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Dark Willow carry? We explain why this meme might be a legit TI-winning strat

Boot up a turbo game in Dota 2, and you’ll find that Dark Willow carry might be the most overpowered thing to exist.

Try the same thing in ranked, and the same strategy will leave you in tears from the flames foisted onto you by angry teammates.

Well, that was until the most recent weekend at The International 2023, where we are seeing the hero explode into the meta as a position one.

We’ve seen the late-game potential of this hero ever since she got her Aghanim’s Scepter upgrade, way back in 7.22 in 2019. Mireska has seen some epic defenses in her time, with Tommy “Taiga” Le’s performance at the Leipzig Major in January 2020 still one of the defining examples of this hero’s inherent overpoweredness.

But why as a position one? Well, now we get to the changes in recent patches and the evolving meta that have aided her ascension as a potentially powerful hard carry.

What makes Dark Willow carry good?

Credit: Valve

Sinc Dark Willow was introduced in Dota, she’s been the beneficiary of a low Base Attack Time at 1.5, the second-best in the game, which means she gets more bang for her buck from attack speed items than most typical heroes. 

Recent patches have only added to that. Dark Willow’s change to universal boosted her laning strength substantially, since she gets so much more from cheap stat items like Iron Branches, Circlets, and Magic Wand. Plus, this means her own leveled stats are more valuable as well — with many pros electing to skip extra points in Cursed Crown for a boost to her right clicks.

Then, her new Bedlam ultimate, which can be cast on allies, means she no longer needs to commit her own body to the fray. It’s good for both styles of Willow, but especially important for carry — who wants to stay far, far away from any potential danger to leverage her powerful Shadow Realm.

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Shadow Realm’s offensive capabilities greatly expand with Aghanim’s Scepter. She gains more damage the longer she stays in it, there’s extra attack range, and Shadow Realm can persist through multiple attacks. But it’s the defensive aspect that makes this hero viable.

Staying in Shadow Realm forever means you are untargetable by most spells. We see a great showcase of this with Nuengnara “23savage” Teeramahanon’s Dark Willow against BetBoom Team.

In this teamfight, he gets tagged by some AOE abilities, like Pudge’s Rot, Undying’s Decay, and Invoker’s Tornado. But crucially, his ability to instantly and constantly get Shadow Realm off leaves BetBoom’s Egor “Nightfall” Grigorenko at a loss, whose Muerta cannot target the opposing carry despite her immense damage capabilities.

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If one were to compare Dark Willow to a meta carry, it’s Muerta — their transformations grant them increased offence and defensive potency, rendering them near invulnerable in fights against certain matchups. Shadow Realm is arguably even more powerful than Muerta’s Pierce the Veil, which can be countered by items like Revenant’s Brooch. 

To flex or not to flex

But a confluence of external factors has aided this hero, aside from just how the hero scales into the late-game.

The resurgence of Hand of Midas has been a key development in the meta, and Dark Willow is one of the users of this item. Midas is potentially in its best state since literally forever — 7.34 increased this item to having two charges, making it far more time-efficient instead of having to scramble to use it whenever it was off cooldown.

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With the item also securing Neutral Token drops, you can even bank two charges to use around the times these important powerful items drop.

The item is so effective on Dark Willow because she lacks a farming steroid. Sure, she can deal a lot of damage with Shadow Realm eventually, but getting to that is the hard part. Hand of Midas’ attack speed and expedited experience gain means she gains access to her powerful talents far more quickly, and the bonus attack speed also helps her deal more damage in fights.

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The other big component is her drafting flex. In a similar vein to her closest carry comparison, Muerta, she’s a draft flex between the hard carry and support positions. With the new drafting order now featuring so many bans, it’s become far more important for the teams’ first picks to secure either a hero that’s top-class in its role (ala Treant Protector) or having the flexibility to quickly switch roles in case a better pick comes up.

Credit: Valve/Wykrhm Reddy

Of course, the potential on paper is tantalizing. But in reality, Dark Willow has mostly been played as a support, even on the main stage. We’ve seen four Willow carry games at the time of writing — and only one of them have managed to win.

The three losses were high-profile, high-stakes matches as well, all of them in the lower bracket by teams that were eventually eliminated from the tournament — Evil Geniuses, Shopify Rebellion, and Talon Esports.

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The hero has problems. She needs a lot of time and space to get to the point where she’s able to deal respectable, consistent damage with Shadow Realm. Her farming abilities are weak, and she’s susceptible to ganks because she’s a rather squishy hero whose first two items need to be Hand of Midas and Aghanim’s Scepter.

But potential. Potential is sexy. It’s delaying gratification to the point where it might be unhealthy. It’s like cheering for the underdog — and everybody loves seeing the underdog win.

And a hero that’s only been used as a meme carry until right here and now at TI12, where she could possibly be the hero that makes the difference between the lifting the Aegis of Champions or heading out the backdoor? It’s so, so tempting to just sit back, lay in the shadows, and believe.