Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Hearthstone vs MTG


Hearthstone is the name of a much anticipated free to play online collectible card game being developed by Blizzard, and the name is genius in itself - in World of Warcraft, the hearthstone is a magical object that will instantly transport you home, no matter how far away you've traveled. Summoning a Murloc and hearing it go "Mrrraggglhlhghghlgh!" instantly took me back to my memories of leveling my first Night Elf in Darkshore, 8 years ago.

Fill the board with 1/1 Whelps? Sounds just like the Onyxia fight =)

Let me get this out of the way first: if Hearthstone succeeds, it will actually be on the basis of its rich sound and art design - the act of playing cards and attacking with them rewards the player with very satisfying sounds and animations. I can't help but contrast it to MTG online, which is a relatively spartan experience. In Hearthstone, your cards actually leap up and smack the opponent in the face, with more visual effect and force representing higher damage (and the crowd, presumably around your table, going "oooh!" if you get a particularly brutal hit), fireballs and arcane missiles fly through the air, minion cards all have different dialogues for being summoned, attacking and dying, and it's a visual and aural treat to see it all happen at once - there is such a sense of accomplishment in giving all the orders and letting them animate themselves. Forget the game design for a minute: the mechanical act of playing the game is simply joyful, and it sounds counter-intuitive but even if the game design itself was somehow lacking it will still achieve a measure of success.

What is Hearthstone?

Hearthstone is an online card game that drew most of its inspiration from MTG, but with a much more streamlined and simplified rule-set. You pick a hero and duel another player by summoning minions and unleashing spells at each other. While the rules differ slightly, all the common themes of card game mechanics come into play - aggro, control, removal, card advantage, tempo, etc. MTG players will feel right at home. Cinematic trailer here.

Upon completing the tutorial and playing some games with the practice AI, you are awarded a full set of basic cards for all 9 classes (corresponding to the 9 classes in WoW). Further cards can be obtained through opening packs or playing in the arena, for a gold cost - you gain gold by playing games and completing daily quests. There are two types of games - you can play Constructed, where you build a deck from the cards you've collected and challenge other players of similar ranking, and there is Arena play, where you build a deck from a completely randomized set of cards (including ones you haven't obtained yet), and then challenge others in an elimination series that only ends once you've either lost 3 matches or won 9. Arena play requires a gold entry fee, but will reward you with progressively greater prizes the more matches you win. Both these modes feed off each other: you will play some Constructed to earn gold, which you  can elect to spend on the Arena entry fee which then rewards you with more cards that you can use in Constructed.

See how simple the card design and text is. Also, bad memories of Gnomeregan...

You can spend money to buy in-game gold to accelerate your acquisition of cards. But thankfully many of the basic cards are extremely powerful anyway: there are some basic-only decks which players have taken to the highest bracket of play. Also, there is no option to trade or buy and sell cards - after Blizzard's disastrous foray into real money trading in Diablo 3, they have wisely decided to let each player create their own journey of card acquisition. Extra cards are "disenchanted" and turned into arcane dust which can be used  to craft cards you don't own. To put the card acquisition speed into perspective: if you do the daily quest every day, roughly taking half an hour on average, you gain about 40-50 gold. A pack of 5 cards costs 100 gold or $1.50.

The game is still in closed beta but the hype surrounding it has been feverish. Closed beta keys are being doled out by Blizzard for testing but they're not coming fast enough - fans have been reselling keys illegally online for $50 each.

Game Design versus MTG

As this is a game design blog I would like to compare Hearthstone with the giant in CCGs - Magic the Gathering. MTG is basically the WoW of the CCG world - many companies have attempted to overthrow them over the last decade, but none have come even remotely close. Their game design and artwork are completely unmatched. But by definition no one can imagine the king being unseated until it actually happens. A similar situation happened with DOTA and LOL - a former DOTA developer created a more casual friendly game, and now LOL has many more players than DOTA2.

MTG's art direction is simply gorgeous

World Building

MTG had a daunting task ahead of them - they needed to create an immersive world that draws the player in, using nothing but art and the flavour text on their cards. It's safe to say they've done an excellent job - they're set a nearly impossibly high bar for other CCG makers to aspire to.

MTG text is a little on the small side, especially for playing online

Hearthstone on the other hand, doesn't have to. The lore of the world and characters are well known to the target audience (former Warcraft and WoW players). The sound design and art design are all reused for nostalgia reasons. This allows them to skip the flavour text: it also allows them to skip a lot of explanation of card mechanics (since it's online only, the computer can handle the complicated interactions for you). Overall, this provides a much cleaner, simpler card design - much more ideal for online play since you can actually read what each card does without zooming in.

Mechanics: Mana Curve, Deck Size

In MTG, you need to play land cards (one per turn) and tap them for mana. It's possible to draw too many (or too few) lands in your opening hand, making this a complicating variable in deciding whether to mulligan. The second player to go gets compensated by having an extra card.
Everyone has bad memories of being mana screwed in MTG

In Hearthstone, you have a linear mana ramp - you automatically get one mana crystal a turn which you can drain for mana. This means your deck of 30 cards are all spells - compared to MTG's typical composition of about 35 spells and 25 lands. Your starting hand size is 3 or 4, compared to MTG's 7 or 8. The second player to go not only gets an extra card like in MTG, but also gets a single use spell that gives him one mana. Also, both players get to mulligan as many individual cards they like out of the starting hand in the hopes of drawing a more favourable starting hand - this makes it more viable to run less early game drops, because you have a cost-free way to improve your chances at getting them. Most critically, this helps the late game go smoother, because you're always drawing answers from your deck, rather than top-decking a useless land card.

Mechanics: Turn Order

In MTG, the attacker would declare his intention to attack, and the defender would assign blockers. Both players are active on either turn - even if it's not your turn, you can play instants and creature abilities, and you need to assign blockers for when the enemy attacks. In fact, due to the spell stack, every time you play an ability or card, you need to give the opponent a chance to respond. This really kills the fluidity of the game in my opinion. (I play a card. Ok? I use this ability. Ok? I attack. Ok? Damage is assigned. Ok? I use some ability. Ok? And so on.)

In MTG instants can be played during the opponent's turn, while sorceries can't

In Hearthstone, it's the opposite: the attacker gets to choose what he wants to attack. Things are a lot simpler - there's nothing to do when the enemy is running his turn, so you can sit back and relax. There are no instant speed abilities to run when it's the opponent's turn, and thus there's also no spell stack. This clear delineation of active / passive turn allows the game to resolve very quickly - if you know what you're doing, you can give all the orders in a few seconds and then pass the turn back to the opponent. The downside, of course, is that this removes a lot of player interaction and strategic depth from the game.

Mechanics: Persistent Damage

In MTG, damage is wiped at the end of every turn - if a creature didn't take lethal damage, it gets healed fully in the end step. This is because the mechanics of tracking damage counters across multiple creatures would be too difficult.

Again, the card design is so much cleaner and screen-friendly

In Hearthstone, damage is persistent, so it's possible to slowly ping a large creature to death across several turns. Having the computer calculate and keep track of things makes mechanics such as random damage or copying cards easier to implement.

Final thoughts

I like the new streamlined design of Hearthstone compared to MTG. The games play out a lot quicker. In all the areas that matter, I think the loss of strategy and depth has been outweighed by the gains in simplicity and convenience. Their version of drafting - Arena - doesn't have anywhere near the depth of strategy that MTG drafting does, but has the incredible convenience of letting the player build their deck and play their games out any time they want - the matchmaking system simply matches players with the same number of wins / losses (if you've gone 1-2 so far in the Arena, you'll probably get matched up with an opponent who also went 1-2). You could play one 10 minute game every two days if you wanted to, while in MTG you needed to commit a solid 3-4 hours to play a draft.

The ranking system in Constructed is also a great way to separate the player tiers - although this game is "pay to win" in some sense - some Legendary cards are particularly strong - it's also made irrelevant by the matchmaking system. If you decide to play a really basic deck with a low power level, you can have a completely good time playing in Bronze or Silver. In fact, some would argue it's an even better play experience there, as you will see a much larger diversity of classes and deck types. In short, paying money for Constructed cards is completely optional: if you decide not to, it's unlikely you'll be matched against opponents who did anyway.

Never thought I'd hear the sound of a Shield Slam again

There's of course some ongoing problems with the game, but I don't think it's anything unusual for something that's just getting started. The card pool is still really shallow - only 400 cards total - thus limiting the possible strategies for Arena and Constructed, but nothing that can't be fixed with the ongoing release of new card sets. Class balance and power level is an ever contentious issue. Still, even in its current form in closed beta I'm having a great time playing it and I think it's definitely already ready for release - having a game a little rough around the edges adds a little charm to it in my opinion.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Design (Part 8) Asymmetry, and transitioning from LOL to DOTA2


One of the most common questions I get from LOL players just starting DOTA2 is “so… what’s the team strategy here?” LOL has a standard laning strategy that even low level unranked players are expected to know and follow. All players know the roles that are required for the team and what items to buy - solo top bruiser, solo mid AP Carry, duo bot lane with support and AD carry, and a jungler. Furthermore, the composition is mirrored across the lanes because the map is symmetrical - the carries face off with each other, the bruisers face off with each other, etc. DOTA2 can seem very chaotic in comparison, with a seemingly random number of heroes in a lane (between 0 and 3) and an arbitrary amount of junglers, with no set rules on team composition (anything from 0 to 4 carries) and an asymmetrical map where the side lane matchups are always unfair for one side or the other, so you're never on even footing with your opposition. Pick your strategy wrong, and you can get absolutely crushed. In comparison, you can't pick the wrong strategy in LOL, because there's only 1 strategy, so every match is a close match (relatively, at least, compared to DOTA2)

This is actually an interesting question from a game design perspective - is fairness anti-fun? Can it be possible for a game to be "too fair" and "too balanced?" Is forcing some players to play at a disadvantage - for example, in DOTA2's safelane vs hardlane mechanic - a good thing or a bad thing? There are some clear disadvantages to DOTA2's chaotic lane strategies - with the lack of communication in pubs, everyone has at some point ended up playing a melee hard carry forced to go into the hard-lane solo against 3 enemy heroes and gotten absolutely crushed through no fault of their own - such a thing would never happen in LOL. This aspect of gameplay has both been proclaimed as its greatest strength and also greatest weakness - in DOTA2 when you get crushed, you really get crushed, and many losses at low level play stem from your team composition, not the individual skill of the players. While in LOL, people complain that every match more or less plays out the same way, with little variety in strategy and team composition making it stale.

Laning in LOL

LOL has a stable strategy because many of their gameplay elements are symmetrical.

Ability Power (AP) and Attack Damage (AD) carries both scale into the late game. Given you have two carries in the game, you would always get one of each type to force the enemy team to get an inefficient mix of magic resist and armor stats. Mid lane is given to the AP carry, because in general AP carries are easier to gank - mid lane is the shortest lane and thus the safest for them. Also, the blue jungle buff is relatively close by. Typical mid lane champions are Ahri, Annie, Brand, Lux, Orianna.

Where does the AD carry go? The Support champion will accompany the other carry, given a choice between top or bot lane, we find the bot lane is the superior choice because the Dragon pit is there. In the early to mid-game, most of the game will focus around the Dragon, since Baron is not an option yet, so it is better for your duo lane to be there. Typical AD carries are Ezreal, Vayne, Corki. Typical supports are Thresh, Taric, Sona.

Top lane will thus be 1v1, and generally the Bruiser or Tank type champions will go there. They need to be tanky, because they need to be able to hold the lane on their own – they are a long way away from any help. Typical bruisers are Renekton, Nassus, Vladmir, Tryndamere, Shen, Jarvan, Zac, Elise.

And finally, there is always a jungler, because it’s difficult to translate a 2v1 advantage into a large enough XP and Gold advantage to offset the disadvantage of losing a jungler. Generally, a team which sends 2 heroes top or mid will “win” those lanes, but still end up behind the other team who is running a jungler when comparing total gold and exp. Typical junglers are Jarvan, Elise, Lee Sin, Cho Gath.

Because the lanes are symmetrical, each team’s composition will exactly mirror the opponents they are facing in the lane.

So in a nutshell, this is why the champion composition and laning strategy is the way it is: it’s achieved a local maximum, any change to this composition makes it worse off. Virtually every game you play in LOL will follow this formula, unless you are top tier team experimenting with unusual strategies to throw your opponent off their game, or you get a rebel in your team wanting to try something new and isn’t afraid to be scolded by their teammates for breaking the meta.

Why is the DOTA2 metagame so unstable?

DOTA2’s map and game mechanics have a number of asymmetrical attributes that allow “either/or” decisions by the teams. Usually game designers aim for symmetry because it’s the easiest way to ensure the game is balanced, but asymmetrical gameplay elements can create an unstable metagame and allow a variety of viable strategies to exist at the same time.

1) Asymmetrical map – in LOL, the map is perfectly symmetrical - the terrain features don’t favour either side during the laning phase. However, in DOTA, the map has what is called “rotational symmetry”. Each side lane has terrain that favours one side over the other, so the top lane is the Dire easy lane and the Radiant hard lane, while the bottom lane is the Dire hard lane and Radiant easy lane. This creates an unfair matchup that teams need special strategies to handle – teams can either allocate more resources / heroes to the difficult lane to ensure they win it, or they can allocate less to the lane to ensure the impact of losing it is smaller, or run balanced lanes which can adapt to the enemy’s strategy. It’s very rare for carries to face off against each other - the carries typically go to their respective safelanes to get farm, which are on opposite sides of the map.

2) Asymmetrical scaling –  In LOL both AP and AD champions scale with items so there is no advantage to running an all AP team or all AD team - you mostly end up using one of each. In DOTA2, the hero scaling is asymmetrical - Intelligence heroes get no spell damage scaling and tend to peak earlier in the game, but Agility heroes tend to peak later and harder with items that increase physical damage. Teams can choose to either run teams with more early game heroes (to win early) or more late game heroes (to win late) or to build a balanced team which can adapt to the enemy’s strategy.

3) Runes on mid – In DOTA the 2 minute runes form an important part of the strategy, offering powerful temporary boosts and regeneration (from refilling the bottle). Mid lane can either be run LOL style by placing a hero with poor mobility there for safety but giving up the runes, or it can be run as an aggressive mid by placing a hero with strong mobility to contest the runes and use them to gank the side lanes.

4) Amplifying asymmetry - Deny mechanics and creep pulling / jungling– In DOTA2, if the enemy lane presence is weak enough, players can use these mechanics to further dominate the lane they are in. Denying creeps reduces the experience and gold the enemy obtains from the lane, and creep pulling further boosts your lane gold while completely stopping enemy experience gain for a time. This is why junglers are optional in DOTA2 – it forces one of your lanes to play at a disadvantage, and this exp and gold disadvantage can be larger than the gold and exp your jungler is generating while jungling. There can be anywhere from 0 to 3 junglers in a DOTA2 game (defensive jungle, offensive jungle, and ancient stacking). Creep stacking also allows supports to sacrifice their farm to create jungle stacks for carries, amplifying their farm, allowing teams to run anywhere from 1 to 3 carries - such a redistribution of income is not possible in LOL, where typically your bruiser, mid and ADC can all obtain a high amount of farm every single game.

5) Limited Vision and Teleports - in DOTA2 there is a limited amount of observer wards available - typically only 2 up on the map at any given time - and the Smoke of Deceit consumable allows heroes to pass under wards undetected anyway. This means that it’s much harder to protect a hero against ganks if the opponent really wants to commit to it, preventing stalemate scenarios where the map is well warded enough that neither side can disrupt the early game farming phase of the other. It also raises the stakes when one side manages to deward even one or two observers - it means they know the enemy has literally no vision on the map for several minutes, giving them temporary map control. Overall this means is that if the opponent wants to disrupt your strategy, they usually can if they devote enough resources to it. At the same time, the existence of teleport scrolls allow any hero to teleport to another tower within 3 seconds - which means that if one of your lanes is getting dived, your team can always decide to send help - it's just a matter of how much resources you want to devote to it - yet another either / or scenario to choose from. Even if you successfully stop the gank, the total gold and exp you lose by leaving the lane could leave your team worse off.

As a cool final fact - the positioning of Roshan (the equivalent of Baron - his name, Nashor, is a homage to the original Roshan in DOTA) heavily favours the Dire team, and this plays out in competitive statistics - of all Roshan kills at pro level gameplay, 66% go to the Dire team. However, the Radiant / Dire winrate is nearly equal, at 50% plus minus 1%. This means the asymmetries in the rest of the map - of which there are many - must be offsetting it almost exactly. For example, Radiant mid can be pulled and Radiant ancients can be jungled at level 1.

Every one of these factors force a team decision that could go either way – what sort of heroes to pick, how many heroes to allocate to which lane, what type of mid to use, whether to utilize a jungler or not – leading to a multitude of possible lineups.

General laning strategy in DOTA2

Very broadly, each of the 3 lanes yields different levels of experience and gold income and exposes your hero to varying levels of danger, and this affects the suitability of different heroes in each lane.

Mid Lane Solo
(Gets high experience, medium gold, and has moderate danger of ganks)

Mid specialists like Puck or Queen of Pain scale a lot better with experience than with gold - hence they are typically put in the Mid lane. Being a short and safe lane it’s unlikely they can be harassed out of experience range even by 2 or 3 heroes, guaranteeing them solo experience gain and allowing them to be the highest level on the map. Mid heroes generally want AOE skills to clear waves, mobility skills to contest runes, and high base damage to out-last hit their opponents. The sequence of play revolves around clearing the creeps to push the lane just before the 2 minute rune respawns so you can safely pick up the rune (and recharge your bottle) without wasting exp and gold. This leaves the enemy in a catch-22 situation, where if he tries to contest the rune he loses a full wave of experience and gold, yet if he doesn't you'll eventually force him to leave the lane due to the extra regeneration you're getting by bottling the runes. There are also heroes which can’t contest runes and generally “lose” mid but go there anyway - for example Nightstalker, or Drow who don’t have AOE clears or mobility skills. They still lane mid anyway and take the loss because they need a safe lane to gain quick experience for their powerful ultimate they will use to dominate the enemy later. These heroes rely on being higher level than their opponents - they can't "play from behind". There's also a third class of heroes who can go mid, like Outworld Devourer or Bloodseeker who have such superior last-hitting power that it doesn't matter that they can't contest the runes, they win by denying the enemy gold and experience.

Safe Lane Carry 
(Gets  medium experience, high gold, and low danger of ganks)

Hard carries like Faceless Void and Anti-Mage scale a lot better with gold than with experience - hence they are typically put in the Safe Lane Carry position. Their supports will defend them against enemy harassment, allowing them to get a lot of last hits, however the presence of supports in the lane reduces their experience gain. The supports will typically be also engaged in pulling the camps (to gain exp / deny exp to the enemy) and warding the forest to prevent ganks and stop their pull camp from being blocked. They typically buy “farm accelerators” like Midas or Battlefury as soon as possible, and then spend some more time farming one or two major items before they’re ready to teamfight at about 35 minutes in. There are also Semi-carries like Juggernaut or Razor who are drafted into teams who want to win with an earlier timing - they may directly buy a teamfight item like an Aghanims or BKB and take the fight to the enemy. If the enemy team had a hard carry who bought a farm accelerator instead, they will be in a weaker position for awhile until they catch up.

Off Lane Solo
(Gets medium experience, low gold, and high danger of ganks)

Off lane specialists like Bounty Hunter, Mirana or Windrunner have abilities which allow them to solo the dangerous off-lane even against multiple enemies. Like mid specialists, they also scale a lot better with experience but have even less reliance on gold. In the off-lane, they can usually stay within experience range of the creep wave to gain relatively quick levels but it’s likely they won’t be able to get much in the way of last hits. They typically need to ward the enemy pull camp and jungle area to stop the pulls and to protect themselves against ganks, and they may bring sentry wards themselves to counterward. Heroes like Nature’s Prophet and Lone Druid can also go to the offlane, because their summons can manipulate the enemy creep wave (dragging them to your tower through the forest so you can farm them safely) and also block the enemy pull camp. Because of the asymmetry of the map, it’s a foregone conclusion that you will “lose” the lane, it’s just a question of “by how much”. Against skilled opponents it’s considered a victory if you can block their pull camp (making sure their supports stay underlevelled) and you manage to eke out some levels in the off-lane before moving into the midgame. The offlane solo lane may not be viable depending on the number of disables on the enemy team - it’s not uncommon for the offlane solo to abandon their lane and find farm in the jungle or try to be useful elsewhere.

2x Supports (Babysitter / Initiator / Jungler / Roamer)
(Get low experience, low gold, and are the ones usually doing the ganking)

Supports are a “catch all” term for the other heroes in the game without a defined role and lane. There are hard supports like Crystal Maiden or Shadow Demon who can perform well even when behind on levels and farms relative to their opponents, and will typically be tasked with ganking, warding and pulling / stacking the jungle. Stacking deserves a mention here - neutral creeps respawn every 1 minute if their spawn box is empty. By attacking and dragging the creeps away from their spawn box at the minute marks, you can create larger and larger creep camps. These can be used to deny entire waves of your own creeps by pulling them to your friendly creeps, or you can simply grow the stack size for your carry to farm later if he has an AOE skill. On the other hand, pulling creeps into an unstacked camp will not kill your creeps, but only delay them while you kill the neutral camp - this creep wave will now join up with the next upcoming wave, so now you have two waves of creeps marching together towards the enemy tower at once. This is an effective way of making a strong push on the enemy tower. Support heroes are very active in the early game moving around the map and exert a great deal of influence on how safely their carries can farm, how safely their team pushes, and how well your team is protected in ganks (supports are typically the ones to teleport in to stop a gank). There are also initiator supports like Tidehunter or Sand King who need early farm to get a blink dagger for initiation. There are also jungling supports like Enchantress or Chen, who primarily gain gold in the jungle but can exert pressure on the adjacent lanes by ganking it repeatedly. And there are Roamer supports like Vengeful or Spiritbreaker, but they have currently fallen out of favour in 6.78 (though they may be making a comeback in 6.79).

Complete Summary

So this is a handy chart I've made - personal opinion only and based on what I've seen work in competitive games - of which heroes tend to play which role. Click through to see the full version - I've added colored sections to indicate heroes which can play multiple roles. (direct link) Inevitably the placement of some heroes can be controversial, for example I've labelled Sven and Kunkka as a semi-carry when they are able to one-shot the entire enemy team late-game with sufficient farm which is more than most hard carries can achieve... and Slark is in the wrong place, he's a Semi-carry, not a hard carry....I'll probably update the chart as time goes by.

Typical laning compositions

Within the constraints of the mechanics described above several popular laning setups have come to be in popular use. (notation is x-y-z from Radiant side corresponding to hard lane - mid lane - easy land).

2-1-2 (Balanced)

This splits the farm up most equally, and your team plans to contest all 3 lanes. This is the most common “non-strategy” used in the majority of lower skilled public games. The safelane support can be a jungler, turning it into a 2-1-1 plus a jungler.

1-1-3 (Defensive Trilane)

2 supports and a carry on your safelane virtually guarantee your carry gets every single last hit, however, the opponent’s carry in their safely will likely be farming unopposed as well. Your two supports can leave via your jungle to gank mid once you’ve forced the enemy offlaner away, also putting the enemy mid in constant danger. This is the most common “non-strategy” used in the majority of high skilled public games. This setup is very flexible in terms of junglers - a single safelane support can also be a jungler, and the offlaner can also abandon their lane if it’s too dangerous and transitions into a jungler as well, making it a 0-1-2 setup with two junglers. A 1-1-3 Defensive Trilane can transition into a 1-1-1 Tricore lineup if the enemy abandons their offlane, freeing up the two supports to jungle (to boost their exp and gold gain) or roam at will.

3-1-1 (Offensive Trilane)

2 supports and a semi-carry head to your offlane to challenge the enemy carry and deny their farm. This is an aggressive and early game oriented composition that is an asymmetrical counter to the Defensive Trilane - the enemy will be picking a “safe” hero with typically poor scaling to go in their offlane, which you will beat 1v1 with a greedier semicarry solo like Clinkz or Weaver, and your offensive Trilane setup should beat their Defensive Trilane as your semi-carry in the hardlane is active from the start while their carry only comes online 20 minutes in. Also, if the enemy does not expect this, they may mistakenly ward your jungle (to stop the pulls and hinder your jungler) when in fact most of your team is not going to be there anyway. The major downside to this strategy is that your trilane will usually end up underlevelled - all 3 of you will just be relying on lane creeps and hero kills in your hard lane, while if you were in your safelane you could pull and jungle more safely to supplement your income. On the other hand, ganking mid is much easier from the offlane due to more favourable terrain. This strategy usually results in shorter games, and is seen in very high skill pub games where one team ends up with a draft that cannot compete with the other in the lategame, so they try to force an early game win like this.

2-2-1 (Dual Mid)

This used to be the default pub line up many years ago but has fallen out of favour. Dual mid ensures that you shut down the enemy mid hero entirely and dominate the runes, while your safe lane is run solo as it has the advantage of terrain. Some hero drafts don’t have a natural midlaner and this might be the optimal laning choice for your team. The additional pressure your team puts on the enemy mid can hinder his gold and exp gain to the point he becomes irrelevant to the game. Some hero compositions force the team to run this role, for example when you need to gain levels on a critical support hero (like Wisp) and a normal trilane type composition will not make sense.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Let's Play (Part 7) Windrunner


Every week or two I generally try to play a new hero to discover what it’s like playing it, and in this series of blogs I will make a post on my experiences with it.

Official DOTA splash artwork


Windrunner is based off Alleria Windrunner in Warcraft 2, the elder sister of the famed Sylvanas Windrunner. Alleria was a High Elf Ranger Captain serving in Quel'Thalas - she took her elf rangers south to join up with the Human Alliance in expelling the Horde from Lordaeron and Silvermoon. The campaign was successful but at the cost of the lives of many of her kin. Some Orcs escaped through the Dark Portal into the Outlands, and Alleria took a contingent of rangers through the Dark Portal in pursuit, intending to end the Orcish threat once and for all. She was never seen again.

In DOTA2, the Windrunner is a highly mobile hero with long range attacks and disables with good burst damage and evasion. She has Shackle Shot, which can bind an enemy to a tree or even two enemies together. Powershot fires an arrow with great force over a long distance doing high damage and even cutting through trees. Windrun allows her to sprint and evade all attacks for a brief period, and Focus Fire unleashes a flurry of arrows against a single target. Unusual for an Intelligence hero, she can output significant physical damage with her Focus Fire skill in the late game. Her versatile skill set allows her to be played in nearly all roles, much like Mirana can. In comparison to Mirana, Windrunner has better disables and a stronger early game due to her high base damage, while Mirana has better teamfighting ability and lategame DPS output.


Her early game kit combined with high base damage and long range make her a strong laner, able to solo the off-lane or provide support in the safelane. She can even be played mid if necessary.

Focus Fire and Powershot allows her to push undefended towers and Shackleshot can set up devastating ganks. She's also able to safely stall enemy pushes with Powershot


Both her disable and nuke are skill shots, and so aren't 100% reliable. In return, the damage, range and disable are more powerful than usual.

Relatively low damage output compared to other supports early game, having only 1 direct damage nuke - she makes up for it with her strong disables and better damage scaling late game with Focus Fire.


The search cone for secondary targets behind the primary is about 52 degrees and 500 range. The skill itself can be fired at 800 range, making this one of the most powerful long range disables in the game - if you fire it against a creep and shackle a hero as a secondary target behind it, it has a theoretical range of 1300 and stuns for 3.75 seconds.


This skill takes one second to charge up before its fired, but can be released anytime during the channel for reduced damage. Due to legacy coding issues the damage reduction isn't perfectly scaled - the minimum damage is 30% of full damage if fired instantly, linearly scaling upwards to maximum damage if it's held for at least 70% of the channel bar. This means that there is no point channeling the final 0.3 seconds.

This legacy issue arose because the trigger to check channel time was coded to start at the point she starts casting the skill - there is a 0.3 second windup cast animation before she starts the channel - and not when when the Powershot channel bar actually appears on the screen. This maybe have been deliberately left in the game as a way for more advanced players to "hold" the Powershot if they were trying to get a long range snipe on a fleeing enemy at an oblique angle.

Focus Fire

This skill roughly doubles your damage output at all levels by setting your attack speed to max but reducing your damage done. Mathematically, at higher levels, although the damage reduction goes down,  this is offset by your hero having more base agility so you benefit less from maxing out your attack speed. Focus Fire is generally ineffective against heroes with good damage block like Tidehunter or if they built a Vanguard or Poor Man's Shield, it would be better for you to save it for another target.

If you're building to maximize the potential of this skill, you want to be getting raw damage - attack speed doesn't provide any benefit at all. One level can sometimes be taken early for pushing towers and killing Roshan. (make sure to burn his spell shield first with Shackle Shot) Level 2 and 3 of this skill are probably too expensive to consider using without having access to something like a Sheepstick for mana.


Windrunner combines well with heroes with high DPS who can take advantage of her long disables.


Tanky heroes are a problem for her to deal with because of her low damage output - they can generally shrug off the damage she dishes out without fear.

Item build

Phase boots are used for mobility reasons - although Windrun already puts her at maximum movespeed, the phasing ability allowing her to pass through units is invaluable. Also, the extra movespeed over the cap helps offset any slows she might be afflicted with during fights. The +24 damage boost also synergizes well with her aggresive playstyle and Focus Fire.

Mekansm is a common item on her, because she makes good use of the armor - as an Intelligence hero her agility gain and thus her armor is pretty poor. Force Staff is very nearly core on her as well, as it helps set up Shackleshot. Both options help the team immensely, and so the choice of whether to build either (or both) depends on the specific circumstance.

Her major item is usually a Sheepstick for its deep mana pool, enabling the use of Focus Fire in teamfights. Once Focus Fire comes online your physical DPS becomes a force to be reckoned with, and most Windrunners transition at this point into some physical damage.

There aren't really any orbs particularly worth using: Diffusal and Mjollnir offer too much wasted attack speed to be viable. Abyssal Blade would be my weapon of choice - it provides a large amount of attack damage and 10 strength, and doesn't generate any wasted attack speed. The 10% proc chance for stuns is still somewhat useful as most carries by this point will be carrying BKBs, and having the ability to stun them through the BKB is invaluable. She can output 10 shots in 3 seconds, giving her a roughly 65% chance to land the 1.4 second stun in that time frame. It's not atypical to Focus Fire an enemy carry who's activated his BKB, land one stun on him, when he closes the gap you can use Overwhelm on him, and by that time the BKB should have worn off and then you can use Sheep and Shackle. Daedalus provides more damage (roughly 25% more) but I generally prefer the Abyssal anyway for the BKB piercing stuns.

Friday, October 18, 2013

6.79 Changelog Highlights


DOTA2 6.79 changelog

For the most part, changes that involve pure "number" tweaks - changing values on damage, cooldown, or mana cost - generally don't require a player to change their playstyle in response and thus can be more or less ignored if you're in a hurry.

Thus here's a "quick guide" to patch 6.79 - I'm going to summarize the key changes that force players to alter their playstyle and approach to the game.

Jungle Changes

* Non-Ancient Neutrals now split XP with all heroes in the AoE instead of just the team that killed them
* Swapped the medium pullable Neutral Camp with the small camp

This makes disrupting enemy supports trying to pull a lot easier, as you only need to be nearby to claim exp from the camp. Switching the camps around nerfs junglers who have to start with the easy camps, as doing so will disrupt your pull camp. The net result of these changes is to reduce the pool of possible junglers and make it more rewarding to lane instead: though, this doesn't affect specialist junglers like Nature's Prophet, Chen, Enchantress, or Enigma. I suspect Icefrog didn't like the passive jungle play that revolved around non-jungler specialists just clearing the easy camp over and over again. Some games would even devolve into a mid, safelane carry and 3 junglers passively farming away. Those specialist junglers typically have a kit that allows them strong gank potential and even the ability to offensive jungle.


  Tranquil Boots

Active Boots:
+ 85 Movement speed
+ 4 Armor
+ 10 HP Regeneration

Broken Boots:
+ 60 Movement speed
+ 4 Armor
Restores when you haven't attacked or been attacked in the last 13 seconds.

Cannot be disassembled

I honestly have no idea what will happen to these boots, except that these are excellent for gankers and roamers, which have fallen out of favour due to defensive trilaning. Now that Icefrog is trying to nerf defensive trilaning, the meta may shift towards roamers using these boots. They aren't useful for lane supports who harass the enemy and deny, and not useful for junglers. Especially not for heroes that would currently build these as early sustain and disassemble them into Vladmir's Offering or other items later. Or maybe they will be - who knows.


Mechanics Changes

* Can no longer orb-attack while attack restricted (such as Ethereal or Frostbite)

Orb change is primarily aimed at Huskar abusing Ghost Scepter to attack the enemy while being physical immune himself, but this is a large buff to Crystal Maiden and other heroes which can disable attacks (Treant, Invoker, Silencer) but couldn't disable manual-cast orb attacks before.



- Culling Blade no longer goes on cooldown if it successfully kills a hero
- Culling Blade manacost reduced from 150/200/250 to 60/120/180



- Base damage reduced from 48-52 to 38-42

This reduces his overly strong laning phase, so he's not such a dominant solo. Note that his 50 damage previously was average to high, while 40 damage now is low - however a single stack of sticky napalm increases his damage by 10, so his laning phase isn't a complete loss but he is forced into skilling that first. 



- Drunken Haze affects a 200 AoE around the target
- Reworked Primal Split Aghanim upgrade.
No longer upgrades any stats, cd, duration, etc on Aghanim.
Instead, it now grants Thunderclap to Earth, Drunken Haze to Storm, and Drunken Brawler to Fire.



- Spin Web AoE increased from 650 to 900
- Spin Web no longer destroys trees
- Broodmother now has completely unobstructed movement when under the web (can walk over cliffs, trees, etc)

Very nice thematic change here, strengthening her ability to play the solo offlane role.



- Added Aghanim's upgrade: Static Storm silences items, and lasts an extra 2 seconds

This was necessary because Disruptor was completely countered by BKBs. Now if he gets the initiation off the enemy can't simply BKB, shrug off the silence then walk through the kinetic field.



- Darkness causes enemy vision to be reduced by 25% (affects heroes, creeps and wards)

This ability is probably in homage to the Dark Lady in HON and gives you an incentive to use Darkness even at night. It will work well to reduce the enemy team's situational awareness, especially given the nerfs to many heroes night-vision range in this patch.


  Phantom Assassin

- Stifling Dagger shares the same crit chance/factor as Coup de Grace

With max Coup de Grace a Stifling Dagger crit is devastating, doing about 405 pure damage. (in comparison, a level 1 Laguna Blade does only 338 damage after reductions)


    Pudge / Vengeful Spirit

- Can now use Blink Dagger

This was previously prevented because you could hook people into impassable terrain. Instead now heroes that get hooked into impassable terrain are able to walk through cliffs and trees for a few seconds to escape.



- Added Aghanim's upgrade: reduces cooldown from 20/18/16 to 5, increases cast range from 1000 to 1400 and makes all stolen spells be considered to have their Aghanim's upgrade

This actually makes Aghanim a core item on him similar to Invoker.


  Skeleton King

- Removed Mortal Strike active
- Vampiric Aura now provides full effectiveness on ranged units



- Sprint speed increased from 20/27/33/40% to 20/28/36/44%
- Sprint manacost removed (was 50)

This is a large buff to Slardar's ability to roam and gank. This will become a core element of his gameplay much like Phase Shift did on Puck when it lost its mana cost.



- Shadow Dance duration reduced from 5.5 to 4
- Shadow Dance cooldown increased from 25 to 65
- Shadow Dance can no longer be revealed by Truesight

Players will need to use Ghost Scepters to counter Slark players instead of detection.



- Nether Strike now uses 1.2 Cast Time instead of a 1 sec magic immune delay (can be interrupted as a result)

Being able to interrupt this is pretty crucial: it will be similar to having a Sand King using Burrow-Strike, you have to be ready with the stun to cancel the Epicentre.


  Linken's Sphere
- Linken's Sphere can now be cast on an allied hero to transfer the buff