Nature of Carries
What is Farm Dependency
Role of Semicarries
How do we allocate farm
Qualities of Supports
Doing more with less
Yin and Yang of Lineups
What does it all mean
Turn off Focus Mode [x]
Farm Allocation and
The Nature of Carrying
The 2014 International Group Stage has been, for lack of a better word, perplexing. Team performances have been volatile, with former favorites looking on the verge of elimination and completely written-off underdogs in competition for the top spots. It's safe to say that year represents the least pronounced hierarchy in International history.
At the same time, the current 6.81 patch also represents the fuzziest period of hero balance in Dota 2, and perhaps these two facts are related. While last years International had a good degree of strategic variance, it was ultimately dominated by 4-protect-1 strategies with heavy support jungling (and Wisp/Io). But changes in 6.79 put an end to that dominance, and now we're left with a TI4 metagame that has been all over the place.
This same lack of clearly established hierarchy is also apparent in the heroes themselves. To the surprise of many, Razor and Skywrath Mage have emerged as the most picked heroes of the tournament despite having a negligible presence in the months of 6.81 prior to the tournament. But for all the attention that they've received, neither hero has been dominant thus far. At the end of the 2nd day, Razor and Skywrath have win rates of 47.6% and 45.5% respectively, which certainly aren't unreasonably low win rates given such a small sample size, but still a far cry from TI2 when Rubick put up 62.5% over 80 games and Morphling 57.1% over 77 games.
All Data provided by datDota.com and accurate as of July 10th for TI2014 and July 1st for 6.81
If that's too much ancient history, we could go back to last year where Chen put up 62.5% over 64 games and an entire list of heroes (Visage, Weaver, Lifestealer, Dark Seer, Bane, Gyrocopter, Naga Siren, and Puck) filled the top 15 picked list with ~55% win rates. By comparison, so far only 4 of the top 15 picked heroes in the 2014 Group Stage (Enigma, Shadow Shaman, Doom, and Wraith King) have put up a >55% win rate, and all of those are support picks or generalist utility heroes that fit into a wide variety of lineups. It's certainly not a new sentiment, but 6.81 is the most wide open hero pool in Dota 2 history.
As cool as that fact is, the downside is it can make it extremely difficult to figure out what's going on with hero picks? Why do some pairings work while others flounder? Why is a particular hero's performances so extremely mercurial? Why is Mirana such a bad carry? Well, what I'm going to try to accomplish here today is to provide you with a framework that explains the mechanics that govern hero interaction in Dota, and to begin that we need to start with the concept of Farm Dependency.
and the definition of "Carry"
A while back I came up with an extremely simple statistical test. I take a ton of high level pub games, and I measure the correlation between a particular hero's rate of farm and whether they win the game. With some outside help, I now have a slightly more advanced version that you can read about here, but the general principle is the same.
People will of course complain about correlation != causation, but I feel quite strongly that the correlation here is not spurious. You can find all kind of stupid correlations if you just rub two random sets of numbers together, but it's clearly not the case that farm and winning are unrelated variables I just picked out of a hat. Every time we open the gold graph in-game we do so under the assumption that gold advantages create wins, and when we encounter major come-from-behind victories, we measure them by the size of the gold lead that was overcome. From there it's an incredibly small step to theorize that certain leads are more or less stable by virtue of the heroes on the right and wrong ends of the deficit. Here's an example of what I found from patch 6.80:
The ratings are just a representation of the strength of correlation and have no particular unit of measurement
Don't get caught up in the particular rankings, as there's a good degree of fluidity from test to test. Partly this is an issue of sample size, and partly this is just Dota's wonderfully hazy ambiguity that you eventually come to love. There are certain factors that I feel might systemically over and underrate certain heroes. And on top of both of those points there is also the issue of differences between pub and competitive culture. But aside those concerns, there is a specific consistency in the heroes that populate the tops of these lists: they always have some form of innate right click scaling.
In a pattern that is infinitely repeated throughout all of Dota's mechanics, there's a tension between the flat damage potential of nukes and the scaling damage potential of right click. During the early-mid game, nuke damage is high relative to HP pools, but you have extremely limited means to amplify it through gold. As the game progresses and heroes continue to level up, these Nukes have a reduced probability of determining team fights relative to right click pressure. Unlike Nuke damage, there's a plethora of itemization items that boost right click damage, and what's more they do it in an multiplicative manner because each new right-click stat stick amplifies the effects of the items you already have. Traditional carries are carries because they have some kind of ability that essentially acts like a free right-click item that gives them a headstart in the race. The crit on heroes like Juggernaut, Wraith King, and Chaos Knight is like a free mini-Crystalys, Phantom Lancer's Juxtapose is like a perpetual Manta Style machine, and Anti-Mage's Mana Burn is like an innate Diffusal Blade, minus the active of course.
Aggressive right click damage also tends to trump defensive builds in the long run, and it's easy to see why that is.
First, defensive itemization is, likely intentionally, not very optimized. Most of your big armor items aren't exclusively personal survivability items, but also come budgeted with a lot of additional utility, such as Assault Cuirass, Shiva's Guard, Armlet, and Mekansm. And Vanguard is very explicitly designed not to scale very well into the late game.
Second, long games tend to revolve around 5v5s. A team that just invested a bunch of defensive items into say a Centaur Warrunner or Necrolyte will just find that the opposing team's carry can outrace them in eliminating the other 4 members, leaving them isolated and helpless. This is why when it comes to building defensively as a team, value pickups like Mekansm, Force Staff, and Ghost Scepter tend to be far more important than just big stacks of HP and Armor.
For an actual example of this effect at the International, you can look at the first game of the play-in match between MVP Phoenix and Team Liquid. MVP Phoenix actually had a sizable gold lead early, but they spent most of it on survivability and utility items like the Mek, Blink, and Shiva's on Doom, the Vanguard, Pipe, Blademail, and Heart on Bristleback, and the Skadi and Blink on Slark. In a vacuum none of these are bad choices, particularly the Slark items, but MVP had a true tri-core team with relatively low scaling carries in Bristleback and Slark. MVP desperately needed one of their three carries to build around personal aggression, probably either the Doom or Bristle, and both an Assault Cuirass and Vlad's would have potentially been valuable given the three melee carries and for reducing the physical damage of Death Prophet's ultimate through the armor auras.
For yet another example, try Na`Vi vs Titan. Once again you have a lineup with a pair of low scaling carries in Viper and Bristleback, and they're facing a sort of enrage timer in the Radiance Naga. Na`Vi has a pretty sizable gold advantage as much as thirty minutes in, but that gold advantage is tied up in two Hearts, a Pipe, and an Aghanim's for Viper. Again, none of these are indefensible choices in isolation, but in the context of the match conditions, Na`Vi's lack of some source of straight damage left them incapable of closing the game.
Third, and in some ways most importantly, right click damage is important for objective control. Roshan, towers, and barracks are extremely important, and teams without a strong carry often struggle to take these in a timely fashion. There are, of course, exceptions as we'll get to shortly.
Finally, I'd just like to add that I hate the term "Hard Carry." The use of this term tends to revolve around discussions about a scenario involving a 6-slotted 1v1 that is so exceedingly rare as to be virtually non-existent. There is, of course, a ton of variation within carries, but it's far more nuanced than we give it credit for.
Furthermore, there's something implicitly desirable in the standard conception of the hard carry, when extreme farm dependence is just as much a curse as it is a blessing. Anti-Mage is in some ways the archetype of extreme farm dependence, but the dark side is that if an Anti-Mage player fails to crack 4 creep kills a minute by the end of pub game, they have something like a 25% win rate, which basically comes out to this massive bulge of risk that only Shadow Fiend even remotely approaches in degree.
And when we talk about hard carries, we often fail to distinguish between heroes like Anti-Mage that desperately need to consume more CS than anyone at all stages of the game to stay relevant from heroes that simply want the game to go late. One potentially interesting example of this is LGD's use of Spectre in LGD vs Fnatic. Instead of trying to build a defensive pocket around Spectre, LGD drafts incredibly greedily with Doom, Razor, and Batrider. The goal here is to create so much noise that Spectre will have the breathing room to find farm in the midgame. Perhaps it only worked as a response to a Tinker lineup, but it demonstrates how thinking of Spectre as a "hard carry" might limit you conceptually when it comes to thinking about the types of lineups she might work in.
Scaling of a Different Sort:
"Semi-Carry" is an incredibly broad term that encompasses a wide array of heroes that probably have no business being grouped together, but I have no better terminology so here we go. At it's most basic, it illustrates the face that there exist plenty of heroes that are not carries, that is they do not have meaningful right click scaling, but still warrant a farming role. Like I emphasized earlier, Dota is built around a tension between inert lumps of raw power and stronger yet speculative promises of limitless future potential. Scaling doesn't always win, because sometimes that inert lump robs you of your future.
One recent example, though not from the International, was Alliance's Aghs-Refresher Silencer at DreamLeague. Silencer does have a form of right click scaling in his Glaives, but it's one that has never proven to be potent enough to run with the actual carries. Maybe that's changed some since his Agi buff, but regardless, Aghs->Refresher is not a carry build. Instead, it invests a ton of gold into putting this big lump of global damage and silence into play. If Silencer successfully gets to that point (which can be easier said then done) and you can't survive through the brutal teamfights, then it doesn't matter how much scaling his team has given up by investing in him instead of an actual carry.
Another, less investment intensive example is Necrolyte. Let me answer a million stupid pug arguments by saying that Necrolyte is definitively not a carry, and yet the most successful pub hero in 6.81 still deserves a farming role. For an example of how this works at TI, we have Necrolyte's only appearance of the tournament as a safelane farmer in EG vs Fnatic. EG recognizes that a Necrolyte/Dragon Knight/Tidehunter is not a monster late-game trio, but they have no intention of letting this go late. Necrolyte's Death Pulse both makes for incredibly sustained pushes, with Dragon Knight's ult and Eidolons providing the bulk of the tower damage, and also amplifies an already monstrously bulky team given Dragon Knight and Tidehunter's defensive passives, Enigma's early Mek, and Abaddon for shielding and additional Mist Coil healing. Oh, and you'll be teamfighting into Black Hole and Ravage. Necrolyte is, at best, a situational pickup, but he works perfectly here as the centerpiece for a low investment, extremely tanky push comp.
I alluded 6.79's demise of the 4-protect-1 dominance earlier, and the biggest beneficiary of this shift is the high-investment semi-carry, or at least, high-investment semi-carries not named Storm Spirit. And I begrudgingly have to admit that this shift has made Tinker a significantly more viable option. I disagree with the people who consider him overpowered, he's still extremely vulnerable to early disruption and any spectacular game can immediately be followed by disaster, but he does pretty well provided you can slip him into a draft without him getting banned or countered.
Ironically, my favorite Tinker draft of TI2014 so far comes from Team Liquid. It's ironic because my least favorite Tinker draft of 2013 was also Team Liquid. But then again, if you had told me before the tournament that the most productive roaming support duo was going to be Bulba and waytosexy, I would have just assumed you had arrived in Seattle early and needed to kill some time. In summary, Team Liquid is a land of many contrasts.
Anyway, the challenge to a Tinker draft is three-fold. One, he needs to have space created where he can farm to get online. Two, he needs a team around him that can accomplish things without him for long stretches at a time. Three, that team needs to do this in a low farm environment while March of the Machines gobbles up entire lanes. Good Tinker players will be mindful to try to not starve their team too much, but the team will still be eating table scraps.
In Liquid vs Newbee, Liquid runs a well-tailored draft around all of these pressures. Tinker's complementary cores are Ursa and Brewmaster, both extremely low maintenance heroes both in terms of lane protection and farm needed. This allows Liquid's Wraith King and Skywrath duo to spend more of the early game running interference for Tinker at mid. Meanwhile, Wraith King and Ursa put Ursa into play extremely early, which again, buys time for Tinker. Finally, Liquid's draft is perfect for dragging out fights with Reincarnate and Primal Split. This gives Tinker ample time to teleport in and set up multiple Rearm combos. It's the kind of conceptually sound draft that you can't just put together by looking up hero synergies on Dotabuff.
Two heroes that you might have found conspicuously missing from my earlier carry list are Ember Spirit and Naga Siren, so let me take some time to address them.
Naga Siren never shows up very high on my farm dependency lists. Perhaps this is because she gets played as support a lot; I can't reliably differentiate between support Naga Siren and disastrous carry Naga Siren from an endgame stat sheet. What I find though is that Naga Siren is relatively inefficient at turning massive amounts of farm into wins. She shares this feature with Tinker and Nature's Prophet, two other heroes who have the potential to farm in such a way that they starve the rest of their team out of gold. So maybe the system underrates poor Naga because of the careless people playing here.
But I'm increasingly of the opinion that Naga Siren operates differently from the traditional carry. Phantom Lancer in his prime also never scored that high in terms of farm dependency and people found this outrageous, but in a lot of cases, Phantom Lancer wins games through avoiding fights and creating tower attrition. It's quite possible that as a strategy this is much less farm dependent than winning a 5v5 and more of a Boolean check on whether the opposing team has the proper tools and disposition to exterminate rats. My theory is that, in a vacuum, core Naga functions under a similar dynamic. In the Na`Vi vs Titan game I mentioned earlier, Viper and Bristleback simply did not have the tools to deal with Naga in the lategame and they didn't push early enough to avoid having to deal with the late-game.
But Naga isn't especially popular right now, so let's talk about Ember Spirit. Ember Spirit is the poster boy for not-a-carry acceptance, because being successful with the hero is absolutely dependent upon realizing that he should not be played as a carry.
Carries, as I've defined it, are heroes that have some form of innate right click scaling. Ember Spirit only has Sleight of Fist, and Sleight operates extremely differently. For starters, it provides no tower pushing or Roshan, which is a liability for any team foolishly running Ember Spirit as their only 'carry.'
Possibly more importantly, consider what Sleight of Fist is. It's an incredibly ranged AoE attack on an eventual 5 second cooldown. That cooldown is important because one of the things that right click damage scales with is attack speed, and not only does Sleight not benefit from attack speed at all, it also effectively sets Ember to only having one attack every 5 seconds, plus whatever other autoattacks you can weave between if the situation allows. In terms of late-game damage potential, Sleight is garbage compared to any actual carry's right click and its advantage is in the distance and safety the spell provides compared to heroes in the middle of the fight. As a result, the lategame Ember relies on drawing the fight out and landing multiple sleights without a full-on engagement.
This is fine because Sleight of Fist is a red herring and Ember's real value lies in his crazy mid-game dives and damage. Pair him with a standard carry in your safe lane and your team composition no longer cares about Ember's weaknesses.
But another interesting option that has made an appearance at TI4 is to simply force the enemy into a base siege at the height of Ember's power curve, and this relies on another semi-carry in the form of Pugna. One of the weaknesses of most semi-carries relative to standard carries is the lack of objective control. Tinker, for example, is often seen as a pusher, but his actual building damage is anemic at best. Pugna, however, is a little wrecking ball whose push lineups are perfect for forcing teams to make the decision between 5v5ing on your terms or not having a Barracks.
iG vs EG is a great example of this kind of Pugna push comp designed to force you into a very painful teamfight. Pugna's building assault creates an early push opportunity. If you attempt to passively defend you're dealing with the siege potential of Sleight of Fist and Elder Titan's Astral Spirit. If you charge, Doom and his ult Doom, and the combo of Searing Chains into Skywrath's Mystic Flare, and doing all this while in the range of Pugna's ward and Elder Titan's Natural Order. It's a brutal set of circumstances, and if it seems familiar it's because DK ran the same Ember/Pugna/Elder Titan trio in the finals at StarSeries. Good on iG for taking notes.
Since Semi-carry is a huge and impossibly vague label, I'd like to propose a few poorly-named sub-categories to make it easier to think about what's going on.
Hard Semi-Carries: These heroes behave very similarly to standard carries, just with a greater emphasis on momentum over gold. Examples: Ember Spirit, Tinker, Naga Siren, arguably Outworld Devourer and Storm Spirit
High Investment Utility Semi-Carries: These heroes don't need as much momentum to fill their role, but they do require favorable laning conditions. Examples: Pugna, Necrolyte, Silencer, Invoker, Kunkka. Queen of Pain and Zeus might be halfway between this category and Hard Semi-Carries. Puck might be halfway between this and the next category of...
Low Investment Utility Semi-Carries: These heroes neither need momentum nor a favorable lane. A big part of their value is how capable they are of thriving anywhere. Examples: Brewmaster, Dark Seer, Clockwerk, Batrider, Bounty Hunter, Tidehunter, Elder Titan, Centaur Warrunner.
Pseudo-Carry Semi-Carries: These guys look a lot like carries in that they tend to emphasize right clicks, but they either have weak or very situational scaling. They make up for this by providing other valuable, and perform best in multi-core lineups. Examples: Nature's Prophet, Mirana, Razor, Bristleback
So when you look at two team's lineups, you can evaluate how a game will play out based largely on the dynamics of their cores. Teams will often put extra emphasis on ganking or protecting carries with extremely high farm dependency ratings or Hard Semi-Carries. This sort of relative investment is also a good tool for interpreting the CS chart. If Razor in the safelane is having a tough time finding CS, but in exchange Shadow Fiend mid is farming up a storm, then overall this is a favorable laning trade for the team. Conversely, if Brewmaster is struggling in mid to find farm against an OD, then it's not a huge concern. A timely Blink is nice, but Brew can accomplish a lot more off even a disastrous laning phase, and if someone is going to be screwed over by Astral Imprisonment spam, then Brewmaster is essentially your sacrificial lamb. If you see a lineup with no Hard Semi-Carries and only low farm dependency Carries, then what you're likely looking at is a lineup built around some kind of timing strategy, usually a push. This is an example of what casters are considering when they talk about teams being under pressure to accomplish something before the end game. The difference in investment between two teams in an asymmetrical pairing gives you a good idea of the ideal behavior for both teams.
On that note, one of the biggest drafting mistakes teams are making at TI4 is devoting too much of the draft to utility without high damage carries to take advantage of said utility. One example of this is the pairing of Brewmaster and Batrider. Both heroes are initiation specialists thanks to their ults, but put them together you have too much initiation and no one available to take advantage of it. In all of 6.81, Batrider has a 53.4% win rate and Brewmaster is at 49.2%. Combined, they're 32.1%, including an 0-2 showing at the International so far.
And finally a bit about supports!
This is a very core focused article, because cores usually exert more pressure on team with supports often being complementary to your cores. There are exceptions like Wisp, but in general your support picks do not define your team.
But one interesting wrinkle is that some supports are actual carries that were buffed to such a high base potential that they're capable of functioning in both roles, and even capable of transitioning between them midgame.
The "classic" example of this is Alchemist. People realized that Unstable Concoction was extremely good, and suddenly, support Alchemist became a thing. But one extra benefit to this is that Alchemist still had right click scaling, and a unique sort of scaling in the form of Greevil's Greed. The downside to running Alchemist as a carry is that he would often find so much farm that he would 6-slot extremely early in the game and then run out of progression. In the farm dependency graphs mentioned in the PDF I linked earlier, Alchemist was unique in that he looked like a typical carry until the 45 minute mark, at which point he would fall off relative to other carries. But from a support position, Greed offers Alchemist the potential to catch-up in farm during passive midgames and essentially become a 4th core.
Following in this tradition we have Wraith King. Over the past year he saw large buffs to both his ultimate, giving hima much stronger slow upon its activation, and his Lifesteal Aura which now works for ranged heroes. Combined with his stun, he now provides enough utility to be viable as a support.
At the same time, he still has all the features that made him a capable, if not spectacular carry. He didn't work at all in a 4-protect-1 framework, but as a support that can farm abandoned lanes with relative impunity thanks to Reincarnate and teleport reactions, Wraith King gives you the potential to do all those support duties while also offering you an extra Mjollnir or an Assault Cuirass carrier for any game that goes late.
Faceless Void in this tournament is a similar story. Void has received, among other things, baseline buffs to the availability of Chronosphere and Time Walk. These changes allow him to function in the offlane role, whereas before he would have never found the farm there that he would need to be relevant at a lower baseline level of power.
These examples also touch upon an idea that Kupon3ss calls Dynamic Farm Allocation. During the laning phase, Faceless Void and Wraith King can fill the 3 and 4 roles well enough, but by having them on your team, you have the option to shift their farm priority up as the laning phase ends. This might provide you a bigger bang for your buck than say, getting another item for your Razor or Clockwerk.
The Symphony of Yin and Yang
Team synergy in high level Dota revolves around eternally searching for a perfect balance between two forces. Between the scaling potential of a carry and the strong early and mid game that ensures that you will be able to secure that potential. Between the reliable but predictable power of right clicks and the overwhelming yet elusive potential of a carry-less lineup. Between the initiator and the one who capitalizes on the initiation. A good draft finds a complementary balance between the forces, and a good team has enough draft concepts available so that the opposing drafter cannot anticipate and eliminate your source of balance (by, say, finally realizing you should just immediately ban Nature's Prophet and Io every single game).
The art of drafting is in some ways similar to musical composition. First you learn your scales, and come to perceive the basic chord patterns that follow from the understanding of the scale. Like 4-protect-1, slight variations of I-IV-V can make for you a relatively successful career, at least for a while.
Eventually you feel a force compelling you to push beyond your basic fundamentals, whether it be integrity, market forces, or a new set of patch notes. You find new things that break your old rules by integrating different modes, or a sus chord that shouldn't 'belong' in a song but yet works. You find that in the multitude of permutations between notes, your old ruleset was adept at finding good-sounding combinations, but it was leaving you deaf to an untold number of beautiful progressions simply because they failed to conform to your beliefs of how music was supposed to work.
So you seek a more expansive logic, because there still is am underlying logic there that in some way resembles your limited initial understanding. And armed with this logic you are now capable of compositions that you never would have imagined possible.
The source of the drive for musical evolution may be unknown to us, but in Dota it is much more simple. To be able to create a working draft out of the unknown gives you a competitive edge. This edge won't last forever, as teams can and will copy you or simply ban a particular hero out, but like support Naga last year, that evolutionary edge can be enough to win you a tournament like the International.
Graphics: heyoka, miwi^
Graphics: heyoka, miwi^