Three Lane Highway: keep it simple and other steps towards better Dota


Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2.

Last week I wrote about how Dota earns its popularity by offering two contrasting paths to improvement: knowledge, which you accrue steadily over time, and sporadic opportunities to demonstrate your creativity or superlative skill. You climb the ladder all the while hoping that one day (maybe today!) it'll be you that lands that perfect Reverse Polarity, you that scores a Rampage. At the time I was trying to figure out what makes the game compulsive, but I've returned to this line of thinking as I've started closing in on what, exactly, I need to do to stop sucking at it.

The short version is that none of the things I desperately need to fix have anything to do with knowledge. The relatively straightforward, steady stuff that I've been accumulating in my brain for the last couple of years is only so important. Item builds, hero builds, combos, drafts, macro-scale strategies: these things are diminishing in importance as I realise just how much I've got to learn about execution, personal discipline, and strategic awareness.

I think a lot of Dota players find themselves in this position, even if they don't know it. Finding someone to blame in a pub-game-gone-wrong is almost always a case of locating the person who went for the weird item build, picked the wrong hero, or otherwise stepped outside of the community-ordained norm (which is subtly, but not entirely, distinct from the metagame.) This is because these things are relatively obvious, and often they are indicative of a lack of experience. This attitude is a problem insofar as it indicates the belief that playing like everybody else is how you go about winning games of Dota. Beyond a certain point, this simply isn't the case.

I can't take total credit for this line of thinking: I've been playing with Blitz a bunch, lately, and absorbing a 6k MMR player's attitude to the game reveals a lot about life at 3k. Almost everything I need to work on has to do with the personal, creative, and strategic side of the game. I figure some of these thoughts may be useful generally, so this week I'm going to lay out a few rules for winning more matches in the future.

Take fewer risks in drafts. This is mostly something I'm trying to factor into drafting in Captain's Mode, but it applies any time you're picking a hero. I have a really bad habit of drafting combos that work on paper but, practically, require a degree of coordination, individual skill or luck that isn't going to happen. Maybe I'll get my perfect five-man Reverse Polarity once in a game, but one teamfight victory isn't going to turn the game around. Drafting easy is more about humility than metagame nous: it's about accepting that I'm not always able to force a best-case-scenario for my team, and that often the best thing I can do is go for heroes that I'm comfortable with, that have reliable stuns, that aren't as flashy, perhaps, but who give me options.

Play simple, stick to the plan, and communicate. There's this little voice in my head and all it ever says is 'what if now is the time to one-versus-five the entire enemy team!' That sounds so stupid when I write it out that I wish it wasn't painfully true. Even in a competitive context, I labour with the notion that there's somewhere in the current game situation where I can make a big play. Instead, what I should do is identify a measurable goal that my team can achieve and start moving directly towards it, making it clear to my allies that this is what I'm doing. No screwing around. No more 'I was just trying to...' moments. The most dangerous thing about gambling is the feeling that next time the odds have to come up in your favour: Dota's like that, but the thing I'm gambling with every time I take a chance on a virtoso play is my teammates' time. I'd rather win, honestly, and that means keeping it simple.

It's amazing what you can do if you wait ten seconds to make sure everybody understands the plan and is in position to do it. It's also amazing just how many matches are lost by one or two people lagging behind, or a single person deciding thinking 'oh, it'll be fine' right before rushing into Roshan before their team has had time to de-ward the pit.

Move past farm. Here's a potentially contentious one: I think, beyond a certain point, that gold is a bit of a crutch. It's important, yes. Item timings on certain heroes in certain roles can be huge. I played a lot of Spectre for while, and Terrorblade. I'm used to seeing every creep kill missed as a dramatic failure, measuring my performance solely on Radiance timings and the amount of the jungle I can hoover up all at once. It's not just hardcore carries that experience this: to climb into the intermediate bracket, one of the things you learn is to never leave gold on the table. Most pub teams aren't great at closing out games, and a lot of games are won by whichever squad has a bigger bucket of money to beat the other guy up with. It's a numbers game, in that sense.

But it's also a game about destroying an ancient. To do that, there are going to be lots of times when taking a tower is more important than wiping out the jungle—or when securing Roshan is better than a pick-off kill. I'm working on my ability to prioritise. Unless you're truly gifted, playing for later can only help so much if you're losing now. That farm can wait. What is our plan? Where should I be? How can I help?

Don't overthink it. This is a tough one, particularly as somebody who has overthought Dota 2 for—hang on—thirty six articles, including this one. Thinking is part of the game, as is (if you're me) second-guessing yourself and your team. If I leave my lane to gank, am I failing in some other way? We've been hanging around for a few seconds —are we wasting time? In these scenarios, the existence of the question is a sign that something is already wrong: you should already know the answers. You should know what your (hopefully straightforward) game plan needs you to do, and you shouldn't have any doubts about doing it.

This has actually been incredibly liberating. Knowing that I'm doing the right thing when I leave my lane to gank—because my team has discussed it beforehand—removes the anxiety that comes with the move, and it's that anxiety that slows players down. And, unlike the guy who sets off into the jungle in the hope of making the star play, I understand the limitations of what I'm expected to achieve. Kill mid and retreat, force a rotation, burn through some of the enemy's regen—whatever it is. Trust in your ability to get that done and call it a good job.

This is, in part, represented by a willingness to move the focus of my thinking from knowledge ('draft this and we'll win') and on to execution—more games have been lost by bad positioning than by bad picks. On the other hand, it means exercising a degree of control over all of that imaginative investment: setting reasonable expectations, playing selflessly, staying calm. The game is compulsive because of the tension between these competing threads—but ultimately, I've come to believe, becoming a better player means learning to move beyond them.

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.