What sort of cognitive processing is happening that allows you to make big plays on your favorite hero, but stumble around with an unfamiliar one?
In a recent DotaCinema video, Sunsfan and Synderen (playing Vengeful Spirit and Bounty Hunter) had a humorous and interesting exchange after Sunsfan made a surprisingly impressive (for him) force staff play as Vengeful Spirit:
Synderen: “Very nice. Here’s what’s interesting to me. It isn’t just that you’re better at the hero, you get better at Dota when you play a hero you are good at.”
SunsFan: “Why do you act so surprised?”
Synderen: ”If you had a force staff on Veno there, you would not have made that play.”
SunsFan: “Well, that’s true.”
Synderen: (laughs) “You know it’s true.”
Dota is a daunting game to learn for a newcomer. There are 113 heroes and each one is elegantly designed to play and feel just a little different than any other hero. And then there are the items, the secret and side shops, the creep camps, the ward spots, creep and tower aggro, the juke paths and the weird spell interactions (what’s a strong dispel anyway?).
But if you’re like me, you’re queuing unranked with friends and you can’t resist the sweet siren call of the Random button on the All Pick selection screen and that extra 200 starting gold. And then suddenly you’re playing a hero thinking, I know what these spells should do and kind of where to cast them but everything is just harder. The movement speed feels a little off and last hitting, always a problem, is slightly more of a problem. Not only do you miss the clutch force staff plays, but you don’t see that gank coming from mid lane – even when there’s a ward.
So what’s happening? Why does an unfamiliar hero make you bad at Dota even over and above figuring the cast point and mana cost of some new abilities? There are two aspects of how cognitive processing happens in your brain that make this happen:
#1: Dota is a hard game
There is a lot of knowledge and there are a lot of mechanical skills and subtle interactions. Just trying to last-hit creeps, you have to track your hero’s speed, position, projectile velocity and creep damage rate. And then if you are in a 1v1 or 2v2 lane, you need to see what your allies are doing, what the enemy heroes are doing and if you are suddenly in danger of getting killed in lane, or just getting denied a last hit. All the while figuring out your skill build, item plans, lane rotations, and remembering to carry a tp scroll. The game is designed to push your cognitive capacity. There’s enough going on you can’t really track everything perfectly, so you have to prioritize and eventually learn to rely on and communicate with your teammates.
#2: Skill learning is your friend
Mechanical practice improves speed, accuracy and importantly for Dota, reduces the cognitive demands of basic actions. This frees up mental workspace to check the minimap, or spot a gank coming to another lane, or make an inspired play with a force staff. Skill learning, though, takes time and many repetitions before automatization starts to kick in. Plus, it’s pretty inflexible, meaning that training on one hero doesn’t help as much with similar heroes as you’d think. With 113 heroes to learn that’s going to take an awfully long time to try to get automatic on all of them.
One of the other curious aspects of the skill learning process is that it generally makes you better without you knowing exactly why you are better. You know you played a lot and that it’s easier now, but exactly what you learned is not available to conscious awareness. This kind of learning is called ‘implicit learning’ and reflects a different kind of memory in the brain than trying to memorize the names of all the heroes and spells. That’s why a highly experienced player like Synderen, who has expertise on a wide range of heroes and game strategies, still remarks with surprise how Sunsfan is just better at Dota on a familiar hero.
Skill learning benefits from repeated experience is why single-hero spammers will always have higher MMR than me. And it’s why even the pros will throw out a respect ban on occasion for somebody’s best hero instead of trying to counter it in game. While there's something to be said about playing every hero, you might want to reconsider smashing the Random button.