Black King Bar: What Happened to Dota 2’s Most Iconic Item?
One thing about Dota that fans appreciate is the game’s complexity and its resistance to having game mechanics undermined for the sake of introducing extreme simplicity. One of those mechanics is magic immunity, which prevents heroes from being affected by enemy spells. This effect exists somewhat in League of Legends with the item Zhonya’s Hourglass, but you can still control your hero and use abilities while magic immune in Dota.
Black King Bar was the primary source of magic immunity, but it’s becoming less relevant in casual and competitive play. Sure, if your opponents are mostly magic damage, it makes sense for your cores to build BKB, but looking at hero picking trends, new mechanics, and the changes to the item itself, it looks like the BKB may be on its last legs as an iconic, game-winning Dota 2 item. It could be considered a hold-over from the older days of Dota when the earlier stages of the game were defined by bursty spells with lots of crowd control. Still, the game is balanced to the point where spellcasting heroes have a purpose 40 minutes into the game, and super-late games aren’t always the norm between equally skilled teams.
The Rise of Status Resistance, Strong Dispel, and Break
While it’s strange to call these mechanics recent, Dota is a game that’s existed since 2003 at this point. While Dota 2 may not resemble 2004’s Dota Allstars, the same spirit exists in both games. Status Resistance and Break are completely new mechanics to Dota 2 that didn’t exist in Dota Allstars/Warcraft 3 Dota, thus earning them the status of at least being considered “recent.”
Status Resistance is a mechanic that decreases the duration of enemy debuffs in the game. The more status resistance you have, the less time you spend stunned, rooted, silenced, etc. It was introduced in 2017 with Dark Willow and Pangolier and has seen an increased presence in the game since then, either through changes in character abilities, item changes, or included with neutral items. These items drop after killing jungle camps. In the current patch, several heroes see popularity due to their abilities offering status resistance or immunity, such as Omniknight, Tiny, or Pangolier.
Strong Dispels are Cleanses that remove hard disables like stuns. Aeon Disk has risen in popularity due to its strong Dispel, increased Status Resistance, and cheap cost, making it a more accessible BKB for heroes that don’t usually build BKB in Dota 2. Hero abilities like Abaddon’s Aphotic Shield, Oracle’s False Promise, or Tidehunter’s Krakken Shell make them priority picks as they can either deal with heavy amounts of crowd control on themselves or their team’s cores.
Break is a mechanic that was introduced back in 2015 that disabled passive/non-activatable abilities. Before Break, carries with scalable passives used to dominate the game and drive games super late. It also made some heroes more relevant to the game overall.
The issue with the Dota 2 BKB item, Break, Strong Dispels, and Status Resistance is that BKB doesn’t prevent Break and doesn’t increase Status Resistance. Status Resistance can stack, meaning that heroes that benefitted from Magic Immunity can now rely on their teammates or buy other items that will stack their Status Resistance instead. Since Dota 2’s BKB can’t stop Break, most carries look to build other items that will increase their survivability, mobility, or damage output since Break will be inevitable at some point during the game.
These mechanics aren’t the only things standing in the way of the Dota 2 BKB item, however. Another item has risen to the top recently to challenge its position as the most iconic Dota item.
The Rise of Aghanim’s Scepter
Ever since BKB was introduced, the item has seen some nerf or balance change come its way. Another item from around the same time is Aghanim’s Scepter, which upgrades a hero’s ability or provides them with a new one. It’s been common for heroes to receive new Aghanim’s Scepter upgrades with major patches, and the list has grown tremendously. Since the item provides either a new ability or an enhanced one, it can be considered necessary for several heroes. Not to mention, the item provides base stats, health, and mana.
One of the arguments for BKB being a core item for so many carries was gaining both attack damage and stats while also gaining Magic Immunity. Now, those same carries have an Aghanim’s Scepter upgrade that provides them with a new ability while gaining more base stats than BKB currently provides! Not every carry always needed BKB, but they built it because the Magic Immunity could allow them to play more imprecisely and win while gaining some necessary stats.
Dota now is a game with players above 10k MMR at its highest level, meaning that these players have learned how to engage in fights with surgical precision. The meta at this level prioritizes making item choices that will benefit your level to execute, secure kills, and secure objectives. It’s one of the reasons why Slark is so popular right now because he can cleanse himself of debuffs and hard disables without having to rely on BKB. The mechanical levels of players at Dota’s peak are so good that BKB is irrelevant to them.
The Rise of Execution-Based Dota
One of the common criticisms about Dota is that it’s a dying game. A lack of new players and a dwindling player base may be bad for the game’s overall health, but those who have stuck with the game now have a better understanding of it than when they started playing. You’ll see players attempting to utilize the same techniques and builds that you see in pro games, even at lower MMR. The higher you go, the faster the game becomes and the more it prioritizes players building their kid to be as efficient as possible, even if it introduces risk.
BKB is seen as a ‘safe’ item that allows you to play recklessly and ignore the enemy team’s ability to shut you down in a fight. But the same item slot you used for BKB was one you could have used for a damage item, or stats, or a mobility item. Eventually, that BKB’s duration will go down to only six seconds.
By no means is BKB an entirely irrelevant item. It’s always going to have a place in Dota as a means of securing an early lead and prolonging it by making one of your heroes immune to enemy spells. The problem is that Dota’s experienced player base and gameplay changes make the item less interesting and less crucial. Dota’s constantly lauded as a game where complexity and execution meet, and BKB as an item doesn’t exemplify that statement.
BKB isn’t going away, and it probably never will, but that’s not because Dota is becoming simpler. It’s because Dota players as a whole have grown more complex.