Common Ground: Morphling & Spectre

I originally wrote this post for a more gaming-oriented blog my friends and I created, Bloglomerate. It is exclusively concerned with the game Dota 2. I’ve reposted it here to ensure it lives on in case Bloglomerate is discontinued.

In a previous post, I lamented the design of Antimage. Although his lack of counters makes him difficult to deal with, I wouldn’t call him overpowered – just a fun-sucking vampire. In fact, there really aren’t many heroes that I feel truly earn the gold ‘imba’ star. Many heroes are situationally absurd, but for most of these heroes, your team will have the opportunity to prevent these situations from coming about through your choice of heroes, lane matchups, item pickups, and so on.

The role-based nature of the game is part of what helps preserve this delicate balance. On paper, Lion’s stun is strictly superior to Nyx Assassin’s stun – it lasts .3 seconds longer and travels 200 units farther. The difference is that Nyx Assassin is a highly mobile invis ganker that can use his stun whenever and wherever the fuck he wants. Meanwhile, Lion is forced to rely on his team to create an opening, so he can trundle in like a clown, use his disables, ult, and then promptly get his ass shoved into his face because that may as well be Lion’s fourth ability. The point is, the strength of abilities are contextual to that hero’s role. There’s a reason most carries don’t come equipped with hard CC.

Here’s some examples:

  • Outworld Destroyer has a single-target removal
  • Spectre has a line slow
  • Lone Druid has a single target snare
  • Luna has a .6s ministun
  • Riki has an AoE slow + silence
  • Faceless Void has a single-target bash proc and an ult that disables teammates
  • Phantom Assassin has a single-target slow

These are their only native forms of CC – yet, for many kills, that’s all they need. Just that little bit of slow or snare is all a carry needs to dish out the necessary damage. Two crits from PA and most supports are totally fucked – at least, if they don’t have a stun. For most engagements – particularly early game – one stun is enough to turn the tables. It’s for this reason that most carries require some form of reliable escape, and it’s why most of them come with just that – invisibility, blinks, pseudo-blinks, haste, and so on. In general, these abilities only appear on carries and semi-carries. Some carries even come with damage reduction (PL, AM, Void) because those escapes aren’t sufficient to keep them alive long enough to deal the necessary amount of damage. Escapes also provide another important piece of utility: map presence. Carries can’t get kills if they can’t show up for fights, but where the farm is and where the fights are rarely overlap.

All carries need farm, and they need somewhere between “a lot” and “a fuckload”. In general, the harder the carry, the more farm they need, and the less innate ability they have to acquire that farm. Spectre has her line slow, but her mana pool is too shitty to ever consider spamming it. Faceless Void has nothing, aside from great base damage. Chaos Knight. Phantom Lancer. Phantom Assassin. All hard carries, and none of them come equipped with anything but single-target abilities, most of which blow nasty turd chunks for the purposes of killing creeps.

Now look at Morphling.

  • Q – Waveform: A high damage, high range AoE line nuke pseudo-blink.

Antimage’s blink is 1150 range. Waveform is 1000 range. Similar to Sand King’s Burrow Strike, Waveform makes Morphling invulnerable – except the travel time is longer than Burrow Strike, making it easier to disjoint projectiles. Waveform also deals 325 damage in an AoE and it’s on an 11s cooldown, making it an amazing farming ability.

  • W – Adaptive Strike: A high damage, high range single-target nuke on a 10s cooldown. Becomes a 3-second stun whenever Morphling is running away.
  • E – Morph: One of the only abilities in the game that gives free stats. It’s the fastest heal in the game at 152 HP/second, and cannot be stopped by any form of disable. It allows the most efficient allocation of stats: highest possible damage at the beginning of a fight, and highest possible health at the end of a fight. It has no cooldown. This really starts to get out of hand when you factor in Adaptive Strike.

I like to compare single target nukes to Dagon 1, which is a fairly average 400 damage at 600 range. At 30 minutes, a decently farmed Morphling will have 150-200 agility, meaning this Adaptive Strike deals about 400-500 damage (80 + 2x agility) at 900 range. It scales all the way into the late game – a fully equipped Morphling will be dealing 700+ damage. Oh, but silly me – that’s assuming Morphling doesn’t have Ethereal Blade.

Ethereal Blade deals precisely the same damage as Adaptive Strike – 75 + 2x agility. But wait: Ethereal Blade makes the target unit ethereal – you know, Ghost Sceptre style. Ethereal units take 40% bonus magic damage. Ethereal Blast is applied after the ethereal debuff. Your 500 damage nuke just became a 700 damage nuke. Then you can follow up with your Adaptive Strike. Another 700 damage. All at once.

But Cranberry Thunderfunk!” I hear you saying. “Morphling can only deal that much damage if he morphs all his strength into agility! He’ll be paper!

You’re right – but even at 0 base strength, a level 16 Morphling with Linkens and Ethereal Blade will have at least 1100 HP. He’ll immediately begin morphing back to strength – did you bring enough firepower to burn the 1520 health he’ll gain in 10 seconds? Maybe you’ve got mana burn, or maybe you’ve managed to forced him to Waveform and he’s run out of agility to convert – and you know what Morphling does? He presses R.

  • R – Replicate: An infinite-range escape ability with zero cast point. You know how long most global teleports are channeled? Nature’s Prophet takes 3 seconds. Wisp takes 2s. Keeper of the Light takes 3s. Pit Lord takes 4s. The minimum channel time on teleport scrolls is 1.5s. For everyone else in the game, zipping across the map takes time and can be interrupted. Except for…Spectre?

Once upon a time, Spectre was first pick/first ban in every game. It was hilarious, really – no matter how many nerfs she received (and there were a metric fuckleton), she still sat comfortably in god-tier. Part of it was because Dispersion was legitimately crazy (25% flat damage reflection across a 1000 AoE, also disabled blink daggers), but I believe an equally important component was her permanent global presence. As a hard carry, Spectre demands ungodly amounts of farm, and farm means being away from the rest of the team. Luckily, Spectre has a global ult that allows her to be there for every single team fight, no matter where she is. Spectre’s team gets the benefits of a hard carry – late game domination – without the handicap of playing 4v5 until 30-40 minutes into the game. Even better, Spectre is innately resistant to ganking; her item builds favor durability, her dagger is a strong escape, and if you made the mistake of leaving one hero across the map, her ult serves as another escape.

Similarly, Morphling’s Replicate affords him a massive increase in map presence and mobility, which also doubles as the best escape ability in the game. Once he has a Replicate stored somewhere, it costs him no mana to swap – the only way to kill him is through permanent stunlock. Even if you catch Morphling off guard and he has no Replicate stowed away somewhere, if it’s off cooldown it can still be used as a 1500 range blink. Morphling isn’t even technically a hard carry – he’s good at the beginning of the game, and great in the mid-game, but he scales so well with items that it’s necessary to treat him as though he were a Void or Antimage that demands repeated ganking. With such amazing survivability, however, Morphling can’t be ganked reliably.

While Morphling and Spectre don’t look much alike on paper – and by no means are they twins – I suspect that the features they have in common are no coincidence. Give an agility carry near-global presence, multiple escape mechanisms, and extreme survivability (that doubles as a steroid for both), and the result will be a hero that all too easily transforms into a fucktrain whose brakes were never installed.

I find it further interesting to note that the Lycan, the top pick/ban since his release, finds all of these features in his ultimate. Lycan just fits into the current push metagame better than Morphling and much better than Spectre.