How to Understand Professional Dota on a Macro Level
Dota is a difficult game to both play and watch. This is no surprise to anyone who’s familiar with the game; there’s are layers upon layers upon layers of strategy, enough to rival any other game. Unless you’re a professional, it’s almost impossible to comprehend what’s happening on the map at any given time. We can, however, find a working framework to deepen our understanding of why teams decide to use which strategies and why.
At it’s core, Dota revolves around scarcity. There is a limited number of gold on the map, a limited number of space in your inventory, a more unlimited amount of experience and a team needs to figure out the most efficient way to distribute these resources. This is the fundamental theory of Dota and everything else is built upon this one simple maxim. Teams run players in all three lanes as a rule because this is the safest way to guarantee farm and experience for your cores. Players last hit to maximize their income in the laning stage. Carries form the backbone of a team’s late game because they scale more efficiently with gold than supports do. Supports stack camps because that accelerates the team’s growth. Etc. etc. etc. This has been the standard understanding of Dota since it’s inception, and has traditionally been how it’s played.
The position system is an eloquent summation of this principle. Your 1 position, usually a safe lane carry, is given the highest priority in farm and experience. Their safety is one of the highest priorities in the game. The rest plays out from there. The lowest position 4 to 5 players will tend to spend most of their time and effort protecting higher positions, thereby making them “supports” for the rest of the team. Position 2 and 3 will make use of the resources that the team’s position 1 does not need to hit important item timings and start turning the gears towards victory. This is of course, simplistic, and farm priority can, and in modern Dota often does, change mid game to respond to new situations.
More complicated than material things though are other, more ephemeral resources. Time, space and vision are also resources that teams need to pay attention to and control. A team that is nominally ahead in items and levels will be at a severe disadvantage if they are unable to hold the map against the enemy team. Likewise, a team that has zero vision is less likely to maintain their lead or win the game unless something drastic happens. These resources are less defined than a team’s net worth or levels but can still be conceptualized as amount of towers remaining, wards placed, creep equilibrium and access to friendly jungle camps all of which add up to a team’s map control.
One of the most important intangibles however, is risk. The concept itself is easy to grasp. Risk is how dangerous an action is. Standing next to your tower two minutes into the game is likely to be a low risk strategy. Diving the enemy tower by yourself when there is 4 is likely to be a high risk strategy.
Unfortunately, not every risk in the game is as easy to measure as those two situations; consider, for example, a carry that is farming in the safelane near his opponent’s tower. Is this a high risk situation? Determining that first requires us to understand where the enemy is. Is the offlaner in lane? Or did he go into the jungle or river? If he’s in lane, he poses a risk to your carry. What about the enemy supports? Are they in the offlane? In mid? In the enemy safelane? Are they off map? If they’re showing on the map but in a different lane, do they have TP scrolls? If they do, are they on cooldown? And so on and so forth. It’s easy to see how managing risks turns into a complicated tangle of questions that have no obvious answers.
Tradeoffs form the majority of decisions in Dota. It’s impossible to be perfectly efficient and get 100% out of the map. But you don’t need to. All you need to do to win most of the time is be more efficient than your opponents or goad your opponent into making mistakes that throws away the lead that they’ve built up. Understanding a professional Dota game requires us to suss out the information available to a team, the potential decisions that they could have chosen, and the reasoning behind why they eventually chose what they chose.
This is why vision is so important for managing risk. Dota is a game of imperfect information and educated guesses and vision lets you make the best possible decisions at the best possible times. Part of CDEC’s dominance at TI5, and Wing’s outstanding victories at TI6, was their almost uncanny ability to read the opponent, and react accordingly. This type of higher order thinking is a skill that’s not really learned so much as gained from experience. Hundreds upon thousands of hours put into Dota, and actively thinking about and wondering what the opponent will do with the information they have is the only way to really do this in the heat of the moment.
A Tool for Every Occasion
From these small truths we can see how teams diversify their strategies to try and form better and better ways to get gold, and starve the enemy of the money and experience that they need to get their plans online. We’ll use The International 4 Grand Finals, and it’s rather radical departure from “normal” Dota, as a base of analysis.
Credit: Daily Dot
The TI4 Grand Finals, unpopular as they are, provide a good case study on how the Dota metagame often, or in this case doesn’t, revolves around the economy. The infamous TI4 edition of Vici Gaming relied on the deathball, a 5 man, early game oriented, push strategy that punished enemy greed and ended games sub 20 minutes. It flips much of the Dota script on it’s head by taking teams out of their comfort zones. Vici Gaming used our expectations of how Dota should go, a laning stage that transitions into a strong midgame, and branches out into various endgame scenarios, to completely shatter previous ideas of what was necessary for victory. There’s no time to farm, no space to breathe, and Vici Gaming didn’t care about the actions of the enemy team because VG was the one to initiate everything, removing choice from the equation. The reason why it was so effective was because of a combination of a couple of factors.
First, Vici Gaming’s supports, Linsen “FY” Xu and Chao “Fenrir” Lu, largely sacrificed their own gold and levels to make sure that the enemy team could never feel safe. From minute 1 they pressured enemy cores, forced the opposite support duo into unfavorable early TP rotations, and made sure that the enemy lanes would be under defendedunder defended when it came time to push down towers. This sharp aggression was what led them to be considered the best support duo at the time.
Commitment is very dangerous in Dota. You want to be able to, at best, control large areas of the map outright. If you can’t do that, then the second best option is to ratchet up the risk for the enemy team by restricting their options and reducing how much they know about the map. If all your strength is focused on one part of the map, then it’s very easy for the opponent to swarm over the rest of the map and take easy objectives. Vici Gaming used their supports to force out suboptimal positions from their enemies and facilitate the power of the Deathball. When an enemy support teleports in to try and stop a perceived gank, that is less firepower for the incoming fight and stops them from gaining gold and experience, leaving supports underfarmed and underleveled and it also makes them unwilling to leave a lane undefended. As a result you force an overcommitment from the enemy, from very little cost.
A good example of this is in Game 1 of the Grand Finals. At around 2:30, Shadow Shaman teleports down to bottom lane under Smoke of Deceit, and successfully ganks Nature’s Prophet with the help of the Clockwerk. This forces a rotation from Newbee’s Ancient Apparition, who arrives too late to save the NP. This awkward positioning is later amplified when FY finds the Ancient Apparition again in the jungle and harasses him back to base at 3:20. This leaves Zhaohui “Sansheng” Wang at a pitiful 182 GPM and 152 XPM, much less than his average for the entire event, or even the entire series.
Secondly, the strategy made the early game economy the only thing that mattered. In this strategy kills are largely irrelevant. What matters is hitting a much earlier timing strategy than your opponents and forcing an unfavorable response to your attack. The enemy is unable to respond effectively because they don’t have the items or skills necessary to stave off a coordinated push, but they’re also unable to ignore it because their defensive options are limited. The advantage is maintained through the influx of gold from taking towers and raxes, with some supplemental income from any kills that the enemy feeds. There’s very little time spent farming in lane. Once Super hit level 6 with his hero and he was able to plow down the mid tower, all of Vici Gaming joined in on the fun. This was supported by VG picking mobile heroes like Furion who could easily move across the map.
In fact, VG was so reliant on this that they often won games despite having a suboptimal laning stage and holding only a slight gold lead over their opponents. Oftentimes VG would be fighting before teams had the items that they felt comfortable fighting with. For example, in their wins vs Evil Geniuses, EG didn’t have any of the necessary Meks, Force Staffs, or Blink Daggers necessary to repel a Vici attack. Similar things happened in most of VG’s wins at TI4. Just as damaging however was their ability to try and breach highground at a time when most players would not have enough gold for buyback which hamstrings the defense and forces them to play without any second chances.
Finally, much of the defensive measures to protect towers were not yet implemented. Fortifications did not refresh after a Tier 1 tower was taken. Tier 2 towers did not have as high of an armor value, and towers in general gave out more gold than they do now. There was no bonus armor applied to allied heroes. Tier 2 towers did not yet hit as hard as Tier 3 towers did. Icefrog would later patch all of this in to nerf the Deathball, one of the greatest honors any professional team can receive in professional Dota.
The counter can only happen in the draft. If a team can’t recognize the deathball early and draft a strong counter, then the game is basically over. Newbee put up a masterclass on how to stop the Vici strat. They devised a couple of ideas to defend against Vici Gaming’s aggression. The first idea was to have a much stronger teamfight at around the time that VG would want to push. Heroes like Ancient Apparition, Doom, Puck, Tidehunter, and Brewmaster, provided strong level 6 teamfight ultimates that helped stymie the VG tide. Secondly, Newbee focused on strong anti-push with heroes like Earthshaker, Shadow Shaman, Alchemist, and Ember Spirit who could spam low cooldown AoE spells and whittle away at the creepwave and the enemy health. Third, they found a way to be more efficient than Vici without sacrificing much. The Shadow Shaman/Chen combination that they used twice against VG allowed them to have strong lanes with the CC heavy all rounder in Shadow Shaman, and a powerful early game presence in the jungling Chen that could push with a large creep and contribute to the early fights.
By now the TI4 Grand Finals are ancient history. None of the rosters are still intact, and the game has changed significantly. The momentum of this threw off most teams and allowed Vici an easy, low risk strategy to dominate with and it remains a controversial strategy to this day. Even ganking or fighting strategies, which are meant to stifle the economy of opponent didn’t go as far as the Deathball did in it’s complete disregard for the rest of the game. But there’s still lessons to be learned from VG. The unrelenting push towards the Ancient wasn’t a very mechanically demanding play, nor was it visually exciting. But it did expand our ideas of what Dota could, and should be.