This is a summary of talking to many top players in different versions of the game (International/China/Korea). If you are not a big spender be sure to spend your resources on the right heroes for late game! Always be farming shards, don’t waste stamina on gear alone! A hero can go from low tier to top tier in a single patch, if you played any card collecting games like Puzzles and Dragons, Hearthstone etc you know how quickly the landscape can change. Characters are ranked based on their overall value on an end game roster.
Admiral – The first hero you get in the game becomes one of the best, if not the best tank in the game once you complete her legendary quest. Great combination of armor, magic resistance, and dodge, very useful passive, one of the highest health pools with her legendary skill. Her INT is higher than all physical characters in the game if you plan your enchants against arcane sapper, her aura is great for chaplain if you plan to run a 4 healer team or leave shadow who is good in every line-up. Best of all, you don’t have to farm for her soul stones, you can get her to 5 star with pure bronze chest pulls by the time you are 90, making her a super cost effective character. ****1/2
Brute – A dominant tank in the early game and unfortunately can not keep up once Admiral/Shallow Keeper reach equal stars. His durability is on-par with Admiral and Shallow Keeper in late game, but his ultimate is very weak against mirror images. His damage output is mediocre at best and it is much, much harder to get him to 5 stars while you can get Admiral and Shallow Keeper to 5 stars with bronze chest alone. He does come with a high damage DOT for Outland portal. His legendary skill gives 180 strength to all other axe users but at end of the day, there is very little incentive to farm for Brute when you have Admiral, Shallow Keeper in late game. **
Drunken Master – A dominant 73-87 hero who starts to struggle in late game. He offers no protection against arcane sapper, his ultimate is easily interrupted, and his magic resistance is a problem at level 90. If you already invested in him heavily, slow down and wait for a legendary quest down the road. Still useful for Outland portal against Phoenix. At level 90, arena fights are much longer, you need pure defensive tanks. Panda’s orange gear is too much damage and not enough durability. His drunken haze is still a huge asset against physical teams however, especially when combined with other blinding effects. But more often than not Drunken Master will find himself on the bench at 90 against tanks with legendary quests. ***1/2
Ironhoof – Incredible opening move blocking all of the opening damage and crowd control from the other team, some of the best defensive stats, just a great tank throughout the game and unlike Admiral, doesn’t need end game gear to be good. His ultimate can be a double edged sword in arena fights however and put your own team in bad spots. And more importantly, he is much more expensive to acquire than the Admiral. His yet to be revealed legendary quest may put him over the top down the road however. It is pretty scary how competitive he is without a legendary quest. ****
Psychopath – The highest INT tank in the game, with an amazing legendary skill that greatly improves his rotation. Plan your enchants carefully and he can have higher INT than most of your casters to shield against arcane sapper. While he doesn’t have as much dodge as theAdmiral , he more than makes up for it with a DOT and burst magic damage, covering 2 of the 5 Outland portals. Because of the way his specials are all luck based, you can beat contents that you otherwise have no business of beating with repeated tries. Unfortunately the international version of the game is without the legendary equipment refactoring feature in Chinese version of the game, and he is missing the critical 20 dodge (unlocked when you add 100 agility to his legendary gear) for tanking. As a result he can not solo tank physical teams and really needs another tank or arcane sapper to take some hits for him. ****.
Savage One – As a damage tank he is behind both warchief and panda in effectiveness, but he has the best armor debuff in the game and ensures your success in every raid fight that allows physical damage. His overall value really depends on whether you are in a place to top damage meters to begin with. If you consistently finish in top 10 he can push you over the top and reap the benefit of high guild coins. His awakening ability adds 180 agility to all naga heroes (deep voice and vengeance spirit), coupled with the huge stats increase from legendary gear, makes him a serviceable tank for grand arena. Against single tanks or even arcane sapper on offense, you may be able to surprise them with a quick armor debuff and burst physical damage. ****
Shallow Keeper – More armor (significantly more once he gets his legendary quest), less damage, less dodge than the admiral. Low INT makes it much harder to hide other characters like commando from arcane sapper when he is the tank. The Admiral is better than him overall but they are interchangeable in many line ups. Admiral is cheaper to get however since you start invest in her from day one, and I rather get Warchief, Panda or Savage One instead of another defensive tank. ***1/2
Vanguard Warrior – Useless outside of arena, one of the most expensive heroes to gaer up, but vanguard warrior and ember blade have been one of the most popular duos among top finishers at a recent Chinese national tournament. Ember blade starts off the match as a tank and takes a few hits for faster ultimate, vanguard warrior charges in, get their whole team into a clump and ember blade does his massive aoe damage. This team almost always has a silencer who will drain entire enemy team’s energy since they are clumped together. And old curse, phoenix and succubus are usually added in for additional aoe damage in the final two slots. Both vanguard warrior and ember blade are vip11 heroes in China, making it a pay-to-win team. It is amazing a team this good is available to low paying players here. ****
Warchief – Struggles against Panda most of the game but finally becomes better than Panda at level 87, his orange gear is defensive instead of damage, coupled with high life steal, he is really strong very strong from 87-89 and even early 90’s until other tanks get their 6th piece of gear and legendary ability. Resurrection is amazing in many situations, especially in the new grand challenge mode where he is the only tank with two lives every fight. Still, low health pool makes him much more vulnerable to interrupts from damage, and outside of against mirror images from cloud walker and double tanks for him to leech health from, he is squishy. ****
Warrior Monk – I really wanted to love this hero. Two stuns, full screen AOE stun, what is not to like? Problem is his skills are all magic and not only they are vulnerable to silence, he also gets a ton of spell caster gear as a result of it, as a result even with orange gear he is on the fragile side. As an INT tank, Psychopath is just better in every way. Better defensive stats, much higher INT, lucky burst damage can win matches by himself, and cheaper to farm and gear up. He can do well against double tank teams or when paired with an offensive tank like Panda, but in the end just doesn’t bring enough to the table to be a priority. His legendary quest boosts his health as well as other beast heroes, you will still get more mileage out of Admiral and Psychopath. ***
Arcane Sapper – Doesn’t tear up end game, fully geared casters as much as he did earlier, and vulnerable to teams that plan specifically against him. Still a great arena character on offense or when he can be hidden in grand arena line-ups, always a free win if you catch a team off guard. When backed up by death knight and cleric he is still extremely annoying to deal with. As one of the few heroes that can bypass enemy tanks, you have to have one if you are serious about arena. The anti-backline trio of sapper/vengeance spirit/lunar guardian is a simple, effective team against many end game teams. ****
Cloud Walker – The best overall physical DPS in the game today, excels in every facet of the game. Mirror image helps absorb a lot of hits in both PVP and PVE, and in arena making a vengeance spirit or old curse cast their ultimate the wrong way is a game winner. One of the best ultimate’s in the game, does huge damage and hits multiple times for Outland portal’s phoenix boss although it is weakened quite a bit in late game against heavy armor targets due to its low damage on each hit nature. Low magic resistance is a concern against full caster teams as he can die to AOE damage but mystic’s legendary skill helps a lot. He deserves the highest priority out of all physical damage characters. *****
Commando – Most common character in arena until level 90 with her amazing early fight speed boost, does drop off a lot in usage rate at level 90 in longer fights, where she just doesn’t have much to offer after the first a few seconds. Still incredibly useful for arcane sapper teams that need speed boost, and always a spot for her in grand arena. Bronze chest to 5 stars. ***1/2
Deep Voice – Amazing off tank against physical teams in general thanks to her insanely high dodge. Deep voice will put arcane sapper in a net before his blink in many opening match-ups. Her ultimate is the best CC in the game as it can not be tricked to hit wrong way on a mirror image and is full screen, her legendary skill will summon her own mirror image when she dodges. Very vulnerable against caster teams however with low magic resistance, will need silencer and leave shadow support to deal with caster teams. Points off for low value in PVE. **** with her legendary skill.
Ember Blade – A lot of us were surprised when UCool decided to release this character as a sign-in character, as he is still one of the better VIP11 heroes on Chinese servers today. Massive AOE damage that works best against clumped targets created by Vanguard warrior or teams with mirror images, good crowd control too. Extremely strong arena character but really needs the Vanguard Warrior + Ember Blade + Silencer trio to dominate end game arena. ****
Fallen Dominion – Along with Vanguard Warrior and Ember Blade, one of the three VIP11 characters from Chinese servers made free in international release, and it really shakes up the meta. High sustained damage, an ultimate that turns him from melee to ranged, increases his attack power and makes him immune to crowd control effects! Mirror image on top of some of the highest life steal in the game with good sustained damage output gives him excellent durability as a DPS hero. His magic resistance is low and he is countered by caster teams in arena, but once you add his brother (arcane sapper, in actual DOTA lore!) to the equation he is quite a bit harder to stop. Coupled with excellent single target raid damage output, just a great value. ****1/2
Leave Shadow – Incredibly versatile ranged DPS with excellent positioning. Her frost arrow scales incredibly well with end game gear and can work as an interrupt against many moves thanks to its big damage. Her silence when paired with silencer and/or death mage is outstanding against caster teams. Excellent single target damage that doesn’t show up on the charts, but ensures you get the kill as well as damage against single target raid bosses. The damage aura is just icing on the cake. Commando/Leave Shadow is the most popular backline combo for much of the game but in the very end, leave shadow outshines her white sister. Don’t farm her soul stones, you will get her to 5 stars using bronze chest. ****
Lunar Guardian – Her AOE damage is not as good as vengeance spirit’s and doesn’t have much to offer at level 90, her interrupt is decent but Vengeful Spirit’s mana drain is significantly more powerful in getting quick ultimates out , her ultimate is trash most of the times except certain outland portal and raid fights. Her physical damage enhancement aura is her savings grace but at end of the day, both Vengeful Spirit and Leave Shadows provide more specialty. Needs a legendary quest to be strong in end game. Her best arena line-up in the end game is anti-backline with arcane sapper and vengeful spirit, without additional backline damage however she just gives the other team too much energy.***
Ninja Assassin – The most controversial character ever released on Chinese servers. Think Arcane Sapper on steroids, the only 3-star character to ever show up on full 5-star teams with end game gear. He starts out each fight as a very poor ranged character, as soon as his meter is full however, he teleports to enemy backline and starts hitting super fast super hard, crits for well over 10,000 damage. This allows him to heal back her health rapidly from life leech and fill his meters for a second round of barrage. You will not win raid damage meter without him, dominant in arena especially when backed by 4 healers. UCool nerfed her critical damage bonus for international version of the game, but she is still a top character nonetheless. ****, ****1/2 once he is non-VIP.
Professional Killer – One of the weakest heroes in the game. Just takes too long to get his buffs stacked, until then his damage is weaker than leave shadow. In theory he would be amazing on a 4 healer team, in practice his health pool is so low any aoe damage interrupts him. On most teams by the time he has enough buffs, his team is already dead. Inferior to leave shadow in every way but fear not, big buffs are probably coming. *
Sniper – The highest physical critical chance in the game, especially once he gets his legendary skill in an upcoming patch which further increases his crit chance. His ultimate is a devastating finisher but like all other single target, high damage ultimates, it is very vulnerable to mirror images. His stun, unlike leave shadow’s frost arrow can interrupt even ultimates, and he will do more damage than leave shadow at the cost of utility. Competes with leave shadow for gear and role, sniper will outdamage leave shadow individually by a good margin at equal gear, but does not come with the utility of an aoe silence and physical damage boosting aura. Raw individual damage or utility and team performance? That is the choice you make between sniper and leave shadow. Most would focus on leave shadow since she is a starting hero and sniper just doesn’t offer enough for us to invest in him. **
Tusked Storm – One of the best early-mid game heroes, dominates the damage meter in any raid fight where he gets to melee, works incredibly well with Warchief in arena. Warchief tanks, dies and the enemies press in, you pop ultimate and starts melee attacks, warchief resurrects himself and you overpower the other team in one swoop. The problem is in late game, tanks last a lot longer and you will find tusk storm stuck in axe throwing mode and underperforms rest of your team. His awful magic resistance also makes him an easy kill to caster teams. If you invest enough in the game to be able to top damage meters on fresh servers, he is a good investment early. Needs a legendary quest to shine in late game. ***
Vengeful Spirit – The old curse of physical damage teams. Great AOE damage that unlike old curse, does full screen damage even if she is aiming the other way, and can interrupt them if she crits, great crowd control ultimate that can sometimes be casted multiple times per fight thanks to her mana drain. Fits a lot of teams but works best with arcane sapper to pressure the backline. Her ultimate can be a huge help in all-girl trials. Low value in PVE outside of clearing trash mobs in raids. ***1/2
Windmaster – Dominates the early game with her full screen, high damage ultimate but falls off a cliff from there. Performs very similar role as the succubus with huge damage full screen ultimate, but her gear really suffers because of her physical/magical hybrid style. Her legendary skill increases the accuracy of archery heroes like vengeance spirit, leave shadows which makes her team a huge threat to arcane sapper or any hero that relies on high dodge to survive. Because of her very low PVE value and mixed physical/magical damage, she can not compete with the succubus and a low priority hero overall. Wait for orange +2 gear down the road. ***
Death Mage – MVP of crusades and countless PVE fights (outland, trials, you name it) with her unbeatable sustained damage and healing power. A competitive arena character at level 90 once you put enough tanks, distractions (saper) and healers around her and she can get her full ultimate off. Scales incredibly well with her orange gear. Just put all of your caster gear on her, you won’t be disappointed! Try death knight, arcane sapper, death mage, commando and mystic for arena. *****
Emberstar – Very fragile hero with one of the best single target nukes in the game. You know what you are getting with her, damage, damage and more damage. Her legendary skill adds DOT burning effect to her normal attacks, giving her one of the highest sustained single target damage in the game and allows her to cover two Outland portals. She gets energy extremely quickly and can fight the kill-or-be-killed battle against arcane sapper and ninja assassin in late game especially with admiral giving her extra health. She is very vulnerable to mirror images eating her ultimate. No need to farm her stones, by the time she is useful you will have her at 5-star with bronze chest alone. ****.
Frost Mage – Her magic resistance reduction adds much more magic damage to your team than mystic’s spell power increase (but of course, does not boost healing like mystic does), her ice armor keeps tanks alive. She is a top support hero in crusade along with mystic, backing up death mage and old curse. She is also great for caster teams. Unfortunately her position is a bit too close to the front line, and she is on the fragile side. Her ultimate is also not as easy to get off as succubus’s soul shout and requires more conditions to do full damage. Still one of death mage’s best companions given how much damage her aura adds to death mage’s low individual hit damage ultimate, and a huge asset in magic, all-girl trial, as well as outland portal against spider boss. ****
Ice Mage – Her ultimate does full damage more consistently than frost mage but is not as bursty as frost mage against a clumped group of enemies, her stun and slow specials are very useful but frost mage’s frost armor on a tank can also be a life saver. Her aura is quite a bit weaker in comparison. At 270 energy per minute, the energy increase effect is just not nearly as noticeable as frost mage’s magic defense reduction for a caster team, although it does benefit every hero on your team if you play hybrid. Her legendary skill creates a damage absorption shield (similar to death knight’s) for your weakest unit. Overall I find her to be comparable to frost mage, but because frost mage’s anti-magic resistance aura adds so much damage for a caster team, ice mage is just not as essential a character as frost mage. ***
Imperial Executioner – He has significantly less sustained damage than Emberstar, but more than makes up for it with even more crit chance on his ultimate single hit nuke (crits for 24-28K in one shot with full orange gear), and polymorph is one of the best single target control spells in the game that shuts down an enemy hero on a regular spell! His legendary quest further improves his polymorph spell, reduces victim’s magic resistance AND transfers his/her energy to Imperial Executioner, making him an dominant force in arena casting ultimate over and over with the right supporting cast to keep him alive. Like Emberstar he is very vulnerable to mirror images, and you don’t get much PVE value out of him beyond the spider boss outland portal and have to farm for his stones. ***1/2, **** with legendary skill.
Lightning Master – The weakest of the starting 5 heroes, his damage skills simply don’t scale well with gear and he offers literally nothing outside of AOE damage. He has similar positioning as old curse/vengeance spirit, without the durability and crowd control. Bad in PVP, bad in PVE outside of trash mobs, no utility in Outland portal either. However, with summoner (invoker in DOTA) in upcoming 1.9, thunder summoner is a top arena/raid damage team in its own right. Lightning master is bread and butter to a cookie cutter summoner team as his lightning spells fuels the summoner. You will need to invest in lightning elemental, lightning master, lightning spirit and summoner himself. It is a lot of up front cost even if it is a top team and you are better off investing in other heroes with more use cases. **
Machinist – The finisher in every heavy caster arena team with huge burst damage. He has the best nuke in the game which hits multiple times with extremely high damage and is far less vulnerable to mirror images than say, Emberstar or Imperial Executioner’s one shot nuke. With old curse bringing multiple enemies to half health, a single nuke from Machinist can bring down 2-3 enemy heroes in one volley. Great for spider boss in outland portal and a must have if you play full caster teams. His laser blind coupled with mystic really shuts down a lot of physical teams. Another very cheap hero you can 5 star with bronze chest alone. ****
Mystic – Super versatile support caster. His blind is devastating against arcane sapper and other physical teams. He offers spell damage buff to the entire team. His ultimate is a game winner and is not nearly as hard to get off as you think. He also provides energy boost to one character and allow you to get off an ultimate first. His legendary skill adds magic resistance to members of the “journey to the west” squad and fixes one of cloud walker’s biggest weaknesses. The most useful support caster and strong throughout the game. Points off for being relatively weak in PVE. ****
Old Curse – The Vengeance Spirit of casters, great crowd control ultimate, good AOE damage although it doesn’t hit backline like vengeance spirit does, it does a lot more damage to front/midline enemies. Flying hero with a DOT covering 2 outland portals is just too good. At level 90 his AOE damage is not what it used to be in arena but he still has a top arena team with the Vanguard Warrior/Ember Blade/Silencer trio. A top all-around hero for every aspect of the game. ****1/2
Silencer – Probably the most versatile late game arena hero, fits almost every late game arena team. Solid defensive stats, huge single target undodgeable damage that ignores defense, long lasting silence plus an AOE mana drain. His silence is also key in several raid (against mystic) fights and even helps a lot in the outland portal battle against the big robot. ****1/2
Succubus – Strong in early game, takes the back seat in mid-game and picks up again in end game. Her soul shout and poison blade scale incredibly well in end game gear. A succubus, silencer and ember trio really drop tanks in a hurry. Top caster teams tend to use machinist but succubus can fill the same role while covering 2 of the outland portals with her burst damage and DOT damage. With her legendary ability reducing damage taken from male characters by 15%, combined with her high dodge shutting down life leech, undodgeable high damage poison dagger, she really shines against arcane sapper. Also immensely useful for all-girl trials with death mage and frost mage. ***1/2, **** when she gets her legendary ability and hopefully in a few months, orange +2 gear.
Poisoned One – Flying creature with the highest damage DOT and an armor debuff, a PVE monster for both Outland portal and raids. Very weak in PVP but he is just too good in PVE to not have especially if you are lucky enough to get his card from crusade. Unlike Savage One who must stay alive as a tank and needs a ton of gear to do so on the front line, Poisoned One only needs enough gear to survive full screen AOE damage as his damage comes from skills, not gear and he has excellent positioning. If you are lucky enough to get his 3 star card definitely invest in him for Outland portal alone. ****
Ancient Protector – One of the most interesting heroes in a while. He starts out as a decent tank with entangling roots to keep arcane sapper and other physical damage characters in their place. He has a heal over time that also increases target armor by 180 for 5 seconds. But this hero is clearly built around his ultimate, which moves him to the backline and start playing plant vs zombies! There are three types of plants he summons: peashooter with ranged physical damage, exploding plants magical splash damage on contact, and sun flower to refill energy to create more exploding plants. Notice as a tank, he does not have any defensive skills, and his gear is also not on say, Admiral or Shallow Keeper’s level when it comes to defensive stats. He is definitely not solo tank material. However, he does extremely well when he is offtank, or when he is backed by cleric or even arcane sapper who can get in and take some hits for him to cast his ultimate. His ultimate allows your team to go from double tank to 4DPS and really throws the opponent off guard. On Chinese servers he has top tier comps when paired with legendary cleric to keep him alive, and he also does some of the highest sustained raid damage in the game, immune to boss knock back attacks (huge against Chapter 14 raid boss) and his plants cast full damage from long distance the entire match. Throw in an armor debuff from savage one, leave shadow physical damage buff, tusked storm ultimate, and his plants really tear bosses up.****
Chaplain – You can not do crusade or half of the end game PVE contents without her AOE healing, you get her to 5 stars with bronze chest alone. She has cheap gear and you can keep her at purple +4 full enchants for a long time. She can even tank arcane sapper at equal gear with her physical damage reduction ability and a bit of support from her teammates. What is not to like? A must have hero. *****
Cleric – A legendary skill that turns a scrub into a legend, he will increase the armor of the target he heals by 270 for 20 seconds once you obtain his legendary skill! He becomes the perfect off tank in the game, makes almost every DPS tank viable on the front line, and can even tank hard mode crusade himself with proper support. Double tank teams, 4 healer teams (just wait until you run into one with ninja assassin and legendary cleric) become very strong in end game arena as a result. A staple in Outland portal against the berserk boss too! *** for now, **** once he gets his legendary skill, yes that one skill is THAT good. It really makes double tank as well as 4 healer teams viable.
Death Knight – A beast in crusade until you get death mage, and takes a back seat from there. Just can not consistently stay alive to get off his ultimate. Still useful in 4 healer teams (although many go with a 3 healer team and swap him out for the admiral) or against Outland portal’s berserk boss. He does work very well when paired with arcane sapper when he does not have to take all of the the damage. His shield and death coil also keep the sapper alive much longer than any other tank. Sapper helps him only taking partial damage to charge up the shield. Throw in a death mage you have a very solid arena team. At level 90 with full orange gear and proper meter management, he is a solid tank for hard mode crusade when used alongside death mage. A legendary quest may very well make him a must have down the road. ****
Disease Bringer – Useless in early-mid game, becomes the god of PVE in end game contents, probably second only to Death Mage. His inferno tank and DOT helps you get through 2 of the Outland portals. Like death mage, he is a beast in hard mode crusade and level 90 arena once you have enough tanks and healing around him to get off his ultimates and stay alive. Death Knight, Cleric, Disease Bringer, Chaplain is an amazing end game 4-healer team. Truly an end game caster. ****1/2
Shadow Shaman – Only has one quality move, the anti-death shield which does not scale with gear but absorbs 14000 damage at level 90 regardless of gear. He is very valuable as a 2-star character for end game magic/physical trials (especially when 7 and 8 are released in a few months). If you have problem with either one of these, give him a try at 2 stars and his damage shield will allow your tanks (say death mage) to survive against the huge damage from these trials. Unfortunately he is very inconsistent with its casting in arena and rest of his skills just don’t have good synergy. His damage over time spell is weak, his heal is not as good as chaplain and his armor debuff is some what useful when stacked with savage one and/or poison one. But for the most part, a hero that serves almost all of his purpose at 2-stars and we just haven’t seen any real reason to invest beyond 2-stars and one skill for end game contents. **
Soul Hunter – A dominant hero on Chinese servers at orange+2, especially when teamed up with legendary cleric. His magic resistance is extremely strong and legendary cleric solves his armor problem. His AOE healing hits both front and midline and adds a lot of durability to your tanks and midline caster taking damage from vengeance spirit and arcane sapper. While his ultimate is vulnerable to mirror images, he is usually backed up by high damage casters to clear them, like succubus and death mage. In international release, it remains to be seen whether he can be competitive. *** for now, most likely a **** hero with legendary cleric.
Credits: Special thanks to estel for the in-depth guide.