Three Lane Highway: unstoppable forces, immovable objects, and other thoughts on the metagame

Chris Thursten at

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2.

'Metagame' is a cyberpunkish word for a pretty cloudy and unscientific concept. Which is not to say that it's impossible to get an exact read on a game's competitive landscape, but that sense of certainty is usually unsustainable. The moment a team does something that nobody expects and it works, questions are raised. Figuring out the answers to those questions—or watching other people do it—is one of the major draws of this part of the hobby. It's natural to chase certainty, to be sure, but it's doubt that creates drama.

Feeling like you'll never understand why decisions are made is pretty natural when you start watching Dota 2, but it doesn't have to be as intimidating as it sometimes seems. The metagame is made of information, and information has a tendency to warp and shift when exposed to people no matter how good at controlling uncertainty they are. Even if you can't think on the level of the best teams, understanding the forces that they're wrestling with is the best way to get a handle how the meta fits together. Memorising patch notes can come later.

Competitive games are fun to watch because players operate in the same uncertain territory as viewers, albeit at a higher level. They have the benefit of experience and talent but they're as vulnerable to trends and assumptions as any other human would be. Dota 2's hero draft phase is exciting because it is essentially a performance of differing interpretations of the metagame at the highest possible level. Where the match itself showcases in-the-moment strategy and execution, the draft is a debate, a cross between theorycraft and poker.

At the beginning of day two of the International playoffs, Dota 2's metagame is as healthy as I've ever seen it. There really isn't a single dominant strategy or style of play, and to the extent that the metagame has stabilised around a few heroes—notably Brewmaster, who I'll get to in a bit—it's only 'stable' to the extent that attitudes towards a few valued heroes are stable. Yesterday, EG's draft against Fnatic demonstrated that it's still very possible to run unorthodox drafts and dominate games.

The rise of Brewmaster is a good case study in how Dota 2's metagame can twist and genuflect around a single character. As of the end of play yesterday, Brewmaster was sitting on a 98% pick/ban rate. That's extraordinarily high, pushing up against Batrider and Lycan at their peak.

It makes sense. He lanes well and has a high skill ceiling that is attractive to professional players who have the potential to achieve more with the hero than anybody else. He's equally strong as an initiator as he is in defensive engagements, and he's capable of pickoff kills if you're willing to chance that lengthy cooldown on Primal Split. His ultimate, which divides him into three spirits with strong lockdown potential, dominates the psychological landscape of a match whenever it is in play—or potentially in play. It's difficult to gang up on somebody who can turn any skirmish into a teamfight. His psychological impact extends beyond the game, too, threatening to shut down pocket strategies before they can begin. And so he's picked or banned 98% of the time.

He's the poster child for a metagame that, at times, feels like an argument between game-turning ultimates—Chronosphere, Ravage, Doom—and the steady, sustainable power provided by heroes like Lycan. Unstoppable forces and immovable objects, where every team and every region brings its own ideas about what power and durability mean. Brewmaster tends towards the former part of that equation, but the effect of his ultimate is that it creates tremendous sustainable pressure for the length of its long duration. He almost offers the best of both, and that 'almost' is a powerful incentive to draft him. He himself becomes an immovable object in the metagame.

At ESL One, I started to question the Brewmaster pick—in some cases, directly to the people who were picking him. His popularity seemed to persist in spite of the number of games where teams simply evaded or pushed through his ultimate, or disabled it entirely with silence. Teams got wise to that long cooldown and realised that if you could survive the duration of Primal Split you'd probably take a tower afterwards. You saw the return of durable counter-initiators like Tidehunter and offlane Doom in defiance of the belief that Brewmaster's dominance was a foregone conclusion.

But I doubt we'll see a decline in the hero's popularity because it has become so entrenched in the current meta. The power of silencing and killing Brewmaster before he can split has created space in the metagame for Doom, Silencer, and particularly Skywrath Mage, whose sudden preeminence feels a bit like every team captain showed up to the pocket strat party wearing the same costume. Even when Brewmaster is being banned from almost every game he isn't picked in, the impact of the thinking that went into countering him is felt. That's the key to beginning to understand the metagame: thinking not just about who counters what, but how success establishes precedents that players have to respond to, one way or another, for weeks or months afterwards.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.