Last year's WCS region-locking forced some of Korea's top talent to return home from dominating America and Europe. The upside? Korea has become as competitive as we've ever seen it, as new (old) faces seek to regain status in their homeland. Some have succeeded, and some have failed.
This year, the competition hit fever pitch. Both GSL and SSL have reduced their schedule to two seasons in the year, albeit with more prize money overall. That means the risk of a loss is amplified — losing one series in some cases means sitting out for six months.
Compound that with a completely new meta and faster game pace thanks to Legacy of the Void, and the Korean leagues this year have shown some of the most tense, explosive play in competitive StarCraft 2 history.
Into this cut-throat environment entered SK Telecom T1's Park "Dark" Ryung Woo and KT Rolster's Kim "Stats" Dae Yeob, two players with similar histories and different approaches to the game. But they both coveted the same thing: victory at a premier Korean tournament.
Dark: SKT's quiet ace
One of the few SlayerS players who followed BoxeR to SK Telecom T1 when the legendary team disbanded in 2012, Dark wallowed in anonymity until 2014. His first steps into the light that year were qualifying for GSL Code S twice and reaching the Ro16 once. He played nine times for SKT in Proleague in 2014, going a very respectable 6-3.
But 2015 was Dark's time to shine. Although his runs in the two Korean individual leagues, SSL and GSL, still weren't anything to write home about, he soon discovered a love for weekend events. Dark reached the semifinals at the IEM World Championship in Katowice, and then took second place at two KeSPA Cups that year, losing to herO and his teammate soO.
That loss came as a reminder that despite his growing talent, Dark was surrounded by SKT teammates who cast long shadows. INnoVation, Classic and soO together won five premier titles that year.
It became a theme for Dark: not good enough. He was arguably the best Zerg in the world at a time when his brethren were getting beat down by a perfected Blink Stalker/Sentry meta. A flagging Life and a yet-to-emerge ByuL gave Dark a brief glimpse of the pinnacle, but he never managed to keep it in sight.
He needed one more swing at the plate, and he got it this season at SSL. Dark tore through three top Protoss players (MyuNgSiK, Classic and Stats, sending his future Grand Finals opponent to the Loser's Bracket) without dropping a map. He then went on to conquer Solar, losing only two games in a best-of-seven against the strongest early adapter in LotV. Dark, having reached his first final in a premier league, waited to see who would arrive from the Lower Bracket.
Stats: Out from the shadows
Stats' career has a lot in common with Dark's. Playing for KT since he started in SC2, he never recorded a significant result until 2014, when he reached the quarterfinals in GSL Season 3 and lost to soO.
In 2015, Stats took off. Where Dark found an affinity for weekend events, Stats made deep runs in the newly formed SSL, reaching the semifinals twice. He performed extremely well in Proleague, going 22-12 with an All-Kill over SKT.
Yet Stats too was overshadowed by his stronger teammates. Just as Dark had soO, Stats had Zest. Stats actually beat Zest in the quarterfinals of SSL Season 2, but Zest topped premier tournaments more consistently, with the strongest individual performance at Proleague that year, going 28-15. Life, also a teammate at the time, started the year as the best player in the world and ended with a second-place finish at BlizzCon.
Like Dark, Stats was good, but not good enough. He was an honorable mention on the list of the best in 2015, but he never found a way to put any daylight between himself and players like herO, Zest and Classic.
Then Stats started this SSL season with two strong PvP wins over Hurricane and Patience. He lost a rather embarrassing series 3-0 to Dark that sent him on a long march back to the finals, but he managed to beat ByuN, Patience (again) and Solar to make it there.
So the finals were a rematch, with Dark aiming to put down an opponent he had already beaten once, and Stats looking for redemption.
The Grand Final: Adapt or die
Dark went into the series as one of those dangerous macro Zergs who, like Life, can use perfectly tailored builds to unleash devastating all-ins. In the first game, that's exactly what he did.
It's worth it to watch the whole game, but the real beauty comes at the six-minute mark. Dark, powered by just 35 Drones on two gold bases, launches a brutal Zergling/Baneling assault, supported by six Queens flown across the map in two speed-upgraded Overlords.
Stats is up 10 supply when the attack hits, but 20 of that is in workers, so his army supply actually trails Dark's by 10. He's also behind an attack upgrade. The attack doesn't kill him outright, but it knocks down his third and contains him on two bases for almost five minutes. Dark continues to make just Lings and Banes, and wins after a couple surrounds in the center of the map.
Dark's strategy wouldn't work on any map other than Prion Terraces. The gold bases give him the economy to power early aggression, and he takes full advantage of it with a specifically tailored build.
The rest of their matches look a lot like the first. On Dusk Towers in Game 2, Dark once again tops 100 Zerglings and crushes Stats before the game clock hits 13 minutes. In Game 3 he tests Stats with a risky cheese on Ulrena, but fails.
Games 4 and 5 are mirror images of one another. In the fourth game on Orbital Shipyard, the two players trade harass, but Dark gets the better end of it, then expands relentlessly and enters the final engagement with a massive bank of resources. In Game 5, the roles are reversed, with Stats able to deal damage, defend against a strong Hydra/Bane attack and go into the final fight with a decisive advantage.
Game 6 is a simpler one by comparison. Stats' Phoenixes are out of position when Dark launches a Nydus attack. He doesn't kill the Nydus in time, and his Phoenixes run out of energy as he tries to defend. That one slip up costs him the game and the series.
The real story of the last five games is Dark's adaptation to the current PvZ meta. Essentially, Dark won the series because he's trailblazing a new playstyle for Zerg (along with Rogue), and Stats got stuck trying to adapt to it in real-time.
In Dark's new style of ZvP, Banelings play a much more central role. He uses them to completely dismantle a push from Stats in Game 2, by timing out three waves of Ling/Bane attacks. The first — made up of only Banelings — destroys Stats' Zealots, who normally buffer for the Archons and Immortals. The second all-Baneling wave does less damage, but it kills off the remaining Zealots and, crucially, triggers the Immortals' Barrier ability, which is then on cooldown for the third wave. With the third, mostly Zergling attack, Dark completely surrounds the Archons and Immortals that make up the meat of Stats' push, and takes them down easily.
For any Zerg player, it's a beautiful thing to watch. For a Protoss, it's a death knell sounding the end of the brief meta advantage they held in LotV. The Chargelot/Archon/Immortal composition, with Phoenix support, was engineered mainly as a counter to the Lurker-heavy meta that Dark himself used in his three previous PvZ series. With the addition of Banelings, however, the burden shifts once again to Protoss to find a viable composition.
Returning to Forcefields could be the answer — with the prevalence of Ravagers, Protoss players have shifted away from Sentries, which created the vulnerability Dark so expertly exploited with Banes. Stats began to incorporate more Sentries into his compositions, especially on Central Protocol in Game 5, but by then it was too late to turn the series around. Likewise, Stats eventually figured out how to counter Dark's Baneling drops (which he boldly brought back despite the popularity of Phoenix builds), defending almost perfectly in Game 4 on Orbital Shipyard and only narrowly losing to Dark's more powerful economy.
So, in the end, it wasn't a matter of adapt or die for Stats. He adapted, and still died. Dark was able to maintain the initiative, forcing his opponent to find counters in the middle of the series and dictating the pace each game. The SSL Grand Final was Dark's turn to cast a shadow over the Korean StarCraft scene. Stats will have to wait for next season — or the one after that.
Christian Paas-Lang is an esports journalist from Toronto who had to grit his teeth and avoiding using "meta-bolic boost" in this article. You can follow him on Twitter.