Na'Vi surprised most of the world when they took their qualifier seat at the top of the European scene. It speaks volumes that a team including three former TI winners with more combined TI games than almost any other modern team would be considered a dark horse in the qualifiers. Where many teams would falter or switch crew, Na'Vi stuck with Dendi and XBOCT. But is loyalty costing Na'Vi championships?
Dendi after stepping out of the team limos at TI5

It's no secret that Na'Vi has suffered roster issues regularly since Kuroky and Puppey broke away, tearing into the EG roster on their way out.

XBOCT said they left because they have no respect.

Maybe it's because Puppey and Kuroky respect the game more than they respect tradition. Or that they respect winning more than they respected their bonds to Na'Vi.

As Na'Vi's pulse stops at this year's TI, fans are yet again left wondering if it's time to declare the time of death for this certainly proud Dota legacy.

Last year FNG was brought in to draft for Na'Vi and met short-lived success. When 6.82 hit last fall, FNG and Vanskor had been with the team for a month; before ESL One NY 2014 they seemed to be one of the most quickly adapting teams to the radical "comeback patch."

In a little over a month they more than doubled their distance from the average team, pushing their way back into tier 1 teams for the first time since the previous spring.

By the end of ESL One, Na'Vi lost whatever magic they had originally found on 6.82. The patch gave advantage for hugely aggressive, risky plays by giving far more reward for kills than punishment for deaths; shouldn't this play into Na'Vi's hands? Somehow, they couldn't hold on.

FNG left, telling joinDOTA Na'Vi was looking for something else and that it just hasn't been a good fit.

But the ECG hadn't flatlined yet--they saw another spike of success in January around the DAC qualifiers. They narrowly missed qualification even after knocking out Alliance, Team Empire, and Team Tinker. Goblak, perhaps, was bringing something to life in the former champions that FNG could not.

The spike of success was fleeting, and they fell to their lowest ranking since before TI2, another period of roster transitions for the golden boys.

Again Na'Vi fans felt the threat of hope in early May as Funnik returned along with the throwback captain Artstyle, the man who led them to global victory once. Alongside their impressive and young teammate SoNNeikO, they surged forward to claim a spot in The International over all other European contenders.

But this success was also short lived.

In fact, with a wider view each of these periods of success is simply a temporary spike, a mere fluctuation, in a predictable downward trend.

Their performance against comparable teams has fluttered around a steady rate of decline since June 2013.

These bursts are the slowing heartbeat of a sick champion.

That continues through today where Na'Vi was the among the first teams with former TI Champions to fall from contention in The International 2015.

Na'Vi's Elo rank (courtesy of TI5's official statsman Noxville) over time--notice upward movement at every major patch but an overall downward trend for recent Dota history.

A cursory glance at Na'Vi's performance statistics would lead you to think they are very adaptable. Why? Because every boost in success they experience comes during the transition to a new patch.

Na'Vi is possibly the most reliable team at the launch of a new patch. Their peak in modern Dota history came immediately after the release of 6.81, but after a few months they began their decline. When 6.81b arrived, they experienced their most significant resurgence to that point. Repeat: new rosters and increased success to open 6.82, 6.83, and even 6.84.

The truth is not that Na'Vi transitions smoothly, but that they barely transition at all.

Their opponents change, often radically, to meet the game halfway. During this period of adjustment, Na'Vi performs better relative to their opponents because they continue to play the game within their comfort zone.

This backfires when opponents begin to reap the rewards of those experiments and progress into the patch with a new understanding while Na'Vi goes into decline because they have once again failed to adjust.

Teams that shifted their gold distribution to be more even between supports and cores in the transition to 6.84 are teams that thrived. Secret and Na'Vi were notable as teams which already featured relatively even distribution of gold since at least 6.82; yet unlike Secret, Na'Vi has not made moves to maximize this gain.

Navi arriving at the KeyArena @Dota2

Most successful teams this TI, and this patch as a whole, have given supports higher farm priority at the expense of the offlaner. Zai, for example, has dropped about 2% of his team's net worth in the last few months while Puppey's average share has gone up over a percent. Na'Vi has been slower to change, with Funnik at about 21% of his team's net worth consistently for the last year.

Another change which has been splitting the pro-Dota community is the role of the mid-lane; this role has steadily evolved since ppd and Arteezy began to use the position as an avenue to maximize farm with signature 2014 drafts including Naga Siren and Dragon Knight.

Over the last year, especially as patches undercut the value of creep stats and increased the value of kills, mid players are taking more farm and farming carries are taking less. At the moment, Suma1l has the highest average GPM at TI5. FATA- now earns more on average than EternalEnvy until 25 minutes into the game.

But Dendi earns basically the same share now as he has since before TI4. He barely passes XBOCT at any stage in the game, and the overall strategy is still to give XBOCT high priority at the growth expense of their team.

Priority for Na'Vi is slow to change, meaning nearly every aspect of the game including target, objective, lane, and gank priorities are also slow to change.

Those are just examples, though: Na'Vi alters their play less patch to patch than most of their contemporaries. They have a surge of success when patches arrive not because they adapt faster, but because

Na'Vi adapts and innovates less than most other teams.

The numbers imply that their strength at new patches comes from their opponents' discomfort during attempts to execute new strategies or design new tactics to meet the new game.

Na'Vi really does seem to run their own playbook, the same playbook they used to win the first The International. And they are very, very good at it. Unfortunately, it just is inherently weak given modern mechanics (and has been for quite some time). Skill with a rifle doesn't win the heavyweight championship, and skill on patch 6.72 doesn't translate to the Aegis on 6.84.

XBOCT said of the group stages,

"All of our strats failed, we couldn't do anything."

But few if any of their group stage games showed deeper strategic changes. They were all variations on a theme--tactical hero combinations rather than strategic alterations.

These draft and tactical changes also lack innovation. Since 6.81, only one hero among Na'Vi's five most picked per patch isn't in the most picked hero of the patch as a whole: Sonneiko's Winter Wyvern. Wyvern is also arguably the only hero Na'Vi has used to influence the metagame through unique approach or notable execution.

But you can't make up for rigid strategies by using the heroes your peers think are powerful.

These lessons are a long time coming. Perhaps Na'Vi will learn them now.

"As it appears, everyone's good here. Apart from us and a few others," XBOCT said, demoralized, last weekend. But it isn't that they aren't good. And it isn't that they can't win. They lack vision, flexibility, and a willingness to radically shift their play priorities to meet the modern incarnation of the game.

It seems that for Na'Vi to modernize will require one of their cores to leave. XBOCT may do better with a more protective squad, or Dendi better with a more conservative carry. Perhaps in Funn1k's place an offlane captain with a forceful leadership style and radical new ideas. It's likely not any player's fault, but spending so long with the same players (especially for XBOCT and Dendi) makes it easy to become rooted in a specific way of thinking about the game, like when you may see an old friend and revert to the personality traits you shared when you knew him.

Change promotes growth, and cycling through the support positions simply hasn't been change enough.

Or maybe they just need to focus and open themselves to change. Now that they've been eliminated they will certainly have time to work in peace.

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