Jonathan 'Loda' Berg has been part of the competitive Dota scene for as long as there's been a scene to be part of. He was the man holding the Aegis of Champions aloft at the end of The International 2013, and his team—Alliance—are one of the most effective, efficient, and idiosyncratic teams in the world. I first met Loda at TI3, when I interviewed him the night before the grand final. That interview became this article . After Alliance's loss to tournament champions iG in the semi finals of ESL One Frankfurt I spoke to Loda for half an hour about the current metagame, that incredible match against Cloud 9, and the way that winning TI3 has affected Alliance for better and for worse. This is a long interview, but I think most Dota fans would appreciate seeing the whole thing so you'll find it all below.
How are you feeling after those games against iG, and what's the plan now?
We feel quite well, actually. Usually S4 picks but this event, since it's so close to TI... it's not like we're holding back but we let EGM pick instead. Just to throw things around a bit and not show any of the things that we've practiced. So, yeah—iG is a very good team and we can see what we did wrong. One of the things you always realise when you play against the Chinese is that you can't ever be greedy at all, because Europeans rely on ultis—long cooldowns—and the Chinese will always go for a lot of heroes that are strong throughout the whole game.
For example, what they did in the last game against us is that they saw that they had stronger roaming potential. Even if they had a decent chance to play against our trilane they chose to dodge it because they saw that we didn't have heroes that could rotate as well as them. They'll almost always dodge the trilane that way—not to go aggressive against us, but rather to dodge us going aggressive against them. But it feels okay, actually. I don't think any of us are extremely cut up about it.
I've seen you play well when you lose one lane by capitalising on your advantage elsewhere. Today it felt a little bit like you were being 70% efficient everywhere, and that slowed you down.
Yeah, I agree. Today in the first game we won like one lane maybe, which was the bottom lane, but they had a solo Doom there who could just go jungle and eat creeps and get back slowly. Then when you get picked off in one lane your whole rotation gets fucked up. We wanted to switch our trilane to top but then one guy gets picked off somewhere along the way, then I TP top but we don't have our two supports there because Akke had to roam mid to remove a ward, then I get picked off top.
They're very good at stopping your momentum, but I think a lot of today was about the draft. I think everyone feels that way. We should never have picked Lone Druid for example—it was quite greedy. We should have put the Batrider on top lane and he could just switch to the jungle for example. Then you have a strong hero mid that can affect the game a lot.
We've seen a lot of Brewmaster in this tournament. Like, everyone is running it and almost every western team is being punished for it. Or at least, for every game where it does well there's a game where it doesn't.
Yeah, for sure. For example the last game I feel what we did wrong was pick a carry like Silencer who is not very mobile and Brew... he is extremely good at taking control of the game but you need to have other heroes that have a lot of damage output and we kinda lacked that. When you're playing Silencer, you want the other four to roam around and fight with the global. For us the Brew could initiate, clap, ult, but even with the global silence we couldn't really kill them during that so the only times we got a kill was when we went for a solo kill with the silence rather than go for a fight with the Brewmaster ultimate. That was one of the big problems in the last game—that we didn't have the right heroes.
As I said, the Chinese rely on having heroes that can do something at all points in the game, where a hero like Silencer would probably get stronger in the lategame with an Aghanim's, maybe a Refresher or Hex, something like that. At the same time you can just be countered by BKBs which they did quite effectively.
Were you expecting iG to change up the way they played so dramatically from yesterday? Their approach to Mouz was just constant push.
We kinda thought that they would go for push in the second game, but no. They have two playstyles—they either go for an all-out push or... it's like this. iG, if you analyse them from an objective view they don't rely a lot on their carry. They put him on heroes that are strong early-mid and also quite hard to kill. They pick Doombringer for him, they pick Lycan as part of that push strat, they pick Pugna for him, but it's not like a carry Pugna.
They put him on heroes that are strong in the midgame and I think they do that really well because they have five heroes that, as I keep saying, are always active. Even if they're not active they can be active. That's what they do well.
Moving on to a happier story, then—that game last night [against Cloud 9]. When I spoke to you last year you explained that there are points in games where you feel confident that you've 'got' it—you might not have it now but you've got it in twenty minutes. Did you have that feeling last night? Because it was fucking close.
Er... not really. We had a strat where we ran Skeleton King [Wraith King]. He's a carry that really peaks between thirty and forty minutes and that game went on to, like, eighty minutes. We felt that they should have had that game because they had, like, two hardcore carries in Ember and Void and they had PotM [Mirana] as well.
We felt that we could win the game, but... it was just about me and EGM creating space just so that Bulldog could split push one of the lanes. Then we'd, like, try to soak them up so that we could get a rax. They had better lategame for sure, but then we just outmaneuvered them I would say. Honestly, I think if they'd have just played a bit better, had better item choices they should have won that game. If I was in their position with those heroes in the midgame I'd be quite content.
It felt like they never got the teamfight they wanted.
Yeah. Yeah, actually—exactly like that. We made them waste their big cooldowns.
That's kinda the story of this whole tournament. It's interesting.
Yeah, it is interesting. We went to China one month ago and it was the same thing there. We realised that you can never get greedy in that way against the Chinese because they will punish it for sure. They are very good at baiting you and just dodging the fights. If you're pushing a tower they've got a Bristleback who has been getting quite good XP against a trilane. It's not so easy to jump on the Bristleback over the tower—they'll be ready behind him and if we go for him we could lose the fight. We can't kill him fast enough, and they'll punish you. The Bristleback is something that they pick against the Enchantress, for example. I've seen it over and over again—just put him offlane while the Enchantress is there and he's quite hard to kill against just two heroes. We didn't really have the right set up to punish him. Maybe if you went for a stun carry, or a Centaur, a midgame carry—something like that.
You've really been favouring that, right? The stun carries.
We switch it around a bit. At DreamHack we did that. Here we did that a little bit as well. For me personally, I like some of them. I dislike some of them. With a hero like Wraith King, I know that my clock is ticking. I have very good farm but it doesn't really scale that well. You want to create chaos in the teamfights, you want to get that reincarnation—so you just go in soak up damage, then you keep picking people off.
But I think you need to switch it around a bit against different teams. Against the European teams it's very good to have these stun carries because European teams tend to be a bit greedy, you can push them a little bit.
The last time we spoke was the eve of the TI3 final. How has that win changed the way you've trained over the last year?
It's changed a lot. Six months felt like a waste of time after TI because we didn't have the same focus, we didn't have the same drive to win smaller tournaments. Even if you try to get that focus it's hard to really be hungry to win these tournaments. For sure, every tournament now has good prize money, but it's just not really the same thing. It's only been in the last two-three months that we've really been able to get the drive to become good again. I kind of predicted it—I was talking to my team about it—but it can be hard to keep the team motivated, even myself, sometimes.
Last year, almost everybody I spoke to said that it's not the money, it's being the best at something.
Yes, it is—that's what I mean. If you won TI it's not like "I won a lot of money" it's "I won the World Cup". Why would we want to win the... I dunno, the Swedish Masterchef or whatever? We would probably still win it, though.
You basically did. But has that attitude changed? I mean, this extraordinary new prize pool—it's so much bigger.
In a way, but I think that either way we'd have started focusing a lot more before TI. I think everybody gets motivated by that, no matter the prize pool. But sure, the prize pool is extraordinary. That's good and bad, I suppose. It puts a lot of pressure on teams.
I'm very interested to see what happens after this year's tournament, because someone is going to walk away with enough money to do whatever the hell they like, training-wise, and whatever they like with the other tournaments. Do you think whoever wins this year will be affected by the same thing that affected you, but on a much greater scale?
I think every team was affected by what we were affected by. I think Na'Vi were affected by it, I think that iG was affected by it. After they won TI2 they were performing quite decently for, like, half a year then they went into a slump that they didn't get back from even at TI3. If you win this kind of money, you should just go away for a while. I think that's a better approach, just to stop playing for maybe three months. Then you come back and you know that you have to train very very hard to become the best again.
If you only take a short break you come back and you play scrims but you never have that feeling like "we really need to out think them, we really need to out draft them". We play these online tournaments where last year we'd be super, super focused and so motivated to win in the finals, but even now, when we've been doing so-so, it's hard to want to be the best when you've already got to that point.
Last year you had something to prove—you had people to take down. Now you're the guys that people want to make a statement against. That must be a lot of pressure.
Yeah, for sure. At the same time, now we've been losing for a while so hopefully we'll be something of an underdog, heh.
It bothers me, the way the community sometimes reacts to the way you play—the whole 'rat Dota' thing. It seems like such a misunderstanding of how sport works.
It's... it's just a result of you being bad and not really understanding. Pro players don't look at it the same way. Pro players don't feel that rat Dota is a worse way to play than any other way. It's a skilled thing that you can pull off or you can't. If you look at League of Legends, for example, rat Dota or whatever you want to call it is pretty much something they hype. If somebody split pushes well in League of Legends they're like "oh my god, they're playing so well".
I don't know. I mean, you can take some offense from it but I don't know that we care so much. We live in a world where people are stupid.
Ha. That's true.
No, but it is. So many Dota players are bad. So many of the casters are bad if you compare them to pro players. I'm not saying that out of arrogance, it's just how it is. It's just the top 0.1% of the players that are good enough to understand all the aspects of the game, and if it was easy to play split push and rat Dota everyone would do it—but they can't. That's enough proof for us that it's just about outsmarting your opponent.
I wonder if it's because it's less visible than a gank or a teamfight or something.
Yeah, exactly. People hype stuff that is obvious to the eye. If someone goes for a solo kill—"oh, he's really good." People see what is easy to see, and casters see what is easy to see. Casters say a lot of wrong stuff a lot of the time as well—they analyse situations wrong.
There was a moment—a huge teamfight right at the end of that second game against Cloud 9 that went from the bottom of the Dire offlane all the way up to mid. Teamfight ult after teamfight ult, but the whole point of it was—where the hell's Bulldog? And then their rax is gone.
Yeah. It's just about outsmarting them. They had some TPs on them so we cancelled the TPs. We just want them to make mistakes. They get more and more stressed and the mistakes came. The time when they went all-in on our throne wasn't the right decision to make. They should have just went for our rax, backed off, kept going for the lategame.
They really wanted to end it.
Yeah, they really wanted to end it and you can see that they... I think maybe they're just not experienced enough. A Chinese team would wait ninety minutes instead of eighty.
What's it been like having WinteR here?
It's good. He hasn't been here very long, and as I said we don't want to show too much at this event, but for sure it's good. WinteR is an ex pro player, and he's good enough to understand every part of the game and bring good analysis to the table. Because we have people that don't speak up a lot after the game—even if they have a point that they thing is good, they don't really talk about it. It's frustrating for myself—it's almost like I'm sitting there and whining because noone else is responding. The good thing about WinteR is sometimes he will either agree with me or point out another part of the game where it's like "if you guys had rotated in the early game it would have put a lot of more pressure on their draft".
For me, it's nice to have someone who can come in from an objective point of view. I feel the same way—I wish my team would tell me "oh, you did this wrong. You should have done this."
Last year you said that you guys were good at not falling into the trap of flaming each other.
We don't at all. I don't think the others feel like I'm blaming them—it's just how we are as people. Communication is something that you have to practice. You have to be honest and it's a hard thing, sometimes. We are all honest towards each other, and if I say something that somebody disagrees with they will tell me, for sure, and I wouldn't be offended by it.
In Dota, it's never just one choice. It's ten choices and you have to go for one of them—and make sure that everyone thinks that that choice is the best one.
And that everyone does it, right?
Yeah, that's something we've been working on. If we make different calls... we used to be extremely good at Rosh and we've become good at it again but for a time we were very bad at fighting around the Rosh pit because we went for different decisions. One guy wanted to finish Roshan, one guy wanted to bait them to go for us, then we'd split up in the fight around Rosh and rather than get one of the things we end up losing both Rosh and the fight just because of miscommunication.
That was also one aspect of becoming as good as we were. When you win TI people feel that... me as well, you feel like you've just won the World Cup or whatever you want to call it. Every feels that they're good enough to make the right call but maybe they don't speak up enough to make it happen. It's more like... instead of having one mind you now have five different minds.
So success turns you into individuals rather than a collective.
Yeah, exactly. Sometimes you underrate the importance of just saying stuff rather than thinking that it's obvious.
There's not a lot of time left before TI. What's the plan, now?
This year's TI is best of ones in the group stage so we'll need to prepare in a different way. Playing best of one is not really the same thing as playing a best of three or best of two. Other than that we'll just keep preparing as we always have, try to be ready for anything I suppose.
Are you feeling confident, then?
Yeah, I think so. Same thing as last year—I feel that TI pretty much gets decided after that first day. If you go there and get the right feel for the tournament then you'll keep doing well. A team that is extremely good can lose the first day because they get some all-in strats that somebody has been preparing for a long time, but if you look at it they're probably the most skilled team in the tournament. Some teams handle that in a good way where they'll just come back the next day and do well, some teams fall down and start blaming each other. Whatever happens, we are all confident in each other and we know that we are good enough to go as far as it takes. So, yeah—we're not afraid of going to TI.
Do you have any shout outs you want to make?
Yeah, sure. Shout out to all of our sponsors. HyperX, Monster, XMG, Logitech—our new sponsor. Axe, of course. A lovely fragrance! Also, Planetside 2.
Thank you for your time.
If you missed the tournament this weekend, you can find write-ups of both days here and here . Check out my interview with Pajkatt from Mousesports for more thoughts on the meta in the run-up to TI4. Images courtesy of the official ESL Twitter account .