Three Lane Highway: how forming a team has improved my enjoyment of Dota 2

Three Lane Highway is Chris' sometimes silly, sometimes earnest column about Dota 2.

Dota 2 is a staircase. Like any other competitive exercise your progress is defined by improvements and plateaus, periods of progress and periods of stagnation. The thrill of the former is balanced by the frustration of the latter, and identifying what you're doing wrong—and how to fix it—isn't easy. You are asking yourself to find a lack in your own play that you are by definition ignorant of: the weakness of the staircase analogy is that staircases typically go in one direction. Dota 2's skill curve twists, turns, and doubles back on itself. Getting better is hard. It means finding new routes, opening new pathways within your thinking.

I'm one of those people that believes that doing difficult things carries inherent value: I think there's something vital about facing down the ways in which you suck. This is primarily why I don't agree with concepts like the 'trench'—the notion that you can be trapped at a particular level of play by your teammates—or the idea that the matchmaking algorithm is part of a secret conspiracy to ruin your day. Confirmation bias is a real thing. We are psychologically predisposed to discount possibilities that cast us in a bad light. Evolution has conditioned us to reject scenarios in which we are not the most impressive caveman. But that's all it is: caveman thinking, each player report issued in anger an impotent chest-thump from the part of your brain that hasn't seen much use since "hitting things with rocks" was the competitive enterprise du jour.

I could have written those paragraphs at any point in the last twenty-two months, and at any given time their relationship to my own skill level would be different. I'm writing them now because in the last two weeks I've been playing Team Matchmaking seriously for the first time, and it has been a revelation. In Captain's Mode I've found the next set of stairs leading upwards, and in this week's column I want to talk a little bit about how finding these areas of improvement can improve your experience of the game all over.

The team I'm playing with now is the third line-up I've been in since I started playing Dota 2. In the first instance we simply weren't experienced enough. With less than a hundred games each, we knew just enough to know how horribly unprepared we were for Captain's Mode. Drafting was an exercise in guessing which heroes might be scary to play against (Riki?) and picking our favourites because we had no idea what a coherent line-up might look like. On the back foot we'd panic and try to replicate something we'd seen on YouTube—usually some variant on split-pushing—but we had about as much success as the guy who figures he can land a plane because he's seen somebody do it on TV. By which I mean that we lost every game we played.

The second attempt happened more than a year later and it went just as badly. Despite being significantly more experienced we weren't ready for the rigors of organised play and, in particular, the additional social strain that comes from sorting people into fixed roles. A year of Single Draft, Random Draft and All Random had turned me into a generalist player, and in three matches I drifted between position five and position two without direction. It didn't work, nobody had fun, and we abandoned the enterprise.

I can't stress enough how different this third attempt has been. We've had our rough patches—and lost a fair number of our practice matches in ranked Captain's Draft—but we've been on a roll ever since we hit Team Matchmaking proper. It has felt like pedaling hard on a bike with the brakes on and then having the brakes taken off. We've been rolling. So much so that it's lead to a long winning streak in my non-team games—I'm more confident and more relaxed even when I'm not playing with the usual crew. I feel like I jumped a matchmaking bracket overnight (my actual MMR does not reflect this.)

So, what changed? Three things, I think—changes in playstyle and outlook that can be applied, I hope, to anybody struggling to find their footing after a thousand or so hours with the game.

First, I identified and doubled down on the things I can actually do. I am not a very good position five support even though I think I know how the role works. I cannot play Puck as well as I think I can. My Invoker is okay but I'm not fast or versatile enough with him. None of these things were especially easy to accept about myself, but when accepting them made it easier to figure out what I can actually do. I am very aggressive and quite good at identifying opportunities, so I make a decent initiator. I spent the bulk of my first few hundred hours with the game playing mid, and I feel comfortable controlling a lane by myself. These preferences have led me to the offlane, where I've discovered a new set of heroes—Dark Seer, Centaur Warrunner, Batrider, Clockwerk, Nyx Assassin—and a new role to play. Given a purpose, I've been able to figure out which parts of my pubmatch all-rounderhood to keep and which to lose.

I just don't let myself draft Puck anymore. Maybe I'll bring her back into the fold someday, but for now the equation has become much easier to resolve into fact: I am probably not going to win if I play her. I will probably win if I play Dark Seer. I like to win, and so the decision is obvious.

Second, I've found a group of people to team up with who are capable of giving and receiving feedback. We've had disagreements, but nothing severe. And in a few weeks we've figured out new strategies and new ways to communicate that effectively reduce the number of misunderstandings or arguments that occur. It makes a huge difference when you take the time to unpick situations and derive solutions from them. The things we've discovered aren't ground-breaking, necessarily—"I'm ready" and "I'm ten seconds away" aren't the same thing, "run to me" is less useful than "run to mid"—but they can make the difference between a gank and a counter-gank, a teamfight won and a teamfight lost. And it turns out that if you win your teamfights, you win your games.

Finally, I've found that treating team Dota as serious Dota has made me more relaxed and creative the rest of the time. Rather than try to impose my vision for How Things Should Be on a group of four strangers, or friends who don't necessarily share the same vocabulary, I treat these games as an opportunity to have fun and experiment. I never felt like I could pick a hero just because before. Now I can, because it's the team games that really matter. 'Matter' is a relative term, of course: we're amateurs in every sense of the word. But being able to satisfy my urge to theorycraft in a supportive environment has made me less of an asshole in all other contexts, and that's a win for everybody. In theory.

I don't expect everybody to want to repeat these steps. If you're happy picking Pudge every match then, honestly, this stuff won't apply—and as tempting as it is to be snarky, I envy your commitment to your own enjoyment. Team matchmaking has helped me discover the same thing, in my own way. I suspect there's a lot of players stuck in limbo between bad and not-that-bad, however, wanting to take things more seriously but unable to find an environment that supports them. Seriously, guys: if this is you, form a team. Find each other, and form teams. Then, let's fight.

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.