DOTA 2: A Primer


Everything is a zeitgeist. Well, by definition that’s impossible, but in practice it’s basically the only real truth: everything is the result of a conflict of diametrically opposed ideals. In its original use, Hegel intended it to define a final state of existence, an “ideal ideal” that resulted not from any physical laws, but from philosophical ones, made manifest through people living their own lives the best way they knew how. As these people, wielding their idealized realities, clash again and again in the ethereal arena of philosophical conquest, the shimmering particles of their defeats and victories would congeal into ever new ideas, which were destined only to clash again. This would proceed year upon year, generation upon generation until at long last a final, perfect amalgamation would arise from the remains of eternity’s contestants. And it would be called Zeitgeist.

This is basically what happens in Defense of the Ancients (DOTA).

It’s a question of scale though, of course. Games are finite spaces that we enter, voluntarily restrained, in an attempt to experience something otherwise unavailable in our default, unrestrained, everyday. This is a good thing, of course, because so often we feel the complete opposite: games free us from our mundane, restrictive lives. To put it another way, smaller spaces convey a greater sense of control, a greater sense of control engenders are greater sense of freedom, and only when people feel truly in control, truly free, can true philosophical combat erupt.

This is why DOTA contains only one map, symmetrical, easily comprehensible, and unchanging. This is why DOTA does not introduce new heroes every week, constant tweaks, and neverending “updates.” DOTA’s intent is not to increase the space with which to play or to expand the toyset with which to toy, but rather to foster an environment where mastery is step one and dominance is step two.

There is no step three.

If you understand this, good. If you it sounds like something you’d like to play, really good. If all of this weird talk about Hegel, constraint, freedom, mastery, and dominance freaks the shit out of you, it should. All great journeys begin with fear.


The core elements of DOTA can be divided into time and role. To attain a requisite level of mastery requires a basic understanding of what and how these elements interact to create the dynamic of a given game of DOTA. Each of these elements is composed of focus actions that players must master in order to successfully control the flow of a game. By controlling the flow of a game, victory is assured.

As a general rule, Ranged beats Melee in most Early phases. This is mostly because there’s significantly less risk in playing a ranged character because melee must close the distance before being effective. In later phases, Ranged maintains a slight advantage over Melee, but it can be severely mitigated by skills, items, and player skill.

Time can be divided into Early, Mid, and Late Game phases. There are two primary ways to measure time/phase transitions: actual time or player level.

  • In Early Game (0:00-7:00 or LV1-5), the focus actions are Farm, Observe, and Deny (and to a lesser extent, Gank). Adequate Farm gives players the freedom to make crucial early game purchases like Boots of Speed, tier 2 stat items, and recovery/support items. Successful Observe gives the team map awareness and allows for greater coordination/escapes(or Gank). The most difficult (but arguably most profitable) skill is efficient Deny which reduces the effective Farm and LV gain of the opponents in your lane.
  • In Mid Game (7:00~30:00 or LV6-17), the focus action is Teamfight. This is by far the most complex phase in the game, but the word Teamfight is meant to emphasize the idea that success in this phase is all about coordination. The focus actions of the previous phase (Farm, Observe, Deny, and Gank) remain pertinent, but shift in priority based on your role/hero. This is also the phase where most games are won. The primary goal in this phase is to maintain the pace set in Early Game if you were leading or to Reset the Pace if you were behind. More on this later.
  • In Late Game (LV18-25) the goal is Pyrrhic Victory. Yes, it is what it sounds like. At this point in the game Farm and Deny become near meaningless, Observe becomes crucial, and Gank/Teamfight are mandatory. You never want games to enter Late Game territory because there are an overwhelming number of variables at play in this phase, since most characters will have both powerful skills and powerful items. It can make for some pretty spectacular fights, though.

There are also an intimidating number of Roles that must be understood and mastered, but adequate understanding of their most basic forms is a good place to start. These essential roles are as follows: Carry, Tank, Support, and Disable.

  • The Carry is what it sounds like: she carries the team through an engagement. She can come in a variety of flavors, but the simplest form of the carry is the One-button Carry, who has high base attack damage, passive skills that augment her auto-attack, and one (or two) active skills. More complex carries often trade base damage for a Nuke or Disable, which can add utility and variety.
  • The Tank is a damage sponge. He tends to have high base HP and Armor and mid-to-high damage. The Pure Tank has skills that augment his tankiness like enemy damage reduction, damage absorption, and HP Regen. More complex Tanks may trade these skills for a Disable or passive attack bonus.
  • The Support is a nebulous yet key role which many heroes can fulfill because of his item dependency. His base stats are decidedly mediocre, but stat growth tends to trend towards HP Growth or MP Growth as opposed to ATK SPD. Most support heroes are INT-based, with some exceptions. Their skills are often situational and not suited for spamming (or even have long cooldowns) and they are the backbone for a well-executed Teamfight. His mediocre stats are often supplemented by very specific itemization.
  • The Disable is a catch-all term to describe other heroes (and builds) that do not fall squarely into the above three categories. In terms of skillset, a Disable’s strength is status debuffs like Stun, Slow, and Hex/Silence. More indirect Disables exist, but require more in-depth explanation. The Nuke role can be shuffled into this category, though this is debatable as well. The quick-n-dirty on this role is that much of the variability in a given game of DOTA comes from these heroes/skills and as such is the most complex part of the game.

This role breakdown is the simplest form of categorization for the heroes in DOTA (or any MOBA, really), and so few, if any “pure” forms of these roles exist. Which makes them perfect as case studies for a primer like this. So stay tuned next week as we take an in-depth look at one of DOTA’s primary ranged carries: The Sniper.


There are a number of terms in bold that, while not entirely alien to many games, are better served with explanations pertinent to their implementation in DOTA.

time – the time on the clock located at the top of the screen.

role – the team role that the player assumes at the time of picking. There is no explicit means of choosing this role in the game; rather, it is a mental note that should direct the objectives of the player over the course of the game.

focus action – the primary objective for the player to accomplish. This isn’t a specific call to use skills or move to places on the map, but rather is the general idea that should dictate the aggressiveness, tactic, or focus of the player’s decisions.

Ranged – A hero whose primary attack has a range greater than 200.

Melee – A hero whose primary attack has a range of less than 200.

Early Game – the time period between 0:00 and 7:00, or when more than half the players (in total) pass LV5.

Mid Game – the time period after 7:00 to approximately 30:00, or before any player reaches LV20.

Late Game – Usually dictated by player LV>20. If more than 4 players are here, you’re in for a hell of a ride if you’re not one of them.

Farm – rate of gold/exp gain. Successful Farm is relative, but as a general rule if you are leveling more quickly than your opponents, it can be considered good.

Observe – a catch-all term that describes the use of Observer Wards, Sentry Wards, or scouting units to gain sight of activities occurring on the minimap.

Deny – the act of killing your own units by manually attack-clicking them when they are near death. Doing so reduces the amount of exp gained upon its death by your opponents and also prevents them from being able to obtain gold from the kill (for obvious reasons).

Gank – a hero kill outside the context of a Teamfight.

Boots of Speed – an item that grants a flat movement bonus of +50.

tier 2 items – items that require at least one combination to create.

recovery/support items – consumables such as healing salve, Tango, and Clarity. To a lesser extent, Magic Wand.

LV Gain – the rate of LV ups Or the act of LV up.

Teamfight – An engagement where at least 4 teammates are present.

Pace – a term that attempts to describe the general rate of LV Gain, Farm, and Kills of the leading team as a means of determining which side is “winning” at any given moment.

Kills – the discrete number of hero kills by a team.

Pyrrhic Victory – Also known as War of Attrition or Mega Creep Win.

Carry – also known as AD Carry, AGI Carry, Nuker. The hero that does the most amount of damage in the least amount of time or who is the most effective killer in a Teamfight.

Tank – also known as Sponge or STR hero. The hero who can take the most damage without succumbing to untimely death or who has skills that increase survivability.

Support – The hero whose skills bolster the stats of her teammates so as to improve combat viability, decrease recovery time from Teamfights, and increase survivability. Also the hero who makes the most purchases that tend to benefit the team rather than just herself.

Disable – a catch-all term to describe skills and items that don’t fall explicitly into the other 3 categories.

base attack damage – unmodified auto-attack damage. Denoted by the white number on the sword on the HUD.

passive skills – always-on skills that provide various bonuses/debuffs.

active skills – skills that require a button press to initiate or toggle on/off.

Nuke – a high damage spell that has a short timeframe.

HP – Hit points. Also known as Health Points.

Armor – Physical damage mitigation. A whole number that is used to calculate a percentage of damage reduction.

damage reduction – a percentage by which incoming damage is reduced.

damage absorption – a discrete amount of damage that is negated before a hero takes HP damage. Also known as shielding.

HP Regen – The rate at which a hero regains HP, measured per second but restored continuously.

HP Growth – HP gain upon stat increase. Measured at 1 Stat point equivalents.

MP Growth – MP gain upon stat increase. Measured at 1 Stat point equivalents.

ATK SPD – The rate at which a hero auto-attacks. Also known as Attack Speed.

(STAT)-based – A term that describes which statistic increases the base attack damage of the hero. Usually referred to as the hero’s primary stat and often has the highest Growth for that hero.

Stun/Slow/Hex/Silence – Skills that neutralize the opponent in a significant way. Stuns completely stop a hero, preventing movement, attack, and spellcasting. Slow can affect movement, attack speed, or both. Hex turns the opponent into a harmless animal that may be able to attack (but likely will not) at significantly reduced damage. Silence prevents heroes from spellcasting. Not an exhaustive list, as some spells have wider effects and/or affect other variables not included in this definition.