Table of Contents
The First Fundamental: Farm
The Second Fundamental: Push
The Third Fundamental: Gank
Positions and Lineups
So You Want To Understand
A Small Primer on Dota 2 Strategy
This primer aims to be a guide for new players on how to understand and analyze Dota 2.
For starters, why should we analyze and discuss strategy on Dota 2?
Right now, Dota 2 suffers from the absence of comprehensive metrics that tells a player if they're improving or not. Such a problem might never be solved at all given the nature of the game and the near-impossibility of finding a metric that clearly separates good teamplay from bad teamplay. But players often spontaneously ask other players to watch their games and give them criticism, and when this happens people suddenly become analysts. In fact, producing replay analysis has been a tradition since the original DotA, with sites like DotaCommentaries having tons of replay-analysis. I also wrote a lot of them on GosuGamers. Valve should definitely prioritize this now that the game was released. They must facilitate the existence of replay analysis and bring important features that would enable it, such as group replay watching and the ability to add annotations on replays. Not only would it help the players figure out if they're improving or not, but it would add value to the replay. People already buy tickets in order to have access to professional matches, but what if the replay is annotated by a pro-player or a very experienced player? There would be an even bigger incentive to buy access.
This primer started as something to help StarCraft 2 players avoid being mere strangers in a strange land, but it quickly grew bigger than that. The plan is to expand this based on feedback. Immediate plans are to list and discuss typical tactical decisions, discuss how to evaluate positions and whatever feels cool. For now, the objective is to cover the basics and introduce the most important vocabulary. If you think you can contribute or just want to help me make this look prettier, drop me a message and we can talk.
Also, I probably lied when I said this will be a "small" primer.
Many thanks to Decency for the help.
The three fundamentals in Dota 2 strategy
According to the Dota 2 Lore, there are four fundamentals in Dota 2. But, when we talk about strategy, there are only three.
Virtually every Dota 2 strategy can be broken down into varying degrees of these three fundamental elements: Push, Gank, and Farm. Each of these elements in various ways serves the purpose of managing the three main resources in the game: Gold, Experience, and Time. While Gold and Experience are something that teams want to accumulate, Time is a more subtle resource to manage. Furthermore, some strategies revolve around preventing the opposition from earning and well-managing these resources. It’s thus very important to properly balance the amount of time spent exerting pressure in each realm.
It's impossible to destroy the enemy ancient without destroying towers. This very fact makes every Dota 2 strategy, to some degree, a push strategy, since you're forced to take tower destruction into consideration. At the same time, without ganking, where you deter the enemy from accumulating resources and attempt to earn kills, it can be very hard to get into a advantageous position and win the game. Finally, without getting gold it is impossible to get anywhere in Dota 2. The specific mix of these three categories and the different tactical decisions are what makes strategies unique and different from each other, and make each game completely versatile from the start. It's impossible to talk about Push without mentioning Gank or Farm, but, for simplicity’s sake and to introduce the common vocabulary, let's talk separately (and in no order of importance) about each of these three categories.
The First Fundamental: Farm
and an introduction to the Carry
Farm refers to the whole process of obtaining and distributing gold to your five heroes. Dota 2 is a game where you have three lanes of creeps to kill and two jungles full of neutral creeps that also gives gold and experience. Consider two things: space to farm is limited, and some heroes are more dependent on items than others. This means teams need to allocate and distribute the farm to their heroes as intelligently as possible. Let's say you are running a push strategy and you need a certain item to start pushing, such as a Mekansm - that's a good reason to give priority to the hero that is going to get this item. Another example would be a teamfight-focused team allocating farm to an initiating hero so he can collect his Blink Dagger. Having to figure out the best way to distribute the items and finding possible windows of opportunity where your team is stronger than the other for some reason (let's say you manage to get an item advantage over the opponent that will last two or three minutes) is similar to managing your economy in SC2.
Usually, the highest priority hero in terms of farm is what we call the Carry. The concept of a “carry” is one of constant discussion and people will give you different answers of what a carry truly is, but the idea is that the carry is the hero that is going to win you the game if he gets really farmed. A carry hero is usually weak in the early game, but later on the game, with items that increase his ability to deal damage, carry heroes can become unstoppable. There are several examples of carry heroes and each one has its own flavor: Anti-Mage is really good against intelligence heroes, is very resistant to magic damage and hard to kill due to his ability to Blink; Alchemist earns gold very quickly, has a ton of Hit Points and helps his team with skills that disable or reduce the enemy armor; Phantom Assassin is excellent against physical damage due to her evasion and can execute heroes in a single blow with her Coup de Grace; Phantom Lancer is an army within a hero due to his illusions; Spectre has the ability to join a crucial teamfight from anywhere on the map; etc. Each carry hero has its own singularities, but the main factor is that a carry hero benefits more from items than a non-carry hero, typically due to scaling abilities. They can thus make better use of gold and have a higher farm priority.
There are also heroes which have deep impacts on the game, but aren't quite as strong as regular carries in the very late game. Such heroes are usually called semi-carries, because their ability to carry are limited. Heroes like Mirana, Slardar, Necrolyte, and Queen of Pain are good examples of semi-carry heroes.
Saying that the carry is the highest priority hero doesn't only mean he'll get most of the farm, but also means he will be protected by the other heroes. It's normal to see support heroes sacrificing themselves for the carry, or even teams playing 4v5 while the carry hero farms, reaching to the extreme "4-protect-1" where four heroes are entirely devoted to protect the all-important carry from the enemy.
Focusing on farm means you're threatening to overrun the opponent late in the game. How does one deal with this? There are different answers to this. You can, for example, simply farm more and faster than the opponent. Or you can just strike first, and this leads us to the next fundamental: Push.
The Second Fundamental: Push
and an introduction to the Support
Typically, what are referred to as "push strategies" are strategies which focus on destroying towers. This is valuable for multiple reasons: when you bring a tower down, your whole team gains gold, and the enemy loses a lot of map control as towers are important for controlling key points of the map. Many things help push strategies; some examples would be adding bonus armor, damage or attack speed to allied heroes and creeps (Vengeful Spirit, Beastmaster, Luna), the ability to kill creepwaves quickly and efficiently (Death Prophet, Keeper of the Light), skills that do a lot of damage to towers (Dragon Knight, Lone Druid, Pugna), and the ability to summon additional units to aid in a push (Enigma, Nature's Prophet, Lycanthrope, Chen). It is also very important to choose items properly when executing a push strategy. Those chosen generally share a few properties: they benefit multiple allies rather than just the wielder, and they are immediately cost-effective. A simple Ring of Basilius gives extra armor as an aura to allied creeps and makes them tougher to bring down. Items like Urn, Mekansm, and Arcane Boots give sustainability to the team, allowing them to stick around pushing instead of wasting time returning to the fountain to heal. Items like Vladmir’s Offering and Drums of Endurance give allies valuable auras for a small price. Offensively, Desolator and Assault Cuirass reduce the armor of enemy towers and thus can also assist with pushing.
A push strategy will focus on getting key items on their heroes and quickly building a gold advantage by destroying enemy towers while protecting their own. What triggers the start of the push is usually the timing on their key items, but many things can trigger pushes, such as a successful gank, a potential tower trade, or a key level up on a core hero. Having a tower advantage will often mean you're ahead on gold and have more map control, allowing you to continue forcing action. Such a strategy usually banks on this advantage to build towards a victory. With push strategies, quickly destroying any 2nd tier tower leaves the enemy team in a very disadvantageous position, because their base is now susceptible to being attacked. There are also strategies where teams relentlessly push while giving up on any late-game potential; this kind of strategy is built around a window of opportunity, and thus has an innate countdown. If the enemy can prevent you from achieving sufficient key objectives, they can convert this into a crushing victory with their late game heroes. This tends to play out similarly to all-ins we see in Starcraft 2.
Making sure you're destroying towers is really important for a certain kind of heroes in the game. There are heroes that aren't that dependant on having much farm, which can be a lower farm-priority hero and not have many problems because of it. We call this hero Support, and his mission in the game is self-explanatory: he's there to support. They are the heroes that fall from a single mistake, sometimes not even their own, while they help the team to work more coherently together. They must be as efficient as possible with whatever scraps of resources are available while keeping aware of the state of the game as a whole and making important calls. In professional play, captains and key decision makers are typically support players.
At the beginning of the game, a Support hero has more initial power than others, but loses strength as the game flows and all heroes become stronger. Support heroes are frequently placed into a delicate position, because while they're not high farm-priority heroes, if they don't get enough experience and farm they risk becoming a liability to the team. Once again, we can see the importance of good farm distribution.
There are many ways to deal with an opposing team that seems intent to push. I'll mention two: heroes that are good at destroying creepwaves are usually good at defending towers - which means that some heroes that are good at pushing are also good at anti-pushing. But what's really good to deal with pushes is the next fundamental category we'll discuss: gank.
The Third Fundamental: Gank
and an introduction to the Solo
To gank means you're trying to steal something from the enemy, be it their lives or map control. Ganking requires mobility (Queen of Pain, Bounty Hunter, Night Stalker, Storm Spirit), disables (Venomancer for slows, Shadow Shaman and Lion for hexes, etc.) and the ability to deal lots of damage quickly but many other elements are key to understanding why and when to gank. It's normal, for example, to see ganks happening close to the sixth minute mark, because this is when the first set of wards (usually placed at the beginning of the game) fade away. Quick ganks also creates situations where one team has more heroes in a skirmish than the other, enabling pushes and limiting their farm. Ganks are a strong way to deal with push because you can kill the push before it even starts. A push strategy wants the enemy to be behind their towers. But if you gank then before a tower is being sieged, you won't have problems with the push at all.
Most team compositions feature a hero that goes alone to a lane against another solitary enemy hero. That means he'll have an entire lane of gold and experience for himself to make use of. This lane is often, but not always the middle lane, and we call this the Solo hero. For the early stages of the game, the solo hero has the opportunity to have as much farm as the carry. Many heroes can be used as solo-heroes, from really high-octane heroes that just need a small amount of gold to start fighting and spreading chaos (for example, Beastmaster, Queen of Pain) to more conservative choices that scale well into the late game and can act as a second carry (Outworld Devourer, Dragon Knight, Shadow Fiend).
With the mere threat of gank, one team can limit the farm of the other while having the whole map to farm all their heroes, reaffirming Nimzowitsch's idea that the threat is stronger than the execution. If you're able to make your opponent feel pressed, he'll be forced to adjust and move away from his plans. You don't even NEED to exert pressure, but to make him feel pressured. You don't need to go for the win instantly. You can always let the opponent feel the heat and try to profit with it, be it with the mistakes that are bound to happen when under pressure, be it when the enemy goes conservative and opens a whole map for you to farm.
Positions and Lineups
It became a convention to give Positions to heroes based on their farm priority. 1 is the highest priority hero in terms of farm, usually the carry hero in the safe lane; 2 is the second high priority, usually the solo mid hero; 3 is usually the hero placed into the unsafe lane to earn whatever possible, while 4 and 5 are usually the support heroes. However, these positions are not set in stone and can vary wildly based on laning setups, the heroes themselves, or the way a game progresses. Sometimes, a hero might start at position 2 in order to get key items, then move to a lesser position as he spends more time being active on the map while another hero takes the opportunity to earn additional farm. No sane strategy simply sets farm priorities on stone, it's all about circumstance and figuring out ways to give your team an advantage.
From the very beginning of the game, in the Ban & Pick stages, teams must find an adequate lineup that combines these three fundamental elements. A team wants to have a lineup and not only just five strong heroes. The game will offer very different positions and situations based on time: at the beginning of the game, some heroes will be very stronger than others, and the same can be said about the mid and late game. It's possible, but risky, to focus on one of these timings. It'll give a team a huge advantage on the said timing, but it means you're giving up your possibilities on the others. You might go for a very strong early game, but your late game might be under threat if you don't manage to punish enough the enemy. A sound strategy usually try to create a lineup that doesn't contain weak points on the early, mid and late game. A lineup, in this sense, is a combination of five heroes that synergizes and work together into realizing a gameplan or strategy, and not merely five strong heroes.
It's also possible, but risky, to go all-in towards Push, Gank or Farm. A pure Push strategy might be destroyed by ganks or by having nothing to resort to if they lose momentum; a pure Gank strategy might fail if they can't deal substantial damage to the enemy farm and allow their carry to emerge with items; a pure Farm strategy might find themselves without any space at all to farm because of the enemy ganks and pushes. A sound strategy is one which is versatile and adaptable to the pace and occurences in the game, and means you'll have more than one tool to get into a good position to destroy the enemy Ancient and earn a victory.