PC Gamer

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2, and this is the last installment for 2014. We'll be back in January!

Dota 2 is a game about momentum. That's an often-repeated truth—it's one of the best ways to explain the drama of a competitive match without getting into the inaccessible specifics of high-level play, and it's a piece of advice that I return to over and over as I try to get better at the game. The momentum you build in the early game is important, but what wins matches is your ability to translate that momentum into a strategy that leads, step by step, to the enemy ancient. A dominant start is great, but it needs focused guidance to make good on its potential.

I am a middling Dota player at best, so it's in the midgame that most of my matches stall. Luckily, I can rely on the fact that most of the people I'm matched with are bad at closing out games too. The story of Dota, most of the time, is the story of a team with a bunch of kills and big items trying to summon enough collective will to achieve something in the here and now. It's the story of people wandering off to farm for no reason, of Roshan attempts left uncontested and teamfights lost because the carry has decided to chase Puck halfway across the map rather than pin down the soft and slow enemy supports left behind. Of a lack of focus, in short, and of the faint disbelief that comes with losing from an advantage: 'we were fifteen kills ahead! Why are they knocking over our tier four towers?'

This is also, I think, a fairly good metaphor for Dota 2 as a whole in 2014. This was the year that, after the giddy rise of the game's first two years and the triumph of its departure from beta in 2013, Dota 2 settled into its all-important midgame. And, consistently, what we saw spoke to a mellowing scene and a downward shift in momentum.

Four new heroes were released in 2014 compared to ten in 2013, and two of those arrived right at the beginning of the year—so much so that Terrorblade and Phoenix feel like part of the previous set. An equally dramatic shift occurred the previous year, of course (more than thirty heroes were added in 2012), but it nonetheless speaks to a slower rate of change. The coming engine update and addition of custom game modes will be the most significant thing to come to Dota 2 since its inception, but they arrive at the expense of the Diretide and Frostivus events—and, I suspect, at the expense of Winter Wyvern, Abyssal Underlord, and Arc Warden.

For Valve's part, they've actually got much better at talking to fans and setting expectations—but the nature of that communication has always been 'check back in 2015'. It's like struggling through your midgame and deciding that you're going to take the game late. "Just farm and we'll be fine" is often good advice, but it's hard not to feel some of the same inertia, that nagging concern about whether it's all going to be worth the wait, when so little happens for so long.

If the internal development of the game has entered a kind of passive hibernation, then the growth of the professional scene is defined by a fitful emergence into the real world. The relative simplicity of the last couple of years is over: there are dozens of tournaments now, arguably far too many, and not a single event I've attended this year has been free from technical or scheduling problems of some kind. Top-tier players feel overstretched and under rewarded, and play and audience numbers both suffer as a result. EternaLEnVy's blog on this subject has its detractors, but a lot of what he says is believable in a scene that has grown this quickly and with this little guidance.

E-sports has ever been thus, and the solution is never easy to come by. Centralised control a la StarCraft's WCS can kill momentum just as readily as a run of badly-managed individual events, and besides it's an approach that runs so counter to Valve's philosophy that we might as well write it off as a possibility right now. Valve's faith in the wisdom of crowds is rewarded when the data they gather is processed by a team that understands the limitations of that process. Ceding control of the professional scene for most of the year to a scattering of e-sports organisations doesn't constitute quite the same thing: it's chaos that can only resolve itself by passing through periods of rough adolescence. That's what this year has been, I think: the overconfident teenage Dota 2 scene stumbling into arenas that are too big for it, business deals that do not benefit it, and schedules that it cannot sustain.

That this year's International was a bit of a let-down is actually a separate problem, one that stems from Valve's own stop-and-start growth as an event showrunner. Could they have anticipated that the popularity of exclusive Secret Shop wizard hats would drain a third of the arena at any given time? Probably not. Should they factor that in next year? Absolutely, yes. Could they have guessed that the metagame would stabilise so absolutely—and in such a boring way—right before the grand finals? No. Does it require a response? Again, yes.

2014 revealed 2013's wonderful International to have been a perfect storm in many ways: a confluence of a dynamic scene, fluid metagame and intimate venue that well suited the type of event that I associate Valve with. It can be that way again, I think, but work needs to be done both on the game and on the structure that surrounds it. Meanwhile, the broader pro scene needs to find its feet again, and stabilise long enough for accessible narratives to emerge that we can watch play out on the road to TI5.

This has been a muted year for Dota 2, but it is not—to borrow one of the community's favourite phrases—a dead game. Nor is it dying. It's simply reached the point where, for the first time, growth for growth's sake isn't good enough: where momentum needs to be matched with strategy. Dota 2 just lost that big teamfight around the nineteen minute mark that tells you you're in for a fifty minute epic. Victory is on the cards, but now it's going to take work.

Happily, I think that's what is happening. Valve need the technical apparatus in place to allow them to update the game regularly and sustainably, and that's exactly what they've spent so long creating. The new engine will enhance their ability to entertain the community, and custom game modes open the door to a potentially-infinite source of new ideas. Patch 6.83, released this week, continues the work 6.82 started. Dota 2 is slowly evolving into its next form, and while that work started in 2014 I think we'll feel the result most keenly next year. Finally, the pro scene will be forced to change. MLG and JoinDota are taking an active role in restructuring and unifying fractured tournaments into something better, and player feedback (even if it comes in the form of protest) should force other showrunners to seriously consider the logistical task they're setting themselves when they go for this venue or that schedule.

You know that bit, in a Dota match, when your team loses momentum and somebody immediately taps out 'gg'? That's what I think we've seen in the last couple of weeks. 2014 was a stall, but not the end—and if anything, Dota 2 looks ready to take this one very, very late.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2.

I've written a lot about the importance of attitude in Dota 2. 'How you act' is as interesting and important a subject to me as 'how you play'—or, at the very least, it's the subject that I feel I'm more qualified to talk about. I've got two and a half years of Dota experience, but significantly more experience of being a human who has to interact with other humans in order to achieve things and be happy. Dota is no different to a vast number of other difficult things you might try to do with other people in that regard, and there are patterns of thought and behaviour that, once you learn them, are a general help. You will be a better player, I've always argued, if you spend some time learning how to avoid being a dick.

I've come at this idea from a couple of different angles over the last six months. Recently, though, I've had another run of unhappy encounters with the game. You might have picked up half a paragraph ago that there's a 'but' coming—something that complicates my typically unquestioning approach to The Importance Of Being Nice. There is a 'but' coming, I'm afraid. Specifically, a 'butt'. I am the butt. I have been a butt, lately. That was a pun. I am really sorry.

I've realised, the hard way, that keeping your shit together during a stressful game isn't something that you learn once and take for granted. Even writing essays about this stuff isn't enough, it turns out, to prevent a backslide into being a backside to your friends. I experience this feeling of having broken my own rules with sufficient regularity that it has become a recognisable psychological scenario in my life: lying in bed about 1am, wishing that I could have closed out that last game of Dota without being a dick in this way or that, feeling generally and pervasively unhappy about the type of person I can become under pressure.

If you've got to this point in the article and thought "chill out, man, it's just a game" then, well, yes, that's the goal. But games make you have all kinds of thoughts and feelings—that's why you play them. You probably play Dota 2 because of the feelings it makes you have, and those feelings make you do things. Controlling what the game makes you do is important. There's no 'just a game' here because games are powerful, and no 'chill out, man' because chilling out is, paradoxically, hard and requires work. Besides: I've been going deep on Dota 2 for long enough now that I might as well keep going. I'm pretty far up the Mekong at this point. The horror, the horror, and so on.

I've realised that setting yourself rules doesn't work if you struggle to provide yourself with an environment where following the rules comes naturally. An analogy for this problem would be the difference between a practice game and a streamed competitive match: the strats you plan, the high-concept drafts you consider can crumble quickly when the parameters of the game change. The same is true for a rule like "never start a sentence with 'why'"—it makes tremendous sense on paper, but Christ! Why did she/he/we try to contest a Roshan attempt that she/he/we knew they were ready to defend? This stuff is rhetorical comfort food. It's bad for you, but it makes you feel better and it's hard to resist unless you are specifically ready to resist it.

One of my new rules, appropriately enough, comes from preparing for competitive matches: treat every game like somebody else is watching. I realised that my outlook is generally more positive when I'm streaming or playing with strangers. If I treat Dota 2 like a performance then I find it less stressful and my behaviour is better. There are obvious concerns raised here about how authentic I'm being—but honestly, I'm authentically an asshole. I'd rather be a pretend person who is fun to play with.

The second point is related, but almost the thematic opposite: watch how other people play for your benefit, not theirs. I'm terrible at this, because I'm bossy and habitually micromanage unless I make myself stop. The key thing I've realised is that in the vast majority of cases the small inefficiencies I might perceive in someone else's play are either entirely in my head or totally insignificant to the match as a whole. The urge to educate is more accurately an urge to replicate my own behaviour in somebody else. And I suck! I'm far more likely to learn something about what I'm doing wrong by watching somebody than find something to correct in them—and its even less likely that what I attempt to correct will be so significant that it's worth sundering the mood of the game to do so.

There's one exception to this, and it's when someone has actively and clearly asked you to comment on what they're doing. It's nice to be micromanaged by a better player—useful, fun, energising. You should try it. But doing so unbidden, deliberately or not, is pointless. You might as well walk up to somebody in the street, look at their outfit, and advise them to wear all of your clothes because they're your clothes, and they fit you, so they must be the right clothes.

The key here, I think, is recognising the benefits of actively cohabiting rather than passively coexisting. That sounds pseudish and awful but there's truth there. Being actively engaged is key, because you can't ever trust your passive urges to lead you in the right direction. I might really want to chew somebody out for a mistake, and it might make me feel better, but I know from repeated experience that it'll make me feel bad later. I'd be dumb to fall into that trap again.

Finally: quit while you're ahead. There's another thing you should never do even if you really want to, and that's play another game of Dota 2 when you just lost one and you're already tired but you really want to win. This is the error, for me. It is the fun-killer, the little death that brings total obliteration. You've got to Bene Gesserit up in the face of that 'just one more' urge. It won't be fine next time. You won't learn, because you're already tilting. Nobody ever turned a tilt around by tilting harder in the same direction. Tilts do not work that way. They are not cyclical.

The ultimate way to create a scenario where you don't lose your temper with your friends is to go the fuck to sleep. You can't stare at the ceiling at 1am regretting your decisions if you're happily unconscious by then. This is the nuclear option, I guess, but honestly? The community as a whole would be much more positive place if Valve tried an event where players earned Arcanas by taking a lovely nap every time they lost a game.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer

In today's bit of good news/bad news, Valve's Dota team says a "major improvement" to the Dota 2 engine is in the works and will be released sometime during the first half of 2015, enabling the ability to quickly create entirely new game modes. Unfortunately, that means Frostivus won't be happening this year.

Frostivus is a seasonal Dota 2 in-game event that first took place in 2012, offering new maps, game modes, unique items, and even bits of holiday-themed lore. It was actually canceled last year, as you may recall, to make room for the resurrection of the Wraith King, and the year before, for "the Greeviling." And now it's been canceled for 2014 as well, but this time for more pragmatic (and, unfortunately, less entertaining) considerations: The amount of work required to build the updated game modes for Frostivus was prohibitive, especially since it would all need to be completely rebuilt once the engine update is released.

"With [the annual Halloween event] Diretide this year, we decided that it didn t make sense to build another one of those resource-intensive game modes," the developers wrote in an update. "Now that Frostivus is on the horizon, we find ourselves facing a similar choice and, after some thought, we believe that once again the right choice is to not develop a Frostivus game mode."

"We will continue to avoid building new game modes until the engine improvements come along," it added, but that doesn't mean there will be a complete absence of fun stuff between now and then: The developers are already working on the New Bloom Festival, scheduled for February.

PC Gamer

MLG and joinDOTA have announced plans to team up next year to create what may be the largest Dota 2 league in the world. The planned league will span three separate seasons, each leading to a LAN playoff and then a World Championship final slated to take place near the end of 2015. All joinDOTA Division 1 teams from last year's season will be invited to compete for a spot in the finals, and other top teams from around the world are being invited to join as well.

The new system will also be open to other players: The two leagues are working to incorporate MLG Pro Points into the joinDOTA League, which will allow players "from across the board" to compete for a qualifying position in the finals. A total prize pool of more than $565,000—a minimum of $475,000 in prizes and $90,000 in travel support—is up for grabs.

We have always wanted to create something big with MLG and it doesn t get much bigger than this, joinDOTA Project Manager Jacob Toft-Andersen said in a statement. By linking the joinDOTA League together with MLG we can create consistent LAN finals with a big grand event the scene can be proud of.

Details about qualifying tournaments for the new MLG-joinDOTA League system and the incorporation of MLG Pro Points will be revealed soon.

PC Gamer

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2.

Last week I wrote about how Dota earns its popularity by offering two contrasting paths to improvement: knowledge, which you accrue steadily over time, and sporadic opportunities to demonstrate your creativity or superlative skill. You climb the ladder all the while hoping that one day (maybe today!) it'll be you that lands that perfect Reverse Polarity, you that scores a Rampage. At the time I was trying to figure out what makes the game compulsive, but I've returned to this line of thinking as I've started closing in on what, exactly, I need to do to stop sucking at it.

The short version is that none of the things I desperately need to fix have anything to do with knowledge. The relatively straightforward, steady stuff that I've been accumulating in my brain for the last couple of years is only so important. Item builds, hero builds, combos, drafts, macro-scale strategies: these things are diminishing in importance as I realise just how much I've got to learn about execution, personal discipline, and strategic awareness.

I think a lot of Dota players find themselves in this position, even if they don't know it. Finding someone to blame in a pub-game-gone-wrong is almost always a case of locating the person who went for the weird item build, picked the wrong hero, or otherwise stepped outside of the community-ordained norm (which is subtly, but not entirely, distinct from the metagame.) This is because these things are relatively obvious, and often they are indicative of a lack of experience. This attitude is a problem insofar as it indicates the belief that playing like everybody else is how you go about winning games of Dota. Beyond a certain point, this simply isn't the case.

I can't take total credit for this line of thinking: I've been playing with Blitz a bunch, lately, and absorbing a 6k MMR player's attitude to the game reveals a lot about life at 3k. Almost everything I need to work on has to do with the personal, creative, and strategic side of the game. I figure some of these thoughts may be useful generally, so this week I'm going to lay out a few rules for winning more matches in the future.

Take fewer risks in drafts. This is mostly something I'm trying to factor into drafting in Captain's Mode, but it applies any time you're picking a hero. I have a really bad habit of drafting combos that work on paper but, practically, require a degree of coordination, individual skill or luck that isn't going to happen. Maybe I'll get my perfect five-man Reverse Polarity once in a game, but one teamfight victory isn't going to turn the game around. Drafting easy is more about humility than metagame nous: it's about accepting that I'm not always able to force a best-case-scenario for my team, and that often the best thing I can do is go for heroes that I'm comfortable with, that have reliable stuns, that aren't as flashy, perhaps, but who give me options.

Play simple, stick to the plan, and communicate. There's this little voice in my head and all it ever says is 'what if now is the time to one-versus-five the entire enemy team!' That sounds so stupid when I write it out that I wish it wasn't painfully true. Even in a competitive context, I labour with the notion that there's somewhere in the current game situation where I can make a big play. Instead, what I should do is identify a measurable goal that my team can achieve and start moving directly towards it, making it clear to my allies that this is what I'm doing. No screwing around. No more 'I was just trying to...' moments. The most dangerous thing about gambling is the feeling that next time the odds have to come up in your favour: Dota's like that, but the thing I'm gambling with every time I take a chance on a virtoso play is my teammates' time. I'd rather win, honestly, and that means keeping it simple.

It's amazing what you can do if you wait ten seconds to make sure everybody understands the plan and is in position to do it. It's also amazing just how many matches are lost by one or two people lagging behind, or a single person deciding thinking 'oh, it'll be fine' right before rushing into Roshan before their team has had time to de-ward the pit.

Move past farm. Here's a potentially contentious one: I think, beyond a certain point, that gold is a bit of a crutch. It's important, yes. Item timings on certain heroes in certain roles can be huge. I played a lot of Spectre for while, and Terrorblade. I'm used to seeing every creep kill missed as a dramatic failure, measuring my performance solely on Radiance timings and the amount of the jungle I can hoover up all at once. It's not just hardcore carries that experience this: to climb into the intermediate bracket, one of the things you learn is to never leave gold on the table. Most pub teams aren't great at closing out games, and a lot of games are won by whichever squad has a bigger bucket of money to beat the other guy up with. It's a numbers game, in that sense.

But it's also a game about destroying an ancient. To do that, there are going to be lots of times when taking a tower is more important than wiping out the jungle—or when securing Roshan is better than a pick-off kill. I'm working on my ability to prioritise. Unless you're truly gifted, playing for later can only help so much if you're losing now. That farm can wait. What is our plan? Where should I be? How can I help?

Don't overthink it. This is a tough one, particularly as somebody who has overthought Dota 2 for—hang on—thirty six articles, including this one. Thinking is part of the game, as is (if you're me) second-guessing yourself and your team. If I leave my lane to gank, am I failing in some other way? We've been hanging around for a few seconds —are we wasting time? In these scenarios, the existence of the question is a sign that something is already wrong: you should already know the answers. You should know what your (hopefully straightforward) game plan needs you to do, and you shouldn't have any doubts about doing it.

This has actually been incredibly liberating. Knowing that I'm doing the right thing when I leave my lane to gank—because my team has discussed it beforehand—removes the anxiety that comes with the move, and it's that anxiety that slows players down. And, unlike the guy who sets off into the jungle in the hope of making the star play, I understand the limitations of what I'm expected to achieve. Kill mid and retreat, force a rotation, burn through some of the enemy's regen—whatever it is. Trust in your ability to get that done and call it a good job.

This is, in part, represented by a willingness to move the focus of my thinking from knowledge ('draft this and we'll win') and on to execution—more games have been lost by bad positioning than by bad picks. On the other hand, it means exercising a degree of control over all of that imaginative investment: setting reasonable expectations, playing selflessly, staying calm. The game is compulsive because of the tension between these competing threads—but ultimately, I've come to believe, becoming a better player means learning to move beyond them.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2.

There's a certain kind of comment I see below these Dota 2 columns that has always made me think. They show up every other week or so, and usually run along the lines of 'I don't get it', 'boring game', or 'who even plays this?' Standard anonymous point-scoring, for the most part. Comments by people who have an opinion and don't care if it's true or relevant. These are bad-faith lines of enquiry: the commenter doesn't care for an explanation, they just want to be seen asking the question.

It's an interesting question, though, and one that has stuck with me. How has this genre of game, unfriendly, competitive, complex, time-consuming as it is, become so dominant? It feels like we've skipped a step: gone straight from 'check this out' to 'I'm sick of cash-in MOBAs' without the exploratory middle-period in the genre's life. That this is the most popular form in PC gaming at present goes largely unquestioned: the reasons why—and the lessons we might learn from interrogating them—have been more elusive.

This, also, from a genre of game that on the surface lacks any of the game mechanics that you might think of when you consider compulsive loops or systems designed for player retention. Your progress in a given game of Dota 2 is reset when the ancient explodes. Any collecting or levelling you might do in the game is purely cosmetic and entirely optional. Your 'score'—your matchmaking rating—fluctuates based on performance and is not intended to be grown beyond the level suitable for you. Indeed, popular as trying to game the MMR system might be, doing so is totally contrary to the system's purpose—unless you genuinely are improving as a player, in which case the system is working as intended.

MMOs are popular because the entertainment value of moment-to-moment play is matched by tangible, measurable progress in areas that are visible to other players: your character's level, their gear, your guild's progress through a series of raid bosses, whatever form it takes. Your play serves a greater purpose, and it's this purpose that keeps you coming back. The same is true for Farmville, for Fallen London, for any other example you might pick: persistent progress brings you back.

I don't believe that the potential to jury-rig a progression system within Dota 2's existing structure accounts for its popularity. Collecting cosmetics, gambling on professional matches and grinding out MMR are marginal pursuits within the hobby, not intrinsic to its appeal. That appeal, then, is something fundamental to the act of play itself—the simple (or not so simple) reality of the game, divorced from whatever hunter-gatherer instinct it might otherwise be tickling.

There are, I think, two principles at work here. The first is what I'd call the genre's 'emotional efficiency'. Dota 2 is, functionally, a competitive micro-RPG that provides opportunities for individual and collective heroism. The emotional 'payout', here, is the feeling that you or your friends have achieved something genuinely noteworthy; that you are special, powerful, skilled, fortunate.

The previous best example of a publisher-popular 'cash-in' genre, the MMO, chases the same feeling across years of player commitment. In this example, the feeling of power comes from toppling a raid boss following weeks of preparation. The problem that MMOs face is that this feeling is ultimately an illusion. The same boss will be defeated in the same way by many other people. The only players for whom genuine heroism is an option are those who achieve world-first raid wins, a tiny fragment of the population equivalent to the number of people who play Dota 2 professionally.

Even though the vast majority of people will never become pro players, each Dota 2 match (or League match, or Smite match) is its own competitive space, distinct from every other instance of that competition that has ever taken place. You will never encounter the same combination of players, characters, items, scenarios twice. Acts of skill or power are legitimate, in this context, because they are unrepeatable. Your heroism is not an illusion because you only get one shot at it.

Furthermore, these games achieve this feeling with a relatively small number of tools—a pool of characters, a set of game mechanics, a single environment—and each instance of the game takes a manageable amount of time to play out before the board is reset. Contrast with the MMO, where offering new opportunities for heroism requires constant work by the game's developers: new areas, monsters, missions, narratives. A lane pushing game can achieve the same thing with a single new character, or with a balance patch. The format is efficient, which makes it manageable for players to consume in vast amounts and practical for developers to create and maintain.

The MOBA is the emotional payout of an MMO in tablet form; minus the years-long social investment, plus the compelling quality of an experience that can be repeated over and over and over in the space of a single day.

The second key principle is that persistent progression mechanics and compulsive loops are not entirely absent—their expression simply takes a different form. You might talk of World of Warcraft being addictive because it combines fixed ratio reward schedules (reliable gold and experience from quests, exploration and farming) with variable ratio schedules (the chance for random loot or lucky wins on the auction house.) The casino analogy feels more applicable here than it does with Dota because the rewards being offered are analogous to the physical rewards most associated with gambling: gold, coveted items. The fixed ratio schedule gives people an incentive to keep investing their time, and the variable ratio convinces them that they'll one day win big. The result is a traditional compulsive loop.

This same combination is present in almost any other game with loot, and that's where you'll find it talked about most often with regard to games—my friend Matt Lees discussed the same subject in this interesting video about the console MMO Destiny. These principles are equally applicable, however, to the psychological processes operating within players themselves. 'Reward' need not necessarily mean gold or items: it can refer to more nebulous things, like the satisfaction of learning or the accolades that follow skilful or imaginative play.

Dota 2 combines fixed and variable ratio schedules in the way it distributes information. Every time you play, you are steadily learning new things about heroes, items, combos, techniques and so on. The amount that the game asks you to learn is vast, but manageably so: there is always the sense that there is more to learn, but not so much that you can't play right away. For the WoW player, their experience is a bar that runs along the bottom of the screen, steadily growing; for the Dota player, it is a feeling—also steadily growing.

All competitive games have this aspect, but the Dota formula is distinctive because of the amount of creative space it provides. It is possible, at every level of play, to be the one exceptional mind that comes up with a silly combo, a play, a draft that wins a game and earns you a story to tell. These aren't high-level or professionally legitimate expressions of skill, but chance wins that make for good YouTube nonetheless. This is how a variable ratio reward schedule can manifest within a competitive context: not in terms of an epic item from a trash mob, but in the eureka moment that produces Blink Armlet Dagon Terrorblade, or the Five Man Bird Bomb.

No other competitive game, I would argue, provides this balance between steady progress and the chance for creative triumph. Only the very best StarCraft players will ever earn the right to define their own meta and win; Counter-Strike players are judged by extreme degrees of finesse within the binary framework of a gunfight. There is absolutely skill and beauty in both of these examples, but they lack the aspirational quality that comes with creative space—space created by Dota's lack of structural grace, by the sheer volume of rules and exceptions that make it so daunting on paper. Its complexity isn't just a ladder that you climb: it's a sandbox for you to make your name in.

These games are interesting because they fall far outside of the format that we'd associate with accessible or addictive games while operating, I'd argue, on many of the same principles. In offering an emotional payout in place of an ultimately-thin sense of progress, they suggest that it's possible for 'compulsive' to be divorced from 'unhealthy'; 'time-consuming' from 'a waste of time'. There an awful lot of people playing these games, and I find it heartening to think that the majority of them are getting something out of it beyond a few numbers on a character sheet.

You might not get why these games are as popular as they are, and you might be justified in sighing next time another major publisher announces that they've bought a studio you like and set them to work trying to beat LoL: but there is a message communicated by this popularity, and it's one that says better things about gamers than any essay on compulsive mechanics or player retention ever will. It's that true emotional payout is everything: deliver the feeling, earn the player.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here. Thanks tEskil Steenberg for the discussion that helped to flesh out a few parts of this article.

PC Gamer

Each Friday the PC Gamer editorial team convenes at a secret mountain lodge to discuss the deeper ramifications of the week that was. The gl wein expenses are killing us.

THE HIGHS

Chris Thursten: Well strike me down It finally happened: I found another lane-pushing game that I like. The Smite regionals in Cologne are to blame: I went in a novice and came out wanting to give the game a try, and now my lunch breaks are consumed by Arena. This is well-timed, really: 6.82-era Dota 2 doesn t reliably fit into 45 minutes any more, whereas I can play a couple of games in one of Smite s lighter modes in that time. I m still not quite feeling brave enough to head into full 5-on-5 play, but that s partly because I m really enjoying the 80% Arena winrate that my transferrable Dota 2 skills (such as they are) have granted me.

More to the point, I like the little things that make Smite less of a fraught experience than the game I m used to: the tactical necessity of retreating to base, the rhythm of pokes and ganks, the way ults operate as much as a make play button as a oh god guys we need to teamfight we re wasting time button. I m sure the game has those elements, but at the moment it feels like a holiday in a more straightforward land. There s a chance I d enjoy League of Legends for similar reasons, but I ll never see the point in committing to a game where your account level dictates anything about your potential power in-game. Smite earns a lot of good will by dodging that, and by offering an affordable pack ( 20/$30) that allows you to unlock every character, past present and future.

Shaun Prescott: A truly disturbing shooter I haven t actually played GAME OF THE YEAR: 420BLAZEIT vs. xxXilluminatiXxx [wow/10 #rekt edition], but I ve seen enough gameplay footage to know that it s a work of art. Created by Melbourne developer Andy Sum for the recent Seven Day First-Person Shooter Challenge, watching GOTY is like listening to Lou Reed s notoriously unlistenable Metal Machine Music LP. It s a distillation of everything ugly and garish about modern blockbuster gaming: the unmitigated bloodlust, the corporate synergising, the flagrant macho stupidity of it all. While the parodic game is ostensibly funny , it s also weirdly disturbing: this is a part of our culture that seems fairly commonplace, until it s paraded before us in such a concentrated fashion.

Phil Savage: The unbearable lightness of being I recently completed a big, sprawling RPG—one that took up a solid week-and-a-bit of my life. Afterwards, I was in need of something smaller, lighter and altogether more silly. The answer, it seems, was bears.

At this point, I think I've played more of Far Cry 4's map editor than I have of Far Cry 4. It's great. More importantly, it's dumb. I'm not sure it's meant to be dumb, but the way I've been using it is. With a few clicks you can set up a ridiculous scenario, and then head into play mode and watch it play out. For the most part, I've been stacking animals. Or blowing up animals. Or blowing up stacked animals. One day, I might make a real map. More likely, I'll try to jump over a pyramid of bears with a tuk-tuk.

Tim Clark: More bear love I suppose it s uncool to admit that I m enjoying what s essentially a clever marketing campaign, but the truth is the Good Ship Cool long since sailed for me, and I m straight up loving the daily drip feed of cards from Hearthstone s Goblins vs Gnomes expansion. We got to reveal one ourselves earlier today—Hail, Iron Sensei!—and you can read my ramblings about all the recent cards here. So far easily my favourite is the Druid s Anodized Robo Cub. Not the flashiest creature in the game by any stretch of the imagination, but a wonderfully flexible early drop for a class that badly lacked exactly that. Also, the art is adorable. And if you re not choosing at least a couple of cards based on irrational love of the artwork, you re Hearthstoning wrong. 

Tyler Wilde: Goat MMO Simulator Bears are fine, but goats are where it s at this week. A new free expansion turns Goat Simulator into a (fake) MMO, where you can quest to pick up apples and infiltrate a sheep village, but mostly just headbutt people into ragdolls. I m still with Andy on Goat Simulator—it s silly and all, but I haven t found much actual entertainment out of it—but this update was too clever not to try. For one thing, you can play as a walking microwave. Just like I always dreamed. It also does a great job of simulating MMO chat convincingly enough that, for a minute, I questioned whether it was fake. Even better, it inspired a very stupid article, so I have it to thank for that.

Tom Senior: Dying a thousand deaths I have bled to death in an abandoned apartment complex. I have died of severe hypothermia in a field. I've been hit in the leg so hard I've crumpled to the ground and been mauled to death by a desperate stranger. You too can experience the panic and misery of the post apocalypse in NEO Scavenger.

This low-fi survival game only lets you carry what you could feasibly carry in two normal-sized human hands, which forces painful decisions between whether you ought to keep a shard of glass for defence, or a blanket to fend off the elements. A bag, shoes, a roof over your head—these are as gold dust in the cold plains of future Earth, and if you survive long enough to find them, you've got a shot of unraveling the mystery behind the planet's devastated state. There's horror out there in them hills, from cannibals to killer robots. It's rather good so far.

THE LOWS

Chris Thursten: Phantom controversy The tendency for hardcore games communities to transmute passion into disappointment and rage is a source of constant bemusement, for me. It sometimes feels like you re not allowed to love something unless you re also convinced that it could be ruined at any moment—that every change, or absence of change, is a disaster. This attitude gives developers no room to move, and can turn exciting reveals sour in moments.

Valve released a new hero for Dota 2 this week, Oracle, along with an event associated with a premium item for Phantom Assassin. This is the first event to substantially interact with the playing of regular matches, and as such its implementation warrants some scrutiny. But that s not what I d call the reaction on Wednesday, when a leaked list of the event s features (many of them false) caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The community set to building THE END IS NIGH signs over a set of assumptions that didn t even turn out to be true: such a waste of energy.

Today s the first day of the Foreseer s Contract update and people seem to be having fun with the new systems. There are even reports that the event is encouraging greater cooperation between players. Valve s tinkering might just have yielded something fun and innovative, but it was still deemed a disaster before the truth was even out.

Tom Senior: Mob-o-geddon I m in a positive mood this week, so my low is secretly a second high (shhh, don t tell anyone), in that I ll use it to express frustration that I m not playing Lost Ark at this precise moment in time. I m a big fan of the ARPG genre, but as much as I enjoyed Path of Exile s cerebral charms, I ve always wanted someone to push the genre to new heights of lunacy. Lost Ark lets you sail around the world fighting huge ghost ships. One of the classes lets you shoot huge dragons at mobs, or summon god-sized elemental beings to stomp on enemies. Watch the trailer and just look at how big those mobs are. Look at how pretty it all is. Damnit, hurry up and get on my PC.

Tim Clark: Crying foul  Continuing with Tom s definition-bending theme, my low eventually became a high. We took some flak behind the scenes this week from Ubisoft, who weren t pleased that we d referenced the recent buggy launch of Assassin s Creed: Unity when we explained why our Far Cry 4 review was late, and that in the interim buyers should probably exercise caution until the state of the PC code could be confirmed. I mean, god forbid a company s blockbuster game should be mentioned in the same breath as another blockbuster a game it released a few days previously.

In the end I think our scepticism was justified, given that the publisher had to create a live updates site to deal with the brace of patches needed on release. For the first 24 hours I couldn t get the game past the menu screen without it crashing, on a PC that ought to have been capable of handling it on Ultra without breaking a sweat. Andy had a happier time, as his review in progress notes. The full verdict will be up early next week. Here s where things cheer up for me too: With both patches applied and a new driver installed, Far Cry 4 is now running fine. Better than that, in fact, it looks absolutely sensational—as this video which the other Tom made shows. I can t wait to make the inhabitants of Kryat s acquaintance. A weekend of extreme taxidermy awaits.

Shaun Prescott: Official VR support for GTA 5 seems unlikely With the arrival of GTA 5 s first-person mode on new generation consoles, and its release for PC in January, it seemed inevitable that VR would come into the equation somehow. Indeed, it seems like the only valid reason a studio would bother retrofitting a whole new perspective into an already immensely popular game. Alas, comments this week by Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick seem to indicate that VR won t be officially supported (Take-Two is Rockstar s parent company). Zelnick thinks the industry isn t ready for VR yet, and while there s little doubt that enterprising modders will get it going, it s still a little disheartening.

Phil Savage: Expecting the Inquisition Last week, we successfully landed a probe on a comet. In space! This is a thing that people envisioned and built and made happen. Given this—and, while we're at it, given the entire scope and wonderment of human achievement—how come we still can't release a video game on the same day worldwide?

Dragon Age: Inquisition has only today been released in the UK. The USA and others have had it since Tuesday. A few extra days might not seem like much, but it's a story based game and the internet exists. People are rightly precious about spoilers, because discovering the story is part of the pleasure. And yet, the risks are now out there. YouTube is filled with cutscenes of late-game missions, wikis are being updated with newly learned fates, and pricks are simply being pricks. We don't communicate across national lines any more, but our media is still held back based on arcane contractual tradition. That these restrictions are so easy to circumvent reveals them for what they are: artificial restraints with no justification or benefit.

Tyler Wilde: I want to walk in Dragon Age: Inquisition I m really enjoying Dragon Age: Inquisition, but one thing is bugging me (well, aside from the stuttering, but I m hoping the latest Nvidia drivers solve that.) I can t walk. This is a big deal. Seriously.

With a controller, a light touch on the analog stick triggers the walking animation. But I am not using a controller, and there s no key to toggle walking. It s driving me crazy. I spent an hour making my character just right (she looks a bit like Mireille Enos in The Killing), and now she bolts around everywhere like an idiot. Mireille Enos doesn t run everywhere! She walks purposefully. If she s going to have a conversation with someone, she doesn t sprint into their faces, bashing nose against nose. YOU WANTED TO TALK? No. She walks. Calmly. Like a human being.

Thank goodness I m not the only one asking for walking, and Creative Director Mike Laidlaw is on the case. Unfortunately, BioWare sort of needs to make sure the game is working for everybody before addressing a design issue like this. I guess that s more important. But I can t wait for the walking patch.

PC Gamer

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2. Well, mostly about Dota 2. Image via ESL's Flickr account, credit Helena Kristiansson.

I'm going to try something a little different this week. It might be alarming, and I don't want you to panic. This week's column is not going to be entirely about Dota 2. It's going to be about a related game, Smite, and a recent experience that has helped express something I've been considering about competitive games in general. A lot of the things I've learned and written about while playing Dota could apply to Smite, League of Legends, Counter-Strike, or any other team game: this is simply the furthest I've ever taken that notion.

The Smite pro scene is currently undertaking a run of regional championships to determine which eight teams will earn a place at the $1.3m World Championship in January. Last weekend I attended the European finals in Cologne, a modest event by modern Dota standards but a reminder of how exciting it can be when an e-sport is still finding its feet. The Smite scene is young, and it lacks the history, orthodoxy, and to an extent the politics of professional Dota 2 or League. You should be watching Smite right now because this lack of precedent means that upsets are more likely, bringing the personalities of individual teams and players to the fore.

(It also means that there are a load of UK players in the scene, which was such a novelty I'm still not sure I believe it. I'm so used to encountering my countrymen exclusively as casters and personalities that meeting a British pro player elicits genuine delight and surprise, like seeing a cool dog in the pub.)

Nobody has successfully codified what makes a professional gaming team effective—or an amateur team, for that matter. There's a lot of chaos in the system, and few formalised practices regarding coaching, management, or training. Underprepared teams sometimes win through superlative skill; prepared teams sometimes win through collective discipline. Sometimes there's a little of both, and sometimes there's no pattern at all. I followed Alliance because of the attitude expressed by Loda during this interview; I also understand why old-Na'Vi and their particular swagger drew the approval it did (and does).

E-sports are, I think, a few years away from approaching the kind of stability encountered in traditional sport—and I don't think there's anything to be done to speed up the process of getting there. The only power we do have, as fans and players and managers, is to decide what we're going to focus on: what approaches to play that we'll celebrate, which attitudes we'll try to imitate. It's in this way that it's possible to exert a degree over control over the tone of a game, whether that's just for you or your friends or for the community as a whole.

There is, I think, a natural but problematic imbalance in the kinds of top-level plays that garner attention. Specifically, it tends to be solo players and virtuoso moments that hold the most sway over the minds of the community. It's easier to build narratives around individuals than teams, and it's easier to imagine yourself as the game-winning lone wolf than it is to see yourself as the guy who really knows how to ward. This is the essential root of every drafting disaster that has ever happened to you in ranked matchmaking. It's why people seek other individuals to blame to preserve their own ego. It's why the community flips out about solo MMR in what is fundamentally a team game.

The reason I want to celebrate teams that win the other way is because it sends a message to the community: things do not need to be the way they are. When a team's collective strength is their greatest attribute then it suggests a better way for players to interact with one another. The best recent example of this that I can think of took place in Cologne, in Smite, when Aquila (a Cognitive Gaming team) stormed the regionals through determination, preparation, and teamwork.

Aquila are more or less the dream, as far as e-sports success stories go. They missed out on inclusion in the Smite Pro League by a single game and had to fight their way into the regional championships through the Challenger Cup, also known as the amateur league. They had their own coach and analyst before being picked up by Cognitive but are otherwise fresh to the circuit—Cologne was their first LAN. While certainly underdogs, there was nothing scrappy about their approach to the game.

"I don't think any other teams prepare in quite the same way as we do" team captain Nate 'Ataraxia' Mark told me after their first match. "We're much more formal."

And what a first match. Notable chiefly for featuring the most profound upset in competitive Smite, Aquila vs. Cloud9 turned on a dime when the latter refused to press their advantage in the second game to close out the set 2-0. C9 were maybe two or three auto-attacks from ending the match when they backed off, and while the obvious narrative here is that they threw the game, they were able to throw it because Aquila kept their shit together in the face of first-round elimination.

"No-one was saying anything bad" Ataraxia said. "Everybody kept positive, which is fantastic—especially [support player] KanyeLife. He never gave up. He was always upbeat, always positive."

That ability to keep their heads in the game ultimately turned that game around, and the momentum from the win carried them through the decider. Then they defeated Fnatic 3-2, claiming a spot at the World Championships; finally they beat SK Gaming 2-0, earning the European title. Both of those victories were at the expense of teams that prioritised their star players—Xaliea for Fnatic, Realzx (and increasingly maniaKK) for SK.

Aquila's playstyle stood out to me because, unique among the Smite teams I watched, they valued objectives and efficient rotations over raw individual fighting power—something that the game emphasises given its focus on action. They are extremely disciplined (a little like 6.79-era Alliance or recent Virtus Pro, Dota fans) and I wasn't surprised to hear that they're known for how seriously they take match preparation.

"I'm kind of strict on the guys" said Aquila coach Job 'CaptCoach' Hilbers. "Around some of the other teams, there's not really a strict format. I set up a training schedule, make sure that everybody's on time and that they get everything they need. I make sure that they can fully focus on the game."

There's this notion that creeps around the competitive gaming scene that preparing beyond a certain point is trying too hard: that it's better to win without the effort, if you can, and that strat spreadsheets should be the preserve of teams whose shirts are already covered in sponsor logos, rather than the ones that want to get there. CaptCoach sees it differently: preparation is something that comes naturally as a consequence of the team's hunger to win.

"We keep very close track of what other teams are doing" he says. "And something that a lot of teams forget is that you yourself also need to look at what you are doing. We analyse ourselves like we analyse others so we know what they're going to see—what our weak spots are. Then I want to eradicate those."

Self-knowledge is, I think, the difference between a good team and a potentially great one: it's the answer to ego, and ego is pretty much the root of all evil in a competitive context (the caveat here being that evil is fun.) "There are teams where you have star players that get pulled ahead" CaptCoach says. "I try to keep everybody level, make sure that everybody's comfortable. That's my most important job."

I wish that 'comfort' was more highly regarded, as an attitude to competition. Comfortable players don't rage or look for somebody to blame: they don't demand particular heroes or roles or lose their minds when told what to do. It is, inevitably, harder to identify heroes to worship when what makes a team special is the fact that they have no heroes; but it's also important. The community would do well to celebrate the successes of teams that genuinely and seriously treat each other as equals—no matter how cheesy those prematch fist-bumps can be.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2. Artwork is 'Tidehunter' by MikeAzevedo.

I'm playing through Dragon Age: Inquisition at the moment. It's great—probably my game of the year—and you should  read about that elsewhere. Its greatness isn't what I want to talk about right now. Yesterday, I made a decision in the game that actually broke my heart. I picked a dialogue choice from a list and something happened that made me so unhappy I had to take a break from the game. I thought about it, and talked to Phil, our News Editor, who has finished the campaign, and then I went back and unmade that decision. Normally, I would never do that. But this time I decided that I didn't want to be sad and so I loaded a save and picked the other option from the list.

That is how 'regret' most commonly manifests in your experience of playing a game. You go back and replay the section and alter your decisions, or play with more skill, and you bring about an outcome that you're happy with. Even in competitive games, where exact repeats are less likely, there are still scenarios that you can vow to approach differently: next time, they won't get the flag out through the back entrance. Next time, I won't fall for a Dark Templar rush.

Dota 2 is a little different, at least in my experience of it. The individual components that make up a given competitive scenario are so complicated that you never really get repeats: you might experience a base race more than once, but it's very unlikely that you'll ever experience the same base race again. Your hero, your friends' heroes, your enemies heroes; who's alive, who's dead, who has buyback; items, ultimates, cooldowns. All of these things matter enormously. They all factor in to the decisions you make, and when you make the wrong decision it can be as heartbreaking as watching a tragedy unfold in a singleplayer RPG.

Last weekend I played another round in the games industry amateur Dota 2 league,  The Rektreational. My team, Venomancer? I Hardly Know Her, doesn't really practice. Actually, there's no need for 'really'—we don't practice. I jump into games with Pyrion, Shane and Phill from time to time and play with Pip a little more regularly, but as a stack our only experience of playing together is these matches. This means that the first games are always a little rough.

Our first game against League of Legends (best team name in the tournament, there) was more than a little rough. And we should have won, but I made a big mistake. With their carries dead but our ancient exposed we charged down mid and went straight for the throne. As Tidehunter with a Refresher Orb, I was sitting on a double Ravage: I felt confident that we could push through the three remaining supports and take the game. But they weren't there.

LOL pulled an Alliance-in-TI3 and bought Boots of Travel, closing in on our ancient as we took down their tier four towers. I should have teleported back then and there, but I didn't have a scroll. Stupid. I hesitated, thinking there might still be defenders in their base, and waited slightly too long before running to their fountain to buy a town portal and jump back. I ran from the fountain, Blink Dagger on cooldown, to try to get their supports in range of Ravage. I was maybe 200 units away when our ancient exploded—and among those tumbling fragments of our game-critical glowy rock garden were little shards of my self-regard. I was gutted. And you can't go back and fix that.

I'll never encounter that scenario again, and I'll never get to unmake that mistake. It just happened that way. One of the things that can be so frustrating about learning Dota 2 is that you can learn to recognise the mistake but the process of implementing that knowledge takes years to bear any kind of fruit. Another example: last night, in a JoinDota League match, my team successfully ganked a way-too-farmed Spectre carrying an Aegis. As soon as she fell we got ready to fight again. A thought wormed through my mind: their Tidehunter probably has Ravage. Brewmaster probably has Primal Split. They've got time to get here. We're probably already--

dead.

Whose fault was that? I genuinely do not know. Perhaps we were only delaying the inevitable. Perhaps I should have said something, or said it more clearly. Maybe the other members of my team should have seen what I saw coming too, and overcome the natural human urge to cooperate enough to back off on their own. Trying to unpick that game-ending catastrophe is like trying to unpick any other act of irrecoverable bad luck and failure—the unshakeable minor grief of missing the bus to somewhere really important. Except with wizards.

You can vow to do things differently next time, but that's only realistic to a point. You've probably learned something, but you'll probably never know: next time will always be different, and the reasons for your success and failure then won't necessary have much to do with how much you do (or don't) learn now

Instead, the conclusion I've arrived at is this: that making a mistake is, in some ways, its own reward. The feeling of recognising a mistake, horrible though it might be, is the only sign you are going to get that you are improving at the game. You were not a good player in that moment, but you are aware of some of the reasons why. You can never guarantee that you'll fix those problems, so you have to learn to derive satisfaction from your awareness of them. There are no repeats. But there is always the ongoing linear progress of your understanding, a mass of experience that can only ever be grown, never diminished, by the things you regret.

I still wish I'd teleported earlier.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer

Photo courtesy of MSI Gaming's Facebook page.

Despite fewer matches being played, today saw some of the longest and most exciting games of the entire tournament. For that reason, I'm going to get straight into the match reports: with day one's tech issues largely resolved, this was a day spent watching the most promising teams in the event Virtus Pro, Rave, Immunity and CDEC resolve themselves into a final ranking order. The results were definitely not what I expected.

You can find yesterday's write-up here, and VODs will be available via JoinDota's YouTube channel in the future. You can also find them inside the game client.

The semi-finals

I wrote yesterday that letting Rave.Chrissy play Timbersaw was a mistake that few would make again after his performances against Wired Gaming and Virtus Pro. In the first game of their semi-final best of three against Rave, that's exactly the risk that Immunity took. They picked up Batrider and Skywrath Mage two heroes that they favour alongside dominant early-game support Ogre Magi, Ember Spirit, and the increasingly popular Necrophos. Rave had Vengeful Spirit (now the defacto Batrider counter) as well as Centaur, Witch Doctor, Timbersaw and Terrorblade.

After Rave secured first blood following an over-eager tower dive by Ember Spirit I thought Rave were in a good place to dominate the game, provided that they could capitalise on the pushing power of Terrorblade and Timbersaw. Immunity's teamfight nous proved too much for them, however, and a succession of favourable trades as well as outright victories forced Rave to commit four or five heroes whenever they wanted to achieve anything. After that, however, the game entered a stable phase with neither team willing to risk an all-in engagement. This was a fairly common occurrence today, suggesting that the current patch has an issue with inertia around the thirty minute mark.

Immunity slowly ceded map control to Rave, but Necrophos' buyback-disabling Reaper's Scythe is designed to insure against exactly this scenario. After pickoff kills on Vengeful Spirit and Witch Doctor left Rave open, a follow-up Scythe kill against Terrorblade gave Immunity the time they needed to end it.

Parallel to the escalating stakes of the set, Rave and Immunity were by this point embroiled in an ongoing competition to see who could yell 'NICE!' louder after almost anything of any note happened. The teams were sat two banks of desks apart, and what started as a bout of self-aware self-hype turned into a running gag that was a lot of fun to watch. Claiming their game-ending Terrorblade kill caused Immunity to collectively yell 'NIIIIIICE!' in a way that was faintly harmonised in the manner of an amateur barbershop quintet. Digital sports.

Rave earned a series of increasingly enthusiastic 'NICE'es in game two, running the Medusa that they like to draft whenever they feel like playing Dota for a really really long time. This time the plan was to create space for the Medusa to farm, a strategy that Rave are obviously comfortable with. Immunity ran Void, Dragon Knight and Queen of Pain but struggled to deal with a roaming Puck and Chrissy's Timbersaw, once again. In the end, a contested Roshan attempt turned into a disaster for Immunity when their initial defense fell apart, and one teamfight later their base was left wide open to that well-farmed Medusa.

Immunity allowed Rave to pick up Medusa again in game three, this time supported by Earthshaker and Magnus. They took their own lategame carry in the form of Spectre, however, and an extraordinary performance by sLiCKz saw that hero pick up over 750 gold per minute in an eighty-five minute game. Both teams wanted it to go late, and go late it did, but Rave were relying on perfect Reverse Polarities to maintain their control and this simply wasn't as reliable as Immunity's Centaur and Brewmaster. Right at the end it looked like Immunity might throw the game when they went a little too aggressive on the high ground, but as soon as they pulled their discipline back together they managed to close out the game, and the set, much as they'd done to Bravado a day earlier. Nice!

On the main stage, Virtus Pro faced Chinese favourites CDEC. VP let Death Prophet get through the first round of bans previously, she'd always been struck out by this point but answered with a novel combination of Sven and Mirana that did a tremendous amount of work in the early part of the game. As Virtus Pro tend to do, they dominated in the first ten minutes while CDEC struggled to find kills without trading losses in return. Similarly, VP's Roshan discipline was used to good effect to secure their advantage going into the midgame.

Then, slowly, the game shifted. During another extended passive period both teams made headway towards the others' high ground, but it was ultimately CDEC's Slark that had the durability and damage to actually take objectives. And whenever VP committed to chasing Slark around the map, Death Prophet would be left to bowl over towers with Exorcism which is why the hero is first-ban material. Then, as CDEC got ready to push for mega creeps, the game crashed for everybody. GG was called by VP right then, instead of waiting for a remake simply to confirm the inevitable.

CDEC picked Slark again in game two, this time with a Void/Skywrath Mage combo. VP's answer as would become a trend was to draft for durability, with Ogre Magi, Tidehunter and Necrophos resisting the kind of pickoffs that caused so many problems in the first game. They forced bloody exchanges even when CDEC should have had the advantage such as when Chronosphere first became available. The game remained close for a long time, but VP's talent for getting the most out of teamfights and using Roshan to their advantage gave them the momentum they needed to win.

Game three took the trends of the first two games and stretched them to extremes. Both teams drafted fighting lineups VP taking Slark this time, along with Viper and Tidehunter, CDEC taking Enchantress, Batrider, Lycan, Puck but this played to VP's advantage more than CDEC's. They had a fantastic, aggressive start but couldn't quite close out the game before the now-traditional midgame doldrums set in. In this case, however, the mid and late-game took the form of a series of brutal, inconclusive teamfights as both teams stacked up on BKBs and slowly wore them down over the course of an hour. In the end, dwindling BKB durations made double Ravages relevant once again and a pickoff kill on Puck provided the space that VP needed to finally end the stalemate. They took the set 2-1, and advanced to face Immunity in the final.

Third place match

I was expecting CDEC to face Rave for the title, not for third place. There was a slightly muted air to this best-of-three, which took place on the community stage while StarCraft II took over the main stage. Rave struggled to find form in the first game despite flanking their Medusa with pace-controlling heroes like Silencer, Sand King, and Timbersaw. CDEC used a midlane Troll Warlord to boost the already-substantial power of Faceless Void, ushering the team to a confident win. In the second game, Rave experimented with Naga Siren, Slardar and Batrider but any split-pushing and ganking they might have aspired to do was effectively curtailed by Ember Spirit, Nature's Prophet, and Vengeful Spirit. The set ended 2-0, with CDEC claiming third place in the tournament but you could tell that neither of day one's best teams expected to find themselves in this position when all was said and done.

The grand final

Virtus Pro clearly believe that this patch is about teamfights, and today that belief was proven to the tune of $30,000. They received fierce argument from Immunity, however, who attempted to build their victories around one-off killing power and hard-farming carries. In game one of the best-of-five, this gambit worked. VP allowed Immunity to pick up Batrider, Queen of Pain and Silencer, with Ogre Magi to secure the early game and Phantom Assassin to grow steadily more terrifying as the game wore on. A controlling combo of Puck, Vengeful Spirit, Tidehunter and Wraith King offered some resistance, but by the 35 minute mark Phantom Assassin was simply too powerful to ignore. VP made them work for it, but before too long sLiCKz was landing crits that'd make a grown man cry. Or an ice ghost explode, depending on whether you are Ancient Apparition or not.

Tidehunter was VP's first pick once again in game two, as Sedoy's offlane hero pool settled into Bulldoggian levels of consistency. This time they pulled in Viper, Slark, Sand King and Vengeful Spirit too, effectively sending the message that they'd rather not die at all if Immunity would be so kind. Immunity stuck to their Batrider and Queen of Pain, but they failed to shut down Slark with any degree of efficiency. Just as CDEC had done to VP earlier in the day, VP used Slark's mobility and carry potential to control the map, and ultimately the game. With the set drawn 1-1, it was time for Immunity to rethink their strategy.

Their initial picks in game three were representative of the tournament in general Ogre Magi, Void, Batrider, Mirana. VP responded with their own comfort zone Tidehunter, Necrophos, Vengeful Spirit, Ancient Apparition but delivered the first surprise pick in the form of Legion Commander. I loved this decision. She shuts down Batrider and synergises brilliantly with all of their other heroes, both as part of a full group and in pairs. Immunity were left to choose a mid, and I predicted something like Invoker to bolster their damage and control. They took, to my suprise, Windranger.

At first, it looked like a disastrous decision. That predictable ganking and teamfight power coming out of VP dominated the first half of the game, with Legion racking up a respectable amount of duel victories. Immunity had a lategame advantage on paper, but VP were in a position to deny them the opportunity to use it. Then, both VP and the game itself lost momentum. The teams entered yet another long period of trades, with VP generally claiming greater map control but being forced to back off after every engagement. Then, sLiCKz's Windranger entered her own dominant phase. During one base defense he landed four perfect Shackleshots in a row, and when Windranger utterly destroyed Legion Commander in a duel-gone-wrong (thank Daedalus and Aghanim's Scepter for that) the game suddenly looked winnable.

And it was. Windranger's extraordinary damage output posed a serious problem for VP, who had grown overconfident. Chronosphere became a way to set up targets for Windranger to destroy, a status quo that will probably cause pub Voids everywhere to faint from the scandal of it all. But when Immunity started to venture beyond the river, Necrophos happened. Losing Windranger to an upgraded Reaper's Scythe was all it took to place the game firmly back in VP's hands, and this time they didn't squander the opportunity to end it.

The beginning of game four made a fifth look inevitable. Against a strong Immunity line-up including Ember Spirit, Razor, Batrider, Skywrath and Sand King VP took Lycan, Enigma, Tidehunter (who'd have thought), Witch Doctor and Venomancer. Put it this way: I've seen Venomancer show up as part of a push strat in a BO5 grand final on two prior occasions and neither TI3-era Na'Vi or TI4-era ViCi seemed particularly happy about it afterwards. VP needed to win the early game convincingly and got off to just about the worst possible start by losing Enigma to a five-man Immunity rotation before the game even began. Ember Spirit, Razor and Batrider all got off to good starts, with Batrider managing a solo kill on VP's safelane Lycan that made Witch Doctor look like a neglectful parent.

Napping clusters of StarCraft II commentators sighed and anticipated the extra hour or so they'd have to wait before the SCII final. I started to wonder what had possessed VP to gamble this hard. Then, VP proved their point about teamfight lineups to the exclusion of all doubt. A Refresher emerged on Sedoy's Tidehunter depite his rough start, and well-placed Poison Novas and a string of perfect Black Holes gave Immunity no space to move.

'No space'. That was a space joke. Black Hole. Never mind.

MusiCa's Ember Spirit picked up a tremendous amount of farm two Daedaluses, a Battlefury, and so on but it wasn't enough. In the final engagement of the tournament, three successive Sleight of Fists yielded precisely zero critical hits as RNGesus turned his gaze away from the floundering team. And while teamfight ult after teamfight ult forced Immunity back into their fountain, a comfortably-farmed Lycan did what Lycan does when he gets inside your base. Immunity's ancient exploded and VP collected their giant cheque as the speakers blared the impressively literal 'We Are The Champions' over the cheering crowd.

Consistently, VP struck me as the most disciplined and experienced team in this tournament and that bore out in the end. Where others lost seconds arguing about their next moves, VP simply acted and they kept their cool as the long days wore on, even if that meant running similar drafts over and over. Of all the teams in contention at MSI Beat It, they are the closest to cracking the current meta: and they cracked it by pressing 'R' at just the right time, over and over and over.

To read more about Dota 2, check out Three Lane Highway.

...

Search news
Archive
2014
Dec   Nov   Oct   Sep   Aug   Jul  
Jun   May   Apr   Mar   Feb   Jan  
Archives By Year
2014   2013   2012   2011   2010  
2009   2008   2007   2006   2005  
2004   2003   2002