With The International 7 going on and the enormous swell of casual viewers prepared to tune in, it’s an opportune time to talk about ways of understanding Dota 2. If you happen to tune into a game out of curiosity or boredom, you’ll notice nothing makes sense at first glance. The game is immensely complex, so much so that merely getting your point across is an art (one not always available to players). Casters will commonly quote phrases like “timing window,” “scaling,” and “map control.” They will be as intelligible as a Mudblood trying to comprehend arcane magic. There is much beauty to appreciate in Dota, but only if you can fundamentally grasp what matters and why the hell it’s happening.
This basic list is meant to be a handy guide for the beginner. Don’t worry about the incredibly dense amount of obscure, esoteric data that is endlessly referenced by casters and brought up as fun tidbits onscreen. I’ll leave that up to the professionals. Instead, I’m offering a cursory overview of the macro concepts popularly used to analyze and think about Dota 2. Broadly speaking, these are categories of thought that will give a panoramic appreciation of the game.
If you watch traditional sports, you’ll have a faint grasp in the ways fans distinguish their teams from each other. Every organization has an ethos: a relationship to its own legacy and its fan base, a specific style/manner of approaching the game. The New York Yankees pride themselves on being the most successful team in baseball history. Until recently, the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs were the kings of spreading the court and befuddling opponents with precision passing. Fans of the Oakland Raiders revel in the notion of a rough and tumble football team, unafraid to bash heads with the enemy and raise a little chaos.
There is one crucial difference, though. The constraints on victory are much simpler and less repressive in Dota 2 than a regular sport. Understand that the only thing that matters in the end is killing the throne. You don’t need to play four quarters when you can end a game in 15 minutes. You don’t need to win a certain matchup on the floor if that player can be made irrelevant in the first minute. There are an infinite number of ways to develop a team’s play style, an infinite permutation of tactics to make an opponent yell uncle.
The most straightforward way to win is to gain advantages in the laning stage (the first 5-15 minutes) and then systematically take down towers while your advantages are relevant. If teams aim to do that from the drafting phase, they pick heroes that are good early — Viper, Razor, Lich, etc. — and go from them. Alternatively, you can outfox your enemies through skill alone. The famous Team DK squad did this as it arguably had the best players in the world at each position.
Usually, this approach is paired with an emphasis on taking objectives (towers, Roshan). Gather together when a certain hero gets the prerequisite levels, take the first tower, and gain the “tempo” advantage. From there, dictate the pace of the game and make the enemy run around as they respond to your moves. This method relies on heroes that can kill buildings without too much trouble (Pugna, Lycan, Death Prophet, etc.). The modern-era Team Liquid does this exceptionally well.
Then there’s team fighting. You must destroy the throne in order to win at Dota, but the most efficient path often involves killing everyone along the way. This play style is heavily reliant on drafting the right combination of heroes (Enigma, Faceless Void, Chaos Knight, Medusa, etc.); these heroes almost never stop being useful, no matter how long the game goes. Knowledge of ability cooldowns, patience and team coordination are necessary to pull off this style. The current roster of Virtus.Pro is infamous for bullying opponents and reversing entire games with its expertise at winning fights.
The most nebulous, taxing approach is ignoring the initial stages of the game and relying on your prowess in the late game. As long as you don’t die in the first 30 minutes, you can reach a point where any mistake can potentially win or lose the game. Here, you can utilize the inherent fragility of the game to your favor. This requires better map movement, anticipation of enemy plans, and decisive execution when opportunities arise. It is how Team OG plays; its favored weapon of choice is any hero that makes illusions.
Finally there is “rat dota,” popularized by Fnatic’s old European roster and then taken to its logical extreme by Alliance. The basic premise is to avoid team fights altogether and push down the opponent’s base faster than they can push down yours. Ideal heroes for this strategy can travel quickly around the map, clear out creep waves without trouble, and destroy buildings quickly/safely (Nature’s Prophet, Io, Anti-Mage, Naga Siren, etc.). Rat dota aims to produce chaos, making the opponent paranoid about where you are and what you can do when they are not in position. It is particularly effective against team fighting, which assumes you will win a 5-v-5 engagement instead of a 1-v-1.
Those are the basics. Most teams embrace a compromise between those aspects, and a few can play multiple approaches to varying degrees of success.
The second category is team roles. This is to say what hero does a player pick and what can they do with it.
By nature, no player can perform every duty necessary for a team to win. Specialization is key for a traditional sports team to succeed, and the same holds for Dota 2. Every player has a certain set of responsibilities to fulfill within a game, contingent on the array of heroes they can feasibly play. That covers an entire gamut of tactics, which I will break down in a follow-up article.
Map control can be sectioned into two major categories: information asymmetry and projection of power. In layman’s terms, a team has map control if it knows more than the opponent or if it can do things more efficiently across the entire map.
This generally comes down to the types of heroes you use, ward usage and how you play around towers. Heroes with flying vision (Batrider), expendable ways of gathering information (Templar Assassin, illusion heroes, Beastmaster), or specialized skill sets (Night Stalker, Keeper of the Light) are key for gaining and maintaining map control. Ward usage is extremely important as you can directly see the actions of the enemy or infer their plans by their absence. Towers are naturally important as they both provide vision and act as relay points that teammates can teleport to.
Gold is the currency of the game. The general rule is that the more gold you have, the better it is, but what you should understand is that it is all relative. How much gold you have and how well you convert it into an advantage depends on roles and team identity more so than flat quantitative worth. There is also the aspect of managing gold income within the team itself. There are a limited amount of creeps around the map, and by design some heroes benefit from getting farming priority more than other. The other ways to make gold — hero choices (e.g. Alchemist), killing other heroes, getting bounty runes, using Midas, talent trees, jungle stacking — comes with some amount of risk. Managing the risk/reward balance is a more advanced skillset that I won’t discuss here for brevity’s sake.
On the flip side, you need experience to get more levels, which boosts your stats and improves your skills. The “more is better” mantra also applies here, though it stops mattering once you reach Level 25. Similarly, distributing experience requires a keen understanding of hero roles and the state of the game. There are heroes like Meepo that depend on having a XP advantage to properly work; there are heroes that only to be a certain level to be useful throughout the game.
Whenever you hear “skill,” assume it refers to the raw mechanical ability of a player. Being outsiders to gameplay, we aren’t privy to the minds of players. We can’t judge whether they know the outcome of a certain event, the underlying logic behind a strategy, and the other abstract qualities that can be classified as intellectual. So we can only evaluate them by the choices they make. The ability to properly react to a certain play, to dissect the amount of information that is going on screen (i.e. the order of spells, cooldowns in play, items used, respawn time, buyback and other miscellaneous factors), and the efficiency of farming constitute the base meaning of the word.
Gold is the only currency you can use to buy items. Items grant all sorts of advantages from granting more stats to providing active effects to extending the maximum range of spells. These items range from being cheap to breaking the bank. In general, a rise in item cost corresponds to a rise in power and/or uniqueness. Many items can heal you like a Tango; only a Scythe of Vyse can turn you into a pig
Describing the relevance of items in Dota 2 is beyond me. There are hundreds of heroes and they can all be picked given the situation (in fact, VP almost picked all of them in one tournament run). This is compounded by the incredible amount of item choices and how these two things interact: an item choice can strengthen or weaken a hero, which sends out ripples affecting nearly every relevant aspect of the game. Furthermore, what items are good on a hero now may be mediocre in six months. It’s too complicated to talk about in this article without being insultingly brusque.
These are basic ways to analyze and understand what is going on in a Dota 2 game. It is a harrowing game with an almost endless amount of information being processed, so hopefully this will help ground any newcomers with a basic framework of the game.