This is Pro Breakdown, a series by Yahoo Esports Southeast Asia where we talk with pro players, coaches, experts, and other personalities about anything and everything in the region's esports scene.
Now that we are two weeks into the first Tour of the 2021-2022 Dota Pro Circuit (DPC) season, we're once again talking with Singaporean Dota 2 veteran and Nigma Galaxy SEA coach Nicholas "xFreedom" Kelvin Ileto Lim (@xfreedom on Twitter) about the metagame in the circuit thus far as well as possible changes to the Dota 2 itself in the future.
The 7.30e patch nerfed some of the most popular heroes in The International 10 (TI10), such as Mars, Snapfire, Bane, and Weaver. But we're now two weeks into the new DPC season and both Snapfire and Bane are still among the most popular heroes in the circuit. Why do you think these two heroes remain popular even after they got nerfed?
xFreedom: I wouldn't call the changes they got in 7.30e as nerfs, I think the changes were meant more as a way of rebalancing them. If you look at the current patches that Iceforg has been releasing, he still wants every hero to be playable because they're full of these minor fixes to the numbers. If you look at Mars, Snapfire, Bane, and Weaver in particular, these are all heroes that were hot picks at TI and what everyone thinks are still the strongest picks in this patch.
Let's get a bit more specific. Why do you think Snapfire (picked in 111 games, with 52 wins and 59 losses*) is such a popular pick, especially in the first phase of drafts?
xFreedom: Snapfire offers a strong lane, a reposition skill, teamfight, some tower push, and the ability to take Roshan. So she ticks a lot of boxes and fills in a lot of things that a team wants to have in a hero, which you can also pick early without being afraid of showing too much of your strategy with it.
What about Bane (picked in 100 games, with 56 wins and 44 losses)? We saw Team Spirit excel with the hero on their way to lifting the Aegis of Champions, so is the hero popular because teams are trying to copy the TI champs or does the hero itself really bring a lot to the table?
xFreedom: I think the moment they gave Bane back the ability to hit during Nightmare, they made him viable again. He's one of the strongest position 5 supports because he has both a save [in Nightmare] and a Black King Bar-piercing ability [in Fiend's Grip], basically all that you can want from a position 5 hero.
Aside from the meta heroes back in TI10, some heroes have also begun rising in popularity in the early stages of the circuit's first tour. One hero that comes to mind is Kunkka (picked in 58 games, with 33 wins and 25 losses), why do you think he's becoming more popular?
xFreedom: Kunkka is a counter-pick to the zoo meta; so Beastmaster, Lycan, Nature's Prophet, and other Helm of the Overlord heroes. The hero can stop the tempo of those heroes on its own, plus he's quite versatile and can be played in all three core roles.
Another interesting hero is Clockwerk (picked in 24 games, with 12 wins and 12 losses). While he's not the most popular pick out there, teams in Southeast Asia have picked him (13 picks in SEA) more than any other region combined (11 picks everywhere else). Why do you think he's much more popular in SEA compared to all other regions?
xFreedom: SEA teams have sort of realized that this Clockwork has the ability to kill the meta-favorite heroes, so his popularity is caused more by the fact that SEA is identifying the ways to solve these issues and innovating in the current meta.
Speaking of innovations in the current meta, Shadow Fiend (picked in 36 games, with 19 wins and 17 losses) has been gaining popularity but as a carry hero instead of his usual role in the mid lane. With the new build where he levels Necromastery and Presence of the Dark Lord instead of Shadow Raze, we've seen teams pull off fast wins in the mid game with the new carry Shadow Fiend. What do you think of this new innovation?
xFreedom: I think the new Shadow Fiend build just has a faster timing if you compare it to the more traditional siege carry heroes like Terrorblade and Medusa. In the past, Shadow Fiend was this sort of niche mid hero but given this new ability to flex it on two roles just makes it more viable to pick early on.
Another hero we rarely saw in recent patches but is gaining a lot more popularity right now is Spirit Breaker (picked in 44 games, with 26 wins and 18 losses). I've seen the hero flexed from positions 2 to 5, sometimes even being picked early in drafts. What do you think caused Spirit Breaker's recent surge in popularity?
xFreedom: I think Spirit Breaker coming back is just the meta evolving to deal with heroes like Monkey KIng and Weaver, similar to how the earlier example of SEA teams picking Clockwerk to counter meta heroes. Everything else Spirit Breaker has just tick the boxes of what's needed in a line up, he's got a gap closer [in Charge of Darkness] and a BKB-piercing stun [in Netherstrike]. You can stunlock people [with Greater Bash] too if you're lucky.
In a similar vein as Spirit Breaker, Pudge (picked in six games, with four wins and two losses) has surprisingly surfaced as a pocket position 4 pick in Western Europe and Eastern Europe but not anywhere else. What do you think of Pudge suddenly getting picked, even in just a small number of games? Are teams just trolling or does the hero really have a place in high-level Dota?
xFreedom: I think people just wanna have fun, you know? I think Pudge is a hero that you have to play with an open mind. When you play him well it looks really good, but when you play him bad it just looks terrible.
The way he functions as a position 4 is like Mirana because of the change to Meat Hook that gave him the ability to secure the range creep or neutrals. After that he can give the offlaner solo EXP while he roams around to set up kills and hopefully get his team snowballing into the midgame.
What do you think of the state of the metagame at this point of the season?
xFreedom: I think it's just that the meta is still slowly evolving from TI, all the different regions are still in that transition period between the old meta and the current one. As of now, I think everyone is still just experimenting and a lot of the teams are kinda new too so they're playing their safe heroes first before they try anything new.
From your own experience as a coach, do teams at this early point of the season tend to start experimenting with their own drafts or follow how the meta evolves in other teams or regions?
xFreedom: I think it's just better to play what works for you. You don't have to go around fixing things that are already working fine, right? I think most teams at this point of the season are just taking it one step at a time. They prepare for one opponent at a time and they strategise around how they want to counter what this team is good at, try to find flaws in their drafts, and so on.
*All statistics used in this article are accurate as of 13 December