No Longer Ban-Prone Batrider: Icefrog and Valve’s Design Philosophy Regarding DotA 2

With the release of patch 6.80 for DotA 2 we see yet another series of well thought and targeted changes for heroes and gameplay. It is truly remarkable that in a game with 105 heroes the balance team for DotA 1 and 2 continues to make game design decisions that improve the game rather than taking away from it. Part of the iconic design of DotA is that heroes have extraordinarily powerful spells and those abilities can only be mitigated by making intelligent decisions regarding movement, item choices and drafting heroes that have skillsets which help them respond to those abilities. In other games with less courageous design teams, those abilities might be called overpowered and end up subsequently made so much less substantial to the point that those heroes are no longer even picked. But in DotA, the team recognizes the value of having heroes that can change the outcome of the game in a single moment or that are incredibly strong in a specific role. The way that they balance the game is by working to make all heroes viable to choose in the professional scene (while, for the most part, gently toning down those heroes who have become too powerful) and in doing so offer responses and counter responses to drafting and gameplay decisions made by opposing teams.

Take, for example, the case of Batrider. Batrider was once a permanent first pick/ban because of his power throughout the game. With the use of Sticky Napalm he could dominate the laning phase, his Firefly, Flamebreak and Flaming Lasso abilities allowed him to deal massive amounts of damage during team fights and isolate and disable one of the enemy heroes and the flying vision granted by Firefly gave his team a huge advantage over the other by allowing him to reliably provide vision and engage from unpredictable directions. All in all, Batrider was a fun hero to watch but entirely too strong. A game where the first 6 picks and bans are pretty much set in stone removes much of the flexibility and creativity in the drafting stage that we’ve come to appreciate ever so much. So, from 6.76 to 6.79 a series of nerfs were applied to Batrider (see below).

First the team began with small nerfs to his vision, ultimate and Flamebreak ability. But, when it was clear that these changes weren’t enough to reduce his power they chose to target one portion of his skillset that made him so powerful his presence in the laning stage. With the nerf to this base damage he could no longer so easily dominate the laning stage. Sticky Napalm was no longer an added bonus on top his already decent bonus damage and ability to last hit. Now application of Sticky Napalm was nearly a necessity to be used to tie up his opponent and boost damage done to ensure that those last hits went through. Now when choosing Batrider, teams had to make a conscious decision to include him despite his weakness in the early game. He was still a formidable foe who provided an immense amount of utility in team fights and all throughout the game but he wasn’t so powerful that he was a must pick/ban regardless of the drafting plan. Continuing the saga of Batrider into 6.80, the team came to the conclusion that perhaps he was now a little bit too weak at the beginning of the game and in the laning phase and lowered his attack animation time substantially. Batrider still isn’t as powerful as he used to be but now he is an intelligent pick should the team makeup and circumstances allow it. The beauty of the approach taken to balancing this hero is that he was toned down from overpowered to reasonable without destroying his unique qualities as a hero (being abe to disable and pull someone out of position, stacking Napalm for extra damage and slow to turn speed, Firefly providing flying vision and a positional advantage) thus preserving his role in the game whilst creating more space for creative compositional decisions in the future.

By applying this method of balancing the game, the makeup of the heroes selected gradually become more and more diverse and the game continues to develop and evolve. Instead of shoehorning teams into being forced to execute generic strategies they are encouraged to explore the diverse set of options made available to them and make the best use of them that they can. This design philosophy is much more difficult to execute than simply crushing or suddenly amping up heroes but in the long run provides for a better experience. The long history of intelligent balance changes has earned the trust of the DotA community and, because of this, Icefrog (and Valve) are able to gradually make small changes and adjust accordingly depending on how strong the heroes do prove to be (rather than rushing to adjust a seemingly overpowered hero or strategy). It’s rare that I play a game where I read the patch notes and am impressed by the creativity and pragmatism of the team behind them but, without fail, I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the contents of DotA 2’s patches. Here’s hoping that we continue to witness the continuous improvement of our beautiful game.

That’s all for now. Have a Pezant day!

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