Escaping MMR Hell In ‘Dota 2’ Is The Ultimate Souls-Like Experience

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I’d logged about 40 hours in Dota 2 the first time I decided to try ranked matchmaking.

It was a terrible idea.

You’re probably somewhat familiar with basic MOBA mechanics. Teams of five battle one another, using heroes selected from a sprawling roster to see which side will be first to destroy the opposing team’s base. Teamwork is key. Counter-picking — choosing a character whose abilities offset (or negate) those of an enemy player — can ruin a team’s entire strategy. A single death can mean the difference between winning and losing. And I was just beginning to understand the cobweb of abilities, items and mechanics that make up Dota 2.

I managed to win a few placement matches, mostly thanks to a handful of capable carries. But my initial rank, which was far lower than the average at the time, didn’t reflect my actual abilities. I was entirely incapable of carrying a team and would remain so for several months. Even my support play left quite a bit to be desired. So it only took a few weeks for my MMR to drop a few hundred points, putting me in the 750 vicinity. Where it would stay for two years.

Occasionally, I’d pop back into ranked matchmaking, usually after going on a winning streak in unranked or gaining a deeper understanding of a hero that had plagued me in recent weeks. But any gains were quickly met by equal (or larger) losses. Part of the problem was my habit of picking support heroes, even when one or two had already been selected. But my attempts at carrying also proved that, while I had certainly improved as I continued to rack up playtime, I still couldn’t carry players even slightly worse than me. I was stuck in “MMR Hell,” MOBA jargon for the belief that one won’t ever make meaningful progress up the competitive ladder.

I’ve logged another 1200 hours since my MMR took a nose dive and I’m finally beginning to repair my truly abysmal ranking. But it wasn’t until this week, on the positive side of a 500-plus point swing, that I realized why I could suddenly keep my MMR trending upward. And it’s all thanks to Dark Souls.

The series’ archaeological approach to storytelling hooks its fair share of players. But many are drawn to the cyclical nature of the perceived difficulty in Souls-like games. Players begin on unfamiliar terrain and must familiarize themselves with the array of villains that populate the world. Sometimes that means choosing equipment or relying on certain items you might typically ignore. Other occasions call for radical changes to your fighting style. And learning how to each fits into the bigger picture usually comes with a lot of dying. Eventually, the world doesn’t seem quite as scary as it did when you started. And when that familiarity begins to dilute your fear of exploring, it’s usually time to fight a boss; long, grueling encounters that frequently restore the feeling of fighting uphill against seemingly insurmountable foes.

Die - Live - Die Again.

It’s Dark Souls’ own depressing Circle of Life.* And it feels remarkably similar to the frustrations of climbing the ranked ladder in Dota 2. Or any MOBA for that matter.

Things are obviously a bit different in Dota. Rather than memorize attack patterns and enemy locations, you’re learning the skills and common strategies of the heroes seen most frequently in ranked play. When your MMR drops below 1000, the opposition tends to rely on a shortlist of the game’s most popular characters. Hard carries like Bloodseeker and Ursa are quickly snatched up by people convinced (incorrectly, in many cases) they should be in higher skill brackets. Invisible heroes like Riki and Slark are also common sights. So you try out a few counter-picks, settling on whichever seems to be the most natural fit, and gradually work your way up a few points. Every few games you decide to support and that willingness to help goes unrewarded. Sometimes your team falls apart or you go on a small losing streak and lose 50-100 points. But never enough to halt your upward momentum. Before you know it, you’ve added a few hundred points to your MMR and you’re winning more often than losing.

And then the meta shifts.

The relative silence of sub-1K ranked gives way to the flaming and trolling more common in the 1000-2000 range. More diverse picks make it harder to ride one or two familiar strategies up the ladder. And you’re much more likely to be placed in a group with players who haven’t been ranked yet. Or people who abandon the game if they don’t get their preferred hero or the team refuses to make complementary picks. Smurf accounts — the term for accounts used by skilled players who want to play with less-skilled friends (or opponents) — seem to be more common too. Plus, there’s a whole new batch of heroes to learn. Now some huge asshole with a partner clinging to his back is running around chopping at people with cleavers and some weird purple ghost won’t stop generating black holes on the battlefield. There’s little time to enjoy your brief flirtations with success before you’re thrown back into the deep end.

And it’s not just Dota. I recently reinstalled Heroes of the Storm, forgetting that my collection of Blizzard games is spread across two accounts, to earn the Genji and D.Va skins being offered as part of the HotS 2.0 celebration. I’d never played Heroes on the account I use for Overwatch, though I did spend a few dozen hours playing on an older account I used for World of Warcraft in high school and college, and found myself playing with (and against) people who’ve never even seen a MOBA. As someone who mained Sylvanas, a hero capable of disabling enemy towers and creep waves, I felt like a god among men in my first stretch of return matches.

But it didn’t take long for Heroes of the Storm to realize something was up. Before I knew it, I was playing with people who’ve spent dozens (maybe hundreds) more hours with HotS than I have. And my ability to disable towers wasn’t a golden goose anymore. It made me a target. And a pretty frail one, at that. Preserving my win streak meant it was time to learn new heroes and strategies. It meant giving up what I was comfortable with to try and master something new. Just like my five-hour trial and error period at the onset of Dark Souls 3: The Ringed City. Just like the first trip to Blighttown.  And just like my slow climb out of MMR obscurity in Dota 2.

Dark Souls may be finished (for now) but there will be no shortage of similar games for gamers to enjoy. Bandai Namco is already preparing Code Vein for a 2018 debut and Focus Home will publish The Surge on PC and consoles later this month. But if you don’t feel like waiting for the next big action RPG, or just want to a taste of that uphill battle again, it might be worth installing whichever of the big three MOBAs — Dota 2, HotS or League of Legends — is most appealing to you. Your experiences may not mirror mine and/or the genre might not scratch that particular itch for you. But it could also save you $60, that you might spend on some other title, while you wait for the next single-player story ready to give its audience a good swift kick in the pants.

As for me, it’s back to the MMR coal mines. My account isn’t going to get itself to 2K.

*Also a not-awful Tom Cruise movie that I guess also kind of demonstrated the whole “problems get worse after they get better” thing in cinematic form.
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