Building a New Legacy
On October 28th, 2021, Age of Empires IV was released. A few weeks prior to that date, the GENESIS tournament came to light, the first major tournament for the title. Not long after a second major made the rounds, sporting a 20 thousand dollar prize pool, the SteelSeries Prime Cup became a pivotal event for many.
Benjamin "DeMusliM" Baker is a well-known caster and former professional StarCraft 2 player. He picked up the new RTS in town and took it for a spin. In the span of four months, he would win a Major, participate in the game’s first $100k LAN event in Germany, and join the prestigious Team Liquid as the team’s first official Age of Empires signing.
Unbeknownst to everyone, including himself, DeMusliM would go on to win the SteelSeries Prime Cup, defeating fellow SC2 player Alexis "MarineLorD" Eusebio. MarineLorD was believed to be the favorite to win after an outstanding performance at GENESIS. But it was all for naught, as the former British Terran struck him out, along with Canadian Age of Mythology top player Naeem "Magic" Panchbhaya and RTS legend Juan "VortiX" Durán to claim his first, and so far only Major victory in the scene.
"When I won the SteelSeries Prime Cup, which was a total surprise mainly to me, I didn't expect to be playing pro in this game, even though I enjoyed it thoroughly. I knew I was getting better and better to get to the level I'm at now without the super try-hard approach."
"I always felt that I was good, and everybody around me called me talented [In SC2], but I could never truly show it when it really came down to it. I remember when I first moved to America, it was a real fight to try and get me into tournaments because a lot of them were invite-only and I was not considered a North American Player."
"If I think about some of my favorite moments... The first HomeStory Cup, even though that was 11 years ago, is definitely a big moment for me. It absolutely launched me, I think. And yeah, taking down a lot of different Korean names like I had a series against NesTea and even if that was not for the tournament win, he was considered the best player in the world at the time, and I managed to beat him on LAN. It was absolutely crucial for my development."
Learning a new RTS title has been smoother than one might think. Not just for DeMusliM but for many pros coming over the various scenes. There is no need to unlearn, but instead, translate their previous knowledge to the new title.
Elements such as the unit and building hotkeys are simply a matter of re-adjustment. And thanks to Age of Empires IV’s slower tempo, at least when compared to StarCraft 2, players like DeMusliM can focus on the game's strategy rather than minute micro improvements.
Maps are a different conversation. In the SC2 scene, crafted maps (maps hand-made and often perfectly symmetrical) take center stage in the ranked ladder and esport scene. In Age of Empires, generated maps (maps randomly created from a series of instructions but with variable features) are the primary choice.
"Honestly, the StarCraft 2 maps that stayed in the pool, especially in recent years, have been there way too long. Maps are always highly contested as to what the people like, what favors who, and what race specifically. Whereas in Age of Empires there might be a map that favors a civ, but everybody can play every civ at the top level, which made it a lot more fun for me in particular."
"I like the randomness as well because if you see something vulnerable, let's say your opponent’s wood line and you're English, you can completely change what you're going to do. That gets you thinking on the fly, which is cool and can create outlandish situations that you never prepared for but now have to deal with."
Coming into Age of Empires IV also comes with a new chapter for DeMusliM, and a chance to fill his cabinet with the trophies that he missed in Starcraft. With one victory already on the shelf, whether there are more to come is entirely in his hands, sweaty as they may get at the prospect of competing at the highest level once more.
"I'm ecstatic about it, but now I'm [already] at the cusp without the real, you know, sweaty practice. Maybe I'd like to push myself a bit over the edge and see how far we can go because I think the game benefits me a lot. I would love to be considered a top-three player in the world. I missed two weeks' worth of practice because I was out in Katowice. So let's see what I can do with a bit more practice next time."
Joining Team Liquid is certainly a strong realization of that intent. But then again, how did he end up joining the organization in the first place? And how does the first signing of what is understood as an Age of Empires IV player meld with the existing Starcraft 2/RTS players in the team.
"In the past, I’ve reached out to Liquid to see if they would be interested in me joining them, as a content creator, never went much further than just talks. But after Steelseries. on Christmas eve, a bit tipsy and completely on a whim, I reached out directly to Victor, the co-CEO. I was being a bit cheeky and fully expected him to wave me away, he was extremely interested. It was, you know, it was the greatest Christmas Eve present ever! "
"I'm currently a solo player but I am friends with a lot of them already, so if there is something I can help them out with then I would love to do so. I’ve always liked that role, of a helper and maybe coach, so if they reach out I’ll help. Though I don’t know what their plans are, to be honest."
DeMusliM was one of the directly invited players in what was the first LAN event for Age of Empires IV. N4C, organized by a longtime community figure, competitor, and current Tournament Coordinator for the franchise, Sven "Nili" Reichardt.
The event follows the format of one of Nili’s most prestigious events, Nili’s Apartment Cup (NAC), which started in 2019 featuring Age of Empires II and featured some of the best players in the world.
One of the reasons NAC was such a hit within the AoE II community is that it honed in on the community and culture the title had been building for decades. Showcasing the camaraderie and familiarity of players who had experienced years of their life together. But AoE’s unique tournaments and the camaraderie behind them… That is a tale for another article…
"Everyone was awesome. Everyone meshed really well. I think overall, Nili can look back and be very happy about what he did. Everybody did a really good job. Not just from a spectator's point of view, but from a participant's point of view, this was a really good event."
As part of the event, there were some home rules in place. For one, Herbal Medicine, a technology available to the Delhi Sultanate civilization that massively improved their healing units was banned. Prior to the most recent series of updates, patches, and balance changes were introduced during the first competitive season. Delhi was unchallenged in head-to-head fights on account of their incredible healing power, able to sustain their units in combat for long enough that they would drive their opponents into resource attrition.
The other was to move the Stone walls to Age III and outright forbid the construction of Stone Towers. For the Stone Walls and Towers, it was a matter of using what should be defensive structures to apply overwhelming pressure on opponents. As neither of these buildings could be attacked by infantry, requiring players to either expand elsewhere or build massive siege armies thus slowing the progress of the match considerably.
These changes came about from the proliferation of strategies that relied on them to cheese opponents. Neither of these cheesy routes were fun for the eight competing players and funneled the available strategies into much more linear paths.
"We obviously had our own rules set, which hopefully Relic looked at because I feel they really opened up the game. We had to look at the meta day-to-day because on day one Delhi and Mongol were thought to be the strongest, so when Mista banned Abbasid for his game we thought, “You plonker!”
DeMuslIm and the community got their wish. The ruleset, constructed between Nili and the players, proved widely successful with everyone, including Relic, who have since listened and applied changes to a similar effect. With the introduction of these rules the game seemed to really push forth in terms of developing an entertaining and challenging meta.
"But then we figured out that, yeah, Abbasid are strong, Delhi is still good even without Herbal Medicine, and Mongols are just not that great. Then Mista showed us that there is a lot of potential with English. Being all together to talk about these trends allowed us to really fine-tune the strats."
It's important to note that although I spoke with DeMusliM about his personal experience in N4C, the level of competition at the event, the level of talent present and exchanging ideas is, so far unmatched in any other event.
- MarineLorD, a player arguably at his peak in SC2 betting big on his AoEIV performance.
- Beasty, Another Starcraft 2 veteran whose halls lack the silver to properly reflect his skill in a lengthy career.
- Leenock, the first Korean Age of Empires player to be present in a LAN in the last twenty years.
- TheMista, a greek farmer who had competed in Age of Mythology and shown he could battle with SC2 and AoE2 pros.
- Vortix & LucifroN, the Spanish brothers who seem destined to top the leaderboards of any strategy game they commit to.
- TheViper, the unquestionable best player of Age of Empires II, who faced a greater challenge that week than in the past decade.
DeMusliM stood among giants while being one himself and flying the Team Liquid colors for the first time in the Franchise. Although not a favorite, he was still a player to watch on day one, everyone was. Amidst that level of competition, DeMusliM would need to be at his best physically and mentally, something he managed for the first day but struggled with on the second.
"My first day against the Viper was really good. I felt like I was playing well and that the practice time I missed was not having a big impact. "
"The second day, like an hour before I played MarineLorD, I had a very creamy pasta, which wasn't lactose-free and it ruined me for the next two days, it absolutely ruined me. If you go back and watch the matches, you'll see me running in and out of the room. there's like one game that lasts like six minutes and people thought I quit but I was just out of it."
"All things considered, I feel my losses were down to feeling ill, and honestly, if I am going to play that badly, might as well be against some of the best players - MarineLorD and ThheMista. Knowing that I might have lost those [two] even on a good day anyway was a bit of a silver lining."
Despite being sabotaged by an overly creamy pasta, DeMusliM was able to make it past the group stage of the event but fell to an energized VortiX who would go on to almost secure a finalist spot against the eventual winner of the tournament, Beastyqt.
"I had already passed my initial target of winning a set in the group stage. So when I was up against VortiX I was overthinking everything. I started to automatically question every decision I made in the game and had a hard time committing to one strat. I needed to trust my instincts more and play by feel."
"I have to improve my match-day mentality. I’ve read a book a while back about sports psychology and in one of the chapters, an ice figure skater talks about how he would work towards calming his nerves before going out, and just how important that was."
For DeMusliM the journey is just beginning. Now the Brit steps into the Golden League. At $125k, the tournament holds the largest pot/prize pool in the franchise’s history and has the length and format to match. Golden League sees him play three rounds of full, double-elim brackets - each with unique but competitive settings - to secure a spot in another group stage.
Round one had the most traditional ruleset of the three, and saw DemusliM fall at the hands of a former Starcraft 2 player, SortOf, who up until this point had not made a big splash in the AoE IV scene. This loss put DeMusliM behind his fellow N4C competitors with only the Korean Leenock besides him sharing the tied 9th - 12th place on the standings.
Round 2 however, was a setting more familiar to DeMusliM by way of being more Off-Meta. When streaming, DeMusliM likes going for wacky or unconventional builds with less-than-meta civilizations.
He had fallen behind early and carved out a path in the lower bracket and through some tough opponents in State, VortiX, Wam, and LucifroN before being finally knocked out by eventual winner TheViper.
Coming into Round 3, He is on par to meet the top 8 cut-off on the back of his 4th place finish at the Off-meta. Now he must draft a selection civs to use in each series with almost no repeats until the later stages of the brackets. A very limiting factor for those who thrive in the space between metas.
But these are the kinds of challenges that DeMusliM needs to pass if he wants to hang a “Top-three player” plaque on his wall. He has done better than most expected, including himself. All against a talented scene with a masterful curry blend of all RTS spices. Golden League is not just the next step but has also proven to be one of the steepest yet for this Liquid member.
You can watch DeMusliM take that step and fight through the bracket live, on his own twitch, or on EGCTV’s twitch channel, starting tomorrow when he faces off against fellow Liquid teammate and Starcraft alum Kelazhur.