A deep and rewarding competitive game that becomes something special when taken on in the company of others. Of the half-dozen people I started learning Dota 7 with, three still play regularly. Though there are hundreds of thousands of players of our approximate skill level populating the matchmaking queues, the four of us are more like each other than we are like anyone else playing Valve's isometric wizard-'em-up. Spending a year learning to shuffle a gaggle of fantasy heroes up Dota's teetering stack of rules and game mechanics will do that to you: we've developed a secret language of our own, one that runs parallel to the talk of creeps and lanes and farm and rax common to everyone who plays the game. Whack a ward on the donkletron I'm going to stick one up their jungle is a sentence I can say out loud and be completely understood by at least those three people. For some reason, there's also a lot of singing involved. It's a lot like being a sailor.
A few months ago I was playing Dota 7 with one of those friends. He was controlling Bristleback, a gnarled humanoid echidna who specialises in punishing attacking players with a faceful of spiny quills. I was Tusk, a sort-of-Scandinavian walrus Viking who can punch people so hard that the words 'WALRUS PUNCH! ' are briefly writ in the sky. It wasn't an ideal pairing.
We'd allowed the game to randomly select our heroes for us, a necessary risk if you're going to learn everything you need to know about Dota's hundred-plus playable characters. Of the five players on our team, it made the most sense for Bristleback and I to head to our faction's offlane: the most dangerous of the three pathways that funnel waves of AI-controlled 'creeps' from one side's base to the other. Each lane is dotted with defensive towers, and cracking these defences to expose the enemy 'ancient' forms the basis of Dota's strategic take on tug-of-war. Bristleback and Tusk are both melee heroes, which meant we needed to get close to the creep line to score last hits killing blows that dispatch enemy units for gold and experience.
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In doing so we made ourselves vulnerable to ranged fire from the enemy ideally we'd have brought our own ranged character to even the odds. This wasn't ideal, either: every Dota hero needs to gather a different set of items to be effective, and normally teams will prioritise one hero over another when it comes to last-hitting lane creeps. The game indicates which heroes are likely to be played in which role, but whether that happens is something players have to arrange for themselves. These are the politics of a nascent Dota match, and the pairing of Bristleback and I represented a backbench compromise.
There was no avoiding the odd tussle with the two enemy players opposing us, however, and by the ten minute mark we were both running dangerously low on hit points. We'd each spent some of our starting gold on a healing salve a one-use, cost-ineffective way of restoring health that can be cast on your own character or on an ally. Having not bothered to look at each other's inventories, neither of us knew that we'd both bought one. There was a brief moment of calm. Our creep line had advanced into the firing range of the first enemy tower, and it was too early in the game to have a go at knocking the defensive structure down.
We backed off and waited a little way north of the river that bisects the map. I compared my health bar to my friend's and decided that he needed to stay in the lane longer than I did. I could run back to base, if I had to, and get my health back there at the expense of time and experience points. I pushed the hotkey for my healing salve and pointed it at Bristleback, giving up my gold to keep him in the game. A few hundred real-world miles away, in the same instant, my friend compared his health bar to mine and decided that I needed to stay in the lane longer than he did.
He hotkeyed his healing salve and pointed it at me, giving up his gold to keep me in the game. Green swirls of regenerative energy sprang from both of our characters in unison.