In the eyes of the CS romantic, Astralis are the perfect team. From a statistical standpoint, you'll be hard-pressed to find any player consistently not pulling their weight in numbers. Role-wise, they have a team that hums in synchronicity. From the high-performance, chiselled jaw-line, quarterback-like, super-star play of device to the steadfast expression of Xyp9x which is as equally calculated as his immensely calm decision making in-game -- everything makes sense on-paper. Astralis is a team that oozes the best of traditional sport’s successful trope and the image of what the best team in the world should look like, both in and out-of-game.
So why was their last tournament win at IEM Katowice all the way back in March? Why was their last big result the nail-biting 2nd place finish against FaZe Clan at StarLadder in April? Why is Astralis, with every single reason to succeed at their disposal, not the best team in the world?
Welcome to a tough Danish puzzle.
One of the problems with looking at Astralis in the present and over the last few months is that we've seen them take this on-paper potential and manifest a near-dynasty. And in theory, we know they can do this again. That’s because their in-game approach hasn't changed dramatically since they conquered the likes of OpTic Gaming, then Virtus.pro, then briefly FaZe in their consecutive rivalries. And it's not like their approach to the game is being hard-countered by hard anti-strats and reads either.
The decline of Astralis isn't due to their approach. In fact, the very nature of how Astralis' philosophy makes direct counters near impossible when they’re in-form. That's because Astralis attempt to play as close to perfect textbook CS:GO as possible.
When watching Astralis play against other world-class teams, each play, reaction, set-up or call has a clear rationality behind it. Astralis, out of all the teams in the world, and maybe even of all time, might be the side who has the clearest gameplan when entering the server, and the most clinical ability to execute it in a round. Like a surgeon cutting open up a patient, Astralis break apart sites with equal parts precision, communication, and highly practiced infliction of damage. The video below breaks down some examples of this.
This philosophy of playing CS to the most fundamentally correct level isn’t exactly unique though. Many teams’ philosophies tend to lean more to this structured, ‘restricting to the fundamentals’ style of play. Right now, you can look at sides like Team Liquid, Natus Vincere G2A and even to a degree Heroic, and see many of the core ideas as shown in the video embedded within their own overarching games. Astralis, though, to make the puzzle a bit more complex, is different to these seemingly similar sides. The difference, lies not within Astralis' game though, but rather, between Astralis' players.
What separates Astralis from nearly every other team historically who has tried to push this approach -- at least, to the incredibly nuanced and deep level Astralis is pushing it -- is the cohesion of the side.
It's easy to forget when focussing on immediate results, just how long the inter-personal/professional dynamics of Astralis have been played out for. This line-up has been together for nearly a full year as of writing, with the three-man core of Xyp9x/device/dupreeh having stuck around for a full three years. The system and teamplay of Astralis is rooted deeply across CS:GO's full historical timeline, and is an attribute very few other teams play host to.
This bedrock foundation built from months upon months of constant playing, failing, succeeding, roster changes, roster turmoils and personal clashes, then resolutions, is what makes Astralis what they are. While we look at a side like VP and applaud them for a similar reason, how they utilise this incessant cohesion is totally different. VP opt to blur the lines between roles and create this undulating, homogenised mass of fraggers capable of fulfilling any role. Sure, they have their star(s), a loosely defined AWPer and an even more loosely defined IGL, but their teamplay has undeniably entangled and overlapped ideas and roles within the side. The effectiveness of which, when form is lacking, remains to be seen.
Astralis, on the other hand, uses this same level of deep, deep teamwork to facilitate a clearly defined, text-book style of play. This is largely due to gla1ve being able to come in as an objective fresh voice and build a system with the pieces he had as an outsider looking in -- a luxury VP cannot afford. Gla1ve, and I imagine with a large helping hand from zonic, has built a very clearly defined system and structure of play around this natural teamplay.
This is what separates Astralis from every other team in CS history who has tried to utilise a similar approach: their dedication to execution, clear definition of a gameplan, and sustenance of form to facilitate long-term success. However, setting up Astralis in this light, only seems to further complicate an answer to the question: why are they failing?
I think contextually, there are multiple factors that definitely play into Astralis' decline. For starters, all of their big best-of-3 losses in Krakow/post-Krakow have been to sides that play far looser than Astralis and who have been able to match or exceed Astralis on an individual level. mou's 33 frag, 100+ ADR Train game in the semi-finals of the Krakow Major against Astralis is the first that springs to mind. But this feels like the justifications of an apologist, pointing the figure of responsibility outwards rather than internally.
When you actually lay out Astralis, you see that like most teams who struggle after success, the problem is form. Although this may seem like an obvious answer on the surface, when you realise just how rationally Astralis approaches the game, it’s tough to simply lump the blame on an intangible concept. It feels like, having seen them at their best, that form shouldn’t even factor into their game. Looking at their dominance early in the year, it seemed as though form couldn’t corrupt their fundamental approach.
The same intangible concept that has so readily built and shattered all of CS:GO's dynasties is bubbling under the glistening surface of Astralis' play. While their philosophy more-or-less renders surface-level statistics like 'rating' useless, it doesn't mean individuals aren't playing up to the right level.
Kjaerbye, and to a degree Dupreeh, are the ones who have had the most drastic and noticeable dip in form. This is likely due to their role. As the two aggressive playmakers on both sides of the map, Kjaerbye and Dupreeh add the much needed spice and volatility to the otherwise device-centred fragging power of Astralis. They're often the ones -- working in tandem -- flashing around corners for map control or finding opening picks. While gla1ve is the entry-force on some maps, and device is certainly capable of aggressively turning a round on its head, it's dupreeh and kjaerbye that are in there round in, round out. The pressure is always on them to win their opening duels to gain momentum in a round.
For this reason, when they, as well as potentially others, aren't hitting shots individually, you can see a hesitancy plaguing the text-book their game is built around. Astralis can seem lost when duels that should be one aren’t, and managing post-plant from strange situations in the round.
In this way, form and the maintenance/structuring of it, really is the ultimate factor for gauging long-term success. Even a side like Astralis, who so carefully built a machine to work around it as a problem to be solved, has fallen victim to it. Their problems with capturing form aren't non-existent, they just manifest more subtly and in places you don't expect.
But don’t confuse analytical perfection with invulnerability to the intangibles or against teams with simply more of them. Even the textbook is subject to failure.