Adaptability and Weakness
“If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them … Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Sun Tzu was a renowned Chinese general and philosopher who lived 500 years before Christ. His book of military philosophy and strategy, The Art of War, is still considered among the top works in its field. What does an ancient general have to do with Heroes of the Storm? Nothing directly, but many of Sun Tzu’s philosophies can be applied to the warlike game.
This game is a brawler at heart, but its objective remains the same as it did in Defense of the Ancients: destroy the enemy’s core. I’ve played too many games with teammates who are convinced that the only path to victory is to fight at every turn. The same goes for games with teammates who are willing to sacrifice a solid advantage for an unwinnable objective, or who are prematurely convinced that the game is over because of an unwieldy team composition.
There are two overarching traits that can enhance any player’s game, be they a casual solo-queuer or a contender on a competitive team: adaptability and an attention to weakness.
“I have been nothing in my long life if not adaptable.”
– Roland of Gilead
So that’s not Sun Tzu, but this quote’s gunslinging interlocutor has scraped his way through many a situation because of his malleable gameplan. Or, in the words of Sterling Archer: “My process is a little more… organic.” HotS players should strive for this mindset. The combination of maps, heroes, and teammates that one comes across on any given day playing HotS is staggering, and it is ludicrous to think that a game as diverse as this should be approached in a rigid manner.
Let us say, for the sake of discussion, that you just loaded into a Cursed Hollow game as Thrall. The enemy team contains an Uther, Kerrigan, and Jaina, a combination that can punish any overzealous melee initiation. Furthermore, your own team lacks a solid frontline. As a Thrall player you’ve always opted for Windfury builds, favoring the lategame scaling and the powerful sustain. Blindly following this build, however, would mean losing out on much of Thrall’s potential in this situation.
Let’s look at the circumstances. Cursed Hollow forces some extended teamfights in and around the Tribute areas, terrain which often favors ranged characters. Capturing a Tribute requires a period of uninterrupted channeling, and Thrall’s Chain Lightning is a perfect ability with which to harass enemies taking the objective. Suddenly Rolling Thunder, a level 1 talent that increases Chain Lightning‘s range by 30%, seems like a pretty powerful option. Furthermore, when lacking a frontline against such an aggressive lineup, melee engagement is a poor idea. Better to poke with Chain Lightning and swing in for melee kills once Thrall and the rest of his team have tenderized the opponents. Any hero can be played with this open-mindedness, and recognizing the situational strengths of a hero is a huge part of mastering them.
But this is just one example of adaptability – it comes in many forms. The ability to stop capturing a mercenary camp midway and then assist nearby allies is in short supply, and yet it is almost always the correct course of action. Mercenaries are helpful and have assisted many a team to sneak away with a victory, but they should not hold priority over objectives and engagements, no matter how low their health is. The same goes for doing a camp in enemy territory – if you have reason to suspect the opponent is on to you, it is a pragmatic (and often correct) move to back off. Mercenaries create awesome lane pressure and can be used to leverage an advantage, but giving up kills for one is seldom correct.
That said, Mercenaries provide a good option for when a team is trying to avoid conflict. I sometimes find myself in a position where I know we cannot win the objective on Haunted Mines due to a dead ally, talent disadvantage, et cetera. Instead of rushing down to our doom, I ask my team to send one hero into the mines (preferably one with good minion clear and an escape, e.g. Sylvanas or Leoric) and take the rest to capture Mercenaries, starting with the enemy siege camp and working up towards ours. This prevents the enemies from using their siege giants for defense against the golem, puts some moderate pressure on the lanes, and gives the team something to do besides beelining to become more bones for the mines. If the player in the mines can deny the enemies a few skulls, your team has will have managed to survive an objective without widening the gap.
HotS is a game of frequent engagement, but that does not mean that a team can afford to fight senselessly. There seems to be a lot of senselessness surrounding objectives. While they are invaluable to winning the game, blindly fighting for them is a sure way to lose. When an objective spawns, it would be ideal for the entire team to coming charging at full health to sweep up an easy teamfight. This rarely happens, however, and thus the current levels, the locations of all players, the position of the objective, and the state of the lanes are all things that need to be taken into account when an objective spawns. Each map is different in this regard – the priority of Curses differs from that of Doubloon turn-ins or battles with the Immortals.
Advantages come from many angles. If the enemy team has the advantage of 5v5 engagements, push their lanes down. If they’re out-healing your damage, find a way to neutralize the noisome support. If there are no fights brewing and the lanes are pushed in, capture some mercenaries. Minute decisions and advantages are all pieces of any victory. It is important for players to be able to find a connection between the current situation and the win condition.
“If an opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.”
One must ultimately remember that there are humans behind each hero on the screen, people with complex stories and emotions and states of being. While rational thought is important to success in HotS, much of it goes out the window during the hot-blooded conflicts the erupt throughout the game. Seeking to lure enemies into lapses of judgment is a great way to secure kills.
Heroes with life-gaining abilities can often outplay enemies by making pretending to be close to death when in actuality they’re bristling with comeback mechanics. Things like Blood for Blood, Thrall’s Frostwolf Resilience, Kerrigan’s Assimilation, Butcher’s Brand, talented Hungering Arrow, and lifesteal in general can allow for some dazzling turnarounds. Enemies will often stay in an engagement once it has passed a certain point, especially in duel scenarios. Mindgames go a long way to helping players walk away from such engagements.
Beyond psychological weaknesses, one must look to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of both teams. This goes hand-in-hand with adaptability – by recognizing your opponent’s win condition, you can begin to play around that and formulate your own. If a team is relying heavily on Jaina/Kael’thas to do damage, mitigate it by engaging aggressively and picking up things like Spell Shield. If the enemy composition is centered around nabbing early kills to create a snowballed lead, play defensively and stretch the game into favorable territory.
In Hero League matches, taking advantage of weakness goes all the way back to the drafting phase. The best compositions are those that are built with strong initial picks and then constructed reactively: Uther to counter hard engage, Tassadar to combat stealth, Tyrael to punish a weak back line. One’s own teammates must be taken into account, as well. A team with synergy is a team that can bring most any game from back from the brink.
A Game without Habits
I think what I’m ultimately trying to advise with this piece is this: avoid complacency in your decisions. Don’t pick a level 1 talent “because it’s what I always pick.” Don’t charge an objective because “objectives mean it’s time to fight.” Don’t finish killing those siege giants while around the corner your friendly Malfurion is being mauled by Misha, exclaiming all the while that you’ve “already got them halfway down.” Each victory is an accretion of correct decisions. Don’t take any of them lightly.
In this land of fast-paced decisions, habits can be invaluable. Checking the map regularly is a habit that I would advise. Mounting and retreating when said glance at the map confirms 3 missing enemies is another. But in a game that is as much strategic finesse as it is mechanical skill, it is important to keep a gameplan loose and informed by the enemy’s weaknesses.
There are a million alternate strategies and mindgames to consider. Capturing an early boss can allow a team to set up a later ambush at the boss pit, collapsing on the enemy when they come to disrupt; harassing a single target can put them on tilt and cause them to make increasingly aggressive plays, usually to their own detriment; using Zagara’s Nydus Worms to become a split pushing monstrosity in a game where teamfights cannot be won; and the list goes on.
I cannot hope to tackle all of the off-the-wall strategies that exist. That said, I hope that this article will send you back in the Nexus with an expanded strategic mindset. The path to victory is sometimes obscure, discoverable only when the main path has been barred. In such times, one must only remember:
“So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak.”