First place finishes at 14 of 20 tournaments. 48 of 58 best-of-three or best-of-five series won. The number one ranked team on HLTV for 347 straight days. What separates Astralis from the rest of the world? What keeps them on top?
What a lineup
The obvious answer is that they are too good to be overtaken, quite rightly now called the greatest team CS:GO has ever seen.
Their supremacy in the late round is almost tautological, our imagination of how the game should be played in crunch-time, in the clutch, is inevitably linked to images of how Astralis plays it. Unlike Na’Vi, whose raw talent is condensed to the point of it being uneven, to the point of it being a weakness, Astralis has no obvious weak point on the CT-side.
Beyond being the famed smoke criminal, Lukas "gla1ve" Rossander is an uncommonly strong individual player as an in-game leader. The former major MVP, Andreas "Xyp9x" Højsleth, is easily one of the best pure positional players in CS:GO. The lead riflers and forward-most points of contact, Peter "dupreeh" Rasmussen and Emil "Magisk" Reif, were easily both top-10 players worldwide last year and Magisk was able to most recently take the MVP trophy from IEM Katowice 2019. And the best insult people can throw at Nicolai "dev1ce" Reedtz these days is that he is only a top-four or five player in the world.
Master of the T-side
Innovative while still being fundamentally sound, their famed utility usage and executes combined with an unparalleled ability to manipulate CT-rotations makes Astralis’ offense the best in the world and gives them a purely insurmountable edge on their specialist stronghold, Nuke.
Astralis’ map pool has both width and depth. Inferno has joined Nuke as untouchable points of strength while they lack an easily exploitable weakness. Though they have moved away from the strategy more recently, they innovated the idea of a floating permaban in 2018: often not removing Cache in their first round of bans if the other side is not a Cache team specifically. The strategy gives Astalis a pseudo-seven map pool with only six maps firmly under their belt. Then, Train and Overpass are not as reliable a weakness as their rivals would like with Astalis accumulating a 29-14 record overall across both maps. Mirage, despite being the target of several first bans by Astralis in the immediate aftermath of the mappool shift last April, has likewise been surprisingly fair with Astralis earning 20 wins to 9 losses, and Astralis have easily been the best team of the new rendition of Dust2 winning 15 of their 17 games LAN contests on it.
Even if teams target Nuke with their first ban instead of their normal permaban, like Team Liquid has done more recently, to deny a “free” win, Astralis has too many options and too few holes to drop loss in series play with any regularity, but that’s only half of the equation. For as much praise we want to give Astralis for their preparation and innovation in and out of the game, there remains the question of why other rosters have not been able to rise with them. If anything, Astralis' ascension should have provided a blueprint for the rest of the scene to grapple with. Even if you say following in someone else’s footsteps perpetually leaves you a step behind, it still provides a clear route forward.
Imitation is the best form of flattery
The fact is that no team in the world is attempting to emulate Astralis in a significant enough fashion to matter. Instead, the rise of international lineup and the bundling together of raw talent in lieu of proper in-game leadership and role diversity remains the dominant chic.
In 2018, Maikil "Golden" Kunda Selim was removed for William "draken" Sundin. Martin "STYKO" Styk was removed for Janusz "Snax" Pogorzelski. Mathias "MSL" Lauridsen was removed for Casper "cadiaN" Møller. Finn "karrigan" Andersen was removed for Dauren "AdreN" Kystaubayev.
SK/MIBR picked up Jacky "Stewie2K" Yip and Tarik "tarik" Celik to replace the more supportive side of the roster in Epitácio "TACO" de Melo and Ricardo "boltz" Prass. Even with modest improvements under their new coach Janko "YNk" Paunović, the American duo was removed for a rehash of their highly successful 2017 lineup with TACO and João "felps" Vasconcellos back in the mix. But compounding that mistake as we moved into the new year, we’ve Stewie2k again replacing a departing TACO this time on Liquid, while Tarik has more recently been brought into the NRG to replace yet another supporting element in Jacob "FugLy" Medina.
The surge of G2, SK, and FaZe in mid-2017, the new and improved FaZe with Olof "olofmeister" Kajbjer Gustafsson and Ladislav "GuardiaN" Kovács’s brief but brutalising dominance at ESL One New York and ELEAGUE Premier 2017, and Cloud9’s major win apparently taught the wrong lesson to every GM involved in the CS:GO trading game. Mislead by Olofmeister, they thought stars or former stars could replace more supportive elements, learn their roles, and produce a better roster. Mislead by Team Liquid and to a lesser extent Cloud9, teams thought a true, season in-game leader could be replaced by coachable in-game talent and still improve results. Mislead by FaZe and to a lesser degree mousesports, teams thought a shift to an international lineup could open them them to better pickups with negligible in-game costs.
To be clear, the subsequent failed attempts to replicate the successes of Olofmeister, Nicholas "nitr0" Cannella, FaZe, mousesports ect. does not suggest that their triumphs were a fluke or in some way invalid, but instead demonstrates their exceptional quality. These dazzling examples have distracted from the far more 'normal' excellence of Astralis.
Astralis is a team of five Danes, with a traditional support and in-game leader, that play the game so fundamentally and methodically sound that neophyte fans call their dominance "boring." They don’t have the five SMG waterfall attacks of Vega Squadron, the bizarre flanks of TyLoo, a superstar-IGL prodigy hybrid a la Nikola "NiKo" Kovač, or anything near the breakout, singular dominance we see from Oleksandr "s1mple" Kostyliev week in and week out. While they certainty have their fair share of firepower themselves, Astralis is on top because of tactics, team-play, and timing.
Astralis could be a team that would have remained superlative one way or the other this past year, but the rest of the scene hasn’t done themselves any favours, and the tide has not yet shifted even in the wake of their second Valve Major victory.
The fact that Na’Vi hasn’t made a roster change in over a year and a half despite obvious inefficiencies is atrocious. FaZe's addition of AdreN is bound to be a disappoint if not an outright failure. While Liquid and NRG’s more recent moves could break either way, they perhaps did themselves a disservice by not picking up more lateral replacements for their departing players. For example, Timothy "autimatic" Ta, who has proven his ability to put up numbers and play a variety of roles and positions at a high-level should be a break-the-bank pickup for the leading NA duo.
The recent reports that Karigan is close to coming to terms with mousesports is encouraging though MSL’s longer excursion into the doldrums of the North American scene is less so. Likewise, the most heartening showing from a would-be powerhouse at the Major came from MIBR, but the fact they merely turned back the clock two years with the addition of Wilton "zews" Prado speaks little to the progression of the scene more broadly in the Astralis Era.
All dynasties end. Astralis can not and will not stay on top of the scene forever. But just as their ascension arose via circumstances both internal and external, so too will their decline. However, if we don’t see a recognition of the fallacies established in roster building over the last year and a half, Astralis may continue to decide their own destiny for many months more.