There's always a lot going on in Dota 2, so let's learn about the elements of the game and what important things the commentators frequently point out.
Whether you're actually interested in playing Dota 2 or not is another story, but chances are, you might at least want to watch it. If you've found the game confusing, don't worry, you're not alone -- there's a lot going on in this game at any given time. As anticipation for The International is heating up, you'll probably find yourself wanting to join in and watch (and please do, watching Dota is a lot of fun, especially with friends!).
I will attempt to give a semi-thorough explanation of the basics of the game along with essential terminology that you're most likely to encounter while listening and watching. Let's get into it while celebrating MOBA week with Game On!
Dota 2 Map and Lanes
In terms of the basics: Dota 2 is made up of a 5v5 between two teams, the Radiant and the Dire (that's always assigned randomly). Both sides are mirrored and have identical bases, and the goal is to destroy the opposing Ancient, the key building, sometimes also called Throne. That is the only way to win the game, as the heroes have unlimited lives and always respawn (with increasingly longer timers the longer the match goes.)
There are 3 lanes, bottom, middle, and top, and that's where a lot of the action takes place. Every 30 seconds, little monsters called creeps venture out from both sides to meet and battle. Heroes can kill them for gold and experience, getting stronger, while trying to KO the other heroes. Each side has its own Safe Lane, Mid Lane, and Offlane. The Safe Lane is easier for the respective side, and the Offlane is harder.
Each lane has 3 towers in it, the furthest ones being the Tier 1s (weakest), then onto Tier 2 and Tier 3, which start in the bases, ending with the Tier 4 towers, which are right in front of the Ancient.
In between the lanes, there are many trees, which offer cover and ample opportunity to ambush the enemy. There are also neutral monsters which can be defeated for additional gold. Gold is really important in the game, because items that you buy in Dota 2 are really powerful. They can help counter the enemy lineup and vastly increase the power of your hero.
If you're more of a video person, check out this 2-minute official overview; the map is slightly outdated, but all the information holds up.
Dota 2 Hero Positions
The top of the screen shows images and the current health and mana for all heroes. It's useful to look at throughout the match, especially when spectating, as it shows who is currently dead and how time is there left for them to respawn, whether their ultimates are ready, etc.
Let's start with the stars of the game -- the heroes. Dota has over 100 heroes (all available for free without paywall), so trying to provide a guide to all of them would be a task above my paygrade. So instead, let's try to understand what a team composition in Dota is supposed to be like. Each team is made of 5 heroes, and their "positions" are often referred to by numbers, 1 through 5. Those numbers have twofold meaning: you instantly know which heroes are "more important" than others on your team (as in, they should get more gold) and also they correspond to positions. Let's break it down.
Position 1 - Carry
This is the core or carry of the team. They should get the most gold, so the rest of the heroes needs to focus on protecting the 1. The heroes who are 1s have some sort of abilities that scale really well with time and items acquired in the game, so later on in the match they become really powerful (thus, "carrying" the game to victory). They always start in the Safe Lane (bottom lane for Radiant, Top lane for Dire) with another Support.
Position 2 - Mid
This is the midlaner. Those heroes will almost always 1 v 1 the other hero in the midlane, so they need to be effective at pressuring the other hero while securing last hits (killing the little minions to get gold). These heroes will level up faster since they won't share experience gains with another hero, thus, they will get more powerful faster.
They can quickly gank other lanes and set the tempo of the game.
Position 3 - Offlaner
In the offlane, they are the heroes that get the last hits, so they get a gold advantage and pressure the enemy Position 1. These heroes most often are pretty tanky guys and gals. Think of them as a solid, durable hero who gets in the face of enemies and initiates the fight for a favorable outcome. They will often get Blink Dagger for mobility and some other items that make them survive a lot of damage.
Position 4 - Soft Support
These heroes vary a lot, but they usually are able to deal a lot of damage and set up kills with stuns and disables. They can roam around the map some and assist in other lanes. They start out in the lane with the 3, the offlaner. They also buy support items.
Position 5 - Hard Support
This is a fully dedicated support that will most likely have the least gold in the game, because they don't spend time earning gold. Their focus is assisting the teammates in fights by throwing out their spells, so they are most likely some kind of caster or healer-type hero. They direct a significant portion of their disposable income to support items like Wards and regenerative items or gear that can be used to protect other heroes.
Even if you don't know all the abilities of the heroes, you can understand the game a lot better if you can grasp the structure of the team and see what each hero tries to accomplish.
Dota 2 Glossary and Terms
A unique and powerful upgrade for every hero. It's usually some kind of unique ability or it can add a whole new dimension to one of their skills. For example, Crystal Maiden's Freezing Field will also apply one of her other spells as they take damage, which means they'll get stuck in place during her damaging area spell. The Scepter truly is a signature mark of any hero, and they're universally awesome upgrades.
In games, you'll see some heroes rush for this item, trying to get it as early as possible, or sometimes it's more of an icing-on-the-cake type of deal.
Think of this as a "minor upgrade" in comparison to the Scepter. For 1,400 gold, your hero gets a unique upgrade; sometimes it's a new ability, sometimes an existing ability gets stronger. For example, Invoker will drop 3 Chaos Meteors instead of just 1, and the cooldown of the ability is reduced.
These are little bounties that give gold to your entire team. At the beginning of the game, 4 Bounty Runes spawn, and the teams will skirmish for them. Later on, these show up every 3 minutes on both sides of the map. You are free to steal them from the opponents' side, as this both denies them the gold that they would get and fills the coffers of your team.
BKB (Black King Bar)
Black King Bar is a very important item in the game. All the time, you'll hear casters go off about BKB, BKB timing, etc. BKB allows the wielder to become immune to spells for a limited time, which means they won't be affected, stunned, damaged, or disabled in many other ways. Late game fights will revolve around the timing of this item, because it also has a long cooldown. You'll recognize that this is on because of the golden aura around the user.
This is another key item that any hero can get. Blink Dagger allows short-range teleportation. It's perfect for certain types of heroes that want to get in the face of other enemies and start the fight or surprise them. It's also great for escaping, though it can't be used if you've been damaged in the last 3 seconds.
When your hero is dead, there's nothing you can do... except pay up a significant amount of gold to instantly revive (no, this isn't pay-to-win!). It's a bold, risky move. Not only you're paying a lot of gold to instantly come back, but if you die again, your death respawn is much longer, and then the Buyback function has a long cooldown.
However, in the right circumstances, you can use this, quickly teleport back into an ongoing fight, and help turn the tide for your team. It's a tough decision! In late game fights, you'll see teams doing this a lot -- there's a specific sound that accompanies this action.
Everyone has a courier; it's an adorable little friend that fetches items that you buy from your base straight to your hero.
If you aren't careful, though, your courier can be killed by the opposing heroes! Don't worry though, the items won't be permanently lost. Killing a courier awards a small sum of gold to your team.
Those are the little soldiers that leave your base and go into lanes. They clash with each other, and the heroes need to "farm" them by dealing the killing blow. They are necessary for destroying towers and pushing into the enemy lanes. There are also "neutral" creeps in the forest areas that can be killed for additional gold.
Day and Night Cycle
A subtle but important mechanic in the game, every 5 minutes the game changes from day to night. During the day, your heroes have more vision and can see further beyond the "fog of war" (places where you don't have vision currently). At night, this is much reduced.
There are also a few heroes whose abilities interact with this cycle, such as Night Stalker, who get much stronger at night, and can even cause temporary nightfall with his Ultimate.
In the corner of each base lies the Fountain, the safest spot on the map. You can buy items here and the healing powers of the Fountain bring up your health and mana to the max.
Fountains will also attack enemies that enter this area.
In other words, an ambush, a gank is when enemy heroes surprise you with the aim of destroying your hero. If you aren't paying attention to the minimap or your teammates don't tell you that the enemy left the lane recently, you might get caught off your guard. There are also ways to become invisible in Dota 2.
That's a dead Crystal Maiden right there!
An important topographical term that you'll hear a lot from commentators. Positioning in fights is ever so important because of the terrain features, which has some stairs, hills, and cliffs. You can't see higher up a terrain unless you walk all the way up, but your enemies can see below, so they can already start targeting you with spells and attacks -- and being first is very often a key between winning and losing that engagement.
Whenever things get tough, you'll see teams retreating further to their base, which is easier to defend from because it is on high ground.
The items that your hero gets during the game. Most often, some heroes typically go for certain items to raise their durability or attack power. However, certain items also grant special abilities, which are often key in defeating the enemy. Do they have a sneaky Sniper who keeps pew-pewing in the back? Get a Blink Dagger to get right on top of him. Are you the Sniper player who keeps getting ganked? Get a Shadow Blade which grants you temporary invisibility on call for a chance to escape, or, conversely, to land that first shot.
There are so many items in Dota 2 that grant you various abilities, from supportive to damaging ones. There are handy guides included in the game so that you don't have to worry about looking them up outside the game, and it's easy to queue them up.
The River is an important divider between the two sides of the map. It's sort of "no man's land." It's lower than other terrain, so you lose that high ground advantage.
Powerful runes that give temporary power-ups spawn here every two minutes, and to the north part lies Roshan's pit.
Roshan is the strongest "creep" in the game, a neutral boss monster that can be killed by either team. Whoever kills him not only grants a good amount of gold for the whole team, but they can also equip the Aegis of the Immortal, an item that will automatically resurrect your hero on death, granting you a second life right in the middle of a fight.
Roshan can be killed multiple times and grants increasing rewards. It's an important strategic objective; the pit has cliffs around it, so enemies can't see, so they have to rely on sniffing out the other team making a move on Roshan (also, killing him takes some time). It's most often done while a few of the enemy heroes are out of commission.
Heroes can be afflicted with a variety of disables, which make them unable to perform certain actions. Stuns are very common; your hero is unable to perform most actions during it and is vulnerable to further punishment. There are many other status effects, for example Silence (can't cast spells or abilities), Disarm (can't use the regular attack), or Rooted (stuck in place and unable to use movement abilities). Knowing which kind of disable is good against the enemy is extremely key in Dota and is part of a good itemization strategy.
See Aghanim's Scepter.
See Aghanim's Shard.
Smoke of Deceit is a team item that grants your heroes a special type of invisibility. This is different from just being invisible in other means, because you can't be seen by wards. However, if you get fairly close to enemy heroes, the smoke just breaks.
You'll see teams doing big, strategic plays with this, as they will gather up, use the item, and move deep into the enemy territory to completely catch them off guard.
Towers and Tiers
There are four tiers of towers, each higher tier deeper into your territory. They mark important distinctions on how much territorial advantage each team has. The deeper your team is, the less territory the enemies have to feel safe and to get gold. Towers can also see invisible units.
Each tower will strike at creeps, and it will start shooting at your hero if they're the last target or if you attack an enemy hero under it. The creep waves also spawn catapults that are particularly good at damaging towers.
There is a Glyph of Fortification team ability that can grant temporary invulnerability to all your buildings for a short time.
This is the key building in each base. It must be destroyed to win, while yours must be kept alive. It can't be damaged until the two Tier 4 Towers in front of it fall.
The most powerful ability of each hero. These become available at level 6. They usually have a very long cooldown, though not always, as there are some that are passive skills. The ninja Riki becomes permanently invisible and receives bonus backstab damage. Enigma can trap all of his opponents in the Black Hole, potentially winning the entire fight for your team. Monkey King summons a giant ring of statues that protect him and attack enemies.
Casters might often mention that a certain ult is "down," meaning it's on cooldown or it has been used recently.
A very important component to the game, it basically means what is "actively revealed" on the map. Anything on your team gives you vision, whether it's your buildings, towers, creeps, or your teammates. Otherwise, you don't know anything about the enemy movements, as they are obscured.
Wards are items that help with this. Generally used by supports, there are two types: Wards and Sentries. Wards grant vision, while Sentries do not, but they reveal invisible things around them. Both of these types are invisible themselves, but you can use Sentries to "deward" or destroy the ones that the enemy planted, if you can sort of guess where they placed them. The spots tend to be pretty common, or you might guess based on the enemy movements and activity.
Most screenshots taken by author, a few images from Dota 2 Wiki
Watch a game of Dota 2
Want to just see a game in action? We streamed a game of Dota 2 (starring yours truly)! Together with RaiBOT1, I explain as much as possible while playing. It was an exceptionally hype game, too. Check it out.
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