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    Dota 2 – Explaining Cleave Damage And How to Deal With It

    Cleave is a mechanic that has been around for ages and a variety of currently popular heroes, such as Sven, Juggernaut or Tiny, utilize its effects to gain an advantage. There are a lot of interactions and intricacies surrounding this mechanic however that many are not aware of. Freelance writer Gorgon breaks down cleave for us.

    Ryan ‘Gorgon’ Jurado is a freelance caster and writer with published work across multiple news websites. You can find him and more of his work by following him on Twitter @TheWonderCow.

    What is Cleave Damage?

    Cleave damage is damage dealt in an area of effect around a melee hero when it attacks. Only units with special sources have cleave, and ranged units can never have cleave. Cleave never hits buildings, wards, or the primary target.

    Ability sources of cleave are Kunkka’s Tidebringer, Sven’s Greater Cleave, and Magnus’ Empower. Battle Fury can be purchased to give any melee hero cleave, and Tiny can purchase Aghanim’s Scepter to give himself cleave. Cleave is not a unique attack modifier, so it will stack with Desolator, lifesteal, or any other effect.

    However, units hit by cleave will not be targeted by those effects (which includes the magical damage from bashes). So, for example, Juggernaut’s lifesteal will not return health to him from every unit hit by his cleave, nor would his Desolator apply negative armor to any unit except those directly targeted.
    In the plurality of cases, a good player will use cleave damage to kill opponents whenever possible rather than attacking those opponents directly.

    What is Cleave’s Range?

    Cleave’s AOE is a circle with a single point touching the front of the attacking hero’s base. If the base of any viable unit crosses that circle, it will take cleave damage. A common misconception is that cleave is a half circle with the attacking hero in the center, but you can see this isn’t the case by the bottom left target not taking damage in the following example.

    The radius of that circle is considered the “cleave radius.” That radius is listed for cleave skills such as Sven’s Greater Cleave, which has a cleave radius of 300 units. Because the circle extends from the attacking hero’s base, the radius is actually only half of the cleave reach. For example, Sven’s max cleave range is actually the same as his Storm Hammer range (600 units).

    Cleave and Armor

    Cleave damage is dealt as a percentage of the attacking hero’s attack damage; it does not matter how much the attack is reduced by the primary target due to armor or other effects.

    Cleave damage is not reduced by armor amount, only armor type. This means that in the vast majority of cases, cleave always does full damage to effected units.

    The only notable exception is Lone Druid’s Spirit Bear; because this unit is not a hero, he attacks with a different damage type. This means if he were given cleave (for example, by being empowered) his cleave would only do 75% damage to heroes and would do 125% damage to neutral creeps and summoned units. This is because cleave is technically reduced by armor type, which isn’t necessarily something you need to understand in full. This really is the only exception that might significantly impact your games.

    Alright, so cleave isn’t reduced by armor, so what? Well, this means that high-armor targets actually take more damage from cleave than from being attacked directly; remember that cleave does not impact the primary target. That effectively means only the primary target of a cleaving attack has incoming damage reduced by armor.

    Take this example: Sven deals 66% cleave damage and engages a 20 armor Dragon Knight standing next to a 5 armor Rubick. If he attacks the Dragon Knight directly, his attack witll deal 46% damage after armor reductions and his cleave will deal 66% damage to the Rubick. Of his attack damage, he will deal a total of 112% damage across the two targets.

    What if he instead attacks the lower-armor Rubick? Rubicks armor will reduce the attack damage to 77% and Dragon Knight will take the full 66% cleave damage (because cleave is not reduced by armor). That’s a total of 143% damage across the two targets, actually doing more to each of them! If trying to maximize damage in a fight, your goal with cleave is to always attack the lowest-armor unit directly and cleave to his fellows.

    Here are the armor values where the most common sources of cleave will do more damage with an indirect attack.

    Order of Operations

    Cleave is weird because the unit being attacked directly actually takes damage second, as cleave damage has priority. This can impact the game because of death-activated skills, such as Bloodstone.

    For example: Storm and Axe run from you, and each will die with one attack. The cleave from one should kill the other, but Storm has a Bloodstone. Because of the order of operations from cleave, If you attack Storm directly you will get a double kill. However, if you attack Axe directly, the cleave damage will kill storm before Axe takes damage, then Storm’s Bloodstone will refill Axe’s life, then Axe will take damage and survive.
    There aren’t too many cases where this makes much of a difference, but it once again shows why with cleave damage, you almost always want to cleave your primary target to death rather than attacking it directly.

    Stacking Cleave

    Stacking cleave is a niche decision, but it can be extremely useful in some games. Cleave stacks additively, meaning if you have build two Battle Furies you get 35 + 35 = 75% cleave [Editor’s Note: it should of course be 70%). A Battle Fury on Sven means he cleaves 101% damage, essentially doing amplified and effectively pure damage to any cleaved heroes.

    If your team has a way to force opponents to group together (such as a Dark Seer or just mad skills), stacking cleave can be the most effective way to increase damage output. The same is true for Ember Spirit, who is able to avoid positional issues with Sleight of Fist.
    Stacking cleave is also extremely valuable if you can force high-armor units to take cleave damage (see cleave and armor if you forget why). Always be careful stacking cleave, though, as it will be wasted effort if your opponents spread out. Keep in mind their drafts, and always consider a defensive item before a second instance of cleave to ensure you’re capable of closing the gap and dealing that sweet AOE damage!

    Splash Damage

    Understanding splash damage is vital since Dragon Knight and Lifestealer’s recent resurgence. Splash acts similarly to cleave, but the overflow damage is applied in a circle around the attacked target rather than in a circle extending from the attacking hero’s base.
    Splash damage comes from Ancient Black Dragon’s attack, Dragon Knight’s Elder Dragon Form, or when any ranged hero is empowered. Mass Serpent Wards also have splash attacks.

    Unlike cleave, splash damage can be magical or physical depending on the source and is reduced by armor, resistance, and damage manipulation. There is no item you can buy to give a ranged hero a splash attack.

    The splash potential from Elder Dragon Form is why you see such a high stacking priority in Dragon Knight’s professional matches. When clearing stacks with Elder Dragon Form, always aim for the middle, not the front, of the stack.

    Similarly, when clearing out Mass Serpent Wards, a common mistake is to have allies stack up and attack, but that increases the wards’ damage output. Ideally heroes will approach the ward cluster from opposite sides to avoid taking splash damage from their attacks. Also, the splash damage from the wards is magical even though their base attacks are physical damage.

    Quelling Blade

    One of the primary motivators for the resurgence of cleave in Sven’s popularity for high-skill play is the way quelling blade applies damage. If a hero with cleave attacks a creep, quelling blade secretly increases that hero’s damage by 40%. That damage increase from directly attack a creep carries into the cleave for all surrounding units, including heroes*.

    What this means is that in a metagame where Beastmaster, Nature’s Prophet, Necronomicon, and Enchantress, cleave heroes are able to radically increase their damage simply by holding onto a Quelling Blade, Iron Talon, or situationally doubling down into a Battle Fury.

    A quelling blade will give a 40% increase in damage to all cleaved units (so long as the target is a creep or summonable) and that damage ignores armor. No wonder Sven has roared toward the top of the pro charts near the end of the last patch and is still picked in more than a quarter of high-skill pubs!
    This same concept works with other damage increase techniques which may not display a damage change on your character, such as critical strike.
    *Note: Kunka’s Tidebringer behaves differently than typical cleave and does not add quelling blade damage.

    How Do I Counter Cleave?

    Damage Block

    Unlike armor, damage block does reduce cleave. Heroes who utilize damage block as typical builds often do best against cleave heroes. A casual Poor Man’s Shield can help into the harass from a laning Sven, for example, especially in a 1v1 matchup.

    Damage block typically only mitigates small amounts, but in the early game it can be especially useful, as cleave heroes such as Sven and Kunkka typically rely on that damage to harass. Later on in the game, a Crimson Guard can be a clutch pickup for offlaners or supports if cleave damage is frequently chewing through your team.

    We’ve seen a drop in heroes utilizing cleave since 6.87; this is largely sourced to the wider versatility of Vanguard, which now combines with Basher for Abyssal Blade. The increase in damage block builds has hurt heroes such as Sven who rely heavily on cleave for mid and late-game damage.

    Ranged heroes cannot utilize cleave effects, and melee heroes have a tendency to get pulled around in fights. Cleave is also physical damage, so Ghost Scepter and Ethereal Blade will temporarily stop it from hitting your hero.

    In combination with those items and mobility items such as Force Staff, and sustaining heals from Mekanism, Guardian Greaves, or hero healing, all cleave heroes are vulnerable to being unable to target more than one unit at a time. This cuts down their damage efficiency and makes them vulnerable to counter-initiation.

    There’s a reason all cleave heroes have a tendency to get mobility items such as Sange and Yasha, Blink Dagger, Force Staff, or often a combination of the three: they are concerned about getting into a fight and being unable to hit more than one hero.

    Shadow Demon was among the top six best counters to Sven last patch patch according to our aggregate advantage calculations; he continues to achieve a nearly 60% winrate in pubs despite his otherwise abysmal winrate of 45%. This is almost entirely because of his excellent kiting potential.

    Damage Reduction

    Abilities that reduce damage output, including Vengeful Spirit’s Vengeance Aura, Shadow Fiend’s Requiem of Souls, Rubick’s Fade Bolt, Razor’s Static Link, and Bane’s Enfeeble, drastically reduce cleaving heroes’ impact in fights. Remember: cleave is based on the damage of the attacking hero, not the resistance of the receiving ones. Against typical opponents, stacking up armor is the most effective way to reduce damage, but against cleave you have to actually reduce damage.

    Razor, Rubick, Bane, are all in the top 15 counters to Sven due both to their kiting potential and their damage reduction prowess.

    Ryan ‘Gorgon’ Jurado is a freelance caster and writer with published work across multiple news websites. You can find him and more of his work by following him on Twitter @TheWonderCow.

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    DeviantArt | biggreenpepper

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