not look good going into a series featuring teams from regions much stronger than their own. Their saving graces will be Fogged and Korok, the team’s most seasoned players.
The results of the wild card seem clear cut, CDEC Gaming will top the charts, while the second slot will be a bit of a toss up between Vega Squadron and MVP Phoenix, with Vega having a slight edge. The home soil advantage will only mean so much for Team Archon and they will struggle against the foreigners.
The player pool across all regions has grown significantly and competition is fiercer than ever, this was clear from the results of the open qualifiers and the main qualifiers. Regardless of which team wins the wild card slots, it should be a worthy preview for the main event and we may see a wild card team break top 8 for the first time in The International’s history.
Dennis Gonzales is a Toronto eSports writer who enjoys whiskey, Dungeon & Dragons and first-picking
Timbersaw Windranger Abaddon Slardar. You can follow him on Twitter.