When is a ban not a ban? That's a question which cropped up twice this weekend as League of Legends team Jin Air Green Wings and Smite team EnVyUs each passed up an opportunity to ban a character from a competitive match.
No-bans or skipped bans happen in the phase before the main game starts. At this point the teams are working out which characters their team will play and which to remove from play. Choosing NOT to remove something is vary rare but it does happen. It's well worth trying to understand what's going on in those scenarios, whether it's to unpick the strategic thought behind them or to nod sagely over the capacity for humans to make terrible blunders on the global stage. So let's take a closer look at no-bans, what they are and how you can use them to your advantage:
What even are you talking about when you say bans?
In the competitive scene for MOBAs you tend to select characters by way of a pick and ban phase. In the phase teams can use bans to remove characters from play entirely meaning neither team can field them. The picks are so they can lock in specific characters for their own side. The exact order and number of the picks and bans can vary across MOBAs but generally that's what you'll see in these big international tournaments and most of the regional leagues (although some competitive League of Legends can involve blind pick matches which skips banning). In Dota picks and bans alternate throughout the phase (you can see the exact order here). In League the most frequently used competitive mode has each team make three bans then alternate picks starting with the blue side in the pattern 1-2-2-2-2-1. Smite combines the two systems with the majority of the bans taking place before the picks but with one ban left until just over halfway through the picking stage so you can use it responsively (here's a diagram).
Bans sound useful. Why would you give them up?
Several reasons. One is that you might be using the no-ban tactically, as part of a well-crafted stratagem (more on that in a second). Another would be cockiness although I don't think I've seen that happen via a no-ban in all the matches I've watched – cockiness tends to manifest in other ways. The third reason is that you panicked or forgot the countdown timer was nearing zero and simply ran out of time. The latter is less of a "pro strat" and more of a "massive oversight".
That happens. It happened this weekend, actually. Jin Air Green Wings were playing a match against Counter-Logic Gaming as part of the IEM San Jose tournament and in the second game of the set they skipped their third ban. As host Will Cho confirmed from the analyst desk at the time, "It sounds like they simply just ran out of time. They couldn't decide what to ban on the side of Jin Air and just went over. It's not because of any penalty or anything like that, just in case people were wondering."
Is that what happened with Team EnVyUs in their game against Team Eager as well?
No, in game 2 of that set EnVyUs chose to pass their final ban. HiRez's head of esports, Bart Koenigsberg, confirmed it on stream saying "EnVyUs chose to pass their final ban". I was watching the live broadcast with analyst and caster Thom 'F.' Badinger and he offered up a few reasons why it could have been a tactical decision.
One was to mess with the rhythm of picks and bans, causing Eager and their coach to waste time thinking through the implications of a no-ban during their own ban time. But in terms of character picking both teams were, at that point, looking for junglers. EnVyUs's jungler had just turned in a strong performance as Mercury so Eager would be highly likely to ban that. EnVyUs then took Hun Batz, a team-fighty character with good late-game critical hit potential. Eager went with Thor in the same role but EnVyUs took an Athena (who F. pointed out would be useful in dealing with him).
I also spoke to Eager's coach, James 'Krett' Horgan, after the match.
"Mind games are very important in the set, especially a long set," he said "In game 3 of our set against EnVy our solo lander 0mega said 'I know exactly what they think we're going to draft and we're going to completely screw with them'. What he suggested was picking both Bellona and Xing Tian [usually solo laners] and playing Xing Tian support. it completely threw EnVy off their game and we won entirely from that movement in draft. A pass ban is something that could potentially be used like that – cause your opponents to be a little confused. So perhaps both teams have a mid and a hunter left [to pick] and the moment it hits the third ban phase you pass and they have 40 seconds to figure out what they want to ban and they're banning for both roles. It's an interesting little addition to the ruleset but I don't think I've seen it win the game."
Essentially in not banning anything EnVyUs was keeping their own preferred options open and leaving other options open for Eager, knowing they would take them and hopefully be countered.
You say hopefully. How did this actually play out?
Uh huh. And how did Jin Air do?
They also lost.
I see. This no-ban thing does not seem like a good idea to me. Also why not at least ban *something* even if it's something useless?
My take on that is that you can't help giving something away with a ban. Even if it's harder to convert to something useful it's still information that you're putting out there and that can have an effect on what the other team does or how they respond. If you want to be as inscrutable as possible you skip the ban and withhold the information and if you want to lead the other team into a predictable pick by leaving it right there on the table you want to disrupt that process as little as possible.
Does it happen in Dota as well?
It does although I haven't seen it in any of the matches I've watched recently.
Let's have a look at Zenith. They were a team known for just letting bans time out (Dota doesn't have a button to not take a ban). Here's one of their matches from 2013 where you can see it in action:
It throws up an interesting discussion about whether Dota should have that button because if a team is treating no-bans as a legitimate strategy they have to sacrifice their reserve time to use the strategy. By that I mean Dota has a little bit of time set aside for if you need to take longer over some picks and bans so there's a bit of flexibility and time to think if you need it. But it kicks in automatically after you run out of regular time. That means if you want to use a no-ban strategy you have to sacrifice all your reserve time in making that first no-ban. That's fine for the rest of the bans but it means you don't have any reserve time left for the picks where you might still need it.
Those casters mentioned that Zenith also did other odd things with bans…
Yeah, they did things like banning heroes that weren't viable at a pro level so wouldn't have been in contention for a pick anyway. It's similar to a no-ban but obviously it still does remove characters from the character pool, regardless of how unlikely they were to get picked.
A player called Mushi used to do a similar thing. In the absence of a button to simply skip the first two bans (you get five each in Dota) he would just ban Huskar and Riki, neither of whom were considered viable in competitive Dota at the time. He explained why as part of a lengthy Facebook post – I've made slight edits for ease of reading but you can read the original here.
"In Team Malaysia I believe we have the largest hero pool than other teams, so we skip the 2 bans. Opponents will have large hero pools to play but we have it too. In Dota 2 every hero can be countered but if you pick all the strongest heroes in one team that's called greedy. It will make your line up have disadvantages. For example, Tide, FV, Doom are quite hot heroes picked in tournament. Let’s say if these 3 heroes will be 1 2 3 role in your team, 3 melee and there's no skill clear creep, that's the weakness in your lineup. So we can easily counter it too.
"Every pick in your team must have a link with other heroes. Why i just skip banning the first 2 other than 345? Cause after first 2 picks,the less pick it will decide what style will you play, so we can start to counter it. If it’s a real TM fan he will know that we used to skip banning first 2 long time ago. Since we have 19 winning streaks and LAN tournament in Thailand we still do the same. My teammates understand why I skip those 2 ban. I think the situation needs me to explain it out, so this strategy I may stop using it again."
He adds, "We never underestimate or disrespect our opponents. All the competitive teams are professional. We are professional gamers. We are not just casual gamers."
In case that explanation was a little inaccessible, Mushi was saying that even if you went with the strongest characters (on paper) there would still be weaknesses that could be exploited. He was confident enough in his team's hero pool that he believed Team Malaysia could deal with their opponents picking up popular or powerful characters. He didn't go full Zenith and skip all the bans though. From the third onwards it was about curating the drafts that had started to appear.
And you said the League of Legends ban was an error. Does anyone use skipped bans tactically in that game?
That's something I asked caster Trevor 'Quickshot' Henry. He reckoned skipped bans happen maybe once a split (splits are the periods of 2-3 months which a league of legends season divides into) and that at least two thirds of those are just mistakes. The pressure, the lights, the discussions on comms - they can all be distractions. "This is also in my opinion the symptom of two major things, teams either not being prepared enough and leaving discussion to last minute, or being completely shocked or surprised by their opponents and using all the time allotted to ban simply catching up on the decisions their opponents have made." Only a handful of skipped bans are strategic.
When does it make sense to skip a ban in League?
Let's go back to what Quickshot was saying: "I actually think there are some practical use cases where it could work. More so on the red side, as their first rotation gets 2 picks. If you opt into not banning champions voluntarily, you actually increase the odds of getting two very strong, preferred champions at the risk of giving away one of them to your opponents. The only use case where this is really something very, very real is when there are so many champions in a powerful state that 2 > 1. At this exact moment there simply aren't more than 3 or 4 absolutely top tier picks to warrant taking that risk, so until the absolute top tier gets wider I don't think it's something we will see very commonly."
Thinking about this while I made coffee this morning, in League you only get those three bans and when there are a lot of really strong champions it's impossible to ban them all out so as that pool of strength increases I can see why it might start to look like a nice idea to keep as much of it open as possible, particularly on the red side, instead of hamstringing yourself. Obviously it would be super situational. If an opponent had a great player but that player was only good on a small number of champions there would still be more to gain from targeting that person with your bans and effectively removing them from the game, for example.
I also asked Quickshot what he thinks the difference is between skipping a ban and using it on a champion no-one was likely to pick anyway.
"Practically speaking none, but practically it helps give some credence to a team that wants to 'prove' they had a plan and intended to leave stuff up. In my opinion I think it's better to use a ban for a sub par comfort pick from your opponents, something they aren't traditionally gonna play anyway, and not something that's in your plan. Think of banning additional jungle, or support or even ADC's that you aren't expecting to see. You still leave the OP's up, but you pinch your opponents from their 2nd/3rd/4th tier picks. Something we have not seen anyone really do yet."
Cool! Good to know. Can we stop having this imaginary conversation yet?
The main takeaway here is that it's definitely possible to try skipping bans as part of strategic play as well as simply forgetting how to keep an eye on a countdown timer. That said, it's a high risk, situation-dependent decision which might well come back and bite you on the butt. That's why you see it so rarely but also why there's a ripple of curiosity and intrigue whenever it does pop up.