Thrice denied: Moon and the GOAT's futile quest for WCG gold

 

Between 2005 and 2008, Jang “Moon” Jae-ho was the best Warcraft 3 player on the planet. Despite fierce competition — more global than any other esport of that era — Moon stood out as a player who had “cracked” the most popular RTS title in the world, creating an unreplicable playstyle and taking it to such extremes and levels of perfection that few could even call themselves his “peers”.

 

Every video and every replay of Moon from those days was a must-watch for WC3 fans, almost like a Christmas present a kid would wait for a whole year. Moon wasn’t just good at WC3. He wasn’t just great at WC3 either. Every time Moon played, he conducted a symphony, making pixels and polygons sway in an arresting dance of arrows and glaives, his Night Elf doing things few could even imagine.

 

In a game with four races, Moon was the fifth. He was playing Night Elf only on paper; on the map, he was more. The Korean maestro is credited for strategies and openings that would later become standard for the Night Elf race, but at the time they were seen as exotic plays, born of a genius mind. Taking creep camps with building and mass expansion strategies were only the beginning — from there, it was mass Druids of the Talon in Orc match-ups, tower rush “fakes” and the best zeppelin micro bar none, executed with pixel-perfect precision. 

 

 

Eventually, despite how contested the Warcraft 3 scene was, Moon reached out and claimed the ultimate recognition: the Greatest of All Time (GOAT). And the trophies kept piling on.

 

Today, there's hardly a WC3 tournament series that Moon hasn't won. In Korea, at the time the strongest overall region in Warcraft 3, Moon was a nine-time MBC champion, and he would cruise to brackets rarely dropping a game even. In 2005, he conquered back-to-back World eSports Games (WEG), dropping a total of four games in two tournaments for a 23-4 record. Then, back-to-back International Electronic Sports Tournament (IEST) in 2006 and 2007. In 2008-2009, Korean esports org WeMade FOX offered him a record-breaking $600,000 three-yeard contract — a lucrative sum even by today's standards.

 

91 grand finals. 54 career gold medals. And one tournament he never conquered. 

Never the WCG king

For Warcraft 3, the World Cyber Games was a tournament with a lot of prestige. While there were events with better formats or bigger prize pools, WCG was still a special treat for WC3 fans in the old years. Between 2007 and 2013, Moon attended every single WCG, chasing the one gold medal that had always somehow eluded him, but faith would not have it — in his 10 total appearances, Moon made the grand finals three times, only to lose every single one.

Moon with Grubby (left) and Carmac (center). Source: ESL Reality

Moon vs. Grubby: WCG 2008 grand finals

In 2008, WCG played host to one of the most iconic match-ups in Warcraft 3: Moon vs. Manual “Grubby” Shenkhuizen. It wasn’t the best year in the Night Elf’s career, but he never really felt fully off his game. First places at PGL Season II and Blizzard WorldWide Invitational earlier in the year against rivals Li "Sky" Xiaofeng and Park "Lyn" Joon held Moon on the top of the scene. 

 

Compared to his best days of 2004-2005, Grubby was also not in his career peak, his 2008 wins coming mostly off of weekly cups and smaller events. But even then, the two found themselves facing each other in the finals of a very Europe-heavy WCG bracket. 

 

At the time teammates at Meet Your Makers (MYM), Moon and Grubby knew each other well: they had played together and against each other a lot and it showed in that series. Despite Grubby’s persistent Orc attacks, Moon’s resilience was sturdy. His signature Talon armies cycloned unit after unit into the air, Grubby’s heroes barely touching the ground. Mighty as the Orc are, they can’t win without their Blademaster hitting units. It’s 1-0 for the Night Elf. 

 

 

The first 10 minutes of game 2 are a heartstopper. Grubby’s early aggression traps Moon’s Demon Hunter twice, almost killing it — a potentially game-winning play then and there — but Moon survives by single-digit hp. The skirmishes continue for 20 more minutes, igniting an already hot game even further, but the Orc finally prevails. A sped-up army of Wolf Riders and Tauren rush into the fragile Night Elf, assassinate the Beastmaster of Moon, and trample the rest of the army. 1-1.

 

 

Early in game 3, Moon traps Grubby’s Blademaster between his building and erases him from the map, leaving Grubby without any hero. In most games, against most opponents, that’d be it. Moon, in the eyes of many, is minutes away from his first WCG gold. 

 

But then, a sloppy mistake comes from Moon. And then another. In the middle of Twisted Meadows, without a way to escape, both of Moon’s heroes get surrounded by a Scroll of Speed Orc army and killed. 

 

Moon’s army of Huntresses and Druids of the Claw is tougher than the mass Talon strat, but it’s also costly and Moon is not his best this day. Grubby continues to pick off stranded bears and even with a tucked expansion, Moon cannot catch up. A level 5 Shadow Hunter keeps Grubby’s army health perpetually topped off. The final battle is not quite the sledgehammer hit of game 2, but it’s one-sided nonetheless. In his first WCG final, Moon walks out with a silver. 

 

 

Fans cheer for Moon as he faces TH000 at WCG 2013 grand finals. Screengrab via: NeoTV

Moon vs. TH000: WCG 2013 grand finals

It took Moon five more years to make another WCG grand final. By that time, Warcraft 3 had shrunk to just an Asian mainstay, the rest of the RTS world having moved to Starcraft 2 already. 

 

In the same year, Moon made his first WCG grand final, he played another final that would kickstart the career of another Warcraft 3 legend to-be: Chinese Human Huang "TH000" Xiang. In the finals of PGL Season 3, in a back-and-forth tug of war, TH000 beat Moon 3-2 to the surprise of many, and laid the foundation for his own career.

 

In the years to follow, TH000 became known as one of the few players to use random in official games, and in the WCG 2013 grand finals, he daringly did not select a race against the GOAT himself. Spawning as Undead, TH000 soon faces the dire consequences of his gambit. At over 70% win rate in the match-up, Moon is a Night Elf vs. Undead specialist. 

 

The early game is a nightmare for TH000. An immolation opening from Moon’s Demon Hunter, as well as perfect micro, melts the ghouls of the Chinese player. As Moon adds a Pandaren Brewmaster and dryads to his army, TH000 can do even less. His army is perpetually slowed and AoE damaged. Picking random spells doom for the Chinese. Once again, Moon is up 1-0 in a WCG grand final. 

 

 

Games 2 and 3 were shorter. Much shorter. As TH000 switches back to Human, the game becomes a one-sided affair: it's TH000 in prime Human form against a withered GOAT. A tower rush into mortars equals the score in game 2. In game 3, TH000 doesn’t even need a mid-game transition and the towers shut down Moon. Two finals, two failures for the Fifth Race. 

Moon vs. Fly100%, WCG 2020 grand finals

How much Moon’s WCG grand finals are spread out are a testament to the greatness of the GOAT. Despite taking two years off for his conscription, despite being in his mid-thirties, despite the very developed Korean and Chinese WC3 scenes, Moon kept finding himself playing in major finals, 15 years after he started crushing everyone. 

 

2020 was a Renaissance year for Moon, just like it was for Warcraft 3 in general. At DreamHack Open Anaheim, Moon had defeated fellow Korean Eom "FoCuS" Hyo-sub to win the first in a series of Warcraft 3: Reforged major tournaments. Multiple top 3’s in tier 1-2 tournaments followed, keeping up Moon’s record at respectable levels. In September, the Night Elf won the prestigious NetEase Esports X, beating a trio of WC3 legends in Lyn, FoCuS, and TH000. So when WCG 2020 rolled around, hopes were once again high for the GOAT to conquer the elusive WCG trophy.

 

Moon still laughs, despite a grand final loss at WCG 2020.

 

Moon got a lucky draw into a relatively easy group and made it to semifinals, beating Chinese Human Infi in the knockout stages and then taking revenge on Undead player eer0 — the one player who beat him in groups. On a 6-0 high in elimination matches, Moon was had tremendous momentum.

 

His opponent, Chinese Orc Lu "Fly100%" Weiliang wasn’t so lucky. In the knockout stage, Lyn had taken him to five games in a tense Orc mirror and even dropped a game to the Night Elf player Colorful — a player with a much less impressive record than Moon. In an improved format, now having best-of-5 series in knockouts, Moon was certainly at even more advantage. 

 

The end for Moon comes around the 17-minute mark in game 4. Up 2-1, Fly100% has maintained army advantage for most of what would be the final game, using a mix of Shamans and Wolf Riders, a cookie-cutter strategy in the match-up. Moon detonates Wisp after Wisp, draining the mana of Fly100% but the Orc army is still dangerous and beefy. The Keeper of the Grove is surrounded and killed. The Alchemist is surrounded and killed. The Priestess of the Moon is surrounded and killed. Moon’s heroes die faster than normal units. For the third — and so far final — time, Moon was denied a WCG gold.

 

 

* * *

 

Moon’s futile flirtation with World Cyber Games is among the most interesting aspects of his career. The GOAT never made it to a WCG during his career peak and kept chasing the one trophy that escaped him for 12 years. Although in 2020 Moon did celebrate a first-place finish as part of Team FM which won the WCG Warcraft 3 team tournament, the lack of the highly prestigious 1v1 gold medal still hangs as a small asterisk. Moon's three WCG grand finals came in three distinct eras of the tournament — the Europe-dominated 2008, the tiny 2013, and the Asian prime 2020 — but the result was always the same: a disappointing silver. 

 

Today, it’d be difficult (and perhaps unfair) to compare Moon’s WCG quest to the likes of Oleksandr “s1mple” Kostyliev, another GOAT who, for the longest time, stood on the top of the game as the undisputed best without a world championship title. Warcraft 3, you see, never had an official world championship, but if one tournament came the closest, that’s WCG. With or without a WCG title, Moon will forever remain the GOAT of Warcraft 3 and there’s no asterisk attached by his streak of WCG silvers. 

 

In 16 years of competition, Moon has won millions, beaten everyone, won everything, pushed the boundaries about what’s possible, and today stands equal among esports greats like Lee “Flash” Young-ho, Daigo Umehara, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, and s1mple — figures that have transcended their game to ascend to esports legends. 

 

There’s only one stage that resisted the dominance of the Fifth Race. 

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