Like flipping a switch: Understanding VP's signature high ground assaults

Like flipping a switch: Understanding VP's signature high ground assaults

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There is no doubt who the winners of the first half of the inaugural season of the Dota 2 Pro Circuit are. Virtus.pro’s top spot in the DPC leaderboards on the back of 3 Major and 1 Minor wins stands as enough testament. For many, they are the embodiment of CIS style Dota where you pick a strong fighting lineup and just repeatedly run at your opponents. If you fail — try and try again.

In reality that's only part of the truth. The biggest reason why Virtus.pro are so dominant is their ranged siege strategy. This strategy is not used in every game they play but when it is they pull it off with a deadly consistency. This article will focus on how VP take the high ground with such a draft. In order to properly evaluate the strategy, the games reviewed are such where the high ground is defendable, which mainly consists of 5v5's or 5v4's. What you’ll see is a team that has learned how to (ab)use the accepted way of defending the high ground. VP display incredible self-control but when the moment comes, they unleash all hell on their opponents. It's almost like watching them flick a switch.

Required reading: high ground zones

In order to understand how VP abuse the high ground, we must first understand the generally accepted way of defending high ground pushes. Currently, teams defend their tier 3 towers and barracks by positioning themselves in one of three "zones".

The first and most dangerous zone will be referred to as the "Red Zone". It runs from the start of the high ground to a fictional line going through the middle of the tower. The second one is very narrow and runs from the middle of the tower to a line going through the barracks. Keeping with the traffic light analogy, we’ll call this the "Yellow Zone". Finally, there’s the "Green Zone" behind the barracks.

The color coding is meant as an indicator of how easy the area is to defend while the tier 3 tower is still standing. You rarely see teams diving into the green zone even with a man advantage, as the attackers generally need to take hold of the red and yellow zone to hit the tower safely. Fighting in any of the three zones is a big risk for the attacking team as the added damage coming out from the tower is not neglectable. So how do VP use this knowledge to their advantage?

The quintessential VP (vs. Natus Vincere)

To start off, let’s look at the “vanilla” version of VP's push as they push against Dendi trying to defend on Lina. VP have positioned RAMZES666’ Juggernaut on the high ground both to get vision of the tower, but also to take away the left part of the playing field. Any aggression from the left or upper part of the screen will result in Juggernaut instantly pouncing and getting a kill with Omnislash. Dendi, a true veteran of the scene, knows this, as well as the theory of zones, and therefore positions himself either far right/down or behind the barracks.

There is a problem though: the positioning of Shadow Fiend. The Hurricane Pike in his inventory gives him enough range to position himself on the low ground while sieging, out of range of the tower and not in any of the previously discussed zones. This is part one of VP's strategy: (ab)use the range of heroes with Hurricane Pike to safely take the T3 tower.

For part two of the VP siege, we need to look at the positioning of VP’s heroes, or rather the two initiators of VP: RodjER playing Sand King, and 9pasha on Clockwerk. They know that NaVi can't go on the Juggernaut. The left side of the low ground is therefore abandoned to catch someone overextending on the right. And there's a juicy target just beyond their reach in the Lina.

Here, they get a small opening. Lina becomes predictable in her moves. For some reason, she moves aggressively against Juggernaut twice, taking the same path. A path that might look safe as he has no way of reaching her. But the SK can. When Lina comes in for the second time RodjER sees his opportunity.

The switch flicks on.

In an instant, VP are unleashed. SK blinks in and stuns Lina, giving Juggernaut the opening he was looking for. As Lina does not have a buyback, NaVi must throw everything they have into the fight to try and save her. Lose Lina, lose the game. Lifestealer has infested the Slardar who blinks in, hoping to catch Juggernaut off guard before he reaches Lina, which would mean certain death for her. Thanks to a quick BKB, the plan fails and suddenly NaVi find themselves in a world of pain. VP's lineup dives in and cleans up. NaVi's heroes fall one after another and they realize everything is lost. In a 15-second-long flash of rage, VP slay NaVi and win the game.

What VP showed here was a deep understanding of how to capitalize on even the smallest advantage. The CIS region has always been well known for reckless aggression, often costing teams games, and I've always thought that this is too volatile of a strategy to be viable at the top level. VP have taken this aggression and refined it into controlled bursts of absolute mayhem. By luring the opponents into a slight overextension, they take a mile when given an inch. Due to them playing this way, many times they can even turn what, at first, seems like an unfavorable position into a huge win. That became very obvious in their game against Liquid.

Fortunate circumstances (vs. Team Liquid)

In this sequence, VP have just taken the T3 tower in the midlane off the back of two pickoffs and, once again, have their hand on the proverbial switch. By using Ramzes' low HP Terrorblade as bait, they hope Liquid will blink first, allowing RodjER's SK to counter-initiate. But unlike NaVi, Liquid keep their cool and stay in the green zone, knowing that fighting into VP without Miracle's Invoker isn't plausible. After a semi-desperate and failed initiation from SK, the push seems to be over. VP have taken a tower without really losing anything themselves and are ready to back off.

As they do, No[o]ne spots an opportunity. He blinks his Tiny in on the charging MATUMBAMAN on the Lycan. As he lands, he realizes his mistake. He doesn't have the mana to pull off his combo. Suddenly, things look bad for VP, with Miracle-'s Invoker blinking in and pulling off a nice Ice Wall to EMP. With a quick force staff from SK, the Tiny is dragged closer to safety and suddenly VP realize they just got what they were trying to bait out. Liquid are out of position.

The switch flicks on.

VP release the power of their line-up. They charge the Liquid high ground and identify Lycan as the primary target. Ramzes uses his BKB to get close enough to sunder Lycan and while Solo's Ancient Apparition ult just barely misses, he instead becomes a missile, as Tiny tosses him in to secure the kill.

While this happens, MinD_ContRoL’s DK tries to finish off Tiny but is unable to do so and in the process is isolated from the safety his team can offer. VP move against him aggressively and KuroKy has no other choice than to try to get in range and prepare his ult, even if it means that he might die. VP manage to keep their composure and correctly identify him as the main target, quickly dispatching him to his death before finishing off DK. There are no more heroes out of position. The battlefield is soaked with the blood of Liquid. Every small positioning mistake was punishable by death and VP acted as the executioner.

Here, VP show an uncharacteristic impatience. They wanted more than just the tower but they couldn’t go for the barracks with the low time left on Invoker’s respawn. What they do show is, again, their prowess with aggression, but also an understanding of the prerequisites to be able to go on the aggressive. Their first bait failed and I'm not convinced that No[o]ne was trying another bait by blinking back in as his team retreated. VP instead used their experience and intuition to turn a potentially bad play into a masterclass in fighting. Even if it’s not the classic way of going about things, they still managed to burst Liquid into submission.

Fighting Dire with Dire

While VP feel like they're far ahead of every other team on the DPC, they've never spoken badly about Team Liquid. The “bears” have a huge amount of respect for the current TI champions and when you watch this clip you can tell why. Liquid aren't afraid to break the accepted norms when it comes to defending their high ground. Here, Liquid show a complete disregard of the zones and position themselves aggressively in the red zone. The death zone.

Liquid keep four heroes in the red and yellow zones constantly. Miracle- dances up and down the stairs, backed up by MinD_ContRoL's Tidehunter and Matumaban's Venomancer. This forces TB and DP, the heroes that can take down a tower in about 10 seconds, to stay out of tower-hitting range. As no hero is isolated on one side of the barracks, there's also no hope for VP to get a quick pick-off by using SK. Liquid, who were 15k behind at this point, managed to stave off the Russian bear through positioning alone.

This is why VP respect Liquid — their ability to read an opponent is uncanny and all players on the team, just as on VP, are able to produce huge plays when needed. The rest of the clip is, unfortunately for Liquid fans, not as impressive. With the DP ult almost down, Liquid correctly identify that they can take a fight and chase after VP. Here, all positioning seems to have gone out the window as they approach the high ground. This allows DP to land a silence on three key heroes and...

The switch flicks on.

VP turn on a dime and use the time they've bought by silencing Tidehunter to take down Miracle to but a sliver of health. At this point, the rest of the fight is routine for VP and a few minutes later they claim the game and the series.

The secret sauce

VP's current signature move is to (ab)use the range of heroes like Terrorblade or Death Prophet. To complement this, they usually go with a hero that is both a bit tanky and can dish out a lot of damage in a short time span such as Juggernaut. A quick look at DatDota shows how key these two have been to VP’s success.

While the two heroes above have been the most giving for VP since 7.07, there are others, like Shadow Fiend or Pugna, that fill basically the same roles — massive tower damage mixed with good teamfighting capabilities. These heavy hitters, some with the help of a Hurricane Pike, can stand in safe positions and still do massive amounts of damage to the tier 3 tower. To this mix, they add a strong initiator, such as Rodjer’s Sand King, and with that, they get a lineup that suit their play style perfectly.

So unless VP play against a Pudge, Batrider, or a Vengeful Spirit — i.e. someone who displaces other heroes — the opponents have only two options:

  1. Challenge VP on the low-ground where they have their positioning figured out and without support of the tower.
  2. Watch as VP takes a free tower.

Neither of these is ideal. As shown in the last example versus Liquid, this isn’t an unbeatable strategy but VP have refined it to the point where they’re extremely confident and close to unbeatable. I have, in fact, not found anyone but Liquid that has successfully stopped one of these pushes. To have a chance, you need to have a very strong teamfighting lineup and hope you can out-execute Virtus.pro. And no one can say that they can consistently beat VP in a fight on even footing.

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