Day one is over. Even though none of the teams in the upper bracket faced elimination today, success at this stage meant securing vast proportions of the prize pool in advance of the rest of the tournament. For the team that managed to earn their place in the grand final, it meant a guaranteed place in history as contenders for the single biggest reward ever offered in competitive gaming.
KeyArena is a great setting. I'd worried, quietly, that having fewer teams progress to the main event would make the International feel smaller this year despite the new, larger venue. I was wrong to worry. Walking into KeyArena this morning and seeing that 90-foot screen, the thousands-strong audience covering every part of the stadium, the lights, Valve's all-out, Source Filmmaker-enhanced introduction: nothing about this production feels small. As a fan, KeyArena is one of the most exciting places I've ever been. It's a table-thumping endorsement of this hobby.
Today's games lived up to the extravagance. One team in particular performed well in excess of what was expected of them, but every squad played their hearts out: there was a tangible sense that these games really mattered, that a year of developing strategies was culminating in this moment. Below, I'm going to list the three games from today that you should watch to get the best sense of the quality of Dota on display. If you're looking to catch up, this is where you should start. Be warned: spoilers follow.
Vici Gaming vs. Newbee, Game 2
Not every game I choose is going to necessarily be indicative of the results of the entire set. Vici Gaming vs. Newbee game two is my pick for the first match of the day because, unlike game one, it was tense and close-fought. Vici were the biggest success story of the group stages, but I attributed that success to a five-man push strategy that seemed to take the majority of Vici's opponents - particularly western teams - off guard. In game one, Newbee turned the tables, building a faster and stronger deathball and beating Vici at their own game. Game two is an essential watch because Vici were forced to play a different, more fluid kind of Dota.
Newbee's draft was on-point as far as the current metagame goes, with Batrider and Tidehunter doubling down on strong counter-intitiation, supported by a pushing lineup of Luna, Shadow Demon, and Viper. Instead of trying to outlast or outfight Newbee, however, Vici outmanoeuvred them. Super's Ember Spirit steadily became a bigger and bigger problem in teamfights, and Fenrir's Vengeful Spirit made a strong case for the hero's viability as a Batrider counter. By threatening to swap out any hero that xiao8's Batrider targeted, Fenrir made himself the target - smartly disarming this top-tier threat. The man of the match, however, was fy. I'm not sure he missed a single Ancient Apparition ultimate in the entire game, not only catching all of Newbee in teamfights but landing mapwide snipes as well. The match was a great showcase of the individual talent that goes into producing that otherwise anonymous-feeling Vici deathball.
Other highlights of this set: Game one. In an extraordinary beginning to the main event, Newbee comprehensively outplayed Vici and overpowered their opponent in record time.
Team DK vs. Evil Geniuses, Game 1
This was the matchup I was most excited to see today. DK are one of the few teams that can consistently outplay the American powerhouse, but EG's performance in game one demonstrated just how much of a threat they really are. It began with the first pocket strategy of the tournament, a support pairing of Enchantress and Ursa for EG that had most observers scratching their heads - including DK. A few lucky neutral camp spawns quickly equipped ppd's Enchantress with the tanking power necessary to take Roshan at three minutes, forgoing the traditional lifesteal requirement on Ursa and taking DK completely by surprise.
Those fast levels on Ursa enabled an aggressive earlygame for EG that, in particular, served to shut down MMY's Shadow Shaman. For a long time, however, it looked like the game was still DK's to lose. Burning being Burning, they maintained a farm and map control advantage that should have translated into a steady, traditional victory. Universe put paid to that. He's regarded as one of the best offlaners in the world for a reason, and if you are at all interested in what a player is capable of achieving in that role then his Tidehunter is the example to look to. Every time DK took something from EG, Universe would turn it into a trade - a trade that, more often than not, EG would get more out of. He single-handedly delivered his team through the midgame, and as soon as the game ran late that greedy support Ursa became a unconquerable fourth core hero.
Eventually, EG forced the issue in DK's base while Mushi attempted to split push. Unable to TP back to defend, Mushi attempted to kill himself in DK's fountain so that he could buy back. Given the midlaner's legendary survivability in impossible situations, his inability to die to the fountain in time to save his team is a little ironic. DK's tier four towers collapsed, and the Chinese dream team ceded the game.
Other highlights of this set: Game two, specifically EG's precision use of Global Silence to get the edge on DK in teamfights.
Newbee vs. Evil Geniuses, Game 1
Having just unseated DK in a 2-0 sweep, EG looked like they were ready to march confidently into the grand final. Newbee had enjoyed an extraordinary run since Monday morning, but this was surely the moment when the momentum gave way. The draft looked like it had everything EG needed to seal the deal - Brewmaster, Tidehunter, Mason's Mirana and Arteezy's Naga Siren. In that situation, EG weren't just the home side - they were at home, playing the kind of Dota that they traditionally excel at.
And they lost. It began with Newbee's support play, particularly Sansheng's Earthshaker who was responsible for preventing multiple first blood attempts on Hao's mid Lifestealer. Meanwhile, Mu's safelane Death Prophet was able to secure a rare solo kill on Universe's Tidehunter. Then, Newbee's disciplined rotations enabled simultaneous kills on Arteezy and Zai, beginning a campaign of violence against the Naga Siren that kept her Radiance at bay at every opportunity. When they couldn't kill the Naga Siren, they'd take towers, denying Arteezy the safe access to his jungle that he badly needed.
EG didn't go quietly. Between Zai's Sand King and Universe's Tidehunter, they had the teamfight to hold Newbee back from breaking base for a long time. The length of the game seemed to wear on them, however, and a late teamfight in mid demonstrated a rare capacity for miscommunication between the EG supports. One fantastic 3 vs 5 defensive performance by EG bought Arteezy the space he needed to break Newbee's highground on two lanes at once with Naga illusions, but it wasn't enough. Late in the game and armed with a Refresher Orb on Mu's Death Prophet, Newbee realised that they could push through EG's teamfight and keep pressing the attack while their ultimates were down. EG repelled the first assault but lost their tier four towers. Five minutes later Newbee attacked again, and although EG gave it everything they had they simply couldn't bring Mu down. The second wave of Exorcism ghosts took the ancient and dealt a decisive blow to EG's confidence that would be felt well into the second game. Not long after that, The International 2014 had its first grand finalist - Newbee, a team that had faced elimination on Monday morning.
Other highlights of this set: Newbee's timing in game two. I've never seen a team coordinate ganks so perfectly. PPD's support Wraith King was never allowed to hold onto his ultimate for long, and the global presence of Spectre and Nature's Prophet was used to tremendous effect against EG's individually-vulnerable teamfight lineup.
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