How to introduce Dota 2 to newbies—and help them enjoy it

Magnus 2

Three Lane Highway

Every week, Chris documents his complex ongoing relationship with Dota 2, Smite, and wizards in general.

A month or so back PC Gamer took on Rock Paper Shotgun in a single Dota 2 showmatch. We lost. It was awful. The shame of it hangs over the UK office still, a historic disappointment. The story of that shame ended up as a feature in issue 277 of the UK magazine: I've been thinking back to that process, this week, following the recent update to Purge's classic Dota 2 guide.

Purge's 'Welcome To Dota, You Suck' was my introduction to the game, as it was for thousands of other players. I imagine the new version will perform the same role for the next generation. Purge is unusually good at breaking down the component parts of Dota into a format that new players have a chance of understanding. Having tried to teach the PC Gamer team from scratch, I've seen how difficult that can be.

Trying to teach somebody to play Dota (or even understand Dota) is a surefire way to learn just how much of your own knowledge you take for granted. There's a point where you simply have to accept that the only way to learn everything you need to know is to play thousands of hours of the game. This means, as a teacher, that you've got to do more than just impart knowledge: you've got to impart the will to continue playing.

You can't just help them win. You've got to help them enjoy it. You do this, I've found, by explaining Dota in a way that suits the way they already play games. Some of these explanations are more popular than others.

It's a game about not dying

This is probably the single most important thing that newcomers need to understand, but it's also the least appealing—emblematic of a broader problem with Dota's accessibility. In most competitive games, your goal and the methods you use to get there are deeply linked. In a capture-the-flag shooter, you need to shoot the guys and capture the flags to win. There's nuance beyond that, but this basic interpretation is always going to be true.

In a traditional RTS, you try to destroy the enemy base by making smart strategic decisions at both the macro- and microscale, and these decisions are usually represented by easy military analogies: tank columns, factories, mineral extractors and so on.

In Dota, your goal is to destroy the other team's base—but your method for getting there entails manipulating a complex set of economic systems. Often, the very worst thing you can do is actually try to attack their base. Hence the deep truth of 'DON'T FEED' and why 'this is a game about not feeding' is unattractive to a new player: it's counter-intuitive, it's about stuff not happening, and most people start their Dota careers getting yelled at for doing what would follow naturally in most other types of game.

While you've got to stress this idea to your newcomer friends, it can't be all you get them to do. Telling them to stay safe while you handle the game for them will leave them bored; expect them to understand the strategic nuance that goes into not fighting and they'll switch off. You've got to do better.

It's a game about plays

This is better. Where Dota clicks, it often clicks here. People like landing stuns, nukes and hooks—particularly hooks. Abilities are fun to use, teamfights are fun to win. It's fun to get kills. If your newbies start to get kills and enjoy using their abilities, they'll play more and enjoy it more.

Overindulging in this direction is how you end up with the attitude that defines pub play—kills are everything, mid is everything, Pudge is everything—but it's useful in small quantities. It's also why I believe that the best 'chaperone' characters for new players are those that allow the newbies to get the kills.

Hypothetical scenario: you're playing mid while keeping an eye on new players learning to lane in pairs in the other lanes. Against bots, probably. If you want to show off, take Storm Spirit or Shadow Fiend or whoever and show up on their lanes to get a load of kills and demonstrate what experienced Dota play looks like.

If you actually want them to keep playing, however, pick Magnus. Magnus is an awesome babysitter. As long as you can land your Reverse Polarities and Skewers, you'll be in a great position to deliver plays into the hands of the people you're trying to teach. Get them to play Sven, or Crystal Maiden, or Witch Doctor, tell them where to be, and tell them to go nuts when you give the signal. Hand them the triple kill you might have taken for yourself and you're far more likely to make Dota players out of them.

It's a game about numbers

Another great thing about the Purge guide is the way it repeatedly links individual Dota mechanics back to the game's most important theme: resource management. Plays are cool, but having bigger numbers than the other guy is how the vast majority of games are actually won.

Not all players approach games the same way and not everybody is going to be excited by Dota 2's more abstract concepts—map control, farm efficiency, that kind of thing. But there are players that are, and they are usually those that are coming to Dota from a background in strategy gaming. Emphasising these things—explaining roles in terms of farm priority rather than 'support' and 'carry', explaining game phases and so on—is how you convince these people that Dota isn't just a game about mashing out spells until one team falls over.

I'd say this is the rarer sort of newcomer, but arguably the type with the most promise. They're the ones who will more rapidly grasp that the game is as much about why you fight as how you fight.

It's a game about details, rules and exceptions, and those details, rules and exceptions are going to screw you

My mistake, when I was teaching the rest of the PCG team, was ultimately that I thought that the above would be enough to get them through a match. I figured that if they understood staying safe, momentum, game phases, farm and when to push then they'd get away with not understanding how every individual character or item works.

That isn't the case. You need to understand these things, and that takes time. An example: the PCG vs. RPS match was the first time my guys had ever encountered Shadow Shaman. Serpent Wards aren't even that complicated, as abilities go, but they immediately contradict a bunch of things that players think they know. Whether or not you should disengage from a fight when the wards go down or simply destroy them is a judgement call that requires you to understand a dozen other things that are going on in the game at that moment—and that lack of understanding can be paralyzing. Your newcomers will encounter things they don't know how to deal with, constantly, and they will be undone by them.

I enjoyed this process, when I started out—I liked that every match seemed to contain some skill interaction I'd never seen before. If I didn't enjoy that, I don't think I'd still be playing. That said, I think it's a little misleading to say 'understand the basic principles and learn as you go'—while this is practically true, it undersells just how many times you're going to lose because of something you simply hadn't encountered before.

The final and most difficult thing to do, then, is to get your newbies to enjoy losing. I fucked this up, honestly, and I am pretty sure it's the one thing that even experienced Dota players devalue. Whether people come to the game to make flashy plays or they come to it to execute game-wide strategies, there are going to be a lot of instances where that isn't enough. This can either dampen or temper enthusiasm for the game, and it's the job of would-be tutors to push that needle towards 'temper'. Otherwise your enjoyment of the game will be entirely predicated on whether or not things go well, and when things go wrong you'll be exposed to the negative feelings that lead to blaming, flaming, rage quits, and so on.

Not that there's years upon years of precedent for that, or anything.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

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.