Friday, January 10, 2014

Necrophos - Change the name, Change the game!

Nearly 3 months after the 6.79 patch was released, the competitive metagame is still very open. As most players and casters note, this is a very positive sign and suggests either a very healthy version or at least one which is very difficult to figure out. It's an exciting time to think about the game because whoever has the right ideas first will have a significant lead over those that only later come to discover how best to play this version. Or perhaps this will be a version which never settles on any particular playstyle. Different heroes are first-picks from one week to the next at the moment and the current patch is challenging all teams to be able to adapt quickly and efficiently during any given draft. Never before has knowledge of the current metagame been such a weak determinant of how to out-draft an opponent. Some have even begun to criticize teams like Alliance for their inability to adapt - a criticism which I feel is unduly harsh, but does perhaps explain their unexpected last place at the D2L LAN finals this past week.

That said, there are at least some trends that are emerging, and some patterns worth looking at. Many of these are very obvious. Heroes that have begun to pop up as heavily favoured by various competitive teams include Doombringer, Alchemist, Luna, Dragon Knight and Pugna. That said, these are just a handful and different teams are showing different preferences which themselves have changed over these last 3 months. When the patch initially came out, it was clear that the draft was all about the supports. 4 top supports quickly emerged in the form of Crystal Maiden, Visage, Venomancer and Lich. However, the rise of Lich was short-lived, probably due to the ease with which teams can push in this version, thus countering both Sacrifice and Chain Frost and rendering the hero very ineffective. In Lich's place, Alchemist has subsequently cemented its spot - although Alchemist is not always played as a support, it is played often enough as one to be included in the 'big 4'.

But which heroes have been winning the most? I decided to take a look at the data on datdota and see which heroes had the highest win percentages in 6.79 so far. What I found was rather interesting: 

So, of the top 10 highest win rate heroes, 4 of them are Wisp and her friends. Okay, cool, Wisp wasn't all about Tether. Relocate is an excellent spell. Perhaps interesting is that despite Wisp's increased win rate [from 56% in 6.78 to 67% so far in 6.79], the hero is being picked substantially less than before. This might be because teams have been slow to realize that the hero is still very effective or perhaps it's because the hero doesn't lane as well any more and is thus just harder to fit into a draft. Either way, it remains outside of the 'big four' supports in terms of popularity, despite its having a far superior win rate to any of those 4 heroes.

Meanwhile, Tusk and Warlock are in the top 10 due to the insanely small sample size, having only won 1 more game than they've lost, respectively.

Elder Titan holding his ground near the top suggests that nerfing anything except Natural Order will not be able to reduce the dramatic effect the hero has. For me this means the nerfs have been vindicated since the hero shouldn't be able to slaughter lanes if it's good enough to pick without having that ability.

Beastmaster is a hero that seems to come and go and is perhaps at the moment coming rather than going. It's hard to say why its win rate is around 60% at the moment when its overall usual win rate sits around 50%. Is it becoming a thing again? I would need to think a lot more about this to make any meaningful comment here. Honestly, I don't know.

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises is that Treant Protector, despite a substantial nerf to Living Armour, has more or less retained the same high win rate it had before. The 6.79 sample is quite small, but I'm inclined to believe it's representative because there is a good qualitative explanation for it. While Living Armour got nerfed, Leech Seed got massively buffed. The hero is just played differently now but has managed to stay very effective. 

Necrophos is actually the original inspiration for me writing this piece as my investigation into 6.79 hero trends was ultimately prompted by an observation I made about this hero. I did not, however, expect it to have the highest 6.79 win percentage. That said, the sample size here is very small and thus potentially misleading. Indeed, what I observed suggests that the hero might only be being drafted into positions where the very fact of its having been drafted near guarantees it to win!

A few professional teams [though mostly LGD] have begun to run this hero as a standard response to certain types of picks. But it's not the oldschool 'pick Necrolyte to counter a tank' idea. Put simply, if a team realizes that their opponent's first few picks in the draft are not capable of dealing with early 5-man pushes, they can start building towards a strategy that will ultimately centre around Necrophos. Normally the Necrophos itself is picked last but this, I think, is mostly to stretch the advantage as far as possible - not a necessity. And as teams begin to realize this and start to ban the hero in the second or last ban phase, it might just start getting picked a bit earlier in drafts. To demonstrate the kind of draft it fits into, here is an example. 

This is how the draft looked in game 1 of iG vs DK in the grand finals of WPC ACE. Despite DK starting off exceptionally well with a 5-2 lead before creeps spawned, they were really nowhere in this game. Burning got his farm, and the lane stage looked okay for DK, their 5-2 lead becoming an 8-4 one. But Hao's Necrophos got good farm too and, shortly after finishing his Mek, it became very clear that only one team could win this game. Storm Spirit, which was the 3rd pick for DK in this game, probably sealed the deal for iG in terms of building towards a Necrophos pick. The hero is only marginally more useful than a Lich at defending against a 5-man push early on. Storm Spirit thrives on its mobility, which allows it to pick heroes off or abusively kite in skirmishes. However, if the entire enemy team is holding hands from early on, you aren't going to be making any pickoffs without becoming one yourself. Meanwhile, Lifestealer needs lots of items to be able to handle that type of approach - and even if the game had lasted that long, Burning would still have had to deal with the threat of heavy disable, always at risk of being chain-stunned and burst down if caught by anything.

Initially I thought iG had just figured DK out well during this draft and out-picked them excellently. After a while I realized just how important the Necrophos was to their strategy. It's essentially the fuel that keeps a 5-man push strategy chugging along. Notice the only direct 'pushing skills' iG had here are DK's Dragon Form and maybe Visage's Familiars. Their ability to pressure buildings is more about being too threatening to approach than it is about actually killing the buildings really fast. And that's what Necrophos enables. In a way, this is reminiscent of the role Nightstalker used to play in push strategies - although what he did was more chase enemies away from defending than prevent them from trying to defend just by being there. In the case of Nightstalker, a fight could still go badly if the other team initiated well. In this case, it's hard to see how that would happen. So yeah, this game provides a clear lesson that leaving your draft open to a Necrophos 5-man assault will lose you a game very easily.

Sadly, Fnatic's Fly did not make this observation and we saw an almost exact replica of the above draft in game 1 of LGD vs Fnatic at D2L. 

In this case, Fnatic also picked Storm and Naix in 3rd and 4th picks [though the reverse order to DK] but what they also did was pick Slark before either of the two. Slark is definitely less useful against a push than the Clockwerk that DK had above and Shadow Demon is probably mildly less useful than Rubick here. Meanwhile, in place of iG's Nyx, LGD ran a Venomancer. This makes them slightly weaker in terms of disable but substantially stronger in terms of their ability to force down buildings without giving Fnatic any option to defend them. This game was even more one-sided than the iG vs DK game, perhaps because Fnatic did not pull off any pre-creep heroics in this game.

Presumably, most professional teams will have observed at least one of these cases and will be a bit more ready for this sort of thing now. That said, it remains to be seen whether or not the Necrophos needs to be picked 5th in order to make its strategies work. Being picked last, in the correct draft, it seems very near to unstoppable. Perhaps if it is picked a bit earlier, but also in the correct draft, it will merely be, I don't know, extremely good? 

I'd like to stop and make a point about the sample size here. Hopefully having done substantial qualitative analysis will already work against concerns about a small sample size. That said, I want to point out that while Necrophos's insanely high win rate of 78% in 6.79 is only based on 23 appearances in 3 months, the hero's win percentage in 6.78 was a mere 28%. Meanwhile, looking at the overall stats of the hero on datdota, it's clear that this is its first spell of consistent success in a long time.

This means that Necrophos was 9-26 before 6.79 and is 18-5 in 6.79. While both samples remain reasonably small, the comparison between them is undeniable. The hero almost never won and now it almost never loses. How deep this trend will run remains to be seen.

* * *

One final thing that I would feel intellectually dishonest about leaving out is that while writing this piece I discovered that, in fact, Rubick is the 3rd most picked support in 6.79, ahead of both Venomancer and Alchemist. That said, I still feel disinclined to include it in 'the big 4' simply because I don't think it's being prioritized in the same way as those 4 are. Which is to say, Rubick slots into any draft nicely, but most drafts seem to want a Crystal Maiden, Venomancer, Alchemist or Visage on support. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

draft is hard

This evening, I came across an interview with 7ckingmad on the subject of drafting. It struck me as interesting that despite the fact that reasonable questions were asked and reasonable answers were given, I didn't feel like I came out of reading the interview any better equipped to draft well. I also don't think this is because I'm a genius at drafting or that it's because everything said was obvious. Rather, what this interview demonstrates is that when it comes to drafting, there's never a simple or straightforward answer. While it may seem evasive to say things like 'it depends' when asked if something is a good idea or not, the reality is that drafting is extremely complex and completely situational and thus this answer is probably the most appropriate answer that can be given to any question about drafting.

For the same reasons that the interview wasn't ultimately that instructive, this post will probably fail to be as well. However, what I plan to do here is attempt to outline a handful of things that 'it' can 'depend on' and thus hopefully illuminate some of these complexities, while emphasizing just how complicated drafting really is.

1. Having a Plan

As 7ckingmad suggests, it's generally not going to happen that you are able to have a complete 5-hero plan going into a draft and be able to stick to it entirely. In fact, in most cases it would just be a mistake to try force a strategy and mostly a matter of luck whether it works out or not in a particular game. That said, it is critical that you do have some plan. It's even possible to only develop this plan once you have all 5 heroes. How? Well, what I mean by a 'plan' is an idea of how your team is going to win the game with the heroes you have against the heroes they have. It's very helpful to try and construct a narrative in your head as to how you'd like the game to run. Of course here you need to be as objective and impartial as possible - it won't be helpful to assume all your lanes will win just because it makes it easy to imagine how the game will progress in your favour if they do. If a lane match-up looks like it's going to win you can treat it as such and vice versa.

Now, while I've noted above that it's possible to develop a plan post-drafting, for obvious reasons it's a lot easier to design your draft around a plan than to design a plan around your draft. To some extent this will always be a reflective equilibrium as your picks inform your plan and your plan informs your picks - in fact, during the game, it's very likely your plan might have to change if the situation changes. That said, in all likelihood, to end up with a solid draft you're going to want to start designing a plan at some point during the draft, whether it's before the first pick or before the last pick. Having a plan not only helps to ensure that your draft remains coherent despite having to adapt to the enemy's draft, but it also helps each member of your team to understand what their role might be at any given point in time during a game. If you want to control the game via split-pushing, then the split-pushing heroes will know that this is what they need to be doing. If you planned to get an early advantage via good rotations from supports, then the supports will know what to do. In contrast, if your plan is to play passively and only counter-gang, this gives the supports equally useful, yet opposite, guidance. 

So having a plan can be very useful and is generally important when it comes to drafting. Here's the thing though - because of the importance of having a plan, at any given point during a draft, a particular pick or ban might be better [or worse] for you than it usually is, where all else is equal. Your plan creates a context within which picks and bans need to be evaluated. Thus, it's nearly impossible to evaluate somebody else's draft properly without having insights into what their plan is at least until the entire draft is over - and often even then you need to see how the draft plays out to understand whether or not the picks were the best ones they could be. What's more is that sometimes poor play can skew even this kind of evaluation - warping our analysis of a draft because of how we saw it work out. 

2. Counter-picking

You know who else will have a plan? The team you're drafting against! What does this mean? Well, both drafters will be constructing narratives in their minds - stories of how their draft leads them to victory - during the draft. As a result, both drafters will need to try imagine what the other drafter is imagining and incorporate it into their preferred narrative. So we were planning to 5-man push early on. It looks like they might try to hold us outside their base while they split-push. Well this means we need one of three things - a way to force an initiation at their base, pushing power so strong that we cannot be held back, or a way to control their split-pushing either before we push or during our push. Naturally, your opponent will try to anticipate this thought process as well and again be one step ahead. This thought process can be recursive and, to be honest, this can be very damaging to a draft. If a drafter spends too much time during the draft thinking the kind of 'they know that we know that they know that we know but they don't know that we know that they know that we know that they know that we know' thoughts this can result in the draft becoming far too abstracted at points and also far too dependant on assumptions about the other team's plan which may or may not conform to your expectations. 

Instead of trying to get into the enemy drafter's head in terms of their plan, you might think that counter-picking at the level of heroes is more appropriate. So lets not try to fool ourselves into thinking we know exactly what they're trying to do here but we do know that they have hero X and we know that hero P is good against hero X so perhaps we should consider picking hero P. Unfortunately, this level of counter-picking, although less abstract, is not without its own risks. It's not enough that a hero can theoretically interact well with one enemy hero. That is not a good enough argument for picking it. How well does this hero interact with the other enemy heroes? How well does is synergize with your other heroes? Does it fit into the plan? Are you making assumptions about how the enemy hero you are trying to counter will be played? Imagine the enemy team first picks a Mirana and you decide to counter-pick against it. Perhaps your concern is that Mirana is a very difficult hero to kill because of her leap and thus presents a unique threat when farmed. But what if the other team decides to use her as a support that game? Will your counter-picking her on that basis make sense then? Did you just pick a Storm Spirit because it's good at killing one of their supports?

So what am I trying to say here? What I'm not doing is arguing against counter-picking. The point is just that counter-picking can be very dangerous. Your drafting should be sensitive to the enemy team's draft, both in terms of what their plan is and in terms of individual heroes picked. However, it also shouldn't be too concerned with either of these things, much the same way it's dangerous to force a particular plan going into a draft. What we have here is further context for a draft. Not only is the value of a pick or ban relative to what your plan is, it's also relative to what the opposing team's plan is, what their picks are, and what your picks are so far. 

3. Knowing your players

This one I expect is a bit more controversial as a lot of people think that it's a weakness of a team if their players aren't capable of playing all heroes at the highest level. That said, the reality is that there is not a single team in the world for whom this is the case. So, while we're in the world we're in, lets talk about hero-to-player allocations. The brute fact is that each player is better at some heroes than others. Moreover, players will tend to do better in particular play-styles than others and might excel more in some situations than others. So if your plan involves making the guy who doesn't cope well without farm handle a very difficult lane, then your plan is probably going to fail. Now this doesn't mean that a drafter must be completely at the mercy of the preferences of his or her teammates nor does it mean he or she should only draft them what they're best at. There is always room to grow and improve and the only way to do this is with practice. Obviously, this is a two-way motion. Drafts outside of a player's comfort zone are the only thing that will gradually make them more comfortable with more things but drafts within their comfort zones will, in the short term, usually produce better results. So there is a trade-off. 

That said, even when looking at the best teams in the world, it's evident that different players are better at different things and thus different teams are better at different things. If it's not obvious, what this means is that depending on who you are, the value of banning or picking certain heroes changes. Take a minute and process this. This is one of the big reasons that teams that manage to define metagames usually succeed more than those who fall into them. If the metagame becomes a certain way because a team is doing really well with certain types of drafts, unless your team is also really good at using those kinds of drafts, it's in your interest to try your best to shift the metagame. Obviously, sometimes the dominant metagame is based on how the game is, and not just what's being preferred at the moment - in which case your team must adapt. But this is certainly not always the case. 

4. Timing

Depending on what stage of the draft you are at, the same pick or ban might be excellent or awful. Normally more versatile heroes are good early on because they don't give away much information about your draft. Meanwhile, heroes which can have a dramatic effect on the game provided the other team hasn't planned to deal with them can often be very powerful picks late in the draft. Enigma, for example, is usually picked late in a draft because the hero operates in a very specific way. It's going to probably jungle. It's going to push things. It's going to try cast Black Holes. Okay, well this is a pretty transparent pick. What this means is that it's easier to counter-pick and thus much more valuable to pick at a point where it's too late for the other team to do that.

Timing also has to do with roles. The later you can go into the draft without the other team knowing which heroes will be performing which roles, the more advantage you're going to have over them. Alternatively, first-picking a hero that normally signifies a particular thing, you can dictate a lot of the opposing team's draft, or at least put a lot of pressure on them to deal with said thing - even if you've come up with a different way to use that hero. 

The most obvious timing-related consideration is that heroes that you expect both teams to be going for are usually better picks earlier on for the simple reason that later on they might not be there anymore. I've left this until last because I think people over-obsess about this point. Very often you hear casters asking why a team has picked a certain hero so early in a draft because they feel the hero would have still been available later on. While it is true that one reason to pick a hero early on is that you are worried that a hero you want to get will be snatched by the other team, this is not the only relevant factor. In fact, everything discussed above is an argument against that. So yeah, absolutely, if you know both teams really want a hero and you've decided you must have it, by all means pick it early. But other considerations can trump this. It might be that your team is extremely confident when executing strategies that use Vengeful Spirit. Maybe you have figured out a way to use the hero that other teams have not yet. This could very well justify first-picking the hero, despite the fact that it's very rarely picked early in a draft. After all, heroes that are described as 'first picks' weren't always described that way. Someone has to be the first to recognize the strength of a hero - or the strength of that hero for their team. 

Returning to the point - it is important to think about the timing of your picks. The same five picks chosen in various different orders can result in drastically different responses from your opponents or might affect your ability to even get those five picks. 

* * *

So I've discussed 4 factors that are relevant to drafting which make drafting very difficult by creating a context against which all picks and bans must be evaluated. Sadly, though, the context within which any pick or ban takes place in any game of Dota is several times more complex than just these 4 factors. It's not possible for me to discuss every factor that could be potentially relevant at any point in time in any draft and, to be honest, it wouldn't be that helpful even if it was. Part of this is just the harsh reality that, as with Dota in general, there is simply no substitute for practice. If you want to get better at drafting you need to draft a lot. Some very good drafters might struggle to string a sentence together justifying their picks and the most flawlessly advocated picks might, ultimately, not be a good idea for reasons our Dota lexicon cannot even express yet.

Drafting is really, really hard. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bulba: "I do think the current patch has a huge emphasis on drafts."

GIH: Hello BuLba! You've recently completed a bo5 against for the 3rd/4th playoff for the dota 2 champions league in which you lost 3-1. Obviously this is a disappointing result. What do you think went wrong in this match?

BuLba: I think the game went the way of who had the better drafts. The first game I think we out picked them and the next 3 games I think they had a combination of better picks and play. But Sigma definitely has a better grasp of the game than us at the moment and they have some strong players.

GIH: Interesting - I noticed that your comment at the end of MLG was also about drafts. I think there you said the entire tournament had been about the drafts. Do you think the current patch puts more emphasis on drafts in general? Is it harder to win with a weaker draft than it used to be?

BuLba: I do think the current patch has a huge emphasis on drafts. Even more so than the old one. If you have a weak draft that the enemy can abuse early on, they just snowball faster with the new gold increase and it's hard to stage comebacks unless you have Elder Titan or a hero that can win u team fights even with a gold deficit.

GIH: Is there anything in particular that your team does to make an extra effort to have better drafts, then? Do you plan a lot of drafts in advance - or specific picks to beat other specific picks? Surely if drafting is becoming more important, it should be prioritized more as a team. Does your team draft together or does TC do most of it on his own?

BuLba: We do it together. The responsibility is not solely on TC. We have a mixture of ideas sometimes though and I think that hurts us. But we are all learning the game as we go. We obviously still have a long way to go. Better picks will come while we gain a better understanding of the game. Also we have to work on our execution. Its been pretty poor and we just are lacking a lot of synergy lately.

GIH: I'm glad you used the word 'lately' here because I want to press you a bit on that. What's changed? A few months ago Liquid looked like one of the top teams to beat, easily a top contender for strongest team in the West. It does feel like you guys are going through a bit of a slump, lately. I know sometimes it's very hard to diagnose exactly what's going on - but if you have any insights at all into what's changed for you guys lately, I'd be very interested to hear.

BuLba: Well once the new patch came out we just had no idea what to do. We had a general playstyle on the old patch and we knew what to do but there was a lot of chaos and I guess we were slow in adapting. Its still hard to find an answer to this because we still aren't as good as we can be. I guess we just have to practice more as a team and build ourselves up and learn along the way

GIH: Well, I think it's definitely an important test for any pro team to see how they deal with not doing as well as they know they can do. I'm sure you guys can find your old form though if you keep working hard. Best of luck with that!

On the subject of form, I have a more specific question about your recent form. In the semi-finals of the Dota 2 Champions League, you lost 3-0 against Alliance. It seems that your team has a very big Alliance problem at the moment. Of the 8 matches you have played versus them since TI3, you've won 1, drawn 1 and lost 6. In terms of games the score is 3-13.

Compare this to your record versus some other teams since TI3 and you notice something interesting. You've also played 8 matches versus Na'Vi and Fnatic since TI3. Against Na'Vi, you've won 3 and lost 5. 8-10 on game score. Against Fnatic, you're 4-4 and 7-7 on games.

It's interesting to me that you are achieving especially bad results versus Alliance since TI3 given that post-TI3 Alliance are/were clearly the 'team to beat'. Which is to say, I'd have expected all the top teams to study Alliance more than anybody else at that point and thus improve their results against them. What do you think the problem is here? Why has your team struggled so much to beat Alliance in particular?

BuLba: Hmm I don't know what we can get from the Alliance games. To be honest most of the games versus them we play poorly and they play well. I guess we draft and value similar heroes to each other and they out execute us? I don't know for sure. We definitely have had some rough games versus them though and they are still a strong team that can take a mistake and capitalize on it. And it isn't really people studying Alliance that is making them lose games lately. I think more so it's their similar struggle with the patch and what heroes got nerfed as well as how the pull system got changed.

GIH: Okay, interesting. As an outsider, it's easy for me to read significance into things that don't have any or don't have as much - so it's very useful to hear your thoughts here. You don't worry more about matches vs Alliance at the moment, then?

BuLba: No. I don't think any pro team should worry about matches. You should be confident regardless of who you play but again that's better said than done. There are definite times where you play worse because you play a certain team because you fear them. It's better to focus on your own play and the mistakes you made regardless of the enemy team.

GIH: Okay, that sounds like good advice.

Moving, away from questions about your team, Speed Gaming, a team that seems to have adjusted quite quickly to the new patch, are currently competing in China in G-League.

In a year where Alliance went to China and won G-1 league, Na'Vi went to China and won the Alienware Cup, DK travelled to the US and narrowly missed winning MLG, and VG conquered EMS in Europe, it would seem there is a trend developing of teams achieving big results away from home. Are these teams doing well despite being away from their comfort zones or in part because of this? Or does it make no difference at all?
[Speed Gaming have since been eliminated from G-league ending in 5th place.]

BuLba: I don't think it matters. Those teams were all the best in the respective patch at the time. Alliance were the best team during G-1 and Na'Vi just adapted the best to the Chinese playstyle at Alienware Cup. VG also played way better than everyone at EMS. Maybe it's cause they feel they have something to prove and are confident going into it.

GIH: That's an interesting suggestion. Some sports teams are said to perform better away from home because they feel less expectations to impress fans and thus focus more on their game without being so nervous - I suppose Dota might not be quite there yet in terms of 'home' and 'away' fans . . ?

BuLba: I doubt it, if anything the G-1 crowd was rooting for Loda more than the Chinese teams lol. And Alienware cup was online. I just think Both Alliance and Na'vi were way better than the Chinese teams before TI3 and the Chinese teams are better than the western teams at the moment. Speed told me their scrims vs the Chinese teams are crazy hard and China feels way more 'do shit' in the current patch.

GIH: Okay, that's very interesting - after losing TI3 to the West, the East is fighting back!

On a related note, in pro Dota, people have always talked of 'the East' and 'the West' but this usually just means China and everybody else. Given the size of the community, number of competitive teams and available existing infrastructure, it's perhaps a bit surprising that North America has never really been able to force a shift in the dominant discourse to one which discusses 'Europe, North America and China'. Why do you think this is? Will North America ever have enough tier 1 teams to justify speaking meaningfully about the scene separately to just 'the West'?

BuLba: Well to be fair, the American community is smaller than Europe and China by far. And the infrastructure from Dota 1 was non existent in North America also. Both Europe and China had infrastructure from Dota 1 while America had a few players. There's just a lack of good players that can commit to a schedule in NA. Playing scrims usually means playing vs European teams and that happens quite early in the day making it hard to both go to work and go to school. Also the way the American economy works makes it hard for you to just go all in on some dream of becoming a Dota pro gamer. Mainly because most of the competitive Dota games are early in the day so you have to be a full-time Dota player and that's just not liveable at the moment in the US except for a few players. MLG is trying to build up a base but there was never another organization that tried that was NA based to focus entirely on NA teams that also gave a big prize pool. I mean most sponsors want to see a lot of viewers on their streams and its hard to get that from American teams besides Liquid or EG.

GIH: Fair enough. I know it's a problem for all aspiring pro Dota players having to work out a way to pay the rent before such time as they do achieve sponsored salary etc. I didn't, however, realize what a factor timezones would play for North Americans, in this regard. It makes a lot of sense, now that you say it, that having to play during the day means it's a lot harder for you to ease your way into being a pro Dota player while doing, say, part-time work. That said, do you think that, in time, the industry will grow in North America to the point that it becomes easier for Americans to commit to Dota?

BuLba: Yea exactly, this past year was really damn busy for me because I juggled both Dota and school . I had days where I'd go for 12 hours straight with no break having to go to class at 7 AM and then being done with matches or scrims by like 8 PM. As for your second question, that eHug team came out of nowhere and is giving a team of 5 Inhouse League American players a contract that most pro teams can't afford. I guess you can say it was an e-miracle. Wish the best of luck to them. I'm good friends with the players in the team. The industry on the other hand is entirely MLG at the moment for NA. With their upcoming plans for NA next year, it should be cool but keep in mind that it definitely wont allow any NA players to play full-time that aren't at the moment.

It's very rare for a new player to come out of nowhere and make his imprint on the scene. Arteezy proved himself at MLG but he had experience playing competitive and had his connections to get a spot on Kaipi in the first place.

GIH: Right, thanks for these insights. If it's any small consolation to you, those outside of the US have to literally invert their days and nights in order to follow The International. But I guess that is only once a year.

Anyway, you've linked very neatly to my next question. What is your relationship with Arteezy and MSS? It seems like new talent in the NA scene is always heralded in by you. Is there anyone up-and-coming that we should be looking out for?

BuLba: I knew Arteezy a bit before TI2 but I started playing with him a lot after I came back. There was an IHL called NA-DL at the time and he was a regular there. I used to play occasionally and obsed a few games and saw that he had very strong laning. He then messaged me one day and asked me if I wanted to 1v1 practice and I said sure. We played quite a bit at the time since I wasn't on a team and just went to class.

At first he was pretty good and you could see he knew what to do but he had a lot of work to do. He was a classic pub stomper but over the next few weeks and months, he improved exponentially. At the time (not now) he had a small ego and was willing to learn and get better and often asked Envy and I to criticize his play. Another reason he improved a lot was confidence I think. He gained a lot of confidence in himself and his capabilities. I started trolling him as well as hyping him up on that show MAAD because he would get embarrassed and it eventually became a meme.
MSS was another pub player that I thought was good and asked to ring for our match because ixmike had an exam and he played Rubick and owned. He got a lot of praise off ringing for us. As for upcoming talent, I'd say Zai has a lot of potential even if he isn't American. He plays mostly with American players. As for specifically American, I think Mason is pretty good but he has a long ways to go if he wants to play on a team. Maybe RyuUboruZ at some times.

GIH: Okay, I'm sure that's more than enough people for us to look out for - and thanks for such a detailed answer! This next question is probably the one question I am most interested in knowing the answer to, even if it turns out to not be that interesting.

You are well known as one of the most creative innovators the pro Dota scene has ever had. Firstly, thanks! Secondly, is there a creative process you deliberately or consciously follow? Where do your new ideas come from?

BuLba: I don't think I have a conscious creative process per se. I just pick random stuff in pubs or Inhouse Leagues and test them out. Then if I think something is fun or cool I play it a bunch. That's kind of where the 0-4-4 ET build came from as well as Tinker going march.

GIH: So just, you know, science. Cool. So then, what's your favourite hero that you don't get to play in official matches at the moment?

BuLba: Probably Tinker or Disruptor. They are so fun to play.

GIH: Do you think Disruptor has potential in the mid lane since it got a pretty huge Aghanims Scepter effect?

BuLba: Yes I think it's cool but farming an Aghs on that hero takes so long - you need to snowball usually. But The hero has a pretty amazing skillset and I love it mid.

GIH: Would you ever buy a Midas on it? What do you think of the whole Midas Gaming trend? Will the extra 150 gold be the end of it?

BuLba: Uhh I guess if the circumstance arises - probably not in real games. And I disliked Midas overall so . . . I understand why people got it but it made games so damn boring and slow. As for the 150 gold, I'm sure the people going it in pubs will keep going it.

GIH: Haha, yeah, pubbers need more convincing than professionals, sometimes.

A trend that is more recent than Midas is Bristleback, which has seen an enormous rise in popularity [albeit more so in China] in the last month. Do you think this hero is legitimately first-pick material or is it being over-valued because it's trending at the moment?

BuLba: It's a strong hero. He has his counters though but if the hero does well early on, he's a pain to deal with. His damage is just so high and he's so damn tanky.

GIH: When I interviewed bOne7, he also mentioned that if Bristleback does well early on then it becomes pretty insane. If a good early game is such a big deal for the hero, why is it mostly being picked as an offlaner?

BuLba: Well early game meaning 10-20 minutes, not just laning phase. He needs few items and he is so tanky.

GIH: Okay, fair enough. Last question. Recently you've tweeted a lot of praise for Fy, most notably that:

Is there anything in particular you are impressed with when it comes to Fy? Have you learnt anything from watching him play?

BuLba: He has amazing movement and game sense. He has a similar playstyle to Chuan if you compare.

GIH: So Chuan went to ground and someone else had to step up! Haha, Okay, thanks a lot for this interview, BuLba! It's been a pleasure speaking to you. Do you have any shoutouts?

BuLba: Shoutout to my team and its sponsors, Shiny things, need for seat, barracuda, twitch and razer.

You can follow BuLba on twitter at

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

7ckingMad slams Midas Gaming

[continues directly from part one]

GIH: Ok, since we are talking about Gold and Exp, I have to ask you about Midas Gaming. While this trend continues to dominate much of the discussion about the current metagame, your team only bought 1 Midas throughout the whole of MLG [which was you, playing Veno, in the semi-finals vs Speed Gaming]. To me, this suggests a deliberate decision not to buy into the trend. Why is that?

7ckingMadThis trend is really bad. We will only get Midas when needed. I can assure you that, at the moment, 90% of the midases bought makes NO sense. I was very disappointed by several top teams, seeing them getting midas. They panicked after MLG. I'm glad Na`Vi realized what was going on, and maybe sat down and talk this out. They came back and approached the DreamLeague final without that midas obsession, and destroyed Fnatic. This midas is just a trend, it's really bad, and will give us and other teams that do not commit to it a lot of free wins. Sometimes midas can be really good, and game-changer, but only sometimes. My biggest disappointment was DK...I have so much respect for this team and the players in it, it always felt like they were one step ahead of everyone. If you look at their first game against Speed Gaming in the final...I dont know, you can end the game, and instead of that, you get 5 midas and throw away all the advantage you have. It's a matter of time before it disappears, anti-midas players just have to prove everybody wrong by crushing games when they face 3-4 midas. Seriously I really encourage teams to get midas, when they lose, when they win, it's a great item. GREEDISGOOD

GIH: Hahaha. Thanks for this response. I think this is the first professional player I've heard vocalize views so obviously critical of the trend. Most people seem to still be trying to work out what it's all about or figuring out whether or not they want to do it. To me, it is probably a good item to buy more often than people used to buy it before this trend started but certainly less often than they are buying it now. So even if the trend dies down, perhaps Dota will have grown for it anyway?

7ckingMadFor sure, it's a really good thing that it happened. And it gives crucial information about who really follows the meta-game, and who does not. Even if you know the other pro players, you're actually never sure of what's going on backstage, and how confident they actually are with their picks/plays. Seeing some teams completely change their mindset and starting to get 5 midas every game with any style of picks is actually a crucial information. It's sometimes very disappointing for the fanboy that I am, but well, life is hard they say.

GIH: Haha, life is hard, game is hard, everything is hard! I wasn't even thinking about how it's useful to you in analyzing teams. I mostly meant that sometimes it takes something being exaggerated in Dota for people to realize its strength before it was being exaggerated. But your insight is very interesting here, and perhaps the more obvious point. It definitely is a useful aid in analyzing the way other teams are thinking.

Speaking of what others are thinking, another thing that Bulba said recently - at Dreamhack - was that Radiant, and especially their offlane, is much stronger at the moment than Dire. Would you agree with this?

7ckingMadAgain, I'm really against saying that the game is unbalanced. The game is totally balanced, and honestly I am always impressed by how perfect the applied changes are, every time. It's amazing, really. Radiant is really strong for the laning phase, I definitely agree. But on the other hand, how many games are won only because Dire has the Roshan advantage? At the end of the day it's the same. Both sides are even in my opinion, although I personally prefer Radiant!

GIH: So you prefer Radiant but probably not as much as Bulba thinks everyone should. But lets try measure how strong your preference is here. You've written elsewhere about the advantage of first pick and how since 6.78 first pick has been far more valuable than second pick, because first pick also gets last pick. My question then is what do you value more between first pick and Radiant?

7ckingMadHard to depends of the team you face. I can't really get into much details on that one - don't want to reveal too much about our approach :P. It's really situational. What I can say is that there is nothing really clear on that topic, we don't generally prefer Radiant, Dire, Firstpick or Secondpick, it always depends!

GIH: Okay, I understand. And that answer on its own is already quite informative. 

Now for something slightly different. In an interview at MLG, when asked about DK's performance on day one, you mentioned that they had out-drafted their opponents. You noted specifically their game against Liquid as an example. A lot of discussion about drafting is often very abstract and I think it might be useful to be able to have a concrete example for analysis here.

In this game, DK had ES, Timbersaw, Pugna, Visage and TA. Liquid had Viper, Furion, Cm, Puck and Venge. Could you please explain briefly why you believe this particular draft so obviously favours DK?

7ckingMadIf I recall correctly, they lastpicked Pugna. I think that Pugna + Shaker can almost 2vs5 Liquid's lineup. When they push in, and they have huge pushing potential with Pugna, Liquid just can not stop them. If they run into Pugna's ward + fissure + timber's burst etc, they will melt. It is impossible for Liquid to take a 5vs5 fight, even with a strong advantage. The ward and the long range burst will just destroy their line-up.

GIH: I can see why you'd say that Liquid can't take teamfights with these lineups. Is that enough to say that they are outdrafted, even though they have a Furion? At the time I remember thinking they must surely plan to the control the game via split-push. What would be flawed about this kind of thinking here?

7ckingMadYou're never really outdrafted. Any draft can win in DotA. But in this case I think it's very difficult for them to win this game, it's just way easier for DK, thanks to the draft. Split push is always an option, but against Pugna, it's really hard: Towers go down sooooo fast.

GIH: Right, that makes sense to me. Even though that might be the best way for Liquid to try win, it's still an uphill battle trying to win that way.

The next thing I want to ask you has actually become more relevant since the time that I thought of the question. Bristleback. What's the deal with this hero? bOne7 told me that it's a really strong hero for teams that know how to use it correctly. Here he referred to Empire as an example. Meanwhile, over the past few days, we've seen pretty much every Chinese team picking Bristleback as an offlaner and I believe almost every game a team has had offlane BB they have won. Of course, they might not be winning because of it. That said, given this development in the Chinese metagame, should we expect BB to become a more popular pick in the West soon?

7ckingMadI'm not sure about this. Against teamfight line-ups, he's really strong. But honestly he is very easy to zone out. I think that, situationally, he can be very strong, and allow you to outdraft your opponent. But he will remain a 'surprise' pick in the western scene in my opinion. I mean, he might be picked a lot at one point, but it will just be a trend. That's just my opinion, I'm not sure because I don't think I fully understand the potential of that hero yet.

GIH: Sure, fair enough. Even if you did feel more confident that you understood the hero's potential, it's often not that useful to speculate about these kinds of things and will probably be easier to explain what does or doesn't happen after it does.

My last few questions will have a bit more to do with you and a bit less to do with Dota. Firstly, when did you decide that you wanted to call yourself '7ckingmad'. There must surely be a story behind this!

7ckingMadSure ok :D Well, I don't really remember how that happened. No story behind that I'm afraid.

GIH: Once again, you disappoint my expectations of exciting explanations! Okay then, would you consider yourself to be someone who gets very angry? Do you have a short temper?

7ckingMadNo I never get very angry. I can be very impulsive like everyone else in-game, but I have a quite decent self-control. I'm rather calm actually. I just make sure, with my team mates, that we keep a very high in-game rhythm. It is very important.

GIH: Sure, so no significance to your nickname at all. Damn. Okay, moving on then.

Having been both a player and a captain, which one would you say you prefer and why? Does it depend on the team?

7ckingMadIt does not change anything to my role to be honest. Even when I was not officially captain, I was as much involved in the draft and leading as I am today. I don't think being the only ingame-leader is any good, because it means the 4 others players can't really play for themselves - something has to be wrong. Someone has to make the final call when there are severals, but the rest of the time, every player can do calls, we all play at the same level basically. Right now it's mainly FATA- and me doing those. I'm not the solo in-game captain.

GIH: It seems like this has increasingly become the case in professional Dota 2 teams - having more than one person to fulfil 'captaining duties'. It seems like a good idea to me in general. However, what happens if you and FATA- disagree on something? Say your team needs to make a big call in the heat of battle and you two shout different things on TS. What would happen then?

7ckingMadUsually other players just step up and give their opinion, and it's a team decision. Or you can also decide beforehand what happens in this situation. Better go as 5 for the wrong call, then end up with 2 players doing something, and 3 something else. That's always a disaster.

GIH: Yep, indecision is often worse than everyone agreeing to even the worst decision.

Okay, final question. Tell me a bit more about Here I'm asking two things. Firstly, you wrote a blog post when the team launched discussing how this organization puts emphasis on being 'by the players and for the players'. So I'd like to know if you can offer examples of how this is the case.

Secondly, what are's main goals in terms of Dota 2 for the next 2 months? What does the team hope to achieve during this period?

7ckingMadIt's hard to give fast examples like this. Briefly, the model will always put the players and the community as the center of the structure, unlike what's usually going on.

Our goals for the next two months are simple: keep growing as a team, develop our playstyle and our mechanics, and win everything we can during this time :)

GIH: Okay, understandable. That's enough for now then. Thank you again for agreeing to do this interview! It turned out to be extremely interesting and I'm very grateful for your time. Do you have any shoutouts you would like to make?

7ckingMadThank you for the interview. Shoutout to all the DotA 2 players & watchers! Shoutout to my team, Sigma, kyftherock, Funzii! Shoutout to everyone that supports us! See you soon!

You can follow 7ckingMad on Twitter @ or read his blog @

Follow Sigma on Twitter @ or on Facebook @

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

7ckingMad: "I really think people underestimate the impact that the Gold & Experience graph had on DotA"

gameishard: Hi 7ckingMad! Thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview.

It's now been a week since MLG and, in the aftermath, a lot of fuss has been made about Speed Gaming. However, your team,, also had an excellent tournament and it's probably fair to say that most people didn't expect you to do as well as you did – especially since you were a last minute invite! Going into the tournament, did you guys expect to do this well or did you surprise yourselves as well?

7ckingMad: Hello there! Well, it's a little bit of both, actually. It was a surprise in the sense that we had a really bad performance in ESWC (although we finished third, I expected us to place higher). It was our first LAN as a team. MLG was really harder than ESWC in terms of teams involved and format, and we still managed to be dominating in the groupstage. We know that we can beat any team right now, it all comes down to our execution. If we come with good preparation and play at our level, we can be very scary!

GIH: Yes, indeed! I'm sure every team will be treating you as a serious threat after MLG. So what do you think changed between ESWC and MLG? Or does it just go down to ESWC having been your first LAN as a team, as you said above?

7ckingMad: I don't think it was because of the first LAN factor, or maybe a bit. I can't even remember how many LANs I attendend now, and I did not feel that it was the problem. We just were not prepared as a team, yet. FATA- was away because of his injury, we basically had close to no practice. Nothing changed between ESWC and MLG. People should remember that we are facing teams that are playing together for a very long time now, Na`Vi, Fnatic, Alliance etc...We needed time. You can't compete with the top teams after a week or two. I believe we are ready to always put up a good fight now, but it is still far from enough.

GIH: Okay, fair enough. Often we expect a more dramatic explanation than what's really there. And usually, in the Dota world, we are mistaken when we do so!

Moving along, then. In a recent interview at Dreamhack, Bulba said MLG was all about picks. Earlier this year, in a post on your blog about drafting, you said this:

"The first thing that needs to be said is that the picking phase has always been the most important part of the competitive games. This is no secret."

My question is – Bulba seems to be making a specific case about MLG. Do you think drafting was more key at MLG than you usually think it is?

7ckingMad: Hmm. I don't really agree, although I get what he means. I think that in MLG, a lot of teams were really not confident with their draft, as opposed to what we usually see. People are being too restrictive really, a draft means nothing if you can't execute it properly. You can try to play the Clinkz/Clock Speed Gaming style and lose in twenty minutes. It's also about execution. MLG was dominated by the best teams at that point, both in draft and plays.

We had the same with Quantic basically, you win thanks to the draft, and lose because you're bad. Makes me smile :P

GIH: Hahaha - Yeah, this is a common thing that is said in the Dota world, whether in a pub, a local scrim, or a big match between two professional teams. I definitely agree that execution always plays a role. A team that has a weaker draft but executes it better is likely to win very often. Perhaps in this case, at MLG, the teams with stronger drafts were also the teams executing better? In which case you and Bulba could both be correct.

7ckingMad: Exactly. He is actually quite right because at the end of the day, the teams with the most solid draft (in my opinion) won. But if you look at it differently: maybe the draft looked better because they executed it better. And nobody will ever know the real potential of the loser's draft, because it was poorly played.

GIH: Yes, that's a very good point. Similar to how history is written by the victors, Dota is also!

In my interview with bOne7 last week, we spoke about the increasing popularity of Mirana. bOne7 explained various reasons why the hero is strong but one of his reasons was to do with SingSing being an excellent Mirana player. At MLG your team made it clear that you think Mirana is a top pick, regardless of who plays it, first picking it in every game where it wasn't banned. Even Speed Gaming banned it against you when you had first pick in the semi-finals! Could you give me any insights into why you prioritized the hero so highly? Do you think it's objectively the best first pick at the moment or were there context-dependant reasons for this?

7ckingMad: It's context-dependant. First of all you need to have good Mirana players, of course. Not good micro-wise only, they need to understand how to use the hero, SingSing is one of those for sure. He actually single-handedly won game 2 against us, or at least he was the cause of all the troubles we had to face, and allowed them to come back from a very very difficult situation. This hero can be used for everything, it can be played mid, safelane, or offlane. It gives you great laning potential, it's strong in mid-game, in late-game. One other factor is that people are not yet used to play against POTM. For instance, if you play against Nature's Prophet, you know that he can teleport on you anytime, and you need to figure out a way out before that, etc. The same should be for Arrows & Moonlight Shadow, but it's not yet the case. A turning point of our game versus Liquid was us being able to dual-kill their offlane (dominating our safelane) thanks to Mirana's ultimate. They just were not ready for this play. Keeping your draft open as long as possible is, in my opinion, the key factor to outdraft your opponent.

GIH: So it's a very versatile pick and people aren't yet used to some of the things it can do? Do you expect it to gradually become a weaker pick, then, as people learn to play against it more? Or will its versatility triumph?

7ckingMad: Versatility will triumph. I have been betting on that for months now, it's just a matter of time. People complain about that patch making things random...I find it funny. Draft finally requires very good game understanding, getting Bat+Naix is not enough anymore, and it's the way it should be. If you look back at the drafts at the end of DotA 1, it looked very similar to what's going on right now.

GIH: I agree with you. In fact, in a previous post I made on this subject, I argue that the game has not become more random [certainly not in any harmful way] but rather it has become less passive. It seems to me that teams need to draft better and play better throughout the entire game now as opposed to just gaining small advantages then safely extending them throughout the game. Would you agree with this analysis?

7ckingMad: I completely agree.

GIH: Okay, moving back to Mirana then. The only two games you lost during the groupstage of MLG [versus Alliance and DK] were, strangely enough, both games where you did get Mirana. Do you feel that these teams handled what you wanted to do with Mirana better or is there no relation? If there is no relation, what do you think went wrong in these games?

7ckingMad: No I don't think it has anything to do with Mirana. We don't really have a gameplan around Mirana. The hero is just good at helping us achieve what we want. Those games were really different. The Alliance game came down to the draft in my opinion. I think we had a weaker draft, or at least we could not really pressure them as much as we should have. We still had the control of that game to a certain point. We did very crucial mistakes that allowed them to come back and punish us. The fact that they were Dire also played a big role in that game in my opinion. That's just bo1, it happens. The DK game was just us being very tired and not focused. We already qualified at that point, it was the last game of day 2, I think the fifth game of the day. Honestly we were exhausted, and our coordination just was not there. They were way stronger going into that game, they crushed us.

GIH: Right, well, as I said earlier on, sometimes the interesting explanation I am hoping for is just completely off the mark. The idea of not having a specific gameplan around Mirana leads me to my next question though.

Something else that I noticed about your drafts at MLG is the repeated picking of Clockwerk and/or Puck. You had one of these heroes in most games, and had one of them in every single game where you didn't get your Mirana. Relatedly, a post on your blog about initiation discusses the value of having heroes that are specifically good at initiating – you argue that a good initiation can win a fight, even for a team in a weaker position. I think this is true.

I have two questions. Firstly, were the Puck and Clockwerk picks [at MLG] designed mostly for this purpose – to have a very specific and powerful initiation hero? And secondly, is there any conscious relationship between not getting your Mirana and wanting the Clock/Puck more?

7ckingMad: Even though it has nothing to do with the answer, I'd like to thank you for the quality of your questions, it makes this discussion very interesting :D.

Well, I don't want to disappoint you but there is no link between not getting Mirana and picking Clock/Puck, or at least not a conscious one! Having initiators is key, unless your game plan allows you not to. We favor them also for their laning potential, and their ability to punish split push with ganks. I really think people underestimate the impact that the Gold & Experience graph had on DotA in general. It completely changed the approach competitive players have to the game. They think less about the line-ups, how to take fights, etc. We only hear about 'We had 10k gold advantage, and then we lost'. That sentence means nothing, really. If your 10k gold worth hero gets disabled, or just burst down before the fight starts, then how is that relevant? It's a feeling you have whenever you are just a spectator (example for DreamLeague), you feel like some players are really on the same page, and for others, it's just impossible to understand how they think (assuming there is something to understand ><)

GIH: Hahaha, thanks. Unfortunately, you've now pre-empted the question I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on Gold and Exp graphs! I noticed that you have commented on this many times this year. In one post you mentioned that sometimes the older or more experienced players have not had their psychology as affected by this as others and that this is a big advantage for them. In a live interview at MLG you mentioned that Na'Vi are a very difficult team to beat because they can take control of a game they are losing at any time so it means that even when you are far far ahead against them you still feel a lot of pressure. Do you think the combined experience in the industry within Na'Vi is the reason for their being able to do this? In other words, would you say they are probably better at not worrying about Gold and Exp graphs than other teams?

7ckingMad: Of course they are, I'm not even sure it is part of their vocabulary. Same goes for us, and lots of other teams. This is an advantage some teams have on others, that are new to the scene and DotA in general. Basically if the first contact you had to the game was with the G&E graph, then it is natural to worry a lot about it. It's really hard to explain with words, but some teams/players show by their plays that they understand what's going on, at any moment. And for other pro players, it's very easy to spot that. Whenever a team can end a game, and just rice-farm, then it becomes clear that this team is really weaker than others when it comes to game understanding. They might win regardless, because they played better or maybe sometimes are even more skilled, but in the long-term they will surely lose. It takes time, and losses, it really does :D

GIH: Necessary ingredients in any competitive player's development in any game or sport, I would say.

* * *

[End of Part one. Part two will follow tomorrow evening.]

You can follow 7ckingMad on Twitter @ or read his blog @

Follow Sigma on Twitter @ or on Facebook @