It was the fall of patch 6.79 and I was in love. Kaolin, better known as the Earth Spirit, was a hulking piece of magnetized rock that had just been introduced to Dota 2 in an update featuring him and his brothers, the Ember and Storm Spirits. Of the three, he looked the most endearing—not overly stern and self-important like Ember, but not cocksure and flashy like Storm. He seemed aloof, friendly. His bright green eyes were warm and welcoming, even if he had no discernable pupils. He was the right combination of powerful and caring. I quickly decided that I wanted to learn more about him, and see if we could have fun together.
Most heroes in Dota 2 aren’t too complicated. They usually have four skills bound to the keys your fingers usually rest on when playing the game, and after a couple of games you know where to use them and how. You press the appropriate key, click in the enemy hero you want to use it on, and fire away. There isn’t much of a need to learn strict timing or practice combos, like you would for a character in a fighting game. Earth Spirit is different. He’s high maintenance. He requires several more inputs per ability than the average character, which makes him harder to use effectively. He’s all about the synergy between the statues (called remnants) he places around the map and the abilities that manipulate them. Without the remnants around, he’s almost useless. Not the fire-and-forget type, to be sure.
My first few outings with him were embarrassing, to say the least. We simply didn’t hit it off right away. I didn’t know to properly use his Rolling Boulder ability, which lets Earth Spirit roll around the map quickly. I didn’t know you could use his Boulder Smash and Geomagnetic Grip abilities on the remnants. I thought his Magnetize ability, which uses those same remnants to deliver large amounts of damage over time, worked best if you plopped as many remnants as you could on the ground then set it off. Nope. After playing a few matches and feeling utterly lost as to how to use him, I almost gave up on him.
Then I saw what other people were doing with him, and it all clicked. I learned the combos I saw others perform, and his initial downside, that higher skill requirement, was now what made him my favorite character in the game. When I pulled off a successful combo, I felt like I earned it more than with any other characters. He was harder to manage, but well worth the effort.
Doing well with Earth Spirit made me think I was better at the game than those who felt content to play fire-and-forget characters. Even his easiest combo required some work to pull off. I’d place the remnant behind the target, and pull the remnant to stun them, holding them in place. Using the remnant I just pulled, I’d roll into the enemy at ridiculous speed, slowing them down. Now that they couldn’t get away, I’d push them into their allies or other unsafe areas to score a kill. If they had enough health to survive the initial onslaught, I’d activate Magnetize, and place remnants around them, one by one at timed intervals, to elongate the time they’d take damage.
There were several other ways to use his skills in tandem like this, but the relatively simple pull/roll/push combo was by far the most effective. It could catch enemies that were playing it safe on their side of the map and force them into unsafe territory without much risk on my part. This combo could win games by itself. Earth Spirit and I could go into any lane and be confident that we could gain an early advantage for our team. In the one-versus-one mid lane matchup, it was even easier. The procedure was clockwork: I’d get to level three while harassing the opponent with well-timed remnant pulls that were almost impossible to dodge. Once I hit level three, it was time to go hunting with the pull/roll/push combo. I’d kill the enemy mid player, and when they showed back up to lane, I’d kill them again, since I had an experience advantage from having killed them a few seconds ago. Once I hit level six and could access Magnetize, it was time to ensure that the rest of my team won their lane matchups as well.
It didn’t always work (such is the nature of any competitive game), but playing Earth Spirit ensured a game that was never boring, since pulling off his combos were just difficult enough to be consistently satisfying, regardless of whether I won or lost. Thankfully, I was winning most of the time, and I translated this increased win rate into thinking I was getting better at Dota 2 overall. Playing Earth Spirit was by far the most fun I had ever had playing a game I had played for over a thousand hours. It gave me a new lease on the game.
Then came the Winter of 6.80. Pull-roll-push was, in fact, too good. Earth Spirit could get away with so much and could effectively play any role in a team and contribute heavily to winning while having few downsides to compensate. It was fairly obvious to anyone who’d played against him; you’d be sitting behind your own tower, relatively safe from most heroes or ambushes, see the remnant plop down behind you, and count yourself a goner. Earth Spirit was so good, in fact, that professional players, when playing in public matchmaking, would pick him, wait for everyone else to pick their characters, then unpick Earth Spirit and swap characters at the last second. They would simply not have him in their games.
So Valve swapped his skills around. Geomagnetic Grip (the pull) now silenced the enemy (preventing them from casting spells) instead of stunning them, which meant I could no longer reliably hold them in place for the pull-roll-push combo. I now had to use Boulder Smash (the push ability) to stun the enemy, which meant that I could no longer stun the enemy and push them into unsafe territory in the same combo. There were several other facets about the character that changed, but the loss of that particular combo was devastating to the way people were playing him.
Initially, I was in denial. Looking at the patch notes, I figured that since the damage values for Smash and Grip had also been swapped around (making Grip the main damage-dealer), I could emphasize Grip early on and still deal lots of damage and kills. Everyone was celebrating the nerfs (what they call it when a character is weakened), but I refused to believe he wasn’t as good. But in my first game playing his 6.80 rendition, Grip no longer had that oomph to it. It dealt more damage, but without the stun property, it just didn’t feel the same. Having to place a boulder in front of myself and then pushing it into the enemy to stun them, rather than simply placing it behind and then pulling it, felt much harder to pull off. A new combo, push-pull-roll, was almost as effective, but didn’t force the enemy out of their safe zone. Pulling that combo off without the proper backup, or the assurance that I could land a kill was now risky. What’s more, the recharge timer on his remnants was increased by 10 seconds per remnant, which meant that I had to manage each remnant more carefully. If I used every remnant I had to chase an enemy down with Rolling Boulder and Magnetize, I had to wait a whole three minutes before I was in fighting shape again.
I assumed that the first few games after the changes would be an adjustment period, but the part where I adjusted didn’t come. I had his 6.79 combos down pat, but that muscle memory worked against me now. I would try a pull-roll-push and wonder how my target had gotten away. I’d try to force people back from my towers by pushing remnants at them only to realize that the stun and minor damage wasn’t enough to force them out. I was constantly waiting for my remnants to come back online. Rolling Boulder didn’t go as far as it used to and that meant less chasing and fewer kills. Like when I first began playing him, I felt useless. This wasn’t the same Earth Spirit I knew. I felt dejected.
I set myself up for it, I suppose. I knew the character was too good and that something was going to change. He was one of my most played characters, so I had put quite a bit of time into abusing his 6.79 rendition, during which time I went to him if I needed a more or less guaranteed victory. There was, of course, no forum sympathy for “Earth Spirit pickers” who used him to get wins they didn’t deserve. I was an arms dealer peddling unearned victories, and 6.80 was the SWAT team that raided my house and took them all away.
In 6.80 my win rate, along with Earth Spirit’s win rate in general, plummeted. I couldn’t get a win with Earth Spirit no matter how hard I tried. The major Dota 2 update that introduced 6.80 also came with his first set of fancy cosmetic items as well, and believing that I would continue dominating my matches with him, I bought the whole set for about eight dollars. So I really set myself up for a bad time. The gaudy new outfit I’d bought for him served as a reminder of how bad I was at the character now, and how much I’d invested in learning a version of him that was now gone.
Eventually, I stopped playing Earth Spirit altogether, fearing that any Earth Spirit game was a guaranteed loss, since I figured he was fundamentally a bad character. I felt like I was wronging my teammates by picking him, even if I still had fun with him. I started playing more Timbersaw, a character I’d played before who also required some fast fingers, but it wasn’t quite the same. No other character could give me the same feeling of satisfaction that I got when I played as Earth Spirit.
A couple of months later, 6.81 was released, decreasing the timer of his remnants by five seconds per remnant. I had secretly hoped they would return Earth Spirit to his 6.79 skillset (with some obvious alterations), but that minor change was enough to try him out again. Still, I saw nothing but losses. There was, however, a resurgence online of people thinking that the character was still too good for professional play, and that he would be nerfed once again before being available in Captain’s Mode (the mode that all pro matches are played on). The issue was that Earth Spirit was still powerful in the hands of a great player, and though his overall win rate tanked, it was mostly due to lower-tier players (read: me) not being able to accommodate for the changes. Being able to save allies with Grip was still invaluable, Rolling Boulder was still an incredibly fast way to catch opponents off-guard from a distance, and being able to stun multiple enemies from far away was a great way to start a fight. Magnetize wasn’t changed all that much and could still win fights provided I was able to stick around long enough.
Earth Spirit was still good, but I didn’t believe it. In truth, it was because acknowledging that he was still a viable character meant realizing that the reason I couldn’t win with him was because I didn’t actually know what I was doing with him. The days of 6.79 were a sham, and neither Earth Spirit nor I could go back. His 6.80 rendition was who Earth Spirit really was (for the time being), and if I wanted to continue playing him, I was going to have to get used to that. At one point I bought another cosmetic set for him and tried to forget his other one, but it didn’t work.
Then, recently, I tried going back to videos of good players doing well with him. I didn’t get the sense that he was overpowered (I’m perhaps still in denial), but I definitely saw advantages that I hadn’t seen before. I learned a combo that required a bit of quick finger work that I wasn’t used to (begin a Rolling Boulder, then place and pull a remnant while rolling) that helped out quite a bit in the early stages of the game. I saw that staying back and pulling teammates out of danger could be just as good as rolling in and starting a fight. I even got some wins out of it, finally. So maybe there’s hope for Earth Spirit and I yet.
At this point, I’m still a little wary about picking Earth Spirit. Now, however, it’s because losing means that there was always something I could have done better, and characters like him make those mistakes more obvious (and end up getting me killed more often). But I’ve decided to stick it out, rewire my brain to his newer version and see what we can do together. I’m still just as likely to screw up and lose terribly, but maybe that’s not such a big deal. Playing as Earth Spirit is still a lot more fun than playing most other characters, even if I don’t win as much. And at this point, I’m dedicated. I just can’t say no to those big green eyes of his.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who wrote this piece before the 6.82 patch turned the game upside down and now has no idea what to make of Earth Spirit or anything anymore. You can follow him @SurielVazquez.