Dota 2's New Frontiers update makes it worth returning to, but it's still overwhelming for new players
Tormentor? I hardly knew ‘or!
“Why am I so slow”, complains my partner, minutes into being cajoled into playing Dota 2 for the very first time. “Ah, you’ll need to buy boots,” I say, with the hard earned wisdom of someone who’s spent over 4,000 hours clicking on wizards. “I have boots,” she says, somewhat indignantly. “Those are slippers,” I reply. “What?” she asks, somewhat more indignantly. “They don’t give you move speed,” I respond. I see a flicker of anger in her eyes, as well as maybe, just maybe, a spark of interest.
A new Dota patch came out last week, and it’s a biggun. Is it a good time for lapsed players to jump back in? Yes! Is it a good time for entirely new players to dip their toes in, while experienced players are still befuddled by a map that’s 40% bigger, featuring dual Roshan pits, new minibosses and a host of other changes? Perhaps! It’s certainly a good opportunity to test your relationship.
When I interviewed coach and ex-pro Purge back in the mists of time, I asked him if he had any advice for returning players. “Prepare to lose,” was his main tip, while trying to have fun regardless. This is a hard thing to do when you are losing at the videogame Dota 2, and a bigger map has not changed this. New minibosses have not changed this. Getting grumpy as you try to remember where the new Rosh pits are and whether it’s the right time of day for him to be in one on your side of the map has especially not changed this.
In theory, it’s a tasty patch. Disable times from stunning spells have been lowered across the board, targeting one of the most frustrating aspects of playing, i.e. not playing but instead futilely hammering your buttons until you die. Creeps are worth less gold as the game goes on, incentivising fightin’ rather than drawn out farmin’. In practice, the meta currently seems to be in a place where one player does not get the memo, and everyone else screams at them to join teamfights.
I like that the map’s busier, but I have mixed feelings about it’s embiggening. On the one hand, it is undoubtedly significant. On the other hand this significance often doesn’t actually feel very impactful, because - as Valve point out - the distance between the lanes hasn’t changed. It’s the edges of the map that have grown, and those are the hinterlands. To a filthy mid player like myself, for much of the time they may as well be on the moon. That’s where the two Roshan pits live now, too, with the dinoman himself commuting between them every night and day by taking the new teleporter that now connects the top and bottom of the map. I do think it’s a shame he no longer lives in the middle, when it was easier for either team to catch the other mid dino-bashing with their pants down.
Now, a lot of this could simply be down to people, and especially myself, having not adjusted yet. Indeed, in my last game I got ambushed in one of the new bottom jungle sections while teleporting to my team to help them with a Tormentor, one of two big cubes that now serve as Roshan-like minibosses. Those drop Aghanim's Shards, an item you normally have to buy that either gives you a new ability or improves an existing one, depending on your hero. They used to be dropped by Roshan, so that element in particular is more of a mixup than a new thing.
A definite point in the new map’s favour is that it gives supports more ways to help their team, and not just by stacking the new jungle and ancient camps. Activating Watcher Statues, the new objects on the map that you can trigger to gain vision over a small area, can turn an otherwise unproductive stroll into something more useful, even if you’ve forgotten to buy wards. They’ve by no means supplanted the importance of warding, however - in my brief foray into the new patch as a support I got into warding and dewarding battles much as I used to, only I might have been killed slightly more often because the enemy spotted me moving over with one of their Statues. They’ll take some getting used to.
A definite point in the new map’s favour is that it gives supports more ways to help their team
The new matchmaking ranking changes are interesting, notably in that they’ve plunged me down to the level of a Crusader. Valve have said they’ve tried to address the problem of people being stuck at a higher ranking than they should be. I used to be a big boy Ancient, so this grates, but it does mean I’m generally having an easier time against my opponents. I also like that your ranking is now associated with a confidence rating, and the game won’t officially assign you one until it’s at least 30% sure you’re where you should be.
That said, my ranked games so far have tended to follow a pattern where I do well in the early game, romping about doing murders, until my effectiveness falls off and we slowly lose because I’m getting too greedy and the enemy has too many heroes that scale well into the late game. In uncoordinated Dota, this has always been the dynamic: sustained team aggression is hard to pull off, especially with randomers. Playing this way is a pale shadow of what the game can be, when the power of friendship entwines with the much more real power of having a plan.
That’s not to say the magic can’t be found in solo play. Rampaging around in the early to mid game as Weaver, my beautiful bug boy, feels almost as sweet as it did back in the good old days. It’s pleasant to return to a machine you’ve spent thousands of hours learning the intricacies of, knowing that what used to constitute bladed fiery plate spinning can now largely be performed by clockwork subconscious, monitoring and manipulating half a dozen different tasks in tandem. Gauging what I can just about get away with in a pick-off or a teamfight, on the tricksy mobile heroes I know and love, is still doable. This new update makes for big headlines, and new possibilities to factor into future plans, but for experienced players it mostly doesn’t overwhelm you in the moment.
Yet yin must meet yang. Dota 2 can be fantastic at providing main character energy, but whenever that doesn’t happen, especially playing solo, it can feel limp or worse. There is a special kind of tedium associated with a drawn out Dota loss, as matches wade into sloggier and sloggier territory. It’s a game of highs and lows, but the lows are lower when you’re on your own and the highs aren’t nearly as high. Matches at my level do at least seem to end at around the 40-50 minute mark on average, which is an improvement on the 60-70 minute sludge-fests that often characterised the game when I last played.
For new players, now is definitely a better time to start playing than back then - but only to a point. There’s a certain logic to starting your Dota career with a big patch, while your inevitably more experienced opponents are thrown off as they adjust to the new stuff, like where the freshly introduced Wisdom runes spawn or the correct time to harvest healing fishies from the new lotus ponds. The problem is that the learning curve for adjusting to an update is a tiny, tiny fraction of the one you need to scale when you’re still learning how to play in the first place.
My partner encounters something she doesn’t understand every few seconds, asking me questions that I can’t help but respond to with jargon that references entire concepts she’s yet to learn. The words “stress” and “chore” have been used. That’s despite the way she’s still paddling in the new player mode, which was introduced years ago but is still the best place to start for beginners. It smoothes over some of the jagged edges and arcane complexities, giving you more gold, couriers that deliver your items near instantly and a much smaller and more manageable hero roster.
I’d thought it might be possible for her to gain something like an edge by trying to focus on leveraging the new elements in a novel way, but there’s just far too much to learn that comes under the obscenely oversized umbrella you could fairly call the fundamentals. Dota is a game that demands a deposit the size of a four bedroom family home, and you need to pay it while people jeer at you.
I can’t not mention the jeering. Toxicity is still a big deal, and the single best new tip I’d give new players is to mute the chat at the drop of a hat. I haven’t played a single game where most of my team weren’t being arseholes, and I benefit greatly from treating them as silent, erratic AIs who sometimes still ping me too much.
Despite all of that, Dota is still one of the most rewarding experiences anyone with enough patience and a low-grade gaming PC can access in the year of our lord 2023. It’s satisfying to overcome a learning curve the shape of a cliff, to slowly, oh so slowly transition from someone who sucks to someone who sucks ever slightly less. The start of every match brims with potential, a new chance to be the ones driving the steam roller rather than the ones getting flattened by it. My partner hasn’t caught the Dota bug yet, and maybe she never will. If you think there’s the slightest chance you might, though, then I’d jump in quick before all the veteran wizard-clickers have a handle on where the new Rosh pits are. Every little helps.