Countering Phantom Lancer requires to identify the real hero, have enough AoE damage to deal with the illusions, and kill him before he can reset the fight.
In the current meta, Phantom Lancer is a tier 1 hero in competitive, and a powerful opponent at all ranks. He isn’t successful only against newbies: his pick rate spikes to 16% in the highest area of the matchmaking, while maintaining an impressive 55% win rate.
Valve started dealing with him only recently. From 7.16 Doppelganger can no longer be cast while rooted, which is a huge debuff against heroes with that crowd control effect, but still not enough to limit his dominance in pub and pro gaming.
PL is a strong hero even without his illusions. He enjoys good stats, lots of armor and agility (29 + 2.8 gain), a slow that works also as a nuke in the early/mid game, a tool to engage the target (Phantom Rush), and an escape (Doppelganger).
Countering his illusions is mandatory, but don’t forget that if you let him farm too much, the hero alone can punish easily most lineups. As usual, disablers are always welcomed to stop any physical dps.
As an auto-attacker, you need items to gain or boost your AoE damage: Battle Fury and Maelstrom are the obvious choices. The Mjollnir’s active ability is useful if placed on a hero that PL will be forced to attack, such as Axe due to his taunt.
Radiance and Shiva’s guard are reliable choices for AoE magic damage. The former deals constant damage (to spot the illusions) and also causes the opponents to miss 17% of their attacks. The latter is helpful for the burst damage, the movement and attack speed slow aura, and the extra armor to limit PL’s damage.
Silence prevents any escape via Doppelganger, so you can use also the Orchid Malevolence. Heaven's Halberd and Silver Edge block the spawn of more illusions, and also place an undispellable debuff on the hero, which helps to identify him during the fight.
I love the Crimson Guard because the 60 damage block is absurdly good against illusion-based heroes. Via the active “Guard”, you can extend the benefit to all allies during a teamfight for 12 seconds.
Phantom Lancer relies on his army of illusions for survivability. He is able to generate them at an insane speed, so single-target attacks are pointless: you need to figure out who is the real hero, and destroy him before he can reset the fight with Doppelganger.
There are some abilities that ignore illusions and target automatically the real PL, such as Zeus and Spectre’s ultimate, Bloodseeker’s Rupture, and Skywrath’s Concussive Shot. The number is limited, and you can’t just rely on them to defeat him.
AoE is your best friend. Illusions generated by Juxtapose receive 500% extra damage, so you can easily spot PL among them. Instead, illusions spawned by Doppelganger might still cause issues because one of them is as tanky as the real hero.
Puck possesses a perfect skill set to counter Phantom Lancer.
- Two AoE nukes: Illusory Orb and Waning Rift. They work particularly well in the early and mid game. The latter also applies a 3-seconds silence, forbidding an escape with Doppelganger.
- Phase Shift to dodge Spirit Lance, if used at the right time.
- Dream Coil interaction: Doppelganger doesn’t dispel it, so if PL moves too far away, he will break the coil, receive damage, and be stunned after he reappears on the battlefield.
More suitable heroes with AoE abilities:
Earthshaker, Sand King, and Leshrac can produce a significant amount of AoE magic damage with both their standard skills and ultimates. In particular, ES is widely considered a hard counter because a well-placed Echo Slam can wipe out the entire enemy formation during a teamfight.
Beware that all these heroes are very vulnerable if their ultimate is used at the wrong time, or if played incorrectly. For example, Leshrac needs to stay alive for a prolonged time in order to inflict damage, so suitable defensive items are required, otherwise PL will quickly drain his mana with the Diffusal Blade and assassinate him.
Dark Seer can give a very hard time to PL during the lane phase, but afterwards he isn’t that troublesome anymore.
Phoenix has many AoE abilities, and Fire Spirits’s 140 attack speed slow greatly impairs PL’s damage and ability to generate illusions. Supernova his immune to attacks from illusions, and will greatly damage them.
Physical AoE damage
- Kunkka. Tidebringer is perfect to clean all illusions instantly, indicating the location of the real Phantom Lancer.
- Magnus. Empower grants cleave and bonus damage to the target, so he can transform himself and any single-target dps in the team into a potential counter. His ultimate also works well to gather all illusions (and the real hero) in the same spot.
- Gyrocopter. Call Down is perfect in the mid game, and later on he can just auto-attack all heroes and illusions in the fight with Flak Cannon.
- Faceless Void. If equipped with a Maelstrom or a Battle Fury, he can just trap PL in the Chronosphere, eliminate all illusions and identify him quickly. Unless very under-farmed, he will always have enough time to find an kill him before the ultimate expires.
- Ember Spirit. Sleight of Fist, especially if combined with the Battle Fury, will destroy all illusions and potentially inflict fatal damage to some enemies. Flame Guard’s damage also helps to detect who is the real hero, and the magic absorption is sufficient versus Spirit Lance.
As a DPS, he has one of the best kits to deal with PL.
Up to 66% cleave damage with Great Cleave, which combined with God’s Strength make him a fearsome counter. During the 25 seconds duration of the ultimate, PL should avoid him at any cost because the illusion are disintegrated instantly.
Storm Hammer is a solid AoE nuke, and Warcry helps the entire team giving up to 20 armor bonus and thus reducing PL’s possible damage.
- Timbersaw. Lots of magic and pure AoE damage. Reactive Armor makes him a very resilient hero versus physical dps, and especially illusion based heroes because he will gain charges quickly. Beware of the Diffusal Blade and do not let him drain all your mana.
- Axe. He only needs to taunt PL and his illusions with Berserker's Call - their combined attacks will certainly proc Counter Helix. It will be enough to damage heavily the real hero and give the team a chance to finish him.
- Bristleback. He can survive many hits and inflict constant AoE Damage. Thanks to the passive, Quill Spray will keep proccing even if PL burns all his mana.
Header image: Ascendant Phantom Lancer loading screen - Valve
Vincenzo is an esports writer with five years of experience. Former head editor for Natus Vincere, he has produced content for DreamHack, FACEIT, DOTAFire, 2P, and more. Follow him on @SkulzDota.