A little history
Before we put our favorite H2O-based hard carry under the microscope, it might be worth examining how he entered the current “metagame”. He was an OK pick for quite a while now, but he wasn’t a top pick that we know him to be today.
In late 2011, IceFrog released DotA v6.73, a major update adding 5 new heroes (yet to be released in DOTA 2). Along with those heroes he added a few new items like Abyssal Blade or the more widely used Ring of Aquila. In the update Morphling received a small buff, +5 base agility. This helped the early game last hitting of a hero with a notably small range (350 units).
The really important boost came after, in March 2012, as part of v6.74:
-Morph passively grants 3/4/5/6 agility and strength
This buff may not seem like much at first glance, but previously Morphling was built by getting stats and waveform first instead of the current Morph and Waveform combination. This was done because pre-6.74 Morph only gave you the active ability. It was very costly to dedicate 4 whole levels in the early game to a skill that gives no passive benefits. His other non-ultimate is Adaptive Strike, it’s even sillier to get this early since it relies upon the amount of AGI you have.
The buff allowed players to get their stat rewards by going for Morph instead, which allowed for very early level four Morphs. As any player can tell you, a Morphling morphing STR with maxed out Morph is going to be really hard to bring down.
As soon as the patch got applied, the first match I saw that day had a Morphling pick. This is something we barely saw before in DOTA 2, and everyone was very excited about it. The answer from the opposing team was an older counter to Morphling, Doombringer. The hero’s ultra-silence disables the usage of Morph as well as Waveform, the two abilities that define Morphling’s survivability.
What happened to Doom, you ask? The hero starts out with 0 base armor, and his agility does not scale too well. On top of that he’s melee. His survivability is solely reliant on support of other players and cautious positioning. No one wants to play with zero armor heroes, it’s too risky, unless it’s part of a peculiar strategy. The Doom counter was a trick, not solid play, and it died out pretty quick.
Special mention goes out to Korok of Quantic Gaming, whose power with this hero turned more than one game in their favor. His play urged players in the European and American scene to take a closer look at the hero.
“Please, ban Morphling”
The audience watched as Chinese teams like iG, LGD or even TongFu tore through the competition using Morphling. He was one of the most picked heroes during the tournament, and he was responsible for a lot of successes. The hero was especially deadly in the hands of Sylar of LGD. He hasn’t lost a single game where he was playing this hero. The only time when LGD dropped a game, Morphling got banned out by the opponent.
Teams, especially Chinese teams, felt very comfortable with picking turtling or safe tactics. The mantra for the European scene has been, especially for the earlier parts of the year, to try to finish the game swiftly, in the midgame, before carries get too big. When pushing and ganking strategies are still relevant. The reasoning was that, in the later stages of the game, making mistakes is much more risky. Teams have to deal with farmed heroes that melt creepwaves and towers with a few right clicks, not to mention the long graveyard cooldowns and high buyback charges. A quarter of a second can be the difference between winning and losing a team fight and calling GG.
So why did the Asian teams force it to the late game anyways? For the very reasons the European teams didn’t want to do it. Asian teams, especially Chinese teams were confident that their long hours in practice will result in superior level of play and state of mind in the late game. It’s also very tiresome to play these long stressful games, as expressed by Puppey after beating LGD. They basically want to inch their way to victory, forcing mistakes while reinforcing their lead.
Morphling fits well with this play style, but in the case of The International 2, he worked even better. Say what you will about them, but every team was absolutely terrific at the International 2012. Chinese teams may be really good, but it doesn’t mean they could just walk all over the rest of the competition. Morphling actually helped teams get a lead all throughout the game, even in the early game, thanks to Waveform. Another attractive feature about Morphling is his split pushing ability. Replicate being one of the strongest illusions in the entire game, Morphling can easily assign a sidelane or creep camp to an appropriately beefy illusion while pushing another lane, and then safely jump back to where his replicate is located. Kind of a poor man’s Ttinker if you will, not too shabby when the hero doubles as a hard carry though.
The main strength of Morphling lies in his versatility. He is not the hardest or even second hardest carry mathematically. He hits hard, but what truly makes him a top tier pick is how adaptable the hero to the situation is. Just first picking him is a very safe bet, because you can build around him afterwards.
Why wasn’t he banned more? There’s no clear answer to this one, some teams felt confident against him. Some teams had strategies that worked well even if there was a skilled Morphling in the enemy team. The biggest reason was that, at the very least, people knew how people played the hero. He is strong but more predictable than letting the enemy have something like a lycanthrope or worse, a dark seer. I was actually surprised how much Rubick got through, who was also a very dangerous pick. At the end of the day, when teams pick it isn’t pure logic. There are a lot of emotions when you’re sitting in that captain seat, and you get 30 seconds for every pick and 90 seconds bonus time. It’s something you can’t truly appreciate until you’ve done it yourself.
Attributes on demand
We talked about some of the reasons why Morphling is good, but for me, his core mechanic, the dynamic relationship of STR and AGI is what makes him a really effective hero.
Morph is good for several reasons. Firstly it is great for freeing up the way you want to build him, as long as you get items that either boost AGI or STR, you’re going to be able capitalize heavily on that item, since you’ll be able to morph more attributes from one place to another.
This frees you up to adapt to the situation. For instance, the enemy has a bunch of mobile heroes that are giving you a hard time, but they are very easy to burst down. Go for a shotgun build (Ethereal Blade rush). With that you get a lot of AGI and a bit of STR. Morph the STR into AGI for even more AGI, or morph all your free AGI into STR for more tankability to survive the fights.
What if you’re dealing with a lot of disables? Get a Black King Bar, and use the STR you gain from that and morph it into AGI to get more DPS out of an item that isn’t damage focused inherently.
Another common item would be Linken’s Sphere that loads a lot of attributes onto you for free usage as well as that targeted ability block. The list goes on.
The idea is that Morphling is a hero that can have incredible amounts of HP and become a tank, and in the matter of a few seconds be able to turn into a wrecking ball of an AGI carry with 0.4s per attack and 300+ right click.
Morph also allows you to lead people on wild goose chases that waste their time or worse get them caught out of position. At the end of the day, Dota is a position war and any hero that has abilities that are inherently designed to force positioning mistakes are going to be very valuable.
Lastly, adaptive strike, while the least interesting of Morphlings lineup of skills, can be a useful tool. It’s either a really good nuke or a really good stun based on what attribute you have more of, it’s hard to make the most out of this ability, but it’s a nice finisher, and can help you in hairy situations if Morph wasn’t enough already.
I think I should take the time out to mention that Morphling only had a mere 58% win rate during TI2. Just because you pick Morphling does not mean you have an unbeatable advantage above the enemy. There are plenty of legit ways to shut him down. Unlike Chaos Knight for example, he is completely useless if shut down. Early pressure, mass nukage and minus armor stacking are probably the best ways of dealing with him. He has no built in magic resistance above the default 25%, and has relatively low base stats. He needs to get a decent amount of levels up before morph becomes a truly scary ability. At the end of the day he is a hard carry, he needs farm to be relevant.
He happened to work out really well for this tournament because he is a really good hero, that fit the play style of those who played the best this year. It’s the same way anti mage is a really good hero, which allowed him to dominate TI1. It doesn’t mean that these heroes are going to win most games unless a patch comes about and nerfs them or buffs their counters.
I’d like to give a special mention to EHOME who ran a killer Tiny-Wisp combo to deal with Morphling. It really showed during their losers bracket BO1 against Orange eSports when they won. I urge you to check it out. It was one of the best games during the International not counting the incredible Bo3 between LGD and Na’Vi.
A lot relies on the supporting cast in each team, their composition as well as the level of play. After all DOTA 2 is a 5v5 game. More importantly though, competitive dota is about trends. The metagame is merely a loose term referring to current tendencies amongst pro players. It is very much possible that someone will discover the hidden potential of a hero, and that changes the way people pick for months to come. For example Clinkz came into popularity around the end of The Defense where people favored him for his great burst damage and escape. An even better example is when Leshrac started seeing play, now one of the top picks in the game. We can’t be sure what’s going to be the new fad.
Dota is a breathtakingly complex and deep game, no can truly see through all the possible builds, hero combinations and strategies. All anyone can do is strive to play the best they can, however they can, during any match. It seems during The International 2, Morphling lent a helping hand in doing so.
Written by Vilmos "ALPHATT" Magyar