Three Lane Highway: what Gabe Newell's choice of Dota 2 hero really means
Welcome to Three Lane Highway, Chris' new weekly column about Dota 2.
Sand King is - like Lich, Axe, and, I like to think, Phoenix - a gentleman's hero. Characters with a lot of early and midgame potential are key to setting the pace of the match, and if your team is snowballing off the back of a few crucial early kills then it's likely that someone like Sand King was involved. Opting to play Sand King is a declaration that you are a team player; that you will buy wards and smoke; that first blood will be secured with a reliable two second stun and the sound - distant, like thunder - of somebody listening to Darude.
Sand King is a gentleman's hero. He's also a giant talking scorpion who sounds like somebody strapped a subwoofer to Vincent Price, but you take what you can get.
What does someone's favourite hero say about their preferences, values, or outlook? What does it mean that Sand King is Gabe Newell's personal pick? Moreover, what does all of this mean for Valve? I submit to you: it means something. It means stuff. It certainly doesn't mean nothing. The premise of this inaugural Dota 2 column has unshakable foundations. If you disagree, that's fine, good for you. Here is a review of a processor.
Let's get started, then. I am going to do this as a list, because (a) somebody told me that you loved lists and (b) I am lazy.
Sand King is the avatar of a magic, sentient desert. He isn't simply the king of sand - he is sand, trapped inside armour that happens to look a bit like a scorpion. His is a singular identity expressed by a much broader collective consciousness. To my mind this is a little like Gabe's relationship with Valve, and, more broadly, like Valve's relationship with the Steam community.
The concept of 'GabeN' is nothing more or less than the expression of the gaming community's sometimes ironic, sometimes earnest need for leadership - leadership that Valve traditionally withholds. Valve will always stress that they work to empower others, to solve short term problems, and to respond to the vast amounts of data they gather from the Steam community. They are a company without job titles, and they claim no titles for themselves.
But the vast majority of human beings like and respect leadership - they want people to thank or blame, not philosophies. Hence GabeN, deliverer of cheap games and withholder of Half-Life 3. The sturdy but capricious ruler of PC gaming, a kingdom that is in reality comprised of innumerable, infinitesimally small and diffuse parts. A king, as it were, of sand.
Sand King is a melee support hero and his primary attribute is strength. This places him in a class of character that also includes Earthshaker, Undying, Treant Protector and Omniknight. Strength supports are a little more gold-dependent than their intelligence counterparts due to their low mana and reliance on distance-closing items like Blink Dagger.
This suggests that even as Gabe is working to buy wards, smoke and courier upgrades for his team he must also be careful to find gold for himself. Risks are fine - even encouraged, when it comes to securing first blood - but these risks must be grounded in solid principles. Overextending for its own sake, dying and losing money is a disaster for Sand King. A good support wants to maximise efficiency for everybody. This means both moving constantly and moving reliably, and not everybody is able to balance the two. This mirrors Valve's own attitude to risk, particularly when it comes to tinkering with Steam. Wow, did it get hot in here? These analogies are on fire.
Strength heroes are the sturdiest characters in Dota 2 because they gain both hitpoints and damage with every point in their primary attribute. These are the two stats that really count, at the end of the day, because if you're dead it doesn't matter how big your mana pool is. Gabe's choice of a strength hero indicates that he believes that ideas, companies and people should be able to withstand attrition at a fundamental level. Dreaming big is great, but it needs to be backed up by proven durability.
The trade-off, however, is that tiny mana reserve. Gabe has powerful spells, but he has to use them at exactly the right time or not use them at all. A strength support hero is a continual presence, but action must be taken decisively. This is probably the best explanation for why Half-Life 3 is taking so long: Valve have run out of mana, they've been buying all the wards, and they haven't had time to save up for arcane boots. If you cared, you'd pool them some clarities.
Sand King is versatile, but the way his skills mesh with one another won't necessarily be apparent to a new player. Let's break them down one by one.
Burrowstrike is classic Valve. It's both a disable, a nuke, and - potentially - an escape, packing tonnes of utility for a modest mana cost. It is more or less effective depending on the skill of the user, but is fundamentally reliable in a way that makes it powerful in the hands of anybody. It can be the spearpoint of an assault or a way of following up on somebody else's initiation; a platform for capitalising on others' success or a means to experiment with new strategies. Burrowstrike is, in short, the Team Fortress 2 of Dota abilities.
Sand Storm is what happens if you use the word 'vision' or 'plan' in an interview with a senior Valve employee. A whirling shroud of avant-garde thinking appears, concealing the man or woman at its centre. Somebody will use the word 'feedback', and almost certainly also the word 'creators'. Then, 'network'. Well-meaning journalists, in this scenario, take anywhere from 25 to 100 damage per second. There's someone in there somewhere, you might think, as your naive writerly dreams erode and crumble. Why didn't I bring sentry wards?
Caustic Finale is an oddity. Some don't invest in it at all, because causing creeps to explode on death is a great way to screw up lane equilibrium. Use it right, however, and that 220 bonus damage at level four can be enough to turn a teamfight. Its inconsistency reflects Valve's work to empower Steam users: sometimes, they explode with creativity! Other times, they explode in a shower of ASCII dicks.
Epicenter. Two seconds of channeling followed by an earthquake that slows movement and attack speed and deals huge damage in a massive radius. You can't ignore it, and you can't escape it. It is a Steam Sale, a new game announcement, and a seasonal Dota event rolled into one. Pulled off perfectly, a good Epicenter shakes the enemy team apart and showers Valve's partners in assist gold. Let's all take a moment to think about serious business people tumbling around their boardrooms while a man bellows 'wombo combo', because that is a fun thing to think about. The problem with Epicenter is that is highly vulnerable to cancellation during the channeling phase. Here's looking at you, Ricochet 2.
It also requires Gabe to pick up a Blink Dagger, but that's no big deal. What's another knife?
Three Lane Highway is Chris' sometimes earnest, sometimes silly column about Dota 2. Originally a Tumblr blog, it's now part of PC Gamer proper.