If you’ve played Dota for any amount of time, chances are you’ve had “The Pudge Experience”. Despite spending several years in a nearly unpickable state, Pudge has routinely maintained one of the highest pick rates in the game. Obviously the hero is iconic and fun to play but Dota is not a fun game when losing so the real question is; why pick a hero that actively makes it harder to win?
Don’t worry, we will get to Mars here in a second but understanding the psychology of what makes a hero have a high pick rate is somewhat complex. The fun factor plays a big part and so does the infamous nature of the hero. We also see some heroes such as Ogre and Wraith King showing up often due to their relatively easy play styles. Additionally, heroes that are deemed overpowered each patch see their pick rate rise as the meta trickles down from high level games over time.
One factor that might not be so obvious and the one that seems to have kept Mars in the meta is perceived impact. This is the idea that it feels like you, the player, are doing impactful things regardless of whether you are or not. This is pretty easy to see in Pudge because the difference between whiffing Hooks all over the map and hitting a critical target at a critical time is so huge. Few things feel better in Dota than hooking an enemy carry deep out of position and completely turning a fight around. All the failed hooks, weak impact and deaths fed away up til that point be damned!
This similar phenomenon is very clear in a hero like Earthshaker. The visceral impact of hitting a huge Echo Slam can often make even a terribly lost game feel kind of satisfying. There is a sense of, “well at least I did my job,” even if there were countless mistakes before that moment. Arena of Blood seems to fall into this category and even seems to have lured many professional teams into leaning heavily into the hero despite middling or poor results.
The Mars we see in today’s DPC games is a faint shadow of the damage dealing, unkillable monstrosity that Icefrog added to Dota in 2019. Since his release, Mars players have shown us all sorts of amazing techniques and ability combos. In response to the rising level of Mars has been continuously nerfed, normally a death sentence to a hero’s spot in the meta. However, Mars has persisted patch after patch as one of the most picked offlane heroes in the game. Even after having his ultimate’s cooldown severely increased, teams continue to throw Mars into the mix. The question is now, are they simply too comfortable getting mediocre impact out of what feels like a game changing ultimate ability?
To be fair, there are some Mars specialists and even full regions that seem to be wringing further value from the god of war. South America in particular sports a 63% win rate with Mars as the most picked hero in the DPC Upper Division. Meanwhile, regions like SEA and Western Europe show sub 50% win rates while using Mars a huge percentage of the time. China in particular stands out with an 18% win rate on the second most picked hero in the region.
All of this data points to Mars no longer being that all important glue piece of every lineup. In typical Icefrog fashion we seem to have finally arrived at a place of relative balance for one of Dota’s most important heroes over the past couple of years. Mars can still work but his place in a lineup seems to require specific criteria for real impact.