Patrick Bonifacio, February 1, 2017

Zyori on how Dota 2's talents have turned hero builds on their head

It is said that the only constant thing in life is change, and with a mind as crazy as IceFrog’s, Dota is certainly no exception. Version 7.00 dropped about a month and a half ago, and since then we’ve seen a few premier tournaments on the patch and its subsequent iterations. ESL One Genting, Dota Pit Season 5, and WESG all allowed the world to see just how different the game is since getting a new major version, throwing all Dota 2 bets out the window.

But one change has caused the biggest stir in the pace and strategy of the game. We enlisted the aid of MoonduckTV’s very own Andrew “Zyori” Campbell, to find out more about the introduction of talent trees and just how much they affect how Dota 2 is played at the professional level.

Latent potential

“Dota was already in a place of balance with most heroes being viable in some capacity before 7.00, but it seems like talent trees have brought even more heroes out of the woodwork,” said Zyori.

Talent trees allow heroes to unlock passive effects at levels 10, 15, 20, and 25. Each respective level allows players to pick from one of two talents, with the unchosen talent being locked for the rest of the game. While some talents are a bit on the innocuous side (simple stat gains or flat increases to HP and mana, to name a few examples), some talents completely change how a particular hero is played. A good example that’s been in the spotlight lately is the +15% spell amplification talent found on Ember Spirit’s tree, which has totally turned the hero’s item build and playstyle on its head.

“I think Veil Ember is one of the most interesting hero developments we've seen in a while,” says Zyori. “Since his release, Ember has always been regarded as one of the hardest physical carries in terms of late game potential because of the interaction between cleave and Sleight of Fist. He's known as one of the best Rapier carriers, yet now we're seeing him played exclusively for magic damage.”

Needless to say, such a build would have been absolutely ridiculous in the 6.xx era, but with the existence of the spell amp talent, it is now considered the standard. “The addition of Octarine Core and his level 25 talent that adds [two seconds to the] duration to Searing Chains allows this magic-based build to scale well into the late game,” Zyori adds. “It's really fascinating to see that hero make such an extreme transition.”

Several other heroes such as Queen of Pain and Lone Druid have also developed almost unthinkable builds with the dawn of talent trees. Rather than simply falling back on now-archaic strategies, pros simply decided to double down on the talents – even if it meant looking at a hero in a completely different light. Realizing the potential of building a hero’s inventory around its talents, they had to unlearn practically everything they once knew about these heroes and went back to the drawing board. “Before talent trees, hero builds were definitely more ubiquitous,” Zyori says. “Generally speaking, talents that reduce respawn time are very strong, a big reason why Lone Druid has made a resurgence.”

On the clock

Lone Druid’s return to the limelight was in large part due to the concept of “power spikes”, which naturally occur when heroes hit talent-unlocking levels. With the reworked experience curve, heroes pick up levels much more quickly than before, which in turn means that they can hit these power spikes earlier. “I like it,” Zyori begins. “This is a change that’s hard to evaluate in a vacuum because of how much the game changed with 7.00. Many of the level 25 talents make heroes way more powerful, like Mage Ember or Blade Mail QoP, so without a buff to the experience curve some of these level 25 talents wouldn’t matter all that much.”

Thus, the meta now revolves around making the most out of the timing windows that talents open up when taken. Rather than the farming-heavy gameplay of old, the game is now focused on ramping up in levels in the early game and mid-game in order to unlock talents quickly. In other words, the laning phase where the goal is to establish map control is now more important than it has ever been before. However, Zyori thinks that the question of whether or not talents now weigh more heavily on power spikes cannot really be answered right now. “Talents vary so much from hero to hero so it’s hard to definitively say they take priority over items,” he says. “For carries, early farming items are still paramount in setting up momentum for the late game.”

The idea of exploiting timing windows is definitely not new to competitive video games. Traditional real-time strategy titles such as StarCraft revolve heavily around “timing attacks”, which refer to moving out with your army to attack your opponent right as a crucial upgrade (such as a weapons or armor upgrades, or a researched ability) completes back at home. With the sharp increase in strength afforded by the upgrade, the attack hits harder than it would if executed several minutes after the completion of the upgrade in question. The longer one waits to execute the timing attack, the more chances the opponent has to close the window with an upgrade of their own.

In Dota, the equivalent would be unlocking a crucial talent that a hero’s item and skill build is tailored to. Hitting level 10 on Ember Spirit and completing a Veil of Discord right after, and grabbing Dragon Lance along with Lone Druid’s attack range talent, are just a few examples of when it would be time to make big moves on the map. Pushing and teamfighting during these timing windows greatly increase the chances of success, and chaining them creates an unstoppable mid-game wave that teams can ride to victory. All of this combined makes the now-popular mid-game push deadly and efficient.

However, Zyori thinks there is still room for extreme late game carries such as Medusa in this patch, thanks to the introduction of shrines combined with some really good talents. “The addition of shrines, five of which are in the base on high ground, makes closing out matches in the mid-game [around 25-35 minutes] more difficult than in the past,” he says. “We have seen a few teams experiment with early aggression and push-focused lineups that can work if they dominate the first 10 minutes; however, those strategies come with a large degree of risk. One misstep and breaking high ground before carries take over can be very difficult.”

The existence of the backpack aside, Zyori believes that some talents allow the hardest of carries to essentially free up inventory slots in deep late game situations. “Talents have also given more late-game viability to certain heroes, like Medusa; her level 25 talent that provides 25% life steal is amazing,” he says. “Medusa is a hero that will often run into item slot issues as games progress past 50 minutes, so opening a slot with a passive like that is huge.”

Even knowing this, he notes that cores that come online earlier are currently the flavor of the patch. “Carries that are able to be more active in the mid game are much more popular right now,” he says. “Teams are gravitating towards heroes like Juggernaut, Lifestealer, and Shadow Fiend because of their prowess in the mid-game and ability to scale well into the late game.”

“This has only begun”

Of course, this just scratches the surface of what radical new metagames we might see in the future. Since there are so many “placeholder” talents that only give stat boosts, there’s plenty of room for Valve to replace them with talents with more impact, should they see the opportunity. The rest of the hero pool with sub-50% win rates might also benefit from beefed up talents or talents that address key weaknesses.

There are also some heroes that have high win rates in pubs that have been largely ignored by pro teams in the few events we’ve seen on 7.xx. Necrophos, Spectre, Abaddon, Wraith King, and even Treant Protector have win rates approaching 58% in pub games, indicating that there might indeed be some room for these heroes to fit into professional drafts in the coming days. DAC and StarSeries will likely settle this question, especially once teams find useful picks outside of the very top tiers of the hero pool in pro games.

Ad Finem in particular is touted by Zyori as a team that might make use of the reaper: “Ad Finem has been showing the potential of [Necrophos], and once more teams have a chance to work him into strategies, I think teams will see him as a more serious threat.”

Journeying on

Patch 7.00 was dubbed the “New Journey” update, and it really lives up to its name. Those times you messed around in pubs with unorthodox builds may now be considered sane thanks to talents, and the quickened pace of the game means more action all the time. This uncharted territory over the horizon is exciting to say the least, with possible changes to less than creative talents threatening to change the meta on a dime. Who knows we might see the next game-breaking talent, rather than a brand new item, allow an otherwise underpowered hero to leverage its power to soar to new heights.

“Teams are still learning the fine print of this massive patch,” Zyori says. “Surely there will be more creative strategies to come.”

And this is all without mentioning the fact that entirely new heroes are in the making over at Valve.

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Many thanks to Zyori for his input in this article. You may follow him on Twitter @ZyoriTV.

Patrick Bonifacio

Patrick is a Dota 2 fanatic, specialising in the SEA scene. He's also a massive K-pop fan but we don't offer markets on Girls Generation (yet) so he writes about esports instead. You can follow him at twitter.com/EthanKairos_