Going into the US half of the Winter Championships, everyone was counting on LDZ, but no one knew what to expect. Maltimum’s explosive run through the EU bracket and Dobrein’s fourth place finish meant we were left wondering what shocks we might see as the American leg went into full flow.

There were certainly some changes in store on the NA side of the ocean. For one thing, the progress made through the winners side by the favorite, LDZ, was serene – unlike the missteps made by the EU favorites. Gone too were the scythes and Mirages, replaced instead by the usual suspects as the top US players chose to focus more on winning than experimentation.


The Reign of LDZ Continues

LDZ was steadfast in his first defense of the title ‘best in the world’. Boomie pushed him hard in Grand Finals, forcing a Game 5 situation, but he didn’t drop a set in claiming first place. Unlike his performances at the end of last season, it didn’t appear that he was so mind-blowingly ahead of the rest of the field. This time around, he just played superbly, took every chance he got to take some damage or a seal a stock, and was generally cleaner than the rest of the field.

Interestingly, he chose not to use his signature Koji this time around, sticking instead to Ragnir through both events. Having forsworn his bow for Katars, he showed that he was proficient with the weapons, but perhaps not as devastatingly effective as the likes of Starlight. Instead, it was his excellent control of neutral and edgeguarding that came to the fore. He wasn’t getting as much damage from an opening, but he was getting a whole lot more of them.

Particularly noticeable from LDZ was his clear weapon matchup preferences. It was obvious that he had done his homework, and decided in advance what weapons he would play against his opponents weapons of choice. A change from the enemy was often met with a change from LDZ, and by controlling the weapon matchup, he ensured that he was consistently at an advantage. It was a fascinating example of just how prepared the world champ is for every challenger.


Stevenator Introduces Us To His Abominable Snowman

Before Addymestic went ballistic with Kor in EU doubles, Stevenator was showing us what the character was capable of in a dominant run through the lower singles bracket. His decision to go with Kor was unwavering and, appropriately wearing the Snowman skin, he put the freeze on his opponents. Eliminating Starlight, Crockie, noeL and Pugsy, Stevenator eventually finished in third place. His only losses came against LDZ and Boomie, who went on to finish in first and second, highlighting just how strong his play was.

For Addymestic it was Gauntlets, for Stevenator it was the Hammer. In fact, his hammer play over the course of the weekend was supreme, and his opponents had little answer. Of note was his ability to steal stocks early, often with a perfectly timed Russian Mafia or a clutch edgeguard. More than once Steve finished games with multiple stocks in hand, but similar damage dealt to his opponent. It was a clinic in good hammer play, despite rare drops when he went for the most stylish combos.

He was also more than happy to play unarmed if need be, and never hesitated to throw his weapons. He cycled quickly throughout the weekend, but the pressure his weapon tosses put on were unparalleled. One of the smartest plays came late in singles bracket, where he threw his gauntlets upwards and along the edge of the stage, then concealed their descent with a ground pound. When Starlight dodged the ground pound, his gauntlets came crashing down on him to finish the job.

It’s this kind of heads up play that made Steve’s run so dominant. Time and again he found a kill long before it seemed that it should be possible, and it meant that on the rare occasions he struggled in the neutral, he could keep up regardless. As he gets more comfortable with Gauntlets, those early kills will be less about keeping up, and more about establishing an even stronger lead.


Boomie Finally Banks One

Although he couldn’t beat his doubles partner, LDZ, when the two met in Grand Finals of the singles competition, Boomie finally managed to notch his first Major title in doubles. With LDZ as his partner, not his rival, there was no one to stop them rampaging through the bracket and claiming the first title of the year – though Starlight and Astronaut gave it their best.

At just 14, Boomie is one of the youngest competitors on the circuit, but even so it feels as though this win has been a long time coming. For a time it felt like Boomie had been stuck in the shadows of others, but his partnership with LDZ has finally earned him the spotlight.

This will be a huge weight off of his shoulders, along with justifying his new choice of doubles partner. With the pressure to claim a first major win scrubbed, he will not only be going into coming events with new focus, but will likely be able to play even more freely and creatively than he did to earn his reputation. Now that he has a doubles title under his belt, it can only be a matter of time before he adds a singles title to it.


Astronaut Breaks The Ice

Since he didn’t enter a single BCS tournament last year, Astronaut entered the Winter Championships as something of an unknown quantity. By Sunday night, it was clear that he wasn’t to be slept on.

As one of the most rapidly improving players over the last few months, Astronaut made a strong start to the weekend by finishing 13th in the singles competition, but it was in doubles that he really made his mark finishing in second place alongside of  his teammate Starlight.

His Hattori worked in brutal combination with Starlight’s Asuri to rack up damage and polish off stocks with equal aplomb. At times he made some remarkable plays to steal away stocks or protect his partner – and in many ways, it was his teamwork with Starlight that was most impressive.

Considering that the Winter Championships were the first major competition that Astronaut has competed in, his poise and presence of mind throughout the weekend was remarkably impressive. Now that he has dipped his toes in the turbulent waters of competition, it’s going to be fascinating to see whether he continues to grow and improve at such a rapid rate, or drown.


Hammer Time – Weapon Trends from the Weekend

Just like in the European leg of tournaments, the flavor of the month appeared to be Katars. Only a few sets in the upper echelons of bracket were played out without Katars, but that wasn’t necessarily a problem.

Some of the Katar play showed off was astonishing, with players like Starlight showing off fresh confidence in the weapons by stringing opponents from one end of the stage to the other. LDZ, playing Katars instead of his signature Bow, chose instead to dominate neutral, and tear away stocks once the enemy drifted offstage. Grand Finals, between Boomie’s Sentinel and LDZ’s Ragnir, showed off just how versatile the weapons are at the moment, with two completely opposing playstyles seeing success.

Another familiar sight were the Hammers that were prevalent in bracket, thanks in part to the efforts of Stevenator and Boomie. Hammers might not be the flashiest weapon in the world, but the results are undeniable. Stevenator in particular showed off some solid hammer work, making the Russian Mafia his own for the weekend and even throwing in some of the more intricate weapon toss combos. Boomie seemed mostly content to stomp around the stage and take the free followups, but again, it was effective. With a couple of Bodvar’s also present, there was plenty of hammer play to feast our eyes upon.

One particularly common sight in both events that may have been slightly surprising was the Axes, and from more than just Ragnir players. Cody Travis’ Barraza was in full flight in both events, while Brynn was the champion of choice for Isidroo in doubles. In fact, with Cyclist sticking to Ragnir, double axes proved to be a solid tactic for the Cyclist & Isidroo duo throughout the doubles bracket.

Unlike the European side of things, we rarely saw Blasters from the Americans, with only dedicated Blasters players Cody Travis and Boomie drawing them in anger. With so many sightings in the European side of things, it was interesting to note that the trend hasn’t hopped the pond. Cody Travis and Boomie performed well however, so Blasters may be crossing the ocean sooner rather than later.


Platforms and Dragons – The Legends We Saw

With so many Katars in play, it’s no surprise that the leading proponents of those weapons were a common pick over the course of the weekend. Ragnir was LDZ’s character of choice, while Starlight and Noel both made good use of Asuri. With Ragnir and Asuri seeing even more use in the doubles proceedings, it seems likely that these are characters we’ll be seeing even more of going forward.

There were some surprising picks too though, as Stevenator’s Kor made a deep run through the bracket and surprising more than a few people with how devastating he could be. Ember saw some play too, as wrenchd showed that Ragnir and Asuri aren’t the only good Katar users around. And in both events, Cody Travis’ Barraza turned some heads, finishing just outside of Top 8 in singles, and claiming fourth in Doubles.

Some of the previously more common picks were seen less this time around, as the likes of Val and Hattori were relatively thin on the ground. Astronaut and Blood Diamond both made their cases for Hattori’s continued relevance, and eggsoup made it clear that it is still foolish to sleep on Val, but they were the only real examples in the bracket.

One character that is expected to grow in usage is Mirage. Dobrein and Ephi showed off just how effective she can be in the right hands, but Mirage was used just once or twice during the Top 32 proceedings. With plenty of footage of Dobrein and Ephi pulling off crazy things with Mirage, you can be sure that we’ll be seeing more of the scythe in the future.


A Sign Of Things To Come?

For now, it’s clear that there is just one man to beat: LDZ.

Between both singles and doubles, LDZ didn’t drop a set, and never particularly seemed to be in danger of doing so. Only Boomie showed signs of life when confronted by LDZ’s Ragnir, and in the doubles competition formed a remarkably potent partnership with him.

Now the impetus is on everyone else to catch up. Stevenator will want to build on the flashes of brilliance that he showed, while players like Astronaut will only get stronger as he becomes accustomed to the pressures of tournament play. Everyone knows there is work to be done, if they hope to keep LDZ and, to a lesser extent, Boomie from taking top placings for the rest of the year to come.

The bar has been set, and it has been set high. Everyone has been given their homework, and the coming weeks will show how well they take to it. For now however, everyone simply has to bow to LDZ.