A Good Game

One of the things I enjoyed about going to tournaments, especially the big ones where people came in from all over the place, was a chance to speak to players in an environment where their entire focus was the topics I had in mind: competitive gaming and competitive mindsets. Everyone is different, and everyone has their own reasons and motivations, and each was interesting to me.

It was at one of these Majors that a player explained to me their philosophy about the nature of losing. He told me that there are feelings that every player experiences, but that they aren’t always aware of, and it was his goal to tailor his victories around these feelings.

He first explained to me the basics of losing, something I was already intimately familiar with. Broadly, there are two types of losses, you could call them the blowout and the close call. What they are is obvious enough: a blowout is a total stomp, where the losing player(s) are barely relevant to the game. More importantly, they know it. Often the losing player expected to lose before they even started the match, as when a new player runs into a top 5 contender during early pools in a large tournament bracket. The other loss, the close call, is when the player loses by a small enough margin that they are left with the feeling that if they’d just made a couple of different decisions, or guessed right one more time, the game would have won.

Someone who doesn’t have much experience with competition might expect a crushing defeat like a blowout to be harder on the loser, but that’s often not the case. If some fresh meat gets a first round match against a player that they know is significantly better than them they will often take that loss as a given before they’ve plugged in their stick. They will still try, and hope that their opponent also tries–there’s nothing worse than a sandbagger in a real match–but if they expected to lose they’ve already been tempered for the loss when it happens.

It’s the close call that tends to sting the most, though that still depends on the exact circumstances of the loss. If the game is close enough the loser starts to go back through the match and look for the branching universes. If they hadn’t dropped that combo in the 2nd round, if they had warded the jungle a bit earlier and spotted that smoke gank, if they had hit that one air rocket, or had done a little more economic damage with their drop. What if? What if they had guessed right one more time? They could have won. That type of loss can leave a lot of doubt in a player’s mind.

So, he tells me that the biggest difference for his opponents is in how they feel after a loss. Did they do everything they could have, but still got outplayed? Or did they lose because they could have played better?

The player has to decide whether they lost despite their best efforts, in which case there’s nothing they could have done, and they go back to training so they can do better next time. The alternative is that they lost because they’re a loser.

I don’t know how he expected to do it, but he told me that it was his goal to always make the player feel like it was their fault they lost, not his. Something about wanting them to come back for more, and the damage it did to their confidence over time. Yeah, he was a bit of a kook.

Personally, I don’t dwell much on losses. Probably because I have never once entered a tournament with the expectation of winning. I enjoy playing games competitively, but I am just not a competitive person. That’s the killer instinct that I’m missing, as I’ve written about before.

However, I do agonize over wins way too much. I managed to take all of that discussion about losing and invert it: I’m the type of person who, after a win, will wonder whether I came out ahead because I was the better player, or because my opponent was just being a little too dumb.

The problem with DotA, especially pub DotA, is that its nature as a team game, a team game where the overall state of a match is in constant flux and can be difficult for many players to grasp, even while they’re playing the game, is that my imagination runs wild. I second guess my second guesses, so I rely heavily on confidence to see myself through. I’ve found that in my solo ranked play it’s becoming harder and harder to get a feel for exactly what is going on around me. There are so many factors to a win or a loss that are out of my control that I focus even more on what I’m doing wrong, which erodes my confidence further. Negative reinforcement and all that.

I feel that’s a big contributing factor to how many pub players feel about DotA. After all these years, after having played a bunch of different games competitively across multiple genres, DotA is the only game where I can win a match and feel like I did nothing to deserve it. It’s not that I don’t know why I’m winning or losing a game, but more that I don’t know if my contributions to that game could have tipped the balance.

Why didn't anyone tell me the replay would expire!?
I used to play heroes that could actually win games.

These last few weeks have not been ideal for DotA play. Aside from my own connection issues, there were the major patches released, which caused server problems and took a giant dump all over my FPS for a few days. At least 6.80 brought some good changes to pub games. Even at the MMR I’m playing at (~4600) it wasn’t uncommon for an entire team to abandon a game if the other side picked Earth Spirit, and that’s before you factor in Broodmother. I had 4 Broodmother games in a row one night, and in at least one of them she had a Nature’s Prophet on her team as well. Win or lose, those games are not very interesting to play.

So sometimes I just want a win. A win where I know I did my part, even if I’m still left with the feeling that the other team picked and played so poorly that it wouldn’t have mattered. The important part is that I did what I could, I did what I needed to do, I did what it took to win the game.

Submitted for your approval is this rather anomalous Ranked game I played on the eve of 6.80’s release.

I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.

We get a first pick Invoker, then a random Luna. They pick Terrorblade and we pick Mirana.  They random Bristleback, we pick Ursa. I see how this is going. I figure I’ll try out the newly buffed Witch Doctor, even if he’s not always great against illusion heroes, and isn’t that good against Bristleback. After much deliberation the other team picks Timbersaw, Clinkz, and Bounty Hunter. Their Bristleback, having noticed that his team has 4 potential offlane heroes and no supports, repicks into Nature’s Prophet. I’m getting flashbacks of “To Serve Man.”

Starting Items

Luna may have random gold, but you can bet that she’s not going to waste a single penny on non-essentials like wards or a courier. I know what’s what, so I buy them both, and I’m pleasantly surprised that Valve’s new policy of using cheap Chinese labour to manufacture GG Branches means I can afford 4 of them now along with my single set of Tangos. My inventory feels pleasantly full.

First Blood

My reasoning behind loading up on Branches, besides the mere fact that I could, was that I’d be laning against Bounty Hunter or maybe Timbersaw, both heroes I could pick at like a really good scab. I seriously doubt Luna and I could kill Bounty Hunter at level 1 even if I bought Sentry Wards, and there are at least 3 heroes on my team who might get a Ring of Basilius. I am comfortable with being a mere ward bitch if any of our lanes turn out well.

So I sally forth to ward the rune spots. Bottom ward first, since I’m going to be heading to the top lane: no sense in doing top, then bottom, then walking all the way back top. Yes, it’s true that even I can figure out the order for simple tasks.

Immediately things get weird again. Timbersaw is mid, which is fine even if Invoker should have no trouble dealing with him. But they have sent a solo Clinkz into the offlane. A solo Clinkz with very little regen.

A solo Clinkz who put his first skill point into Searing Arrows.

Here’s the thing about Witch Doctor. He does a lot of damage with his right-clicks. His issue is that he has terrible armour and subpar starting strength. That means that he can dish out damage, but he can’t take it. That’s why I like to get something like a Ring of Protection at the start, because otherwise he loses the war of attrition against most other heroes, even if they do less damage. However, Clinkz is one of the few heroes around that is even squishier than Witch Doctor, especially when I have 4 Branches and he’s only got 2 Branches. As soon as I spot that he’s firing Searing Arrows at Luna I do the only thing that makes sense: walk right up to him, toss a Cask, and then right click him until he dies. If he had run back to his tower as soon as he was free of the Cask stun he would have got away with his life, and Luna would have had a free lane while Clinkz hid behind his tower munching trees. But he tried to fight me, figuring that his Searing Arrow damage would make me flinch. To hell with that! Thanks to Lunar Blessing, it only took me 6 attacks to kill him from full HP.

Early Game

Now I get to make decisions. It’s unlikely that anyone besides Nature’s Prophet will be going anywhere or doing anything on the map right now. I can either stick to my lane, ferry out some Sentries, and keep the pressure on Clinkz, or I can buy some boots and check out the other lanes. Luna has plenty of regen and is doing well enough that I doubt Clinkz would be a threat. Clinkz will hit level 2 as soon as he gets back to the lane, which will give him Skeleton Walk and make him much harder to kill. He’s also unlikely to get into another right-click contest with me now what he’s seen the results. Bounty Hunter could leave his lane and go after Luna, but I’d see that coming. Nature’s Prophet could show up, but I really doubt that would happen. It’s a bit of a gamble, but I’m a bit of a gambler.

I buy the boots and head to mid lane, where Invoker has been doing a good job of tagging Timbersaw with Cold Snap every time he tries to get near the creeps. Timbersaw still has plenty of regen and enough damage that he can get last hits, but he’s also very vulnerable. Bonus: they have no ward coverage. I wait for there to only be a ranged creep left and when Timbersaw gets too close to it I run in and throw my Cask and then a Maledict. I don’t often get Maledict at level 2, but this seemed like the ideal game for it. Invoker and I chase him back to his tower, where I missclick and run into it’s range for a little too long. Timbersaw dies, and I get out alive, but I have to get Voodoo Restoration when I level up to stop the tower from killing me. I’d much rather have another point in Cask. That’s two lanes down.

It’s two minutes in now and I see a Haste rune spawn top. I start eating my Tangos to get my HP back up, wait for enough mana to use another stun, then run to the bottom lane, being careful to stay out of obvious ward spots since I still have to assume they might have some. Bounty Hunter, who has been harassing the Mirana constantly with Jinada, senses blood in the water and dives her at the tower when his creeps push in. Unfortunately for him Terrorblade backed out, and I’m hiding in the trees.  When he gets close enough I hit him with Cask, and though he tries to go invisible and escape, he’s in the tower’s true sight range. Mirana hits him with a double Starfall Starstorm, and we get another kill. That’s 3 lanes and 3 kills in 3 minutes, which is exactly what I wanted.

I head back to the fountain, upgrade the courier, buy Dust of Appearance and a Magic Wand. I see that Luna is struggling a bit against Clinkz and figure I’ll pay him another visit now that I can make sure he won’t get away. Unfortunately, Terrorblade has Phase Boots now, and when Bounty Hunter gets back to the bottom lane Mirana gets murdered. Meanwhile, Ursa gets a lucky Regeneration Rune, which will speed up his jungling quite a bit by saving him a fountain trip. I get to the top lane, toss my Cask, use my Dust, and Luna hits a wonderful Lucent Beam that keeps Clinkz within range of another Cask bounce, which gets me another kill. Then it’s back to the mid lane for another easy kill on Timbersaw.

My main concern is that Mirana is still getting the business in her lane, so I figure I may have to keep myself planted there for a bit. I get down there just in time to interrupt another tower dive against her, and we kill Terrorblade, and almost get Bounty Hunter, but some clutch fogs let him escape with about 25 HP. We dive a little too far in his pursuit, so when Nature’s Prophet teleports in and Terrorblade respawns, their combined efforts take me down. I don’t care that much since I have enough gold for Arcane Boots and I’m level 6.

When I respawn I go back to mid lane and use my Death Ward to on Timbersaw. Another easy kill.

Bounty Hunter gets wise and finally goes to the top lane, where he and Clinkz kill Luna. Invoker and I, and Invoker’s Dagon (because why not?) get one back by taking down Terrorblade again in the bottom lane, and Ursa kills Roshan before 9 minutes.

Mirana uses her ultimate and we try to rush their jungle, but there’s nobody in there so I teleport to the mid lane and get another easy kill on Timbersaw with Ursa’s help. Clinkz kills Luna again. I guess I was wrong about her ability to hold that lane.

At 10 minutes in we take their mid tier 1 tower. The score is 10-4 in our favour, and I’m 3-1-6.

My plan now is to finish an Urn, put up some more wards, and keep putting pressure on their lanes, especially now that Invoker and Ursa are free and willing to roam and gank as well. Whatever we can do to keep them away from Luna.

Mid Game

By 12 minutes the lanes have broken up. We’re so eager to keep getting easy kills that we’ve given away a couple of tier 1 towers for no particular reason. I’ve got my Urn and Ursa has Blink Dagger. Time to start forcing them to make poor decisions. Let’s push some towers!

It seems like a good idea, and we get their bottom tier 1 easily enough, but after that we just run around in circles for a bit. We know at least Bounty Hunter is around, and I use a Dust but don’t catch him. Turn out it’s not just Bounty Hunter, it’s all of them. Their 5 heroes jump me, Invoker, and Mirana. I die, then Invoker dies, then they chase Mirana back to our tower. But a wild Luna appears! She uses her ultimate, kills Timbersaw. The rest of their team is too low to keep fighting. Mirana lives.

Ursa, sensing that his Aegis is going to run out, runs into their jungle rips Terrorblade in half, then picks a fight with Clinkz and Bounty Hunter. Only his Aegis does run out, mere moments before they kill him. That’s a sad bear.

Now my primary concern is being too slow to catch their heroes before they run away, or being caught out of position and killed so fast I can’t use my super-awesome spells. I need a Force Staff. Also, Clinkz has Orchid, so I’m not going anywhere unless I have backup.

Ursa, Mirana, and I hang around in their bottom lane for a while, taking the kills as they come. I’m waiting for my Force Staff gold and Ursa is waiting for another Roshan. We push as far as their tier 2 tower, but don’t destroy it. Clinkz continues to wander around aimlessly, possessing an Orchid, but with no solo target of opportunity to take take down. They have two invisible heroes who both specialize in ganking, but even if we didn’t have Dust they would be no threat. When I have my Force Staff I can even wander alone to ward with the certainty that Clinkz can’t kill me even with his Orchid.

At 20 minutes Ursa kills Roshan again.

The game is still far from clean, even though I never doubted for a second that we would win. Luna gets caught by Nature’s Prophet while she’s trying to take down an ancient stack. Invoker tries to gank Prophet while he pushes our top lane, only to find out too late that Clinkz was hiding in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to finally take down a target weaker than him. Bounty Hunter decides to invest some of his Track gold into wards. But our minor mistakes aren’t important anymore. I’ve long since secured enough of a lead that squandering it would take more effort than we have in us. At least I’d like to think so: you can never be completely sure in a DotA pub.

Eventually we do get the kind of straight fight that every military leader with superior arms and numbers, and Han Solo, longs for. A bunch of our heroes against a bunch of their heroes, in our top lane, without them being able to pick us off or run away. Luna gets an triple kill, thanks in part to the Gem that Mirana just bought. We keep pushing, going for towers now, and they no longer have the option of running away. At 27 minutes we take out their last tier 2 tower and head for the high ground of their middle lane. They have no more gas in the tank, and I’ve got my Aghanim’s Sceptre. Nature’s Prophet tries to deflect us by blocking our creep wave near our tier 2 tower, but it doesn’t matter. We get both Barracks. It’s all over and they only thing left for them to do is start accusing each other of being Peruvians.

good game end

Did the other team make really dumb picks? Definitely. But that part of the game is out of my control. What is important to me is that I made the right plays when it mattered. For the first time in a long time I know that I was the greatest part of my team’s victory, and some days that’s all I need.




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