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    Dota 2 – Buff Me: Balancing For Underplayed Pub Heroes

    The top 10 least picked heroes in Dota 2

    Dota tends to get balanced around the professional meta, but now it’s also time to take a closer look into the failed heroes of the pub meta. In the past, when it came to which heroes to balance, look no further than the pick/ban rate of heroes at premier tournaments. Patch 6.87c nerfed the top 3 most contested heroes of the Manila qualifiers and 6 out of the top 11. Then patch 6.88 came after the Manila Major, where 24 out of 25 of the heroes who were unpicked received some sort of buff. What about the forgotten heroes of pubs? How does Valve begin to balance in that context?

    “Is This Hero Good?”

    Balancing around competitive play preserves Dota’s integrity as an esport. But that doesn’t always matter when it comes to pub players. Take Shadow Demon, for instance: he’s one of the top supports in competitive play, but is in the bottom third of played heroes in pubs. His hero design may be functionally sound enough to succeed in the field test of pro tournaments, but something must be lacking if casual players aren’t catching on.

    Shadow Demon currently the 82nd most popular hero

    Hero design is part “how it works” and also “how it feels.” Pubs tend to follow in the footsteps of professional meta, which is not always the case. Chen will always remain one of the least picked heroes in Dota 2, regardless of where he fits in the meta and how many ancient creeps he can control. Batrider is another such example of a hero who is great in professional play, but under performs amid the clumsy execution of pub players.

    The strength and effectiveness of heroes are enough to carry them into the professional meta, but it’s not enough for pubs. The lack of interest in heroes like Shadow Demon is simply that they aren’t that fun to play. The design of Shadow Poison is delayed gratification, not doing any perceivable damage until there are enough stacks, and the sound that accompanies it is a bang on a sheet of aluminum. For pub players, good heroes don’t always become popular heroes.

    “Is This Hero Fun To Play?”

    Whether a hero is good may be the only requirement for pros, but whether it’s fun to play is one that also matters for pub players. Razor is one of the most boring heroes to play, and watch, yet pros couldn’t care less. Pubs, however, will continue to pass on Abaddon, who has been a predictable, top 5 hero in win rate, and a bottom 30 hero in popularity. Omniknight, the perennial king of pubs, will never be first picked or banned in pubs.

    The factors of heroes being good to play and being fun to play aren’t always discrete. They’re in a fine balance. The numbers of turn rate, move speed, and BAT are constantly tweaked for competitive balance, and those affect how it feels to control that hero in the game. The base attack speed, and animation, of Juggernaut and Anti-Mage makes them two of the more fun carries to last hit with in lane. The same quality also makes playing Omniknight a chore to last hit with.

    But a hero being “fun to play” is why players disproportionately pick heroes who aren’t as good as their popularity. It’s not always about winning. It’s why when your team needs a support for its final slot, that last player instead goes with Legion Commander, who is a losing hero (<50% win rate), but she’s the third most picked hero this month. The top two most picked heroes, Pudge and Phantom Assassin, are currently 23rd and 29th in win rate, respectively. Both of these heroes are barely picked by pros, and that’s fine.

    Buffing Outside The Box

    Overwhelmingly the focus on balancing underplayed heroes is on making that hero stronger, rather than more desirable to play. Over time, these incremental tweaks, Valve’s typical number tweaking, can overcome a threshold where a hero becomes part of the meta, as was the case with Windranger, Juggernaut, and Drow Ranger. But there are other avenues that Valve has taken to buff heroes.

    One is the addition of Aghanim’s Scepter buffs that isn’t just about “make this ultimate do more damage” and instead provides novel interactions. Batrider’s Scepter upgrade allows him to Lasso two heroes, a satisfying interaction that also happens to create a 5v3 situation for your team. Nyx Assassin’s upgrades changed him from a ganking hero to a defensive nuisance. Tinker’s Scepter created new ways of stalling the game by another twenty minutes. Mirana became the most picked and banned hero of the TI6 main event. And Sand King’s upgrade went from a “do more damage” buff to increasing the range of Burrow Strike adding Caustic Finale to it, which this Rampage clip couldn’t have happened without.

    The other method of buffing heroes is a rework. Invoker was a special case of a minor rework—unlocking a 360 Deafening Blast—but it renewed enthusiasm in the hero at a time when he was waning in popularity. Riki is now a pesky, viable support instead of low-MMR pub stomper. Even a change like removing the UAM for spells like Clinkz’s Searing Arrows opened up new interesting item builds.

    There are heroes that are just as outdated as they are underpowered. Necrophos has watched the world pass him by ever since the introduction of Glimmer Cape. Treant Protector players spend too much of their time trying to neither be seen nor heard. The global aspect of Living Armor even encourages this behavior. Enchantress remained the same, while buffs to Int spell damage and the introduction of Echo Sabre gave everyone tools to deal with her. And Pugna still can’t heal from his ultimate while using BKB.

    The reason to buff heroes in these alternative ways is that sometimes it’s not enough to tweak numbers to base stats, stat gain, move speed, spell damage, turn rate, or base attack speed. It takes too long—small changes over a series of patches—and some of these heroes can’t afford the time. When was the last time Treant Protector viable in any meta?

    And the other reason is that sometimes no amount of number tweaking will change how pubs feel about that hero, unless that hero becomes overpowered (Can Chen ever be popular?). Heroes can become stale, and it won’t matter if they get +5 movement speed next patch. It’s the new that can bring back heroes who have withered away in irrelevancy. New items, new upgrades, new skills. Fortunately, this does happen in Dota, every so often.

    As seen on Dotabuff

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