The vast majority of guides out there talk about very cut-and-dry topics, like telling you to take mercs, which heroes counter which heroes through what mechanics, and which talents to take. These are discrete, cut-and-dry topics that are easy to write guides for. And that’s fine. Read the shit out of those guides. Know what’s meta, know why some talents or options are traps. You can get really far just on knowing these things.
But if you want to be truly excellent at the game, you need to fight. And fighting is not so cut-and-dry. In most matches, it is difficult to forecast how a fight will end by looking at how it begins, but this post seeks to give players a schema through which to understand fights. It is some part abstract theory, which I will convert into specific, concrete practices that you can implement into your game, but the idea for this thread is to increase your understanding of the game and thereby allow you to come up with your own strategies for the specific situation. It seeks to be like Art of War, with general principals that you apply, rather than a manual with specific instructions. There’s a lot written here, and no TL;DR, but any little section under a bolded heading should be useful on its own, for those who aren’t down to settle in to a long read.
Part 1: The Theory
There are three kinds of fights, or you might think of it as three phases that fights move through:
Skirmish – Skirmishing is when teams are throwing things at each other while trying to keep themselves out of danger. When the enemy team attempts to move into your space during the Skirmish phase, you back up out of it and keep throwing things at them. When the two teams’ tanks are nowhere near each other and Li Ming is throwing out the odd missiles and orbs to see if she can’t drive an enemy hero out to heal, that’s the skirmish phase. People generally don’t die in the skirmish phase, because they pull out before their health reaches 0, but this phase is very important because it determines what position every hero will be in when the next phase, which usually decides the battle, starts. The goal is to give the enemy team a deadly disadvantage in health pools, cooldowns (how great is it to bait out a 1000 cups or Ultimate Evolution before the battle is joined and simply walk away?), or positioning before the incredibly important shock phase. Heroes who are good at skirmishing are generally high range heroes with good burst damage. Many mages are very good at skirmishing, like the aforementioned Li Ming, plus Chromie, Kael’thas, and such. Kel’thuzad is a hero who can actually fairly reliably score kills during the skirmish phase. Long ranged auto-attack heroes like Zul’jin with 75 stacks and Headhunter built and Raynor can also do well in a skirmishing situation. The length of the Skirmish phase is usually determined by the competence and hero of the tank player on the team that is worse at skirmishing, or the team that is not on the objective, and therefore must attempt to end the skirmish phase. ETC can end the skirmish phase much more quickly by hitting a powerslide than Garrosh can by hitting a Q, then walking up and tossing, or walking up and tossing into a Q.
Shock – The shock phase is when one of the teams seeks to suddenly and violently end the skirmish phase by putting themselves in physical danger in order to maximize damage to the enemy (or, in gaming terms, “initiate”). Sometimes this is unsuccessful when the opposing team outmaneuvers and escapes the initiate. The shock phase is usually what decides the fight because almost every hero and player wants to drop all their abilities as soon as possible to put them on cooldown, and they drop them during the shock phase. The goal of the shock phase is to cause so much damage to the enemy team that they cannot retaliate with as many resources, and therefore have to flee or die. Indeed, most fights are decided in the shock phase. If one team can score more kills than the other here, and then the winning team decides whether to chase or not (almost always chase) and the losing team decides how to tactfully retreat to minimize casualties. Traditionally, the Shock phase is started by some kind of CC application, whether it’s Uther running up to you and stunning someone, or Arthas hitting someone with a Howling Blast, or Stitches/Alarak landing a big displace. Many mages are good at contributing damage to the shock phase, but this phase is really heavily dependent on the tank or other initiator (Imperius, for example, is not considered a tank, but does have a stun and followup slow to initiate) to start. The CCs you have determine how the Shock phase starts, or even if you can successfully get it to start. Think of the Shock Phase as lasting about 3 seconds, which is about how long the CC target who gets caught usually gets caught for, plus one second, for the time the caught hero may need to try to walk out of damage.
Attrition – The term I should be using for this phase is “melee,” but let’s avoid confusing this phase of a fight with a term that describes the range of attacks in this game. This is when guys are just kinda sitting around and smacking each other with auto-attacks and whichever of their spells come up. It is perfectly possible for the shock phase to end with one team ahead in manpower, but then their opponents have heroes who are better at the attrition phase who then end up winning the fight. For example, if you think of Anub’arak, he’s a tank who is really good at the shock phase. An Anub’arak with all his spells up is mind-bogglingly dangerous. He is resistant to spells and he can achieve a 2-second stun combo. If you think about Arthas, he’s really bad at the shock phase, with a mediocre W to initiate, which is only a root and which only lasts 1.25 seconds and is only a root, not a stun. But once the shock phase is over, Arthas can keep his frozen tempest up and continually assert control and deal damage while Anub’arak kind of bums around and auto-attacks for 12 seconds before his impale comes back up. This is the phase where most mages fall off, as their cooldowns and their bad autoattacks keep them from being productive while steady autoattack heroes like Tychus catch up in damage and effectiveness. The attrition phase lasts between the end of the shock phase and the end of the fight and can be anywhere from 0 seconds if a big wombo combo wipes out a team to maybe 30 seconds if two very tough and very low damage heroes are just whacking each other. Sometimes, an attrition phase can dissolve back into a skirmish, if the teams mutually disengage and hover around each other, playing at range again, or if the non-skirmishing heroes die off.
We should also consider the terrain. Most maps are made of different kinds of terrain in different areas, but each map usually has some kind of important terrain where most of the conflict will take place. Let’s consider the character of the terrain:
Closed Terrain – Closed terrain maps have a lot of physical obstacles or small spaces. Closed terrain maps include Towers of Doom, where conflict is focused in the groves around the altars, making a sort of doughnut. However, a map that has a lot of concealment, like the areas around the Immortals on Battlefield of Eternity is also closed terrain, because those bush/fog areas are dangerous for people to go into. In closed terrain, teams tend to naturally get bunched together, making AoE strong. closed terrain also makes skillshots easy to land because heroes take predictable paths, hemmed in by obstacles. Speed can be a bit less important on closed terrain maps because you can more easily stage ambushes, negating enemy speed and range advantages. If a fight is going to occur, there is a big defender’s advantage because bushes and corners give the defender blindspots to ambush from.
(An ambush is a maneuver that bypasses a skirmish phase and begins the shock phase right away against the enemy team by using line of sight or a bush to zero the distance between you and a hero on the enemy team. Because the enemy literally does not see this shock phase coming, he is probably also not positioned to be ready to receive or return the shock. Because an ambush is a kind of shock tactic, you should actually bring shock or follow-up attritional power to it. Obviously, if you are a mostly skirmisher like Zagara, you have no business attempting to ambush a hardcore attrition hero like Sonya.)
Open Terrain – Open terrain maps have a lot of spaces without any physical obstacles or concealment. Hanamura is a good example of an open terrain map, because most of its fighting will take place along the objective cart routes, which are in open spaces. On open terrain, it is easier to dodge skillshots, and fights can tend to be more spread out, making speed important. Defender’s advantage is less pronounced because of a lack of dangerous obstacles.
Now let’s think about the two advantages:
Attacker’s advantage – When you make the attack, you don’t need to think as much. The defender is the one who needs to think about how to react to you. At its minimum level, if you do something the opponent needs to react to, the average human reaction time is .25 seconds, so it’s more or less like putting .25 seconds of CC on the enemy. A 1 second CC is pretty solid, so .25 seconds is a good quarter of a solid CC. But above that basic level, there are a lot of things that can happen where it only matters what came first, not how much sooner it came. If you have two characters trying to stun each other, the stun that lands first counts, and the stun that lands second doesn’t go off. And then even on top of this, if your team makes a big play on the enemy, it takes way way way longer than .25 seconds or 1 second for most enemy teams to rally and get the proper reaction to your team’s big play. In bronze and silver, there are many times where the enemy team doesn’t ever react properly to your team’s big play, so it didn’t matter whether your play was well-engineered, only that it was a play and it happened before their play happened. By having attacker’s advantage, a team that looks weaker on paper in the shock phase will often win a fight by having a more rapid shock and eliminating key assets from the superior team before they are ever used. If my team can catch, stun, and kill your team’s Kel’thuzad before he ever gets his Frost Nova and Death & Decay off, we have wiped out a big resource your team has to counterpunch in the shock phase or bring into the attrition phase. As you rise in rank, the attacker’s advantage becomes less and less pronounced due to players having a better instinct for how to react to sudden plays, though attacker’s advantage should not be confused with the advantage of having a faster and harder hitting shock attack, which continues to be a substantial factor in winning fights.
Defender’s advantage – There are two types of defender’s advantages. The first is that the defender can use terrain to block or ambush an attacker moving toward him. This means the defender has an increased ability to skirmish, and that the defender has more control over how to end the skirmish and inflict shock on the enemy. The second defender’s advantage comes from a quirk of MOBAs where skillshots do not inherit the inertia of the shooter. Therefore, the hero being chased has longer range and a faster skillshot than the hero doing the chasing. If you imagine two Li Mings trying to cast Arcane Orb on each other, with Ming A running toward Ming B while Ming B is running away, Ming A running into Ming B’s skillshot effectively gives it a higher range while Ming B running away effectively makes Ming A’s orbs a lower range. Put it simply, when you’re skillshotting, it’s better to be running away than running forward.
Part 2: The Practice
There’s no way I can talk about all the practice that this theory can imply. The goal, after all, is to explore the theory so that you can build your own practices. But let’s discuss as examples two things that most bronze-gold players (and some plat players, I’ll be honest) can benefit from an understanding of.
Let’s cover drafting, because knowing how to draft is one of the main problems that low level players have:
When you are drafting, you should endeavor to understand how each phase of the fight will go, and either how you can mitigate a disadvantage during that phase of the fight or push your advantage.
Let’s say the enemy comes out with Qhira. Qhira has basically no plan for the skirmish phase, but she is a huge help for her team during the shock phase because she can use her stun to neutralize one of your heroes during the shock phase, hopefully while her tank neutralizes another. Qhira also does well in attrition phase because her bleeds and self heals give her fairly good sustain. She is weak to shock herself, but seeing Qhira alone isn’t quite enough information to find a perfect pick.
Your team drafts Auriel, who is considered to be OP these days. Auriel tends to be able to contribute well in the shock phase because her fat heals can toughen up a group of people immediately. The attrition phase is when she’s really a star, though, because damage becomes safer and more steady, so she can get energy more consistently to pop her low cooldown heal. Resurrect can also cause a major power swing during attrition.
Your team also grabs a Zul’jin to go with the Auriel. Zul’jin’s one of very very few heroes who is actually stronger during attrition phase than shock phase because his damage goes up as the teamfight goes on.
The enemy team then takes their tank – Johanna. Johanna’s got the blind for Zul’jin, and is a very reliable hero who can begin the shock phase by pressing D and walking in, but her power barely diminishes as the fight goes on because she gets so much cooldown reduction in talents. She does tend not to do a ton of sustained damage, though, so if you can pick off her teammates somehow, she’s helpless in the attrition phase.
The enemy team also takes Li Ming. Li Ming is a great skirmisher, but she is truly dangerous in the shock phase. As long as her team gets one kill, she can tend to overrun the enemy by spamming multiple sets of spells with her resets. She does have a key weakness in that she can be blocked by minions and creatures, and can miss a dodging hero.
What should you ban as the third ban? The first thing you should ask yourself is whether there are any combos and counters that might give your team a hard time. The enemy team does not have a healer yet, so a Lili might pop up and ruin Zul’jin’s day. Now consider, do you want to ban Lili, draft her yourself, draft a separate counter to her, or just try to outplay her? We already have a healer, so let’s not draft Lili ourselves. Lili has tools that work against Zul’jin, but Zul’jin can feasibly counter her with smart play. So let’s let Lili go and see about another ban. Let’s consider what phase the enemy team is strong in. The enemy has a great game plan for the shock phase, and their skirmishing is solid so far. Should we ban a hero that makes their shock phase even better, or abandon the shock phase and ban a hero that might give them a solid attritional phase? Why would we do that? If we can limit the power of their shock and then beat them in attrition, we can win teamfights, possibly easier than if we tried to contest the shock phase with them. Let’s ban a hero they could use to secure the attrition phase, who can also contribute to the shock phase, who fills a role they need, and who is powerful enough to be meta right now. Let’s ban Stukov. He’s powerful enough to be meta. He’s capable of sealing the doom of a player in the shock phase with his lurking arm, and he’s able to give a big heal during the attritional phase to secure that teamfight win after the shock.
As for your pick, you should think about what hero could blunt their ability to inflict damage during the shock phase. Some form of invulnerability can make their shock damage moot. Kharazim for Divine Palm, Uther for Divine Shield, or even Rehgar’s Ancestral Healing and Alexzstraza’s Lifebinder might do the trick. Unfortunately, these are all on healers, and your team already has a healer. So perhaps Varian with his Shield Wall? Unfortunately, that only works on yourself. What about Medivh with Force of Will? Unfortunately, Medivh’s low health pool and poor range can make him dangerous to play against this level of skirmish. A Zarya can make the enemy team think twice about attacking targets you give shield to, and then that shield might just be enough to save their life during the shock phase. Let’s take the Zarya.
With that example of a drafting process, now let’s think about what the theory from Part 1 should imply about how you play. Let’s talk about positioning:
The most important ranges in the game are the ranges of the initiators – the hero, usually the tank, but sometimes an Alarak or a Qhira or a Jaina, whose role it is to end the skirmish phase and begin the shock phase. Let’s consider a few tanks and their ranges.
ETC’s range is the range of his powerslide. As long as he can powerslide on you, he can choose to enable his team to shock you. Simple.
Garrosh’s range is the range of his Q. If he lands his Q stun and slow on you, he can then walk up and toss you, thus initiating the shock phase on you. If you think about it, however, Garrosh has a dicy time tossing you when you are standing by many friendly entities. Thus, if you are on a featureless plain, Garroshs’s range is his Q, but really, if you are in a minion wave, his range is therefore reduced. If there is an obstacle between Garrosh and yourself, it also prevents him from being able to follow up his Q, reducing his range.
Blaze’s initiate is his Jet Propulsion. But actually, at the far end of his ranges, Jet Propulsion can be tricky to land (despite the patch lowering its charge up time). So, really, his range is slightly shorter than his Jet Propulsion. But if you consider that he can throw his oil on you, gain distance while you’re slowed, and then land an easy Jet Propulsion because you’re not as fast of a moving target, his range is actually a bit longer than his Jet Propulsion. It’s actually his range to land a decently chunky oil that you’ll need some time to move out of.
So let’s say that your initiator has managed to land the initiate. What’s next? Ideally, both teams *activate* and go to kill or rescue their buddy who has just been initiated upon. Many times, especially in lower leagues, or in more closed terrain, this doesn’t happen for one reason or another. You want to be in a position to frontload as much as your hero’s output as possible, whether that’s CC, healing, or damage, in places where it’s as effective as possible.
You are out of position if:
– You are weak to being initiated upon, like a hero with low health and no survival ability, and you allowed yourself to be the one initiated upon.
– You are not able to heal the hero(s) on your team who is/are about to take massive damage, if you are the healer.
– You are not able to exert CC your hero has to prevent the enemy team from dealing damage to you or your friends during the shock phase.
– You are not able to cause your own shock damage, to effect.
– You are close enough to your teammates that you are exacerbating AoE effects from the enemy’s shock damage or CC that you and your teammate cannot afford to take.
Note that you are not automatically bad if you are out of position when the shock phase begins. Oftentimes, the reason that a player experienced with his hero is out of position is because the enemy team used good positioning and skirmishing to force him out of position. It is also not bad to initiate the shock phase with one or more allies out of position. There are times when you cannot wait for your allies to get in position, or you will miss a good initiation that may not come along again.
This is getting long, so let me leave a final note, especially for bronze and silver players:
Consider that, when the shock phase begins, enemies who have correctly positioned themselves are going to put their damage *somewhere*. If you happen to be out of range, they won’t put it on you, but they’ll just put it on your teammate who did happen to be in range. For the typical disorganized SL team, the more you saturate the enemy’s targeting area (UNLESS you are allowing them to AoE to hit multiple people) the safer you and your teammates are, individually. Even against organized teams, if the enemy team has an obvious target, like someone who just took a Stormbolt to the mouth, they’re not going to gun for you when you step in.
If your ally is out of position and gets caught in a deadly initiation, that’s bad, but it’s also a safe window for you to step in and counter during the shock phase. You might still lose the fight because letting the enemy start shock is very bad for your team, but if you can intimidate an enemy into not participating in the attrition phase, or outright get a counter-kill in the shock phase, you are contributing good work to your team. Mauling the enemy even if they came out ahead in a shock phase trade is productive. A weaker team with fewer men and fewer resources must yield to a stronger team wherever they are on the map, but if the stronger team isn’t too much stronger, there are mercenaries that they still cannot safely take, and buildings they still cannot safely assault. When map objectives are accounted for, in the majority of cases, a bigger stronger team can cause more mischief than a smaller stronger team when they have something like Alterac Valley cavalry or a Raven Lord Curse on their side.