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. 

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting! As I draft for my team, i'll try to see an opportunity to try this strategy.
    Countering pick up strategy by bulldozering their base will be really enjoyable!!
    ty for that post and mostly for your blog!