The anticipation for the 2006 Playoffs is running high as the world’s top Halo 2 teams are getting their final practices in, hoping those last-minute adjustments will be exactly what they need to carry them to victory at this all-important event. The 2006 season has seen the evolution of the Halo 2 game into something deeper, more intense and more beautiful than any of us could have anticipated. Now, nearly two years into the game’s competitive lifespan, I’ll be taking at look at the top teams on the circuit and trying to best predict how their strategies and talented rosters will match against one another for the most important event of the year so far. Below are my Playoff picks and my analysis of each team in the Top 8.

1. Final Boss

Immediately after Carbon had won the final game of Orlando’s Championship Match, I headed up to the main stage area to chat with the players and get their reactions for the post-event articles. While speaking with Walshy, I gave him a shrug and said, “Well, I guess you can’t win all of them,” just as the twins were walking by. Overhearing my statement one of them muttered at me, “Yes we can,” and just kept walking. While I can’t take anything away from the flawless execution that Carbon brought to the tournament in Orlando, that single rebuttal has me convinced that Final Boss will be back with an incredible vengeance and win the Playoffs in New York.

The people who argue that Final Boss just wasn’t trying hard enough were not close enough to see their faces during the Finals. They were trying to win–and trying hard–but they were clearly not able to find that normal spark of brilliance that carries them to Championship victories. In fact, one of the biggest strengths of Final Boss is that in moments of intense pressure, during those last second scrambles or flurries of activity, they are unfailingly clutch. But in Orlando the entire team seemed just a little clumsy, as if the new mix of talent and shooting from Carbon had thrown their center of gravity off, leaving them struggling to find their stability and rhythm while fending off the opposing players.

That said, with the competitive natures of all four members of this team and their history of bouncing back from defeat in grand fashion, I have to pick Final Boss to win New York. A tournament loss means these guys will all be prepared for the Playoffs and for the gametypes they failed at in Orlando. They will be determined not only to avoid losing again, but to completely dominate in the places they slipped before.

Carbon and Final Boss

2. Carbon

I have to give it to the guys on Carbon. In the face of all the criticism over dropping StrongSide, despite having a new teammate and all the pressure that came along with the new team, they won Orlando and proved they were far ahead of the rest of the tour. It is certainly clear that after the last event of the regular season Carbon has established themselves as a major threat in any match-up they should enter into.

Carbon’s new lineup didn’t lose their overwhelming ability to rush and team-shoot, like many argued they would with the switch from StrongSide to Gh057. Instead, they gained a more reliable assist slayer who can slay almost as well as StrongSide could but support much better. No team on the tour, with the exception of Final Boss, has a more talented and balanced lineup. They will almost certainly march right past their first round match against S1G, grab another 3-0 victory over Str8, and then barrel right into the Winners Finals against Final Boss.

While they have impressed me in ways I didn’t originally expect, I still have to side with history and pick Final Boss to win the event over Carbon. While the members of this team all assure me they still have some tricks up their sleeves, Final Boss will have had time to analyze their mistakes in Orlando and Carbon’s weaknesses and prepare themselves for the only round that either of them will be thinking about. While I expect this match to be closer than the majority of FB’s previous Championship wins, I still expect Carbon to finish in 2nd.

3. Str8 Rippin

While a number of teams have popped up with the desire to challenge Str8 for their position in the rankings and their usually-guaranteed Top 3 paychecks, no one has been consistently successful since Carbon passed them in the rankings. S1G defeated them in a stunning Chicago Winners Bracket victory, but other than that not even the 4th ranked Xit Woundz have been able to knock them off. They have carved a place for themselves in the Top 3 that I just don’t see being challenged in New York.

The primary ingredient that I see in Str8 Rippin’s recipe for success against lower seeded teams is the methodical and precise way they play the game. They have some of the best–if not the best–setups for all the gametypes that you find at an MLG event. Tsquared tends to set up someplace safe with the power weapons and plies his skills with the sniper and rockets into level dominance. And with three of the best BRs on the tour supporting him while they work the objectives or mow down rushing opponents, the vast majority of teams on the tour just don’t have the talent to pressure Tsquared and survive his teammates long enough to break their control of a map.

This is also the reason I can’t see Str8 beating Final Boss or Carbon at the Playoffs to break into the Top 2 for the first time since Dallas. As opposed to the rest of the league, both Final Boss and Carbon do have the talent to pressure Tsqaured and still outshoot his teammates to open up the level for rushes. In fact, if you watch Str8’s VoD, you can see that once T2 is off the power weapons their team struggles to regain control and their opponents are far more likely to score caps or rack up time against them. And with slayers like Gandhi and the Ogres controlling the sniper and rockets, it takes too long for Str8 to get back to a comfortable position and work their own strategies to catch up. Unless Str8 finds a way to be successful with a more fluid gameplan off the power weapons, they will be stuck in 3rd place not only in NY, but also for the foreseeable future.

Str8 Rippin

4. XiT Woundz

Xit is the blue-collar team of the MLG tour. They work hard, play long hours and refine their teamwork to assure that they stay ahead of the rest of the competition. While many criticize their team, saying they are less-talented overall than the other top-ranked units, their dedication to improve, excellent communication and consistent tournament finishes have silenced all but the most ignorant of their critics.

Their first round match will be against the unstable but talented lineup of Legendz. Despite the points that place Legendz ahead of XiT in the rankings, I see this as a clear win for XiT. They have hundreds of hours of team practice up on their opponents, and the constant communication of the XiT side allows them to clean up messes and team-shoot to keep even a group of BRs as talented as Legendz’ struggling for control. The real clincher is the Game 5 gametype of TS Beaver Creek. Behind KillerN’s brilliant sniping and XiT’s solid teamwork, I don’t think Legendz would be capable of defeating them if the series goes to the tiebreaker. After a Round 2 loss to Final Boss, XiT would head to the Losers Bracket to face what is likely to be the winner of Storm Ventures vs. Shook on3 Gaming. While both of those teams are training hard going into the Playoffs, I still pick XiT to advance to face Str8 Rippin for Top 3.

Despite the animosity between these two teams and the building rivalry, they are actually very similar units. Both Str8 and XiT have high profile main slayers they work hard to support and they both rely very heavily on good set-ups and teamwork to complete their objectives. However, when it comes down to individual skill, Str8 stacks up just slightly better and has proved that throughout the course of the season. XiT will challenge Str8, but like Orlando, will fall a little short of taking home a Top 3 finish.

Xit Woundz

5. Vanity Gaming

Vanity is my surprise pick for 5th place. They were the dark horse in Orlando that very nearly earned enough points to surpass Shook on3 Gaming for 7th place and the last guaranteed spot for the playoffs. Despite the fact that their primary rivals in the first level of the tournament are stronger than ever, Vanity’s acquisition of Pistol has garnered them stronger slaying and I expect them to take the last Level 2 spot and compete for the big prize money.

Round 1 will be rough going into the second level of the tournament, as VG will be forced to play Final Boss right away. While this will almost certainly be a loss for them, Vanity will get the benefit of having played the top-ranked team in the world for their first round loss. This means they can easily get past the disappointment of a loss and go into their first Losers Bracket match with clear heads. They will be pitted for that round against the loser of XiT Woundz and Legendz. It will be good news for Vanity if their opponent turns out to be Legendz, as they defeated them in Orlando in five games. Vanity’s unit has better communication and teamwork, having been together longer, which I think will carry them to a victory over Legendz in the full 5 games.

Unfortunately the next round will place Vanity in the path of the loser of Carbon and Str8 Rippin (assuming there are no previous upsets), a match they will probably lose, no matter which opponent it is. This will place them in the consolation game for 5th place against either S1G, SV, or maybe even XiT depending on how the brackets play out. I am picking them to win a rematch of the same consolation series against Storm Ventures. While they have one of the toughest paths to glory, expect good things from Vanity in New York. They’ve proven they are able to step up their game when they have to and with four solid players and good teamwork, this team can go far.

Vanity Gaming

6. Storm Ventures

SV has been one of the most erratic teams on the tour during the 2006 season. They have placed as high as 2nd place and fallen to as low as 16th. This is probably characteristic of the youth of the team. With two players auto-qualifying for the Level 2 FFA, they certainly have some of the most individually talented players on the tour, but they’ve had problems with the mental toughness necessary to temper their talent into consistent finishes.

Storm Ventures probably will not stack up well against Str8 Rippin in the first round of the Winners Bracket. Str8 does have the mental toughness required to keep things close in a series, and with the addition of Cpt. Anarchy to the unit their slaying power has only improved. Str8 will have to be sure to close the series out before the 5th game however, as Storm Ventures has proven to be extremely solid on Beaver Creek over the course of the season and has a chance to knock the third seed off if they falter earlier in the match.

On the loser’s side, SV will probably face Shook on3 Gaming in the first round, a team they have a perfect record against in the 2006 season. They defeated them in the Meadowlands, Dallas and in Chicago. Considering the history and S1G’s struggles in Orlando, it’s likely that they will advance to face XiT for a chance to advance to the Top 4. Unfortunately they will run into the same issues against XiT they face against Str8. XiT is mentally tough and have solid teamwork for every gametype. Unless the guys from Storm Ventures are playing particularly well, expect them to lose here in 5/6th and then drop the consolation match to Vanity while still distracted and frustrated from their earlier loss.

Storm Ventures

7. Legendz

The four members of Legendz are significantly better as individuals than they probably will ever be as a team. They are all clearly top 32 players, but even with the strong bonds of friendship and previous playing experiences together in one form or another, they are unlikely to place higher than 7th in New York.

While this team features four of the best marksmen on the tour, their team composition doesn’t seem to add up to success. Vash seems to be both their support and their objective player, while Mack, Defy and StrongSide are all slayers. This means when Vash is running the objective, Defy or Strongside have to support, which goes against both of their typical aggressive playing styles. To counter this, we often see Mack assisting with objectives for his team, but that severely jeopardizes their power weapons, since Mack tends to carry Sword and Snipe for them as the main slayer. All this adds up to too much confusion and too little control. Legendz has the potential to take games from every team in the Top 8, but unless they can bend the nature of their players into a more cohesive unit they are likely to continue to be inconsistent.

Expect Legendz to give good games to both XiT in the first round of the WB and Vanity in the first round of the Losers despite losing to both. Shook on3 Gaming will probably be their consolation match for 7/8th, which they are likely to win on talent and overwhelming shooting from their great BRs.


8. Shook on3 Gaming

S1G is possibly the team that has the most to prove going into New York. They struggled as a unit in Orlando, and many fans have suggested that if they hadn’t clinched their 7th place seed for the Playoffs, one of the upstarts from the first level of the tournament might have bumped them off. These guys will be playing under intense scrutiny for the entire tournament.

If Shook on3 Gaming plans to place higher than my predicted 8th place finish, they’ll have to improve on their teamwork and communication significantly. In Orlando all four members of the team had problems with communication, clamming up during their BR battles and only relaying their opponents’ positions if they lost and were already dead. This severely limited their team-shooting and meant they spent too many valuable moments looking at the death screen.

S1G has the unfortunate pleasure of facing Carbon in the first round of the tournament, who are coming off their phenomenal performance in Orlando and will almost certainly roll over them 3-0. Then on the Losers side they’ll have to face Storm Ventures, a team that has a perfect record against them in 2006. Should they lose again they’ll likely face the talented and unpredictable Legendz or Vanity’s lineup, who will be very warmed up and focused after winning the first level of the championship event. Despite being the 7th seed, S1G probably has the most daunting bracket ahead of them of any of the competitors and I’m not sure they’re up to the task.

ShooK On3 Gaming

Jason’s Playoff Picks

1. Final Boss
2. Carbon
3. Str8 Rippin
4. Xit Woundz
5. Vanity Gaming
6. Storm Ventures
7. Legendz
8. Shook on3 Gaming