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Despite the nerfs introduced in 7.12 Sand King is still going strong. Given his popularity in the current DAC it is safe to say that much like Disruptor is the meta’s most reliable position five, Sand King is easily the most consistent and successful position four support.
Current meta revolves around tempo heroes: Gyrocopter, Tiny, Troll Warlord and even Leshrac are now popular cores that can both fight early and take down objectives. Even Terrorblade, who is often thought of as a late game hard carry is primarily played aggressively, with a heavy focus on early pushing and map control.
Moreover, teams are for the most part content with trading objectives. We often see teams teleporting out of a pressured lane to apply pressure elsewhere on the map. This greatly accelerates the pace of the game, with a steady influx of gold for both teams. More successful professional teams really don’t like to take unnecessary fights.
To a certain extent it results in greedier, more item-reliant supports becoming the norm: they are more likely to hit their item timings and start becoming a high-utility threat. With that in mind, the rise of Sand King is very unsurprising and despite the nerfs his main strengths remain unscathed. Once the hero gets his Blink Dagger the range of initiation and counter-initiation on this hero becomes truly impressive.
There are several heroes in the game which benefit equally from the gold influx and can provide a similar catch, but there are a couple of crucial differences between Sand King and other position four initiators.
Sand King stun has two main advantages over other stuns in the game: it has an instant cast point, meaning it is much harder to react to it with a BKB and it is much easier to land it on several targets when playing against a coordinated team.
The chances of two targets being within 800 units from each other are much higher than the chances of them standing close to each other in a 350 AoE, making initiations on a priority target+1 more likely. The skill also has a much higher reach, compared to AoE stuns around yourself: with Burrow Strike you can dive deeper into the enemy backline, disrupting their support positioning and potentially even preventing counter-initiations.
There is also an added benefit of Burrow Strike doubling as an escape mechanism: this aspect of a hero should not be underestimated, since it occasionally allows Sand King to reap the benefits of a successful teamfight in full, keeping up with Gold and Level progressions. For heroes like Slardar or even Earthshaker, initiation is often a one-way trip, at least until they get their Force Staff. Smart usage of Burrow Strike can allow Sand King to both disable a couple of priority targets and get away from the heat of the battle at the same time.
Finally, Sand King’s ultimate, while being harder to use effectively, is in a league of its own, compared to what other supports have to offer. It deals a lot of magical damage in a very respectable AoE, all while decreasing the enemy move and attack speed by 30. The latter effect also pierces spell immunity, making it a high-utility spell even when the damage factor is mitigated.
The elusiveness of the hero coupled with his utility and damage output should make it obvious why the hero remains a popular pick in the DPC and high-level pubs. There are situations where armor reduction can be better and there are games where creating an impassable terrain will have benefits that are hard to calculate, but for the most part, with his instant catch and massive damage Sand King is still the true king of the fourth position.
One thing professional players agree on ubiquitously is that the Burrow Strike should be maxed out first. Many times we’ve seen pub Sand Kings getting greedier with extra levels in Sandstorm or Caustic Finale to accelerate their farm, but it comes at too high of an opportunity cost in the catch department.
The latter progression differs from game to game, with many players leaving Caustic Finale at one or two, before switching to levelling up Sandstorm. There is also some degree of variation when it comes to talent choices, with both +200 Health and +30 Movement Speed level 10 talents seeing play. There isn’t a clear winner at level 15 either, with an almost even split between +50 AS slow and extra +50 Sandstorm DPS.
What it tells us, is that the hero can and should be very flexible in terms of his build: the talent selection for Sand King, unlike with many other heroes, is an actual choice between equally appealing options. As a rule of thumb, having +200 Health against burst-heavy lineup (Lina, Queen of Pain, Tiny) is probably superior, while +30 MS can have both defensive and aggressive benefits against teams with more sustained damage (Razor, Gyrocopter, Death Prophet). At level 15 the choice should be even more obvious, with +50 AS slow being better only in situations where it will have an actual effect on the enemy lineup damage output.
When it comes to item progression, there is pretty much a single way professionals play the hero: they go Tranquil Boots into Blink and then either Force Staff, Eul’s or even Aeon Disk.
Tranquil Boots on Sand King are becoming more and more of a necessity, especially after the last patch. Without them the hero has a very hard time catching up to his targets before getting Blink Dagger. Some may argue that spending 550 extra gold on completing Tranquil Boots could otherwise be saved towards Blink Dagger, however the benefits you may get from landing a crucial stun or not having to go back to the fountain to heal up far outweigh the saved gold. It is a much more consistent approach that should be taken every single time, unless you suddenly get a rampage 10 minutes into the game and have 1600+ gold banked.
Blink Dagger and Force Staff should be self-explanatory: the former gives you the initiation Sand King is known for, while the latter provides an extra way to chase or escape from the middle of the battle, to re-engage with another Blink+Burrow Strike combo on several targets.
Eul’s is a little trickier. It is an item that provides you with a dispel—something quite valuable on a hero so reliant on being able to use his abilities. But more and more frequently we also see it used as a way to initiate without heavy commitment. Blink into Eul is a very popular combination in the professional scene, but probably isn’t as powerful in pub environment. Essentially it allows your team to get information on the enemy response, without using any of your abilities.
Moreover, oftentimes after Sand King uses his Blink+Eul combo, he immediately starts rotating out, and his place is taken by a core teammate who starts dealing damage to the target once the tornado effect wears off. If the enemy starts engaging on the said teammate, Sand King is then in a position where he can start channeling Epicenter without being interrupted and can join the fight with his main combo at a more opportune moment, compared to initiating on a single target which can be a bait.
This low-commitment approach works wonders for some of the most successful teams in the professional Dota. Key to success on the hero is using as little as you can, while achieving the maximum effect and that means saving a massive AoE stun for disabling several targets and maximizing the damage output and utility of Epicenter.
Sand King is a very versatile high-utility hero with one of the highest skill ceilings when it comes to position four supports. While he can be used as a single target catch and, in fact, is primarily picked for this ability, to utilize his full potential players have to be extremely smart about their positioning and spell usage.
The difference between an adequate Sand King and a good one is in these small moments, where the latter will ensure an extra disabled target, will ensure maximum damage output from his ultimate and will keep on surviving initiation to use his abilities once again. It shouldn’t discourage players from playing the hero, since even a mediocre Sand King will bring a lot of utility. But with so many opportunities to outright win the game from a support position, dedicated players should definitely look at how the hero is played in the professional scene.