Thursday, October 24, 2013

Game is harder: Part one

Luna is 12-3 in competitive Dota 2 since the patch was added to the client - which is very impressive when contrasted against a 45% total win rate [including these 15 results]. Everyone is trying to make Nightstalker and Lycanthrope work, Shadow Shaman is beginning to re-emerge as a competitive pick, Pugna is actually a thing, dual lanes are starting to become popular, and Lich has gone from a non-consideration to an autoban or first pick.

Big patches are always exciting for me. Everyone is talking about the new patch and trying to analyze the extent to which the game will change and in what ways it is about to change [or has already changed!]. I like to think that metagame in Dota is sufficiently complex to make it very difficult to predict changes purely by looking at changelogs - Icefrog and co., by virtue of the way patches are released, seem to agree. We are likely to see small tweaks to various of the latest changes in the upcoming weeks. Which is to say, a lot of the time, working out how the new metagame is going to look is more a matter of playing it out than a matter of thinking it through. There is therefore a very real limit to the amount of meaningful analysis one can do on this sort of topic. That said, I intend to give it a go here. However, instead of just pointing to a list of interesting facts about the patch, I plan to present a singular thread of conceptual change - particularly, I will argue that this patch is yet another step towards making the game less passive. In order to do so, I will draw on a multitude of changes from the changelog. Finally, I will defend the claim that this is a positive move for the game.

Before 6.79

First, I should explain very briefly why I use the qualifier 'yet another' above. I won't spend too much time on this but here are a few examples of how previous patches have tried to move the game away from more passive playstyles or mindsets.  To begin with, we've seen some controversial changes to Captain's Mode this year:

- Captain's Mode bans changed from 2/3 to 2/2/1
- Captain's Mode picks changed from 3/2 to 2/2/1

The change to CM which came before these had changed the beginning of the draft from 3 bans into 2 pick to 2 bans into 3 picks. This appeared to be a clear attempt to force teams out of their comfort zones, introduce more variety into the metagame, and guarantee that teams would have to face at least some heroes they didn't want to. The above change follows a similar conceptual motivation, I think. Here what the change does is make the draft more interactive. Because the bans happen in three stages instead of two these days, it's harder for a team to sit back at any point in the draft and assume they'll get the rest of the picks they want. There are three opportunities for the other team to interfere with your draft, two of which come with plenty of information about it.

Meanwhile, the June 4th changelog also made it easier to reach level 11 quickly:

- Level 11 XP requirements reduced from 6500 to 6000
- Level 12 XP requirements increased from 7700 to 8200

This change is almost irrelevant for carry heroes which don't usually rely on their ultimates. Moreover, carry heroes are usually happy to spend a lot of time passively farming - thus the exact time when they reach any given level is a lot less significant than it is for other heroes. So this change buffs solos and supports. And what do you know, these are usually the ganking heroes. Further, we saw a change that would anticipate one of the 6.79 changes:

- Deny XP and Bonus XP/Gold AOE is now the same as regular XP AOE (1000->1200)

The direct result of this being an easier time in the offlane for offlaners, who were struggling to avoid being zoned out of lane by creep pulls and harassment - thus leading to a strange situation in which teams more or less stopped picking heroes to actually lane the offlane. Rather, we spent most of this year seeing heroes which can jungle or interfere with creep movements going to the offlane. Making it easier to offlane increases the diversity of heroes that can lane there and increases the pressure on heroes farming in the safe lane, thus reducing a team's ability to win a game solely via passive and controlled farm.

In addition to these changes, many others have been made during the course of the year in a similar vein - most notable are those which rearranged the structures of gaining gold via ganks and retaining gold [in terms of reliable and unreliable gold]. There seems to be a resounding sentiment in Icefrog's team that the game is better where it's less passive.


Here I will discuss 10 changes from the 6.79 changelog, grouped under two broad headings of 'Map changes' and 'Item changes'. Specific hero changes will not be discussed during this post - though I would suggest that even those are in support of my thesis statement here.

Map changes:

1. Creep pulls are less relevant early on. This is evidenced by two changes in the changelog.

* Swapped the medium pullable Neutral Camp with the small camp

This change means that supports will struggle to deny exp to the offlaner and get exp for themselves quickly, even if they stack the camp before pulling. But this is not entirely a nerf to supports who will be able to clear these camps faster if they want a quick level 2 before ganking.

* Non-Ancient Neutrals now split XP with all heroes in the AoE instead of just the team that killed them

This change means that offlaners who manage to not get completely zoned out can gain exp just by being near enemy creep pulls and can thus get denied significantly less in the process, undermining one major purpose of the pulls. Perhaps more significantly, as Akke emphasizes, this change makes it a lot easier for teams to use aggressive tri-lanes. Where supports might be able to zone out an offlaner, they won't be able to zone out an enemy trilane - meaning that 3v3 lanes will not be decided by safe creep pulling but rather actual interactions between the heroes.

2. Offlaning is now a lot easier. This is directly related to the changes above but also supported by two further changes in the changelog.

* Creeps now meet a bit closer to the tower in your offlane

The changelog here is perhaps understating this change when it says 'a bit'. The change, in fact, is significant enough such that pro teams are beginning to consider blocking creeps in the safe lane, despite all the potential issues that come with that. Either way, it's a lot harder for the safe lane farmer to simply hold creep equilibrium at the most beneficial position in lane without giving it a moment's thought. This gives offlaners more leg room to get exp early on [and also improves aggressive tri-lanes or dual lanes for obviously reasons].

* Ranged Heroes now get the same denied experience as melee heroes (instead of less) 
* XP AoE increased from 1200 to 1300

These changes echo the sentiments of the similarly flavoured change from the June 4th patch mentioned above. However, the previous change was not extreme enough. Despite it being easier in theory to lane more things in the offlane after the June 4 change, in practice the offlane continued to be a lane which wasn't actually laned in but rather served as the lane for which you'd need a unique plan for in any given game. Increasing the AoE for gaining XP complements the above changes very well and makes it near impossible for an offlaner to be completely held to level 1 with zero experience at the start of the game. Meanwhile, the more interesting change is the one which levels ranged and melee heroes in terms of XP denied. While the status quo before this change was a huge deterrent against picking ranged offlaners, with that deterrent gone, ranged heroes come back into play there - even if they can't perform special tricks like farming ancients or jungle. One upshot of this is that carries will be finding it a bit harder to farm uninterrupted in such situations, unless their supports are permanently at hand.

3. Buyback is nerfed as a tool for passive control. While buying back is still an option, it now comes with a very serious cost. Icefrog has repeatedly tried to nerf buyback and failed to achieve the desired result but this time I think he's done a great job.

* Buyback prevents gaining unreliable gold (creeps, neutrals, etc) until your normal respawn time finishes
* When buying back, 25% of the remaining respawn time will be added to your next death

Both the changes above result in a situation where it is only profitable to buy back either to rejoin an ongoing fight, or out of necessity to defend or attack some key objective. We certainly will not be seeing people buying back willy-nilly [and rage-buyouts in pubs will be significantly disincentivized]. This change is excellent in that it manages to preserve buybacks just as far as we value having them in the game. If a team plans carefully with their gold and takes particular fights on the basis of having buyback gold [cough, Alliance, cough], surely they deserve some reward? So buyback is not nerfed enough to make the clutch buybacks less clutch but nerfed just enough to make any other kind of buyback into a very big decision. The direct consequence of this is that teams have one less way to passively control the game just by having more gold.

4. Roshan's respawn time is unreliable. There isn't an awful lot to say about this one. As above, reducing the certainty a team can have of what time Roshan will respawn reduces their capacity to passive transform advantage into further advantage. Guaranteed Roshan kills is just another way that a team could grind out advantages until their economic advantage was eventually too significant to be able to defend against. 

* Roshan will respawn at a random time between 8 and 11 minutes after death

Of course, both teams will still be writing down when Roshan dies but now they will have to act as if Roshan is alive from the 8 minute marker, despite his only respawning any time within the next 3 minutes. This may force a team that really needs Roshan to commit a lot more time and resources to it and thus offer the enemy team some breathing room to catch up. Meanwhile, it also increases the chance of a team winning a fight and then getting Roshan, without the Roshan being an intended consequence of the fight itself. While some may think this 'randomness' is undesirable, I believe that some degree of randomness is necessary for the game to remain complex and exciting and I think randomness in cases which usually favour the underdog is the best kind of randomness to have. And yet, Icefrog thought of this too, to counterbalance this one somewhat:

* When Aegis expires unused, it heals the hero fully over 5 seconds (regen dispels on damage from players or buildings)

So while it's harder to force Roshan kills, the reward of killing Roshan is greater. Enemy teams that correctly anticipate the time that Aegis runs out and pounce on the Aegis holder as it goes down will still be able to kill that hero but in all other cases where Aegis is unused throughout its duration, it can still offer a reward to the Aegis holder. This is especially significant in cases where the Aegis holder makes a good decision [and certainly the kind of decision which encourages active engagement rather than passive control] to play aggressively in order to make use of the Aegis but perhaps just doesn't quite manage to die.

5. Gold acquisition is faster. Heroes getting gold slightly faster will probably not make a huge impact on core heroes. However, supports benefit massively from this.

* Gold for ending a spree changed from 75->600 (3x->10x) to 125->1000* Your gold income is now 1 per 0.6 seconds, up from 1 per 0.8 seconds

The income change means that all heroes will have gained 1000 income gold after 10 minutes. Previously this figure would have been 750 gold. While 250 gold at the 10 minute mark might not be significant for core heroes, it's extremely significant for supports, as is the difference at the 5 minute mark which is 125 gold. This means, for example, that support heroes which would usually get into a position where they might have to decide between boots and more wards at 5 minutes will now be able to buy both. Meanwhile, supports will continue to benefit from this income throughout the game, often as their main source of income and thus the effect of this change cannot be understated. Supports being less poor means supports being less useless which in turn means supports being able to actively do more things in the game throughout the game. Lastly, the increase to how much gold you get for ending sprees echoes sentiments above in that it increases the importance of decision-making throughout the game, rather than weighting decisions made earlier above those made later. It's now a bigger deal if a core hero who has enjoyed major success all game slips up at any given point in time and dies. While it's reasonable for a player's early good decisions to act as insurance against their later bad decisions, the situation needs to be more balanced than it's previously been and these kinds of changes do well to work in that direction.

Part two can be found below or @ In part two I discuss the effect of various item changes in 6.79 and conclude by arguing in defence of changing Dota into a less passive game.

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