Originally posted on Team Liquid (Gfx: riptide, Heyoka // Editors: Firebolt145, riptide).
With The International prelims concluded and the main event almost upon us, we thought it’d be a good time to break down the strategies of the eight teams in the upper bracket by analyzing their draft strategies. But before we do this, we first need to examine the idea of the tri-core strategy and how it’s influencing the entire shape of the draft for this year’s games.
The idea behind the tri-core is simple. You have three lanes; you put heroes with strong damage scaling in all three lanes. The hope here is that you can find enough farm for all three heroes and end up with a diversified midgame assault that is very difficult for the enemy to shut down with crowd control effects.
In a lot of environments this would prove difficult, but there are certain factors that make tri-core viable right now. For instance, aggressive tri-lanes can give your team an extra 1v1 lane. You also have bottom feeder carries like Nature’s Prophet who specialize in being able to squeeze some farm out of almost any laning scenario. Finally, you can even just send a solo hero like Weaver to your hard lane if you suspect the opposing lineup will have a difficult time killing them. That Weaver might not have the greatest of farm early, but rotations from your mid and supports could theoretically buy them the time and space they need to catch up during the midgame.
The shift towards tricore lineups has had a huge effect on this The International, and nowhere is this clearer than in the overall hero trends.
Weaver is the poster child of this trend as he both enables it by being evasive and relatively easy to lane for a carry, while also benefitting from an environment that encourages the small, early skirmishes that he thrives in. Dragon Knight, Lifestealer, and Alchemist are the popular melee carries in this environment because they demand less babysitting and come online more quickly than carries like Anti-Mage, Faceless Void, and Spectre. Outworld Devourer and Razor are two sides in an arms race in the world of who can be the most annoying mid, with Razor seeing much of his work as a perceived counter to the often frustrating OD. Timbersaw represents an unusual semi-carry option, similar in some ways to Storm Spirit, but with a significantly higher degree of laning safety due to Reactive Armor. Bane, Beastmaster, and Naga Siren are highly valued as sources of BKB-piercing crowd control. Finally you have Visage, who in addition to being a strong all-around support also specializes in winning tri-lane vs tri-lane matchups.
Every team is well aware of these shifts. Some have outright embraced it, others have strived to resist it, and a few have had their feet in both camps. Now with that out of the way, let’s look at the top eight starting with the two frontrunners, Alliance and Na`Vi.
Alliance (14-0, Group B) has a drafting style that hasn’t changed much over the months. They developed their own brand of tri-core lineups relatively early in the year, and they specialize in specializing in so many heroes that you have to allow something to slip through the opening ban phase. Their drafting priorities have been relatively straight-forward, which is to be expected from a team that can essentially dictate how the draft will play out.
Alliance started the prelims by grabbing Naga Siren for a support in every game and then proceeded to show off some excellent Song of the Siren coordination. A few teams started banning her, and then the party began.
Alliance’s offlane player AdmiralBulldog has been criticized for some for having a shallow hero pool, but that’s not much of a problem when heroes like Naga Siren are absorbing initial bans. If you ban Wisp and Naga, Alliance will pick up either Nature’s Prophet or Lone Druid. On top of that, Bulldog can also play Batrider. Alliance will almost always grab that hero when available as they value it quite highly and can run it either mid or offlane. That being said, he’s not often available because Batrider is second only to Lifestealer on the list of heroes that Alliance targets with their opening bans.
The result of all of this is that Alliance is responsible for nearly a third of the Wisp games in the entire prelims, and unlike some other teams, they were ready to demonstrate familiarity with the hero. They were the only team in the prelims to win with the Chaos Knight+Wisp pairing (it went 0-4 in all other games) but were more than willing to use Wisp in conjunction with Alchemist, Gyrocopter, and Ursa. Ursa+Wisp is a particularly dire scenario for the opposing team due to how it enables the Roshan shenanigans that Alliance love to pull.
Finally, if Alliance goes off-script during the opening draft, expect it to be for a reason. They only played a single game with Shadow Demon this entire tournament, and their opening pick appears to have been set up a Mirana aggressive tri-lane built around the Disruption->Arrow combo. Early support drafts (outside of Akke’s Chen) are rare from Alliance, so the times they picked up Rubick and Visage in their opening picks lead to 4-protect-1 strats centered around Phantom Lancer and Spectre.
I haven’t talked much about their mid selections, as they rarely draft a mid other than Batrider with their opening picks. Their two favorite pickups are Puck and Timbersaw, two extremely mobile semi-carries that fit in well to their preferred style of early tri-core skirmishing. They also ran Kunkka of all heroes as an Outworld Devourer counterpick. Other heroes they’ve leaned on this tournament are Crystal Maiden and Venomancer supports with 3 games each, and Bounty Hunter as an offlane option when Prophet and Lone Druid are both denied to them.
One last thing of note is that Alliance strongly prefers playing Dire. 11 out of 14 of their matches were Dire side. The only other top 8 teams with a similar apparent preference are DK and LGD.cn.
Na`Vi(11-3, Group A) is similar to Alliance in that their drafts feel very structured. Perhaps this is the benefit of drafting from a position of strength, but more than that I believe it to be a reflection of the the mindset that drives their particular styles of drafting. Where the two teams differ is that Na`Vi rarely goes for a full tri-core lineup, preferring instead to grab at least one utility semi-carry per draft for teamfight or initiation potential.
This predilection is reflected in the fact that the only carry they reach for in their draft openings is Weaver with 6 selections, but their top pick is Dark Seer with 7. In fact, in every game that Dark Seer wasn’t banned or taken by the other team, Na`Vi drafted him in their opening selections. They showed a similar emphasis on Lifestealer, but 10 out of 14 games featured a first round Lifestealer ban.
On the topic of hate bans, Na`Vi also does not allow their opponents to get Batrider, targeting him with opening bans in 10 out of 14 games. He was banned by the other team in 3 out of 14 and selected with Na`Vi’s first pick in the remaining game. Na`Vi also has the record for receiving the most targeted Wisp bans at 13.
Razor is an interesting hero for Na`Vi, as they almost always draft him as an immediate counterpick to any Outworld Devourer selections. When teams expect this and block the Razor pick, Na`Vi have even resorted to giving Lone Druid to Dendi. Na`Vi doesn’t especially mind facing OD only banning him in 2 out of 14 games, but they refuse to give him a favorable mid matchup.
One last peculiarity of Na`Vi’s drafts is that they have been hesitant to grab their signature Chen in their opening picks. The only early selection of Chen was to hide their Mirana/Pudge strat in game two of their series against LGD.cn (which you should absolutely watch now if you have not). This game is particular interest, since Na`Vi had already clinched first seed in their division. Instead of hiding strats, they wanted opposing drafters to remember that Pudge exists.
I haven’t talked about supports, but Na`Vi do have some preferred options here in Rubick and Visage at 4 games apiece. More noteworthy than that though is Earthshaker. Na`Vi is responsible for 5 out of 12 of the Earthshaker picks and is undefeated on the hero.
And as for clear side selection preferences, Na`Vi is the mirror image of Alliance, playing 12 out of their 14 games on the Radiant side.
DK(10-4, Group A) has been by far the most consistent Chinese team of the tournament. Unfortunately for them, the road to the championship will most likely go through both Na`Vi and Alliance, two teams that they have struggled against. Na`Vi was the only team to sweep DK in the prelims.
DK draft openers are a bit of an anomaly when it comes to Eastern teams in the upper bracket. 22 out of 28 of their opening selections were cores, which is second only to Fnatic’s 23 out of 28. Of Particular note here are Lifestealer with 6 selections, Dragon Knight with 5, and Alchemist with 4. If either Lifestealer or Alchemist are available, DK will jump on them.
This is also reflected in the opening bans with Lifestealer receiving 7 first round bans and Alchemist receiving 10. However, 9 out of 10 Alchemist bans were targeted at DK and conversely 6 out of 7 Lifestealer bans were targeted by DK. DK here joins Alliance, Na`Vi, and LGD.cn on the list of teams spending 6 or more first round bans on Lifestealer. Only Wisp was the recipient of more DK bans.
Outworld Devourer was another big opening ban recipient with 9 total, but I feel these may have been misplaced. DK actually struggled with the hero, going 0-2 while pairing him with Timbersaw in both games. In my opinion, DK has looked at their weakest in games with OD.
DK is yet another team that unsurprisingly values Batrider, going 3-0 with him in the prelims. They also have the most Nyx Assassin games of any team in the entire tournament. But let’s take a moment here to talk about Chen.
DK is 3-0 with Chen, but this is really just part of a broader trend. The top 8 teams combined are a collective 24-4(.857) with the hero, with only Orange having a losing record at 0-1. I’m not going to continue mentioning him in every teams’ writeup, but expect Chen to play a big part in the upper bracket playoffs.
One last point of note about DK is that they’re not without their own pocket strats. DK played Lone Druid in only a single game in the tournament, but when they did they grabbed him with a first round selection, which is a combination that should set off alarms in any drafters’ head. This lead to a very well executed Pugna push strat in game two of their series vs Fnatic. DK is the only team to select Pugna in the tournament, but don’t be surprised if Pugna pocket strats show up in the playoffs.
Fnatic(9-5, Group A) has a very straightforward drafting strategy: grab all the carries. This is most obvious when it comes to Weaver. Fnatic played the little bug 12 times in 14 games, which is a record for the most hero picks by a single team. And remember that Chen stat I mentioned a little while ago? Well, the eight upper bracket teams are a combined 27-9(.750) with the hero, so don’t expect him to Shukuchi away just yet.
Besides Weaver, Fnatic has also played Dragon Knight 7 times, Outworld Devourer 4 times, and Lifestealer 3 times. Those four heroes account for just under 40% of Fnatic’s total selections, so you can basically expect to see at least two of them in any particular game. They’re also willing to mix in more unconventional carries like Viper, who is seeing some use as a potential Outworld Devourer and Treant Protector counter, and Morphling who they paired with Wisp the one time they were allowed to pick Wisp.
As far as supports go, the most notable trend is a love for Vengeful Spirit. The only team that used her more than Fnatic was Virtus.Pro.
Moving on to LGD.cn(8-6, Group A), I’m going to look at them separately. In part this is because I feel that they’re more solid than the trio of 8-6 teams in Group B, but it’s also because LGD.cn is unique in that they appear to think this is still 2012. They believe in AoE teamfight and ult stacking and they do not tolerate these tri-core interlopers.
I made up a little test where I define a certain set of heroes as likely cores. Throughout the prelims, Alliance used the most cores at 38 (and before you ask, this is NOT counting support Naga Siren as a core). Fnatic and iG were close behind at 36. Then you have the Na`Vi, DK, and Orange and TongFu grouping that come in at 29-31. But LGD.cn by far used the fewest cores in the entire tournament with only 25.
Instead, LGD.cn loves picking up AoE teamfight and hard CC ults. They have 5 Magnus selections, 5 Beastmaster and Bane, 4 Dark Seer, 3 Tidehunter, 2 Jakiro and Sand King, and a single Earthshaker pickup. Their most common carry by far is AoE teamfight specialist Gyrocopter, and they’re also singlehandedly responsible for just short of half of the Magnus and Tidehunter picks in the entire tournament.
Because of this very different strategic philosophy, LGD.cn drafts are rather strange. They spend a lot more of their picks on supports, particularly Visage. They will draft Dragon Knight and Gyrocopter early, but the only other carry they’ll reach for is Alchemist who they’ll snag immediately if available. The vast majority of their opening bans are taken up by Lifestealer and Wisp. Conversely, the majority of the opening bans that they face are Batrider and Alchemist. No team received more first round Alchemist bans than LGD.cn.
The big concern that LGD.cn faces is that their drafts are wholeheartedly devoted to a single strategy that struggles in the environment of the tournament. For instance, LGD.cn is 4-1 with Magnus, but all four of their wins came at the expense of lower bracket teams. LGD.cn certainly has solid execution, but I feel that their strategy is far too predictable for them to have a chance to run the gauntlet against Alliance, Na`Vi, DK, and Fnatic.
Finally we come to iG, TongFu, and Orange. All of these teams have been very inconsistent, and I consider them the biggest longshots of the top 8. All of them certainly have the potential to pull off a single upset, but their drafts have been so erratic that I have a hard time believing that any of them could pull off several upsets in a row. I actually have more trouble analyzing the draft preferences of teams the lower I go in the brackets. On one hand, it could be a characteristic of better teams that they have more disciplined drafting styles. On the other hand, it could be that teams that know they’re outmatched are more likely to resort to erratic drafts in hopes of surprising the enemy. I suspect that it’s a little of column A, a little of column B.
Let’s first look at iG(Group B, 8-6). The defending champs have had some series where they’ve completed dominated such as their series against Liquid. On the other hand, they’ve had games where they’ve looked completely lost. Can Treant Protector forge a twenty minute Hand of Midas out of pure spite?
In terms of bans, iG is unique amongst the four big Chinese teams as being the only one to never receive an Alchemist ban. They did use Alchemist twice, but they have seemed to be more willing to opt for Lifestealer who they have played 6 times. They are also tied for the most Outworld Devourer games with Fnatic.
They’re also unique in being one of only two teams to have not drastically reduced their opinion of Shadow Demon (the hero with the largest decline in pick rates in the International). They ran him 6 times, more than any other team in the prelims. Aside from Shadow Demon, they also like running Rubick and Visage for their supports but hesitate to grab either of them early. Strangely enough, they do have a slight tendency to grab Treant Protector early, which is strange given how vulnerable to hero is to counter-drafting as of his nerf in 6.78c.
And I know I said I’d shut up about Chen, but iG has played the hero 6 times, more than any other team in the tournament. In all of those games iG drafted Chen in the first round.
TongFu(8-6, Group B) exemplifies the erratic nature of group B. They managed to sweep both iG and Orange while getting swept by Liquid and LGD.int. It’s very difficult to pinpoint what exactly is going on there, but it’s hard to have any kind of faith in a team that can’t manage a win against LGD.int to be able to beat Fnatic, let alone Alliance or Na`Vi.
The biggest opening ban tendency TongFu has is Outworld Devourer who they banned in 9 out of 14 games. This may reflect their desire to bring out traditional intelligence mids like Puck and Storm Spirit. The only top 8 team to play Puck more than TongFu is Alliance, and TongFu is responsible for 2 of the 4 Storm Spirit games from teams in the top 8.
As far as picks go, TongFu strongly emphasizes controlling Lifestealer and Alchemist, and spent 10 first round selections on those two heroes combined. Aside from that, their biggest tendency is Dark Seer who they drafted 5 times in the first round and 7 times total.
Their support selections can be all over the place, but their three most common supports are identical to iG: Visage, Rubick, and Shadow Demon.
Orange(8-6, Group B) is almost more inexplicable than TongFu. You almost have to give them credit for it. It takes a certain temperament to run one of the only two Faceless Void picks when your upper bracket qualification is on the line.
Let’s tell the story of Orange by starting with Outworld Devourer. I don’t actually know a lot about Orange, but I suspect they really like Outworld Devourer despite only playing him once in the entire tournament. How can I reach this conclusion? By looking at the draft histories.
First, Orange drew out 8 opening bans on OD, more than any other team in the top 8. They received 3 more later round OD bans on top of that. Of the three possible remaining games, they played the hero once, had the hero stolen away from them by iG (who was willing to give up Batrider to pull this off), and were preemptively counter-picked with Razor by Liquid. That’s a lot of hate to be directed at a single hero.
Let’s also look at that one game where Orange did manage to pick OD against Alliance. Orange picked OD at the end of the opening round and spent their next two bans on Razor and Viper to protect their pick. They then also spent their final ban on Beastmaster, once again as protection for OD. Completely unphased by Orange directing 3 of their 5 bans to protect their mid laner, Alliance just goes and grabs Kunkka and wins the game.
Despite being the second most banned hero of the entire tournament, Outworld Devourer has struggled, in large part due to all the counter-picking he has seen, such as Na`Vi’s reflexive Razor pickups. He’s honestly quite emblematic of Orange as a whole, in that they strike me as a team that’s way too dependent on specific character interactions that knowledgeable drafters will not allow to go through uninterrupted.
In any case, Orange is one of those teams that are more likely to spend their opening picks on control over carry potential, with 6 of their opening picks going to Dark Seer and 8 of their opening picks going to Visage. They have 9 total games with Visage and a record of 7-2 with the hero, so he’s arguably been the star of the team.
Orange’s bans are a bit all over the place, but they are another team that does not want to allow you to have Batrider. They’re also the only Eastern team in the top 8 to receive a Wisp ban.
Other heroes to keep an eye out on include Weaver and Naga Siren. Orange is tied for DK for best Weaver of the East so far with both teams sporting 4-0 records. Orange also has the most Naga Siren picks of the entire tournament with 6, and have put up a very respectable 5-1 with the hero.
And finally, some bonus content.