A Beginner’s Guide to Dota 2: Part One – The Basics

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Hello. My name is Tim McDonald, and I really, really like Dota 2. I’ve played it for around 300 hours, and to give you some idea of how much I like it, the first draft of this was written when I was on 230. Yet this game contains such an unimaginably vast amount of content and variety that there’s still plenty of stuff I simply don’t know. On the plus side, I’m good enough and confident enough that – at worst – I’m a generally competent player.

I think Dota 2 is great, basically, and I’d like to introduce you to it. Unfortunately, it’s a daunting game to actually get into, and it’s harder still to learn how to play it without being screamed at, which is why I’m writing this guide. If you’ve never played Dota 2 before – hell, if you’ve never played a MOBA before – this is for you. If you have played Dota 2 before but are still fairly new to it, the forthcoming guides will likely be of more use.

Over the course of these guides I’m going to go over how it plays, what you should be doing at any given time, some basic tips that are incredibly helpful after your first couple of hours, how you should start off playing, what heroes you might like to try early on, and a glossary of commonly-used terms you’ll hear in game. But for now, let’s start with what Dota 2 is and how it works.

Tim, why should we trust you to teach us how to play it if you say there’s a load of stuff you don’t know?

You should trust me precisely because there’s a load of stuff I don’t know. It wasn’t that long ago that I was completely new to the game, and I’ve got a pretty good grasp on what I wished I knew back then. Equally, there’s all sorts of stuff that isn’t all that important when you’re beginning, and I intend to signpost it as such and only talk about it later.

I’m good enough that I can tell you what will help you, but I’m not good enough that I can talk about high-level techniques, and I was a newbie recently enough that I fully understand the muted terror you’ll feel when you fire up your first game. I’m you, a few months on. Also, I have no doubt that there will be 20,000 people in the comments telling me I’m wrong and I’m an idiot, so I’m sure there’ll be plenty of advice from “expert” players right below this piece.

And that’s Professor Tim, to you.

Alright. “Professor” Tim, what is Dota 2?

Dota 2 is a competitive multiplayer game in which two sides of five attempt to destroy each other’s Ancient – a huge building at the heart of each side’s base. The game takes place from a top-down view, with each player controlling a single hero via standard RTS controls. Those heroes are picked from a pool of over 100, and each has his/her/its own unique stats, skills, and abilities. Different heroes work well together in different ways, but for the most part, players spend their time levelling up and buying items in order to gain a big enough advantage over the enemy team that they can destroy the foes’ Ancient.

Short version: pick a hero, level him up, buy items to make his stat numbers bigger, work with your teammates, smash the big thingy on the other side of the map.

Of course, it’s not actually that simple, or games wouldn’t last 40 minutes on average. For starters, the enemy is trying to do the same thing as you, so getting an advantage isn’t easy. For another thing, the paths to the Ancient are blocked by deadly towers that have to be destroyed first. Oh, and there’s a constant wave of NPC “creeps” marching from each base to the other; for the most part, you’ll be trying to “push” your creeps towards the enemy base. And did I mention that the game is sufficiently balanced that advantages in terms of gold or experience can sometimes be counteracted by good tactics?

Okay, so how do I get in on this?

Well, now! The game’s actually out of open beta and has launched. That doesn’t mean you can just hop in immediately, though – Valve are adding people in batches so that the servers don’t wet themselves in terror and fall over. All you need to do to get in on that queue, though, is go to the Dota 2 page on Steam and click “Get Dota 2.” Before too long, you should get an email telling you that you’re in.

Aren’t free-to-play games rubbish? Is this pay-to-win?

Free-to-play games are regularly rubbish, but you’ll be pleased to hear that Dota 2 is most definitely not pay-to-win. Everything gameplay-related is free – you don’t need to pay for heroes or wait for them to come into rotation, or anything like that. The only things that cost money are cosmetic items, and they’re randomly dropped at breakneck pace anyway. Of course, with 100 heroes, there’s no guarantee you’ll get one you want.

Heroes can be dressed up in a variety of ways, you see; there might be different weapons, or helmets, or gloves, or… whatever. You can buy different announcer packs, or HUD skins, or different shapes of ward. But again: all of these are purely cosmetic, and (almost) all of them have a chance to drop anyway. Hell, the only advantage you get for levelling up your profile is that you’re guaranteed a cosmetic item drop when that number goes up. It doesn’t really mean anything else.

The only thing that’s even mildly intrusive is that matches will regularly reward you with locked treasure chests containing a random item from a small selection, and the keys for these cost a couple of quid. That’s it, though. You never have to open them if you don’t want to.

Not too much bullshit, then. How many maps are there, anyway?

Just one.

This game’s shit.

Oh piss off. Look: the variety comes from the insane amount of heroes and the insane number of ways they can be built (and the insane number of different ways you’ll need to build them, depending on what you’re facing). The map is there to facilitate this, and it’s got plenty of little tricks to learn anyway. Think of it like a fighting game – the stages don’t matter nearly so much as the characters.

Alright, fine. But one map? Is there something special about it?

Yeeeeah, I should probably talk about the map. H

Which looks fairly simple, but… okay, well. On the bottom-left of the screen you have the Radiant base – that’s one of the two teams – and on the top-right you have the Dire base. Each of these contains, as the furthest red or green spot from the enemy base, that team’s Ancient. Destroy the enemy’s Ancient to win the game.

As you can probably see, there are three big paths going from one base to the other: one directly above the Radiant base that goes clockwise, one directly to the right of the Radiant base that goes anti-clockwise, and one that’s a straight diagonal run from one base to the other.

Each of these paths – or “lanes”, usually differentiated in game as “top”, “middle”, and “bottom” – has two green dots and two red dots between the base. These are towers. We’ll talk about them – and every other element on the map – in detail shortly.

There are also sections of the map which can be moved through, but which aren’t on the main lanes. These bits are generally referred to as the jungle, and hanging around in them is more dangerous than sticking to the lanes for two reasons… which we’ll also come to shortly.

Also on the map are a pair of shops that sell a few of the items that you can acquire from your base, as well as two “secret” shops which sell powerful items that can only be acquired from there.

Finally, there’s Roshan. Do you see the little red mark to the right of the Dire tower in the middle of the map? That’s Roshan’s cave. He just hangs out there unless someone goes and bothers him.

That’s a hell of a lot to take in.

I know, and I’m sorry, but I need to get you up to speed on the map and give you a reference guide when I start talking about other bits and bobs. Writing “along top lane” is a lot faster than writing out “along the big path that’s directly above the Radiant base, which curves around at the top of the map to move right towards the Dire base,” and you can always refer back to my description of the map anyway, if you need to.

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Tim McDonald
Tim has been playing PC games for longer than he's willing to admit. He's written for a number of publications, but has been with PC Invasion - in all its various incarnations - for over a decade. When not writing about games, Tim can occasionally be found speedrunning terrible ones, making people angry in Dota 2, or playing something obscure and random. He's also weirdly proud of his status as (probably) the Isle of Man's only professional games journalist.