We've taken a look at some of the biggest rivalries heading into The International 2016, but what about the surprises? This is the first time at TI for teams like Vici Gaming Reborn and Digital Chaos, and many of the more established orgs are attending the event with new rosters that have yet to meet some of the biggest competition from across the pond.
How will Korean giants MVP Phoenix fare if they run into rough-and-tumble Wings Gaming in the group stage? What will happen in the inevitable first meeting between Newbee and Na`Vi's latest squad? theScore esports asked Gorgon the Wonder Cow to take a look at some of the more intriguing possibilities for this week's big event.
MVP Phoenix vs. Wings Gaming
Wings and MVP landed at fourth and fifth on our power rankings. Both squads are marching into TI6 with extremely similar narratives, having risen from the ashes of regions left devastated to surprise the world with exceptional performances.
MVP Phoenix swept through The Manila Major to finish in the Top 6, while Wings have regularly toppled Chinese giant Newbee, in addition to taking first at The Summit 5 and ESL One Manila. Despite that, the two teams have only ever played at the same event three times: DAC, WCA 2015 and The Manila Major. That's made it unlikely for either team to get grouped with the other or bracketed into a match. The International is likely the first time they'll meet one another on the map.
MVP and Wings both engage in very similar playstyles, centered on transitioning out of the laning phase with heavy aggression to knock opponents out before they've had a chance to build up momentum. Wings have been much more active in the past several weeks, taking second place at the Nanyang Championships, which implies they'll be heading into Seattle with their blades nice and sharp. On the other hand, we don't know which teams MVP have been scrimming ahead of TI. Wings are certainly a favorite, but either way a match between these two should be a bloodbath.
Vici Gaming Reborn vs. Team Liquid
It's hard to believe that VG.R has yet to face Liquid, considering the played in the same group division for The Manila Major, but thanks to VG.R's first-series loss against Fnatic and the GSL-style format for those group stages, the opportunity never came up. The young Chinese squad that Vici put together after The Shanghai Major hasn't reached any other tournaments that Liquid have attended.
VG.R is far from a powerhouse squad these days. They've only played eight games this sub-patch (6.88b), of which they lost half of them, including both of their games against LGD (the only other International team they've played). Even China's Wild Card representative split a two-game series against VG.R in their most recent bout just over two weeks ago.
But everybody counted VG.R out at the StarLadder i-League Invitational, where they ended up knocking out LGD, OG, Virtus.pro and Na`Vi, as well as beating MVP Phoenix. VG.R have had some inactive time in order to assess the situation, and compared to some regions, China has better scrimmage partners for them to practice against. It's possible VG.R come out of the gate with more of a kick than expected.
Liquid, of course, haven't shown many signs of slowing down. Their placement at The Summit 5 felt under-representative due to several drafting and gameplay decisions they made that gave the appearance of blatant experimentation. They ran a particularly greedy draft against Wings Gaming, known as one of the best teams at punishing greed in modern Dota. They seemed to be testing the boundaries like raptors against an electric fence, just taking note of the weak points.
This is a match that, if we see it, is expected to be somewhat one-sided. But if Liquid weren't just testing at The Summit, or if recent inactivity has made them rusty, perhaps VG.R can upset the world's expectations one more time.
Newbee vs. Na`Vi
Although these International-winning teams have faced each other in six past games, their current rosters have never gone head-to-head. The only player on Natus Vincere to have experience against Newbee is Danil "Dendi" Ishutin, who faced them twice since the Chinese squad ascended to the championship in 2014. Both teams have had roster shuffles and a renaissance since that time — Newbee took first in the mostly Chinese Nanyang Championships and third at the last Major, while Na`Vi took first at StarSeries and second at ESL One Frankfurt.
That win at StarSeries is Na`Vi's first gold at an event since 2014. The last time these organizations saw each other was a one-game series at the Dota 2 Asia Championships well over a year ago. Since then, Na`Vi have gone through fourteen players, including their current roster of Dmitry "Ditya Ra" Minenkov, Victor "GeneRaL" Nigrini, Akbar "SoNNeikO" Butaev, a return of TI1 champion member Ivan "ArtStyle" Antonov, and the eternal presence of veteran Dendi.
Ditya Ra, GeneRaL, and SoNNeikO are all too new to the Dota scene to have had a chance to face Newbee; none of them played with a team of inter-regional status before joining Na`Vi. ArtStyle is an old-guard veteran, but years of inactivity and regional play after The International 2011 left the former captain without a chance to face many Chinese teams.
Newbee, by contrast, is made up of plenty of members that have had chances to face Na`Vi in many iterations. Chen "Hao" Zhihao and Zhang "Mu" Pan both suffered what is still one of the most controversial and humiliating defeats at the hands of Na`Vi's TI3 squad: the infamous fountain-hooking incident.
The modern Newbee is one of the most traditional Chinese teams remaining in the world. They spend a lot of effort creating tiered scaling drafts, so that they have their three cores activate at different times, always pushing toward a late-game victory. They have one of the longest average game-times in the world and somehow manage to deal with a highly early and aggressive metagame that often sees two (or even three) cores hit their power spike between 14-20 minutes.
However, the modern Na`Vi still retains the fan-favorite spirit of the classic squad. Although they are more objective-minded than they have been at some points in the past, their focus is still on aggression and out-combating opponents.
Wings have been particularly successful against Newbee (with a 2:1 win ratio in the last few months) by accelerating too fast for Newbee's comfort, giving the former world champions no time to get Hao the farm he needs to step up and become a one-man demolition derby. Na`Vi is known for aggression, similar to Wings, but is slightly more predictable in their drafting patterns.
Two former championship organizations with new members and a somewhat grudging past. This is a match I want to see played out with elimination on the line.
TNC vs. Digital Chaos
TNC haven't played the vast majority of their opponents at The International 2016, largely because this will be their first time competing in the West (though they did reach China for WCA in December of 2015 with most of their current roster). Digital Chaos, on the flip side, is a team of mostly European transplants that looked quite promising leading into The Manila Major but has hit an extended rough patch.
With their excellent showing relative to their Southeast Asia counterparts and the polarizing American Jimmy "DeMoN" Ho joining, this is a match that could set the pace for a TNC dark-horse rise, or a Digital Chaos resurgence, for that matter. Most analysts expect that both teams will fall out before Top 8 at The International, but TNC comes in especially unproven.
Digital Chaos plays with a fairly even allocation of resources throughout their team, while TNC has one of the most extremely one-sided preferences in the tournament. The pairing should be quite a sight indeed: Marc Polo "Raven" Luis Fausto and Carlo "Kuku" Palad at the extremes of wealth, as Digital Chaos groups up with mid-game heroes including Beastmaster, Lion, Doom, Lifestealer and Batrider and tries to disrupt that farm.
In all honestly, Digital Chaos is less the foe they were a few months ago, but they are also more of a foe than TNC has faced in a very long time (barring Fnatic, whom they did manage to beat twice during the International qualifiers). This match could break either way, and if TNC did well here it would be a stepping stone into a potential surprise run through their group. Most years there's at least one little-known team that comes into TI who catches powerhouses sleeping in the first few days of the group stage.
There's also usually a team or two that well surpasses expectations in the main bracket. Digital Chaos would be a tremendous scouting match for TNC: their preferred playstyle is in the same vein as OG, Liquid and LGD, but far less polished. Likewise, for Digital Chaos this match could be a confidence booster and stepping stone to larger opponents.
Either way, I'm hoping we get to catch this match early in the group stage.
Ryan "Gorgon the Wonder Cow" Jurado writes about Dota 2 and freelances for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.