The Dota 2 Workshop Tools and the Steam Box

August 8, 2014

There’s been a lot to discuss about the newly released Dota 2 Workshop Tools, ranging from speculation that it’s effectively the launch of Source 2 to its use in the summoning of eldritch horrors, but one thing I haven’t seen brought up is its potential strategic value it offers for the Valve’s Steam Box project.

First, a likely terrible recap on why the Steam Box and SteamOS even exist.  Valve as a company is heavily dependent on the success of Steam, and Steam is in-turn highly dependent on the PC market.  If PC sales suffer a permanent downturn or Microsoft makes Windows a less welcoming platform, Valve’s entire business model is at risk.  A successful Steam Box diversifies Steam’s install base, which leaves Steam less exposed.

But making a successful Steam Box isn’t a simple task, and one of the biggest complications is the Linux-based operating system.  Most games are not going to run natively at the start, and while the SteamOS will support game streaming, it’s hard to see this as anything more than a stopgap solution.  One of Steam’s greatest strengths is convenience, and for casual users the streaming solutions are unlikely to be seen as convenient.

So the SteamOS faces the console paradox: to get popular, the SteamOS needs games, but for game ports to be profitable, the SteamOS needs to be popular.  Traditionally, the most prominent answer to this paradox was the console exclusive.  Super Mario Brothers and the Legend of Zelda not only helped make the original NES a success, but their sequels have played the single largest role in selling new Nintendo consoles for over two decades, the defection of Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy 7 away from the Nintendo 64 to the original Playstation played a huge role in Sony’s takeover of the console market, and Xbox’s eventual challenge to the Playstation was backed by the success of Halo.

Over the years however, the power of the console exclusive has diminished.  For all their influence, games like Super Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda had comparatively tiny staff sizes and development costs compared to modern AAA mammoths.  A company developing games in the NES day could afford to experiment on multiple titles simultaneously because costs were low enough that a handful of successes could make up for the flops.  In comparison, modern AAA development is sclerotic.  There’s too much at stake financially to take risks, so while you might produce safe top sellers, you’re unlikely to ever get the next Mario.  Even then, to get a top seller you need sales, so committing to an exclusive for an unproven platform is insanity compared to simply going multi-platform.

So to take things back to the Workshop Tools, I’d like to point out that Valve doesn’t really make games, and no, I’m not making a Half-Life 3 joke.  Look at the list yourself.  Half-Life and its sequels are original of course, but besides that you have Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, and Day of Defeat, all of which are like Dota 2 and based on mods.  Left 4 Dead is a bit different in that it was acquired from Turtle Rock Studios, but the difference isn’t a huge one.  The original Portal was based on a student game Narbacular Drop, and if you ever played Portal 2 with commentary on you likely have the words “our student game Tag: The Power of Paint” etched permanently in your brain.

Valve’s MO is finding underrated proofs-of-concept and polishing them up so they can compete with AAA offerings, and in light of that the Dota 2 Workshop Tools become all the more interesting.  If these Workshop Tools become popular, and there’s no reason right now to believe that they won’t, it will create a testbed for game concepts.  The best might get picked up by Valve or they might get developed independently.  Either way their start will be on the Source engine which should eventually make it trivial to run them natively in SteamOS.

But the beautiful thing about all this is it potentially takes us back to oldschool game design where creators are free to experiment in a low-investment environment.  From the modders perspective a lot of your immediate hurdles (engine, art, and especially network code) are addressed for you in the short term, and from Valve’s perspective you get results you can evaluate before committing a huge amount of resources.  It’s theoretically a win-win for everyone involved.

And if you think about it, Warcraft 3’s contribution to gaming is more about serving as the genesis for its descendents (Dota, League of Legends, and World of Warcraft, just to name a few) than it is about its own merits.  It could be the case that 10 years down the line Dota might be overshadowed by a game that’s essentially a mod of a mod.  And to their credit, Valve appears to be pretty well positioned to take advantage to that next step in evolution.


TI4 and 6.82 Part 2: Towers, the Pull Camp, and Blink Dagger

July 23, 2014

I talked about TI4 and why I expect it to foreshadow certain changes in 6.82 yesterday.  I prefer not to get too specific on stuff like this, in Dota there’s hundreds of possible ways to influence the game in a certain direction and I have no confidence that I’ll even come close to the one that goes live, but here’s at least some areas of interest that might come up in the patch.

The obvious change for slowing the game down is towers, but I’d expect any tower changes to be modest like a small boost in armor or bounty.  For one, there’s no desire to kill off push lineups entirely, only tilt the balance away from them a tad.  More importantly I think, the top TI4 strategies featured a broader variety of early aggression than just pushing, and  focusing on towers exclusively would leave those other schemes mostly intact.

What I have heard brought up are nerfs to Smoke of Deceit, which I find intriguing if perhaps a bit off the mark.  Support rotations were a big deal at TI4; fy and Fenrir come to mind, but there was also Liquid who upset a lot of teams largely on the production they were getting out of Bulba and waytosexy’s early roaming.  It might not be the case that Smoke of Deceit is too good right now so much as the opportunity cost of a gank attempt is excessively low.

I talk a lot about 6.79 because I believe it to be a game-changing patch, and I think it needs to come up again.  6.79 effectively nerfed support farm by changing the pull camp to a small camp.  It also reduced the XP bounties of many of the neutral spawns and made it possible for offlaners to steal neutral experience by just maintaining a presence in the area.  Supports can do a lot of things during the laning phase, but the two big ones are gank and neutral farm, and with neutral farming significantly weakened, heavy roaming supports won out pretty hard (6.79 also bumped up passive gold gain, further reducing the farm gap between the two styles of support).  And if ganking supports are decisively more productive that would then favor aggressive lineups that could best take advantage of those early ganks.  I recall TI3 having some crazy support item timings, from Alliance in particular, but I don’t remember anything comparable in TI4 that wasn’t largely a part of intense tower pushing.  I suppose there was LGD’s support Alchemist vs DK in their Saturday night matchup, but that’s a completely different case altogether.

I’m not making the case that farming ought to be favored over ganking, but it should be an actual choice and that maybe it’s not much of one right now.  So with that all being said, I could see 6.82 throwing a bone to more farm-intensive support options.  I don’t know that it will be as extreme as something like reversing the pull camp change, but it’s a possible, indirect way to approach 6.81’s over-reliance on aggression.

Finally, there’s Blink Dagger.  I don’t have anything against it, and I can think of other items that would be more annoying when bought in mass quantities (Shadow Blade, Necrobook, Hand of Midas), but 2014 was definitely the year of the Blink Dagger.

You might remember that 6.80 removed the mana cost from Blink Dagger.  In the preceding patch, Blink Dagger had 1667 purchases in 1341 games, for a rate of 1.2 Blink Daggers per game.  Jump ahead to TI4 and we have 625 Blink Daggers in 166 games, a rate of 3.8 per game or more than three times the purchase rate before its buff.  That’s a pretty crazy surge, mitigated some by the fact that it’s a pretty universally useful item, but if you were looking for factors that might have tilted the game towards early aggression you can’t really ignore it.

So yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if Blink takes a bit of a hit.  If it does take one, I’d expect it to be smaller than the size of it’s buff, such as regaining a 15 mana cost down from the original 75.  Of course now that I’ve said it, Blink definitely won’t be nerfed in that way.  It might even evade attention entirely, but it still deserves some consideration in a discussion on what made TI4 as aggressive as it was.


What TI4 Means for 6.82

July 22, 2014

Regardless of the collective opinion towards yesterday’s TI4 Grand Finals, 6.82 is almost certain to be a reaction to TI4 just as 6.79, with its buyback nerfs and sweeping off-lane changes, was a reaction to TI3 .  The task at hand then is to establish what it is that actually happened at TI4.

I’ve read talk that Newbee’s domination of VG displays the weaknesses inherent to VG’s strategy, but my problem with this narrative is that Newbee, VG, and the often overlooked LGD were three variations on the theme of extreme early aggression.  Take a look at datDota’s International Main Event Predictions.  The teams in the top 8 with the three shortest match times are, unsurprisingly, VG, Newbee, and LGD.  This stat might have changed some for LGD at the Main Event, but VG and Newbee’s average game length length remained just above 30 minutes, thanks in part to the seven extremely quick games (average length of ~24m if I recall correctly) they played against each other in the Upper Bracket and Grand Finals.

What you end up with between the three is a sort of strategic continuum.  At one end, LGD was oriented around aggressive laning and forcing early fights with heroes like Centaur Warrunner, Viper, and Invoker.  At the other end you had VG, who was heavily devoted to all-out push lineups with Shadow Shaman, Nature’s Prophet, Venomancer, Leshrac, and Luna showing up over and over again.  Between the two you have Newbee, a team that was capable of playing both variants as the situation demanded.  In all three cases you have hero compositions almost exclusively designed to win before that 30 minute mark, and they just so happen to be the three teams that most over-performed their pre-event expectations.

So what I expect  in 6.82 is another patch built around systems changes designed to slow the pace of the game.  There’s always a balancing act to be had between aggression and investment, but the results of TI4 suggest that the changes in the last year may have cumulatively favored aggression a tad too much.  Of course it’s impossible to say whether Newbee and VG style strats would remain dominant in some alternative reality where 6.82 never comes out, but Dota patches tend to be more about creating a environment of constant uncertainty over allowing the lifespan of a perceived to be dominant strat play out.

I also expect these changes to overshadow hero nerfs to an extent.  Take Shadow Shaman.  Looking at his TI4 stats (3rd most picked, .557 win rate) he looks pretty plainly overpowered.  But with Newbee and VG you have Shadow Shaman showing up over and over in their strats because he provides two forms of CC that can be useful for early fighting while at the same time he also gives you the strongest push for the least investment of any hero in the game.  He ended up the most popular hero for both Newbee and VG with a combined 21-4 (.840) record on the two teams; when played by every other team he was a pretty mediocre 23-31(.426).  So if system changes succeed in slowing the game down, heroes like Shadow Shaman and Brewmaster might not really need much in the way of nerfing.  Lycan and Doom will probably get the Morphling treatment regardless though.


TI4 Articles on Faceless Void/Razor and Upper Bracket Team Profiles[Link]

July 17, 2014

Void in the Off-lane & TI4 Main Event Day1 Preview

The title of the second article is a tad vague, so here’s an example of the team profiles[TI4Profile]EG

And more will be on the way tomorrow for the four lower bracket teams, LGD, iG, Cloud 9, and Na`Vi


TI4: Farm Dependency and the Nature of Carrying [Director's Cut]

July 12, 2014

Aside from the usual archiving, I thought I’d jump on the early access bandwagon and take yesterday’s TI4: Farm Dependency and the Nature of Carrying out of beta, including using this system to analyze some day 4 games.

The 2014 International Group Stage has been, for lack of a better word, perplexing.  Team performances have been volatile, with former favorites looking on the verge of elimination and completely written-off underdogs in competition for the top spots.  It’s safe to say that year represents the least pronounced hierarchy in International history.

At the same time, the current 6.81 patch also represents the fuzziest period of hero balance in Dota 2, and perhaps these two facts are related.  While last years International had a good degree of strategic variance, it was ultimately dominated by 4-protect-1 strats with heavy support jungling (and Wisp/Io).  But changes in 6.79 put an end to that dominance, and now we’re left with a TI4 metagame that has been all over the place.

And this same lack of clearly established hierarchy is also apparent in the heroes themselves.  Surprising many, Razor and Skywrath Mage have emerged as the most picked heroes of the tournament with a pick despite having a negligible presence in the months of 6.81 prior to the tournament.  But for all the attention that they’ve received, neither hero has been dominant thus far.  At the end of the 2nd day, Razor and Skywrath have win rates of 47.6% and 45.5% respectively, which certainly aren’t unreasonably low win rates given such a small sample size, but they’re still a far cry from 2012 when Rubick put up 62.5% over 80 games and Morphling 57.1% over 77 games.

TI2014TopPicks
All Data provided by datDota.com and accurate as of July 10th for TI2014 and July 1st for 6.81

If that history is a bit too ancient for you, we could go back to last year where Chen put up 62.5% over 64 games and an entire list of heroes (Visage, Weaver, Lifestealer, Dark Seer, Bane, Gyrocopter, Naga Siren, and Puck) filled the top 15 picked list with ~55% win rates.  By comparison, so far only 4 of the top 15 picked heroes in the 2014 Group Stage (Enigma, Shadow Shaman, Doom, and Wraith King) have put up a +55% win rate, and all of those are support picks or generalist utility heroes that fit into a wide variety of lineups.  It’s certainly not a new sentiment, but 6.81 is the most wide open hero pool in Dota 2 history.

And as cool as that fact is, the downside is it can make it extremely difficult to figure out what’s going on with hero picks?  Why do some pairings work while others flounder?  Why is a particular hero’s performances so extremely mercurial?  Why is Mirana such a bad carry?  Well, what I’m going to try to accomplish here today is to provide you with a framework that explains the mechanics that govern hero interaction in Dota, and to begin that we need to start with the concept of Farm Dependency.

Farm Dependency and the definition of “Carry”

A while back I came up with an extremely simple statistical test.  I take a ton of high level pub games, and I measure the correlation between a particular hero’s rate of farm and whether they win the game.  With some outside help, I now have a slightly more advanced version that you can read about here, but the general principle is the same.

People will of course complain about correlation != causation, but I feel quite strongly that the correlation here is not spurious.  You can find all kind of stupid correlations if you just rub two random sets of numbers together,  but it’s clearly not the case that farm and winning are unrelated variables I just picked out of a hat.  Every time we open the gold graph in-game we do so under the assumption that gold advantages create wins, and when we encounter major come-from-behind victories,  we measure them by the size of the gold lead that was overcome.  From there it’s an incredibly small step to theorize that certain leads are more or less stable by virtue of the heroes on the right and wrong ends of the deficit.  Here’s an example of what I found from patch 6.80:

FarmDepTiersThe ratings are just a represenation of the strength of correlation and have no particular unit of measurement.

Don’t get caught up in the particular rankings, as there’s a good degree of fluidity from test to test.  Partly this is an issue of sample size, and partly this is just Dota’s wonderfully hazy ambiguity that you eventually come to love.  There are certain factors that I feel might systemically over and underrate certain heroes.  And on top of both of those points there is also the issue of differences between pub and competitive culture.  But aside those concerns, there is a specific consistency in the heroes that populate the tops of these lists: they always have some form of innate right click scaling.

In a pattern that is infinitely repeated throughout all of Dota’s mechanics, there’s a tension between the flat damage potential of nukes and the scaling damage potential of right click.  During the mid game, nuke damage is high relative to HP pools, but you have extremely limited means to amplify it through gold.  As the game progresses and heroes continue to level up, these Nukes have a reduced probability of determining team fights relative to right click pressure.  Unlike Nuke damage, there’s a plethora of itemization items that boost right click damage, and what’s more they do it in an exponential manner because each new right-click stat stick amplifies the effects of the items you already have.  Carries are carries because they have some kind of ability that essentially acts like a free right-click item that gives them a headstart in the race.  The crit on heroes like Juggernaut, Wraith King, and Chaos Knight is like a free mini-Crystalys, Phantom Lancer’s Juxtapose is like a perpetual Manta Style machine, and Anti-Mage’s Mana Burn is like an innate Diffusal Blade, minus the active of course.

Aggressive right click damage also tends to trump defensive builds in the long run, and it’s easy to see why that is.

First, defensive itemization is, likely intentionally, not very optimized.  Most of your big armor items aren’t exclusively personal survivability items, but also come budgeted with a lot of additional utility, such as Assault Cuirass, Shiva’s Guard, Armlet, and Mekansm.  And Vanguard is very explicitly designed not to scale very well into the late game.

Second, long games tend to revolve around 5v5s.  A team that just invested a bunch of defensive items into say a Centaur Warrunner or Necrolyte will just find that the opposing team’s carry can outrace them in eliminating the other 4 members, leaving them isolated and helpless.  This is why when it comes to building defensively as a team, value pickups like Mekansm, Force Staff, and Ghost Scepter tend to be far more important than just big stacks of HP and Armor.

For an actual example of this effect at the International, you can look at the first game of the play-in match between MVP Phoenix and Team Liquid.  MVP Phoenix actually had a sizable gold lead early, but they spent most of it on survivability and utility items like the Mek, Blink, and Shiva’s on Doom, the Vanguard, Pipe, Blademail, and Heart on Bristleback, and the Skadi and Blink on Slark.  In a vacuum none of these are bad choices, particularly the Slark items, but MVP had a true tri-core team with relatively low scaling carries in Bristleback and Slark.  MVP desperately needed one of their three carries to build around personal aggression, probably either the Doom or Bristle, and both an Assault Cuirass and Vlad’s would have potentially been valuable given the three melee carries and for reducing the physical damage of Death Prophet’s ultimate through the armor auras.

For yet another example, try Na`Vi vs Titan.  Once again you have a lineup with a pair of low scaling carries in Viper and Bristleback, and they’re facing a sort of enrage timer in the Radiance Naga.  Na`Vi has a pretty sizable gold advantage as much as thirty minutes in, but that gold advantage is tied up in two Hearts, a Pipe, and an Aghanim’s for Viper.  Again, none of these are indefensible choices in isolation, but in the context of the match conditions, Na`Vi’s lack of some source of straight damage left them incapable of closing the game.

Finally, I’d just like to add that I hate the term “Hard Carry.”  The use of this term tends to revolve around discussions about a scenario involving a 6-slotted 1v1 that is so exceedingly rare as to be virtually non-existent.  There is, of course, a ton of variation within carries, but it’s far more nuanced than we give it credit for.

Furthermore, there’s something implicitly desirable in the standard conception of the hard carry, when extreme farm dependence is just as much a curse as it is a blessing.  Anti-Mage is in some ways the archetype of extreme farm dependence, but the dark side is that if an Anti-Mage player fails to crack 4 creep kills a minute by the end of pub game, they have something like a 25% win rate, which basically comes out to this massive bulge of risk that only Shadow Fiend even remotely approaches in degree.

And when we talk about hard carries, we often fail to distinguish between heroes like Anti-Mage that desperately need to consume more CS than anyone at all stages of the game to stay relevant from heroes that simply want the game to go late.  One potentially interesting example of this is LGD’s use of Spectre in LGD vs Fnatic.  Instead of trying to build a defensive pocket around Spectre, LGD drafts incredibly greedy with Doom, Razor, and Batrider.  The goal here is to create so much noise that Spectre will have the breathing room to find farm in the midgame.  Perhaps it only worked as a response to a Tinker lineup, but it demonstrates how thinking of Spectre as a “hard carry” might limit you conceptually when it comes to thinking about the types of lineups she might work in.

Scaling of a Different Sort: The Semi-Carry

“Semi-Carry” is an incredibly broad term that encompasses a wide array of heroes that probably have no business being grouped together, but I have no better terminology so here we go.  At it’s most basic, it illustrates the face that there exist plenty of heroes that are not carries, that is they do not have meaningful right click scaling, but still warrant a farming role.  Like I emphasized earlier, Dota is built around a tension between inert lumps of raw power and stronger yet speculative promises of limitless future potential.  Scaling doesn’t always win, because sometimes that inert lump robs you of your future.  What we’re seeing at TI4 is that the changes that nerfed the dominance of the defensive trilane has opened the door for strategies built primarily around semi-carries to take an increased role in the meta.

[Portrait]Silencer
One recent example, though not from the International, was Alliance’s Aghs-Refresher Silencer at DreamLeagueSilencer does have a form of right click scaling in his Glaives, but it’s one that has never proven to be potent enough to run with the actual carries.  Maybe that’s changed some since his Agi buff, but regardless, Aghs->Refresher is not a carry build.  Instead, it invests a ton of gold into putting this big lump of global damage and silence into play.  If Silencer successfully gets to that point (which can be more difficult said then done) and you can’t survive through the brutal teamfights, then it doesn’t matter how much scaling his team has given up by investing in him instead of an actual carry.

[Portrait]Necrolyte
Another, less investment intensive example is Necrolyte.  Let me answer a million stupid pug arguments by saying that Necrolyte is definitively not a carry, and yet the most successful pub hero in 6.81 still deserves a farming role.  For an illustration from TI of how this works, we have Necrolyte’s only appearance of the tournament as a safelane farmer in EG vs Fnatic.  EG recognizes that a Necrolyte/Dragon Knight/Tidehunter is not a monster late-game trio, but they have no intention of letting this go late.  Necrolyte’s Death Pulse both makes for incredibly sustained pushes, with Dragon Knight’s ult and Eidolons providing the bulk of the tower damage, and also amplifies an already monstrously bulky team given Dragon Knight and Tidehunter’s defensive passives, Enigma’s early Mek, and Abaddon for shielding and additional Mist Coil healing.  Oh, and you’ll be teamfighting into Black Hole and Ravage.  Necrolyte is, at best, a situational pickup, but he works perfectly here as the centerpiece for a low investment, extremely tanky push comp.

[Portrait]Tinker
I alluded 6.79’s demise of the 4-protect-1 dominance earlier, and the biggest beneficiary of this shift is the high-investment semi-carry, or at least, high-investment semi-carries not named Storm Spirit.  And I begrudgingly have to admit that this shift has made Tinker a significantly more viable option.  I disagree with the people who consider him overpowered, he’s still extremely vulnerable to early disruption and any spectacular game can immediately be followed by disaster, but he does pretty well provided you can manage to  slip him into a draft without him getting banned or countered.

Ironically, my favorite Tinker draft of TI2014 so far comes from Team Liquid.  It’s ironic because my least favorite Tinker draft of 2013 was also Team Liquid.  But then again, if you had told me before the tournament that the most productive roaming support duo was going to be Bulba and waytosexy, I would have just assumed you had arrived in Seattle early and needed to kill some time.  In summary, Team Liquid is a land of many contrasts.

Anyway, the challenge to a Tinker draft is three-fold.  One, he needs to have space created where he can farm to get online.  Two, he needs a team around him that can accomplish things without him for long stretches at a time.  Three, that team needs to do this in a low farm environment while March of the Machines gobbles up entire lanes.  Good Tinker players will be mindful to try to not starve their team too much, but you’ll still be eating table scraps.

In Liquid vs Newbee, Liquid runs a well-tailored draft around all of these pressures.  Tinker’s complementary cores are Ursa and Brewmaster, both extremely low maintenance heroes both in terms of lane protection and farm needed.  This allows Liquid’s Wraith King and Skywrath duo to spend more of the early game running interference for Tinker at mid.  Meanwhile, Wraith King and Ursa put Ursa into play extremely early, which again, buys time for Tinker.  Finally, Liquid’s draft is perfect for dragging out fights with Reincarnate and Primal Split.  This gives Tinker ample time to teleport in and set up multiple Rearm combos.  It’s the kind of conceptually sound draft that you can’t just put together by looking up hero synergies on Dotabuff.

Two heroes that you might have found conspicuously missing from my earlier carry list are Ember Spirit and Naga Siren, so let me take some time to address them.

[Portrait]NagaNaga Siren never shows up very high on my farm dependency lists.  Perhaps this is because she gets played as support a lot; I can’t reliably differentiate between support Naga Siren and disastrous carry Naga Siren from an endgame stat sheet.  What I find though is that Naga Siren is relatively inefficient at turning massive amounts of farm into wins.  She shares this feature with Tinker and Nature’s Prophet, two other heroes who have the potential to farm in such a way that they starve the rest of their team out of gold.  So maybe the system underrates poor Naga because of the careless people playing here.

But I’m increasingly of the opinion that Naga Siren operates differently from the traditional carry.  Phantom Lancer in his prime also never scored that high in terms of farm dependency and people found this outrageous, but in a lot of cases, Phantom Lancer wins games through avoiding fights and creating tower attrition.  It’s quite possible that as a strategy this is much less farm dependent than winning a 5v5 and more of a Boolean check on whether the opposing team has the proper tools and disposition to exterminate rats.  My theory is that, in a vacuum, core Naga functions under a similar dynamic.  In the Na`Vi vs Titan game I mentioned earlier, Viper and Bristleback simply did not have the tools to deal with Naga in the lategame and they didn’t push early enough to avoid having to deal with the late-game.

But Naga isn’t especially popular right now, so let’s talk about Ember Spirit.

[Portrait]EmberEmber Spirit is the poster boy for not-a-carry acceptance, because being successful with the hero is absolutely dependent upon realizing that he should not be played as a carry.  Carries, as I’ve defined it, are heroes that have some form of innate right click scaling.  Ember Spirit only has Sleight of Fist, and Sleight operates extremely differently.  For starters, it provides no tower pushing or Roshan, which is a liability for any team foolishly running Ember Spirit as their only ‘carry.’

Possibly more importantly, consider what Sleight of Fist is.  It’s an incredibly ranged AoE attack on an eventual 6 second cooldown.  That cooldown is important because on of the things that right click damage scales with is attack speed, and not only does Sleight not benefit from attack speed at all, it also effectively sets Ember to only having one attack every 5 seconds, plus whatever other autoattacks you can weave between if the situation allows.  In terms of late-game damage potential, Sleight is garbage compared to any actual carry’s right click.

And this is fine because Sleight of Fist is a red herring and Ember’s real value lies in his crazy mid-game dives and damage.  Pair him with a standard carry in your safe lane and your team composition no longer cares about Ember’s weaknesses.

[Portrait]PugnaBut another interesting option that has made an appearance at TI4 is to simply force the enemy into a base siege at the height of Ember’s power curve, and this relies on another semi-carry in the form of Pugna.  One of the weaknesses of most semi-carries relative to standard carries is the lack of objective control.  Tinker, for example, is often seen as a pusher, but his actual building damage is anemic at best.  Pugna, however, is a little wrecking ball whose push lineups are perfect for forcing teams to make the decision between 5v5ing on your terms or not having a Barracks.

iG vs EG is a great example of this kind of Pugna push comp designed to force you into a very painful teamfight.  Pugna’s building assault creates an early push opportunity.  If you attempt to passively defend you’re dealing with the siege potential of Sleight of Fist and Elder Titan’s Astral Spirit.  If you charge, you face Doom and his ult Doom and the combo of Searing Chains into Skywrath’s Mystic Flare, all while in the range of Pugna’s ward and Elder Titan’s Natural Order.  It’s a brutal setup, and if it seems familiar it’s because DK ran the same Ember/Pugna/Elder Titan trio in the finals at StarSeries.  Good on iG for taking notes.

Shaping the Space Between “Carry” and “Support”

Since Semi-carry is a huge and impossibly vague label, I’d like to propose a few poorly-named sub-categories to make it easier to think about what’s going on.

Hard Semi-Carries: These heroes behave very similarly to standard carries, just with a greater emphasis on momentum over gold.  Examples: Ember Spirit, Tinker, Naga Siren, arguably Outworld Devourer and Storm Spirit

High Investment Utility Semi-Carries: These heroes don’t need as much momentum to fill their role, but they do require favorable laning conditions.  Examples: Pugna, Necrolyte, Silencer, Invoker, Kunkka.  Queen of Pain and Zeus might be halfway between this category and Hard Semi-Carries.  Puck might be halfway between this and the next category of…

Low Investment Utility Semi-Carries: These heroes neither need momentum nor a favorable lane.  A big part of their value is how capable they are of thriving anywhere.  Examples: Brewmaster, Dark Seer, Clockwerk, Batrider, Bounty Hunter, Tidehunter, Elder Titan, Centaur Warrunner, Nyx Assassin when run as a core.

Pseudo-Carry Semi-Carries: These guys look a lot like carries in that they tend to emphasize right clicks, but they either have weak or very situational scaling.  They make up for this by providing other valuable, and perform best in multi-core lineups.  You could alternatively think of them as Low Investment Utility Carries.  Examples: Nature’s Prophet, Mirana, Razor, Bristleback

Applying the Theory to Analyzing Actual Matches

The basic rule of thumb is that there is an investment hierarchy in hero roles.  At the top of the hierarchy are the Hard Semi-Carries and the most farm dependent Carries.  Below them are the mid to high farm dependent Carries, then the High Investment Utility Semi-Carries and the Pseudo-Carries, then the Low Investment Utility Semi-Carries, and finally the supports.

When laning, teams will tend to give their safest and most lucrative lanes to heroes at the top of the hierarchy, and conversely, opposing teams will more often lane aggressively with aggressive trilanes or duo mids or gank heavily against heroes at the top of the hierarchy.  When it comes to a team’s preferred win condition/ideal window of opportunity, heroes at the top of the hierarchy will exert the most influence.

So let’s apply this all to some day 4 matches

Arrow vs Empire

Arrow: Meepo, Axe, Mirana, Sand King, Dazzle

Empire: Lycan, Dragon Knight, Batrider, Vengeful Spirit, Bane

The lone Meepo game of the tournament, Arrow runs a variant of the 4-protect-1 around the hero.  Empire goes with a 2-core lineup with a heavy emphasis on pushing, and Batrider along as the primary initiator.  Arrow’s primary goals in the laning stage is to use an aggressive trilane built around Axe to jam Lycan’s progression long enough for Meepo to find the level advantage needed to suffocate Empire.  Empire wants to avoid fighting Axe head-on, and instead pressure Meepo in mid, hopefully getting kills that will both delay Meepo’s level progression and let Dragon Knight start pushing towers to buy Lycan the space to recover from Axe.

The precise details of these games are sketchy at best for me as I was trying to watch all four at once, but from what I recall, Empire was more successful ganking Meepo than Axe was at killing Lycan.  Dragon Knight and Lycan quickly pulled ahead in net worth off of that, and Arrow had little to no chance to stage a comeback without Meepo having a huge level advantage.

One possible variant for this game would be for Arrow to shift Meepo over to the safe lane to make him less vulnerable to support rotations, but the downside to this is a 1v1 vs Batrider.  Rock and a hard place, really.

Newbee vs Na`Vi

Newbee: Faceless Void, Timbersaw, Batrider, Shadow Shaman, Ancient Apparition

Na`Vi: Ember Spirit, Razor, Tidehunter, Enigma, Vengeful Spirit

Na`Vi with the Ember Spirit-Razor combo desperately needs to end the game early.  Newbee has scaling on their side, with the caveat that Newbee is basically all-in on Chronosphere.  Void’s scaling outside of Chronosphere isn’t amazing, and Timbersaw and Ancient Apparition are largely included for the wombo-combo potential with Chrono.

Na`Vi, having learned from their struggles winning with Ember earlier in the year, go all-out push largely through Eidolons and Vengeance Aura, with Black Hole and Ravage there to tilt the inevitable tower teamfights in their favor.  Newbee puts up a fight, but their Chronosphere coordination is off, and Na`Vi successfully takes their first set of barracks at around the 20 minute mark.  Things collapse for Newbee from there.  Good example of Na`Vi understanding quite well the expiration date on their team comp.

Alliance vs Na`Vi

Alliance: Storm Spirit, Naga Siren, Batrider, Skywrath Mage, Rubick

Na`Vi: Shadow Fiend, Razor, Tidehunter, Enigma, Vengeful Spirit

What we have here is two extremely different push strats colliding.  Na`Vi goes for an almost identical lineup to their previous game, only replacing Ember Spirit with Shadow Fiend.  They again want to push early as five and force Alliance to fight into their teamfight.  Alliance, on the other hand, wants to avoid any kind of a straight-up fight entirely.  Naga will use Radiance split push, provided she can pick one up in time, and Storm Spirit can use his mobility to keep lanes pushed out, slowly chipping away at towers while frustrating Na`Vi’s push attempts.  Meanwhile, it’s a very lonely game for Alliance’s supports.

Alliance puts Loda in mid on Naga while putting S4’s Storm Spirit in the safe lane.  This reflects that they want to guarantee that Storm Spirit has a strong early game because he can buy time for Naga to farm the rest of her Radiance, whereas she might not be able to control the midgame if Storm Spirit gets shut down.

Alliance succeeds in getting both on a timely Radiance and avoiding too much direct conflict.  Razor spends what must be the most frustrating game of his life trying to maintain a Static Link in the face of three Force Staffs.  It’s exceedingly appropriate that this ends in a base race.

DK vs EG

DK: Ursa, Nature’s Prophet, Brewmaster, Juggernaut, Lion

EG: Tinker, Faceless Void, Beastmaster, Mirana, Bane

Tinker warps every game around him.  Knowing from the start of the draft that they’d be facing Tinker, DK goes for a very low investment early game oriented tricore built loosely around  Ursa.  Prophet’s Treants allow them to 5-man push early, with Brewmaster’s ultimate providing the teamfight support.  Juggernaut is picked so that Healing Ward can help maintain pushes and help mitigate Missile spam.  Rather than invest heavily in ganking the Tinker, they hope to force him to respond to their pushes so often that he can’t create the farm separation he needs to take over the game.

EG has some laning aggression in the Bane/Mirana support combo, but there is a concern that their teamfight has many forms of ultimate based CC without a lot of damage to take advantage of it.  EG also has Beastmaster for Tinker airdrops, but like so much else in this comp it is absolutely dependent on Tinker finding the farm to become a threat.

Long story short, Tinker for a variety of reasons ends up struggling to find farm, and things collapse for EG.

This game is an example of one easy-to-make mistake in the TI4 meta:  devoting too much of your draft to utility without the damage to take advantage of said utility.  Another example of this is [b]the pairing of Brewmaster and Batrider[/b].  Both heroes are initiation specialists thanks to their ults, but put them together you have too much initiation (and not especially complementary initiation) and no one available to take advantage of it.  In all of 6.81, Batrider has a 53.4% win rate and Brewmaster is at 49.2%.  Combined, they’re 32.1%, including an 1-3 showing at the International so far.

And finally a bit about supports!

This is a very core focused article, because cores usually exert more pressure on team with supports often being complementary to your cores.  There are exceptions like Wisp, but in general your support picks do not define your team.  But one interesting wrinkle is that some supports are actual carries that were buffed to such a high base potential that they’re capable of functioning in both roles, and even capable of transitioning between them midgame.

The “classic” example of this is Alchemist.  People realized that Unstable Concoction was extremely good, and suddenly, support Alchemist became a thing.  But one extra benefit to this is that Alchemist still had right click scaling, and a unique sort of scaling in the form of Greevil’s Greed.  The downside to running Alchemist as a carry is that he would often find so much farm that he would 6-slot extremely early in the game and then run out of progression.  In the farm dependency graphs mentioned in the PDF I linked earlier, Alchemist was unique in that he looked like a typical carry until the 45 minute mark, at which point he would fall off relative to other carries.  But from a support position, Greed offers Alchemist the potential to catch-up in farm during passive midgames and essentially become a 4th core.

And following in this tradition we have Wraith King.  Over the past year he saw large buffs to both his ultimate, giving hima much stronger slow upon its activation, and his Lifesteal Aura which now works for ranged heroes.  Combined with his stun, he now provides enough utility to be viable as a support.

At the same time, he still has all the features that made him a capable, if not spectacular carry.  He didn’t work at all in a 4-protect-1 framework, but as a support that can farm abandoned lanes with relative impunity thanks to Reincarnate and teleport reactions, Wraith King gives you the potential to do all those support duties while also offering you an extra Mjollnir or an Assault Cuirass carrier for any game that goes late.

Faceless Void in this tournament is a similar story.  Void has received, among other things, baseline buffs to the availability of Chronosphere and Time Walk.  These changes allow him to function in the offlane role, whereas before he would have never found the farm there that he would need to be relevant at a lower baseline level of power.

These examples also touch upon an idea that Kupon3ss calls Dynamic Farm Allocation.  During the laning phase, Faceless Void and Wraith King can fill the 3 and 4 roles well enough, but by having them on your team, you have the option to shift their farm priority up as the laning phase ends.  This might provide you a bigger bang for your buck than say, getting another item for your Razor or Clockwerk.

The Symphony of Yin and Yang

Team synergy in high level Dota revolves around eternally searching for a perfect balance between two forces.  Between the scaling potential of a carry and the strong early and mid game that ensures that you will be able to secure that potential.  Between the reliable but predictable power of right clicks and the overwhelming yet elusive potential of a carry-less lineup.  Between the initiator and the one who capitalizes on the initiation.  A good draft finds a complementary balance between the forces, and a good team has enough draft concepts available so that the opposing drafter cannot anticipate and eliminate your source of balance (by, say, finally realizing you should just immediately ban Nature’s Prophet and Io every single game).

The art of drafting is in some ways similar to musical composition.  First you learn your scales, and come to perceive the basic chord patterns that follow from the understanding of the scale.  Like 4-protect-1, slight variations of I-IV-V can make for you a relatively successful career, at least for a while.

Eventually you feel a force compelling you to push beyond your basic fundamentals, whether it be integrity, market forces, or a new set of patch notes.  You find new things that break your old rules by integrating different modes, or a sus chord that shouldn’t ‘belong’ in a song but yet works.  You find that in the multitude of permutations between notes, your old ruleset was adept at finding good-sounding combinations, but it was leaving you deaf to an untold number of beautiful progressions simply because they failed to conform to your beliefs of how music was supposed to work.

So you seek a more expansive logic, because there still is am underlying logic there that in some way resembles your limited initial understanding.  And armed with this logic you are now capable of compositions that you never would have imagined possible.

The source of the drive for musical evolution may be unknown to us, but in Dota it is much more simple.  To be able to create a working draft out of the unknown gives you a competitive edge.  This edge won’t last forever, as teams can and will copy you or simply ban a particular hero out, but like support Naga last year, that evolutionary edge can be enough to win you a tournament like the International.


TI4: Farm Dependency and the Nature of Carrying[Link]

July 11, 2014

You know the drill.


New MMR Experiment and the Life of the Solo Queue Support

June 26, 2014

A few months ago I mentioned Juice’s MMR experiment where he took a 2900 rated Dota 2 account to 5400 in under 150 games at an 85% win rate.  Now we have another, similar MMR experiment from reddit user kyuronite, that deserves mentioning for a couple reasons.

First, he wrote a description of every game with absurd detail, keeping track of the hero and role he played, the game conditions, his KDA, and a lot of other stuff.  This allows you to see his average KDA decay from over 15:1 in the 2250-2750 range down to a 6:1 at 4250-4500.

But what also makes this experiment noteworthy is that it was mostly done in Captain’s Mode and Captain’s Draft, with the experimenter only taking captain when no one will step up.  This resulted in the experimenter playing support nearly half of the time despite him believing “that [he is] better as a core or carry than a support.”

What support skeptics might point out at this is that he had the lowest win rate as a support at 74% compared to 88.5% for mid.  This on its own is fine.  No one said raising your MMR through support would necessarily be as fast as doing it through mid, just that it’s possible, and this project ought to show that boosting MMR while supporting is certainly possible.  But with that said, let’s consider the attenuating circumstances.

First, the player admits that they are weaker at support than the other role.  Second, they didn’t formally record the win rate of each role in each bracket.  If he played a larger proportion of his support games in the higher brackets, that would lower his support win rate relative to the other roles.  I don’t know whether this is the case.  It’s totally possible to go back and manually calculate it, but I don’t care to.  I just want to remind that in general this effect is important to take into consideration.  Third, these games were played in the two draft modes where captains were at least attempting to create well-formed teams.  This is going to diminish the value of a support relative to All Pick where the mere presence of any support can be the difference between having and not having any lane control, early ganking potential, or even any sort of CC.  That doesn’t mean that you should always instantly pick a support in All Pick, just that there’s value of being able to bust out a complementary pick to whatever dumb lineup the rest of your team locks.  This admittedly can be difficult when people won’t pick before gold loss.

One of the biggest differences between, say, a 3200 and a 4200 player is mere farming ability.  Playing a support admittedly makes it more difficult to exploit this advantage, so if you’re a 4200 player playing at 3200, mid or carry will likely gain you MMR more quickly.  However, if you’re 3200 rated, and you’ve been 3200 rated for a while, then you’re probably farming like a 3200 player and that inherent advantage of playing a farming hero over a support doesn’t exist.  You can improve your economy game to play a better as carry and mid, or you can improve your early game aggression to perform better as a support or offlaner.  Either are viable options, and you’ll be best off being willing to practice both as team compositions allow.


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