By Joe “Dyslexia” Renaud

When StK split its pool play series against x6 Saturday, many saw it as a bit of a wake-up call for the reigning Halo 2 champs. After screaming through the entirety of MLG San Fran without dropping a single game in tournament play, StK was looking as formidable as ever coming into Houston this weekend. But things would not go as smoothly as planned for the guys throughout the championship bracket, resulting in the most nail-bitingly close series in recent Halo history.

The fated meeting took place in the finals of the winners bracket, where StK and x6 met up for the first time since pool play. The first game in the series was CTF on Beaver Creek, and the results of the game painted a much different picture of how the series would go than what actually happened. Both teams started out strong, pushing aggressively into each others’ territory, hoping to catch a lucky break in the early scramble for weapon control. However, the teams clashed so hard right off the bat that each of their efforts to gain control were neutralized, with equal rashes of killing all around. Both StK and x6 were stationing players on opposing bases in an effort to put players on the spawn and create a window of time to go in and grab the flag.

This continued all throughout the first five minutes of the match, building up tension that seemed like it would never release. Zyos finally gained control of the rockets and directed his reticule at Ogre 1, who was on the ramp leading up to the sniper spawn and had been a major nuisance ever since he set up post there. As he let his rocket fly, he yelled, “Ogre 1 watch out!” in an attempt to demoralize him, but unfortunately he predicted the Ogre’s movement path wrong and the rocket exploded behind him. The second rocket he let off was dead-on and ended Ogre 1′s sniping session, but StK let a big smile slip at the failed attempt to crush the guys’ spirits with the smack-talk.

The fierce, but fruitless battling between the teams finally transitioned about 10 minutes in, with both teams swooping in and grabbing each others’ flag. The x6 strategy was heavily focused on recovering their flag from StK, as only one player was left with the flag behind the base, tucking it into a corner by the portal making it look as if it were halfway inside the wall. This proved to be effective for several minutes, as the guard remained unchallenged for the most part, and the flag stayed secure in its hiding spot. Luck finally failed them in the 13th minute of the game, as a combo-clad StK member appeared out of nowhere behind the base and killed the guard, returning the flag and letting Saiyan score the cap.

With only two minutes to go until the sudden death rules kicked in (which would give the win to StK, as the team was ahead) x6 made a desperate last-ditch effort to score an equalizer, and while the team managed to get its hands on the flag a few times in a short span, the attempt was always shut down by an alert and well-coordinated StK. As soon as the 15 minute mark was crossed and StK had recovered its flag one last time, the game was declared over and StK the victor. However, those seeing this as a sign of things to come were knocked for a loop by what happened next…

Game two began with a bang on Ivory Tower TS, with StK getting quick possession of the sniper rifle and working on a healthy 13-7 lead. Ogre 1′s sniping was predictably excellent, and he was a driving force behind his team maintaining a six to seven kill gap through the first half of the game. Preferring what seemed to be a tactical lone-wolf style, x6 players ran by themselves for the most part, but struggled as they often were outnumbered when they engaged opponents. StK was employing a two-man group system, with one player protecting snipers or rolling with the rocket-man and so forth, which helped them to keep control of the power weapons and influence the flow of the game.

Through a series of great individual efforts by x6, StK lost its lead in the last quarter of the game, falling behind 39-40. From here on, the kills went back and forth, with the lead bouncing between the two like a pinball. Throughout this final portion of the game, x6 benefited greatly from having two snipers and the sword in its possession, although Tupac was killed and lost sword/sniper when his team needed only one more kill to win the game (49-47). This seemed to give a glimmer of hope to StK, having gained some invaluable killing tools, but before they were able to be used, a botched attempt by Saiyan to kill Zyos with the shotgun on the second floor of the elevator led to a narrow defeat for StK and an uncertain outlook for the rest of the series.

Next up was Neutral Bomb on Midship. The bomb was strategically ignored for the first minute or two of the game, as each team scrambled to keep the other pinned in its base and on the spawn. Both teams knew that at this competitive level, the only sure way to arm the bomb would be to clear out the entire other team or force them to spawn away from their own base while the bomb was armed. While that was certainly what both teams were trying to accomplish, Ogre 2 was clever enough to capitalize on a moment of confusion when x6 had lost track of where the bomb was and armed it without much resistance. The x6 members rushed back to the scene just as it was detonating, clearing out most of the team and tempting StK to try for another arming immediately after, although it was foiled. I overheard Sergio saying that he didn’t even see a message on his screen telling him that the bomb was being armed, and I must admit, I saw no such thing myself, both pointing out a weakness in the gametype as well as the sly-tactics of StK (nobody physically saw them sneak into the base until it was too late).

Later in the game, x6 made an impressive arming by taking a full-team rush into the base and having all of its members absorb fire for Zyos while he zigzagged around the arming zone, barely surviving until the bar filled. Unfortunately for x6, the game would reverse one final time, as Ogre 2 picked up a half-armed bomb from Walshy, dropped it to kill Sergio as he air-lifted up into the base, and then finished his business, putting StK up in the series 2-1.

Despite checking on their opponents, it was the StK players who were not ready, as the next game was the most lopsided of any in the series.

As the series heated up, one of StK’s weakest setups made its way into rotation-and one of x6′s strongest. In a classy touch that showed the respect these two teams had for each other, Ogre 2 stood up and asked Zyos if his team was ready before he began the countdown to begin the game. Despite checking on their opponents, it was the StK players who were not ready, as the next game was the most lopsided of any in the series. Lead by Killer N’s 30 kills and only 15 deaths, x6 put the hurt on the StK squad, both out-killing and out-smarting them, which is no small feat for any team. Zyos’ verbal direction of the team (and occasional lucky guessing on the hill spawns) ensured that his team set up perimeters quickly at each hill and kept StK out with sheer firepower. The x6 win tied the series at two games each and set the stage for a real showstopper of a fifth game…

TS on Foundation did much to show just how hard it is to overcome a great team when it has control of weapons and territory. StK had just that early on in the game, utilizing both rocket launchers to gain an early 21-12 lead. Through some well-timed double teaming, x6 was able to free up the rockets from StK and begin a gladiatorial war around the center of the lower level (a place that you typically never want to be). Zyos was quick to hop on a turret while nobody had their rockets at the ready and helped his teammates to clear out most of StK and gain weapon control. When they respawned, the Ogres and company found themselves in a tight spot, all starting out in Room 4, pinned down by turret fire and without rockets. Considering the circumstances, it wasn’t long before x6 usurped the lead at around 35 kills, and while it stayed tight throughout the 40′s, x6 got the last three kills, ending the game 50-47. Tupac’s 16 kills and eight deaths lead the team to victory, and escorted StK to the losers bracket.

While perhaps a little shocked themselves at the loss, the Ogre twins, Walshy and Saiyan bounced back quickly, eliminating Str8 Rippin from the tournament in the losers bracket finals. Although StK narrowly lost its 1 Flag CTF Zanzibar game to Rippin, the team otherwise dominated the series and found itself in the final match of the tournament vs. x6.

A quick word about how the tournament works: The finals were to be a best of eleven series, and the match actually began in the winners bracket finals (the games I described above). Therefore, coming into this final match-up, x6 was already up 3-2 over StK, and the first team to six wins the series. So, if you’re too lazy for math, x6 needed three wins to end it, while StK needed four coming into this match.

The first game in the finals was CTF Midship, and things started out looking grim for the reigning champs, as Tupac capped after only two minutes of play. Maybe he was pumped up after Zyos’ pre-game pep talk: “Come on, guys. I wanna see some montage-quality material.” Several people got a good kick out of that, but it did little to alleviate the nerves that were circulating the room. Amazingly, StK struck right back less than a minute later, equalizing the game and setting the tone for the rest of the series. This was followed shortly by another capture from StK, with the guys jump-throwing the flag relay-style to make sure that whoever was holding the flag had a fresh health meter.

x6 tied it up once again at two caps, but it wouldn’t last. StK made a mighty push with all four men to once again relay the flag back, each carrier giving his life to see the flag to the next man. There was so much fire coming from x6 that only the flag carrier was still alive when the cap was made, and even he could have been killed by one BR head shot. Despite his weakness, none of the x6 players could connect the final shot, making it an excruciating blow that eventually cost them the game as soon as sudden death kicked in. Series tied 3-3.

Next up was an MLG favorite: Colossus TS with a sniper weapon set. True to the trend of games between these two juggernauts at Houston, this was an intense and impossibly even battle. Purple and grey sniper fire was streaking across the screens like some deadly fireworks display, and the two teams remained deadlocked throughout the latter portion. What really amazed me about the teams’ play was how easy they made it look to snipe through the narrowest openings, always aware of where the nearest cover was and making the most of it. If you’re not thinking about what you’re seeing, the sniping looked somewhat unimpressive, because neither team got a lot of clean kills. Instead, a lot of ammo was used up for just a couple of kills, but you have to sit back and realize that since these are the very highest caliber players, they’re not going to reveal themselves so easily for a clean head shot. Don’t get me wrong-there were a lot of head shots-but each sniper almost always knew that he was in someone’s scope, so every kill became a long-distance duel with each player taking cover and popping up to take a pot-shot at the enemy. When you take into account the fact that if you stick your head out for even a second you get shot at, it really amazes you the awareness and sheer reflexes that these masters of the game possess. Really quite incredible.

When this game got all tied up at 49 kills, it really could have gone either way, since any player could get a kill from any location. Unfortunately for x6, Killer N was stuck in an unfortunate spot when this situation arose, but he did have a brief chance to take out Ogre 1 that he couldn’t capitalize on before he was seen and taken out for the StK win. This game was just about too much for the massive crowd to take, but these two teams seemed determined to give us all heart-attacks before the end, because neither let up.

I was beginning to think that no two teams could be any more evenly matched than these two, and the final game of the tournament proved me right.

With the series lead now belonging to StK, KOTH Beaver Creek was next on the menu. The game teetered back and forth between the teams, with each being up by over a minute at different points during the match. When x6 was slightly ahead at 4:42, the hill moved directly to where Zyos was standing-inside of the Blue Base. Despite his initial luck, x6 was only able to hold the base for eight seconds before StK rained atomic doom all over the place and locked that hill down, stopping x6 dead in its tracks at 4:50. While StK’s defense was impenetrable, both the players and spectators knew that the hill would move once again just as StK tied the score at 4:50. Sure enough, it moved to the side of Red Base, all the way on the other side of the match. Time seemed to stop as everyone knew that whoever spawned closer or could move faster to the next hill would win the game, only needing to clock ten seconds. A few of x6′s players were waiting to spawn when it moved, but one of them managed to get there first. In a move that could only be described as heroic, Ogre 2 charged alone at the hill, jumped over the x6 player’s charged plasma shot and killed him, much to the crowd’s awe. This caused x6 to spawn away from the hill and bought StK just enough time to pull out the win. The series then stood at 5-2, with StK winning the last three games straight, although by the tightest of margins in each case.

I was beginning to think that no two teams could be any more evenly matched than these two, and the final game of the tournament proved me right. As if the teams knew that the best way to end a tourney is with a show-stopper, we were treated to one last down-to-the-wire clutch game. StK battled from behind the entire match during Oddball Midship, struggling to pierce through x6′s strongholds beneath the flag bases. It seemed that StK was out-killing x6 in most cases, but they simply weren’t breaking through the defenses fast enough, so there were always new players spawning to contend with. x6′s ball carriers did well to stay away from fire, and often dropped the ball when the heat was on to ensure that the battle was never four on three. Although StK trailed throughout, the scores remained fairly close, and when Tupac was killed and surrendered his sword to Ogre 1 a crucial window was opened, which StK shattered to pieces. With combos and the sword, StK wrenched the ball from x6 in the final moments and took the lead, winning the game 5:00 to 4:47 and the tournament in a 6-3 series.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever witnessed so many ridiculously close games in a row from any two teams, making Houston one of the most exciting tournaments to date. Both teams fought hard and deserve all the respect in the world. While the members of StK continued their uninterrupted winning streak this season at MLG Houston, very few would have predicted that they would do so coming out of the losers bracket. While you certainly have to give credit to StK for rising to the challenge and pulling through in so many clutch situations in a row, one has to admit that many of the games could just as easily have gone the other way. All four games in the finals were incredibly close, but each time StK gained just a slight edge, or a crucial kill that clinched the victory. It’s this kind of ability to pull though in a bind that keeps the StK crew a cut above, but just a few weeks ago in San Fran, they never would’ve had to employ such crisis-situation tactics.

So what does it all mean?

With this tournament, StK had its first taste of defeat all season, and its first series loss in an MLG event since MLG Atlanta over six months ago (and that was even a different team lineup). Granted, StK still won the tournament, but given how dominant the team has been, it’s a big deal that it even dropped a series. It’s ironic that both Zyos and Killer N were members of the team that beat StK at Atlanta and Chicago (Team FFA) and now they are back together, and are once again arguably the only team that can give StK a run for its money. Team FFA dissolved after Atlanta and Walshy and Killer N melded with StK, putting the team in the “untouchable” zone again. StK saw that some other players were catching up to them and creating some really close games, so the guys absorbed the players that they thought would widen the gap again, dismantling their main competitor in the process.

It all worked gloriously, and nobody beat StK the rest of the season. Killer N has since left StK’s tournament squad and is now teamed back up with Zyos, and the gap is once again closing. The question is: what can StK do this time? Ogre 1, Ogre 2, Walshy and Saiyan are already about as good as any four players can be, and they have excellent teamwork. So really, there’s not much point in absorbing players from the competition like before, because the team arguably couldn’t get any stronger than it already is. It doesn’t seem like there’s any easy way out this time, which means we have a really exciting season ahead of us, and while it would be hard to say that StK doesn’t still have the edge over the competition, there’s no doubt that some of the other teams are catching up, and there’s nothing they can do about it but work harder. I’m sure I’m not the only one who can’t wait to see what happens in Orlando.