Friday, September 14, 2012

What makes Rubick such a strong hero?

WARNING: This post is very long. In an effort to
help lazy readers, I've tried to highlight the key
points in each paragraph in red.

You might be wondering why it is that I think this is a question that needs answering. Maybe you think it’s self-evident – there is no need for explanation – Rubieq iz IMBA LOLOL! Maybe you’ve observed its dominance in professional DotA 2 for the past few months and are satisfied with the mere conclusion that the hero is extremely powerful. Perhaps you saw an interview with Puppey just before TI2 where he expressed the concern that the hero was uniquely difficult to manage – that is, that it wasn’t at all clear what to do against it. For me, the source of Rubick’s power has been very difficult to neatly capture or identify, despite having grappled with this question for several months now. I have assumed, therefore, that at least some of the more reflective members of the DotA2 community are similarly unable to pinpoint exactly what makes the hero tick. Thus, this post seeks to closely analyse the hero in order to uncover just what it is that makes it so effective in the professional DotA 2 scene

I should begin by admitting that I did not foresee Rubick’s rise to power. On the contrary, when the hero was added to the DotA 2 hero pool and the hype about it immediately began to build in the community, I spent a lot of time telling friends, teammates and forums that the hype was unfounded. I had played the hero several times back in DotA 1 after its initial design and had found it to be very much a sentimental hero , enjoying the Medivh model and the chaotic ultimate concept more than anything else but feeling that the spells were not well balanced for or appropriately fitted to competitive play. The hero went through various minor modifications, as most new heroes do, and while DotA players began to move into DotA 2, those that continued to play were quickly able to test out Rubick competitively, as it was added to the CM hero pool. While Rubick was available in CM, but not in DotA 2, it was picked primarily by Southeast Asian teams, relatively infrequently, and normally as a support hero. To me, it seemed interesting but experimental and thus I didn’t give it a lot of thought at this point. Several months later, Rubick was added to the DotA 2 hero pool, and subsequently the DotA 2 CM pool. Almost immediately we began to see Dendi, and then some other stars, playing the hero – especially in the solo mid role. This was a different sort of Rubick – often making very flashy plays and being commended for ‘doing lots of really cool stuff’ during games. This description might sound strange but, really, at first, and even now, this is close to the best explanation that has been available as to what is so scary about the hero. I found myself asking whether a player like Dendi couldn’t do ‘really cool stuff’ with a Tinker or an Invoker. What was unique to this hero? I was ready to accept at this point that the hero was being picked because it was new and novel and it had an exciting and dynamic ultimate which was very fun to play around with. 

Perhaps he's just great at collecting telephones
Rubick, I argued, did not scale well enough with items in order to justify the gold priority it was given as a solo mid hero but would also not cope well as a support hero given that its nuke and its disable were separate skills, both costing quite a lot of mana relative to an early game, low level mana pool. Yet, Visage (in DotA 1) had long since overcome the latter concern and proven itself as a very serious pick in the right lane and metagame. And not so long ago heroes like Lion had flourished in the solo mid role, despite not having skills which naturally scaled with gold. However, the mere existence of counter-examples was not enough to allay my fears about Rubick in particular. The hero has an ultimate that, except when used to counter specific picks, seemed to me to be highly circumstancial and thus potentially very unreliable. Its nuke has long casting range but deals a lot less damage than most serious early game nukes at its mana cost are expected to deal [compare level 1 Lina’s dragon slave dealing 100 damage for 90 mana with an 8.5 second cooldown with level 1 Rubick’s fade bolt being 150 mana for 75 damage with a 16 second cooldown]. Meanwhile, its disable doesn’t deal damage and both the air time and the stun time scale with levels [compare to level 1 sven or leshrac’s stun which have a 2 second duration, 100+ damage, AND disable aoe]. Lastly, the aura appears to offer only a minor consolation and only does so moving into mid-to-late game, presumably once the other two skills are maxed out [at which point it may already be too late to rescue the hero’s relevance]. Perhaps these comparisons are unfair or maybe Rubick’s strength comes from the sum of all his skills rather than any of them in isolation. In any event, today I am ready to say that my concerns were misguided and that I had grossly underestimated the hero. We know now that it is a very potent pick – the question is why?

It might be useful at this point to provide a few statistics related to the hero in order to contextualise the nature of the beast.

source: dota academy

source: dota buff

While the graphic to the left indicates that the hero is extremely popular amongst all those playing DotA 2, the information represented above shows clearly that Rubick is making waves in the competitive scene, seeing plenty of picks and bans - and of course wins. Something immediately interesting to note is the contrast between win rates displayed by these two representations. The former parses info only from competitive games while the latter parses info from all games. Perhaps the difference in win rate speaks to the fact that the hero is difficult to play or maybe it suggests that its strengths are inextricably linked to good teamplay. 

But statistics can never tell the full story – especially in this case, where the statistics merely serve to confirm our expectations. The key question as to why Rubick is such an excellent hero still remains. This leads me to the most important section of this post where I will now proceed to do a thorough analysis of each of Rubick’s skills in an attempt to highlight where the hero’s strengths truly lie. In each case I will begin with my previously mentioned concerns and then work towards what the contrasting virtues are. 


source: dota 2 wiki
For a disabling skill to be considered a major asset to the early game it normally requires that the skill deals significant damage, disables the enemy for a sizable duration or affects an AOE. While Telekinesis can sometimes provide an AOE stun, it can never be stunning the primary target as well as the secondary targets at the same time. This means that it is unlikely to be able to single-handedly disable all relevant threats in any given situation. Given that it also deals no damage, one would expect that the primary strength of the skill in the early game is the disabling of the primary target. Ok, fair enough, it starts at 1.5 seconds. This is a reasonable length for a disable. But it’s certainly not superior to standard disables like Crystal Maiden’s freeze or Lina or Sven’s stuns, all of which deal damage and 2 of which are AOE and have a longer stun duration at level 1. Granted, CM’s doesn’t disable all spells, Lina’s can miss and Sven is a melee hero. But the point here is that Rubick’s disable is not clearly better than other common disables in the early game. 

But here’s the flipside: what Telekinesis does do is move the primary target. This could be understood as additional duration disabled or can be used in combination with other abilities in order to help time or aim them. And even though the disabling time of Telekinesis has to scale with levels, if you manage to make use of the secondary stun component, even on one hero, the skill is effectively being responsible for 2.6 seconds of disable, at level 1. While I do have reservations about viewing this disable duration additively, one point is made clear here – a player who is better at executing Telekinesis well will do much more work to justify picking the hero. On that note, the skill does also allow for nifty tricks such as placing enemies on cliffs, trapping them or strategically destroying trees. However, ultimately, in the general case, we are looking at an average length single-target disable which doesn’t deal any damage.

Fade Bolt

source: dota 2 wiki
Fade Bolt, as alluded to earlier, can deal significant damage but mostly after it is levelled up and initially at a very high cost. At 150 mana, I feel hard done by with 75 damage at level 1, especially with a 16 second cooldown. This time the positives are a lot easier to spot, though. Firstly, Fade Bolt bounces from the primary target to multiple other targets. While each jump does deal less damage, the reduction is only 4% per jump, meaning that a level 4 Fade Bolt that is cast on one hero and bounces immediately to another two heroes will deal 864 damage in total to those heroes, more than a level 3 Finger of Death. Of course there is much to be said for damage that is split up being compared to single target burst damage, but the sheer amount of damage that Fade Bolt can output is worthy of recognition. Perhaps a more suitable comparison would be to Shadow Shaman’s Ether Shock which can deal 960 damage in the same situation, but would require all 3 enemies to be standing in a fairly neat cone shape relative to the Shadow Shaman. In contrast, Rubick’s Fade Bolt bounces to all enemies within 500 range of its most recent target. But this is not a cut-and-dry advantage since Ether Shock can deal the full 320 damage to up to seven targets. Either way, the fact that the potential damage output is even close to Shadow Shaman’s is very impressive, given that Ether Shock is considered to be an extremely powerful nuke. 

But wait, there’s more. Rubick’s Fade Bolt doesn’t just deal damage. It has a secondary effect: it reduces enemy units’ damage. Enemy heroes hit by a level 1 Fade Bolt will have their damage reduced by 14 and by level 4 Fade Bolt this reduction has more than doubled to a whopping 32. This reduction can single-handedly win a Rubick a solo lane - considering the fact that Rubick and his enemy will normally be hitting for roughly 50 damage per hit at the start, a 14 damage reduction is more than quarter of that amount -  and can dramatically affect team-fights in mid or even late game where multiple enemies are hit by Fade Bolt and all have their damage reduced for 10 seconds. Given the 10 second cooldown that the skill has at level 4, it is quite possible for a well-played Rubick to consistently keep an enemy hero or multiple heroes dealing 32 less damage. This begins to echo a point made about Telekinesis: although perhaps less so, it would seem that a good Rubick player will be able to make significantly more use of Fade Bolt than a weak one. In the late game, deciding who to target and when to cast Fade Bolt will be important and in the early game managing one’s mana and not letting this extremely powerful harassing spell go to waste will be vital. In addition to offering the beginning of a good explanation for Rubick’s strength as a hero, this section has also uncovered one possible reason for a preference to solo the hero – it ought to be very difficult to solo against.

Null Field

source: dota 2 wiki
There isn’t really that much to say about Null Field. As stated earlier, the percentage of spell resistance that it grants you and your teammates seems reasonably low and it is most likely that you will max this skill last. Speaking to its benefit, however, is the fact that the aura has a very big radius at 900 – having a small aoe would be a bit self-defeating as it would encourage bunching which would render Rubick’s team open to huge spell damage in team fights anyway. But this sounds more like an apology than an advert for the skill. 

In reality, the main strength of Null Field came as a bit of a surprise to me and is the kind of discovery that I really welcome because it reminds one to give serious and precise thought to the numbers involved in DotA. At level 4, Null Field provides a 20% spell reduction to all nearby allies. What this means is that any incoming AOE spell damage which hits your entire team is dealing 20% less to EACH hero, the equivalent [in terms of total damage reduced] of one of those 5 heroes not being damaged at all. Of course, this analogy is a little bit contrived. But it is merely designed to draw out initial intuitions about just how much damage the ability is responsible for reducing. A more concrete example, which will hopefully end this discussion right here, involves a comparison between the relative effects of Null Field and Mekansm in 5v5 fights. Given the game that DotA2 is at the moment, it is reasonable to expect 5v5 clashes to occur fairly often – in fact, recently we've even seen a large number of cases in which most or all of one team is caught by a Black Hole or Vacuum followed by a big AOE combo. At level 3, Sandking’s ultimate deals 1110 in total. Qop ulti deals 600. Adding these numbers to the damage from a Vacuum or Black Hole you begin to approach a very important number: 1250 [in the case of Qop not quite but in the case of SK you’ll probably exceed it…these kind of details don’t seem vital here]. See, 250 is 20% of 1250. That means that any time that Rubick’s aura is on you and you would take 1250 damage, 250 of that damage is reduced. But 250 is also the amount of health healed by Mekansm – an item whose popularity will surely speak for itself. So the bottom line here is that in big fights where you might encounter scary AOE, it could often be the case that Null Field provides as much as a Mek heal. Of course, this depends on Rubick being near enough to his allies when the time comes and also on the team being caught by huge AOE spell damage not being enough to tip the battle with or without the reduction. But again, a good player on Rubick will know to be within 900 range of the relevant allies at the relevant times and at these times will PASSIVELY be contributing very significantly to the fight [following which he will no doubt steal half the aoe and recast it on the enemy team!].

Spell Steal

source: dota 2 wiki
Unfortunately, I will have to disappoint those readers who were expecting this to be some kind of climax. While it might intuitively seem like the ultimate has the most to say about it – I’ve found analysis to go in the opposite direction. It’s obvious why Spell Steal can be a really great Skill. In the early game you can steal whichever nuke or disable is most useful to maintain control of your lane. In the mid game, there is normally a Morphling or AM or Qop on the other team to borrow blink or wave form from, providing really good mobility and optimizing the use of Rubick’s other skills. In the late game [though not only the late game, obviously], big gamebreaking ultimates can be stolen from enemies during clutch situations to turn the tide of battle. 

What I want to say about Spell Steal is mostly an echoing of sentiments which have run throughout my praises for all of Rubick’s other skills. The skill’s significance is very closely related to the ability of the person playing the Rubick. There are so many ways to play this hero badly, and even more ways to use its ultimate badly. If you are looking for new spells too often your team might struggle to keep track of what you have, your impact might be too inconsistent in battles and, most plainly and importantly, you’re not likely to usually have the most appropriate skill you could have at the time. You could also end up putting yourself in danger if you become to obsessed with stealing spells. On the other hand, if you Spell Steal very rarely, the enemy team will have time to see what you have stolen and adapt accordingly and, again, you’re also less likely to have the right things at the right times. Lastly, because you will gain new skills throughout the game, the hero is unlike any other. Depending on the heroes on the enemy team, your game could vary dramatically one game to the next. So you need to be able to learn and adapt very fast and work out what is appropriate where if you want to make proper use of this ultimate. 

So maybe not 'collecting' as much as stealing telephones, then.
Concluding comments

So Rubick is capable of reducing incoming damage of both types, is a badass in a solo lane, has a very versatile disable and an ultimate which can be both unpredictable and gamechanging. Having recognized that the hero's skills can all actually be quite devastating, there are few final comments I’d like to make. Most important is the fact that my initial concerns about this hero are still concerns which I see as being entirely legitimate. This wasn’t a case of me being wrong about the hero having certain disadvantages but rather a case of me overlooking various advantages that it also had. When analysing competitive DotA 2, it is incredible how much perspective can inform the content of your conclusions. To demonstrate this point by example: earlier on I mentioned that I had reservations about Rubick in the early game because his nuke and his disable were separate skills. From another perspective this could be an advantage - since it allows one to nuke what needs nuking and disable what needs disabling in cases where those things are not one and the same.

Beyond having to shift my perspective a bit in order to learn the true strengths of the hero, I’ve also realised that Rubick is the kind of hero that will perform a lot better in the hands of a more capable player. While this is trivially true at a basic level for all heroes, it deserves particular mention here alongside heroes such as Invoker or perhaps [more controversially] Nature’s Prophet. Rubick has a lot of skills to master, some of which change every game and most of which require technical execution to maximize his impact. His positioning is also key in battles and proper positioning is something that is normally learnt only very late in a pro DotA player’s development. Lastly, despite my earlier mockery of the notion that Rubick is good simply because it 'can do lots of cool things', this way of looking at the hero actually seems quite appropriate. That is to say, it is worth highlighting the fact that all of the above virtues of Rubick result in the hero being extremely versatile, able to fill many different roles - and this is further amplified by the most popular item builds for the hero at the moment which utilize items like force staff and blink dagger to make the hero even more versatile within whichever role it is playing in a given game. 

Thank you to everyone who took the time to read this post - even those who only read the highlighted bits. I would appreciate any constructive criticism or feedback that you have, especially since this is the first post I am making and the manner in which it is received will probably determine the amount of time and effort I put into future posts.

* * *

As a special bonus for all those who have read this far [or happened to scroll their page to this area] I managed to get hold of a few prominent members of the community for brief comment addressing the question posed in the header of this post. Here is what they had to say.

durka: "Rubick is an amazing all round hero, he fills most major roles in the current meta-game, posing a strong threat to natural solo mid heroes due to his fade bolt ability which allows him to lane control. On top of this, he can fit into a multitude of support roles and is an incredible skirmisher, which is largely what the current game of Dota 2 is about (skirmish to gain an advantage through towers or kills). With his telekenesis ability, he can gain control of team fights with smart positional moves and of course his passive is almost a free hood in aura form. All of this without even mentioning his ultimate. What an ultimate. Regardless of the composition of the enemy team, Rubick will always find a useful spell to steal, whether it be a big ravage from Tidehunter or a timely blink from Anti-mage, Rubick is definitely a force to be reckoned with."

Dendi: "[The] hero can be used in any possible way. That makes him strong."

Wagamama: "I believe that Rubick is so strong because of several reasons. He can steal any big ultimate and have huge impact in teamfights, but he also has superior laning with Fade bolt, easy ganks with tele, and the aura also blends in very nicely. This makes him reduce both magical AND physical damage output, which is quite unique."