New patch, new game, but imbalance remains in Dota 2

The anticipation for a new Dota 2 patch crested shortly after the Frankfurt Major ended in late November.

The current meta was stale, the games predictable featuring the same heroes and play style. Entering a new game to see the first pick Windranger, with Necrophos and Tusk also used constantly makes the game a chore. Weeks later, the update finally came Dec. 16 with version 6.86. It certainly wasn’t the longest wait for a new patch — version 6.85 lasted three months, and 6.84 lasted nearly five — but it was necessary.

The 6.85 version introduced a quicker-paced game that encouraged a more active style by nerfing creep gold and introducing an Area of Effect kill bounty, as well as buffing gold gained when destroying buildings. It encouraged the use of heroes who could fight as early as possible and big team battles.

It all sounds exciting but took away a lot of strategy and skill from the game. A player’s stronger ability to farm was less useful because the position one carry, who usually sat in the “safe” lane, was no longer safe. It became more useful to search for and start skirmishes as early as possible to get in position to gank, which fundamentally changed the game. It also brought unforeseen balance issues.

The Radiant team had a much higher win rate than the Dire, an inherent unfair advantage Valve needed to address. The heavy nerf to creep gold and the heavy buff to kill bounty made some heroes borderline unplayable, which showed in the professional realm.

Kunkka, Faceless Void and Riki were picked only twice in all professional games played during the 6.85 patch. The prevalence of Tusk (863 games) and Queen of Pain (774) shows that heroes who had little use early (such as Kunkka and Faceless Void), or even strong heroes that only become useful with 30–40 minutes of solid farm such as Medusa (17 games) were shoved aside.

With towers being pushed early and teams gathering before 10 minutes to gain a larger advantage, there’s less space for a team’s carry to farm. That has led to a much larger emphasis on stacking — repeatedly pulling neutral creeps outside of the spawn box and killing them — to boost farm levels. That means heroes who occupy the jungle early such as Chen, Enchantress and Enigma saw a rapid decline in pick rates.

On the other side, Dota 2 has been out for so long that professional players continue to discover faster ways to farm and are better at timing when to rotate from lane to jungle. There’s not much that can be done with jungle-reliant heroes other than picking them around a team that can fight without much demand for high levels of early farm.

So what changed?

The 6.86 patch was monstrous, with the biggest patch notes to date besides Reborn itself Sept. 9. The wholesale changes included most notably a new hero finally imported from the original Dota: Zett the Arc Warden. Some changes to Roshan brought in a slower base attack time, but a larger starting attack speed meant he was less vulnerable to slower attacks. Changes also included the introduction of the Arcane Rune — since nerfed — which initially caused all spells to have 50 percent mana cost and their cooldown reduced by 30 percent for 50 seconds. A smaller patch, 6.86b released Dec. 20, increased the mana cost to 60 percent.

Buffs to the Ancient Black Dragon neutral means it has gone from the least-desired ancient neutral to one of the top, because the introduction of a larger armour buff and a new spell Fireball (which is a massive 850 magic damage Damage over Time spell). More importantly, the new patch changed the geography of the map and included plenty of tinkers to the heroes themselves.

The changes to the Radiant Jungle overhauled the structure of the map. The first problem that needed to be addressed in a new patch was that every hero had a higher win rate on the Radiant side, according to stats from Dotabuff. The new patch increased the total area of the Radiant Jungle, making it easier to take control as the Dire side. It also became harder to protect as the Radiant side, as previously one sentry and two observer wards lit up the safe area, making it easier to farm freely. Previously, once the Tier 1 Dire safe lane and mid lane towers had been destroyed, it allowed for easy map control for the Radiant. Now however, a larger jungle provides more safety for Dire invaders to bring fight to the Radiant.

New Meta, New Hero

Zett the Arc Warden is a hero that doesn’t classically fill a farming position. He isn’t a position one safelane farmer or a position two midlaner. Although it means he has a difficult time being picked in a strong team composition, Arc Warden provides massive late-game potential with his ultimate, tempest double. He creates a doppelganger of himself, with all spell and item cooldowns reduced to zero, meaning any item he has is doubled. Necronomicon summons two units, not incredibly powerful but definitely strong enough to solo-kill a low-level support. Summoning four of those units means he can steamroll through towers and find pickoffs on lower-level enemies. With the unique ability to “replicate” items, Arc Warden has a lot of options. He can be a super pusher, a super fighter, or a super farmer. Although Arc Warden was initially released in captains mode, it wasn’t long before a new small patch came out stopping him from being picked competitively, so we won’t see how the best of the best play him for a while.

Who will emerge?

Every patch has overpowered heroes such as 6.84’s Leshrac. These happen when each patch introduces a small power creep for a Hero, until eventually it is seen that the hero dominates his lane as well as having easy comeback mechanics and a strong late-game team-fight ability. One of Leshrac’s skills is a magic damage nuke in the form of a lightning bolt that can jump from enemy unit to enemy unit. Small increases to the damage of the lightning bolt as well as the jump radius over a number of patches meant he could destroy a one-on-one mid lane fight, bully his opponent out of lane and find easy kill potential. The result was a 100 percent pick/ban rate at The International 5, with Gyrocopter the only other hero garnering that distinction.

No heroes have reached that level in 6.86. There are, however, heroes who are much more difficult to handle when given the extra space. And the patch is still early enough for it all to change.

A good point was made by DotA2 personality, statistician, caster and professional analyst Trent “Motpax” MacKenzie, who has provided stats coverage for major events such as qualifiers for The International as well as having worked for all the major studios.

Motpax said it took more than two months for Leshrac to be recognised as the standout hero from 6.84, meaning there will be plenty of time to discover who earns that distinction this time.

As far as the changed effect on the gameplay, the extra health of every hero means the frequency of early fights has decreased, and the extra damage towers do to heroes means early tower diving isn’t viable anymore. While this pushes the playstyle of the game to focus on farming in the early game or killing your lane opponent to secure an advantage, it’s become clear the team who groups up early for a fight first tends to snowball more into the late game.

The patch change means that there has been a shift from regular, early skirmishes to some farming time before the team who makes better rotations wins the game. If this doesn’t happen, the game lasts so long that the team who wins just becomes the team with the better base defence, and that’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Cover photo by NIVIDIA (flickr)

British freelance writer and astronomer. Fighting the good fight.

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