Mirage might become CS:GO's most important map

FaZe Clan and Nikola "NiKo" Kovač were on the Mirage boat well before other teams, but now the map is becoming one of the most popular -- and important -- in professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive play. Helena Kristiansson/ESL

Since the removal of Dust2 from active duty in professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive play in January, Train has been the top map in the competitive scene. Across the nine most important LAN tournaments since the change, it has been the most played map overall while also being the most popular map in the more important playoff series.

But over the same period, another map has transitioned from minnow to monster and now threatens to become the most consequential battlefield in LAN play: Mirage.

During ELEAGUE Season 2, Esports Championship Series Season 2 and the ELEAGUE Major, Mirage was the least popular map in the pool. It was played just 12 times across 124 possible opportunities (9.7 percent), which is noticeably below the 18 or so plays it would have if all the maps were played equally as often. In comparison, the most popular map of these three events, Overpass, was played 13 times at ELEAGUE Season 2 alone.

And with the removal of Dust2 to make way for the updated Inferno at the start of this year, it would have been reasonable to assume initially that Mirage's popularity would only further decrease. Across the same three tournaments, Dust2 was the second-least popular map with only 15 plays total, while Inferno conversely has become widely played over the past eight months. Following the switch, there has simply been less room for Mirage and every other map.

Yet Mirage has still become incredibly popular.

The removal of Dust2 happened just days after the conclusion of the ELEAGUE Major, which kicked off a shuffle season and a very different period of play. In response to a perceivable absence of consistent teams at the upper end of the scene, the top end of the CS:GO shifted massively, with five top-10 teams choosing to change their rosters. G2 Esports finally made the French "superteam," FaZe Clan added a superstar in Nikola "NiKo" Kovač, and SK Gaming grabbed the best player on Immortals, João "felps" Vasconcellos, which allowed all three squads to join Astralis as the world's new leading four. Elsewhere, North brought in Philip "aizy" Aistrup to replace departing support player Ruben "RUBINO" Villarroel, and Fnatic reassembled its former firepower-packed squad. Neither of these latter two moves worked out, but the overall trend held true.

Along with the shifting standings came a change in how maps were played. Overpass declined in visibility as OpTic Gaming and Peter "stanislaw" Jarguz fell out of the picture, and Astralis lost its spot as the clear world No. 1. Nuke disappeared from many playoffs series after Virtus.pro massively slumped in form following their DreamHack Masters Las Vegas win. SK moved away from being almost entirely reliant on Train. FaZe and Astralis banned Cobblestone out of many playoff series. And Cache suffered from its increasing position as the "new Dust2," where upsets were far too frequent for it be used by the best teams in the most important matches.

In the ensuing vacuum, Mirage started to find traction. Commentators and analysts quickly took notice; in a mid-April episode of the podcast Counter-Points, Duncan "Thorin" Shields predicted Mirage would "massively decide who wins these tournaments" in the future.

Broadly, it's a shift that makes sense. In the past Mirage has been seen more as a CT-sided, AWP-heavy map, but the development of better grenades and tactics has made taking mid-control easier, which in turn has made the map increasingly T-sided. And as possibilities have opened up for the Terrorist side, the three-lane layout of the map allows for more individual playmaking and one-on-one duels. Players can lurk on either side of the map in the apartments or in palace, or both, as the remainder of their team occupies mid or elsewhere. SK has also demonstrated how valuable boosting a single playmaker into the window room can be: The squad has become famous (or infamous) for boosting Felps up there round after round.

In the same episode of Counter-Points, however, Chad "SPUNJ" Burchill argued the map was a "piece of s---" because of the amount of "theory" needed on CT-side. With T-side's number of attacking options, the Counter Terrorists are put in a difficult position where they have to be hyper aggressive early, retake an area mid-round, or somehow turtle out the round from the very back part of the map. You have to "take a risk to gain an advantage," SPUNJ said. All of this plays into Mirage functioning as one of the more skill-dependent maps in the competitive pool -- but because that coincided with a rise in parity and skill level among teams, its importance has grown.

Train is still the most played map at premier-level events since the ELEAGUE Major, with 69 plays in those events, but Mirage is a close second with 67. In the more important playoff series at these same events, Mirage was picked or left open as the remainder 26 times -- still less than Train's 28, but still more than any other map.

Perhaps the main thing keeping Mirage from being the most played map is the fact that several top-level teams refused to use it. Gambit, the winner of PGL Major Kraków in July, had it very near permaban-status throughout 2017, as did G2, a top-four team for much of the past era. Likewise, Ninjas in Pyjamas had long hid from Mirage via vetoes.

That has changed, too. G2 switched its permaban to Train and won DreamHack Masters Malmö in early September. Gambit and NiP, which both appeared in the semifinals, also swapped their bans and opened themselves up to Mirage. Consequently, Mirage and Train each lead the field at Malmö with 10 plays each, but Mirage played a part in four playoff series to Train's three.

In the upcoming post-player break period of play, teams will rise and fall, and maps will wax and wane in importance accordingly. But with three new converts to Mirage, it seems set to overtake Train and become the game's foremost destination.

All five of the past five Major grand finals have featured Train. It has defined teams. It has crowned kings. It has enabled Eras. But that has come to an end. The game's next age may very well be defined by the team that can make tangible this emerging image of greatness, the most important map-to-be, Mirage.