Dote Night: The Training Wheels Of Wizardry

The tutorial creeps are adorably enthusiastic

Part of a miscellany of serious thoughts, animal gifs, and anecdotage from the realm of MOBAs/hero brawlers/lane-pushers/ARTS/tactical wizard-em-ups. One day Pip might even tell you the story of how she bumped into Na’Vi’s Dendi at a dessert buffet cart.

Having spoken so much about Dota in this column (as you would expect) and having made it the subject of a Have You Played…? it occurs to me that I’ve never really done a post aimed at newcomers thinking of trying out the game. Until now!

There are plenty of beginners’ guides out there but Dota 2 itself now contains a bunch of tutorial missions and quests. With that in mind I’ve spent the last Dote Night of 2014 having a good old poke about in the tutorial missions and seeing how well I think they explain the game.


So you’ve downloaded the game and booted it up. Excellent work. Now you’ll need to answer a question or two. That’s because current Dota 2 actually makes some gestures towards user friendly-ness. I remember glaring at this screen when I saw it earlier on a smurf account and thinking “you people don’t know how easy you have it! Why in my day we had to walk twelve miles up the lanes in the snow and no-one could afford boots etc etc etc”

ANYWAY. The game will ask you what your level of experience is and you can tell it whether you’re a total novice, whether you’ve been playing Dota 2 for ages or whether you’ve played another game of the same ilk – HoN or LoL or similar. Putting it on the complete novice setting will take you through to the tutorial sections. If you clicked a different option and can’t find the tutorials just open up the play tab and then pick “training” from the left hand side.

They don't call me Notorious P.I.P. for nothing

The first is a video which gives you an overview of the game and explains the basic setup of each match. You’re one of a team of five, you’re trying to push into the enemy’s base and destroy a building called an Ancient and you have access to a number of resources to help with that. It doesn’t go into any real detail on how a lot of things work though so bear in mind that even though it covers a lot of ground I don’t think it offers up enough information for playing. It also uses an older version of the Dota 2 map so things like Roshan’s lair will be in a different place when you get into the game.

The first two tutorials have more of an RPG element – creeps demand your help, you have to rendezvous with other heroes who have gone on ahead and you fulfil specific quests. What you’re learning as you do so is applicable in the main game, it just feels a bit odd knowing how divorced the main game’s matches are from these tightly choreographed experiences. Tidehunter scales a cliff and destroys a bridge in a couple of set pieces which I really liked and a friendly parrot follows you around telling you what to do. In real Dota, Tidehunter would have used a blink dagger to turn up unwanted and unannounced (instead of any of that clambering nonsense) then unloaded a shit ton of stun in the form of his ultimate, Ravage, while all his mates proceeded to rush in and clobber you. The parrot would probably be replaced by someone on text chat saying “OMG Y?????????!!!”


I feel like a number of the basics are explained effectively – last hitting, how you earn experience, the general importance of a character reaching level 6, staying behind the creep line where possible to minimise the damage you take from creeps – those sorts of shenanigans. That said, some ideas are hinted at and then just left dangling. For example, runes are mentioned in the introductory video but none of the tutorial sections ever broach the subject. There’s also a thing you can do which is called pulling. When you pull creeps it means you get them to notice you by dealing a bit of damage and then moving away so they follow you. In the tutorial this is actually mentioned and you use it to drag some creeps over to where your own creeps are standing and thus get the latter to start dealing damage.

In the game proper you can use pulling to make sure there are no creeps in a neutral spawn area which tricks the game into thinking all of those creeps are gone and spawning another set. By doing this a few times you can stack up sets of neutral creeps ready for another hero (or yourself) to farm them for gold and experience. You can also pull one of these stacks to the lane creep wave to divert and manipulate that flow a bit. I appreciate that’s a bit advanced and it’s more about exploiting a mechanic in the game when it comes to stacking but I’d say there’s no harm in mentioning these other uses exist, especially since they’re a big part of play once you start improving and on a professional level.

After a couple of mechanical tutorials you’ve got a Sniper vs Axe lane exercise, a lane practice where you attack and defend towers using heroes from the Limited Hero pool and then it’s on to bot and then human games. There’s a last hitting introduction and practice option as well, although having started working through the tutorials that has now disappeared from mine which is irritating. I suspect that’s because the game now thinks I need to play against real people for the first time before I progress or something odd but I thought I should mention it in case it’s playing up for other people too.

The thing is, although the basics which *are* communicated are done so pretty effectively there is an overwhelming amount which gets omitted. The runes thing is one, the importance of Roshan is another, then you’ve got warding, jungling, how you understand and select items, what being a strength or intelligence or agility hero actually means in terms of how characters build, how roles work… It would be a lot of effort to add those tutorials in and keep them up to date (that Sniper tutorial is going to need a complete overhaul when the Shifting Snows patch hits because it changes the way shrapnel works). But they’re all important parts of how the game works and I feel like at the moment the gulf between what the tutorials teach you and the point at which the training section introduces full matches is too vast. I can’t imagine not feeling totally overwhelmed at that point – and at so many points afterwards – as the onus is firmly on the player when it comes to deciphering the reasons things are going wrong.

I tried this repeatedly.

Luckily there’s a whole host of information out there which has been put together by a passionate community. Build guides are available in-game and, depending on the author, the description text can help you understand why you’re putting points into particular skills or building items. There are also the character information pages on the Dota 2 wiki, the extensive discussions of particular heroes and strategies over on Reddit, willing tutors and knowledgeable folk lurking on forums and messageboards, huge numbers of explanatory videos on YouTube, professionals streaming (and sometimes explaining as they go) on Twitch, Purge’s famous ‘Welcome to Dota, you suck‘ introduction… the list goes on.

But in terms of things I think the game itself should provide, I’d really like to see training modules for picking/counterpicking and for item and skill builds. When I say that I don’t mean talking in terms of there being a “correct” answer in those situations. I mean trying to give players the ability to look at situations or team composition and realising what might be missing – Are the other four chosen heroes melee? Do you have any reliable stun abilities on the team? Do you accidentally have three junglers? Obviously you’d still be free to go with your wonky-as-all-hell lineup but you’d be doing that with a bit more knowledge on your side as to why it might be harder to pull off a victory or figure out lanes. It’s the same with item builds. There’s no right answer because in an ideal world you’re building in response to the game you’re having, making choices which fit those unique circumstances, but one of the most frequent panics I’ve seen in new players is over what the hell to buy with their gold. It would be great if the game offered a bit more on that front so the wall of icons in the shop didn’t feel nearly so daunting.

With that in mind, I figured I’d end this column with a request to anyone who plays Dota 2 – what is it that you wish you’d known when you started playing Dota? Perhaps by collecting those things here it might help make a newcomer’s life easier!

Here’s mine: I wish that in those first few games I’d known about primary attributes. Each hero is assigned either strength, agility or intelligence as their primary attribute. As well as influencing how the hero is best played, when you add points to that particular attribute (usually by buying items) you also increase your hero’s attack damage. Once I understood that, Dota got a whole heap easier.


  1. mr_ian says:

    Learn to count stuns in your lane. One of the hardest parts about Dota is knowing the skills of all the heroes you don’t play (I’m 500 games in and still rubbish at this). When you’re starting out, ask your teammates how many stuns and slows the enemy has. You will need to adjust your positioning most dramatically in lanes and fights based on that amount of “lockdown”. It also changes what your job is as a support.

  2. Bakuraptor says:

    I was lucky enough to have a few friends with whom I learnt to play dota, but I’m not really sure – beyond the transmission of the huge heap of information which dota requires you to learn – what I’d have liked it to tell me when I began playing. But fundamentally, I’d love it if there was a campaign mode in dota – which introduced you to a variety of the heroes in the game (hence letting you learn their skills), taught you more of the mechanical aspect (though fitting stacking/counterpicking/etc into such a setting would probably prove to be pretty contrived), and so on – they could even stick a bit more lore in alongside it, and the tools to make such a mode at least theoretically exist, even if it’d require a significant amount of work.

    The most difficult part of learning dota, really, is moving to a reactive mindset, where (for example) you put a ward to watch Rosh not because that’s what you always do but because you know that their ursa will finish his vlads soon and you want to keep an eye out for an early attempt. That, aside from the sheer mass of learning, takes a lot of getting used to – I certainly found it to be the hardest (very gradual) adjustment to make.

    That said, I’d generally say that making sure to have some stuns on your team is a pretty great tip (beyond general team composition); and, frankly, the advice that (if you haven’t picked and everyone else is already going carry) you should always go support and buy wards/courier, even if it makes you sad, would probably save a lot of folk from having the most frustrating sort of games you can have in dota.

  3. symuun says:

    It’s been a while since I did the tutorials – I just passed the three hundred gameplay hour mark this week – but I don’t remember seeing really anything at all about how to support. I feel like an in-game tutorial covering the very basics could help a lot. Here’s a ward, that cliff with the symbol on it is a good spot to place it. Here’s a Mekansm, go save that guy’s life. You could mention camp stacking, but like you say, it’s a pretty advanced system and definitely not something you need to know early on.

    This might have the added bonus of encouraging more people to play support, since the current set of tutorials are pretty focused on carries like Sniper.

  4. Sonny Bonds - Lytton PD says:

    I wish I knew to wait to calculate my MMR.. I did it when I was noobish and played mostly support now I am stuck in 1300 MMR hell.

    • Serpok says:

      If you are “stuck” in it – you are still “noobish”.
      Improve and you will fly up like a cork out of the bottle.

  5. av8r says:

    Understanding attributes is huge. I upped my game quite a bit when at some point I decided I wanted to learn how to support really well. It made me a better support *and* a better carry, because I started understanding how to work with the overall team. Having active supports makes a huge difference in the early game, and I’ve had many games where my kda looked bad but I knew I impacted the outcome of the game in our favor.

  6. madcat01 says:

    I’ve been playing VainGlory on the iPad having never played this genre before. I’ve barely mastered that simplfied version bu really like the gameplay of them. I was thinking of advancing and going for either Dota, LoL etc. which would people recommend to start with or is that the wrong question to ask?

    • Misnomer says:

      It is a fine question to ask. The answer depends on what you want to play. DOTA 2 is widely accepted as having a higher skill ceiling and a lower floor. This doesn’t mean it is a better game than LoL, it mostly means that there is a lot of complexity for the sake of complexity in DOTA 2 that takes a lot of time to learn. LoL attempts to be a version of the game that is strictly about being the best playing experience so you get into it faster.

      If you only have time to play one of them, decide how hardcore you really want to be. If you would like to dive into a crazy complex game and learn it inside and out while sucking for a while. Get started on DOTA 2 soon. If you want to succeed a bit earlier and reach higher levels of play earlier, LoL is probably more your speed.

      If that is too much to consider because you don’t know how you feel about complexity for complexity’s sake, play whichever one you have friends playing. Both games are more enjoyable with people you know.

      • madcat01 says:

        Thanks for the advice, much appreciated. I think I might go with LoL…

        • Selifator says:

          If you’ve never played any lords management/moba/dote-like (whatever the cool kids call it) games on pc I’d actually recommend Heroes of the Storm. It has a few advantages over LoL and Dota in that experience and gold is shared, which is not the case in the other two. So if you have a bad game or you are still learning things it doesn’t matter as much since your teammates can help you. Also the maps are smaller so people will be closer together and can help you more easily.

        • shaydeeadi says:

          Strife is also worth looking at, I’ve played a few rounds and found it preferable to LoL.. You have a cute pet with skills to upgrade, personal couriers for items, you can also queue as a specific hero so peeps dont fight over role as much on the pick screen. It’s pretty too.

      • Bremze says:

        The additional complexity also allows for greater flexibility. LoL has very rigid character roles and general game flow, kills outside of teamfights are somewhat rare. Dota character roles can be fluid depending on your items, team composition, gold earned and length of the match, skills tend to be very powerful but situational and early kills are the norm.

        Honestly, the games are very different so try both and see what you prefer.

  7. X_kot says:

    I agree with your assessment about giving more information about heroes and items. The designations attached to characters in the Library screen (“Melee”, “Carry”, “Nuker”, “Escape”) are helpful but only if you know what those things mean in the context of the game. (An in-game lexicon would go a long way to help integrate newcomers.) I’d also like to see something like that applied to items for quick reference (e.g., Mekanism: group heal, personal armor, high mana cost).

  8. DozIR says:

    This was a very nice read. I can relate when it comes to starting into Dota and the learning curve that comes with it (the first MOBA I really got into was LoL about 4 or 5 years ago). Upon taking on the dragon that is Dota, the item shop was daunting. It wasn’t until I read Purge’s guide that I understood how the items were split up and parsed from each other. I still find it somewhat sloppy, but its the slop I’m used to now and I’ve seemed to jump that hurdle. I just wish that its layout was a little more intuitive I guess.

  9. Tssha says:

    I played a lot of DOTA old school and I STILL don’t know how to pick items. When you talked about the wall of items my first thought was “oh gee, THAT hasn’t changed”.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely in the dark, but I still don’t know how to spend half my money.

    I know I’m spoiled for choice, but at some point you have to give players criteria for narrowing those choices down. Once you go beyond a dozen choices it becomes nearly impossible for a player to choose without some idea of what your favourite choices are already.

  10. Pantalaimon says:

    Considering that when Dota 2 started up we basically had nothing besides the valiant efforts of Purge, Lumi and co to teach us the reins – and before that, in the Dota era, it was by most accounts an absolute wasteland where most people didn’t really know a lot and the underpinnings of the game broiled in a primordial soup – I think newcomers are pretty well placed indeed.

    The official tutorials don’t teach you everything because a large part of the game is learning through trial and error (mostly error), and eventually players will progress based on the amount of extra-curricular study hours they’re willing to put in. I’ve spent far, far more time reading, thinking and talking about dota than playing the game. I bet for every match you could spend 10 times as long picking it over and learning things.

    What had I wished I’d known as a newbie? It’s a hard question. Those points along the road where a lightbulb appears above your head and you look back with newfound knowledge are absolutely magical. I wouldn’t change any of that.

    I guess something I want all people to know going in is that You Can Be The Good Guy/Girl. Even when everyone around you is losing their head, you can keep cool, focus on your own game, help those who are playing the game in a good spirit, and make progress personally even if the match is a write-off. A lot of playing Dota is about toughening up, for sure – and not just in response to the baddies. You need to be able to let game events bounce off you and continue to play, and this is perhaps the biggest thing separating the top players from everyone else, the degrees to which individual events will affect the wider game. BUT, at the same time, knowing when to soften up is massive. If you’re a support and your carry is having a hard time you’re probably the only person in the game at that moment that can help them out and keep their head in it. You can put your own worries aside and help them out instead. Later on they will hopefully repay you by punching the enemy to bits. This goes equally for the other roles, too. Know when to help, and know when to ask for help. It’s not always serious business :)

  11. Misnomer says:

    The tutorials need a better way to understand heroes. I am still just learning heroes in many ways and I am 44 into the all hero challenge. Until you play all the heroes, it is very hard to understand what they do. I imagine there is no good way to power through this process since even reading a wiki is going to leave you behind when it comes to timing, audio cues, and visual cues, but it seems like there should be some sort of hero training area. Something where you take a hero and just spam the crap out of their powers and find out about them without needing to play a full bot type game.

    A similar sandbox could be useful for items.

    • shaydeeadi says:

      create lobby -> enable cheats -> start game -> type into chat: ‘-wtf’ unlimited skill casting. It gets you some of the way, you can also just max your level/gold and do whatever in a lobby with cheats on, fill it with bots etc. It’s not perfect but it’s a start.

    • dotstdy says:

      Interestingly enough playing ability draft is a pretty good way of learning about lots of spells and potential synergies as well as getting a better idea for the stats of various heroes.

      Pro-tip for AD is to check the stats of the hero you’ve got before choosing your skills.

  12. BooleanBob says:

    I’m really not so sure there’s anything I would have wanted to know starting out that isn’t in the tutorial we already have. Even with the best tutorial in the world, it would be impossible for the game to teach you everything there is to learn in a timely manner. And it shouldn’t even have to – all the game needs to do is imbue the player with fascination to learn more about it.

    Because there are more efficient ways to learn about the game than a tedious, slow-moving, watered-down experience like an in-game tutorial can ever provide. There’s the wiki. Youtube. Competitive streams. Casual streams. Steam guides. Reddit. Playdota. Dotafire. All can improve your knowledge of the game in one way or another and are just a google search away. I’m sure I’m missing countless others off that list.

    But all of that can come much, much later. Rather than sitting everyone down and demanding they RTFM before they begin, I think this a game that’s best dived into, messed about with. If my continued time with it is proof of anything it’s that Dota fundamentally is a game is as much a game to be misunderstood as it is mastered – think Dwarf Fortress, and how losing can be fun. You might get an unwelcome surprise here or there, but you’ll know for next time, and the joy of applying that knowledge and using it to earn a kill or save an ally is all the sweeter for the hardships that preceded it.

    From the outside it might all seem daunting, but once you have a little purchase, once you can begin to appreciate the myriad intricacies of its moving parts, it’s a thing of wonder. Give it a chance to get its claws into you, and if you’re anything like me you’ll be hooked.

  13. Ashrand says:

    that sucking is fine, and even an enjoyable experience if done right

  14. RARARA says:

    Wizardry doesn’t need training wheels! He cut his teeth in ancient CRPGs, thank you very much.

  15. Everblue says:

    I wish someone had told me you could buy a ring of health from the side shop.

    • jrodman says:

      Side-shop contents are one of those bizarrely secretive components of the game. You can click on the side shop keeper to view the inventory, but it’s typically not worth the time to read through it while playing.

      Secret-shop specific items (items not in the fountain shop) are clearly labelled in the listings of items. It’s odd that the availability of the item in the side-shop is not.

      Compounding this, as you slowly memorize the lists, they periodically move things.

      • shaydeeadi says:

        Like how they just replaced talisman of evasion with broadsword in the side shop. I’ve never bought a talisman from the side shop in 2/12 years of playing, but this change means you can complete blademail in lane. Pretty handy.

  16. jrodman says:

    I was surprised that the tutorial had no real effective information on autoattack control, how to attack to deny. Those are very basic things and hard to learn from random website or the game options.

  17. Eriol says:

    Damage types and how to avoid certain damage types is something I wish I knew as a newbie.

    Magical, Physical and Pure are even more important now with the update where Magic Immunity was reworked into Spell Immunity and certain items like Veil and how they coordinate with spells and your team could determine the difference between victory and defeat. Just understanding what can kill you, how to avoid it or how to help your team dish out more damage when you’re still trying to grasp the ropes of last hitting, etc, would have saved me from feeding countless times. I guess fog of war and juking would have helped too.

  18. Pantalaimon says:

    For anyone who happens to play Magic – or doesn’t, but has an interest in game design – here’s a piece from Magic designer and all round good guy Mark Rosewater talking about this same issue of complexity as it applies to game design, and how you teach new players: link to

    Happened to listen to his podcast talking about this right after this article about Dota, and realised that they are one and the same thing. Dota and Magic are highly comparable games, and it seems to me that Valve and Wizards approach teaching new players about their games in the same way.

    Rosewater’s phrase is ‘lenticular design’. What it means in essence is that players of different skill groups, from beginner to adavanced players, perceive the same things as having different complexity. You might expect that. But what Wizards also found, interestingly, is that some complex things were less complex to beginners, and more complex to advanced players. This is because a lot of game mechanics completely blindside beginner players, which actually lets them play the game at their own pace without being confused.

    Dota has this feature too, and its the reason the tutorial doesn’t explain everything ad nauseum, and it only hints at concepts like creep pulling without going into great detail. These things aren’t important for the game that beginners will start out playing. They are playing a much simplified version of Dota: defend and attack buildings, defend and attack heroes. The finesse elements are invisible to them so at the same time they don’t get weighed down by them. This is what lets Dota the game have extremely complex interlocking mechanics, complex hero abilities, and so on, but entertain a broad playerbase. The experience of playing the game is that of discovery, and that’s also really important.

    You’ll have experienced this sensation of discovery in Dota the first time you read/saw a mechanic and tried it yourself in one of your games, suddenly discovering a whole new aspect of the game had been revealed. After you learn proper warding, lane control, efficient farming, damage types, rosh strategy, and so on, it’s a bit like pulling back the curtain. You’re not playing the same game of Dota that you were when you started out, because you as a player have progressed.

    • BooleanBob says:

      This is a great post and totally what I was trying to express in my late night muddy-headedness :)

  19. JohnnyPanzer says:

    I’ve tried it and it’s a good game. I can see the craftsmanship and how sometimes glory is in the details. But it’s currently on ice, and I doubt I’ll play it much more.

    Basically, it’s a game where you need a competitive streak that borders on OCD to have fun. It took me 75 hours of play to finish the tutorials and be ready to play unranked matches in the limited pool, but it quickly became very obvious that I was nowhere ready for that, so I went back to training lane running and last hitting for another 50 hours. Add to that another 100 hours of reading tutorials and builds online and I figured I’d be able to at least make a small difference in limited pool matches, but hell no…

    Now I have a few hundred hours of play and about 50+ matches under my belt, and I’d say I’m maybe 500 hours away from reaching the bare minimum of absolute noob play. Add to that the player base, the rudeness and assholishness of which rumours do NOT lie, and I just can’t see why I’d keep playing it. I ran some numbers, and in order to get a base level understanding of the game and all heroes, there are roughly 2,500 detailed stats, combinations and counters you need to learn by heart before you stand a chance of being slightly below decent at the game. I have two kids and a job, and I can’t see myself spending tens of thousands of hours just to reach a point where I’m no longer actively ruining the game for everyone else on my team.

    I think it’s a great game for the insanely competetive. But honestly, I don’t think it’s possible to make a comprehensive in-game tutorial that covers more than 1% of what you absolutely NEED to know in order to play it effectively…

  20. markdavo says:

    A few things I haven’t read in guides but which I have found useful in starting to enjoy DOTA and simply feel comfortable playing it (having now clocked 200 hours):

    1) Master One Hero – I spent too long trying to get to know all the heroes at the early stages (my first 50 hours), when I’ve since realised being able to play a few heroes well is much more useful (and fun) when you’re learning the game. When you do this you’ll build up a much better understanding of items more quickly, which will help when you come to learn other heroes as well.

    2) Co-op bot matches are your friend. Playing against medium bots with other people is good because it’s virtually impossible to lose, but it teaches you the mechanics of working as a team (something which cannot be emphasised enough when you’re learning the game). It’s the safest environment to make mistakes, work with others and really get to grips with the game before you play against real people.

    3) Friends are your friends. If you have someone on Skype playing with you in a lane, you’re going to learn the game a lot quicker. Like any other team game, it’s a lot more fun when you play with people you actually know.

    Finally, in terms of actually answering the post, I think one of the most useful things in the game would be to be make the ‘limited hero pool’ also ‘limited items’. i.e. a slightly lighter version of the game that perhaps even only allows players to buy wards/couriers/healing/mana/increased stats items rather than more active/situational items. I know a lot of people would disagree with me, but I do think there’s so much else in the game that having to remember to even do simple things like use my shadow blade or force staff took me AGES since it was difficult enough to remember what my four abilities were. Perhaps that’s just the game, but I do think items are one of the last things you master, and having less to choose from initially could perhaps make that easier to do in the long run.