|4.||Have a plan, hell, have three|
|6.||Top Tier Picks|
|7.||Pocket Picks and Strats|
|21.||Planning vs Execution|
Many players struggle with the overall strategies in DOTA - and understandably. To start with there is so much to learn, and no particular strategy seems to lead predictably to the same result. So what happens? Does strategy even matter?
Of course it does! But, any strategy is only as good as its execution...
This guide will look over the various drafting strategies, formations and team types to try and give you an improved undertanding of how it all fits together.
Before we get on to strategies and drafts, there's a few basic truths that apply to DOTA:
- Magic damage doesn't generally scale, so tends to be most powerful during the early game, and declines as the game progresses.
- Right click damage and passive skills tend to be relatively weak during the early game, but become increasingly powerful as the game progresses.
- Like many strategy games, powerful early strategies executed well can stop late strategies decisively.
- DOTA has a very well balanced mix of "slippery slope" and "infinite comeback" mechanisms. Basically what this means is that gaining an advantage makes it easier to win, but also that games can also be recovered from very bad situations.
Although there are many, many different ways of winning games, hero lineups and tactics, there are only four basic strategies:
This strategy focuses on killing enemy heroes in small scale skirmishes. Usually this will start from very early on, using roaming tactics and aggressive lane play. Successful ganking is the fastest way to gain a farm and experience advantage over the opposition - not only does it increase your power quickly, but it reduces the enemy too.
The weakness of the strategy is that it's risky - unsuccessful ganks can lose you gold and experience, and possibly gift them to the opposition.
Flexibility is a real boon in a game like DOTA - if you watch any of the top teams, they may have a style of play, but they'll also have multiple different ways of winning.
However, you also need to be aware of the limitations of your team and yourself. You may want to play like Na'Vi, but not necessarily have the skills or experience to be able to implement their style.
Be honest with yourselves - which roles can you actually play well? Which heroes? What are your strengths as a team? Weaknesses?
To quote the great Sun Tzu:
"It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle."
As you will often be match-made against random teams you won't get much chance to know them, but share the same advantage. You can still have a quick look at their most played heroes and get some idea of potential lineups.
I'd say to start with have 2-3 strategies that your whole team are reasonably comfortable with - at least a "early-mid" strat, and a "mid-late" strat. Make sure your team know what they're trying to achieve or you'll all be pulling in different directions.
Go into the drafting stage with a "first choice" strategy in mind, but be prepared to chance course and go to "plan B" if things are obviously shaping up badly for plan A.
We talk above about the importance of "flexible" heroes. What do I mean by this?
Simply, it's heroes who can fit well into multiple roles and strategies. The best example I can think of is Nature's Prophet vs Anti-Mage:
Nature's Prophet is usually played as a Hand of Midas jungler by many players, but he is very capable of performing other roles. Offlaner, ganker, pusher - even a utility hero. He works in pretty much any lane, and he can adapt to your strategy and still be effective.
Anti-Mage on the other hand pretty much has one thing he does well. He's a safe lane hard carry who can leverage incredible farming speed if he gets an early Battle Fury and some AFK time in the jungle. However, everyone knows this, and there's not really any different ways that he's used in competitive play - he defines your team's strategy.
Heroes who are inflexible are not necessarily bad - often they can do particular things incredibly well, you just need to leave them as late in your draft as possible.
Flexibility gives you more choice during the game to change your strategy and do something else if it isn't working.
This is a constantly changing list of which heroes the pro teams are most commonly picking. This could be to do with nerfs/buffs, meta-changes or just the current trends and fashions.
Sites like this update fairly frequently to reflect the current most popular picks, and you'll also see these heroes picked a lot in pubs (many people try to copy the pros).
Although DOTA is a pretty balanced game, there are always small differences (perceived or actual) in hero strength that lead to some being preferred. As a general rule these heroes are picked often by the pro's for good reason, but this also means that people will be aware of their strength and playstyle.
In some ways you can't go too far wrong grabbing the best picks you can, and trying to stop the opposition from getting them. More important however, is to have a good understanding of WHY and WHEN those heroes are picked - many inexperienced captains just try to get all "the best" heroes.
Due to the ridiculous number of potential combinations, and the unpopularity of many heroes in competitive play, there are lots of more unusual picks that can catch people out. You occasionally see it from the pro teams when they throw in a Meepo or an Necrolyte.
No hero is truly awful in DOTA, it's just often that they're deemed too inflexible or need too much from their allies to be truly "competitive". This doesn't mean that they can't be incredibly effective given the right situation though.
For example, Ursa was rarely considered a potential pick as despite his damage output, he can't lock down heroes to deal it. One pro team managed to sneak various disablers into their line up, and then made Ursa as a surprise last pick. With the right allies and opponents he was able to rip through the enemy team and claim an easy victory. Don't underestimate the value of surprise.
Every team needs a variety of hero types to work, even if you've deliberately stacked it for a particular strategy. For example your "extreme ganking" team will still need supports, even if they still have an aggressive focus.
Not all of your heroes can get maximum farm and experience, you need to prioritise. That means picking some heroes who can get by on less, and still be effective, and give you more power early game.
DOTA has a lot of terminology around it - carries, supports, offlaners etc. What we need is moar!
The problem with terms like "carry" is that they do cover a class of heroes, but can cover everything from a glass cannon like Sniper to a tank like Doom Bringer. Yes, they both want to get equipment and inflict damage, but what they bring to the team is quite different.
Similarly a support could be a Crystal Maiden or a Tidehunter. Heroes with good teamfight might be an initiator like Magnus, or a damager like Witch Doctor.
All of these things need to be considered when picking your lineup:
- DPS. Someone on your team needs to be able to inflict enough damage on enemy heroes quickly enough to actually kill them.
- Tanking. Unless you've got supreme AOE disable, at least one hero on your team needs to be able to soak up some damage from the opposition, even if they have to buy items to do so.
- Initiation. It's not essential, but it's damned useful to have a more sophisticated way of starting or countering a team fight than just shouting "CHARGE!". It doesn't necessarily have to be Ravage, an Impale or Tornado can do the job.
The first ban phase is tricky because you have no idea what the opposition are trying to achieve initially. You can either remove "problem heroes" that you definitely don't want to pick, or try to subtly remove heroes who will counter your Plan A.
A good plan is to try to do both - ban heroes who are generally considered "top bracket" heroes, but focus on the ones who will cause you problems. For example, if you're looking to run a push strat, remove Dark Seer from the pool. This doesn't look particularly "suspicious" or give much away, but helps with your strategy down the line.
Many captains will simply ban heroes who they think are strong, or heroes who have caused their team issues before - they'll usually ban off the most powerful pro game picks. Look for the opposition making any really obvious moves at this point - if they start banning an unusual selection of heroes, look for what those heroes have in common and try to see through to the strategy behind it.
Bear in mind whether you'll be picking first or second - first means you will definitely get one hero that you REALLY want, although the meta is a reasonably balanced these days so there are no "must ban/1st pick" heroes. If you're picking second, you'll definitely let the opposition get one hero they really want, but you get two! Just bear this in mind when banning.
The first pickups are an important balancing act - you don't want to give away your overall strategy as you'll give the opposition plenty of time to figure it out and counter-pick. On the other hand, this is your best chance to get the heroes you want.
Many captains pick supports at this stage as they give less away and are less obviously countered. Personally, my suggestion here is to pick up your most flexible heroes here - ones who can fit multiple strategies, so give very little away about your intentions. Ideally ones who are difficult to counter directly.
The second ban stage is important in that you now have a lot more information to work with and can start aggressively hindering the opposition plans. You can also afford to risk showing your own hand more by banning strong counters to your heroes and strategy.
At this point you should have a clearer idea of how both sides lanes will be laid out, and which hero roles they still have left to fill. There are a few more tricks you throw in at this point to try and get a drafting advantage:
- Ban good heroes from limited pools. If you notice the enemy hasn't picked their mid or support heroes yet, you may be able to throw a spanner in their works. The number of "good" heroes for these categories is much more limited than the carry pool, so some clever bans here may leave them having to pick heroes they don't particularly want.
- Ban out a key hero. They may be relying on a particular hero/ability to tie their strategy together. For example, a team fight heavy strat may rely on Naga Siren to give them perfect initiation and let them land a number of difficult powers together. Cut this off, and you can make their plan much less effective.
- Ban the best counters to your carry/strategy. If you're looking to pick up a particular hero who is very strong, but also heavily countered by a few others, you may try to squeeze in a ban for them.
- Never interrupt the enemy when they're making a mistake. If you notice a pattern on how the enemy is picking and can see some fundamental flaw in it...let them continue! Don't ban out the next obvious choice - destroy them with your next two picks.
At this point there's not a lot of hiding your hand from an experienced drafter, they'll have some idea of your strategy already. Now is the time to make some moves that worry them and put some real oomph into your lineup. They don't have much time to react and you ideally want them going into the game worried:
"How the hell are we going to lane against that?"
"Oh ****, what are we going to do versus him?"
Psychologically this gives you an edge, and makes the opposition more worried about trying to counter your strategy than executing their own. Having the very last pick is an advantage as the opposition have no opportunity to respond - put the icing on your own strategy, or try to pull a hero out of the bag who will be a strong counter.
If you watch almost any pro-level game these days, the formation of choice is almost always a defensive tri-lane and two solo heroes. The big strength of this is that it pretty much guarantees farm for your carry, and allows your supports to stack and roam early on.
The biggest choice you make early on is whether to run an aggressive tri-lane - this is a risky strategy, but can be very effective if it works. The most important thing here is that your aggressive tri-lane gets kills against the opposition. The second most important thing is that your safe lane solo does well against their offlane solo.
You have a few other choices when it comes to formation - for example whether your offlaner actually stays in lane, stacks ancients, or jungles. The best guide to this is how deadly the enemy tri-lane is - it's better to do something else than just feed. You might even run an ancient stacker and a jungler in some situations.
The best advice I can give you on these formations is to judge what the opposition are trying to do:
- If the opposition are trying to feed up a harder carry and play a long game, an aggressive tri-lane can be one of the best ways of stopping them, especially if you have a lot more early game power.
- If the opposition lack early pushing power, and you lack early killing power, the best option can be to run both a jungler and an ancient stacker - maximising your early farm before hitting hard in the midgame.
- However you setup your lanes, you want to try to give yourselves the best chance of winning the majority of the lanes, aside from the offlane you can't afford to be uncompetitive. This is especially important in 1v1 lanes.
Aggressive trilanes are a high risk/high reward strategy. Instead of putting your trilane on the safe lane, you instead put it on the offlane - directly against the enemy's strongest point. Why do this?
The idea is simple; to cripple the enemy's main carry. Get kills, stop the enemy from farming and generally pressure them out of the game from the start. Defensive trilanes are designed to secure farm, aggressive trilanes are about the only thing that can potentially stop that.
So how does an aggressive trilane work? The main difference is that you pick a better early game carry - some of them are listed above as examples. Usually they have a stun or very strong early kill potential, possibly giving you the early edge over a more traditional "hard carry" like Anti-Mage, Spectre or Faceless Void.
There is one other important point to an aggressive trilane that many people miss - your safe lane now becomes a 1v1 battle, and there's still plenty of farm and xp resting on how this lanes works out. You need a strong 1v1 laner who can win their matchup as decisively as possible, and then make good use of that farm and xp. In fact, sometimes aggressive trilanes are played with the expectation of ruining the farm for both sides there, while building a solo carry in the safe lane.
Although most ranged heroes can technically ancient stack, these heroes do so more efficiently - to the point where they're not far behind a laning hero in farm/xp. Their multi-target damage can also provide a pretty good way of clearing enemy creeps pushing the offlane tower.
Be aware of the map differences here between Radiant and Dire. Radiant stackers have the mid-player nearby for mutual support, but are a long way from the off lane. Dire stackers can move easily between the lane and ancients to get some XP and farm, but are very much alone and potentially vulnerable.
However, there are several potential pit-falls:
- All of these heroes are a big neon sign when picked that says "ancient stacking"
- Wards can potentially impede you, make sure one of your support heroes has Sentry Wards available at short notice
- Providing no opposition to an enemy tri-lane frees up those support heroes to gank, potentially with Smoke of Appearance. Both you and the mid hero need to be careful
Pros and Cons:
+ Extra farm and experience for prospective offlaner against a tough lane
+ The right heroes can do this efficiently
+ Can provide extra protection for mid hero if Radiant / extra farming option if Dire
- Can leave you vulnerable to ganks
- Can be ruined by enemy ward placement or blocking
- Frees up enemy supports to roam
The expectation for most junglers these days in competitive matches is that they will potentially be involved in the game at various points early on. Most serious junglers have the potential to both gank and push the mid and safe lanes after only a few levels, even if they subsequently return to farming shortly afterwards.
Pros and Cons:
+ Individual xp/farm source increases overall team income
+ One good support can be enough to stack and drive away offlaner (if they have one)
+ Jungle ganks/pushes less predictable, especially with Smoke of Deceit
+ Tend to provide excellent pushing power for taking early towers
- Can leave your lanes undermanned
- Potentially vulnerable to roamers and gankers
- No nearby mutual support
- Temptation to AFK farm when it may not be appropriate
Supports are usually picked these days with "trilane support" in mind. These heroes need to be able to gank and protect their carry effectively with minimal levels - hence heroes with good level 1 stun/nukes/slows or long/aoe disables are preferred.
Trilane supports have a number of jobs:
- Kill or drive the enemy offlaner out of experience range
- Stack and pull the neutral camps to keep the lane controlled, and harvest maximum farm/xp from this
- Be able to potentially gank mid lane
- Have some kind of utility or scaling skill later on
- Potentially have to fight 3v3 in a tri-vs-tri battle
Most supports go for a combination of reliable/unreliable stuns - safe, reliable stuns setup for the more damaging unreliable ones, giving the best chance of getting a kill.
As you can see, all these needs means that only a limited number of support heroes fulfil the necessary criteria, and explains why particular heroes are generally picked in pro games.
Safe lane carries have in some ways the most straight forward role, but also one that the opposition will try hardest to stop. The first decision you make when it comes to your carry is what phase of the game you want to them to be strongest in. Do you go for an early-mid carry who could snowball and become unstoppable? Do you go for the hardest possible carry for the late game? Or somewhere in between?
The answer does depend on the particular game, but if you are going to pick an inflexible carry, you need to do it as late as possible to give the opposition the minimum possible chance to respond. For example if you're going to pick Spectre you don't want them picking lots of early game gankers and pushers.
My advice here for most games is to pick flexible carries unless you have a particular plan in mind. Hard carries are by definition inflexible and the modern meta doesn't especially favour them.
Carries like Gyrocopter, Luna, Shadow Fiend, Alchemist or Dragon Knight can be built different ways to maximise their power early/mid/late. They may not always be able to counter a hard carry late on, but neither are they useless without farm or lacking the ability to influence the early game. They give your team far more options and allow you to change your plan on the fly - and are no slouches when it comes to big physical damage, if required.
Again, picks like this may be counterable to a point, but they don't give away your plan either.
Remember that while you'll have 1 main carry, there's usually at least 1 other in the team who can at least semi-carry.
Pro mid players these days are the stars of their team - usually making the big plays using heroes with a very high skill ceiling. Mid is a very important role as they usually dictate the pace of the game. It's also the only lane that is "equal" at the start of the game - usually they'll be 3v1 on both other lanes.
Mids have a lot of responsibilities - winning their lane, denying their opponent, ganking other lanes, grabbing runes and also avoiding ganks from enemy supports. However, they do get a lane all to themselves for both farm and experience.
The most important thing when it comes to selecting mids is not to be horribly counter-picked; even if you don't feed you can't afford to let your direct opponent gain a massive farm/experience advantage like you usually would in the offlane.
There's actually a pretty wide variety of viable mid picks, even if certain ones are much more popular. Some support-type heroes can do a shift in mid against particular opponents and do a decent job, while filling a bit hole in your team's abilities.
Synergy and counter picking are the true arts of a good captain. It's all about trying to setup powerful ability combinations that the opposition can't deal with, depowering their heroes and finding ways of stopping them doing that to you.
It's difficult to advise on this other than to say "you need more experience". There are all sorts of weird and wonderful hero combinations in DOTA - there are nearly 12,000 two hero lane combinations alone!
You're never going to see every single lane or team combination in action, but over time you'll probably see the best and more common ones. Knowing heroes well will give you knowledge of their uses and counters.
Although hitpoints aren't everything when it comes to survivability (heroes like Weaver and Puck can be incredibly difficult to get to), it can be a serious mistake to leave most of your team in that position. The opposition can pickup some burst damage heroes and put you in serious trouble early game. Make sure you have at least 1 hero who's prepared to tank up in an engagement.
Some Counter Picks: Lina, Lion, Nyx Assassin, Tiny
While packing good team fight and evasion skills, this team is ultimately lacking in hit points and could be punished early game. We want to keep the strengths of this team, but balance out the weaknesses.
I'd mainly look at the mid and the carry here, as they're the heroes most likely to get the farm to step up in the necessary areas. Obviously this would depend on opposition picks!
Personally, I'd look at replacing Puck with Magnus. This instantly ups your average HP, and also provides us with the initiation/disable power to drop Faceless Void too. Disruptor should still be able to chain his combo nicely on top of that. That means we have a fair bit of freedom to replace Void, any strength or beefy agility carry filling in. Lifestealer or Alchemist would be the most likely picks.
A "Fixed" Team Composition: Windrunner, Disruptor, Keeper of the Light, Lifestealer, Magnus
No plan survives first contact with the enemy...
Having a plan is great, it's pretty much essential in competitive play unless you've got a massive skill advantage. A plan gives your team a strategy and objectives to work towards together. Out-thinking the opposition during this planning stage can give you a definite advantage over the course of the game...
However...any plan, no matter how brilliant, is only as good as it's execution. If you have a fantastic set of early ganking heroes you need to make decisive kills and not let the game wander by. Pushing teams need to keep up the pressure and take towers and rax quickly.
It's no good having top notch early game heroes if you don't use them effectively. Ganks can go wrong, be countered or avoided. Having better early game heroes doesn't mean you're necessarily going to gain an advantage there.
The best plans and team combinations tend to have some built in redundancy or flexibility - say your early game has gone pretty badly and you're outcarried, but you managed to get a few team fight heroes up to level 6. Some good setups and you could be right back in this...
Orange Vs DK (TI3)
Ban Phase 1:
Orange Bans: Batrider and Visage
Two fairly standard bans at this level to deny the opposition heroes that Orange don't want to pick. The Batrider pick proves interesting in the end because it removes a strong pusher/counter pusher from the pool, and gives them more opportunity to pick a melee mid hero.
DK Bans: Outworld Devourer and Dark Seer
Two more fairly standard bans, opening up more intelligence mid hero picks, and preventing the strong pushing and team fight power of DS.
Pick Phase 1:
Orange Picks: Nature's Prophet and Bane
As previously discussed, NP offers great flexibility to any lineup, so gives very little away about their intentions. You also have to grab him early or the other team might well do so. Bane brings a very strong set of disables to the table, including a BKB busting one.
DK Picks: Alchemist and Nyx Assassin
Again, two heroes who give very little away in terms of their plan - both are strong, flexible and bring good stuns to the table.
Ban Phase 2:
Orange Bans: Beastmaster and Weaver
Now we're getting into the meat of the draft a bit more. The Bane pickup means that Orange have a very threatening support, and want to get rid of heroes who can potentially survive top lane ganks. Beastmaster can ancient stack efficiently, and is also tanky enough to survive most 2 hero ganks. Weaver is also very difficult to bring down without a whole lot of stuns, which would limit their choices in a 2 hero lane.
DK Bans: Lifestealer and Anti-Mage
DK are most comfortable playing a very turtle style game, and want to remove heroes who could potentially counter or outfarm Alchemist. Lifestealer's anti-tank abilities are an obvious threat, as is Anti-Mage's farming speed.
Pick Phase 2:
Orange: Magnus and Chen
The lineup is starting to take shape now. The Batrider ban means that Magnus is an available pick, adding strong teamfight and disable to the lineup, with a little bit of pushing power on top. Chen is much less flexible - he's very strong in early pushes and team fights with his creeps and Hand of God. Shaping up for a pushing lineup.
DK: Keeper of the Light and Phantom Lancer
KOTL is DK's answer to potential pushes, with Illuminate offering fantastic long range AOE damage. The PL is more tricky to place - obviously he has great synergy with KOTL, making them very hard to lane against. Most of Orange's pick lack AOE damage so they'll find him difficult to counter with a single pick remaining. At this point DK have a scary amount of carry if the game goes late.
Ban Phase 3:
With DK yet to pick an offlaner, Orange take the opportunity to ban another who could do well against a 2 man lane, and also offers long range anti-push and initiation.
DK: Shadow Fiend
DK have neither an offlaner or a "normal" mid hero yet, so want to run Alchemist mid lane with PL farming bot - which they couldn't do against the SF. It also removes a carry with good AOE damage from the pool, making it still harder to counter PL.
Pick Phase 3:
Wooaahhh - dropping the bomb here. Orange have waited until the last possible second to show their carry. They've either planned or realised that they're not going to be able to take on DK late, and that they have the heroes in their lineup to provide very strong push and disable. Ursa fits extremely well with both - he peaks early and can also push towers down quickly. The opposition lack any evasive heroes like Weaver, Puck, Queen of Pain etc who he struggles with.
Realising the weaknesses in their lineup, DK decide they need a whole bunch of different things from their last hero. With the offlane a mess, they opt for a jungler instead - one who provides initiation and pushing power.
Orange know they have to hit a tight timing window here - they have to take the game before Alchemist and Phantom Lancer become too strong and overrun them. With Nature's Prophet able to adjust his build for an earlier window, they have all the tools they need to have a strong chance early-mid game.
DK were wedded to their turtle plan as soon as they picked Phantom Lancer, hoping to defend and extend the game to the point where they can win convincingly. Their Alchemist, KOTL and Enigma picks do give them some strong anti-push, so they hope to be able to resist Orange long enough to outcarry.
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