There are many patch and hero-specific skills to develop in Dota, and they are crucial to a player’s success in the game. However, there is one skill that is possibly the most important of them all: being able to analyze the state of the game and make educated decisions. This is an infinitely wide topic and we can not possibly provide all the answers, but in this series we will try our best to help you develop a framework with which you can develop it further.
The laning stage begins with starting items and lane selection. We will start with the latter, since it will frequently dictate the former.
Being flexible in your laning is very important. Regardless of what patch the game is played in, it is always possible to gain a non-trivial advantage in the early game that can translate to a much more comfortable mid game. For that reason, you need to understand what roles the heroes are most likely to be played in and what they are trying to achieve in the first 10 minutes of the game.
In most professional games, you frequently see four players going toward the enemy territory to contest the runes, while the carry is standing safely either behind their safelane Tier One Tower or around the Tier Two Tower in mid. The reason for this is that if there is a favorable or at least less unfavorable lane match-up that they can find, finding it is a priority, but the opponent is doing the same exact thing.
The moment the carry is seen in lane, the opponent knows where to put their pressure lane, if they have one, or where their carry can lane safely. In the highest level of professional Dota, teams are really good at not giving away any information, and they usually end up in “normal” lanes. But it isn’t because there is a gentlemen's agreement of sorts between the teams; it is a consequence of neither team making the mistake of showing their lanes.
When there is a mistake and the lanes are shown, better teams always adapt by rotating their heroes. You should do that in pubs as well. Knowing lane match-ups is very important, but it is quite patch-specific, so you will have to analyze on the fly most of the time. The general idea behind it is quite simple, however.
If your carry can pressure the enemy carry or break even in lane, while being in an unfavorable match-up against the enemy offlaner, it is a good idea to swap lanes. If your offlaner is really good at dealing with the enemy carry and your position five support provides sustain, “normal” lanes are beneficial. The same can be said if your carry has a decent match-up against the enemy offlaner.
It might look like a very complex system of frequently self-contradicting conditions, and it is: Dota is a very complex game with very few easy and straightforward answers. But with experience, you can at least gauge the advantages and disadvantages of different lane placements and weigh them to find the more optimal solution. At the very least, you should try to avoid completely failed lanes, where the enemy hero hard-counters one of your cores.
Once the lanes are selected and the game begins, there are three broadly described outcomes: your lane is either pressuring, being pressured or is neutral. Once again, with experience, you will be able to predict which type of lane you find yourself in. The important part is being ready for it.
Not punishing enemy mistakes is as much of a mistake: if you are in a pressure lane that has an advantage over the enemy lane, not making the most out of a situation is potentially game-losing. For example, if you are splitting farm and playing Ursa against Spectre in lane as a neutral lane, you are, in fact, losing the game, even if you have an absolutely perfect last hit score and even some denies.
The three biggest starting items to go for, to increase your prowess in dominating the lane, are Orb of Venom, Blight Stone, and Wind Lace.
The first one is self-explanatory: you slow the enemy, you create a kill condition. It is at its best when the lane is already very favorable for you, and you simply need a little bit of extra help to completely crush it. Naturally, it is only worth it on melee heroes, and there are some hero-specific exceptions, where you want it in a more passive lane, for example when you are playing Anti-Mage in his “aggressive defense” style of burning mana to preserve your own life.
Blight Stone is usually purchased by ranged heroes who typically can’t outright kill the enemy, but who have access to extra physical damage or are fine trading constantly. It is also pretty strong against heroes with low armor in lane. Heroes like Dazzle and Nature’s Prophet can get a lot of value from this item but, depending on the match-up, it can be purchased on many different heroes. For example, it is a pretty interesting option for mids against Tiny, who has zero starting armor. Similarly, it can be purchased on some supports against Phoenix or Skywrath Mage.
Wind Lace is probably the least popular and the least specific option. It is at its best on melee heroes, obviously, and can be utilized effectively in situations where you have an advantage, but it is not as pronounced. Typically purchased by supports, it can allow them to close the gap and use their spells, while being relatively safe. On cores, it is only worth it as a starting item if neither Blight Stone nor Orb of Venom fit well.
Tons of regeneration is the best thing to have in a lane where you are being pressured. Some professional teams are even experimenting with double Ring of Regen for their carry in lane, especially against heroes like Venomancer.
The most important part of such lanes as a core is surviving and sustaining yourself. With the way the heroes are balanced in Dota, lane dominators typically struggle in the later stages of the game, unless they have kills and the associated gold and experience advantage. As long as you are in lane, soaking XP and getting at least some last hits, their game plan is not completely realized.
Moreover, most popular cores can typically start jungling relatively early on, so if you can survive, getting level five or six in a timely manner, your job is well done. If your draft is not completely countered, chances are the enemy carry is going to be in a similar position, and that keeps the game playable.
These lanes are the hardest to play and require the most skill. When pressuring, you know what you have to do at all times. When being pressured, you know that you need to play extra-safe and simply survive. In neutral lanes, every little thing matters twice as much.
Those lanes usually appear when there are no clear kill conditions from either side, so small trades and constant back-and-forth are common. There are several options of how to behave in lanes like this. The Orb of Venom is probably too aggressive and risky, but Blight Stone can be a good idea: it makes trades more favorable for you.
Similarly, Ring of Protection can be a life-saver. It tips the balance in terms of trades in your favor and amplifies the effectiveness of your regeneration. When dealing with magic damage, Infused Raindrops are your best friend — the item is criminally underused in pubs, while being the most effective consumable in the game in certain scenarios.
Wind Lace is also an option and while it might lack the direct impact of the previous items discussed, it builds into the currently popular and very cost-efficient Drum of Endurance. Also, we strongly recommend forgetting about an early Bracer, at least in the current patch, since Wraith Band or Null Talisman are just straight up better in 90% of scenarios, even on Strength heroes.
Understanding how to analyze your lanes and act accordingly is a very important skill for any pub player. Naturally, you won’t necessarily always get teammates eager to swap lanes or sacrifice their own comfort for the benefit of the team, but you would be surprised how many players even in decently high level matches simply don’t think about it.
Communicate in a polite manner to test the water: while Dota players might not be the most welcoming, if the victory is on the line, most of them will listen to a well-argued point.