By Radu Muresan
September 22, 2019
Dota 2 is constantly evolving. Every now and then, Valve announces IceFrog’s latest ideas, comprised in a patch that might just turn out to be devastating for a lot of professional teams, simply because their best strategies rely on the current state of the game. And when that changes and their heroes are nerfed into the ground, they immediately need to come up with a new way of winning. And that can take months of failed experiments.
In this article I want to take a look at some of the secrets of the professional Dota 2 meta and make a breakdown of what happened at the still recent TI9. This was an underwhelming event in terms of the spectacle it provided, but the matches it offered were still full of brilliant ideas. In particular, OG did not simply win out of pure luck. They came in fully prepared to demolish everyone and their strategies were both perfectly crafted and perfectly executed.
Whenever something works, people tend to spot it immediately, copy it, improve it, create variations of it and overall, use it to their own benefit. To put it simply, the meta is what works and what most people enjoy using on a given patch. It’s the set of patterns or recipes that have proven successful over a number of weeks or months.
These patterns are like textbook openings from chess. They’re the mathematically proven ways of getting an advantage or winning the game, as long as you can prevent your opponent from ruining your strategy during the match itself. As you probably know, the plan of the general is only worth as much as the capabilities of his soldiers. If the strategy is amazing but you don’t know how to implement and play it properly, you can fail even with the best possible draft against the worst possible draft.
That’s why, for instance, a team such as OG or Liquid would easily beat an amateur team of Ancient level even if they randomly picked their five heroes. Above a certain skill gap, the specifics are no longer relevant.
The meta usually starts to form in pubs and scrims. As soon as a new patch is announced, people begin to experiment with the possibilities.
The first thing that becomes obvious in the Dota 2 meta is the best heroes for each of the five roles. In this regard, you start seeing a lot of Phantom Assassins picked in your pubs. Or a lot of Invokers. And so on. And for each of the five positions (carry, mid, offlane, roam, support), a number of around 10 heroes get picked a lot more than all the others combined.
Based on these choices, players start to form response strategies. In other words, they start to figure out what is a counter to what. You might think that this is independent of the patch, but that’s not true. Even slight heroes buffs and nerfs can make a huge difference. On one patch, Viper may be a good counter to Templar Assassin and on the next one it may not be as good.
The second thing that starts to emerge is the item builds. Every patch makes changes to some of the items. Sometimes, new items are created and old ones disappear. When that happens, a lot of builds and build orders change, in order to maximize the benefits provided by the new set of items that exists in the game.
For instance, these days it is not uncommon to see people buying three Wraith Bands on their agility-based heroes.
The third characteristic of any meta has to do with deadly hero combinations. Whether it’s on the safe lane, the offlane, a roamer + midlaner, or just team fight / split push combos, every patch provides some nasty combinations that once discovered, are very effective and people generally either go for them or ban them entirely.
That’s because although you know what’s coming your way, unless you know exactly what to do to counter it, you’ll still get crushed. For example, a few patches ago the Drow and Venge combo was super annoying to deal with. Add a Nature’s Prophet, a Mirana or a Treant Protector to that and you just get annihilated.
Especially in pubs, where nobody cares about cooperation.
And finally, the last distinguishable Dota 2 meta element that forms soon after a new patch is announced is the overall team playstyle, which revolves around timings. On some patches, teams like to buy Meks, Pipes, Vladmirs’ and just push towers. On others, people realize that pushing high ground is difficult and that the game will most likely go late. In such cases, they try to secure the victory by picking a carry that scales properly, such as Terrorblade or Spectre.
Of course, every patch has a variety of viable playstyles, but based on the stats of the buildings, on the available items and the overall hero compositions, teams usually like to play slow or fast, defensive or offensive.
The International 2019 had a very interesting meta that strongly reminded me of TI3. Strangely enough, the most contested hero of the tournament was Alchemist. In the Group Stage, he was picked or banned 126 times. And during the Main Event, the number of times he was still picked or banned 47 times. That’s absolutely massive considering how few matches are played in the Main Event. Needless to say, the hero got banned a lot more often than it got picked. It was played seven times and it got banned 40 times. That goes to show you just how much people respected the playstyles that revolved around this overpowered beast.
TI9 reminded everyone what Dota 2 is all about at the pro level: growing faster than your opponent. And Alchemist is a perfect example of that principle. Thanks to his abilities, he often had 20,000 Networth at minute 20 while the opponents’ midlaner had only half of that amount. This made it very frustrating for teams that had to play against Alchemist, simply because time was almost always against them.
If you go on the offensive and don’t get anything, you lose a lot of farm and end up losing the game. If you don’t go on the offensive, you get massively out-farmed and you end up losing the game. Everything has to be executed perfectly in order to stop the beast and even then, you’ll still most likely lose the game due to a tactical error in a team fight, followed by the loss of Roshan to the enemy team. At TI9, Alchemist got picked 27 times during the Group Stage with a 59.26% win rate and seven times during the Main Event with a whopping 71.43% win rate.
The International 2019 saw a lot of heroes either picked or banned. During the Group Stage, only Riki and Night Stalker got ignored. Every other hero presented some level of attention. The Main Event was a little different. Here, 23 heroes got ignored. Of course, there were a lot fewer matches to be played, but still: ignoring Ursa, Viper, Lycan, Lone Druid, Luna, Drow Ranger or even Disruptor was quite a surprise for the fans. All of these heroes used to be part of the Dota 2 meta in previous patches. However, now they’re universally regarded as pointless.
During the Group Stage of TI9, Enchantress, Shadow Demon, Tiny, Mirana, Ogre Magi, Leshrac and Kunkka distinguished themselves among others. Of course, I didn’t mention Alchemist because he was the star of the show. But the others did a lot also. Just consider Enchantress’ 58.3% win rate during both stages.
One other thing that TI9 gave us was a lot of Slark games. A total of 26 rounds had the shark in the safe lane of one of the teams and the win rate, while not great, was not disastrous either: almost 48%. At least in the groups. Because the Main Event only had three Slark games and they weren’t pretty for the most part: one win and two losses.
Another hero that delighted the audience was Faceless Void. The Chinese teams introduced it as a response to some of the more mobile heroes in the game, and soon everybody started to show interest in him. During the Main Event, Void was picked 13 times and had a win rate of 69.2%. That’s a huge win rate at this level.
And of course, we had the centerpiece of the tournament, IO carry. Played by none other than OG’s ana. In my opinion it was this strategy that set OG apart and showed that they were so far ahead of their opponents that they could simply disrespect them with strategies nobody had dreamed of ahead of the event. IO’s win rate was 83.3%, getting five victories out of six matches.
The International 2019 showed us a lot of promising things and one of them was the power of Hand of Midas. The item was picked by a lot of different carry heroes and by many others, depending on how the game went.
Personally, I loved what teams did with Ogre Magi. After the hero got buffed, everyone had this realization that by picking Ogre Magi and buying a Hand of Midas, he could get massive amounts of gold really fast. However, due to the sheer number of teams that ended up playing him, the win rate wasn’t very good.
In particular, during the Main Event he was picked 11 times and had a win rate of just 36.3%.
In the TI9 Dota 2 meta, most teams preferred to dominate the mid-game and secure a good enough advantage to slowly but surely push their opponent back, kill Roshan once or twice and then end the game.
The matches were rather slow and methodical most of the time, which resulted in longer matches. There were only three matches that ended in under 20 minutes. And most of the games lasted 30-50 minutes. Which shows a preference for positional playstyles that revolved around strong carry heroes that scaled better than the opponent’s.
Mostly due to the massive prize pool of over $34 million, teams were not willing to risk very much and played much safer than the audience would have liked. As a result, there weren’t that many Brood Mothers during the Main Event. There were also no Pudges, no Techies, no Drows and not even Bounty Hunters.
People clearly showed great discipline in not trying to cheese their opponents. This was quite unusual as we don’t often see that happening. In fact, quite the opposite: the weaker teams always try to take their adversaries out of the comfort zone. Otherwise, the chances of winning are slim. But it didn’t happen at this TI.
Ahead of every match there seems to have been a gentleman’s agreement: “We will play it safe and decide everything in team fights, around the Rosh Pit.” And that’s exactly how most of the matches played out.
The Dota 2 meta is a complex beast, but once you have a firm understanding of it you’ll find it can be infinitely rewarding. Thanks for joining me for a closer look at how the professionals play, and stay tuned for more Dota 2 news and updates in the coming days.