“I challenge somebody to decode the strategy of this game.” – TobiWan (http://youtu.be/Ohj26fppwm0?t=33m10s)
In game 3 of the Grand Finals of the Defense, NaVi blew a lot of people’s minds with a set of completely off the wall hero picks. But these selections were not the random inputs of a madman; they all fit a very specific strategic purpose. First, let’s look at the team composition:
(Courtesy of datDota where you can find the full stat breakdown of the match)
The picks only tell half the story. NaVi ran Venomancer as the farmer in the safe lane with roaming Alchemist support, they had Mirana jungling ancients at level 1, and they had Ursa in the jungling everywhere else. These lanes might sound crazy, but NaVi had a very specific goal and these lanes provided them with what they needed to achieve it.
Let’s start with the Zeus pick. Zeus isn’t a popular pickup, but he specializes in putting out a lot of damage during the midgame when HP pools are still relatively low and BKBs haven’t been built. To get the most out of the Zeus pick, the rest of NaVi’s lineup is designed to spike in power around the same time frame as Zeus and the most apparent example is NaVi’s use of the farming Venomancer. Of course Alchemist gets more out of gold than Venomancer, but the goal of the lane wasn’t gold; it was levels. Once Zeus and Venomancer both hit 6 (and eventually 11), Kaipi has to deal with a tremendous amount of damage in a very large area of effect. This puts them at a big disadvantage in early teamfights until they have the items and levels to mitigate the impact of NaVi’s ultimates.
The rest of NaVi’s picks fill a similar theme. Mirana wasn’t going to get rich off of ancients, but she got enough, and once the enemy Bane and Keeper of the Light were spotted on the opposite side of the map it was completely safe to use the offlane for solo exp. Similarly, Ursa also wasn’t going to get rich jungling, but he would find levels and levels are all that he really needs. Ursa is the biggest right click threat in low gold environments, making him the perfect fit for this comp.
Kaipi was now presented with a problem: how do you lane against an enemy that doesn’t really have lanes? 3/5 of NaVi’s lineup is never visible on the minimap. You can go hunt them down, but if you’re not successful your supports will be underleveled by the time the Zeus/Veno combo comes online. Kaipi makes the decision to pressure Venomancer instead. They get first blood off this, so it doesn’t go badly for them. But they don’t get too much more out of it, and in the meanwhile Zeus, Mirana, and Ursa are all farming unopposed.
Once NaVi’s four cores all hit level 6, things really start to fall apart for Kaipi. When they try to farm, Mirana is free to go into full guerrilla fighter mode by using her ult and arrows to set up kills all over the map. If they try to teamfight they’re going headfirst into Zeus and Veno ults with underleveled supports. Meanwhile Ursa is somewhere, which means that someone on Kaipi’s side has to periodically check Roshan and fall even more behind in levels. This paranoia was aided by KuroKy calling out Roshan’s name in public chat throughout the match.
Immediately after Venomancer completes his Mekansm, NaVi attempts to sneak a Roshan. Ursa gets caught, but Venomancer and Mirana clean up the teamfight and an Ursa buyback lands them the Aegis. At this point NaVi commits to push as five. If Kaipi respects them, Mirana is free to go arrow fishing. If QoP or Clockwerk jump in, they’ll get blown up by NaVi’s nukes + Ursa. If they fight as 5, they’re going headfirst into over 1100 points of AoE damage from Zeus and Veno alone. And none of this even touches on the hero specific counters NaVi has available like using Mirana’s Sacred Arrow to punish Cogs attempts, Ursa’s ability to tear through Lone Druid’s bear, and the myriad of options they had to interrupt Fiend’s Grip.
Essentially, NaVi put on a clinic for how to win solely through a level advantage, but they were also exploiting holes in Kaipi’s draft. Lone Druid works best as a complementary carry to another right click threat, and their lineup featured a lot of gank setup in Entangle, Nightmare/Fiend’s Grip, and Hookshot+Cogs but lacked the damage to capitalize off of it. Keeper of the Light is also a questionable first pick at this point and struggled when forced into roaming support mode. Had Kaipi had a second, BKB-sporting carry (from the few remaining that NaVi didn’t ban out), they might have been able to outfarm NaVi’s lineup while played defensively on their half of the map. That being said, NaVi likely expected Kaipi to pick a standard mid in response to their Zeus pick, fully locking Kaipi in to their vulnerable lineup.
Now NaVi probably could have exploited Kaipi’s draft in a more straightforward fashion, so why take a risk with such an unorthodox strat?
First, it’s not as risky as it seems because Kaipi didn’t know what to expect, and really, who can blame them? Second, SyndereN made the excellent point that losing a match like that sticks in the back of your head, and it’s not something you want hanging over you as you face elimination in the following match. Finally, with TI3 coming up, it sends a message to all the other teams that NaVi is capable of pulling out some crazy strats, and that will give opposing drafters an extra concern when choosing their selections.
As an aside, it’s also been pointed out to me that the game in question was played on the US East server. Could the decision to run a risky draft been influenced by the server location? Possibly. NaVi’s selections do look relatively resilient to latency issues, so the theory is at least plausible.