Patch 7.23 was a doozy. In addition to rebalancing nearly every hero, Icefrog dropped a bombshell on us by making neutral creeps drop items. Unlike the introduction of talents which had a mostly positive response, neutral items were met with a ton of backlash. Despite the mixed feedback, Dota players endured the pain as usual and have adapted to the new norm over the last year and a half. Now, with most professional Dota on hold until TI 10, many fans are expecting a fairly sizable update to the game. It’s worth taking some time to revisit larger macro aspects of the game to discuss if they have improved the playing experience.
In theory, neutral items were exciting because they offered the chance to adapt your build on the fly based on what you dropped. Getting to skip some early stats or regeneration items because you found the right neutral was an interesting idea. Extra creativity in Dota is usually a plus. In practice, the effect feels a lot more watered down than expected.
Some items have really awesome synergies with a select few heroes but most are just free stats and regen. It’s not surprising that the most preferred neutral items according to our stats are the simple ones. Paladin Sword adds some damage and lifesteal, Titan Sliver makes you tankier and do more damage while Philospher’s Stone just gives you more gold. Distilled down to their benefits, the majority of neutral items end up in use simply for their basic stats benefits or regen bonuses.
For every cool Ironwood Tree + Timbersaw style combo, where Timbersaw can drop a tree anywhere to Timberchain too, there are about 50 heroes picking up whatever neutral item will give them 150 extra health or two mana regeneration. Because of the exclusivity of the really useful item and hero combos, the system is extremely difficult to balance. The fact that a level one Fairy’s Trinket is often preferable to many of the tier three drops to a Storm Spirit or Zeus is not a great sign.
In all fairness to the developers, there are some really cool interactions and good decisions to make. Sometimes you do choose to have just a bit of extra cast range at 45 minutes and grab a Keen Optic over a tier four item. A lot of the time though it feels like your choices boil down to picking a few hundred HP versus +30 damage. The even less enjoyable decisions are when you’re stuck holding a completely non-interactive item like a Telescope or Ceremonial Robe. Both items are probably extremely good auras but are such a boring concept that most players would rather take the +20 movement speed from a Faded Broach given the choice.
At least other auras like Valdmir’s Offering or Pipe of Insight have a useful build up phase or an active component to them. Speaking of lackluster item impact, some of the neutrals feel like an actual chore to have in the game. Eking out minor efficiency from hot-swapping your Trusty Shovel for free Salves and Mangoes every minute or remembering to hold a Philospher’s Stone while dead doesn’t really feel like a fun or rewarding mechanic.
The initial sparkle of neutral items has definitely fallen off for the average player. Spell casters will almost always grab whatever spell amp item or cooldown reduction option they have. Carries mostly just swap from one damage item to another until they drop a Flicker and free up their boots spot for another damage item.
Even the tier five items which are supposed to be truly wild and game changing mostly follow this same logic. More damage or attack speed to match the level of scaling most heroes will have in a 60 minute game, hurrah! More tankiness to the tanky heroes, yay! More escape to the slippery ones, give me a freakin’ break! Of course, cool interactions do exist and items like Ex Machina, Mirror Shield or Fallen Sky are truly bananas at creating some wild late game situations. At the same time, there’s nothing less fun than losing to an unkillable level 30 Spectre with a Mirror Shield. Too often neutral items make late game Dota more of a slot machine. The grim gambling spectacle might raise the level of intrigue for viewers but rarely delivers the same rewarding experience to the actual players of the game.
Icefrog has never been shy about drastically changing the game and then reverting changes that he or the player base doesn’t like. I’ve always been onboard for sweeping changes to Dota so I initially supported the introduction of neutral items. After over a year and a half of this experiment it’s really hard to objectively say that Dota is in a more fun state with neutrals than without them. What do you think? Is this a change that the All Powerful Frog should roll back?