With The International 7's main event closing in, it's time to look at contenders. Although the field is pretty close talent-wise this year, there are three teams that separate themselves as top contenders, albeit barely. Here's a look at those three teams and what they need to do to get the lion's share of the $23 million at stake at the Key Arena in Seattle -- and what other teams can do to stop these powerhouses.
Team Liquid (13-3 group phase, No. 1 in Group A)
Ivan "MinD_ContRoL" Borislavov: Earthshaker (17-5 record)
Maroun "GH" Merhej: Earthshaker (16-6), Io (18-3)
Amer "Miracle-" Al-Barkawi: Invoker (22-6 since patch 7.00)
Lasse "MATUMBAMAN" Urpalainen: Lone Druid (31-11), Lycan (11-1 since 7.00)
Why the team can win
It's not just a meme; Liquid really is the best early game team in Dota 2. Since the Boston Major (the end of which coincides with the game-changing 7.00 patch), Liquid is 64-10 in matches that end before 40 minutes, the highest win percentage among 85 teams with more than 10 matches played. Liquid is adept at winning with lineups that sometimes lack traditional lane dominators but feature huge midgame pressure and push potential. At its best, Liquid takes control in the laning phase, dominates the map and never lets go.
If there's a team of destiny this year, it's probably Liquid, which had a disappointing showing in 2016. Captain and support player Kuro "KuroKy" Salehi Takhasomi recently became the first player with 900 career pro Dota 2 wins, but he has never won a Major or TI Championship.
As many expected, the current patch (7.06) meta game has rewarded teams with elite-level mid laners, and few are better than Liquid's Miracle-. Since StarLadder, Miracle- has diversified his hero pool considerably, and he locked in as 14 different heroes in Liquid's 16 group phase matches, tied for the second-largest hero pool at the event. His 8.8 career average kills per game is the best all-time of almost 500 players with 150 or more career games, and his 11.5 kills per game so far at TI7 is tops in the tournament. His signature Invoker is arguably the most potent (and entertaining) player-hero combination in the pro game right now.
Earthshaker is a powerful tool for this team as well, and Liquid has two players who run the hero at an elite level in traditional roles. That allows Liquid to put together powerful combinations such as Invoker and a devastating Earthshaker-Keeper of the Light dual lane. Miracle- was among the first to show Earthshaker mid in the current meta as well. Liquid picked the hero first overall in seven of its first 14 group phase drafts.
Why it won't
Since patch 7.00, Liquid is only 28-26 in matches that go past the 40 minute mark. Miracle- maintains an incredible farming pace in later games but takes up a lot of space on the map. As a result, one or both remaining cores, MATUMBAMAN and MinD_ContRoL, can fall behind in extended matches. Liquid really struggles when this happens. It has also been historically reluctant to put Miracle- on less flashy heroes, such as Medusa or Dragon Knight, even in situations where this would give them a draft advantage, though they did mix in DK in a DreamLeague win.
LGD.Forever Young (14-2 group phase, No. 1 in Group B)
Tue "ah fu" Soon Chuan: Night Stalker (9-2), Earth Spirit (23-13, 17.5 assists per game since 7.00)
He "Inflame" Yongzheng: Batrider (14-6 since 7.00), Night Stalker (2-0)
Leong "ddc" Fat-meng: Ancient Apparition (8-1 since 7.00)
Xie "Super" Junhao: Dragon Knight (18-6 since 7.00, 94-59 career)
Why the team can win
LFY are following a recent and successful formula for Chinese teams, pairing two budding young superstars with three decorated veterans. The former is tremendously talented and flexible carry player Du "Monet" Peng, who played 13 heroes in 16 group phase games and leads the tournament with an 8.31 KDA (kills/deaths/assists) ratio, and recent Southeast Asia transplant ah fu, whose 13.7 career assists per game is second among 492 players with at least 150 pro matches.
While there are plenty of differences, there are more than a few parallels between this LFY team and the CDEC Gaming squad that reached the grand finals of The International 5. LFY's drafting is solid, but its execution has really made an impression in the team's two deep LAN runs and a stellar performance in its TI7 group.
Starting from the midgame, Inflame, ah fu, and ddc play teamfights extraordinarily well as a unit in the 3-5 roles. Super won't always dominate his lane, but his hero pool features heroes with high team push potential and some split push threat, such as Death Prophet and Dragon Knight -- and he has twice as any career wins as any other Dota 2 pro on the latter. Monet's hero pool is quite diverse and features melee heroes with high mid-game physical damage (e.g., Chaos Knight, Sven, Lycan). Between the two, fighting this LFY squad is extremely risky. Win, and you still have to worry about their split push. Lose, and you're sacrificing multiple towers, Roshan or even high ground.
The two supports execute extremely well around their cores in lane, often showing a potential tri-lanes with ah fu also frequently supporting Super in mid lane. Inflame's decision-making on his tempo controlling offlaners (Batrider, Puck, Doom) has been consistently strong.
Why it won't
While LFY's 14-2 group phase run is impressive, the bottom half of Group B is arguably weaker than Group A. LFY has looked vulnerable when opposing teams shut down ah fu. The young support was held without a kill in his team's two playoff losses to Liquid at EPICENTER, and he had just one kill and single-digit assists in two of its MDL Finals losses to sister squad LGD Gaming.
Super and ddc have been criticized in the Chinese Dota 2 scene in the past for underperforming at big events. Despite runner-up finishes at TI4 and DAC 2015, Super hasn't won a premier lane title since The Summit 2 in early 2014. There's still some question about how he'll perform one-on-one against elite level mids like LGD Gaming's Lu "Maybe" Yao, Evil Geniuses mid Syed Sumail "SumaiL" Hassan or Miracle- in a big series.
And although he has the most career wins at Valve events (144), ddc hasn't placed in the top-four at a Major or TI since his 3rd place finish with LGD at The International 2012.
Evil Geniuses (11-5 group phase, No. 3 in Group A)
Artour "Arteezy" Babaev: Lycan (6-0 in TI7 groups, 48-12 career), Naga Siren (22-11)
Syed Sumail "SumaiL" Hassan: Earthshaker (7-0), Puck (7-4 since 7.00), Mirana (3-1)
Saahil "UNiVeRsE" Arora: Puck (9-2), Mirana (3-0)
Ludwig "zai" Wåhlberg: Naga Siren (13-4)
Why the team can win
EG's formula for success is mostly unchanged. It has been arguably the most efficient farming team in Dota 2 over the past three years. Its strategic decision-making is consistently good. Put together, this means EG is generally going to get online as a team faster than its opponent. From there, the group is adept at taking risks to end the game while leaving itself an option to go late game with three elite farming core players.
Arteezy has adjusted his play style, featuring more "tempo carries" (Lycan, Drow, Venomancer, Razor) and emphasizing teamfighting and split-pushing over the hard farming style for which he's best known. As a result, EG has a lot more flexibility to get quick farm and levels on its other four heroes, including supports.
SumaiL is two and a half years into his pro career and has probably been the best mid laner in the game for all of that period. This is arguably the most mid-lane-focused pro Dota 2 environment since the TI5-era "stack meta." Given any sort of advantage, SumaiL will devastate one-on-one laning matchups. He's capable of pulling out a completely new hero (like his mid Earthshaker) and legitimately just carrying games. Along with OG's Anathan "Ana" Pham, SumaiL is also probably one of the best pro mids at playing from behind. In multiple recent games, he has led all 10 heroes on the map in deaths and Net Worth at around 30 minutes. While previous iterations of EG often focused on protecting SumaiL in lane, the current version will often leave him alone, trusting in a combination of team coordination and his individual ability to catch him up as the game goes on.
EG was arguably the first team to figure out the most popular drafting formulae in the current patch. It reintroduced Puck as a first-phase flex pick during its Manila Masters title run, alternating the hero between SumaiL and Universe depending on how the enemy countered. EG has since featured Earthshaker and Mirana in similar fashion with excellent results.
Why it won't
EG is the New York Yankees of Dota 2. It's a marked team at every event, and every opponent will have strats prepared for EG in particular. To many teams, knocking EG out of a Major or TI seems nearly as big as winning the tournament.
While EG's drafts are consistently innovative, the picks can get a bit too clever sometimes. Several group phase drafts, such as one five-ranged Drow lineup featuring support Weaver and two Void-Elder Titan combos, were great on paper but not executed well. Apart from these few experiments, EG's group phase drafts were actually conservative: Its 39 heroes picked or banned is actually the fewest at the event so far. EG's arguably the one team most likely to be "saving strats" for the main stage-though, as we've seen in the past, this can backfire.
EG won TI5 in large part because former captain Peter "ppd" Dager found ways to counter CDEC's pressure with heroes that were squarely within the team's comfort zone. As the tournament goes on, the pressure will fall more and more on captain and drafter Andreas "Cr1t-" Nielsen and coach Clinton "Fear" Loomis to strike the right balance between creativity and comfort.