At The International 5, the memory of EG.Universe’s “six million dollar” Echo Slam shines the brightest, but does anyone recall ppd’s Ice Vortex that first gave vision and set up the play? What about the follow up Ice Blast? Core players take the farm and the highlight. Occasionally, a Rubick spell sequence or a timely ultimate will shine the importance of support players, but that’s only a minor part of what they are responsible for in the course of a game. It’s few and far between that support players gin up community hype for the small things: lane rotations, zoning, stacking, early game play-calling. These actions don’t show up in K/D/A, but rather in W-L. This is not to say that supports impact the game more than core players, but the two play a mutually dependent role in a team game. It’s no surprise that players seeking to climb the MMR ladder gravitate towards core over support roles. They feel like they have a greater influence over the game. This is certainly true for exceptional talents, such as Miracle or Badman, who rose to the top of the MMR charts off their superior play in the mid and safe lane. But, for the rest of us, support play is just as important when seeking to impact a game.
Winter Wyvern, before her nerfs, was the perfect support hero. Her skill set represented the paragon of playing support: Arctic Burn, an offensive spell to zone heroes and initiate ganks in the early game; Splinter Blast, a wave clear to farm and defend tower; Cold Embrace, a defensive spell; and Winter's Curse, a BKB-piercing stun that also functioned as a mini Black Hole. There are a few basic functions that a support needs to fulfill: laning, ganking, and team fight. Winter Wyvern answered every function that you wanted in a support, and excelled at them. It’s a shame that she has since been nerfed into obscurity, but her fall combined with the changes in patch 6.86 have created a space for new, just as impactful, support heroes to enter the meta.
Out of the top 10 heroes in the 5k+ MMR bracket, five are support heroes (six if you count Venomancer’s time in the safe lane). And four out of five of those support heroes—Chen, Abaddon, Bounty Hunter, Omniknight—are picked more in the 5k+ bracket than any other. The most surprising hero in this group is Chen, who is ranked #1 in win rate in the 5k MMR bracket, and currently a top pick in the professional meta. Most recently, at the Starladder LAN Finals, Chen has a 68.75% win rate out of 16 games, and he’s the 2nd most contested hero, right behind Invoker.
Part of Chen’s resurgence can be attributed to patch 6.86’s overall effect of buffing jungle creeps and, consequently, Chen’s army, which now has access to a stacking, 20% magic resistance aura. The addition of an offlane jungle camp opened up possibilities for Chen to influence other areas of the map in the early game. He also received non-trivial buffs to his base stats and Penitence. Despite being a hero with significant potential, and certainly his favorability in competitive play validates this, Chen is still nonetheless a historically unpopular hero, particularly due to the finicky nature of his summons (also shared by most unpicked friends such as Visage, Beastmaster, and Brewmaster).
There is one support hero, however, that has been highly picked in both pub and professional play. Vengeful Spirit is the top picked support in the 5k+ bracket (#3 overall) and the top overall pick at Starladder and the Shanghai Major Qualifiers for China and Europe. She’s no stranger to the meta, when pushing, physical damage lineups were in vogue. With the return of push heroes such as Death Prophet, Chen, Lone Druid, as well as her old foe, Batrider, the meta was ripe for her resurgence.
Vengeful Spirit’s impact, her win rate, in the mercurial, random nature of pubs is a testament to her overall strength. Who knows what heroes your teammates will pick or random into. Vengeful Spirit is stronger paired with certain heroes, but she isn’t tethered to them to influence a game. Her skills are simple and direct: a single target stun, a single target ultimate, an aura, and an area of effect spell. The simplicity of her spells make her versatile for pubs but also a veritable first or second phase pick, as top teams like Evil Geniuses has shown in their recent Starladder games.
If the regional differences in picks at the Shanghai Majors were any indication, it’s that the meta is still being established. Bane was preferred in the Americas, but not China. The same goes for Chen. On the other hand, China valued Nightstalker more than any other region. Finally, it seems, judging from the paltry win rates across the Shanghai qualifiers and Starladder, no one still knows how to use Oracle.
The meta will solidify as we approach the Shanghai Majors, but it won’t be without a period of experimentation. The new Aether Lens is upending our expectations of the strength of support play. It’s a solid pickup on Vengeful Spirit, but it has shown to be potent on a host of other support heroes, such as Bane, Witch Doctor, and Rubick. Like the now nerfed Glimmer Cape, Aether Lens is an item that significantly increases the impact of support heroes, perhaps on the verge of power creep. Gone are the days of moneyless support players. It’s a new era for support heroes—it has been for some time—and if you haven’t noticed it yet, perhaps there will be some highlights.
Update: Fixed incorrectly referring to Winter Wyvern as male