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6.80: Early Support Trends

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After the release of 6.80, several people asked me if I'd be writing a review of the version. My answer to most people was that, as much as I enjoy speculation, I find it pretty difficult to do meaningful analysis of new patches as they come out – largely because Dota is a very complex game and new patches often need to be played out more than they need to be thought through. We're nearly 3 weeks into 6.80 now and thus I feel comfortable doing some tentative analysis. However, since there is too much to discuss in one post, this post will focus only on 6.80's initial trends in terms of Support Heroes. Below is a graph displaying the popularity of all support heroes which appeared within the top 50 most popular picked-or-banned heroes thus far in 6.80, of which there are 23. All data is from datdota.com and is up to date as of the beginning of Saturday the 15th of February, 2014. The data is drawn from just over 200 games of competitive Dota.
  




All of these heroes are a bit out of place on this list because all of them are currently picked at least as much for core roles as for support roles, if not more. That said, this does not preclude the possibility of meaningful analysis here.

Nyx Assassin has been either picked or banned in 82.4% of all 6.80 competitive matches. This is the second highest percentage of any hero so far. When compared to its overall pick-or-ban % from 6.79 of 33.3%, it's clear that his hero has become dramatically more popular of late. This goes down to three things. Firstly, Nyx is being picked for three different roles. While historically the hero has been picked both for support and for mid, it is only since 6.79 that the hero has become one of the most popular offlaners. Secondly, Nyx was substantially less popular at the beginning of 6.79 than it was by the end of it. This goes down to the fact that the stun became a skillshot, meaning that players needed time to adjust to it before feeling as confident as they did on the hero beforehand. Lastly, 6.80 did provide a minor buff to the hero, matching the cast range of impale to its travel range and thus making it slightly easier to land max-range impales.

Alchemist, on the other hand, has become dramatically less popular in 6.80, moving from a pick-or-ban % of 62.8 to 42.4. Curiously though, while the hero's pick percentage has just about halved, it's ban percentage has stayed almost exactly the same. The reason why it's being picked less is fairly obvious – 6.80 brought nerfs to the hero that massively stunted its ability to roam and thus its ability to be picked as a support. Since 6.79 had already done a similar blow to the hero's potential as a carry, the hero is now primarily being seen as a pick for mid lane. This leads me to assume that the reason it is still being banned roughly the same amount is that mid Alchemist is worth a lot of respect – indeed, very few heroes have a good time against Acid Spray spam in the mid lane and having an Alchemist as a secondary core can be devastating. Another potential reason for the ban % staying pretty high is that early into new versions we tend to see teams sticking to bans they are sure about  usually meaning heroes that were worth banning in the previous version and still retain a substantial part of whatever made them ban-worthy.

Windranger (and Shadow Shaman) enjoyed very specific periods of popularity in the last few months. Windranger gained a lot of popularity around the time that various Western teams, especially Na'Vi and Alliance, started running the hard lane dual lane of Windranger and Bounty Hunter – though arguably the Windranger was more often than not the core in this setup. Around the time of MLG, pieliedie also introduced the potential of a support Windranger being a nuisance around mid lane for the first minute or two of the game to guarantee a favourable matchup regardless of which heroes faced each other. That said, more recently, Windranger is being picked mostly as a core again and thus it is not surprising that its overall pick-or-ban % in 6.80 is only 10% as opposed to the previous patch's 26% since core hero preferences tend to vary a lot more than supports from one game to the next in the current metagame.

Shadow Shaman initially gained some ground in 6.79 owing to the prevalence of push strategies. However, the popularity of Pugna served to constantly undermine Shadow Shaman's progress. Near the end of 6.79, teams realized that Shadow Shaman could solo Roshan at level 6 by exploiting the fact that Roshan would not change his aggro to Serpent Wards while surrounded by them provided he was already trying to hit the Shadow Shaman. This saw a fairly large increase in the hero's popularity as a support for a time. Thus, it is especially interesting to see that Shadow Shaman's prevalence as a pick/ban is higher in 6.80 so far than it was in 6.79 by a full 5% [7% - 12%] considering the fact that the Roshan exploit was removed in this version. That said, we should remember that the overall % from 6.79 includes a long period before the Roshan thing started happening and thus it's possible that the % for just the few weeks before the patch was a lot higher than what it is since the patch. Only time will tell if Shadow Shaman has what it takes to become a top tier support.

Lastly, Naga Siren continues to show a decline in popularity since the release of 6.79. Both Riptide and Ensnare received nerfs at the time and since then the hero showed a consistent decrease in popularity as a support. However, at some point teams began to experiment with Naga as a 1 or 2 position pick, with mostly very promising results. Those who watched a lot of Dota in 2012 will recall that the hero was favoured for a long time as a carry hero that can go super late-game given its crazy ability to farm and push several places at once. This, together with the then novel idea of comboing with Naga ulti made the hero a top carry pick at TI2. Statistically, the interesting thing about Naga, when comparing pick and ban percentages between the current version and its predecessor, is that while its ban rate has gone down, the pick rate has maintained a stable 15%. This probably points to the hero's reduced versatility as a pick – knowing that the hero is probably being picked as a core reduces the value of picking it early into a draft and thus reduces the need to ban it early on. 

Together with Alchemist, the most popular support picks of 6.79 were emphatically Visage, Venomancer, Crystal Maiden, Rubick and Lich. These heroes had a kind of terrifying hegemonic control over the support pool. While Lich's popularity petered out quite a bit as teams began to realize that early pushes turn Sacrifice from a virtue into a vice [and greatly reduce the effectiveness of Chain frost], the other 5 heroes retained very consistent priority status as support picks throughout the version.

Despite nerfs to all three heroes, Visage, Venomancer and Crystal Maiden remain the most popular support heroes in 6.80. With the exception of Visage, all nerfs came in the form of some or other base stat reductions. While Visage did receive a reduction of 5 to its base move speed, it also received a minor nerf to Grave Chill. Thankfully, Soul Assumption and Familiars were left untouched and these are the two main reasons for picking the hero. Similarly, since CM and Veno's skillset were left untouched, the heroes are still more or less functionally the same. While all three thus retain their places at the top of the list, CM has actually seen an overall decrease in popularity. However, CM remains the most popularly picked support hero in 6.80, a status which it had throughout the entire 6.79 patch. This lead is definitely beginning to slip, though.  Whereas it was ahead of all heroes in 6.79, in 6.80 Luna has already taken over as the number one most popular pick. The reason, I think, that CM is picked more than Visage or Veno, is quite simply that it is banned a lot less than them. In 6.80, Visage's ban rate – which was already at 45% - has gone up to a whopping 57% while Veno's – which was at 32% – has gone up to 40%. As alluded to above, the reason that these heroes are being banned more is probably just that they are still very reliable heroes to ban when you aren't sure what else you might want to ban. Meanwhile, CM, despite being the most picked support for several months now, has not really been very worth banning since the Midas Gaming craze ended. CM is simply a lot more likely to become a liability if the game is going badly than either of Visage, who is difficult to kill and has Familiars that can survive its death, or Veno, who can Ulti you before dying anyway [which is often seen as the role of the hero in the first place!].

I've left Rubick 'til last in this section because this hero's change in popularity is a bit of a mystery to me. It's not clear that any changes in 6.80 impact the hero or the things it is useful for and yet it has an overall decrease of 8% to its pick-or-ban percentage. Assuming this isn't just a case of small samples yielding weird results, my best guess here is that the increasing popularity of up-and-coming support heroes [which will be discussed below] have cut out a bit of Rubick's popularity. Even in 6.79, Rubick always felt like a slight outsider to the rest of the top supports. We knew why all the others were so dominant as picks – Visage had been the top support hero for ages already, Alchemist got nerfed as a carry and thus players looked elsewhere for ways to abuse its stun, and Venomancer, CM and Lich had received several recent buffs putting them above all the rest especially in what had become a much more active early game metagame. But Rubick, well, Rubick was just a really solid hero. Of course, there are always times when Rubick can be picked as a counter to big Ultis or just heroes that have great spells to steal, but the hero saw widespread popularity outside of these circumstances too. Nearly 2 years ago, I wrote what was actually my first ever Dota article about why Rubick was such a strong hero and the general conclusion I came to – as endorsed by Dendi! - was that the hero is strong not for one particular reason but based on the fact that it can do so many things that are useful throughout the game. That is to say, it's not any one of its spells but rather the fact that all of them are just great. So then, despite several nerfs since that time, the hero remains just a generally solid support pick to fit in wherever needed. However, here's the catch, as easily as Rubick can just fit in where needed, Rubick can also be benched where needed. And to some extent I think this is happening. With Visage and Venomancer being increasingly banned in 6.80 and Lich and Alchemist substantially less appealing, teams have been forced to look elsewhere for supports – this has resulted in several up-and-coming popular support picks which, as a result of their increased popularity, have also decreased the popularity of the fill-in-where-necessary guy that Rubick seems to be.



Before getting to the up-and-comers, I need to discuss Bane – who doesn't quite fit into the category of the old guard nor does he fit into the category of up-and-coming. Bane is like an inbetweener. He was never quite cool enough to be considered one of the cool kids in 6.79 but he was sufficiently cool to not be seen as anything of a surprise in 6.80, despite a dramatic increase in his popularity since the version was released. One interesting thing about Bane is that the hero did not receive any changes in either of 6.79 or 6.80. Nonetheless, Bane's overall pick-or-ban percentage has literally doubled between 6.79 and 6.80, going from 28% to 56%. This is not too surprising given the above analysis about teams having to look beyond the 6.79 go-to supports these days, especially considering the fact that Bane was already quite popular beforehand.

A surprising fact about Bane is that, so far, he actually has slightly reduced overall success in 6.80, moving from a 51% win rate in 6.79 to a 45% win rate in 6.80. However, given the size of the sample, the figures seem close enough to suggest it would be a mistake to jump to any conclusions here. Bane is an extremely versatile pick as it is able to lock down enemy cores early on with Enfeeble or later on with Fiend's Grip while also providing the option of very unforgiving combos with heroes such as Mirana in the early game. Because of these sorts of combos, early picking a Bane can often force opposing teams to avoid sending a solo hero to the offlane, thus dictating the opposing draft merely by picking a support hero. However, the downside of early-picking a Bane is that it's fairly easy for the opposing team to pick a support which exploits or easily protects against its Ulti such as Rubick or Disruptor. Regardless, I think this is a hero which is in a similar position to Rubick – it's good enough to warrant, but not necessitate, consideration in any draft.



So, these are the up-and-comers. The most obvious thing that all for of these heroes have in common is the fact that they've all recently been made to have extremely awesome Ultis, especially with Aghanim's Scepter. This might suggest that their increase in popularity is partially motivated by the increased availability of gold for supports since 6.79. If this is the case, the most obvious question to ask is what exactly are the other reasons for their increased popularity? Another reason that applies to all of these heroes is a sentiment that has been expressed above already – there is simply a gap in the support pool following the recent patch and thus more heroes are getting a chance. I'd like to look briefly at each of these heroes individually though.

Of the four, Ancient Apparition has seen by far the most astounding increase in popularity, moving from a mere 5% pick-or-ban rate to one of 36%! Pieliedie definitely had something to do with introducing the notion of this hero into many people's minds back in 6.79 when he piloted it superbly in the semi-finals of MLG against Sigma.int. However, in that game he made use of Midas to help farm a fairly fast Aghanim's – something which seems like a lot less of an option these days. Another relevant feature of that game was that pieliedie's AA laned with a Weaver – a combo that goes quite a lot further back than MLG but one which has added to the rise in AA's popularity as a pick. While a year ago, AA's early game was all about Cold Feet combos, now it's usually about Chilling Touch combos. But this is not to say that Cold Feet combos lost their effectiveness but rather that the hero has become more versatile, being able to dominate lanes in two ways instead of just one.

AA's win rate has improved since the beginning of 6.79 but still fails to go above 50%. This may be related to the fact that teams are still working out when it's best to pick it and how it's best to use it. That said, objectively it seems clear that this hero fits into the current metagame well because it is great at being active early on. It has two ways to dominate lanes and an Ulti which is both excellent for ganks and very useful as a counter-pushing tool. Most likely, we'll continue to see more of this hero for a while.

Dazzle enjoys the second most improvement of the four, jumping from a 6% pick-or-ban stat to a convincing 23%. This is one case where I think the changelogs did just about all the work. In 6.79 Dazzle's Ulti duration got rescaled from 12/18/24 to 20. In 6.80 it got rescaled to 24 seconds at all levels. It's as if Icefrog was holding up a sign saying 'Guys, Weave is a good spell! Use it!' Meanwhile, Weave was not the only spell buffed in 6.79 – Dazzle's Poison Touch also got substantially buffed with an increase to both its damage and slow duration at early levels, making it very useful as a tool for harassment in lane. And since 6.79 pushed Dota into a more active early game, a more effective support in the early game means a better one. The only question remaining is why the hero didn't become more popular in 6.79 – why only in 6.80? I think that this can mostly be explained with reference to the other supports again. While the top tier supports in 6.79 were so clearly ahead of the rest, many of those have lost their value in 6.80 while others are consistently banned. Moreover, it's also quite possible that the further buff to Weave in 6.80 helped players to wake up and re-evaluate the hero. It is a common trend in Dota for heroes to require buffing well beyond the level of pickability before players realize they are pickable. Darkseer comes to mind.

Disruptor and Lion come in substantially lower than AA or Dazzle in terms of their increased popularity. That said, both of these heroes had around a 3% pick-or-ban rate in 6.79 which has since improved to around 12%. I think that kind of growth warrants at least brief discussion – I mean, even though the numbers are still quite small, they did quadruple! Both of these heroes have excellent skillsets as well as potentially game-defining Ultis if they manage to reach an Aghanim's Scepter. Both of them also do not necessarily get completely countered by BKBs like most support heroes – Disruptor with Aghanim's can turn off BKB and Lion can often initiate with Hex before the target manages to BKB. Lastly, both of these heroes have been substantially buffed recently in terms of their value in the early levels – Disruptor's Thunder Strike was buffed in 6.78 to deal slightly more damage overall and, significantly, to deal damage over a longer period of time, thus reducing enemies' ability to use consumables for longer [and giving vision for longer in order to Glimpse]. Meanwhile, Lion's Hex was buffed in 6.79 to give it an extra 0.75 seconds of disable at level 1. This is a big deal given that Lion's Earth Spike has such a short duration at level 1 - one weakness of the hero having historically been it's ineffectiveness as a disabler at level 1.

However, here's the catch. Both of these heroes are pretty awful at fighting in a losing lane. Glimpse, Thunder Strike, Hex and Earth Spike are all fairly weak skills in situations where your lane is coming under a lot of pressure. If, say, the opposing lane is able to output huge bursts of damage/disable, neither of these heroes is going to have a great time defending either themselves or the relevant core hero. At the same time, neither hero is effective enough offensively to force a strong enemy lane onto the back foot. Thus, both of these heroes feel a lot harder to pick into very strong enemy lanes and this is probably why their popularity is increasing at a much slower rate to AA or Dazzle's. That said, teams will definitely continue to try find space for both of them, given the disproportionate effect they can have on the mid and late game as supports.



While the support pool is seeing some new faces recently, it's also seen some old ones re-emerge. The story here is really quite simple. While both of these heroes form part of fairly standard offensive combos, in general a big part of the appeal of these picks has historically been their defensive capabilities. Having a Shadow Demon or Jakiro in a lane means that the enemy team can't initiate on someone and expect the fight to go the way they want it to because of the crazy counter-initiation power of Disruption and Ice Path. Unfortunately for these heroes, defensive capabilities were not very important for supports in 6.79. Supports needed to be able to be very active around the map early on, constantly threatening enemy cores and making space for allied ones. Jakiro could never really do this and Shadow Demon could never do this on his own. Add to this the sheer superiority of the popular supports in 6.79 and it's no wonder that both these heroes fell off quite a lot. Shadow Demon, who was down to a 18% pick-or-ban rate in 6.79 is already back up to 29% and Jakiro, who was the least loved support in 6.79 at barely 2% is already close to 12% now. What happened?

As with Dazzle, I feel that Jakiro's increased popularity is owed almost entirely to the recent changelogs. Jakiro now does a lot more damage, especially at early levels and also has an increased slow duration. Thus, it is more of an asset in the early game and thus it is now justifiable as a pick when expecting very active early games. In Shadow Demon's case, it's a bit more complicated, probably. While Shadow Poison did receive buffs in both the recent patches and various pros have played around with maxing it first in 6.80, it's not clear that this alone is enough to explain a renewed popularity in the hero. I think another thing that has helped the hero a lot is it's ability to combo with heroes that are very popular at the moment. Invoker has become the most popular mid hero in 6.80, seemingly over night, and thus even though many Invokers are not building into Exort, those that do serve to further justify Shadow Demon picks. Meanwhile, because of the increased ban rate of Bane, Shadow Demon also acts as a reasonable alternative for combos with Mirana, who remains one of the top two most popular carry picks along with Luna [by a pretty huge margin].



The jungle is not without incident in 6.80. While Chen's popularity has seen an overall decrease from 47% to 41%, Enchantress's has literally doubled from 28% to 56%! It's probably easier to understand this as a continuation of a trend that had already begun in 6.79 – from 6.78 Chen went from 52% to 47% and Enchantress went from 21% to 28%. In other words, ever since the game became extremely active early on, Enchantress has been gradually catching up to Chen in terms of popularity. This makes sense for two reasons. Firstly, Enchantress is able to dominate several creeps from level 1 whereas Chen can only do so at level 5/7, making Enchantress a scarier ganking hero earlier on. That's not all though. Because of the nature of early game pressure in Dota at the moment, teams have struggled to pick hard carries as much as before, with heroes like Antimage, Spectre, PL and such seeing a huge decline in popularity. One result of this is that support heroes that are able to transform into carries, such as Enchantress, are a very unique type of asset to a draft. Especially when their ability to become carries does not compromise their ability to control the early game! The reason that Enchantress's jump was so big in this particular case is probably just the sudden hole in the support pool since the start of 6.80.

Still, Chen and Enchantress bring different things to a draft and thus both will remain relevant despite any changes in their popularity relative to one another. While Enchantress might offer earlier Ganks and pushes, Chen offers a lot more continuity in both, with stronger creeps and ones that don't exist on a timer. Chen also offers a much better heal with much further reach and the ability to save allies [or - not irrelevant - nuke enemies!] with Test of Faith. As a result, Chen will often fit better into, say, an all-in push strategy. Enchantress has the upper hand for now, but this is a very old rivalry which will not be settled over one or two versions of Dota.


While Io's popularity has gone down slightly [6%], there is little reason to expect this to be significant. All the popular Io combos are still available and Relocate still does the same thing it has always done. Sure, Tether got a pretty big nerf in 6.79 but despite this the hero maintained an excellent 63% win rate across the version. It's pretty simple, really. Relocate poses an incredible implicit threat and thus, without even using the spell, the team with an Io is almost always, by default, creating space for themselves. I am very confident that there is still plenty more to see of this hero, especially once Team DK starts playing again.




Earthshaker is being slightly less picked and banned than it was over the course of 6.79. This is a potentially misleading statistic, with no obvious reasons why the hero would be in decline at the moment and every evidence of its being, if anything, an increasingly better option. The hero is certainly more popular now than it was at the start of 6.79. That said, despite being a potential up-and-comer, perhaps this hero is losing out to more successful up-and-comers which have all recently become more exciting in one or another way while ES has stayed – at least functionally – the same old ES.

Sandking, on the other hand, has disappointingly shown no substantial change in popularity in 6.80. This is disappointing for me because I expected both of these heroes, but especially Sandking, to gain more popularity as a result of Blink Dagger no longer costing any mana. During DK's epic 4-3 comeback against iG in January, LaNm showed in game six just how much Sandking can benefit from skipping Arcane Boots in favour of Phase Boots [and Drum, in this case]. However, since these heroes really wants to buy Blink, it's historically been seen as something of a necessity to first buy Arcane Boots in order to enable them to comfortably be able to use all their spells, especially where wanting to use any of them more than once between each trip to base! Since ES doesn't like to get his hands as dirty, standing at the back and providing cover fire, Arcane Boots will remain very appealing for him despite perhaps having a slightly lesser need for them. Sandking, on the other hand, is likely to see increasing divergence from the traditional Arcane Boots into Blink item build, particularly when picked into lineups that don't need SK to buy Arcane Boots for the team's sake.

One hopeful sign in this regard is that where it has been picked in 6.80, teams have indeed begun to experiment with skipping Arcane Boots and going straight for Blink - click here for an example of such a match. Perhaps this is a case of professional teams needing to dip their toes in the water before diving in.


Though the graphic suggests that Abaddon's popularity has decreased, the decrease only amounts to about 3% and is thus not worth too much analysis especially considering the size of the available sample. However, it is worth considering why it might be that the hero struggles to get past the 15% mark, especially with a win percentage of over 52%. I think the answer here is probably quite obvious. Right now, versatility is the flavour of the day when it comes to drafting and Abaddon is just not very versatile. The hero either protects a very hard carry in the safe lane, or teams up with something to try abuse the enemy safe lane. It's certainly not going to be doing much roaming and, worse yet, it lacks versatility not just in how it might lane but also in how it functions during a game. All it will ever really be doing is making it harder for the enemy team to kill things. What this means is that if the opposing team gets to a point where they can kill things despite Abaddon's best efforts, Abaddon is effectively out of the game and there's very little he can do to get back into it. Thus, the hero can only be a very specific pick when expecting a very specific type of lane stage to play out. Of course, it's nice that Aphotic Shield can remove negative debuffs and this might be an added motivation for picking the hero at times, but if you aren't confident you're going to get a lot of value from your lanes, you're probably not going to be picking Abaddon.


Conclusion

I know this post is really long and I'm grateful to those who managed to read all the way through to the end! Although most of my analysis is rather tentative at this point, what seems fairly clear is that we are seeing a lot of movement in the support pool which was severely lacking in 6.79. Quite possibly, we might be in store for an even more diverse range of supports when the Chinese scene reboots later in the month. 

As always, any and all feedback is appreciated! If you enjoy my writing, you can follow me on Twitter.

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