Nukes in DotA are much more of a contentious subject than they should be, especially in pubs. Which is surprising for such a core part of the game. The power of multiple direct damage nukes should never be underestimated: consider that more heroes have access to non-ultimate invisibility than to multiple non-ultimate direct damage nukes. I remember a discussion during a reverse captain’s mode tournament a while back where even competitive players laid it out starkly: the main focus of most captains trying to saddle their opponents with the worst team possible was to give them as few direct damage nukes as they could manage. Why? Because nukes are almost always the most important part of DotA’s mid-game, and without strong direct damage at the point in the game where most teams want to start fighting and taking towers there is really no way to stop the other team from doing whatever they want and snowballing out of control.
Thankfully, DotA offers a wide variety of nukes that can please every pallet, whether they’re looking for something as standard as vanilla ice cream (which is obviously the best kind of ice cream), or a richer, denser flavour like a good gelato, or a sharper flavour like fruity sorbet, or even something for the boring yuppies, like a low-fat frozen yogourt. (P.S. Soft serve is legit.)
Direct Damage: The most straightforward type of skill in the game. When it hits it does its damage immediately to all effected targets. This is what is referred to as burst damage.
Damage Over Time (DoT): Does damage in increments over an extended period or as long as the target is in the area of effect. Not as useful as direct damage skills for quick kills, but most DoTs have secondary effects like slows.
Single Target: Usually a point and click skill that is cast on an enemy hero. Many hit as soon as they are cast. Single target skills are the most prone to being dodged by the target going into fog while the cast animation is starting, so make sure to get close enough to actually land it.
Area of Effect: These can often be ground targeted, which usually extends their effective range, but they can also have more travel time than single target nukes, which can make them easier to dodge or avoid. Because they can hit multiple targets, increasingly their damage output significantly compared to single target nukes, they are highly valued in team fights.
Magical Damage: The most common type of nuke. All heroes have an innate 25% magic resistance (except for Visage, who has 10%, and Meepo, who has 35%), so keep that in mind for calculations. Magic damage is blocked by items and skills that grant magic immunity, obviously. Can be enhanced by items and skills that lower magic resistance in the target and will do significantly less damage against targets with magic resistance skills or items.
Physical Damage: Less common for nukes, especially direct damage nukes. The heroes who have physical damage nukes often have -armour skills, which will improve their damage, but even then they don’t scale very well, even compared to magical damage nukes. Magical immunity will not block the damage of all physical nukes, but can prevent the hero from being targeted.
Pure Damage: Pure damage nukes will do their listed damage against every target, unless they have magic immunity. While this is usually a benefit, it’s also sometimes a hindrance: pure damage can never do less than listed, but it can’t do more, either, so skills and items that lower magic resistance have no effect.
HP Removal: Rare, but still noteworthy for how it interacts with important items. Like pure damage, HP removal isn’t affected by magic resistance, but unlike pure damage it also isn’t affected by magic immunity. While this is a definite plus, there is a major drawback: HP removal doesn’t count as actual damage, so it will not disable blink daggers and also won’t stop a hero from using non-combat consumables like healing salves and bottles.
When to Nuke
Always, right? Unfortunately, no, not always. In fact, it’s easy for a player’s eyes to be bigger than their stomachs when it comes to splurging their precious mana on nukes they don’t need and haven’t earned.
At level 1 most direct damage nukes do between 70-120 damage, have a 8-15 second cooldown, and can be cast 2 or 3 times before the hero runs out of mana. On the other hand, heroes will come to the lane with about 500-600 HP and plenty of regen. Even if the plan was to make them eat all their tangos, it’s not cost effective to be throwing around level 1 nukes. Disables and physical harassment are far more effective for both getting early kills and keeping an opponent out of the lane, which is why most heroes will take their disable or escape skill at level 1 over their nuke.
Early laning nukes are primarily used by heroes who need to secure last hits. Mid heroes who need to get their bottles (or just their levels), especially when they have an AoE nuke that will let them get multiple last hits and make it harder for their opponent to get denies (low level nukes still do more damage than auto-attacks). This also allows them to push the lane to their opponent’s tower when they want to go get a rune.
When a nuke reaches level 3, though, it starts to become dangerous. By this point the hero is level 5, most laning regen has been spent, and nukes are doing over 200 damage. Coordinated direct damage nukes can burst down most heroes, and even a single hero can chase someone out of the lane by hitting them for up to 1/3 of their total HP in damage.
Damage over time nukes are slightly different since most of them carry secondary effects like slows, which also makes them soft disables, and effective for getting early kills. Mana permitting they can even be used in conjunction with auto-attacks to harass heroes effectively and keep them out of the lane.
This is where nukes come into their own. After they get their ultimates at level 6 some heroes have access to multiple direct damage nukes, which lets them burst down heroes on their own, and in coordination 2 or 3 heroes can be wiped from the map in an instant. This is the main reason heroes like Queen of Pain and Zeus are sent to the mid solo lane: their strong nukes, combined with a quick level 6 to get their ultimates, give them effective personal burst damage that makes them extremely dangerous when they show up in a side lane where the heroes are lower level, and often already hurt.
The mid game is also when team fights start to happen, and often the biggest decider in a team fight (after good initiation) is which team has better AoE nukes. The “wombo combo,” as it’s called, is centred mostly around an AoE setup of some sort that allows multiple heroes to dump as much nuke damage on as many enemy heroes as quickly as they can. A team without sufficient burst damage from nukes will be at a big disadvantage during mid game team fights and will usually try to avoid them by split pushing, jungle farming, and trying to get solo pick offs and ganks to keep the other team from forming up and concentrating their damage.
Look at it this way: in the early parts of the mid game, where heroes are under level 11 and still have few items, they will have relatively low HP pools, while nukes scale dangerously fast. A level 1 nuke that does 80 damage is no threat to a level 1 hero with 600 HP, but a level 4 nuke that does 300 damage is a major threat to a hero with 700 HP, especially when multiple nukes are stacked on top of each other, and most supports will always be vulnerable. There are only 2 basic items in the game that give raw HP, and they are both generally too expensive for supports to acquire, and even cheap stats like bracers are usually dead-end slot fillers that delay more important team-fight items. On the other hand, cheap armour is easy to come by, and most teams will have a Mekansm or at least its components. A hero with 6 armour already has better physical resistance than magical resistance, which means that physical attacks simply do not scale very well in the mid game where many heroes will just walk away from auto-attacks anyway, while any hero can be burst down with multiple nukes. That also means that a hero’s best defence against mid-game nukes is to have enough raw HP to live through the burst, which will usually put them out of the running as a viable target in the first place. That’s the trade-off though: a hero that is forced to invest in stats to survive nukes is a hero that isn’t getting damage, or their Mekansm, or their blink dagger.
Mid game is also where flash farming happens. Flash farming is the act of using nukes or other AoE skills to quickly kill stacked neutral and ancient camps or large creep waves, as apposed to normal farming using auto-attacks to take last hits one at a time. Heroes who have nukes and can effectively flash farm can build a great advantage in gold and experience, with a little preparation.
Nukes fall off in effectiveness as hero HP pools grow naturally with levels, and even further when the other team gets items like Mekansm and Pipe of Insight, but they still have uses. Burst damage is still burst damage, and strong nukes can take out key supports or swing a carry vs. carry fight. Heroes with AoE nukes are also useful as counter-pushers if they are able to quickly kill creep waves before they start to siege towers.
Important Levels: 3 (level 2 nukes), 5 (level 3 nukes) 6 (level 3 nukes + ultimate), 7 (level 4 nukes + ultimate) 9 (possibly 2 level 4 nukes + ultimate), 11 (level 2 ultimate), 16 (level 3 ultimate).
Why Levels Matter
Experience and levels are just as much a limited resource in DotA as gold. It takes at least 30+ minutes for most heroes to get to level 16, where all their skills will be maxed, and a game can be won or lost much earlier than that. No hero can depend on having everything maxed, and that goes triple for supports, so it’s very important how they level their skills, especially in preparation for the mid game. Getting to level 6 or 7 is a certainty, even for hard supports, but getting access to level 11 or higher is not, and it can also come too late.
There are two ways of looking at why most heroes should max their nukes first. The first is that they do the most burst damage when burst damage is most important. The second is that a nuke that isn’t maxed first is often not worth maxing at all, because by the time there are enough spare levels to put into them their usefulness has been superseded by skills that actually scale with items and levels.
Scaling and Reliability
As with all generalities, there are exceptions. It’s important to consider two other guidelines for levelling nukes, which are how they scale (both in damage and in cost), and how reliable they are.
For scaling the biggest consideration is mana cost vs damage, especially for spammable nukes (under 8 second cooldown, meaning it can be used more than once in skirmishes). Most heroes with a spammable nuke will also have other mana costs to consider, but this has less to do with how they are levelled than how they are used in fights. Consider Queen of Pain at level 7, where she should have level 4 Scream of Pain (300 damage, 140 mana, 7 second cooldown) and level 1 Sonic Wave (350 damage, 250 mana, 135 second cooldown). The actual damage difference between level 4 Scream of Pain and level 1 Sonic Wave, after base magic resistance, is 225 damage for 140 mana vs 262 damage for 250 mana. That’s 160 more mana for less than 40 damage. The main reason for using both is the burst damage, allowing her to instantly kill a hero before they can escape or use their own skills (and of course Sonic Wave has more range), but in a situation where multiple Screams can be used it would be the superior option, and it’s not uncommon for an off lane Queen of Pain (Who would expect to have fewer levels and items than a normal mid lane Queen of Pain, which makes the prospect of level 7 and the mana cost of Sonic Wave restrictive.) to take level 4 Scream of Pain at level 6 over Sonic Wave.
The other factor is how the nuke itself scales with its mana cost. The standard scaling for nukes in DotA is 75/150/225/300, but that doesn’t always hold true. A good example is Death Prophet’s Carrion Swarm, which is 100/175/250/300, with a mana cost of 105/120/140/165 (Witchcraft does lower the mana cost, but the scaling is still the same), and a very low cooldown with Witchcraft (4 seconds at level 4 Witchcraft). The jump from level 3 Swarm to level 4 Swarm is 50 damage for an extra 25 mana, and when a Death Prophet is primarily using Swarm to farm creep waves, and needs to have her silence, Witchcraft, and her ultimate, that extra cost is not always justified. A 250 damage nuke farms creeps just as well as a 300 damage nuke, and the extra point in Witchcraft will actually make it cheaper, and with a lower cooldown, so only 3 points of Swarm are needed until her other skills are maxed and she has the mana pool to support the extra mana cost.
The other factor is reliability. Some nukes are just easier to hit consistently than others. An example is Lina’s Dragon Slave and Light Strike Array. At level 4 they both do the same damage, and Light Strike Array has a shorter cooldown and costs less mana, plus it has a stun. However, without a setup Light Strike Array is very hard to land against competent players, and is not reliable as a spamming nuke, while Dragon Slave has more range and is much easier to hit multiple heroes with. That’s why Dragon Slave is maxed over Light Strike Array, even with a good setup stun (because that setup stun will also have a longer cooldown than both of Lina’s nukes). If a hero can’t actually land their skills then there isn’t much point in having them, especially maxed over something they can could hit.
I hope I have made the case for maxing nukes over most other skills. Remember to always keep in mind scaling (damage, mana, cooldown), and most importantly the power curve that nukes have in any game. Max them quickly to take advantage of their advantages, or don’t max them at all.