Two teams of five. Three lanes; two players go top, two players go bottom, and one goes in the middle. Minions come along the lanes, and you push, pull, weave and feint until you get to the first tower, and you destroy it. Then you destroy the second. Then the third. And then you wipe out the enemy Ancient, and you win the game. It’s simple enough, when you phrase it like that. The difficulty comes in everything in between.
It’s likely that you’ve heard about a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) game before. League of Legends is phenomenally popular, pulling in eleven million active users every month. Heroes of Newerth is no slouch, either, and the original Dota retains a huge community to this day, despite being around for years and years. You may have even tried one, only to bounce off it like a squash serve. That’s because while the concept and premise are simple enough, the actual way that it plays may as well be another language, and it’s one whose speakers treat you with the utmost contempt until you’re fluent. Consider this a crash course. I’ll be your translator.
The first thing you’ll always do is select your hero. There are seventy or so currently, and that number is rising every week as Valve port the heroes from the original Dota over. Broadly, they slot into three categories, loosely grouped by their primary stat:
- Strength heroes are your tanks, the ones who get up close and personal and take the damage while everyone else deals it. As such they focus mostly on crowd control abilities like slows and stuns, and pumping them up on health and armour is always a good idea.
- Dexterity heroes are a little more esoteric, being your gankers (heroes good for killing other heroes) and your damage dealers. They favour a more aggressive, straight attack damage type of play, requiring you to stock up on weapons and items that boost both your attack speed and your damage, so that you can just vomit out a pleasantly obscene amount of number-based violence.
- Intelligence heroes are your nukes, by and large. Your casters, your mages, your wizards. Their focused far more on bringing their abilities to bear, with everything reliant on mana and items boosting both mana and intelligence. It would be easy to write them off as the hardest, but Dota 2 really doesn’t work like that; they’re just different.
The problem is, while all of this is true, there’s another subset of hero types that relies on their utility within the game. In addition to those three stat-based categories you’ve also got the following:
- Tanks soak up damage and make sure that your squishier, weaker members stay alive, so that they can deal their damage. (Tiny, Earthshaker, Sandking, Tidehunter.)
- Junglers roam the jungle (between the lanes) killing the mobs that spawn there, getting both experience and gold as they go. The advantage here is that the experience and gold from minions is split between the players on the lane, so while you’re leaving one of your teammates soloing a lane, they should be levelling up faster because of it. And you are too, thanks to all the jungle creeps you’re murdering. It also makes ganking much easier. (Lycan, Nature’s Prophet, Chen, Ursa.)
- Nukes, as you might imagine, are your major damage dealers and almost all that damage is dealt from their abilities. They fare best in mid, although they can work just as well on the sides, too. The important thing is to keep them alive, as they’re the ones who will decide the teamfights, especially in the early game. (Lina, Zeus, Bane, Shadow Demon.)
- AD Carry: The AD stands for ‘attack damage’, which means the right click attack that every player has. Buffing that with items is where the ‘carry’ part comes from, which is shorthand for the fact that they need to be ‘carried’ by the team through the early game, getting as much money and experience as possible. It’s only later on, once you get into the third act of the game, that they really start to be devastating. Provided they get to farm gold enough. (Lone Druid, Sniper, Phantom Lancer, Viper.)
- Support heroes are best matched with an AD Carry, so that they can properly, er, support them. They’re heroes that aren’t really geared towards damage and killing so much as making it much easier for all their other teammates to do so. Slows, heals, buffs, debuffs, and area denial are all common features for support heroes. (Dark Seer, Crystal Maiden, Treant Protector, Dazzle.)
- Assassins are the most nebulous of the hero types, if only because most of the heroes that can be considered Assassins can also be considered something else. But the key difference is that they’re almost exclusively geared towards the destruction of opponent heroes, especially one on one. Desperately dangerous one on one, in team fights they’re great at targeting enemy nukes to cripple the opposing team. (Riki, Antimage, Bounty Hunter, Broodmother.)
By this point you should have an idea of what you might like to try, and who you want to head into the game with. It’s a good idea not to limit yourself to one hero, or even one type of hero, though. Even though you might have a favourite it’s not always the best idea to pick them without any sort of thought as to what’s going on.
And the reason for that is that team composition is just as important as individual player skill. Your team might be comprised entirely of heroes who are great in the early game, which forces you to make your play needlessly aggressive in the early game, because if you let your opponents get to the late game you’re going to be screwed. Thinking about who you’re good with, and who you’re playing with, can be the difference between victory and loss. Even more generally, there’s no point having more than one support, or having a team that’s made entirely of tanks. You need a variety, so that you can fill all the niches that the game has to offer. Communication, as always, is key.
Even further, looking at who your opponents is picking is increasingly important the more experienced you become and the more experienced the opposing team is, because there are heroes who require hard counters in the form of other heroes, otherwise they completely dominate. So it’s never as simple as just picking your favourite, unless you’re very lucky, or very selfish and stupid.
The Grand Strategy
Once you make it past the potential landmine of the hero select screen, you’ll be in the game, and faced with a pocket full of change and no idea what you need to buy with it. Luckily Valve has been kind enough to leave you with a bunch of suggestions and, while they’re rarely the optimum build, they will put you in good stead to survive on your lane until you have enough moolah to head back. So follow what they say, upon opening the shop, unless you’re playing a support character. If that’s the case, you need to buy a courier.The courier is probably the most important part of Dota 2 that isn’t just players wailing on one another until one or the other doesn’t get up again. It’s a donkey, (or demon donkey if you’re on the Dire), that serves as a delivery service for items you buy while on your lane. It means you don’t have to spend needless time walking back and forth to your base, letting your opponent farm your minions freely. And you really don’t want to do that, because even a little extra gold can make a big difference in Dota 2.
Which is all making the game sound quite individually focused, with each player doing their own thing and trying their best not to screw up, and while that’s true to an extent, it is fundamentally a game about teamwork, and so it’s important to make sure you’ve got an eye on the meta and macro games.
Each game of Dota 2 falls into roughly three acts, or if you want to be less theatrical about it, stages. The first fifteen minutes or so, about from levels 1-6, makes up the first stage, where everyone plays cautiously because they just don’t have the offensive capability to do any major damage. It feels like the beginning of a fencing match, where both fencers are feeling each other out with a series of probing feints and conservative lunges. No one is going to over commit, because no one wants to be caught out and make a fatal mistake without the knowledge of their opponent’s style and strengths.
The second stage hits when everyone starts to get a little bit more comfortable in their capabilities with their heroes. You hit level six or so, get your ultimate (your hero's most powerful and distinctive ability) buy a few starting items, and the rigid lane structure of two top, one mid, two bottom slips away and everyone becomes more free to move between lanes. You still stick to your lane by and large, but if you see an opportunity to slip away and gank mid, or do a little jungling while they’re on the back foot, you can take it, and hopefully create the opening that lets your team destroy a tower.
Which is usually the signifier for stage three, which is where everyone abandons their lanes and starts to roam around in twos and threes and team fights with all ten players all in a muddle. That first tower destruction means someone, on some lane, has failed, and trying to stick with it is just going to mean a slow loss for that team. So they have to push and pull in other lanes, trying to get players out of position and into the graveyard.
And that’s the macro game, with a bit of meta game thrown in. Bear that in mind as I adjust the zoom level again and get a close up of the individual once more. You’ve bought your starting items, grabbed a courier if you’re playing support, and now you need to know where to go. That depends entirely on both your team composition, your personal preference and which hero you’re playing, but provided someone in the game has played before, they’ll probably give you some advice, or just callously inform you that your home is now top lane and if you leave your home they are going to find your real home and burn that down. The community can be sweet.
If you have to make a choice, I’d recommend heading to top if you’re on the Radiant, and bottom if you’re on Dire. Despite how it may look at first glance, Dota 2’s map is actually a rectangle, and those lanes are the shortest, which means that you’re both closer to your tower and you have less time before your minions get to you quicker, which gives you more breathing room.
However, if you do find yourself on top, it’s important to not head straight for that furthest tower. Instead, stop at the one just before it and wait for the minions to spawn. Dota 2 has collision detection, and if you walk in front of a minion and stop, it stops, and if you can repeat that all the way to the battle line you’ll be much closer to your tower than theirs. It seems like a needlessly complicated bit of faff, but it makes a lot of difference.
Once you’re at your lane things start to get really interesting. The minions will fight one another, and there’s a temptation to just muck in, but as I said, being closer to your tower makes a big difference to your security and your peace of mind, so you only really want to hit a minion when you know that your hit will kill it. Because if that happens you get a nice clink of gold in your wallet.
The thing is, your opponents will have the same idea, and so you’ll also want to deny them such killing blows. Holding down A and right clicking on your own minion has you attack it (it also works on towers if they’re low enough), and denying them the last hit will seriously hamper their ability to get any income.
It’s here that Dota 2’s bread and butter resides, and, at least for the first ten or fifteen minutes, that’s what you’re going to be doing. The excitement comes from the fact that while you’re doing this you’re also trying to get the opposing players out of position and into a position where you can either have a friend come and ambush them or you and your lane partner can kill them. Not only does slaying enemy heroes net you a big chunk of (their) cash, but it also gives you the freedom to properly farm the lane, and maybe push up to and destroy the tower.
It also means that you’ve got to be really cautious not to find yourself caught out of position yourself. The problem is that you often have to go out of position to get your opponents into position, and herein lies the rub; Dota 2 is a series of feints and jabs, trying to simultaneously get one up on your opponents while they’re trying to do the same to you. It becomes incredibly complex and psychological incredibly quickly, and all the while you’re trying to properly get your last hits and denials in.
If this is all starting to sound a little overwhelming, then welcome to your first dozen or so games of Dota 2, I’m afraid. This level of complexity seems to almost necessitate a level of obtuse complexity that forces you to climb a sheer cliff of difficulty before anything starts to make sense. And even when you’ve got the basics, even once you can read the game, it’s another thing entirely before you can speak it.
You’ve got to be especially careful of getting killed, by the by, because when you die a portion of your gold goes to the person who killed you. You can hover your mouse over your wallet and it’ll give you a read out of ‘reliable’ and ‘unreliable’ gold. The latter is the stuff that goes when you die, and the larger the pot, the more you’ve got to lose from a bad decision.
Luckily, you can buy items on the battlefield, and you can even move your next purchase into a ‘quick buy’ slot so that you can just right click it to get rid of scary large amounts of money and instead get a shiny new item in your six-slot stash. Which the courier can then bring to you while you continue to last hit and deny.
Beyond the last hitting, the denying, the feinting and player slaying, the item build you pick for your hero is the next most important part of Dota 2. Items aren’t just stat-increasers. They can offer passive bonuses like lifesteal or slow-on-hits, or they can give you active, powerful new abilities that you can trigger with a button press. Some of these are truly game-changing, like turning opposing players into sheep for a few seconds, or making you invulnerable to abilities for a short time. In the course of a team fight, a few seconds of power is all you need to turn the tables.
Unfortunately the question of what to build isn’t quite as simple as just following the suggestions of what Valve have picked in the item shop. While those are all well and good, it’s never going to be the case of just picking a build, either in your head or off the internet, and buying everything on a list. Games just don’t work like that, and it’s far more important to read the battle, and see how it’s going and more importantly what your opponents are doing, and then buy accordingly.
If they’re dominating you with slows and stuns and then mopping you up while you’re defenceless, buy items that counter slows and stuns, or make you invulnerable. Or even something that will take whoever is slowing and stunning you out of the battlefield for a second. If you’re finding yourself murdered again and again by their ad carry, then stock up on armour so that they can’t destroy you with that physical damage.
I’m making it sound far more simple than it is, though. Because while you have all those concerns, you also have to be improving you own stats, or you’ll just become a difficult to kill paperweight, putting out piddling damage instead of being the powerhouse you should be by right. This means you need to get inappropriately intimate with the item store. You need to learn the items, the builds, the way they work with one another, and what their purpose is. You need to live it. Fluently. If you can manage that, you’re going to be well on your way to surviving in Dota 2. You might even have a little fun, once you get halfway up that cliff and make sure not to look down, not even for a second. Knowing the heroes, how they work with one another, and then the items that those heroes use is pretty damn essential to playing the game, but luckily it’s by far the most important part, and if you can nail that, you’ve got the running start that you need.
The Micro Strategy
Back to our hypothetical: you’re surviving on your lane, because you know who you’re playing, how they work, and what items to buy. You’ve probably bought a few items already. You’ve got your boots, your wand, and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. STOP. Never feel good about yourself. Arrogance gets heroes killed. You silly.Which is a less-nice way of saying that complacency is something that should never slip into your mind while you’re playing a game of Dota 2. Getting into a rhythm has its uses, but the instant you stop watching the minimap and making sure you’re last hitting and denying while also getting kills and not getting killed, you will get killed. That watching the minimap thing is really important, too. Because you have a fog of war in Dota 2, and when one of the opposing players slips out of view and into that fog, you know that they’re doing it for a nefarious purpose. Maybe they’re going back to base to get some health and pick up some items. They might even be jungling. But they’re probably coming to gank you.
Which means you need to not do anything overly aggressive. You need to make sure the river is in front of you, rather than behind. You need to make sure you don’t get stunned, pulled, slowed, confused, swapped, or snared. You need to make sure that, at a moment’s notice, you can cut your losses and run, get away, and never come back (you need to come back). Losing your lane partner to a clever gank is bad, but both of you getting taken out is worse. So if it looks like they’re done, don’t do the heroic thing and sacrifice yourself. Heroes aren’t the ones that get killed.
I’ve been talking a lot about getting ‘caught out of position’. In teamfights, more than your abilities, being in the right position to do your damage and not get focused down is essential to victory. You need to make sure that your melee guys are up front, and your ranged guys are nice and far away. It sounds simple, but when team fights can happen suddenly, and without warning, and can be over in seconds, it’s very, very easy to get caught out of position. A good player is one who can get themselves back into position quickly and without getting snared or slowed or anythinged.
Teamfights are also dictated by the team which can coordinate. Valve have done a good job of making VOIP an easy option, and while some players are more than happy to use it, many more stick to just text, as that’s the Dota way. It’s harder to be mean over voice, I guess. Either way, communication on who you’re going to focus first, and then who after that, is near essential to victory. Because if you start hitting their tank because he’s the biggest and scariest, while their nuke blasts you with everything terrifying, you’re going to lose quickly. But if you ignore that tank for now, instead going straight for their teeth by taking out their nuke and carry, you’re going to be laughing as the rest will be largely defenceless. Which, again, emphasises the need for being in the right position to do that.
By now, you’re head is barely staying above the sea of information I’ve just tried to drown you in. It’s a lot to take in, and most of it is going to wash right by you. The hope is that some of it will stick, and only pop up when that situation arises, but Dota 2 is always going to be a daunting prospect. There are guides to help you build your hero, telling you which abilities to buy when, but they only help so much, leaving you with just hard graft and experience between you and feeling competent at the game.
This isn’t to dissuade you, because there’s a very good reason so many people play MOBAs, and that’s a similar reason to why so many people play Counter Strike, or Starcraft; testing yourself, tactically, against the skill of another player is a thrill unlike anything else, and testing it in a game that has such a rich macrogame on top of just sheer player skill makes it even more rewarding. It’s like Chess Boxing, except the only thing hurt when you step out of the ring and away from the board is your ego and your feelings.
If you persevere, and put in the time, you’ll end up with a game that can give you the thrill of competition on a level above just twitch skill and map knowledge. It’ll be a while getting there, but the view from the top of the mountain is spectacular. Good luck.