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The real reasons why the OP is so strong / How to play around the current meta.
submitted by Hi_Im_TwiX to VALORANT
Why the operator is still broken post-nerfHey guys, this is Twix, the most unecessarily analytical Valorant coach on reddit, back with another guide. I am a previously competitive CS player and top 1% aim trainer grinder with numerous achievements across multiple FPS games, that focuses mainly on the mechanical components of coaching in FPS games ( previously CS & Apex, currently Valorant). I have covered pretty much every fundamental aspect of the game, both mechanics-wise and gamesense-wise in my previous posts ( which are pinned on my profile so feel free to check them out :D), and I was conflicted in terms of what topic to cover next. Due to numerous people in my discord server requesting for this topic to be covered and the amount of people I hear / see complain about it daily, I chose to discuss the current state of the OP meta. If you enjoy my content and want to see more of it, or you're interested in private coaching, make sure to join my discord server https://discord.gg/6ZYVZ6x where you'll find a friendly and helpful community oriented towards improving in FPS games and in-depth pricing details / reviews of the services I offer. Feel free to follow my twitter account twitter.com/Twix_v2 also linked at the end of this post, if you want to receive aim-training / valorant related updates from me. Hope you enjoy reading ( or not ) through this post!
The OP meta is a very clear problem in the game currently, especially in maps such as Ascent, as it allows for very little counterplay and holds a very low skill / risk requirement to pull the setup off effectively. This is especially evident in circumstances where a team is douple OP'ing, which can be extremely frustrating, especially against lower ELO players that don't know how to efficiently counter the strat. However, a lot of the people saying the OP should be nerfed fail to comprehend how complicated individually balancing the Operator in this game would be, as the issue stems from a lot of far more fundamental "faults" that the game suffers from. This post's main goal is to elaborate upon the real reasons that the Operator is currently such a strong / problematic weapon in matchmaking, and offer a few ways that this could be solved through updates, as well as how players can individually counter the weapon to make their matchmaking experience more pleasant.
Think about it this way, the "Operator" is the equivalent of the "AWP" in CS:GO both in terms of pricing and the role the weapon fills in a team's setup, yet in CS the AWP isn't a "game breaking" weapon by any means, and requires more mechanical skill to use efficiently. However, if you compare the AWP's weapon stats to the Operator's, you will very quickly come to realize that the AWP is better in every aspect. Literally. It has a higher fire-rate, more ammo per clip, better / faster innacuracy reset, you can crouch + move, etc. People need to realize that the reason the Operator is overpowered in the current meta isn't it's weapon stats, unfortunately.
The operator is currently overpowered due to three main reasons ( and an agent... ):
The map design in Valorant differs quite vastly to that of CS, the amount of angles ( especially deep angles / 90 deg angles ) that you need to clear on each sector of a map, is far larger to that of CS, therefore holding angles with a one-shot weapon is inherently easier to do. There are also less objects that you can use in your direct environment to peek in a way that shields the majority of your body ( think of the angles you can hold on somethig like "A site" on Dust in CS:GO.
Example of player model exposure in an angle being held in CS
As opposed to counter-strike where there are many of these angles ( as seen above ) that you can hold while only a fraction of your player model is exposed, In Valorant, you need to full-body peek ( peek with the entirety of your player model exposed ) the majority of the angles you challenge / hold, which makes it far easier for an OP player to land shots on you. The fact that you need to full-body peek these angles also means that missing shots or being double peeked while using the Operator is much more punishing as well, however, this can be completely overlooked as a downside when the weapon is paired with Jett, something I'll elaborate upon further later down the post.
Another really big issue ( IMO ) In terms of how the map design in Valorant allows for one-shot weapons like the operator to be abused in matchmaking, is the fact that before the round even starts, you can set up in an angle where your sightline is directly looking into an area across the entire map where the enemy spawn barrier is located, meaning you can hold an angle as soon as the round starts where an enemy will be within the first 0.5 seconds into the round. Using CS:GO maps as comparison, the only angle you can hold in a similar manner would be mid doors in D2, but then again, hitting someone crossing through that narrow angle is not nearly as easy. Here is an example of what I mean in Valorant:
Green line = Spawn barrier location / Red line = OP LOS
As you can see in the image above, the defender playing bottom mid on Ascent can adjust in around 0.5 seconds as soon as the round starts, to get a guaranteed hold on anyone who pushes top mid post-spawn, what I mean by this is that the defender will be the first to hold the angle, and the attacker will have to actively peek the defender. This can be countered in plenty of ways, e.g. a Cypher cam top mid to scan mid, or a smoke to cut off the LOS ( Line of Sight ), however, it's an issue when the only way to counter an individual weapon is to fully rely on your team's utility usage. If you're a scrim / comp player this probably isn't an issue, but 99% of people play MM, and the majority of them solo / duo queue, meaning that relying on your team-synergy with strangers to counter an individual angle is completely inconsistent, especially in lower ELO games. For this specific issue, I think one way to fix it would be to re-adjust the spawn barrier locations in certain maps ( as done previously with split ) to even out the defender / attacker advantages.
In terms of fixing issues that are directly related to the game's map structure / design, the necessary "patches" are much more difficult to implement. Maps take a lot of time & resources to design, and it would therefore be unrealistic to expect the dev team to fully rework the existing maps. However, the excessively problematic map sections can and should be reworked to result in a more balanced competitive structure. Similar to how the mid-section of split was reworked post-beta, the dev team should focus on doing the same with other maps, as we haven't seen any relevant changes since then.
If you're confused as to how the map structure is "problematic" in Valorant, here is a video by a map designer, analyzing the fundamental flaws in Valorant's general map design:
Valorant Map Design - Explained from a Map Creator's POV
I believe the main issue with Valorant's current map pool is a lack of community input / playtesting. Volcano is a great map creator, and gave us what is arguably one of the best CS maps of all time ( Cache ) and I'm definitely disappointed in the current state of the Valorant map pool. If there was a community workshop, or at least selective playtesting prior to the full release of these maps, I'm sure that a lot of the main aspects that people complain about could have been fully avoided.
Another adjustment that needs to be made on certain maps is the placement of the aforementioned spawn barriers / spawn protection. Calculating the exact timing from each barrier to x position is crucial to the decision making in terms of determining where exactly to place each barrier in order to avoid issues such as being able to hold OP angles as soon as the round starts without having to move more than a couple of steps.
Lack of universal utility:
This is a pretty commonly overlooked issue, it's not a complicated concept to get behind but peoples' understanding of this is pretty misconstrued so I'd like to touch upon the subject briefly. As mentioned above, one of the biggest issues in solo queue MM is that yes, you can counter operator angles in theory, but that means that either you're forcing yourself to pick a smoker ( which may not be your role ) or you're forced to rely on your teammate's ability to properly use their utility to counter operator angles / LOS. I'm sure some will say "oh, but that's how the game is meant to be played", Yeah, in theory that's true, but in practice, the mass majority of people will not play off of eachother properly and a lot of the time such communication is extremely difficult if you're solo-queuing, even in higher ELO games.
When I make a negative statement in relation to the extremely large amount of deep angles that you need to clear in each section of a map in Valorant, or the ridiculously open, cross-map LOS that can be held with an operator, with my main point of reference being CS, a lot of players say it isn't a problem because you have "so much utility" in Valorant which is why they're different in structure to CS maps. I think the root of the misconception here is the fact that there's so many unique abilities, which creates the illusion that there's a much larger variety of utility than there really is, since the majority of abilities function in a way that overlaps with one another, e.g. Phoenix's curveball is very different ( both visually and mechanically ) than Breach's flashes, or Reyna / Omen's blinds, but they all have the same function, they blind / nearsight the enemy. Jett / Brimstone / Omen all have very "different" smoke abilities, but again, they all hold the same function.
In CS:GO, every single person on the team has the ability to carry a flash, a molly, a smoke, and / or an HE nade, even in combination, meaning you can have something like 10 flashes, 5 smokes, and 5 mollies in a single round on your team, but most importantly, every player has the utility necessary to counter one-shot weapons / people holding x angle, you don't need to rely on others to flash / smoke / molly areas for you.
Nade buy menu in CS:GO
The idea behind having character-bound abilities enforces team play, which isn't a bad concept in theory for a tactical shooter, however, when there's a weapon in the game which can be so heavily abused mainly due to the fact that necessary utility is player-bound. Here's a hypothetical scenario, you're playing ascent and everyone instalocks, you have no smokes, and the enemy team abuses mid with a double OP setup. The result? Not much room for counterplay. Again, people shouldn't be insta-locking duelists, but they will consistently do so, especially in lower ranks. You shouldn't have to be forced into situations where the outcome of your ability to hold a position is pre-determined by factors out of your control, e.g. people not picking smokers, or even worse, people picking smokers and not using their utility to block LOS.
The solution to this problem could be quite tricky, obviously having utility be character-bound isn't going to ( and shouldn't ) be changed, as it's one of the aspects of Valorant that makes the game unique as a tac shooter. What can however be done to counter the issue that people come across often in terms of having horrible team comps that don't allow for the counter-play necessary to tackle the OP meta, especially in maps like Ascent, is to introduce a role cap. What I mean by this is e.g. introducing a sort of "filter" that doesn't allow for people to lock into more than say, 3 duelists. I don't believe there even needs to be a cap on any other role, as the issue of people not having smokes / CC on their team ( especially in lower elo ) stems from the fact that everyone wants to play a duelist. I have played on smurf accounts in low diamond in order to play with friends in duo / trio queue, and 50% of the time people would just instalock Reyna / Phoenix / Jett as soon as we loaded into the lobby.
It would also be nice to introduce some sort of feature to prevent instalocking in general. A good way to do this IMO would be to allow for a sort of "team discussion" period, maybe 15-20 seconds after everyone loads into the lobby, where people can "declare" the agent they want to play, this would be great in terms of keeping people from just spam-picking duelists in every low MMR lobby ( high MMR too, just not as often ). It would also be nice to allow for people to "trade" picks similar to how you can trade champions in league even after you have locked in your picks, I don't see any reason as to why players shouldn't be able to do this if they come to a last-minute mutual agreement with a teammate that they want to swap roles.
Player models & Movement:
Finally, another aspect of the game which influences the extent to which the operator can be abused in the current meta, is the player model size ( hitbox ) and the restrictive movement. If you compare the hitbox in this game to that of any other tac fps, you'll quickly notice that the hitboxes in Valorant are quite larger than the rest of the games in the genre, what you'll also find, is that the movement in Valorant is much more restrictive.
Valorant / CS:GO Hitboxes
In Valorant, you accel / build momentum at a much slower pace than you would in any CS game, on top of that, bhopping doesn't allow you to gain momentum fluidly. All these factors, paired with the fact that you get significantly slowed after having been hit once, make it very difficult to engage in fluid movement sequences, in return making it very easy for players holding angles with an operator to land their shots on you. The mechanical cap is also much lower in terms of what you can do with your movement, in CS you can effectively "bait" sniper shots by jiggle peeking angles ( quickly counter-strafing an angle to get vision, only barely exposing your player model ), but in Valorant, due to the significantly slower momentum / accel it's impossible to do so efficiently.
There still are some neat tricks you can pull off with Valorant's movement system, e.g. the fact that you can bhop silently as long as you hit shift mid-air after your initial jump, and the surface you're moving on is inclined, which allows for some nice repositioning plays; The best example of this is probably silent bhopping on to the bike and then the wall in A lobby, peeking into A main on Ascent.
You can also circle / strafejump pretty effectively to gain vision or bait shots, although you need to know how to "air strafe" to do this properly. This isn't too difficult, it's just a combination of moving your mouse in sync with your player's directional movement, e.g. If I'm holding the "D" key, I'm simultaneously moving my mouse towards the right side of my screen. Here is a video of Dapr explaining it better than I ever could, as it's his signature move:
Sentinels Dapr - Jump peeking tutorial
Clearly the game's movement system has been consciously designed to function this way, and similar to other mechanics in the game it allows for an even playing field between lower skill level and higher skill level players as the individual skillcap and therefore learning curve is far lower; Whether or not you enjoy this concept of a more "noob friendly" game or not is a matter of preference, I personally think lowering the skill ceiling like this just puts a hard cap on individual mechanics, which holds negative results in competitive play as the individual impact of players is "forced" to be closer to equal.
If I were to change the movement system, I would initially greatly decrease the delay in building momentum / increase the accel, so that jiggle peeking and counter-strafing were made more viable in the game. I think both of those mechanics are heavily skill based and shouldn't be restricted as heavily as they are in the current live build. The amount a player is slowed after being hit is a bit too high as well in the game's current state, however, if the accel / momentum changes were implemented, it wouldn't need to be adjusted.
Jett's Point & Click Adventure!
This isn't going to be a lengthy topic, but I just wanted to address the blatant issue that is the Jett + Operator combo in MM. There is a very good reason why every lobby in higher ELO is dominated by Jett in terms of winrate & pickrate, it's not due to Jett's kit individually, it's due to Jett's potential when paired with an Operator, especially in maps like Ascent which allow you to hold long, open angles.
We briefly discussed earlier, how it's good in terms of OP counter-play, that the maps in this game force you to commit to full body peeks, and that getting hit while out in the open heavily punishes the player, well, you can ignore all of that just by picking Jett. People constantly talk about Jett saying "oh nerf her updraft, nerf her ult, nerf her smokes 7 seconds is too long!" but the glaringly blatant issue to me is her dash. Jett's dash allows for her to hold any position with the Operator, without having to worry about getting traded post-kill, or even getting caught out if she misses her shot because all she has to do is press "E" after shooting ( plus she gets her E back after 2 kills ). Jett's ability to reposition so freely, paired with her ability to set up in off-angles using her updraft, is what makes her so powerful in combination with the operator. Sure, Reyna can use her E to reposition as well, but 1) It's an extended animation 2) You actually need to kill someone to use it 3) You need to have LOS with the orb 4) You need to have your orb up to begin with ( needs to be bought / gained post-round ).
The solution to this issue is pretty clear to me, Jett's "E" / Dash ability has to be nerfed, I don't exactly know how this would be best balanced, but I'm sure a team of full-time game developers that have loads of experience working on game balancing can come up with a reasonable adjustment; Regardless, I have a couple of ideas of my own.
My first "fix" would be to simply add a short delay, something like 0.25 / 0.5 seconds post-shooting where Jett can't use her dash before that. Even though a 1/4 of a second time-frame is extremely short, it's still enough for a decent player to punish Jett before she can freely deny the trade.
My second idea for a "fix" would be to limit Jett's dash usage to the direction she's facing. This would make it much more mechanically challenging to reposition after shooting, and is very similar to my first suggestion as this change also effectively adds a short delay pre-dash, as players will require a short amount of time to adjust their aim to the direction they want to dash towards.
ALSO RIOTGAMES FOR CHRIST'S SAKE, ADD A SCOPE / UNSCOPE / ZOOM SOUND EFFECT TO THE OPERATOR, THERE'S NO REASON WHATSOEVER THAT IT SHOULD BE 100% SILENT, WON'T EVEN GIVE THIS SUGGESTION THE TIME OF DAY IN TERMS OF DISCUSSING IT AS IT'S SOMETHING SO BLATANTLY EVIDENT THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN FIXED AGES AGO...
How to play around the "OP meta" in Matchmaking
1) Picking the right team comp / making sure roles are being filled
Before we get into the mechanical aspect of playing against operators, we have to go through the basics, I mentioned before how especially at lower elo people will instalock duelists and ignore picking agents that offer team utility, or how people will be forced into picking omen / brim and just never utilize their smokes to cut off crucial LOS. Unfortunately, in the current state of the game, the only consistent way to counter this as an issue is to learn to play agents like Omen / Brimstone yourself, and make sure to avoid insta-locking in lobbies and fill the required "smoker" role when necessary. If you get into a lobby where 4 people just insta-lock duelists, honestly, just dodge the game. You're going to get a 3 minute cooldown if you haven't done it repeatedly and you lose 0 elo / mmr. You're sacrificing 3 minutes over an almost guaranteed loss, I think that's a pretty decent trade.
Example: You're playing Ascent and this is your team comp:
Breach / Cypher / Omen / Jett / Sova = Solid team composition, high chance of winning if played correctly.
Reyna / Phoenix / Jett / Raze / Breach = No viable smokes, very little team utility, very low chance of winning against a decently structured team, even if played well ( mechanically ).
2) Using your utility effectively
If you've gotten past the point of selecting the right agents for a solid team composition, all you need to do in order to minimize the effect of people abusing the Jett + Operator combo in MM, is to use your abilities efficiently. What this means is that depending on your agent, you will need to use your abilities to play around the enemy's OP player. If you're playing an agent that utilizes flash abilities, this means that you'll need to time your flashes efficiently with your pushes / peeks in order to actually have a chance of taking out the OP. Quick note on this, if you're playing Phoenix you want to be peeking right "behind" your flashes as soon as they pop, as the duration is very short and you want to make the most out of it before allowing enemies to reposition behind cover. If you're playing Reyna you want to wait a split-second before peeking with your "leer" ability as it only activates once it reaches it's designated range, as an alternative to this you can toss your leer out in odd positions to throw off your opponent's crosshair placement, in this instance you could peek with your blind. Keep in mind that while Breach and Phoenix can fully flash their opponents, Reyna and Omen's blinds instead cause a "near-sightedness" debuff, meaning affected players can still see you clearly when you're close enough
If you're playing a smoker your role in denying the enemy team of getting free Operator picks is even more directly important, especially if you're playing on maps like Ascent or Haven which have plenty of long and open angles to hold which are almost impossible to push without proper smoke placement. Here is an example of where Brimstone / Omen should be smoking on Ascent:
Green markings = Defender-side smokes / Red markings = Attacker-side smokes
The map above is marked according to the locations you should be using your Brimstone / Omen smokes in. Simply opening your clicking on the map and sending out those 2 smokes as soon as the round starts depending on the side you're playing, instantly lowers the chance of you dying to an Operator through mid immensely. Jett smokes aren't mentioned as they aren't meant to be / can't be used globally, and therefore are pretty useless for pre-round setups.
3) What to do if you aren't playing a smoker and your teammates aren't utilizing their abilities properly
If you're in the unfortunate scenario of having teammates filling the "smoker" role that aren't properly utilizing their abilities and the enemy team is abusing a double OP setup to maintain mid control every round, your only option is to play it safe. There's nothing wrong with holding angles and not peeking, in these scenarios the best you can do is play defensively, hold angles further back down mid ( or whichever position you're playing ) and simply not open yourself up to unecessary LOS. Don't forget that the Operator isn't strong due to it's stats, but due to the plethora of reasons we mentioned further up in the post. The reason I'm mentioning this is to say that you shouldn't be too scared of Operators pushing into you if you're holding a decent defensive angle, the operator isn't nearly as potent agressively, especially when having to clear close quarters angles. If you're still struggling to hold back OP players pushing through mid, make sure to set up a crossfire with your teammate that's nearest to you. What you don't want to be doing is giving up mid control, especially in Ascent, as it can lead to flanks and split pushes which are very difficult to hold off.
When playing against an OP and you want to push the player holding the angle, the worst thing you can do is slow-peek the angle. The biggest recurring issue I see in lower ranks, is players hastily slow-peeking angles that they know are being held by an Operator. You shouldn't be slow-peeking angles that you know players are holding to begin with, but especially not when the player holding the angle is using an OP. When peeking into an OP, make sure to use your utility ( flashes especially ) if available, and move into your peek / swing into the angle as fast as possible, otherwise you basically allow for a free kill. Another way to counter OPs is to simply buy an OP yourself, which can definitely be effective especially in lower ELO where you can't rely on your team's util usage, here you have to be weary of spawn barrier timing and who's able to get the first peek on to the other. e.g. You shouldn't be dry peeking top mid into bottom mid in Ascent when you and the enemy both have OPs, as they'll be holding the angle before you have time to peek them.
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The Cryopod to Hell 233: The Dukes' Onslaught
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Bael, Artorias, Vepar, and Orias join hands with countless other demons. They walk down the blood-soaked corridor leading to the Labyrinth Core, all while passing the bodies of thousands of dead demons and monsters. Kar's golems, each wielding only a quarter of his power, still possessed more than enough strength to handle the weakest dregs of demon society.
The Duke of Pain sweeps his gaze past dozens of dead friends he barely recognizes. His expression turns grim as he sighs. "Damn shame. Should've sent me in from the start."
Artorias shakes his head. "No. The humans managed to capture Beelzebub. Ose can gather intel behind enemy lines via her Astral Form, but she can't be everywhere at once. Who knows what devious capture methods they've planned for you?"
Bael chuckles. "Let 'em try. Humans have nabbed me lots of times. Can't ever keep me locked down, though. Can't torture me for intel. Can't hide me. Can't kill me. They're better off aiming for you or miss Ice Queen."
"Yes. That's what worries me."
Artorias falls silent. The black-metal-clad Duke of Steel walks side-by-side with Bael, leading their troops forward without hesitation. Soon, they arrive at a point where the bodies thicken to ten times their previous density. Six powerful golems stand at the ready, each one mirroring Kar's appearance. The stand with their arms and legs spread apart, as if taunting their enemies and daring them to attack.
Bael yawns. "Ahh, geez. Arty-boy, you take care of these things. If I get any more bored, I'll fall asleep."
"Hmph. Everyone, stay back," Artorias says. "You heard the Duke of Pain. These clay sculptures are mine to kill."
Kar's golems leap toward the demon army, making several of the weaker demons tremble with fear. They know they wouldn't stand a chance against these earthen creations, since not even the vanguard could handle them.
However, Artorias doesn't flinch. He presses his boot against the ground and rushes forward while weaving magical signs.
"Once, I was known as the Baron of Earthquakes. My earth manipulation was unparalleled across all of creation. Now, my powers have only strengthened after merging with my brother, foolish Monster King!"
Heaps of dirt jump from the Labyrinth's floor and attach to Artorias's arms, before hardening and solidifying into stone. Thanks to the power of transmutation, Artorias shifts their elemental structure into a far more durable and resilient material.
Artorias's fist strikes the nearest golem. He pulverizes Kar's doppelganger into powder, spraying its body over a hundred feet into the distance.
Again and again, Artorias punches the golems, using his overwhelming power to crush them with ease. Each strike turns them into mud, rock, or granite fragments.
Within less than a minute, Artorias finishes. The remains of Kar's golems lay spread out all over the Labyrinth floor, making his allies whoop and cheer.
"Hell yeah! That's Artorias for ya!"
"Damn, isn't he overpowered? He might be the new strongest Duke!"
"Don't be ridiculous. Artorias is a badass, but he can't win against Bael."
"Eh, I don't know... Bael seems invincible, but if he has to fight the Duke of Steel..."
Several demons lower their voices, not wanting to piss either of the Dukes off. However, Bael and Artorias both possess incredibly sharp hearing. They ignore the ranting of their younger comrades who can't help but feel excited when witnessing Duke-level strength.
In the end, all demons desire power, Artorias thinks. It is in our blood to envy the strong.
Artorias kicks aside the remains of the final golem and marches down the hall once again. After hopping over the mounds of dead monsters blocking his path, he finally draws close enough to see the Monster King and Queen.
Kar stands upright, with one hand casually gripping the back of Laharl's neck. The unconscious demoness hangs limp at Kar's side like a sack of groceries.
"Hurgh. Metal-mouth," Kar growls. "We meet again."
Artorias pauses to allow the other demons to catch up. Bael hops the heap of bodies, as do Orias, Vepar, and the other demons following them.
"Last time we fought, I broke your body worse than I broke your spirit," Artorias says. "That was a year ago. It seems you've become stronger since then."
Kar nods. "I have. Hurgh. If you fight me here, I will not go easy on you. I will crush you, just as I did to Hotface, Peaches, and Cricket. Turn around and leave, little Duke."
"You might have gained a modicum of strength," Artorias says, his eyes tightening into a glare, "but against me, you'll still fall. My control over the earth will always exceed yours."
"So you say," Kar growls. He flicks his wrist, sending Laharl flying forward. The unconscious demoness crashes to the ground at Artorias's feet. "Here. I had to pick up your trash. Don't make me do it again."
Artorias's glare dims. He nudges Laharl with his foot. "Oh? You didn't kill the Baron of Misery. That seems very unlike you."
Kar crosses his arms. "Hurgh. Killing a defenseless female, especially one who is so weak, just doesn't sit right with my heart. Next time, I will not show such mercy."
Artorias nods. "Noted, but I'll make sure there is no next time, Sphinx. Warpers, send Laharl to the healing pits."
A demoness emerges from behind Bael. The beautiful young woman clutches her hands to her chest as she stares at Kar with trembling eyes. "Y-yes, Artorias. You! Monster King! Where is my sister?! What did you do to her?"
Kar's gaze lowers to the demoness wearing a Chinese-style dress. "Ah. Blossom. Do not worry. Peaches is uninjured. I merely captured her. I would never kill a woman if I didn't need to."
"Captured?! You gave my sister to the fleshbags?!" Ying-Ying exclaims. Her expression turns pained. "Bastard! Those animals will tear her apart! They'll rip her clothes off and defile-"
"Warper. Silence." Artorias says. His voice cuts Ying-Ying off mid-sentence, preventing her from speaking. Immediately, Ying-Ying remembers her place and bows her head. "Yes, Duke of Steel. I'm... I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry. Be efficient. Follow my orders and get out of the way."
Ying-Ying's anger disappears, replaced instead with fear. When her eyes meet the fierce, glowing red orbs of the Duke of Steel, any thoughts of protesting vanish. His demonic aura, strengthened after countless millennia of struggling against the Archangel Uriel, proves even more overpowering than Bael's.
Without another word, Ying-Ying opens a portal, grabs Laharl, and drags her inside. The portal closes, leaving the invaders to finally face off against their monstrous enemy.
Bael chuckles. "We'll stay back and let you have some fun, Arty-boy. Take this punk down a peg."
Artorias shakes his head. "No. We will crush the Sphinx today. Operation Stormbringer hinges on his death. Everyone... attack at once! Just like I drilled you! Hold nothing back, and kill our enemies!"
A series of battlecries bursts out behind Artorias. Countless demons and monsters pound their chests, summon fireballs, and ready themselves for battle.
Bael sighs. "Cripes. Ain't no fun attacking all at once."
Kar's body transforms into a tornado of terror. He spins forward on his heel to swing his foot down like a hammer into the Labyrinth floor. A bomb-like explosion detonates in front of him, flinging a maelstrom of earthen bullets at his enemies.
Artorias offers a retort. He jumps toward Kar while thrusting out both of his palms, using his powers to halt Kar's earth manipulation in its tracks. Kar's bullets freeze in midair and fall harmlessly to the Labyrinth's floor.
Behind Artorias, dozens of Burner grunts lob fireballs overhead, aiming to scorch the Monster King to a crisp. Harpies fly to the ceiling and attach their clawed feet to the ripped-up, jagged remnants of what was once its smooth surface. They fire demonstone arrows at Kar, each one capable of penetrating a tank's steel armor.
Kar, unable to protect himself from the incoming onslaught, relies on his wife. Blinker summons an illusory wall above Kar's head and uses her projection abilities to solidify it. Despite her magical prowess, the arrows still manage to rip through her projections, but she slows their speed enough that they bounce harmlessly off Kar's scales.
Over and over, the enemy monsters and demons combine their strength to attack the Monster King and Queen from all directions. Kar trades blows with Artorias, only for Bael to join in. The two Dukes, each the pinnacle of power for non-Emperors, assault Kar relentlessly from his left and right. The Sphinx deflects punches, dodges kicks, and shrugs off projectiles, all without batting an eye.
Vepar transforms into poison fog. She swarms the Monster King with highly corrosive, acidic gas, forcing him to retreat. Kar coughs violently, vomiting blood as he tries to blink the mucus out of his eyes.
"Kah! Shitty demons! Pathetic cowards!"
However, despite his complaints, Kar can't help but notice Artorias's attacks weakening. Driven back by Vepar's poisonous gas, Artorias hesitates to join the fray, while Bael ignores the acrid gas entirely. His immunity to poison allows him to shrug off 100% of Vepar's most lethal toxins with ease.
"Having trouble breathing?" Vepar cackles, her voice emanating from the gas. "Perhaps you need a breather? Pahaha!"
Despite the pain in his lungs, Kar smiles. "Cough, cough. How fearsome! It seems I'll have to use half of my strength against you bullies!"
Suddenly, Kar lunges toward Bael, startling the Duke of Pain. The crocodile's muscles explode with power, allowing him to deliver a mighty uppercut to Bael's chin. The First Duke screams in disbelief as his Sphinx opponent pounds him into the ceiling, knocking the Harpies loose. They yelp in surprise before reorienting themselves and reattaching to the roof.
Artorias's heart skips a beat. So strong!
Just as Kar turns to face Artorias, a mysterious figure appears in his blind spot, crouched down with a fist at the ready.
The shadow-shrouded demon blasts Kar in the ribs with a mighty punch, sending the Sphinx tumbling to the side. "Aargh!"
Kar crashes against the side-wall, kicking up a cloud of dust.
Artorias smiles. "Excellent work, Orias."
The Baron of the Stars, Orias, clutches a blood-red Ruby in his fist. "If that Sphinx lands a punch, I'll die. This is all I can do."
Artorias nods without replying. He dashes toward Kar, using his earth manipulation to glide along the ground like a roller-blader. Artorias scoops his hands into the ground and grabs two balls of dirt. They transform into tightly compacted pebbles, adding a tremendous amount of mass to Artorias's arms.
Artorias punches Kar's body, sending a cataclysmic tremor throughout the Labyrinth. Behind the Core's entrance, the assembled humans howl in fear as chunks of the ceiling plummet down and crash against the floor, killing dozens who couldn't evade the falling debris.
Thanks to the pebbles, Artorias manages to exert far more strength than usual. He puts enough power into his strike to pulverize the Monster King into bone-paste.
However, as the dust settles, Artoria's eyes widen.
"What? He's not here? I know I struck him!"
The Monster King no longer lays against the wall. His body, having somehow disappeared, leaves Artorias stunned.
"An illusion? Did the Monster Queen turn her husband invisible at the last second? Was the body I saw merely a projection?"
"What are you guys waiting for?" A voice yells out from behind Artorias. The Duke of Steel whirls around, only to see himself standing a short distance away. The false Artorias points at the real one and shouts, "That damn Monster King is trying to trick us! Hurgh! Get him!"
Artorias blinks in disbelief. "What? No! You're a fake! You're- ulp!"
A hail of demonstone arrows and fireballs suddenly rushes toward Artorias, startling him. He raises his hands to summon a barrier, only to blink in confusion.
His arms, no longer coated in blackened demonstone armor, now appear green and scaly.
"Spawn of a broodmother! That fairy must have used her illusion magic to make me- aaaargh!"
Countless fireballs and demonstone arrows blast Artorias, engulfing him in flames and armor-piercing projectiles. Unlike Kar, who had Blinker's barrier to slow the arrows' speed, Artorias has no such protection. Most of the arrows bounce off his demonstone plating, but several find the gaps in his armor and drive deep into the Duke of Steel's flesh.
"You- you fools!" Artorias howls, his voice a perfect facsimile of Kar's. "That fairy is tricking you! Stop shooting!"
"Keep shooting!" Kar yells. "Hurgh! We've got that handsome crocodile on the ropes!"
Artorias summons an earthen wall in front of himself, but thanks to the Burners' fireballs, it quickly melts to slag and offers little resistance against the harpies' arrows. Frustrated, the Duke of Steel dives underground and uses his earth manipulation to swim toward Kar.
Bael, the Duke of Pain, watches as his idiot comrades attack the so-called Monster King.
"Huh. That's weird... Arty went over there to attack the Sphinx, but then only the Sphinx was left, and Arty-boy popped back over here again. That don't make no sense."
A dull sensation appears in the back of Bael's mind. Groggily, he tries to reactivate the thinking centers of his brain. However, the long-underused areas take a while to warm up, making his mouth loll open and drool.
Suddenly, Bael snaps back to attention. "Huh. Wait, doesn't that mean this Arty-boy over here's a fake?"
Bael turns his attention to the fake Artorias, who continues to yell and pump his fists like an idiot. "Hurgh! We've got that gorgeous reptile on the run, boys! Good work! I'm proud of you!"
"...nah. Sounds exactly like Arty-boy. How could he be a fake? I must be imagining things."
Suddenly, Artorias bursts out of the ground. Having disengaged from Blinker's line of sight when swimming underground, his illusory appearance vanishes, revealing the appearance of two Artorias's.
Bael takes a step back in surprise. "Wha...? Oh! Shit! Everyone, one of these Arty-boys is a fake!"
Vepar materializes beside Kar. "Which one, Duke of Pain?"
Bael glances at the Artorias on the left. He summons dirt to coat his arms and fires a devastating punch at the Artorias on the right. The Artorias on the right laughs like an idiot. "Hurgh! Now we're having fun!"
The Artorias on the left scowls like the Devil. "You damned face-stealer! I'll make you pay!"
"I liked you better when you had scales," The Artorias on the right says. "Now you're as ugly as me!"
They continue trading blows, making Bael sigh.
"Not a clue. They're exactly the same."
"What?!" Vepar screeches. "The one on the right is the fake! How can you not tell?!"
"Dunno. You're pretty smart though, so I'll just go along with what you say."
With a shrug, Bael lunges toward the Artorias on the right and punches him in the shoulder. The Duke of Pain strikes Kar so hard that his brain rattles in his skull, sending the Monster King crashing into the debris field blocking the Core's doors.
"About time!" Artorias snaps. "How did you fools not realize he was a fake?!"
Bael shrugs. "He sounded exactly like you, Arty-boy."
"He sounded nothing like me!" Artorias bellows, exasperation in his voice. "You're just an idiot!"
Bael nods. "I get that a lot."
Both Dukes turn to look at Kar's body, laying in the debris field. Suddenly, from behind them, a quivering in the ground makes both Dukes whirl to face an unexpected threat. Kar bursts out of the Labyrinth's floor with two fists raised.
The Monster King pummels both Dukes, flinging them toward his 'body' laying in the rubble. It disappears as they arrive, vanishing into mist.
Artorias and Bael crash into the collapsed ceiling fragments, but the impact barely hurts them.
"Again, that fairy caught me with her illusions!" Artorias yells. He leaps out of the rubble and lands on his feet a short distance from Kar. He searches the sky for Blinker, but she hides herself with invisibility, making her impossible to locate.
"Fairies... grr! I hate tricksters! I hate cowards who hide behind- hm?"
In the back of his mind, several gears click into place.
Something's not right. Illusions can make people disappear into their surroundings, but they can't teleport people from one place to another.
I struck the Sphinx earlier and sent him crashing into the sidewall. How could he have disappeared when I had my eyes on him the whole time? Even with the dust obscuring him, there's no way he had enough time for the Monster Queen to hide his body, replace him with a fake, and allow him to slip past me.
That can only mean...
Artorias's gaze grows cold.
Temporal Magic. The Monster Queen must possess high-level temporal magic, just like the reigning fairy queens. Whatever method the Sphinx used to strengthen himself, it must have broken his wife's limiter.
Artorias glances toward the ceiling, as anger clouds his vision.
Tricky. I underestimated the Monster Royals. They're stronger than I ever could have imagined.
Kar stands with his back to the demon army. He faces the two Dukes as they climb out of the rubble blocking the Core's entrance and dust themselves off.
"Hurgh. At this rate, I may have to use all of my strength if I aim to make you weaklings vanish."
"Cut the crap," Bael grunts. "Stop holding back. I'm not even having fun, bub. Are you going to use your Sphinx Form or what?!"
Kar's eyes ignite with a fierce hunger.
"Hehe. No. I won't waste my trump card on trash like you. Instead, how about something better?"
Kar takes a step forward, causing Bael and Artorias to flinch. Then, he slams his fists into the ground and rips up a massive chunk of dirt. Artorias readies himself for the Monster King to fling the one-ton boulder at him and Bael, but Kar doesn't.
Instead, the Sphinx uses his earth manipulation to liquefy the boulder into mud, covering his body like a gooey syrup. Seconds later, it hardens into a rock-like substance, mimicking Artorias's feat from earlier.
Artorias snorts. "A little extra armor, hm? What could you possibly hope to achieve with such a pathetic layer of defense?"
Kar doesn't answer. Instead, he further refines the rock-armor, hardening it to a level beyond Artorias's expectations.
Artorias's smug smile vanishes, and a look of disbelief replaces it. "Crystallization? How has the Monster King achieved such a legendary level of transmutation?!"
"Huh?" Bael grunts. "Wassat?"
Artorias's eyes widen. Kar's crystalline armor eventually turns transparent as it becomes solid and diamond-like, allowing his enemies to glimpse his reptilian scales underneath.
"Adjusting the earth's elemental bonds to such a level... I thought it wasn't achievable! The amount of control needed to tighten the molecular structure was supposed to be only theoretically possible!"
Kar smiles. He finishes covering his body in diamond armor and flexes his muscles. "Hurgh. It may not be demonstone, but it's the next best thing. Come at me, if you dare."
Artorias jerks his head toward the gawking spectators. "Burners! Harpies! Don't just stand there! Launch everything you've got! Don't hold back!"
His orders, absolute, cause a wave of attacks to fire at Kar once again.
The Sphinx shakes his head. "Using all of my power... it will result in a boring victory... but at least I will protect my pet humans. Hurgh."