It’s crazy to think that Dota heroes have been consistently developed and released for almost two decades at this point. That is 122 unique opportunities to practice hero design, not to mention the countless patches of tweaking and reworking or the likelihood of many partially developed hero concepts. That is a lot of time to optimize what makes a good hero. It also means there are a lot of other moving pieces to consider when trying to create a hero that will be relevant and unique enough to be interesting.
With that in mind, the fact that Dota 2 only gets one or two new heroes per year is not that surprising. There is a ton of pressure on the Dota team to continue delivering engaging new content. Because of all these factors and the long development cycle the heroes being released in the 2020s feel like a different breed than those ported over from Dota 1.
This idea is abundantly clear in the heroes released in the past four or five years. Everything from new mechanics like vector targeting (Pangolier and Marci) to a clear deviation in art style (Mars and Dawnbreaker) is apparent. Other new ideas like jumping on trees, having two ultimates or turning into a lizard-powered siege tank have all introduced new wrinkles to the gameplay.
The crazy part about this development trajectory is that the game still feels relatively balanced to play. After all, Dota is a game where skill testing and seemingly limitless heroes like Invoker and Morphling can co-exist with low skill-ceiling options. such as Ogre Magi and Wraith King. Even so, I think it’s worth keeping an eye on the direction that hero development appears to be going in.
For many years, the recipe has seemed to follow the old adage that everything in Dota is overpowered so nothing is. Certainly the team aspect of the game and the ability to counter pick and counter itemize keeps most egregious imbalances in check. At the same time it is hard to ignore just how versatile and powerful almost every single new hero has been upon release and even after many subsequent nerfs.
Here is the list of heroes introduced since Dota 2 Reborn:
- Arc Warden
- Monkey King
- Dark Willow
- Void Spirit
All of these, with the exception of maybe Underlord has almost immediately commanded a huge role in the meta. Simpler heroes like Mars and Dawnbreaker dove right into the tier one conversation while the more complex ones such as Hoodwink or Dark Willow took a few weeks of practice for pros to start stomping with. Each hero aside from maybe Dawnbreaker, who has only been available for a few competitive tournaments, has spent the majority of their time as a top tier pick in at least one role.
Grimstroke and Dark Willow might not be as big players today in shaping the meta but the memories of their years long reigns of terror are still fresh. To be clear, it is not necessarily a bad thing that new heroes are good and play a big role in shaping the game. This is certainly the intent of the Dota team and a necessary side-effect of keeping the game fresh. However, the practice of cramming so many new ideas into each new hero has created a bit of a versatility problem.
Since Monkey King, every new hero has been immediately viable in at least three different roles. Yes, most new heroes are overpowered on release but the Dota team is also simply designing more versatile heroes. Again, this is not necessarily a problem and I personally love every new hero added to Dota. The bigger concern is the shadow that these newer designs cast over the more antiquated members of Dota’s roster of heroes.
Is it really still worthwhile to play a hero like Lich when Grimstroke or Snapfire exist? Realistically, Lich only functions well in one role and his strength in laning and team fights is easily matched and exceeded by both other options. This is not to mention the flexibility of position four, offlane or even mid that have all proven to be viable for both Grimstroke and Snapfire. Likewise, why play Sniper when you can essentially do the same thing twice as well with Arc Warden?
I’m sure there is some argument for simplicity or nostalgia in playing Dota’s classic heroes. However, it’s been a long time since we got a new hero that just does one thing well and fills a specific niche in a specific team composition. I want to reiterate that it’s not a bad thing that Dota’s heroes are getting more diverse and interesting to play. In fact, it’s a true testament of skill to all of the developers who have worked on Dota over the years that so many of the original hero designs remain relevant and fun to this day. At the same time, it’s probably worth considering where the game will be in another five to ten years. Will the original cast of characters be relevant pieces of the puzzle or simply antiquated bloat that have been outdated by the newest vector targeting, hyper carry-support-mid-ganker with three ultimates and global teleport?