Zeus is not among the most popular heroes in the professional scene, in fact, he wasn't picked a single time during the Frankfurt Major LAN or in any other recent premium tournament. This does not prevent him from being popular among pub players, however—he is in the top 30 of the most popular heroes this patch and can boast a respectable win rate of 55%. Moreover, with the remodel and arcana release possibly coming some time soon, it might be a good idea to look over what the hero has to offer and how to play against him—cosmetics do have a noticeable impact on the metagame, as seen with almost every Arcana release.
With a rather low pick rate which actually decreases as MMR progresses, it is necessary to explain why the hero is deserving of a discussion. Ever since the introduction of Glimmer Cape the hero has been on decline, despite the heavy nerfs to the initially overpowered item. Professional players ignore him almost completely, with only 7 total matches in the last two months for premium tournaments, albeit with an impressive total win rate of 71%. Yet, he still finds a way in the public matchmaking and is in fact among the better heroes win rate-wise in all skill brackets.
To understand why the hero is so unpopular among professional players at the moment there are two key points I would like to invoke:
First of all, the current meta revolves around a strong farming hero in the mid lane who has both early and late-game presence. You have your Shadow Fiend, Queen of Pain, Windranger and Lina all of which can transition into decent auto-attacking cores later in the game, without losing early game presence. Given the changes to creep/kill bounty it is very understandable — your mid hero is going to start with extra XP and has the potential to get kills, making more money than a farming enemy core would get from just killing the creeps. This allows for a strong and fast transition into the mid game, which is often supplemented with neutral creep stacks. Zeus can be on par with the enemy mid laner in terms of cs - Arc Lightning is a great farming tool, but he does not contest said farm for the enemy and does not become an auto-attacking hero later on.
Secondly, it is the drafting itself which prevents the hero from being picked. Unlike most popular heroes Zeus is not versatile such as other popular heroes right now — you simply can't pick him with the same degree of confidence as with others, since he can be countered with a decent amount of heroes. He is a finishing touch/surprise pick in practically any meta and in the later stages of the game you either have your mid picked already or you can think of a more situationally better option. With such high emphasis on mid lane there is simply no place for him and there are always safer option for the offlane hero.
Now, all of this is a lot less relevant for a typical AP game — his natural counters such as Viper in mid are virtually non-existent, since he is extremely boring to play and not many players are willing to sacrifice their fun for the greater good. Pub games also put less emphasis on coordinated ganking and tend to be more farm oriented. Finally, it is uncommon for random stacks to not pick a late-game farming core in the safelane — the farm priority remains strongly tied to the safelane carry and this status quo, while potentially less efficient, is not arguable in most cases. Splitting farm between two heroes is not exactly rocket science, but it gets increasingly harder to be as efficient as the professionals in this regard — jungle is not going to be utilized as well, lanes are going to get inappropriately outpushed etc. With that in mind, getting a hero such as Zeus is in fact pretty good — his power level spikes early on and he can cover his team until later stages of the game.
As mentioned previously, the Arcana/remodel will inevitably lead to a popularity spike for the hero, especially if we get another event related to the said Arcana. With the information above, which provides points towards Zeus being a good pub hero, it is better to get prepared for the upcoming storm and that is what we are going to do now.
From 3k to 5k+ the win rate for the hero drops by almost 4% — from 57.5% to 53.5%. The popularity of the hero follows a very similar trend— only 5.45% of games in 5k+ have Zeus in it.
The deviation of game impact (a.k.a KDA) is rather small across different skill brackets. It is at its peak of 3.80 in 3-4k and at its lowest of 3.53 in <2k games. Surprisingly, it is the <2k games where Zeus is the hero with the highest KDA. He is second to Spectre in all other brackets except for 5k+. In top MMR games he is in the 4th position after Spectre, Wraith King and Ember Spirit.
Despite low KDA deviation, there is quite a bit of difference in the ways players earn gold. Lower brackets get most of their gold from assists and kills, whereas higher MMR Zeus players generally try to farm more. The drop in the amount of gold earned through kills and assists is the highest in 4-5k — 5k+ transition.
Unsurprisingly, the hero is the top damage dealer across all brackets with the highest value of 564 in 5k+ games.
There are two typical lane placements for the hero — Mid or Safe/Offlane solo. Arguably, he can also be played as a support, but the hero is extremely level dependant and doesn't perform well without a good XP lead. What makes Zeus a good laner is the fact that he can lasthit reliably without putting himself into too much danger. However, his low movement speed and health makes it difficult for him to be in the offlane. If however you can get away with it, Zeus can be a very valuable offlaner that can even transition into farming the jungle with a few levels.
He rarely sees play in the safelane, as the traditional zoning of the offlaner or keeping the lane static is not his strong suit. Putting him in the safelane usually only makes sense if you have an aggressive trilane, or if you’re facing one.
As a support, his main attraction is the amount of vision he provides and can take away. Not having to expend gold for Sentries, while also being able to keep track of invisible heroes in fights makes him very valuable. His immobility, low health and low mana however, make him a bit of a niche pick for the support role.
The hero has a very narrow window of being the most dominant force in the game which ends when enemies start getting their Black King Bars and/or Glimmer Capes. These items frequently make Zeus a non-factor for a big portion of the fights, however it should also be noted that he scales rather well into late game when bkb's get shorter.
The lane preference also dictates the skill build to a certain degree. Generally, the DPS maximising build is 1-4-1-1 by level 7, and it is the correct way to level up an XP deprived support Zeus.
At the same time, a lot of professional players who played Zeus mid have opted for a second level of Arc Lightning early on — it is necessary to consistently last hit the ranged creep of each wave. Otherwise, a level 1 Arc Lightning leaves the ranged creep in the deny range and low attack range coupled with poor auto-attack animation will usually prevent Zeus from getting gold and full XP from it. Hence, if playing as a farming core with your farm contested, you want to have 2-3-1-1 by level 7 and max out Lightning Bolt by level 8.
After level 8 most players start maxing out the passive — Static Field, since the damage progression on Arc Lightining is miniscule and the extra manacost of 5 per level is actually a big deal for a spell with such a low cooldown.. However, if you are facing a heavy pushing line-up and/or summoned units, it might be a better idea to max out Arc Lightning first instead, or at least invest an extra point into it — in this case it can affect almost 2 complete waves of enemy creeps.
The hero has extremely high range on all of his spells and it is one of the reasons many players skip mobility items on him. Whether it is a correct decision largely depends on the enemies you are facing, but the utility of these items is extremely good and they synergise well with other common item pick-ups for the hero. Depending on the enemies you are facing, you can skip either of these items for the early game, however at least one of them is certainly deserving of a slot in practically every match.
Personally, I feel both of these items are non-essential, especially after the Bloodstone nerfs. However, there is definitely a niche for each of them.
Bloodstone is good if and only if you had an amazing start. Getting it early is essential and the charges it gives you can help in keeping the hold over the enemy team's throat. "Pocket deny" from it is heavily underrated in the games where you manage to get substantially ahead, but overall it feels like a win more item, with an upside of being built from Soul Ring, which is rather good on the hero, as well as Energy Booster which you are going to get either way for your Arcane Boots.
Aghanim's Scepter choice falls into roughly the same category. It gives a total of ~120 extra damage (after 25% reductions) on a target from Thundergod's Wrath and is generally just not worth it. On the other hand, it gives decent HP stats for the price - something of lower relevance for hero which should, if possible, stay away from the heat of battles. Depending on the enemies you are facing you might or might not need these stats — gap closers and blinkers will make you life pretty hard and sometimes an item with components which cost 1200 at most is your only option.
All of these items are extremely situational, except, maybe for Shiva's Guard. The latter two you should mainly use on the engaging allies and since they can be built pretty early by a farming Zeus, he is a decent carrier for either and can shut down certain enemy heroes early on with little to no chance of recovery.
A Black King Bar pick up has different reasoning behind it, compared to many other heroes. You are not necessarily afraid of being disabled as a hero which should stand at the edge of the fights, but you should be afraid of strong gap closers and mana burn UAMs and abilities. The enemy will try their best to initiate on you and it is important you do not blow up in this engagement and live to use your abilities. It is also decent against strong silences, but again,with correct positioning, you should not be the target of enemy spells.
Ghost Scepter needs no introduction and it especially good against teams which do not have a natural Diffusal Blade carrier. Forcing the enemy team to make sub-optimal item choices is always good and this item can save your life on more than one occasion. It also builds into Ethereal Blade which is not completely terrible on the hero, but should not be a priority.
Veil of Discord is a rather cheap damage boosting item with some extra armor and stats. It is not an essential item by any means, but can prove very useful if it complements your team composition. Otherwise it is better to skip it, especially if you are playing core.
All three items are exceptional on the hero, but Octarine Core is arguably the most beneficial of them. It gives incredible sustain and coupled with the Static Field can make you extremely tanky. The cooldown reduction is amazing and cannot be overrated. This item is also the reason behind skipping Bloodstone and Aghanim's Scepter — they have quite a lot of similarities in their buildup and the Octarine Core will always be a better option. It costs substantially more, obviously, but it is certainly worth it.
Scythe of Vyse is a highly situational item. Yes, it does give your hero a lot of utility, but disabling enemy is not exactly what Zeus does. It is pretty much a must if you are 6-slotted, but it can be easily skipped early on unless you are facing highly mobile heroes. The stats it provides are eclipsed by a very similarly priced Octarine Core and the active component might not be necessary until later into the game.
Refresher Orb is excellent for the hero, but you will need a lot of other items for it to actually pay off - the mana cost on it is way too high to get it early. Later on it synergises well with pretty much every active item mentioned so far. It is especially good with Scythe of Vyse + Blink Dagger combo.
Zeus is all about damage and vision control. With that in mind it is crucial to make good item choices and be mindful about placing wards.
When it comes to warding the most important part is not to be seen placing it. Dewarding is extremely easy for Zeus and at the very least you should try to make him guess where you've put it. Using Smoke of Deceit to ward/gank is generally a good idea, as well as getting Sentry Wards to make sure there are no enemy Observer Wards in the area.
Once Zeus gets enough sustain he will be able to simply spam Lightning Bolt around, however actually hitting the ward can take him a while - his auto-attack is pretty bad AS-wise. Reacting to it and punishing does not only give you potential to save your vision, but can also deter Zeus from such endeavours in the future, at least on your half of the map.
In terms of actual gameplay/combat Zeus is not exactly exceptional. He is extremely susceptible to early game ganks and, as mentioned previously, can become a non-factor without snowballing.
That said, there is one extremely annoying thing you have to put up with playing against Zeus. Static Field hits all units in 1200 range regardless of visibility. What it means is that even if you are smartly hiding in the bushes, your Blink Dagger can and will be disabled. For heroes such as Earthshaker, Slardar etc. it can be devastating — they effectively turn into glorified creeps without their ability to initiate/counter-initiate properly.
Getting a Pipe of Insight is a must if your team has such heroes and it is not necessarily them who has to get the item. In fact, the Pipe of Insight should be build by someone else in most cases. Apart from a decent shield, the item also provides a decent magic resistance aura, but if you have no initiation problems it can be generally skipped in favor of more specialized Glimmer Cape.
Otherwise, the hero does not pose a lot of threat in mid-game and once your cores have their BKB's he becomes a lot less of an issue. In the uber-late game he does get a lot of his potential back, but compared to most other currently popular cores, he does not offer as much versatility and this singular focus on magic damage will prevent the hero from becoming stronger than, for example, Queen of Pain or Lina.
Much like with Lifestealer, you should refrain from building into HP and instead focus on resistances. Zeus with Octarine Core surrounded by a typical team of ~8k HP total can heal himself for ~400 with a single Arc Lightning.
Prepare yourself, for Zeus will be back again.
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