It is with great sadness that I share with you today the end of the strange and wonderful life of support Phantom Assassin.
The Dota 2 professional scene is no stranger to odd shifts in meta. From the rotating position of Naga Siren, to the the “Rat” Furion of TI3 and the “five-man fireball” of TI4, players search for the best ways to lovingly utilize, optimize, and exploit the game that they hold so dear. Support Phantom Assassin is among the most eccentric in recent memory, but it lived like a firework: explosive, brilliant, short-lived, and altogether unreplicable.
I now direct your attention to a late-September game between Virtus.Pro and Elements Pro Gaming, in which VP’s Ilya “Lil” Ilyuk took up the position. However, it would take over two weeks for the strategy to hit its prime in The Summit 6 qualifiers. NP’s Theeban “1437” Siva executed the role perfectly in game two of a set against compLexity Gaming, then again in game two of the best of five finals.
euro trend op stuff
Both teams won each of these games convincingly. As Eric “747” Dong casually but succinctly explained to me: “euro trend op stuff”.
At the core of this unexpected reappraisal was the absolute optimization of Stifling Dagger through item builds. Already, both pros and pubs utilize this as an alternative tool for long-range last-hitting and harassment because of its low mana cost and high damage potential. Then came some realizations by pros theory-crafting around the ability.
First, any item that increases PA’s effective mana pool allows her virtually limitless uses of Stifling Dagger. Although Phantom Assassin has one of the smallest mana pools in the game (230 at level one), Stifling Dagger costs a mere 30 mana in its first level (and its mana cost decreases as it gets leveled). Thus, in each of the three games mentioned above, PA picked up a Ring of Basilius later built into Vladimir’s Offering, creating a powerful synergy: mana regen enough to create near-endless Dagger spam, and armor and lifesteal to complement a gank with a carry.
Second, Orb of Venom and Blight Stone synergized with the ability’s increased use. At 275 and 300 gold (respectively), the price of outfitting position four Phantom Assassin was low compared to the ganking opportunity that this combination of items brought, as right-click effects are applied to Dagger hits. Thus, the strategy combines these items’ perks, the armor reduction of Blight Stone – extremely poignant at the early levels – with the magic damage and the extra slow of Orb of Venom, on top of Stifling Dagger’s innate 50% movement slow and 75 base damage.
And most terrifyingly, all of these effects could be applied from level-one Stifling Dagger’s massive range of 825 units, easily longer than any character’s base attack range.
Before, Stifling Dagger was accepted as a light, gradual harass tool for a melee carry. However, a stroke of insight about the interplay between the low mana cost, range, and on-hit effects of Stifling Dagger instead redefined her as a harass-and-gank support, a graceful way for the already-graceful assassin to dive in and out of lane and help her carry execute seamless ganks.
But Icefrog works in mysterious ways. On October 18, he took his own dagger of righteous balance to the defining feature of Stifling Dagger: its incredible range, which was rescaled to 525/750/975/1200 units at each respective level. In layperson’s terms, at level one, the range is less than two-thirds of what it used to be.
Range defines the support hero, and thus Dota 2‘s arctic amphibian hit this strategy right on its Achilles’s Heel. What makes many supports so efficient is their ability to execute actions from behind the front lines, away from danger. Phantom Assassin had this potential all along, and the Western Dota 2 scene finally discovered a way to exploit this. The sudden, drastic nerf has reined in Phantom Assassin back towards the creep wave, perhaps making farming harder in an aggressive lane, but ultimately bringing a halt to long-distance, barely-even-there harassment, taking her back from her newfound position as a support.
metagaming is part of what makes Dota 2 so fascinating
As in many other esports, metagaming is part of what makes Dota 2 so fascinating, but the game is particularly notorious for its off-the-wall strategies. Even within the span of a single tournament, spectators never know if they’ll witness a familiar, comfortable game or a mind-bending gimmick. Support Phantom Assassin was a testament to Dota 2’s philosophy of design. So let’s appreciate moments like these, when an emergent aspect of the game becomes so dangerous that Icefrog himself is compelled to take a stand.
While the lifespan of the support Phantom Assassin was tragically cut short, perhaps its quick death was for the best.compLexity ended up using a ban for PA in the rest of its games in each series against NP. CompLexity acknowledged that the strategy was not worth dealing with, whether as a sign of respect or frustration. But bans like these also meant that there was less room to strategize and cut off other strong heroes, lessening the counter-strategy opportunities against these teams.
And so, as the Boston Major draws near with no full patch in sight (the nerf to Phantom Assassin occurred in 6.88f, the first time a patch has reached an “f” version in years), Icefrog has halted the meta’s drift towards widespread adoption of this strategy. After all, this game’s Voice of God knows where to draw the line, recognizing the subtle differences between regularity and overpowering presence.
And so, the support Phantom Assassin faced death by execution – by her own Dagger, no less. She has ascended to join the fireball Lycan of 2014 and the 6.83 Sniper in the purgatory of “things that definitely happened.” May Icefrog remain merciful to the competitive scene.