Dota 2 and the value of selfishness

Phantom Assassin

Three Lane Highway

Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2. To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

"u play ur game"

Phantom Assassin isn't happy with me, because I have just told Phantom Assassin that they should buy a Black King Bar. This is a solo ranked game, and we're winning, but that can always change. The opposing team has Invoker and Shadow Shaman: both decent reasons for a PA to pick up a BKB. Another good reason is that it's a core item on a character whose chief vulnerability is crowd control spells and magic burst damage. That too.

At this point in the game, Phantom Assassin has Power Treads, a Basher, and a Battlefury. We're in that tentative late period that a lot of solo ranked games end up in, where we've comfortably taken over the map and we've killed Roshan but nobody really wants to go highground. We almost lose a teamfight in their jungle, and I can see which way the wind is blowing, and so I type it out: "PA should get a BKB". And PA—politely, I should add—tells me to shut up and play my own game.

When we win ten minutes later, Phantom Assassin leads the scoreboard with Power Treads, Basher, Battlefury, and two Moon Shards. In this instance, the glass cannon fired true and didn't shatter. On paper I'd still say that Phantom Assassin played it wrong, but the reality is that something clearly went right.

That thing may be luck. It may also be that the rest of PA's team played their asses off to make sure that Invoker and Shadow Shaman were dead before they got anywhere near our carry. It may simply be a reality of life in the mediocre middle of the Dota 2 player population that it doesn't really matter what you build as long as you don't do anything completely stupid.

I suspect the truth is a combination of all of these things. I still think we could have easily lost that game, and those MMR points, and that loss could have come down to PA's refusal to build a defensive item. But I've also played games, recently, where the opposite is true: you lock support and sacrifice all of your gold to maintain vision, dust, smokes, and so on, and it all goes to hell and you'd have been better off jungling a Legion Commander like everybody else. It's become apparent to me that the trick to solo queue is to neither be entirely greedy nor entirely selfless; to try, but never to try too hard. To care, but never, like, a lot.

The more I think about it, the more I consider "u play ur game" to be sound advice. After my attempt to wrestle a heartwarming Christmas tale out of Dota 2 totally misfired, I'd considered simply stepping away from the ladder. But one of the things I find compelling about this game is that struggle to climb, and the psychological barriers you have to negotiate as you rise and fall. I've realised recently that my desire to play 'properly' (and to see others do the same) in part covers for weaknesses in my play. If somebody can make up for a lack of knowledge with technical skill, then what I have to say to them doesn't really matter—at least not in the course of the game we're playing.

I've always played solo ranked like my job was to shore up the weaknesses in the draft that my random teammates chose: normally, as you'd expect, this means playing support. The good thing about this approach is that it teaches you to be versatile, but the weakness is that it prevents you from really digging into a particular role or character—and ultimately, that familiarity translates into game impact which translates into victories and positive MMR.

The problem with playing something you don't want to play because other people 'need' you to is that it prevents the game from ever really feeling like a team effort. You'll always feel like you're throwing yourself under the bus to help ungrateful people who get to stomp around with their jungle Legion Commanders while you pick up the bill. It leads to a sense that you're in opposition to your own team, which is something I've definitely felt—and written about, in this column, dozens of times.

If everybody simply picks what they want to play, then everybody is in it together. You might be truly screwed by your draft, but no one person will be to blame—and, in any case, it's surprisingly rare that solo ranked games punish greed. As much as I loathe this sentiment in the real world, the Dota 2 ladder is a closed system where greed can improve society. Pick what you want to play, try to make it work, and own the consequences. It's more fun, and easier on the mind, than an hour spent picking holes in other people's decisions.

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Chris Thursten

Joining in 2011, Chris made his start with PC Gamer turning beautiful trees into magazines, first as a writer and later as deputy editor. Once PCG's reluctant MMO champion , his discovery of Dota 2 in 2012 led him to much darker, stranger places. In 2015, Chris became the editor of PC Gamer Pro, overseeing our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. He left in 2017, and can be now found making games and recording the Crate & Crowbar podcast.