After an amazing season of intensely close competition, Orlando looms on the horizon as the final regular season event of MLG’s 2006 tour. While many expected that by this point the top talent would have consolidated onto just a few teams and we’d be watching some of the final blows of the season’s major rivalries, instead fans of MLG are going into this weekend with a whole lot of questions. A series of surprise line-up changes after the tumultuous events in Chicago has left the end of the season and the fate of some of the best Halo 2 players in the world in question.

Final Boss will return with the same line-up they’ve had since the beginning of the 2005 season and will once again set the bar for the competition going into Orlando. This foursome seems completely comfortable with one another in every gametype and no matter where they are in the country, seems to have the crowd behind them. With such an uphill battle ahead for any potential contenders, will anyone be able to steal away the top honors from FB in Orlando? If anyone is going to do it, Halo fans expect it to be either Carbon or Str8 Rippin. Both of these two teams have made moves since the last event to solidify their respective rosters for the end of the season–and word is that both have improved considerably.

Undefeated all season, Final Boss is the absolute benchmark for how Halo 2 should be played. However, the other top teams have been creeping further into view all season, and many are looking for a big upset in Orlando.

Carbon picked up Gh057ayame, who came off a disappointing event of his own in Chicago, losing to rivals XiT Woundz and also to Shook on3 Gaming for a 6th place finish. The talk out of the Carbon camp is that while Gh057 may have had a lackluster performance in Chicago, he gels with his new teammates in ways even they didn’t expect when they picked him up. Gandhi recently revealed that their team had been practicing frequently over Xbox Live and have taken their strategies and teamwork to new heights. Obviously, fans of StrongSide, including several pros on the tour, have questioned the move and suggested that while Carbon’s teamwork may have improved, they may be missing their overwhelming rushing-ability now that one of their key players has been changed for a more passive and assist-oriented team player. That unpredictability, detractors charge, was what made Carbon so successful in the past, and they wonder if that may have actually diminished with the new line-up.

Str8 Rippin, too, will come into Orlando with a monkey on their backs. In contrast to the Carbon move, many Halo 2 fans have praised the addition of Capt. Anarchy to their line-up as a good decision. Anarchy has teamed with them before and he can largely play the same “slaying off the power weapons” role that Defy did before his departure. So instead of line-up questions, Str8 will walk into the arena in Orlando with something different on their minds. In Anaheim they were defeated by long-time rivals Carbon 3-0, taking third place and failing to reach the Finals for the first time this season. Then in Chicago, they not only dropped their series to Carbon once again, but this time it was early in the Losers Bracket as they had already been upset by Shook on3 Gaming in the Winners. The result was that the second ranked team on the tour was forced to settle for seventh place, and fell to 3rd place in the Season Rankings. Instantly the pros on Str8 were victims of a huge fan backlash. Where they slipping? Can they bounce back in Orlando?

Storm Ventures and Shook on3 Gaming, the two surprise teams of Chicago, will enter Orlando facing their own battery of questions and will be forced to meet them head on very early in the event. Storm Ventures stunned everyone in Chicago by not only defeating Carbon twice, but by walking into the Championship Match against Final Boss and grabbing four victories against the top team before snagging second place. They are the only team of the entire season to take that many rounds against Final Boss, and on top of that, the only team to win any rounds against them in the Championship Finals. All previous rounds the champions had dropped were earlier in the brackets. Of course, a resounding chorus of forum-goers instantly heralded Storm Ventures as the new #2 team on the tour and its players and their new role models. The more dedicated Halo fans and the pro players alike seem to believe that Storm Ventures still has something to prove. Saiyan pointed out in a recent discussion with MLG that the members of Final Boss genuinely didn’t expect SV to play so well, and their lack of focus and preparedness may have contributed to the four dropped rounds. To prove their performance in Chicago was not a fluke, Storm Ventures will have to get another big win and place well this weekend.

This weekend we will find out if the incredible hype surrounding Carbon’s acquisition of Gh057ayame was well-founded.

Shook on3 Gaming entertained the crowd after their astonishing defeat of Str8 Rippin in Chicago, finishing in their highest placing of the season at 4th. What made their victory even more surprising was that they came back from being down 2-0 in the series to win it, including a convincing series closer of 50-38 on TS Midship. It appears they will not have to wait long for a chance to prove that their Chicago performance, too, was not a fluke. Based on projected brackets for Orlando, S1G will have a third round meeting with Carbon and if they can win that, a potential fourth round rematch against Str8 Rippin. Since both of those two are rumored to have made improvements through their recent line up changes, S1G will have the perfect opportunity to silence their critics if they can use their excellent teamwork and charismatic energy to defeat one of the legendary teams on the tour once again. But the question remains–can they win against an improved Str8 or Carbon? Or did they just take advantage of poor play in final matches of Chicago’s nearly-dead line-ups?

XiT Woundz will also have its own riddles to solve in Orlando. The team silenced their critics in Chicago by defeating rivals eX not just once, but twice. Many believed eX was bringing its strongest team ever to the event, and through solid teamwork and constant communication XiT defeated their rivals and advanced. Unfortunately, they fell victim to their own success and the other upsets turning the brackets upside-down. After defeating eX in the Winners Bracket, XiT went on to lose to Final Boss and head to the Losers Bracket to face the winner of Str8 Rippin and Carbon. They fell to Carbon in three straight, but by a narrow margin each time. CTF Warlock was 4-5, Oddball on Midship was decided by less than 40 seconds, and their Team Slayer game on Lockout was a heart-breaker as they lost 49-50 in the closing moments. After some tough losses, XiT will look to finally move on and crack the Top 3 with a solid performance in Orlando. If there are no early upsets this time around, XiT will get to face Str8 Rippin in the third round, a team against whom they are supremely confident. In fact, before Chicago, Samurai guaranteed a win if his team faced off against Str8. While the two didn’t meet in Chicago, it appears they are on a collision course for Orlando. Many are anxious to see if Sam and his teammates can prove they’re bringing more than just talk to that match-up.

A little down but certainly not out after their lackluster Chicago performance, Str8 Rippin hopes that reuniting with Capt Anarchy will bring them back into the spotlight as Championship Match regulars.

Finally, what is perhaps the biggest question mark of the entire event is the newly formed Legendz team. Former teammates Vash, Mack and Defy have come together again and have picked up the amazing slaying prowess of StrongSide to round out the team. While various iterations of this team existed during the 2005 season, this is the first time this unit will compete together in 2006. As a new team, they’ll have to play through the Open Bracket on Saturday in Orlando and are expected to make it through to the Championship rounds. If they do, MLG’s Dream Team Clause will go into effect. This means that despite being a new team, their cumulative season points will land them in the 4th seed for the Championship Bracket. So what can we expect from an untested team that has had less than a month to practice since forming?

Assuming they use the Open Bracket to work out any teamwork kinks, they’ll likely get a third round Championship Bracket match against Storm Ventures, pitting one of the longest-standing line-ups on the tour against the newest. This match will likely define how the Legendz team is viewed between then and the playoffs in New York. As for the team play itself, expect Mack to be the main slayer and control the power weapons for the team, despite being paired up with other great slayers. Defy tends to be more comfortable in a support slayer role and StrongSide has never demanded the spotlight or the power weapons on his previous teams. Vash, we can suspect, will be running the primary objective for his team. While unwilling to make firm predictions about placements, both Vash and Defy have said they fully expect to finish in the Top 8 and to be competing with the best teams on the tour by the time the playoffs come around. Time will tell if they can be as successful as their fourth rank suggests they should be.

As we lead into Orlando, these questions and many more are on the minds of the fans and the pros alike. Will the recent personnel changes help or hurt the teams involved? Will the new stars still shine as brightly in Orlando as they did in Chicago? How will the rivalries be resolved? Right now we can only speculate, but fortunately the weekend is rapidly approaching and we’ll soon have all the answers. Make sure to stick with MLGPro.com and Video on Demand all weekend long to follow all the action live. You won’t want to miss out.