Down to just two tournaments on the Pro Tour this week, and the first ever major Russian tournament. Unfortunately for the Russians, Moscow Fighting Arena was demolished by top tier talent, but they respectably held their own in the face of a former EVO champion. Kun "Xian" Xian Ho took Moscow, and Kenryo "Mago" Hayashi finally took first place at TWFighter Major in Taiwan.
But Mago and Xian's roads to Regional Finals qualification were very different. For one, Moscow was essentially an open field, with only a handful of big European talent standing in Xian's way. His character choice may make things a little harder for him, but Taiwan was stacked, and even with Karin at his back, Mago had an amazing run.
TW Fighter Major: Mago remains the 2D God
Mago is the first Karin player not named Justin Wong to win a Pro Tour event, but he did it at a far more stacked tournament than Justin has attended all season. No offense meant to Jwong, but he hasn't won a tournament up against Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi, Tatsuya "Haitani" Haitani, Ryota "Kazunoko" Inoue, Naoto "Sako" Sako, Hiroyuki "Eita" Nagai, Ai "Fuudo" Keita, Lee "Poongko" Chun Gon and Daigo Umehara. Mago has.
Coming from Fei Long and Sagat, Mago is used to a patient-yet-explosive approach to the neutral game. He waits, looks for the single crack in his opponent's approach, then deals a 25 percent damage combo without hesitating. There is no one better at capitalizing on opportunities than the 2D God himself. On top of that, Mago showed off impressive adaptation, able to quickly snap back from Haitani's aggression and swap out his more defensive, passive playstyle into something that took advantage of Hataini's endless desire to press all the buttons forever. Against Sako, Mago conserved his meter and tacked on as much chip damage with Karin's Orochi shoulder slam as possible before busting out his Critical Art, playing his more traditional, patient style.
Tokido brought Mago to the edge, reset the bracket and took him all the way to Game 5. Tokido has consistently shown the ability to play at his opponents' level, but something always gives for him right at the end. In SFV, Tokido is the king of second place, and Mago's patience outlasted Tokido's in Grand Finals. In the last round, Mago postured for a combo into super, or even just a raw super for the same chip damage kill he got in the previous round, but Tokido didn't catch the feint. Mago dashed up, landed a grab, and took the tournament. Mago is still the 2D God, Tokido remains the 2nd God.
Moscow Fighting Arena: Xian-pai hands out the poison
Xian has been the master of awkward, underused characters for a while now, and he's looking to prove that F.A.N.G is just as viable as he made Gen back in Street Fighter IV. The thing is that with Gen, he was right. With F.A.N.G? Well, a CPT tournament victory is a good start, but Xian was by far and away the strongest player in Moscow which sort of renders the fact that he was playing a weaker character moot. F.A.N.G's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness, with the poison he adds on to some of his attacks being balanced out by the fact that those attacks do far less damage than average to compensate for the damage over time he can cause. But Xian isn't one to make his opponents take the poison then walk away. Against Wilifried "Will2Pac" Jean-Baptiste's Laura, he hit him with poison, then used the terror that the DoT causes to make his pressure game stronger. Xian knows you want to press buttons against F.A.N.G, so he keeps close, looking for opportunities to land a Crush Counter sweep or dangerous Counter-hit setup.
But F.A.N.G. has his weaknesses, particularly against Laura. He has very little to do in the corner, and almost nothing that makes his wake-up game threatening to her at all. Xian's long mix up strings are terrifying, but well-timed V-Reversals gave Will2Pac breathing room, even if just for moments at a time. F.A.N.G's other issue comes in that mix-up game Xian is known for. He only has so many tools, and the command dash becomes predictable and easily counter-able after a while. Xian is fast to adapt and change on-the-fly, but his kills came from constant aggression. He wore Will2Pac down with nonstop buttons in the early games, but Xian's losses came because his didn't change his gameplan fast enough. Xian got impatient, and didn't respect Laura's own mix-up game, something F.A.N.G. just can't counter with his slow buttons. Xian won, but how long he can keep winning with F.A.N.G is much more a testament to his own unpredictable, fast-moving playstyle than it is to the character's inherent strengths. Don't expect to see too many more F.A.N.Gs tearing up the pro tour this season.
Who to watch: Poongko the family man and Will2Pac the world warrior
Lee "Poongko" Chun Gon has been having it rough the past few months. Despite his first official sponsorship, he hasn't found his way into a SFV Top 8 until he went to Taiwan. Now, seventh place isn't ideal, but at a tournament like this? Just making Top 8 in Taiwan is equivalent to winning a smaller North American tournament in terms of skill level. Poongko also got to show off his Guile which looked gross. Guile obviously needs some people to develop new technology before he really blows up, but Poongko displayed an impressive ability to lock down Hiroyuki "Eita" Nagata's Ken and capitalize on every hit with long combos. Poongko went down 2-1, swapped over to Cammy and lost the set, but he took it to last round every time with the kind of fast-paced, hyper-aware play he became famous for. Poongko is back, and he's got two infuriating characters to deal with this time.
Over in Moscow though, the local players didn't make too much of a splash. As everyone expected, the international players ran away with the tournament, and Will2Pac is the man to watch in Europe right now. He's one of a few European players who are making the effort to travel these days, with placements in Europe, North America and Latin America. He's likely staying away from Asia for the same reason most Western players are, but he's doing a very good job of proving Laura's worth in the hemisphere of his choosing.
People have been calling Laura a hidden top tier character for a while now, and with Will2Pac as her pilot, it's not hard to see why. She has an absurd mount of options to mix up opponents and the threat of EX-Sunset Wheel as an okizeme tool is so bonkers that it can actually push opponents into playing a far more passive wake-up game than they otherwise would. It's all about the telltale sunset wheel, and Will2Pac is its master. I'd expect to see him at the Capcom Cup Finals if he keeps up his pace and travel, and I'd expect to see him rocking an even more deadly Laura.
Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. His Laura strategy is "throw out an EX Thunder Clap and see what happens." You can follow him on Twitter.