Dota 2’s game balance is often a sought after ideal, especially when compared to other esports titles. Last year, The International 2016 broke the record of the most amount of heroes picked at a Valve event (105), an insane feat that seems near impossible in other games.
Unpicked heroes since the event have been either significantly re-worked or buffed. Bloodseeker, Lina, Leshrac, and Treant Protector have all graced the professional scene since, some have been very impactful and contested a lot (Lina and Treant Protector), while others have proven to be niche, but still effective. One hero sticks out like a sore thumb: Visage. Visage has also had his moments in the pro scene since, but has faded just as quickly, as he has done so often.
There were times in which Visage was a force to be reckoned with. At The International 2013, Visage was by far the most picked hero and retained a 56% win rate. Back then, trilanes were a vital part of the meta and when trilanes shine, so does Visage. Soul Assumption deals more damage the more damage has been dealt around Visage, which makes him the perfect trilane hero.
Ever since TI3 though, trilanes have faded out of the meta, and Visage has slowly faded into niche at best. He became nothing but a rare niche pick who would appear out of nowhere as a pocket strategy with Drow Ranger. Her aura enabled Visage to be a force in all stages of the game, and a support player could easily transition into a core position. When wings.gaming however established Drow Ranger as a hero strong enough to be picked by herself at the beginning of 2016, Visage started to fade away for good. His partner was picked quite frequently and was in fact the 9th most picked hero at TI6, but Visage himself remained unpicked.
Much like the other unpicked heroes at TI6 though, Visage received buffs, significant ones and 7.00 virtually forced him into the meta.
7.00 had some drastic changes in store for Visage. Gravekeeper’s Cloak was reworked almost entirely, and instead of providing magic resistance and armor, it now acts as an aura for Visage and his Familiars which reduces all damage. The aura is important because Familiars no longer have spell immunity (35% magic resistance instead) and have actual health and health regeneration instead of requiring attacks to be killed. The most important change to Familiars though is how they attack. Familiar still lose damage per attack, but now they re-charge 8 damage every 2 seconds instead of requiring a hard reset through Stone Form. This is a huge buff to Visage and allows him to be a strong hero by himself, rather than relying on the damage buff by Drow Ranger.
These buffs made Visage a brutal force to be reckoned with, and in the first week of 7.00, his win rate in pub games jumped from 44% to 52%. The hero automatically forced his way into pro games, and Icefrog saw it necessary to nerf him again, reducing the health on Familiars.
Familiars were definitely buffed overall in 7.00, but removing their magic immunity was a significant nerf that slightly changed the way the hero was played and significantly changed the way one would play against him. Simple AoE spells would automatically affect Familiars and with the rising popularity of Veil of Discord and heroes such as Ember Spirit, there was certainly enough damage for Familiars to die quite consistently. And as good as Familiars may be, summoning them still had a 160s cooldown.
Visage faded out again, but after a slight buff in 7.03, which increased the Familiar’s HP again, OG demonstrated at DAC that the hero is still a viable pick. Out of 10 games, OG won 8 with the hero, and only once did they pair the hero with Drow Ranger. But despite another few buffs in 7.06 (increased Visage’s Strength gain, increased Grave Chill duration), 7.06d (Summon Familiars cooldown decreased to 130s) and 7.06e (reduced Grave Chill mana cost), Visage has yet to escape the niche status.
Despite all the buffs, all of Visage’s weaknesses remain. Visage is not necessarily the most competent lane support, and in a dual vs. dual lane scenario, Visage needs a carry that can either enable his damage output with his own damage or through tanking sufficiently. In the late game, Visage gets countered quite easily with cheap evasion, and the only item to enable true strike for his Familiars is Bloodthorn [EDIT: The recently reworked Solar Crest also provides a % based chance for true strike]. Unlike many other safelane supports, Visage also doesn’t have any defensive capabilities, making it near impossible for him to save a core from a gank. He’s also not a dedicated roamer, which is why he’s been largely ignored for the better of 4 years, during which roamers rose to fame.
So why was Visage still picked 10 times at the recent MDL?
One of the obvious reasons is that OG likes the hero and showed that Visage is quite the flex-pick by drafting him early and playing him as a core. Teams began to counter-pick against them but then also started to pick the hero just for themselves. Visage works as a 5 position support in the current meta because, while there is still a focus on the laning stage, teams don’t play as aggressively in their offlane as they used to. In a 2v1 scenario, Visage my still not necessarily shine as lane support, but if his carry is self sufficient, Visage can focus to pulling and farming.
Visage also can roam, granted his cores and the other support provide sufficient damage. In a meta where heroes like Queen of Pain and Puck populate the solo lanes and supports like Sand King or Earthshaker provide sufficient lockdown, long enough to charge up Soul Assumption, Visage has a lot of tools in the shed to be a valuable pick and a potential dual roamer.
In the mid game, Visage provides vision around the map and can either set up kills or assist in such, similar to what a Clockwerk or a Night Stalker would do, except he doesn’t need to put himself in harm’s way and often requires experience, more so than farm. He’s also a good hero to pick utility items up with, such as Solar Crest or Heaven's Halberd. Some players even opted to build a Pipe of Insight on Visage to make Familiars less squishy.
Visage’s physical damage output also nicely complements the magical damage by currently popular supports and cores.
While MDL could very well be a fluke, teams have shown that Visage can work very well in the current meta. While a core Visage may remain niche for now, a support one suddenly seems more situational than before. He can certainly still be dead weight during the laning stage, but all the recent buffs have pushed him into a much more viable field, at least for pro games. In pubs, the 5k+ MMR bracket has never really let go of Visage since his re-work in 7.00. He’s been one of the most successful heroes in the bracket since.