Rhythm is a ganker: timing is the vital skill that new MOBA players miss


Clockwerk. Because, you know, clocks. Time. Clocks.
Three Lane Highway

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

A confession: I've not had a huge amount of time for Dota 2 this past week. I've found myself playing more Heroes of the Storm than I expected—despite my misgivings about the game's business model, it's picked up a following among friends who wouldn't touch this genre in any other form. Short on time, I've also been dipping into Smite's single-lane, three-on-three Joust mode. This, also, is a game I'm just learning. Between these two experiences, I've spent a bunch of time thinking about the few genuinely transferable skills that two thousand hours of Dota has given me, and the foremost of those is timing.

Timing is, I think, the most important single thing that newcomers to lane-pushing games need to get a handle on. Until you understand concepts like tempo and how it relates to overall strategy, a huge part of the skill of winning will be beyond you. When you lose and you don't know why, it's very likely a timing issue. This is particularly true of Heroes of the Storm, a game that has taken the Dota formula and sanded the edges off to the point where timing and basic ability management are all that's left. Heroes of the Storm is about simple plays made against an ever-ticking clock.

Having found myself explaining these concepts over and over in different contexts, I figured that I'd dry to boil them down to a couple of key lessons. These are they. If you're already experienced in these games, you might not find much to learn here: but I hope it provides you with some ideas about how you might pass that knowledge on.

There are more 'cooldowns' than just the ones the game shows you

Time is a resource equivalent to gold and experience (I'm pretty sure there's an aphorism about that, somewhere.) The most visible example of this is an ability cooldown—such as the two and a half minutes between Tidehunter Ravages—and the attendant need to use long-cooldown abilities intelligently. There are other 'hard' cooldowns, like Roshan's respawn time, the refreshing of jungle camps, and, in Smite or League of Legends, the rate at which Phoenixes and Inhibitors return. Each of Heroes of the Storm's maps add a bunch more, like the gold chests in Blackheart's Bay or the mines opening in Haunted Mines.

You need to eventually have a handle on all of these, but that's obvious—it's book-learning, ultimately, information displayed on the screen waiting to be understood. The notion of a 'cooldown' can be usefully applied to more abstract concepts as well. Regardless of who you are playing, your character will have a rate at which it can reasonably expect to return to combat-viability after a fight. You might regain health through consumables, lifesteal, or base regeneration values, but however you do it there will be a basic amount of time it takes. Likewise mana. You need to learn to perceive your character's regeneration as a kind of soft cooldown, because otherwise you will find yourself unable to take advantage of all those more-visible hard cooldowns: if you know when Roshan's due to respawn but haven't accounted for the time it'll take you to get your health to the point where you can fight for it, you've lost track of arguably the more important 'cooldown' of the two.

Another example concerns experience and gold efficiency. This will vary on a role-by-role basis, but generally speaking the moment you leave an environment where your character is gaining either of the above then a timer begins. You have a certain amount of time to either achieve an objective (for example, warding) or picking up gold and experience from another source before it begins to eat into your efficiency. The moment you start to see the sand trickling out of an invisible timer whenever you leave your lane is the moment that you really understand what 'carrying' entails.

Figure out what you need to do, then do the thing that comes before that

Rule two stems naturally from what I've just written. As soon as you get a handle on the various timers that determine what you can achieve in the game, you need to learn to sync them up—to make sure that you have health, mana and your ultimate when Roshan respawns, for example. Getting this right means making a conscious effort to not only choose what your team's next play is going to be, but to identify what sequence of actions you need to do now to ensure that it happens.

A pre-emptive play might be returning to the fountain to regen or it might be as simple as walking across the map, but there's always something—and it always takes time, and you need to be able to account for that time. How many times have you lost Roshan because your team started to get ready when Roshan respawned, rather than one minute before? Exactly.

This is really obvious in Heroes of the Storm, where games can turn entirely on how well teams prepare for the plays they want to make. If you're winning Haunted Mines but you burn away all of your health on a mercenary camp right before the undead spawn, then you might have just thrown away the game. By failing to prepare for the more important play, you've negatively achieved—got something done, but the wrong thing, and given your opponent a shot at something bigger. Something, often, game-turning.

These games get complicated when you realise that preparatory actions themselves come with their own set of timers and, in turn, their own necessary prep-work. And then even more so when you realise that every single timer in the game is related to every single other timer, even if the relationship isn't obvious at first. In Dota 2, pushing a lane might draw out a TP response. That TP has a timer, and the mana spent to use it has a timer, and the distance travelled comes with a timer too. Those timers, in turn, determine the defender's ability to respond to other timers—like Roshan. Mastery means not just recognising these connections, but making them work for you.

Apply the inverse to your opponent, always

You will know what bad timing feels like before you get a sense for good timing, and that is an important experience to hold on to—because your goal, always, should be to put the other team in a position where they feel like they've lost their tempo. If you know how to make the rhythm of the game suit you, then you know what's required to make it not suit your opponent. Often, the two go hand in hand.

If you can force someone to burn all of their health or mana without giving them time to regen before an important timer ticks over, you've won even if you haven't killed them. If you can score a single kill against the enemy team and force them to attack you four vs. five, then you'll probably get another kill even if you are, more broadly, losing. This is how you force them to tilt: not just by killing their dudes, but by killing their dudes in a way that forces them to dance to your beat. Items and levels will always arrive, eventually, but they count for exactly nothing if you're unable to synergise them with your whole team because somebody is always waiting to respawn.

This is why you push out a lane right before going for Roshan: because you've planned both, and will likely have enough time to get from one to another efficiently. If your enemy reacts to the push, then chances are they're sacrificing something in terms of efficiency or responsiveness. Even if they do repel the push and immediately run to contest Roshan, they will be doing all of this a few precious seconds short of ideal. And those few seconds, added up over time, will win you the game.

Congratulations. You are now better at Dota. Let's all celebrate by dressing in wetsuits and dancing in a flaming refinery somewhere in Germany in 1992.

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.