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The Art of War: Tempo & Timings

September 27, 2017 by Gravitas
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What is this Guide About?

Despite popular opinion, Dota 2 is in fact, a strategy game. It says so right on the Steam page.

It is not about picking Phantom Assassin and then brainlessly blinking onto enemies 10 minutes in. It is not about instant locking Invoker every single game, and it is certainly not about picking Legion Commander jungle every time the mid and carry positions are taken because you want to maximize farm efficiency or some ****.

Most people focus solely on improving mechanical skill when gaining MMR, and while it is important, it can and will only get you so far. Mechanics allow you to improve in one very specific area, be it timing Light Strike Arrays or comboing with Invoker, but understanding the underlying principles and strategy of Dota 2 will allow you to improve in all areas. And that's why this guide exists, to teach you about the "strategy" in this so called strategy game. You can know how to perform a task as well as you want, but unless you know the whys behind it, you can never apply it to other situations. This guide aims to remedy that.

This guide is the first in a series titled THE ART OF WAR. In this series, I hope to cover all of the the general aspects of Dota 2 strategy:

  • Tempo/Timings
  • Positioning
  • Vision/Map Control
These are terms you have most likely heard before, but this guide aims to actually explain what they mean, and how you can apply them to your games.

Full disclosure, even I don't really fully understand all the strategical aspects of Dota 2. Some of them I knew, but only on an unconscious level. I was performing them instinctively without knowing why. Hopefully by putting it into words, we may both increase our understanding of the game.

Wait a Minute!

Hold It! I hear you yelling. All of this sounds good on paper, but are you seriously suggesting I and this group of 4 escaped mental patients on my team can coordinate anything even remotely resembling strategy!!!???

I hear you, and... I agree. It is foolish to assume your team will be able to coordinate beyond the most basic level. But that's OK! All of the concepts in this guide are designed for the individual level. However, they can be eventually extrapolated for the entire team if you miraculously get that coordinated. Whether you are newbie to the game, a grinder of Solo MMR, or the Captain of a newly fledged team, this guide is for you.

Understanding Tempo

The vast majority of Dota 2 players have at least some semblance of what tempo is. If I showed you these two heroes:

And asked you which one has the faster tempo, you could probably answer correctly with ease. Obviously Phantom Assassin comes online much faster than Medusa, so she has the faster tempo. But why is this the case, and how is this important?

At the most basic level, tempo can be thought of as the ideal pace a hero or team want to play. This in turn, is a measure of how quickly said hero can become significantly impactful. Every hero has specific Timings where they are most powerful, and you want your play style to match these spikes.

Faster tempo heroes have spikes much earlier on in the game, and tend to tamper off towards the end. Slower tempo heroes do not start off very strong, but once they get going, not even your fountain is safe.

Understanding tempo is pivotal for drafting. You want your hero to cover whatever your team is lacking. If they are more slow paced and farm centered, pick a fast paced initiator, if for some reason you get a team with 4 supports, pick the slowest ****ing hero you can imagine. Sure you can pick Wraith King when your team already has 4 cores, but unless your opponents are severely incompetent, they can and will punish you for it. Drafting is the very first step to a Dota game; by understanding tempo and out picking your opponent, you can give yourself an edge before the horn has even sounded.

Awareness of tempo is also important during the game. The reason? It enables you to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both drafts and play accordingly. For example, if the opposing team has drafted a lineup such as:

Templar Assassin

You probably want to play a fast game. You know the weakest stage for your opponent is the early game, so you should pressure the lanes and gank the jungle as much as possible before their core items come online. Some lineups are actually designed to push down towers and actually win the game early, but this is much easier said than done. Unless you are playing a split pushing hero, pressuring the lanes is your best bet. Or maybe spam ping the tower, your team might get the idea.

One of the most basic strategical rules of war is to strike when your opponent is weakest. You can only do that if you actually know when this time is, and for that, you need to understand tempo. Hence, why it is so important.

Defining Tempo

Now that you understand the basic premise behind tempo, you probably want to know how to define it. All of this strategy stuff sounds good, but doesn't really mean anything if I don't know the tempo of my team or the enemy team.

Now, I've played more hours of Dota then I care to admit, and after a certain point you just sort of know what tempo every hero has. But if you are in the process of learning all these heroes (and in all fairness there are more than a hundred), this section will hopefully speed up that process. And for those of you that are already well experienced, try and skim through this section, it might actually give you a deeper understanding. Or, you can just go to the next section.

Hero Role/Position:

A hero's tempo is defined by their role. Actually, it's more the other way around. A hero's role is defined by their tempo.

There are five main roles in Dota 2, corresponding to the numerical positions 1-5.


  1. Safelane Carry
  2. Mid Lane Carry(?)
  3. Offlane
  4. Greedy Support
  5. Hard Support

The smaller the number, the more farm priority that role has. Hence the core (1-3) positions are the ones that usually farm the lanes during the beginning of the game, while the position 4-5 heroes do their best not to even look at creeps the wrong way. Farm priority is like a sacred blood oath to Dota players. Ever accidentally last hit a creep and then get spam pinged nonstop for 30 seconds straight? This is why.

But there is some leeway here. Recently, there has been an increase in teams that run the mid laner as their position 1 carry, however for the sake of simplicity, these are the roles and positions we will use. You will notice I did not include the jungler position on that list as well. Jungling is far more complicated than I want to go into here, so for this guide at least, I'm going to pretend it doesn't exist. Wouldn't we all sometimes.

The general rule of thumb is, the faster the tempo of a hero, the greater its role number, and the less farm priority is given.Support heroes in the 4-5 positions are strong right off the bat, whereas the offlane 3 position normally takes a bit of time to come online. Then there are the 1-2 positions, which require about 20-30 minutes of farming to have a significant impact in fights.

As a general guideline for roles, all Dota 2 heros are given a rating from 0-3 on their hero card, indicating how it is generally played.

The two categories we want to focus on are Support and Carry. Support heroes obviously have a rating of at least 1 in the support category, with the greater the value the harder the support, and the faster its tempo.

The other roles are a little bit more difficult to deduce. Both the mid and carry role often have a rating of at least 1 in the carry category. Generally, the higher the rating, the more often the hero is played in the 1 position, but there are a few mid heroes that also have a high carry rating, and a few carry heroes now being played in the mid position. For this guide, we are just going to generalize the two roles into one simple carry category.

Then we have the offlane. Typically, the offlaner has neither support or carry labels, instead, most commonly having the disabler and intiator labels.

But why is this the case? Why do the lower position heroes require so much more time to become impactful? Well, I've already briefly touched on it, but the answer is...

Item Reliance:

Item reliance is the most obvious factor that influences the tempo of a hero. The less item reliant a hero is, the faster their tempo, because the less time that hero has to spend playing PvE hitting creeps. Farming takes time, a lot of time, but item dependent heroes have to do it. Their power spikes primarily come from obtaining items, and most are literally just glorified creeps without them. Ever seen a level 1 PA with starting items? Literally a joke. I'd be more scared of a creepwave than a level 1 PA.

1-3 position heroes have greater item reliance than 4-5 heroes, and hence need the farm priority in order to obtain their core items at a reasonable time and scale well into the late game. This does not mean you should never hit creeps with support heroes. There are ways of farming with supports that will be touched upon later. Generally, just try not to do so at the expense of your cores.

Scaling Potential:

Really, any hero with Scrooge McDuck levels of gold is going to be impactful. However, what makes some heroes more impactful than others is their scaling potential, how well and how much they become stronger with items. Typically, 4-5 positions have limited scaling potential. Sure they become stronger with items, but not to any extreme extent. The offlane scales a bit better. Usually an initiator, their influence in fights increases massively with mobility items, like a Blink Dagger for example. However, they too are generally capped relatively low.

Then we have... the 1-2 positions. It's like every item they get is laced with steroids or some ****. They start off weaker than a baby, getting stronger and stronger with every item, until by the end of the game they're literally Arnold Schwarzenegger, diving the fountain through machine gun fire and 1 v 5ing the entire enemy team. Scaling potential defines item reliance, which in turn defines tempo.

Level 1:

40 Minutes and 20 Kills Later:

Most games are won by getting your 1-2 positions as much money as possible, and then just letting them bulldoze your opponents base. At a certain point, unless the enemy 1-2 positions are on par, these heroes just become unstoppable.

However, this doesn't really tell us what makes certain heroes scale better than others. The answer to this question is actually quite complicated, but I'll try to sum it up as best I can. It's all about...

Abilities and Stat Gain:

Physical DPS is the highest scaling element in Dota 2. It is influenced by a wide variety of factors: raw damage, primary attribute, attack speed, armour reduction, etc. It is a value that tends to increase dramatically as the game progresses, and has an extremely high ceiling. Because Dota 2 is a game all about killing things, scaling potential can really be defined as DPS potential.

But why physical and not magical? The key word here is SCALING. Magic damage in general scales terribly. A spell's damage increases by a set amount every level, with a maximum of four times. If you want to increase it past that, there are really only two or three items that do so; namely: Veil of Discord, Aether Lens, and Octarine Core. They introduced a new mechanic several patches ago called Spell Amplification which increases a heroes spell damage by 0.07% per int, but as you can probably tell, takes a lot of int to really do anything. Also, and this is pretty important, magic damage does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO BUILDINGS. You can stack up as much magic damage as you feasibly can, but your opponents' base is not being scratched.

Well scaling heroes typically have two things. Great agility stat gain, and abilities that, rather than do raw damage, enhance their physical DPS either directly or indirectly. All heroes gain damage with their primary attribute, along with some other stat. The reason why most carries are agility, is because it not only gives them increased damage, but also increased attack speed with every point. Making it twice as effective for increasing DPS.

Let's look at Juggernaut as an example.

Blade Fury:
A spell that does fixed magic damage. Also makes him magic immune, but unable to attack units. Decent for the Early-Mid game, but falls off significantly late game.

Healing Ward:
Increases Juggernaut's survivability, and effectively his DPS as well. Scales very well.

Blade Dance:
Increases Juggernaut's DPS almost exponentially, especially with more agility/attack speed items. Basically only capped by his damage.

Scales well with levels, as well as Juggernaut's DPS. Not really capped by anything except his damage.

His spells, along with his primary attribute being agility, make Juggernaut almost the epitome of what a carry should be.

However, like mostly everything in Dota 2, the better it scales, the ****tier it is early on. The fixed intervals of magic damage are much stronger than physical in the early game. This is due to the low starting stats of heroes and their smaller health pools during this point in the game. The same spell doing the same damage will remove a significantly greater percentage of a heroes health in the early game than later on.

This is why the support roles are usually characterized by such spells. Typically, if you're unsure of what a hero's role is, and their card doesn't really help, just look at their spells. If they have any abilities that scale with their physical damage, they're probably more of a core, if they have stuns or utility abilities, they're probably a support. But there are exceptions to every rule. Only experience will really let you know with 100% certainty.

Tempo in Regards to Gameplay

SO now that you can tell the tempo of every hero, let's talk about how to play around that. I've already mentioned drafting, so I won't go into it again. Instead, I'm going to talk about all of the roles, and how they should be generally played to match their tempos. But before I can do that, I have to talk about something I briefly touched on earlier...


Timing and tempo go hand in hand. Whereas tempo can be thought of as the curved graph of a heroes power level throughout a game, the peaks and troughs are the timings. Here is an example of such a graph for support Earthshaker:

Obviously, the specific timings differ between game to game, but what causes those timings do not. There are only two real power spikes for a support hero like Earthshaker, and that is when he first hits level 6 and skills his ultimate, and when he purchases Blink Dagger. The reason for this is because those are the two main points where Earthshaker's potential as a hero suddenly rockets, and the heroes playstyle completely changes. Earthshaker is decently strong pre-level 6, but after casting Fissure, you don't really have to be afraid of him. This all changes when he gets his ultimate. He's now able to turn teamfights and punish poor positioning at a dime's notice. His only weakness during this time is the limited range of his abilities.

What weakness is effectively removed once he purchases blink dagger. Now, anytime your team clumps up, Earthshaker will destroy you. Those first few minutes after blink dagger is purchased are when he is at his absolute strongest. Stack any amount of items you want on him after that, and they won't have as significant an impact as blink dagger. All the more so if your opponents don't know you have it. Which is why you should always click on enemy heroes to see their items, and should stay out of vision when you've just purchased a big item.

His potential also increases slightly every level of his ultimate, and with every other item he obtains as well. But none are as impactful as blink dagger. The 20-30 minute mark is the ideal time for Earthshaker. You want to be fighting as much as possible with a blink dagger during this time, right before the enemy heroes pick up BKBs. You are even stronger than a core at this point.

Once BKBS do come out, Earthshaker's power level is significantly reduced. Of course, this does gradually go back up as the duration of BKBs go down, but the opposing cores are also still getting stronger through this time, much more so than you. In addition, due to natural strength gains, the effective damage of your spells also decreases. Y

Then, after a certain point, being vastly out-damaged and unable to burst anything, you sort of just become a walking fissure, dying any time the enemy cores so much as catch a glimpse of you. Those glories moments of striking fear into the hearts of your enemies with every step, gone, forever.

All heroes have different tempo graphs with different timings. The most prominent spikes are always at level 6, with core items and with game changing items such as blink dagger and Aghanim's Scepter. Generally, the main difference between support and core graphs is that core graphs start out much lower, but tend not to dip as much during the troughs, and end up much higher, whereas supports start strong, peak out, and then quickly crash and burn after. The main point of understanding tempo is so that you understand these critical timings, and adjust your play style accordingly. Be aggressive when you are strong, play passive when you are weak. Don't just mindlessly run at the other team again and again without even considering the situation.

Also, always always watch your opponents' items. A critical item has the ability to completely change the game. In their prime, even a lowly support hero can have a huge impact. Don't believe me? Here are two classic examples:

Watch the in-game clock in both clips. Coincidence? OK maybe. I'm just going to claim it was due to tempo.

So now that you know about timings, you're ready to learn how to play according. And quite honestly, this is the easy part. Now that you fully understand the concept, it is a simple task to apply it. Well, simple in theory, but possibly difficult in actuality, but that will come too with practice.

Support (4-5) Positions:

Support positions are at the bottom of the farm priority hierarchy. This means you should expect to get zero farm out of the lanes for the first 10 minutes. Instead, what you should be doing is enabling your slower tempo cores to farm. You do this in two ways. Directly by zoning the enemy offlane or ganking the enemy lanes, or indirectly through stacking and pulling. I won't get into detail about how to stack and pull here, if you want to learn that, you can watch this guide:

Stacking and pulling is also how supports "farm" during the laning phase. So you should still be getting money as a support, just, not as much obviously.

One key point to remember is that during the laning phase, you are stronger than the opposing offlane, especially if both supports gang up. Thus, it is important to play aggressive during this time. Bully the ever loving **** out of the offlane, then stack and pull the large camp to deny him any experience.

Ideally, as a support you want to create a 1-2 level advantage for your carry. The offlane hero will intrinsically be stronger than your carry during the laning phase, and this level advantage will help tip the scales back in his favour.

DO NOT just sit in lane the entire time sapping experience. Get your levels through stacking and pulling, trying to leech as little as possible. After you gain level 3, unless your carry is getting the everloving **** beaten out of him, piss the hell out of his lane and go gank somewhere else. Level 3 for most support heroes is their first peak. It is when you go from just a stun or disable, to having actual kill potential with the help of another hero.

Take advantage of this spike and go get yourself some kills. Or, if none of the lanes are gankable, go stack and pull more. Just make yourself not visible on the mini map, and not leeching experience from your carry. YOU DO NOT WANT TO LEECH EXPERIENCE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. The safelane is usually 1 v 2, or even 1 v 3, so the enemy solo offlaner will intrinsically be getting more levels than your carry if you stay around. This actually makes it harder for your carry to farm as the game progresses, which is not something you want to happen. Either zone the everliving **** out of the offlaner, or just get out of the lane. The best supports are the ones you never see.

After the early game, the position 5 supports generally tend to fall off hard. They are now vulnerable to being insta-bursted by enemy heroes, and must play very defensively to not just instantly die. This is something that will plague them for the rest of the game. Generally, you do not ever want to be in auto attack range as a support past the early game. Your damage is absolute garbage anyway, just staying in cast range of your spells and let your beefcake cores take the lead.

Position 4 supports generally transition a little better into the mid game. Some are initators/teamfighters that actually become stronger than core heroes in some circumstances. Earthshaker with blink is a prime example. However, they too will max out around the 35-40 minute mark, and eventually, fall into similar circumstances with their position 5 counterparts. Life as a support can be tough indeed, which is why you need to take advantage of the brief moments you are the strongest forces in the game.

Offlane (3) Position:

Offlane, in my opinion, is one of the "easiest" positions in Dota 2. Unlike supports, who need godlike map awareness in order to gank, countergank, and ward, or carries who have to be able to last hit and dominate a win a game, offlaners don't have to do anything. Your job in the offlane is literally just to get experience and not die. As stated previously, you will intrinsically be outleveling the enemy safelaners as long as you stay in lane.

Sometimes, this can be difficult to achieve. If you let the supports bully you too much early on, you will eventually run out of regen and be unable to trade. This is where tempo comes in once again. Offlane heroes are generally weaker at the start, but still scale significantly quickly. They are the perfect hybrid between support and core. Just survive the first several levels, and once you reach level 3-4, you'll find that you're actually significantly stronger than the supports bullying you. Heroes like Timbersaw for example can actually just straight up start dominating the lane once they reach this point. And the more you bully the supports and safelaner, the longer they are forced to stay in lane. This in turn, gives you even more of a level advantage, which forces them to stay in lane even more. Supports don't want to have to babysit their carry. Make them do so.

When playing the offlane, if you're ever unsure of what to do, just remember this simple chant: Don't Die, Stay Alive! Wait Until the Time is Right! Don't Die, Stay Alive! Level 3 is When I Fight!

Supports off the map but then you see a tempting last hit? Don't Die, Stay Alive! Enemy carry is overextending himself and you're only level 1, but you're itching to harass him? Wait Until the Time is Right! Chances are you won't be able to do much to him at level 1 anyway. And if you overextend, there is a very high chance you will die. And dying is the one thing you do not ever want to do. The offlane is a very high risk-reward position. One death is the difference between being a menacing force, and being a glorified creep for the rest of the game.

Mid game, Offlaners are generally similar to position 4s, except they tend to scale faster, and better into the late game. There are many types of offlaners, Timbersaw is more of a nuking hero killer, while Axe is a simple tank/initiator. However, no matter the playstyle, all offlane heroes are designed to function primarily off the strength of their spells. Items simply further enhance their potential. You want to be actively seeking fights after your 1st or 2nd core items, as that is essentially all you really need to be effective.

Core (1-2) Positions:

In the past, I would probably not have grouped the 1-2 positions in the same category. It used to be that the hard carry was always the 1 position, and the 2 played more of a faced paced initiator/tempo controlling role. Mid would get an early level 6, and then proceed to nonstop gank the lanes for 20 minutes. It's not that this mentality is wrong per-say, but the general meta has since shifted to reward a more greedy play style for mid laners. In most cases, both the mid and carry positions are static farming heroes, and the job of ganking has fallen onto the weak and flimsy shoulders of the supports.

One tip I'd like to give, especially for new players playing the mid and carry positions. Focus solely on last hitting, and just ignore the enemy hero(es) in your lane. Your job is to get money, not to gank or engage in tickle fights with the enemy heroes. What do you think your 60-base-damage-pre-level-6-*** is going to do? Obviously, pay enough attention that you can avoid being murdered, but securing last hits is enough for the early game. If your team yells at you for playing mid and not ganking, just delegate blame to the supports like a professional.

Try to avoid fights until you have at least one core item. Sometimes they are unavoidable, but you definitely do not want to be starting fights while you only have upgraded boots and a magic wand. You want to be farming the other side of the map from your team so they can distract the enemy while you make money, but carry a TP in case you have to help, or just to go kill secure.

Once you get one or two core items, then the fun begins. This typically occurs somewhere between the 20-30 minute mark, which means your offlane and position 4 heroes should also be reaching their peak timings. Now, if you have the better teamfight heroes, you want to do whatever you can to force the opposing team to engage you. Literally just 5 man death push a lane, and then beat the **** out of anyone who tries to stop you.

But if you're playing a slower tempo hero, you will definitely want to continue the farm train for a little longer. Typically only start actively looking for fights after your 3rd or 4th core item. But remember this, defending high ground is mandatory. There is a huge spike in difficulty between pushing tier 2 towers and pushing high ground. The lack of vision uphill, combined with the shrine right behind the tower give the defending team a massive advantage. This also means that before they take it, you are still 100% in the game. After however, and your base becomes much harder to defend.

I find that most people tend to give up too easily. Just because the laning phase was lost does not mean you've lost the game. If you can just hold high ground, you're buying valuable time for your position 1-2 heroes to truly come online. And you should never underestimate a farmed core. They are designed to completely dominate the game once they get online.

So if this is how you want to play certain roles, then countering them should really be quite intuitive. Simply force them to play a different tempo than what they want to. Pressure the core heroes early to prevent them from farming, use wards to keep tabs on enemy supports and prevent them from ganking or pulling. And beat the everloving **** out of the offlane so that he can't even think about coming back to lane.

This is where the idea of Tempo Control heroes comes from. They are the heroes that can force the pace of the game to change in a certain way, either faster or slower, to the benefit of their team. And you'll often find that hero tempoes are not stagnant. Sometimes you have to adapt to a new situation by changing your build and playstyle accordingly. Knowing how to do so is the entire purpose of learning tempo.

Being on a Dota 2 team is like being in an orchestra. Everyone has their own tune and instrument, and while it is OK to simply play yours exceptionally well, true music can only be made when everyone plays together in tandem. You will be most successful when the tempos of all of your heroes work in harmony, and when you can successfully disrupt the other team's sound. Put some thought into what you pick and how you play, that is the key message I'm trying to get across.

Tempo: Conclusion

Everyone loves to play core 1-2 positions, and for good reason. Who doesn't love 1 v 5ing the other team, or absolutely destroying some poor support 30 minutes into the game. But although these slow tempo heroes have insane potential, it means nothing if they can never reach it. The strategy component of tempo is all about managing your weak timings, and getting to your strong ones. More often than not, this requires the help of faster tempo support heroes, and a moderately tempoed offlane. Every role is pivotal to a team, there is no more or less important position.

Having a well rounded draft is key to every Dota game. It is entirely possible to lose from the drafting phase alone. This is why understanding tempo is so important. Too fast or slow, and there will be obvious holes for your opponents to exploit. But this goes both ways. Tempo is not very well understood, especially in the lower MMR brackets. So by understanding it, you give yourself a massive edge. You can just instapick Invoker and type ME MID in all chat every game, but you won't win much doing that. Pick the best hero for the situation, exploit your opponents weaknesses in tempo, and your chances of winning go up exponentially.

Author's Note

Greetings dear reader,

I certainly hope you enjoyed the massive walls of text that was this guide. Know that I did try my best to include as many graphics as possible to keep you entertained, but certain concepts simply take a lot of words to be described.

As stated before, I am not, nor do I claim to be, an expert of Dota 2. I simply wanted to improve my understanding of the game by putting these abstract concepts into a tangible form. All of the content in this guide was simply my opinion and interpretation, and while I certainly hope I taught you something, do not it as the absolute law of how Dota 2 works. My intention was to provide a starting point for you to understand these concepts, from there you can continue to grow and improve on your own.

I don't know when the next guide in this series will be published, but I do want to present the best possible content that I can. So I implore you to give feedback on this guide. What you liked, what you didn't like, I want to know it all so that I, as well as you, can continue to grow and improve.

Hopefully the game isn't dead by the time I'm done the next guide.

Goodbye for now,

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