Opinion: Wings overthrew the meta, and we're better for it

Dota 2 team Wings Gaming raises its team and country's flag as it holds The International 6's trophy aloft. Michael Hanson for ESPN

At The International 6, Chinese Dota 2 team Wings Gaming did more than just win. They challenged some of our deepest assumptions about Dota 2, including how the game is meant to be played and what the limits of innovation truly are. Unconcerned about solving TI6's metagame, Wings forged their own path to conquering the championship, putting absolute faith in their own strategies, their own playstyle and their own understanding of the game. This unconventional path bears closer scrutiny to identify any lessons there may be for the Dota scene as a whole.

Greater draft diversity

The team's unusual drafts have been the main talking point about them for most of the year, reviving interest in dozens of heroes thought to be stuck in particular roles or used only in particular situations. Keeper of the Light, Treant Protector, Venomancer, Troll Warlord, Centaur Warrunner, Pudge: the list goes on. In truth, you'd be hard-pressed to find a hero Wings have not utilized at some point in the last six months.

Indeed, central to the team's identity is a willingness to draft subversively, aggressively experimenting with tools that are available to all teams but sometimes overlooked. Some of their experiments have been total disasters, Iron Talon Alchemist among them. In fact, it is fairly common to see Wings try out a draft that turns out to be a total flop and loses them the game in under 20 minutes.

But it doesn't stop them from innovating. Even when a Pudge draft led to their only TI6 main event loss, they still opted to give the hero another run in the first game of the grand final itself. Again, it didn't work. But the team got back up and won the next three games to clinch the trophy.

This suggests very clearly that Wings know what they're getting themselves into with their drafts. They know that by preparing so many different strategies they open themselves up to the possibility that some of them will be exposed as incomplete or ill-conceived. But by embracing this uncertainty, they turn a potential weakness into an important strength.

If you've only been practicing one strategy and that strategy turns out to be faulty, then a fundamental part of your team's identity is on the line. But if you've prepared a plethora of strategies, you've empowered yourself to be honest and critical of any one of them after a loss. Accepting the fact that one particular strategy was misguided is a lot easier when it's not the only one your team depends on.

Assumptions, revisited

Of course, there are many creative minds in Dota 2 and many teams that regularly innovate. What is unique to Wings is not the fact that they innovate, but the extent to which they do it. The team appears to approach the draft as a blank canvas, or at least one substantially more blank than for other teams. They seem to treat assumptions about strategic norms with great suspicion. Wings understand that most of what we refer to as the metagame is just a collection of popular ideas, not rules about the game itself. And so they test things out, seeing which tactics are actually constrained by the game itself and which only appear to be.

This approach to drafting is just one facet of what seems to be their overall approach to the game. Wings constrain their own thinking as little as possible. They operate with fewer heuristics and fewer shortcuts than other teams typically do. They challenge some of the most basic assumptions about skill builds, item builds, laning strategies, rotations, and counters. This is the team whose offlane Slardar has more than once killed an enemy support with Bash at level two; it is a team that occasionally leaves lanes entirely empty, or roams cores using Smoke in the first few minutes of the game.

Crucially, in most of these cases, an unconventional decision leads to a desirable outcome. What looks like a strange Smoke gank ends with an important kill. What looks like an unusual laning decision pushes enemies into an awkward position. What looks like a bizarre item build (say, Batrider not rushing Blink, a trend started by Wings) subverts the expected timing windows of the game, creating time and space for the team. But being able to understand a particular deviation in hindsight is very different from being able to see a pattern, or predicting one of these unusual decisions.

And the reason it is so difficult is because all of us -- players, analysts, fans -- have become attached to certain norms of thinking about Dota 2. Certain things counter other things. Certain things are more efficient than other things. A particular hero is best skilled a particular way. We need to learn these kinds of shortcuts because the game is extremely complex and there is simply too much to process in order to make each decision anew every time we encounter it.

It is important to note that these kinds of norms do change, and professional players do challenge them. This is a big part of what fuels the evolution of the metagame. However, Wings appear to be the first team to have found a way to quite deliberately and consciously free themselves from as many heuristics as they can. As a result, they can take a wider range of actions given particular contexts and thus achieve more optimal outcomes a lot of the time. Certainly, they do follow rules of thumb like everyone else, but in a more flexible and intentional manner than other teams.

Fearless Faith_bian

Offlaner Zhang "Faith_bian" Ruida is a great example of the Wings approach in action. He shows extreme diversity in his skill and item builds and in how he spends his time during the early game; he'll be laning, ganking or jungling depending on what the situation demands. But, more importantly, he has taken his role as an initiator one step further than any other player.

More often than not, offlaners are expected to initiate fights because of the kinds of heroes they play. But initiation is often an extremely difficult challenge. Your team has decided to fight over a particular objective and you know that means you have to make a move. However, the enemy team is positioning well and you can't see a good opening. Perhaps you can't get onto the best target, or can only get onto one target when you would rather get two. Maybe you're concerned about a blind spot in your available vision. You know that if you initiate sub-optimally you're probably going to be the first one to die and can't be sure your team will do enough to justify that loss. But the longer you wait, the greater the chance that things start on the enemy team's terms. At a professional level, initiators regularly have to navigate these kinds of situations.

It's a scary thing, being the initiator, but Faith_bian has entirely overcome this dilemma. He just goes in. Every single time. Even if his initiation is sub-optimal. Thus, his teammates can trust him to get something started, which gives them a situation to respond to. Of course, as with Wings' experimental drafting, sometimes Faith_bian's fearlessness backfires. Sometimes, he's charging into four heroes at a level one bounty rune and feeding aimlessly. But the overall approach pays off.

Faith_bian's mindset is completely invaluable to Wings because it means at any stage in the game they can decide to take a fight and be guaranteed that he will create some kind of opening for them, regardless of anything else. His in-game illustration that initiating is as much about setting up your teammates as it is about getting value out of your own spells, combined with his willingness to be whatever his team needs him to be, made him the most valuable player of TI6.

The world will learn

Wings are not a team of superhumans that somehow transcend the metagame. Indeed, they're far from the first team to revolutionize certain aspects of how we think about the game. But they are the first to make such a consistent and deliberate effort to free themselves from the usual heuristics. With all the world watching, it will not be long before others begin to learn and imitate this approach, which will likely add diversity and new perspective into Dota 2's strategic space. The lesson from Wings is not to avoid using necessary shortcuts in reasoning when solving extremely complex problems. Rather, we should strive to be aware of those shortcuts we do make use of and think about them critically instead of assuming they are correct.