Salt shakers: thoughts on pulling out of a downward Dota spiral

Crystal Maiden

Three Lane Highway

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

Last night marked the end of a long run of pretty bad Dota. I'd felt my enthusiasm ebb before, but never this substantially, and this is was the first time in the history of my almost-three-year-old hobby that I've considered taking an extended break. The main problems were thus: I wasn't winning very much, I didn't like how long games seemed to always run, and I felt like I was being more of a dick than usual.

The latter is the biggest problem. I don't valorise extreme 'saltiness'—I think it's a weakness, as I've written a bunch of times before—but I can't deny that I get frustrated with myself and with others. A little salt, I think, is fine. It's actually a pretty good analogy, as these things go—salt provides both flavour and, when things are icy, necessary friction. Aggression does the same thing. But too much of the former will kill you, and too much of the latter will kill your enthusiasm for the game—and your friends' enthusiasm for you, potentially.

Facing rising frustration in Dota, it was easy for me to commit more time to games I find less stressful—Destiny, Pillars of Eternity, Bloodborne, Smite. Eventually, that time commitment looked like it might threaten Dota's place in my favourites list. I then realised what I always tend to realise, in these moments: that when you're falling out of love with the game, you need to actively make a change. You need to figure out a way to make Dota fun again. You can't just wait for the salt to go away: you need to think about it.

Here's what I thought about.

Don't just play because you think you have to

Most of my Dota games start with someone asking me if I want to play Dota, which leads to playing when (a) I'd rather be doing something else and (b) I'm basically unready to do anything competitive. I play regardless because of the feeling that time not spent playing Dota is time that I'm secretly wasting. Does everybody feel that way about Dota? I assume so.

Rather than resisting the urge to say yes—and consequently playing fewer games—I find it helps to be the person pulling the stack together. If I'm choosing to play, it generally means that I feel ready to do so. What 'ready' means will change from person to person. For me, it's a case of having eaten and maybe gotten some sleep and generally feeling focused and like I might actually win this time. Emphasis on 'might'.

Actively choosing to play also means that I'm more accepting of the notion that the game might not go well. I know what I'm getting myself into, and one of my priorities is to feel good about the game afterwards: while that hopefully means winning the game, it definitely means not being a prick to people. If you go in with the right attitude, I find it's easier to come out with that attitude intact.

Resist the spiral of sadness (and saltiness)

Learning to pick up and try again after a loss is important when you play a lot of best-of-threes, but that's not the case for the majority of people who play Dota. Learning to recognise when you're on a losing streak and quit is important too: continuing to tilt is only going to make you feel worse. The perfect time to find something else to do is when playing more Dota is going to make you like Dota less.

This goes the other way. Last night, when I felt like I'd finally broken out of this kind of downward spiral, I only played a single game. I went 28/6/12 with an offlane Windranger: 'that'll do', I thought afterwards. 'That'll do for tonight'. I spent the rest of the evening clearing out a dungeon in Pillars of Eternity and killing a boss in Bloodborne. Because I ended on a high, my positive Dota experience retained its integrity for a little longer.

This isn't viable all of the time. You need to play more to get good, so bailing after your first match of the night isn't going to work in the long run. But it can be great for your salt levels: I finished that match feeling pretty good about the game, about myself, and about the people I was playing with, and that feeling hasn't abated yet.

Determine whether you need to change things up, or double down

One of my worst habits is that I rarely play the same hero twice even if I'm doing well. I know players who are the opposite: who will keep banging their head against the same wall even if it's never going to yield. Both approaches have problems, particularly when the game is becoming more intensely frustrating. I find myself playing characters and roles that I'm unfamiliar with, getting angry at myself for underperforming and second-guessing my teammates who find themselves dropping into the role I'd usually occupy. Similarly, getting counter-picked for the Nth time in a row because you only want to play Storm Spirit is going to make you angry.

In my case, I've found it helpful to pick a handful of characters and stick to them: a mixture of flavours of the month and old favourites that I reliably enjoy. By suspending the drive to 'learn' a new hero by leaping from one to another with every game, I'm playing a lot better. Playing a lot better, on the whole, is less stressful and leads to a more positive outlook.

The solution may go the other way for others: there are times when clicking the 'random' button opens up doorways and makes the game fresh again. Take a look at your situation, your skill level, and what it is that is making you angry about the game—then either mix things up or commit as appropriate.

Don't over-analyse

If there's a theme emerging here, it's this: that you can functionally take a 'break' from Dota by giving yourself a break from the most competitive parts of Dota. The people I know who have the biggest salt problems—myself included—are those who take their performance (too) seriously, and who are inclined to fix every problem they encounter by picking it apart, watching the replays, coming up with plans and data and formulae.

There's a time when that's appropriate, but I'm starting to learn that not every pub game warrants a post-game debriefing. We often think of 'salt' in terms of the frustration that manifests in-game—flaming, excuses, and so on. It's equally evident in the way you assess your own play, and that of others. It's here that the really insidious stuff creeps in, the micro-aggression that makes the game less fun for everybody. I'd be happy if I never again begin a sentence with "we just need to..." or "I was just trying to..." during yet another post-match breakdown. There are times where this works, where it makes you better. There are also plenty of times where it drags everybody's enjoyment of the game through the dirt.

It's a question of balance. Dota is distinct among competitive games for the way that it can be both extremely silly and extremely serious at even the highest levels of play: 'saltiness' and frustration arrive, I think, when you end up trending too much towards the latter half of that equation. My solution is to remind myself that it's okay to simply play for fun. That I seem to win more often when I play that way is a weird, but welcome, bonus.

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.