When we spoke to Jens "Snute" Aasgaard in the leadup to the WCS Winter Championship at IEM Katowice, he was in a period of high-intensity practice. On the line was $150,000, a direct seed to the WCS Global Playoffs and 11,000 precious WCS points.
Since the launch of Legacy of the Void, Snute had posted mixed results. He won the GPL 2015 International Challenge shortly after the new expansion was released, but dropped out of the 2016 DreamHack Open: Leipzig in the Round of 16. IEM would be Snute's chance to prove that he was back, that he'd solidified his understanding of the meta and he could once again compete on the international stage.
The format for the Winter Championship was unforgiving: single-elimination with best-of-fives up until the final. Too many mistakes in the Round of 32, and Snute could find himself going home empty-handed.
But he didn't end up going home, not until the very end. Snute went to the Grand Finals in Poland, defeating MajOr, MaSa, viOLet and Hydra on the way there. Although he fell just short of victory, Snute's second-place finish to Choi "Polt" Seong Hun cemented his reputation as one of a handful of Western StarCraft II players that can go toe-to-toe with South Korean pros.
IEM Katowice: Validation
Snute reached the Grand Finals at Katowice by keeping things in perspective. The 25-year-old Norwegian has been in enough tournaments to know that the difference between a successful run and a disappointing finish is terrifyingly small; so it's best not to look too far ahead. "The most important thing is preparing for the next opponent and being in shape for the match," he says.
Hope, it seems, is a dangerous game. "Sometimes you can get excited if you make it far or have a lead, but most of the time it's just distracting," he continues. "It's better to concentrate on playing well each map and focus on winning until the tournament is over."
Snute's stoicism and standard play worked well for most of the tournament, but not against Polt. The Norwegian struggled against some uncharacteristically innovative strategies from the legendary Korean Terran, who threw out a variety of early pushes designed to keep Snute off-balance. In the end, Polt took the series 4-2, claiming his fourth WCS title and keeping Snute away from his first.
Snute is happy with the result, but he knows how close he came to the win. He also knows that one tournament isn't going to get him where he wants to be, especially given his poor results prior to the Winter Championship. "To me it's always been more about the averages and climbing steadily, working on fixing the biggest problems," he says. "I don't want to lose early or have volatile results."
Long-term consistency is something that all StarCraft 2 pros struggle with, though some — like Snute — have had more success than others. Part of Snute's strength is being able to move past poor individual games to see the big picture. Though he has underperformed in recent WCS tournaments, failing to break out of the group stage in both Season 2 and Season 3 of the 2015 WCS Premier League, he has managed to put up solid results on average over five long years of competitive play. He remains one of the few non-Korean players whose career winrate against Koreans approaches 50%.
Snute's conscious approach to forming strategies and practicing is perhaps his defining characteristic as a player. He is dogged in his pursuit of improvement, constantly looking for ways to root out weaknesses in his play. "It's a very delicate process, being stubborn and protecting your winning moves, and being open-minded enough to remove the losing moves, or find new ways, at the same time," he says.
With this approach, he doesn't see an upper limit on how good he can get. "There isn't a true skill ceiling," he says.
Long Live the Swarm
Snute cites his victory at HomeStory Cup VI as one of his proudest moments. At the dawn of Heart of the Swarm, his 4-0 sweep over GSL Code S Korean Zerg Kang "Symbol" Dong Hyun heralded the beginning of two years of strong finishes. In 2013 and 2014, Snute ranked among the top non-Koreans in the scene, winning a series of major tournaments and coming tantalizingly close to another premier title, though it stayed beyond his reach.
Part of what made him successful during that period was the dominance of Swarm Hosts. A loyal adherent of the Swarm Host meta, he went beyond the standard usage in ZvP and experimented with the unit against Terran bio compositions (with mixed success). His affinity for the positional, patient style saw him succeed against fellow foreigners, but also against players from Korea, where the Swarm Host meta had a weaker grip.
"The Swarm Host 'mech' style, or turtle style, was very similar to Terran Mech or just the Protoss race as a whole," he explains. And, like mech, attrition-based Swarm Host games tended to go very long and could be quite exhausting. But as long as it won him games, Snute was committed to it. "I was quite bored of playing the style eventually, but winning made up for it," he says. "It didn't matter if I'd spend some extra time, obviously I'd be a bit more fatigued than my competitors, but still I'd be winning."
He recalls some of his Swarm Host games that were "truly enjoyable," including his series against Mun "MMA" Seong Won at Gfinity G3 in 2014, or against Kim "herO" Joon Ho at IEM Season IX Toronto in the same year. Those games at IEM Toronto (where he would go down 3-2 in the Quartefinals to the eventual victor, Lee "Flash" Young Ho) marked a high-point in Snute's career that he wouldn't top until he defeated both Jung "Rain" Yoon Jong and Kim "Classic" Doh Woo — then the reigning GSL and SSL champions, respectively — in IEM Season X Shenzhen in 2015.
Snute is not the most mechanically gifted player. He's not the fastest, though he isn't the slowest, and he can't dominate players through sheer multitasking. What he is good at, however, is analyzing and understanding the macro game, the meta, and focusing his practice accordingly. From the beginning, he's been careful about how he approaches his preparation and forms his routine — for Snute, it's as much about how he practices as what he practices. Snute did all of those things in the Swarm Host era, and in Heart of the Swarm more generally.
Leaving HotS behind
All good things must come to an end, and Blizzard eventually responded to the growing backlash from players and fans over the Swarm Host by nerfing the unit beyond viability.
"It just became a completely different unit, more like a useless bio unit," Snute says of the redesigned version of the Swarm Host. "My impression is that Blizzard does not want players to play mech styles that involve long games with all bases on the map taken and positional play and possible split-map scenarios. Everything about the new maps and units promote aggressive back and forth plays off of two or three bases."
The changes meant Snute had to jettison the style he had been so successful with. Although he preferred the slow, methodical "mech" play, LotV calls for speed, aggression and multitasking.
The transition has proven more difficult than he expected. Having developed such a strong understanding of the HotS macro game, he had trouble forgetting what he knows and adapting to the new demands of the game. That surprised him, and the surprise itself made his reeducation more difficult.
The effort of reinventing his playstyle led to some disappointing results, such as his early exit from DreamHack: Leipzig. "I expected to do much better than what I've done so far, and thought the transition would be no problem," he says. "I was able to win the GPL International Challenge right after [LotV's release], and it set a great mood for me. But then I had a horrible performance in Nation Wars. Semifinals of HomeStory Cup was a small relief, but on average I've had a lot of failures that I wouldn't have had before — Nation Wars being the prime example of this."
Part of the difficulty he faced was keeping up with the competition. European Zergs like Artur "Nerchio" Bloch and Aleksandr "Bly" Svusuyk have taken to Legacy far faster than Snute, and the competition has been tough.
"In general, I feel like my level has weakened a lot in the transition from HotS to LotV, so I've lost a lot of confidence," he confesses. "I'm losing a lot of matches now that I wouldn't have lost before because of not handling the new maps and units well, and then it stings a lot. It makes me feel like whatever skill I had in HotS wasn't real, if that makes sense, since all the other players all of a sudden got so much better."
Snute is determined to make it work, though. Radical change, painful though it is, is necessary to keep winning. "I'm quite desperately trying to leave whatever pride I had behind and work on things one at a time," he says. "Before, I would make small adjustments. Now I need to throw more of my concepts and previous 'winning ideas' out of the window in favor of new knowledge, while still trying to keep some of the good things."
It's tough, he says, but as a veteran, he's been able to take his disappointing results in stride, and he's learned the importance of not getting stuck in his old ways. Luckily, his analytical mindset helps as much with adapting a new strategy as it does with refining a well-practiced style. Ultimately, it's just one more challenge to approach with his characteristic thoughtfulness.
The WCS Winter Championship may be the turning point for Snute. It showed that he could play a more defensive, standard style and still succeed. His Queen-heavy defense against a few deadly Terran pushes shows the kind of innovation that only comes with thorough strategic understanding.
"Getting to the Finals is great," he says. "The ZvZs worked out much better than I expected. ZvT I'm still not sure, I need to learn a lot there."
Despite his strong finish, he's not planning to get comfortable. "Everything about these big WCS tournaments is very amplified, but to me it's still a very small sample of games," he says. "If I can bring similar performances in qualifiers, online tournaments, perform better in practice and keep having results like this offline, I'll feel very good about it."
Snute feels as though he's still unproven in Legacy of the Void, but he's looking forward to more practice, more thought, and better results. "For now, it certainly brought at least some faith back, even if it was only five series," he says.
Christian Paas-Lang is an eSports journalist from Toronto pouring one out for all the Swarm Hosts that haven't been spawned this year. You can follow him on Twitter.