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Dote Night: How Does Dota 2 Matchmaking Work?

Not That MMR

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.

"We do not examine individual win / loss streaks or try to end them," say Valve staff in a blog about matchmaking and matchmaking ranking (MMR). I believe them. Right now, I am particularly inclined to believe them because I'm thirteen games into a losing streak and Dota 2's matchmaking system has not intervened to make my digital wizard experience pleasant or easy even once.

The point of matchmaking as Valve describes it is to set up games of Dota such that each team has as close to a 50% chance of winning as possible, that a five stack of players (likely on external voice comms) isn't matched against five individual players speaking different languages, and that the spread of skill is similar on each side. Essentially matches are supposed to be balanced and fun.

One of the main factors it takes into account for all this is the MMR. There are five different MMRs at the moment and they depend on the type of game you're queuing for as well as who you're with. You'll have a number assigned for solo unranked games, party unranked games, solo ranked, party ranked and team games. Of these, solo ranked has been the cause of a lot of my recent misery.

Your solo ranked MMR shows up on your profile once you've played enough games and is visible to friends as well as viewers if you're streaming said games. "It's only a number" was my thinking approximately this time a couple of months back. "You'll never catch me getting all stressed about THAT."

Not long after this I was idling by my PC and contemplating some solo queue. "I know – I'll see if I can bring my MMR up a bit," I thought. I can't remember the exact sequence of wins and losses which peppered the intervening period but this process of self-improvement has, if I remember correctly, now wiped roughly 200-300 points off my MMR. I'm worried that at some point I'll queue for a game and then it'll just drop me into Animal Crossing so I can wander about and gank the more non-threatening fossils for 45 minutes.

There's a lot which has been written about the meaning (or lack of meaning) when it comes to MMR. There are guides on what types of heroes to play to give you the best chance of scoring a victory. They tend to involve assuming your teammates are a liability and choosing to play as someone who can either guide the match or who doesn't rely heavily on others to excel. Essentially, everyone else is the problem. A fair few of the matches I've played or friends have told me about in solo ranked offer up a weird version of Dota – Destiny's Child Dota where all the heroes who independent throw their hands/claws/paws up at me (oh look – there are ten of you – who knew?) But rather than retread those topics, I'm interested in why the number now matters in a way it didn't before.

It's not the lack of improvement that bothers me because by other measures I'm sure I'm getting better at Dota. I know I have a bigger hero pool, a better understanding of abilities, statistics and items, I can predict other people's behaviour better and co-ordinate with the people I play with on a regular basis. The problem with the solo MMR number going down is the sense that I've spoilt something or made it worse. That number was fine until I started to tinker with it but now there's a gnawing frustration – a sense that I need to repair the damage I've done. It's a sensation almost identical to one I associate with trips to the seaside back home. I grew up on the coast and so weekends often involved trips to one of those tiny seaside arcades which had clusters of 2p machines.

If you don't know what a 2p machine is, they're maybe the same size as a fruit machine and make the same cheery musical racket but instead of glowing buttons there are shelves – some moving – loaded up with 2p pieces threatening to topple off the edge. All you have to do is post more 2ps through a slot at the top. By timing it right the one you add to the pile will dislodge the rest and cause an avalanche of coins to fall into the dispenser at the bottom.

What I would do is save up all the 2p pieces I got given as change or found in the street and then go to the arcade, experimenting with timings and angles to see if I could best the system and playing until I had no more left. Rarely I would stick a quid in the nearby coin dispenser and chuck more 2ps into the coin pusher, chasing the thrill of a win. It was always this point where it became a negative experience. Losing pennies was fine when I was playing with "extra" money I'd picked up as change or found on the pavement – I'd already mentally budgeted for that or written it off as the price of fun – but when the cost moved beyond that I felt a rush of guilt, of panic.

The instinct was to pump more money in with the goal of breaking even. Deciding to quit once there's a cost attached is hard. In economics and business the phenomenon is known as the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost is the resources you've already invested into a project – usually time or money or both. The fallacy, as Freakonomics' Stephen Dubner puts it, "is when you tell yourself that you can’t quit because of all that time or money you spent. We shouldn’t fall for this fallacy, but we do it all the time." You might also know the same concept as throwing good money after bad.

As a kid I was pretty good at knowing when to quit even though it went against my instincts. I knew when I was better off spending the money next door on an ice cream or saving my 2ps for the local carnival. I'm not sure if you guys had those either but we would throw coppers, ostensibly "for charity" but really just to show off our aim, at the passing floats. I think it's because of this that the local beauty pageant winners ended up rolling past wearing pretty dresses and sitting inside protective cages made of mesh and netting.

As an adult I feel like I'm at a similar point but with time and emotional energy rather than 2ps. I'm trying to decide whether to leave my solo MMR the hell alone instead of trying to game the system. The time I've already invested is lost but rather than continuing my trips to the land of Destiny's Child Dota I could be spending that time far more enjoyably. Perhaps learning to skillshot Miss Whitstable and her attendant princesses – or at least their netting – as they sail past on a flower-strewn trailer.

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