Pole Position: 4 Top Contenders at TSL 7
Four top competitors stand out from the rest of the pack—after two weeks of fierce competition, it may very well be one of them that will be first across the finish line.
Any conversation about title contenders has to begin with the reigning champion of the ESL Pro Tour: Reynor.
After bursting out onto the StarCraft II scene as a sixteen-year-old virtuoso in 2018, Reynor’s steady growth finally culminated in a dramatic run at IEM Katowice 2021 where he overcame seemingly hopeless odds to win the world championship. While fans were quite well aware of Reynor’s elite micro, macro, and other mechanical gifts, IEM Katowice shined a spotlight on what might be his strongest attribute: his ironclad mentality. Reynor pulled off not one but two miracle comebacks, recovering from 0-2 deficits against both Maru and Dark to win in reverse sweeps.
Reynor’s interviews after winning the championship have given his run an even more mythical quality, be it his tales of playing 1v5 archon mode games to hone his multi-tasking skills, or the nonchalance with which he explained the process of reverse-sweeping some of the best players in the world.
IEM Katowice did not, however, usher in the era of Reynor, as he finished as the runner-up to Clem in the first DreamHack Masters European regional of the new EPT season. While that must have been a blow to Reynor’s pride in the short run, StarCraft II fans know it will only inspire him to come back as an even better player. After all, the past year of European SC2 has been defined by the neverending race between Clem, Serral, and Reynor, with all three players challenging each other to become even faster and even more precise.
One has to think that after getting pummeled by Clem’s onslaught of Widow Mines in DHM Europe, Reynor will want a chance to redeem himself in TSL7. Perhaps this time around, Reynor will be able to defuse the deadly mines and wreck the Terran economy with his signature backdoor Baneling attacks. And if anyone gets in the way of such a rematch—well, Reynor is more than capable of turning them into roadkill.
Hyperbole is essential fuel for any esports fan, but it might not be exaggeration to say Trap has become the best all-around Protoss player in SC2 history. Traditionally, Protoss excellence has been represented by specialists and their skills, be it herO’s surgical Stalker micro, Rain’s impenetrable defense, or sOs’ wickedly creative build orders. Trap may not be equal to his illustrious forebears in any one department, but his all-around skills package is one of the best ever.
The best played Trap games feel downright sadistic—he can turn otherwise ’light’ harassment into a devastating early-game strike thanks to his pristine micro, after which he keeps his foot on the gas with continued attacks. Then, even if Trap’s opponent was good enough to survive the mid-game, they face a slow and painful death against Trap’s suffocating late-game macro play.
Unfortunately, Trap has proven to be something of an anti-Reynor— crumbling under high-pressure situations. Trap won numerous smaller tournaments in the lead-up to IEM Katowice 2021, but he crashed and burned out of the group stages with a 1-4 record. More recently, he went up 3-0 against Maru in the GSL Code S semifinals, but ended up giving up one of the few best-of-seven reverse-sweeps in major tournament history.
On the bright side, Trap got over that traumatic moment in time for GSL Super Tournament 2, where he avenged his loss to Maru en route to winning the championship. It will be all about mindset for Trap in TSL7: If he can treat this like a Super Tournament, stay calm, and play up to the best of his abilities, he could very well win his fourth championship of the year.
The Finnish Phenom is currently going through the longest slump of his career, having failed to win a championship for over six months. It’s ridiculous that this actually constitutes a slump for Serral, but it speaks to the equally ridiculous standard that he set for himself with his past achievements. Back in 2018, six months was the length of time he went without losing a tournament, in one of the most impressive short term stretches in StarCraft II history.
Obviously, Serral is a far cry from the player who was once favored against the entire pool of other contenders in a given tournament. But how far has he really fallen? His last two eliminations from major tournaments do paint a troubling picture. At IEM Katowice, he narrowly lost 2-3 to Clem in the playoffs, and since then, he’s failed to defeat Clem in any best-of-three or longer series. Then, at DHM Europe, he gave up a shocking 2-3 upset to Lambo, a player who he rarely ever lost to in the past. Even taking Clem and Lambo’s considerable improvement into account, there’s reason to be concerned for the once hyper-dominant Serral.
And so, the rationale of featuring Serral as one of the top four title contenders isn’t really based on any recent results—instead it’s about following conventional StarCraft wisdom. There’s a soccer adage that the Korean scene readily adopted decades ago in Brood War: form is temporary, class is eternal.
It’s just as applicable in StarCraft II. When Dark survived through one of the most brutal playoff gauntlets ever to win TeamLiquid Starleague 6 (including Serral in the grand finals), it was unexpected—but few people were truly surprised. It was just another example of a legendary player shaking off a bad result, or two, or five, and finding a way to play championship-level StarCraft once more.
And the very best players? They don’t just bounce back and win a championship—they come back and dominate again.
The most exciting story in StarCraft II right now is undoubtedly the meteoric rise of Clem, who recently won his second European championship in a row at DHM: Summer. Clem’s success has largely been built on the back of his Terran vs Zerg, which seems like the strongest single match-up anyone wields in StarCraft II right now. While Clem has yet to enjoy any significant success outside the continent, it’s completely understandable why fans and players already think he’s destined to be the next truly great Terran.
Clem fits one of the classic archetypes of StarCraft: the Terran prodigy with unbelievably fast hands. These players can bypass the “strategy” portion of RTS and smash their opponents with the sheer strength of their micro, leaving their opponents bewildered at how they could possibly have lost a fight against an inferior force. The players in this mold are some of the winningest players in StarCraft history, such as NaDa, TaeJa, and Maru.
Everyone can see strands of that legendary DNA in Clem—now we’re waiting for it to manifest as major international championships.
The next step for Clem is to improve his results in Terran vs Protoss and Terran vs Terran. Just looking at the quality of his gameplay and the overall record he’s put up in those match-ups, it’s obvious that he’s top-tier. Yet, somehow, Clem continues to lose to Terran and Protoss opponents in pivotal moments, like against Zest in the IEM Katowice quarterfinals, or against ByuN in the first round of TeamLiquid Starleague 6. Perhaps Clem currently lacks the veteran savvy needed to plan for longer series, or maybe he simply hasn’t perfected his playstyle—one might even call it plain bad luck! Whatever the case, talent generally shines through in the end in StarCraft II, so it may be more a question of when—not if—Clem’s other two match-ups get up to speed with his TvZ.
While these four players stand out as the favorites, one must keep in mind that TSL has historically been a tournament of upsets and surprises. TSL3 was a star-making tournament for the previously unknown ThorZaiN, while TSL4 introduced us to Creator’s talents. In the revived TSL tournaments of Legacy of the Void, grizzled veterans proved they could still get the job done, with soO triumphing in TSL5 while Dark came out on top in TSL6. When the dust settles, we might be celebrating an unexpected champion, who used TSL to write their own story.