Every year, exciting new video games are released by hard-working developers, promising players hours of entertainment to suit a myriad of preferences. And every year, I continue to play the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA), Dota 2. It’s my one game to rule them all.
Dota 2 first launched in 2013, 10 years after the fan-made Warcraft III mode from which it was derived. Yet despite being almost two decades old, the competitive 10-player game continues to maintain a dedicated fanbase — and it isn’t hard to see why. Dota 2 is a deeply complex game with over 120 playable characters and over 200 in-game items, meaning every match presents unique challenges to overcome. Like a fast-paced chess game with hundreds of moving parts, it’s rewarding when you finally wrangle it, and it feels amazing when you pull off a perfect play.
Bearing all this in mind, approaching Dota 2 can be intimidating to new players, and difficult for old ones to teach. It’s impossible to detail all the strategy that goes into a Dota 2 match in one simple, easily digestible article.
However, I can give you a foundation to start from so you aren’t completely lost when jumping into your first match.
Played by two teams of five players, the aim of Dota 2 is to destroy the main structure in the opposing team’s base. Known as the Ancient, it is from this goal that the name of Dota 2‘s predecessor was derived: Defence of the Ancients. Killing enemies, destroying towers, and accumulating gold is all fun, but means nothing if your team can’t destroy your enemy’s Ancient.
It’s a fairly simple objective (and one that should sound familiar to fans of other MOBAs, like League of Legends). However, before you can reach the Ancient, you have to make your way through a few obstacles first.
Credit: Bob Al-Greene / Mashable
Dota 2‘s forested arena places one team’s base in the top left corner of the square map and the other in the bottom right, putting them as far apart as possible. These two bases are then connected by three lanes — one following the upper edge of the map, one following the lower edge, and a third diagonal path going straight through the middle.
Situated at regular intervals along each lane are six towers, which are evenly split between the two teams. These towers automatically attack any enemy units that come too close, and they are quite powerful. It’s generally a good idea to give them a wide berth early in the game.
You will have to deal with these towers eventually, though. Before you can breach your opponents’ base and attack their Ancient, you have to destroy all three of the enemy towers along at least one of these lanes. Until they fall, the buildings in the enemy base remain invulnerable.
Aside from their Ancient, there are a few other important structures in each team’s base.
The Fountain is closest to the corner of the map, and is where you start each match. It’s also where you reappear when you respawn after a death. Standing in the Fountain rapidly replenishes your health and mana, and it’s also where you can pick up your purchased items.
There are also six Barracks in each base, with a Melee Barracks and Ranged Barracks located at the start of each of the three lanes. These structures are each team’s source of AI-controlled defenders, called “creeps.” Destroying an enemy’s Barracks isn’t mandatory, but teams usually do so anyway since each one that’s functional strengthens the allied creeps in the corresponding lane.
Your four teammates aren’t your only allies in a game of Dota 2, as you’re also supplied with a steady supply of cannon fodder in the form of creeps. At regular timed intervals, a small group of non-playable minions will spawn at the start of each path for each team. These creeps are relatively weak units that will mindlessly march down their assigned road and attack any enemy they encounter, whether they be enemy creeps, buildings, or players from the opposing team.
It’s these creeps that will occupy much of your attention in the early parts of the game. Staying with your allied creeps will allow them to absorb the brunt of any enemy aggression you encounter, and they’ll also provide you cover by attacking anyone who might try to hurt you.
Killing enemy creeps is also one of the most surefire ways to accumulate gold and experience. Gold is used to purchase items, which can strengthen your character and even grant them new abilities. Meanwhile, gaining experience levels up your character, granting you skill points to put into learning and strengthening your abilities. Gold and experience are earned in the context of individual matches; every player’s hero starts out fresh and on the same power footing when a new match begins.
Credit: Dota 2 / Mashable
Each player in Dota 2 controls a character called a hero, which each have their own unique stats and skills. Players choose which character they want to play as before a match starts. Only one of each hero is allowed per game, though — once a character is picked it becomes unavailable to everyone else across both teams.
Players must therefore weigh their decision: Is it better to choose a hero early enough to secure the one you want, or is it preferable to choose later, when you can account for strategic considerations such as countering the opposing team’s selections and making sure your own picks aren’t kept in check by their corresponding counters.
Most heroes have four abilities: three regular ones, and a powerful ultimate ability that can only be unlocked once they reach level 6. These abilities can be active, requiring you to press a button to use them (which usually costs mana, a metered resource that’s like a health bar for your magic); or passive, working quietly in the background all the time. A large part of Dota 2 is learning how different abilities work and synergize with each other — not just as it relates to your hero, but with (and against) other heroes as well.
Strength, Intelligence, or Agility?
Heroes are built around one of three Primary Traits: Strength, Intelligence, and Agility. Which type of hero you choose will depend on your preferred play style, but it’s generally preferable to have a mix on your team so you can cover each other’s weaknesses.
Strength heroes are able to take a lot of punishment, but are usually fairly slow. Intelligence heroes can dish out a lot of damage, but are also rather fragile. And Agility heroes are mobile and quick, but are vulnerable if they get stunned or disabled.
Carry or Support?
You also have to assess what role you’d like to play on your team. Broadly speaking, players on a Dota 2 team either step into a Carry role or a Support role. Both are needed for an effective, balanced team.
Carry heroes are relatively weak at the beginning of the game, when their focus should be on killing creeps in order to earn gold and experience. However, they later become their team’s strongest players, carrying the responsibility of killing the opposing team’s bigger targets and ultimately winning the game.
Support heroes help the Carry heroes get to that later stage, keeping enemy heroes off them, setting up kills, and basically acting like a bodyguard. While they’re relatively intimidating early in the game, their strength drops off later as the Carry heroes gain power.
Credit: Dota 2 / Mashable
An average game of Dota 2 takes around 45 minutes, however length varies significantly depending on the matchup. Occasionally a game will end in under 10 minutes, while the longest professional Dota 2 match on record lasted three hours and 20 minutes. As such, it isn’t a good idea to start a game unless you have at least an hour to spare.
At the start of the game, the five heroes on each team will typically disperse across the map’s three lanes. Usually this means there are two heroes per team in each of the side lanes, as well as one in the middle.
This early part of the match is called the “laning phase,” and it’s during this time that Support players guard Carry players so they can “farm” — that is, kill creeps to accumulate gold and experience. A successful laning phase goes a long way toward setting your team up for success later.
A player may also leave their lane to sneak up on an enemy in another lane, working with their teammates to secure a kill. This is called “ganking.” Usually the player in the middle will be the one ganking during the laning phase, as they level up more quickly than their teammates due to not having to share the creeps they’re using for gold and XP — a process often referred to as “farming” — with other teammates
As such, it’s important to let your teammates know if an enemy you were laning against suddenly goes missing, as they could be planning a gank. Communication is everything in a game like this.
Sometimes a player may leave their lane and go into the forest to farm the creatures there. These units are called “neutral creeps,” and hunting for them is called “jungling.” Jungling allows a hero to get all the gold and experience from the kills, rather than splitting it with a lane partner. This can enable them to level up more quickly, giving them an edge over their opponents.
However, there are also no friendly creeps to buffer you from the neutral creeps’ damage, so you have to keep an eye on your health bar and be careful not to pick a fight you can’t finish. You’re also vulnerable to an enemy hero sneaking up on you and picking you off while you’re low on health.
Mid- and late-game
When players feel confident enough to abandon their lanes and start ganking in earnest, this signals the end of the laning phase. This will often occur after the first tower in a lane has fallen, freeing the heroes in that lane to go and help their comrades in other parts of the map.
At this point, each individual game changes significantly depending on what is happening and the different factors involved. In some games, all the players in a team may group up and storm down a lane together — a “five man push.” In others, heroes might split up to mount an assault on multiple lanes at once, called a “split push.” Alternatively, some heroes may distract and defend against their enemy team while their Carry jungles, attempting to catch up if they’re behind in farming.
Multiple such tactics often occur across a game, with players shifting focus depending upon the situation. There is no strict playbook to follow. Dota 2 is simply a matter of destroying the enemy Ancient before they destroy yours, and figuring out what methods will help you achieve that is the whole thing.
Credit: Dota 2 / Topson
There’s no point in accumulating gold if you don’t spend it. Dota 2 has hundreds of items you can buy with your hard-earned cash, all of which provide different benefits. Some items are also more effective on certain heroes, so it’s important to figure out what purchases will do the most for you.
Fortunately, Dota 2 does suggest items for you to buy in-game, so you can largely just follow the guide supplied in the left panel of the shop window while you learn the ins and outs.
The shop window can be accessed at any time by clicking on your gold count in the bottom right corner of the screen — just make sure you only go shopping when it’s safe to do so, since there’s no way to pause. From here you can purchase items, though they won’t be equipped to your hero until you actually pick them up from your base’s fountain.
Of course, leaving your lane to pick up your goods means less time for farming, which is where couriers come in. When directed, your courier will carry your items to you so you can just keep farming. However, be careful when calling your courier. Enemies can kill a courier en route, which will put them out of commission for a few minutes and leave you having to wait longer for your goods or go get them yourself.
The Secret Shop
While most items can be bought from the general shop, some more expensive and powerful items can only be found at the Secret Shop. Despite its name, neither its location nor its existence is a secret, with two Secret Shops located in Dota 2‘s forest — one on either side of the river.
It can be dangerous trying to visit the Secret Shop, so only do so when you’re absolutely sure there are no hidden enemies who might jump you while you’re browsing.
If you can’t afford a shiny new item just yet, you can also find neutral items dropped by neutral creeps when they’re killed. These items go in a special item slot, and can be shared between teammates. So if you pick one up that doesn’t quite work for you, simply teleport it back to your base for another player to use. Here’s a full rundown of the many neutral items you can find.
Put simply, Roshan is the king of all neutral creeps. Located in the river, this hard-hitting creature usually requires multiple heroes to kill, and entering his pit leaves players vulnerable to surprise ambushes from the enemy team. As such, attempts to take Roshan on typically occur when a team is either feeling very confident or very desperate.
Successfully defeating Roshan yields significant rewards, granting players a big pile of gold and an experience boost. Roshan also drops the Aegis of the Immortal, an item that revives the player who carries it one time, within a few seconds of them dying. It’s a powerful advantage that can be enough to turn the tide of an entire battle.
Quick tips for getting started
Pick one hero and stick with them while you’re learning. Dota 2‘s huge catalogue of playable characters can feel intimidating, so it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with just one when you’re first starting out. You may have to try out a few heroes to find one you like, but once you do keep playing them until you feel fairly comfortable with the game.
Do not, I repeat, do not choose Invoker, Meepo, or Techies. These complex heroes are not for beginners, and you are guaranteed to have a bad time.
Play a few bot matches. Starting off against human players can be a bit much when you’re learning. Go a few rounds against the computer and build your confidence first. This is also a great way to just learn how to navigate the interface, with no other human players depending on you.
Bide your time. It’s very tempting to immediately rush into battle, particularly for eager new players, but that’s a good way to get yourself killed. It’s no fun being dead all the time. Hang around your neutral creeps in the laning phase and work on accumulating gold and experience.
Don’t be afraid to buy consumable items that get used up when activated. It may seem like a better investment to save up for permanent items — and you certainly don’t want to be spending all your gold on Healing Salves or mana-restoring Clarities. But a well-timed consumable can keep you in your lane longer, helping you make up the gold you spent and then some. It’s good practice to buy a Tango at the start of each game at the very least, as this consumable allows you to eat a tree to slowly regain some health. (Trees are all around, and much easier to reach than your fountain back at the base.)
Always carry a Town Portal Scroll. Actually, carry two to be safe. These single-use items allow you to teleport to any allied building on the map, which is invaluable for getting into fights or out of danger as quickly as possible.
This isn’t all there is to Dota 2. Wards, runes, and buybacks are also important features you’ll eventually encounter. However, this guide should be enough to get you started — and hopefully feeling a little less confused.
Dota 2 is a tough game that feels incredibly rewarding once you get the hang of it. But no matter how skilled you are, you will inevitably get cursed out by furious gamers who are mad that you aren’t playing how they want you to. As such, I offer a final tip: If you head into settings, you can mute all the other players. Communication is important, but you can opt out easily if things get out of hand.