Blink Dagger or Shadow Blade? For Blink Dagger, its purpose is obvious for supports, as it unlocks the potential for long range initiation with stuns and ultimates. Timing windows in Dota surround when an Earthshaker or Sand King buys a Blink Dagger. Shadow Blade’s purpose is a little more nuanced when it comes to fulfilling its uses for initiation, escape, or split push. What is not subtle, however, are the three heroes whom Valve has recommended Shadow Blade as a “core” item: Drow Ranger, Kunnka, and Sniper. It’s no surprise that Shadow Blade is among the top 3 most built items on these heroes in pubs, much to the detriment of everyone involved. Shadow Blade sits next to other core items, such as Power Treads and Magic Wand, misleading players to believe that it is just as essential. Kunkka has better synergy with Blink Dagger (since critical strike does not interact with Shadow Blade’s bonus damage), while Drow Ranger and Sniper are better off not building the item at all.
Unless you’re using Slark, whose unique skill set can capitalize on Shadow Blade’s benefits, Blink Dagger is more often the superior item. It has advantages in cost--in gold and mana--and it has more versatile uses across a broader swath of heroes. Support heroes almost never build Shadow Blade, now that Glimmer Cape has taken its place for heroes like Crystal Maiden or Witch Doctor who want to channel their ultimates while invisible. There are two major reasons to build Blink Dagger as a core item:
For all other purposes, in the vast area of mobility, Blink Dagger is still the superior item. As an escape tool, ever since Shadow Blade’s cooldown nerf, it fits more favorably with split pushing heroes, such as Invoker or Nature’s Prophet. It’s only in the niche cases among few heroes that Shadow Blade has a case for being a competitive item with Blink Dagger.
Is there a reason why pub players are picking Shadow Blade, if for any reason other than it being among the recommended items (in either the core or suggested category)? One explanation could be the value of invisibility among average pub players. Despite buffs to Dust of Appearance and reduced costs of Sentry Ward, invisibility remains invaluable when no one buys either. This isn’t about late game scenarios where your carry has no slots for Dust, and the map is wide open to preempt Sentry Ward placement. It’s about the common scene where three teammates fumble into a gank, and the enemy Drow Ranger enables Shadow Blade and walks away.
Shadow Blade here is being used as an escape tool, and it’s in this case where pub players are doing it wrong. You can’t depend on a 2800 gold item to get away when it’s countered by a 180 gold item (though this will depend on your MMR bracket). For heroes like Sniper or Drow Ranger, who are too squishy to initiate, the money is better off spent on stat items, like Yasha.
As an initiation tool is where Shadow Blade recoups its cost. Shadow Fiend can channel Requiem of Souls on top of an unsuspecting enemy hero, almost guaranteeing an instant kill with damage up to 1440/2160/2880 (at levels 1/2/3). Dragon Knight also benefits from Blink Dagger, but as a strength hero he benefits more from Shadow Blade’s attack speed buff, with Silver Edge being a natural upgrade with it’s Sange component.
The difference between Shadow Blade and Blink Dagger as initiation items is that Shadow Blade puts pressure on the map by a core (safe or midlaner more often) instead of a support. Missing cores that can initiate are more difficult to anticipate than missing support heroes. Cores disappear and reappear on the map all the time, whether to farm the lane or the jungle. Sometimes you’ll see pro players use the threat of a missing core to put an enemy team on alert, then using that space to farm instead. It’s why heroes with solo pickoff potential such as Windranger or Lina can be more devastating in the mid-late game with Shadow Blade instead of Blink Dagger. Shadow Blade allows you not only to initiate but to stealthily move around the map, underneath enemy observer wards. For heroes that can best use it, it’s the threat of “my carry can pickoff your carry” that gives Shadow Blade an edge over Blink Dagger.
When Valve puts Shadow Blade as a core item for a hero like Sniper, it edges out Blink Dagger in the situational category. There’s not much reason to have both. In the process, players are misled to believe that one item is better, by necessity, than the other. In Dota, everything is situational. Some things are more situational than others, but it’s rare that one choice is always the best, and that’s why we keep playing.
Sources: Headline image by Nannou