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The International 2017: Three teams standing, two new heroes, and one TERRIFYING AI

Only three remain!

The final day of The International 2017 looms, with only Newbee, LGD.Forever Young (LFY) and Team Liquid still in the running to win pro Dota 2’s highest accolade – yesterday saw both Invictus Gaming and LGD Gaming eliminated in surprisingly one-sided lower bracket matches.

But first... new heroes!

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Valve loves announcing additions to Dota 2’s roster at each TI, including the dual Underlord and Monkey King reveal at TI6. This year was another one-two affair. Not that the trailer shown gives away much as we don't even have their names – the first addition, a dashing, sword-fighting pangolin, has been mistakenly dubbed ‘Zorro Armadillo’ by mammal-confused fans. Thanks to some previous datamining, however, we do know the second is either named or nicknamed Slyph, with her ability titles and verdant appearance suggesting an elusive forest-dwelling spellcaster style. A nice contrast to Zorro/Zorrodillo/Zorrogolin, who looks like more of a straightforward brawler, though he is seen turning enemies' swords against them and rolling through creeps like a scaly bowling ball.

Both will be part of the upcoming Dueling Fates Update, though again, in typical Valve style, there’s no been no indication of a release window or accompanying patch contents. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how these heroes settle into Dota’s ever-fluctuating metagame; Underlord was originally pitched as a lane support, and Monkey King a hard carry, though they’re now typically run as a solo offlaner and roaming support respectively.

For now, we can focus on TI7’s imminent climax. Newbee are already in the grand finals after besting LFY in the upper bracket finals. LFY are still in with a chance at the Aegis of Champions, though, and will now face Team Liquid in the lower bracket finals. Liquid - Kuro 'Kuroky' Salehi Takhasomi's international squad - had themselves swept LGD, after the latter had eliminated iG earlier in the day.

Let's start with a look at iG's defeat. This was, frankly, a bit of a stomp. Game 1 was over before the 20 minute mark then, in game 2, Lu'Maybe' Yao's Ursa was allowed to run rampant in the midlane, giving Wang 'Ame' Chunyu's Anti-Mage the space needed to easily outfarm a beleaguered Ou 'Op' Peng who was on Alchemist. A mid-game teamfight gave iG a glimmer of hope, with multiple LGD cores dropping to slivers of health - you can see that in the video below - but a perfectly timed Echo Slam by Ren 'eLeVeN' Yangwei on Earthshaker saved his comrades and led to iG’s GG scant minutes later.

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Newbee vs LFY was much more closely-fought. In game 1, Newbee went for a risky Sniper draft. For the majority of the game the grizzled gunner didn't look like he was paying off – until a single, massive teamfight 42 minutes in ended with all five of LFY dead, their sizeable gold lead evaporating. Head to about 9m14s in the vid to see that. Finally, Newbee’s crowd control skills came out in force, and with Song 'Sccc' Chun (he of the aforementioned Sniper pick) pumping in damage from afar, it only took a few more engagements for them to take LFY’s base.

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A near-flawless Storm Spirit performance by Xie 'Super' Junhao allowed LFY to tie things up in game 2, but in game 3, Newbee once again took full advantage of Axe’s lengthy lockdown potential, Damien 'kpii' Chok repeatedly shutting down He 'Inflame' Yongzheng's Omniknight before he could deploy his defensive spells. A brilliant Rosh fight for Newbee was the beginning of the end for LFY – the secured Aegis and Cheese (that's an item which gives the eater an instant massive health and mana boost) enabled Newbee to win a much dicier fight later on, securing control of the majority of the map. While Newbee were cautious about actually breaching high ground, their enormous gold lead and an unfortunate buyback/dieback by Du 'Monet' Peng gave LFY their first series loss of the tournament. By contrast, Newbee now have the chance to become the first organisation to win two Internationals, and their captain Zeng 'Faith' Hongda the chance to become the first individual two-time champion.

Before the LGD/Liquid match, there was a fun little intermission in which Danil 'Dendi' Ishutin – Na'Vi's immensely popular midlaner who nevertheless hadn't qualified for TI7 proper – walked onstage boxer-style to fight a robot.

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Specifically, it was an OpenAI-developed bot, which had learnt how to 1v1 mid to the extent that it had already beaten numerous other pro players backstage, and it wasted no time adding Dendi to that list of defeated humans. It’s an impressive bit of tech (and Valve should definitely be asking for OpenAI's help in improving their own, appallingly stupid bots), though I kind of agree with analyst/player/coach/tutor Kevin 'Purge' Godec in hoping that it doesn’t become a part of shaping how Dota is actually played by people. Besides there being next to no entertainment value in watching a bunch of AIs go at it, half the fun is witnessing unusual strategies and off-meta hero picks find success over what’s necessarily considered 'optimal'. Surely that requires the thoroughly human tendency to take seemingly dumb risks?*

Fortunately, before any existential debates could break out, Liquid and LGD were on the stage for the final match of the night. Aaaaaaand it was another stomp: LGD gave Liquid a hard time in game 1’s laning stage, but the latter’s teamfight execution was on another level entirely, and a clearly broken LGD ended up calling GG after literally running away from a high ground defence they knew they couldn’t make work.

Game 2 was even more brutal, Kuroky pulling out an utterly filthy Huskar/Dazzle/Venomancer/Broodmother draft which baited LFY into a lineup that was hugely lacking in physical damage.

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22 minutes in, Liquid appeared to take a suicidal fight next to LGD’s top lane shrine, but ‘twas all a clever ruse! As they kept the Chinese team’s attention, Lasse 'Matumbaman' Urpalainen (on the Broodmother) gleefully ripped through a full set of mid-lane barracks unimpeded. LGD crumbled even faster after that, and waved Liquid through to the lower bracket final.

This leaves Liquid remaining as the sole Western hope of TI7, though they can expect a much tougher matchup against LGD’s sister team LFY, who looked frightfully strong even as they were losing to Newbee. That said, Liquid's play has been noticeably tighter and more confident as they’ve progressed through the lower bracket.

Even more interestingly, both Liquid and LFY could feasibly beat Newbee so it's not like they're lower bracket teams fighting for an all-but-certain second place. On Newbee's side is that whoever they greet in the grand final will have played a best-of-three immediately prior. The grand final match is a best-of-five, so as well as going head to head against Newbee’s exceptional technical skill, whoever wins in the lower bracket will have to deal with potential fatigue of those extra games as well.

In any case, these are the biggest games of the Dota 2 professional season, so tune in if you can to watch them duke it out for the $10.77m first prize! The lower bracket finals start at 6pm BST, the grand finals at 11pm. You can watch on Twitch, YouTube or in the in-game client, and there’s a handy Newcomer’s Stream (with concise pop-up graphics explaining the heroes and mechanics) if you’re dipping your toes in for the first time. It even offered hero info during the cosplay competition results!

*[I refer you to Shane Clarke's tweet on the matter, pitting Jacky 'EternalEnvy' Mao's reputation for absolutely baffling decision making against a pattern-seeking artificial intelligence - Pip]

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