Oh, the humanity
CHRIS It’s time. We need to actually play real people if we’re going to stand a chance against RPS. I load us into a match against equally-new strangers, using a fresh account to mask my own rating. I know, I know, that’s naughty. I justify it to myself by assuming that the other guys will be doing the same thing. I take Storm Spirit, the first Dota hero I fell in love with, to the midlane.
ANDY Humans! Actual humans. This is the first time I’ve played Dota with people I don’t work with, and the pressure is rising. But once the match begins, they seem as clueless as me. I dutifully farm away, waiting for Chris to give me instructions. Occasionally I get into a fight with another player, and I don’t die every time. That’s encouraging. I farm and farm, and I buy the lightning bolt thing, and upgrade my character.
PHIL My assigned heroes were Crystal Maiden and Witch Doctor. After trying out both against bots, I decide to stick with CM from here on out. Witch Doctor’s stuns are pretty handy, but I like the more reliable damage over time of Crystal Maiden’s Frostbite spell. Also, I just enjoy being a magical snow princess. She starts every game by flirting with Sven, which I think is having an awkward effect on Tom’s and my working relationship.
TOM Playing against humans is one thing; the big problem is dealing with new and unpredictable heroes. Phil and I face off against Alchemist, who likes to throw bottles of gunk to stun and hurt enemies. Bounty Hunter can turn invisible, which he uses frequently to gang up on us and then run away. We’re spending a lot of time laning against three opponents, and it’s miserable. There’s no time to mouse over enemy abilities to read their details—the only way you learn how an ability works is to be killed by it.
PHIL Bounty Hunter is awful. Until now, I’ve done a good job of faking competence and stoic reliability, but I am not a good Dota player. I struggle to disengage against the enemies I can see, and now I’ve got to deal with this shit? Bounty Hunter’s damage is mostly to our confidence. He’s out there somewhere, and even with Sentry Wards laid down, I’m jumping at every shadow.
CHRIS I face Mirana in mid, and it’s clear that this is actually a new player and not an asshole on a fake account. I win the lane pretty handily and realise that I am an asshole. I am, however, an asshole with options. I move top and score first blood, then roam the map scoring kills fairly effectively. A highlight is when Bounty Hunter moves in to kill Andy. I catch a glimpse of him on the minimap and know what he’s about to do, so I tell Andy to stay still and bait out the kill attempt. I punish it with a flashy Storm Spirit play and feel like Andy’s cool magical lightning uncle.
Then, Sam gets called into a meeting and has to leave the game for 20 minutes. Rather than risk him getting pegged with an abandon, I get him to hand control of Earthshaker to me and I play both heroes for a little while. I’m used to the notion that you can’t quit a Dota game once it’s started, but it occurs to me that this wouldn’t necessarily be clear to anyone else.
As we approach the midgame, the enemy stacks up items that make it harder for me to control fights: Orchid Malevolence, Black King Bar. That Alchemist has a Shadow Blade; my ducklings are struggling to deal with the invisibility it grants him. They’re struggling generally, actually. I feel like I’m spinning plates—if I make a play on the top lane, Andy will die on the bottom lane. If I go bot, Tom and Phil will get in trouble top. These games were never supposed to be about me.
Someone always has to go first. If your team lacks a dedicated ‘initiator’, communicate clearly and make sure you listen to what others are planning. Once a commitment is made, there’s no going back.
TOM We’re having a shaky time learning how to fight as a team. A lot of us have stun moves that can start a big fight, but we’re hampered by a strange awkwardness, as though we’re all trying to fit through the same door. There’s a lot of “after you,” “no, after you,” and we never quite manage to synchronise our charges. Four out of five of us have no idea whether we’re winning or losing a fight, so we disengage in drabs and get picked off individually. Only now do I truly realise how hard this is going to be.
ANDY A player using the Phantom Assassin hero keeps killing me, over and over again, and I start to lose interest. I still haven’t fully embraced Dota, and I’m reminded why I hate playing competitive games online. Even these low-level newbies we’ve been matchmaked with are better than me. I know I could get better if I practised, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to Dota.
Contrary to the belief of many pub players, the role of mid isn’t just to bail out the other lanes. Using it to farm is viable too.
CHRIS This is salvageable, I think, but I’m daunted by the number of small things I’ve got no time to explain. I count off the enemy’s full list of stuns and successfully teleport out of a fight gone wrong, but I realise that being able to do that represents the better part of thousands of hours of accumulated experience. It’s no good saying “teleport when they’ve used all their stuns” to people who have no idea how many stuns they have.
PHIL We’re relying on Chris too much. It’s clear he wants us to start taking the initiative, but when he tells us he’s coming to gank, we interpret it as him coming to singlehandedly make everything better. Even when he does lay out a step-bystep play, it turns out people are unpredictable. At one point, I hide in the treeline of the safe lane, waiting for Chris to draw the majority of the opposing team into Freezing Field’s range. They move in and I pop it, waiting for the glorious snow-death. Instead, they move back. I miss everyone. It’s deeply unsatisfying.
CHRIS The game runs long—over 60 minutes—but we’re pushed back steadily by Alchemist and Phantom Assassin, who both scale well into the late game. Eventually, our respawn timers run too long; there’s nothing else to be done. If we’re going to beat RPS, I resolve, we need to focus on fighting as a team