Every sport, electronic or otherwise, has clearly defined positions within a team. This is distinctly true in every MOBA except for HOTS. In League of Legends, you have your top laner, jungler, mid, carry, and support. In DOTA the roles are so well defined that you can say to someone “I play position 5” and they know exactly what you mean. Smite has largely the same positions as League. Even outside of MOBAs, most games have consistent positions across most teams. Paladins has clear classifications for positions and each player is fairly strict in staying within their position. Even in doubles in Smash you’ll have an attacker and someone who plays more defensively as a “stock tank”.
So, when I’ve looked at HOTS, I have spent the better part of a year trying to optimize the positions within a top level team. I’ve tried to come up with the best names for each position, tried to figure out the best ways to address free agency based on team need, etc. I’ve never felt fully satisfied that I’ve found a true positional classification system that is true for the best teams. At the very least, I’ve found nothing useful enough to translate to amateur teams in a useful way. Then, over the last two weeks, between Bloodlust and the Western Clash, I’ve had somewhat of a realization. I have struggled so hard with this project because, in reality, there are actually only two true “positions” within a team.
The Two Positions
Most people reading this have already figured out the two true positions. They are, of course, Tank and Healer. People will call them “warrior” and “support” or some other official title, but the job in the team is the same. There is always someone playing a main tank in the frontline, and there is always someone playing a support with strong healing output.
Anyone who’s watched a competitive HOTS game has seen that these roles always remain static (with the few failed exceptions where teams have tried warrior-less comps). However, I think it is important to understand why it is so crucial to have a strong player in each role in every match of Heroes of the Storm. I feel like there are still many players resistant to formalizing a positional meta within this game, even at the competitive level. For me, however, this is the most important step towards elevating the level of play within the entire scene. From HGC to Chairleague to Unranked Draft, once we understand how to classify our roles, we will be able to better explore how to optimize maps, builds, and compositions from there.
Let’s start with the healer as it is the most influential position in this game. The only team-based game I had ever played before League of Legends was World of Warcraft. Apparently I adore alliteration. In League there was a clearly defined Support position for every competitive team, but it was very different from playing support in WoW. The biggest difference was that the primary job of a support in LoL was not actually to heal their teammates. This was a huge departure from WoW where almost your entire spellbook was just different ways to make the green bars go up. The devs of LoL were asked why they had de-emphasized healing so much, and they were pretty passionate in their response.
They explained that healing is the hardest thing to balance in a competitive game. If healing is too prevalent, it becomes overwhelmingly mandatory. In most games with healers, a team with one will beat a team with no healer 99 out of 100 times. They didn’t want to restrict their game in such a way, so they emphasized ability to create pressure, to peel for the carry, to create teamfights, etc. To this day you will rarely see a champion released in LoL with any part of their kit focused around healing. They’ve even worked hard to reduce the importance of healing in old kits.
HOTS went an entirely different route. It makes perfect sense thematically as WoW has such a heavy emphasis on healing, and most of the early supports came from that universe. It would be weird if the Druid didn’t have Regrowth or the Shaman didn’t have Chain Heal. However, this design decision forever locked Blizzard and it’s pro scene into a static meta where healers are mandatory. You cannot win without a healer. Healing is so strong, and there’s really no way to effectively balance it to remove that fact.
When drafting a team composition, you must train your brain to ignore the “support” tag, and instead focus on the heroes that actually produce healing. Those are the only heroes who should ever be played in the “support” position. Yes, there have been times when a solo Tassadar saw success, but those are the exception, not the rule. Remember that you always want the burden of execution to be on your opponent. Let them try cheesy Tassadar-only strats. Just pick an actual healer and run right over their wacky comp.
This is a slightly more interesting, less obvious development in HOTS. Having a frontline initiator has always been strong in MOBAs. In LoL you’ll often find either the support or the top lane playing a beefier hero who can start fights. In Smite the vast majority of support god, and many solo laners, are what would be classified as “tanks”. However, neither game has these as a 100% mandatory position within the team. There are plenty of team compositions that do not run a true tank. Even when tank champions are chosen, they don’t always build purely to absorb damage in the front line. The reason for this is the primary thing that separates HOTS from all other MOBAs: the item shop.
In these other games, you can build and itemize your hero to specifically address the challenges of that game. You can build more defensively, you can build to shred enemy tanks, etc. Further, the existence of a carry in those games allows for more flexibility in how you execute a draft. You can shift who gets the focus of the team’s income, thereby adjusting where the defensive/offensive power of the team will be.
HOTS does not have these options. Sure, there’s a theory that you can adjust your talent build to address these areas, but that doesn’t work in practice, not to the degree it does in other games. Most talent builds only allow for small adjustments, not for big changes in how defensively your hero can play. As a result, defense has to be baked into the kit and optimal build of a hero in order to reliably create defensive options for your team.
More than any other MOBA, defense is critical in HOTS. There are two primary reasons for this. The first is the way structures function. In League and Smite, towers freaking HURT. They will shred through even the beefiest heroes until the late game. Even with full defensive items a tank cannot sit under a tower for more than a few seconds. Towers also prioritize heroes over minions the moment an enemy hero is attacked. This completely changes the way a siege can function in these games. In a game of LoL, once the wave of minions has been cleared, the siege has been properly defended until the next minion wave arrives. In HOTS, a tank can wade under a tower to absorb shots and enemy attacks to extend the siege. If there are minions around, a team can safely initiate a teamfight inside an enemy structure. Having a tank enables the attacking team to dictate the pace of a siege, and opens the opportunity for more potential teamfights during a siege.
The second demand for a tank comes from the way objectives work in HOTS. Other games have static map objectives which provide a buff to the team or a big influx of resources. They help give the team an advantage, but they don’t actually have a direct impact on enemy structures. In HOTS, the objectives define how you win the game. Unless you wipe a team in the lategame, the only way you generally make meaningful progress on the enemy’s fortifications is by securing a map objective. This can be a mercenary camp, a boss, or the actual unique gimmick of the map. You build your team composition around the specific objectives on that map. Often, you’ll run into situations where both teams are fighting over a single objective located in a small area of the map.
These are the instances where a tank becomes the most critical. In these standoffs, these “poke wars”, you are essentially fighting for positional dominance. The name “tank” is most true to its inspiration in these moments. The tank fortifies your position, and allows you to slowly penetrate enemy lines before setting up for massive artillery damage. Without a tank, you don’t have that strong ability to penetrate the enemy defense, you can’t win the war for positioning. If you don’t have a tank, you have to get extremely creative with your initiations or hope for a pick before starting the fight. Again, you always want the burden of execution to fall on your opponent. Having that tank reduces your burden of execution, allows you to battle for position over objectives, and gives you a reliable method of initiation.
The Rest of the Squad
So, we’ve got these two mandatory roles based on the design of the game, but where does that leave the rest of your team? In every other game we have these strictly defined roles, why isn’t that the case in HOTS? Doesn’t every team need a melee, a ranged assassin, and a…something?
This was exactly the way I thought for the longest time. When I coached amateur teams, I tried my hardest to force my players into strict roles because I thought that would streamline their drafting and make the team more successful as a whole. However, the more I study the game, the more I realize that this kind of thinking is fundamentally flawed based on a core mechanic of the game–the structures.
Like we said before, structures are completely different from how they function in most MOBAs. There are actually three key differences. The first is as we discussed before, they don’t prioritize heroes and do far less damage. Second, they have a set stock of ammo that, once depleted, makes them irrelevant in a siege scenario. The third difference is the huge game-changer–you can damage them with spells. In LoL and Smite (and I think DOTA but that’s my least played of the three) you can only damage towers with your basic attacks. This is why you have to have a ranged carry–it would take a year just to kill a single tower if you didn’t have someone who’s kit and itemization made them deal heavy damage from range with their basic attack. We have seen a few “melee only” compositions in these games, but those comps are incredibly risky and depend on getting an early lead.
As a result, there’s nothing in HOTS that demands a ranged carry from your team. You can use any combination of heroes to destroy enemy structures. On most maps you also have big objectives that will destroy structures for you. We even have two maps where you don’t have to touch a single structure in order to win the game! Your team composition needs to clear waves, control space, and win teamfights–that’s it.
Now, none of this is revolutionary. It’s pretty surface level stuff for HOTS at a competitive level. However, I think really understanding this fact can change the way you see yourself as a player, and change the way you draft or build a team. Once you have a tank and healer, the rest is up to the meta, the map, and the unique strengths of your team.
Play Your Game
Roll20 is a perfect example of this. They have their tank and healer, but the other three are a very odd mix. Prismaticism, Goku, and Glaurung are some of the most talented playmakers in the region. However, none of them is a true ranged assassin main. They cannibalize each other’s hero pools, but also have unique spots where they excel. When they are at peak performance, they aren’t drafting to a universally-accepted meta, they are drafting to their strengths. They are putting each member of the team in a position to excel. Dignitas and Fnatic are largely the same. Their drafts don’t all fit some ideal meta, and you cannot pigeonhole every member of the team into a perfect position. They draft what works for their team.
This is also why a team like Naventic is failing so spectacularly. Instead of trying to build a meta around the roster, they keep trying to make the roster fit a pre-defined meta. More than any other MOBA, HOTS requires you to know yourself and your team. You have to know your strengths and how your team can shore up your weaknesses. You have to truly acknowledge your real hero pool and not just try to play everything. When you draft, don’t draft the hero that’s best in this spot on paper, draft the best hero in your pool that best fits the composition.
When you’re doing draft prep, look for holes in your team. “If we draft Dehaka here, who plays it? How does that limit what we can draft with our last pick? What are we lacking, is there a hero we need someone to add to their pool?
When building a team roster, you want to focus on player skill and personality over a pre-determined role. You want to make sure you have effective hero coverage, but I’d rather pick up a second “melee specialist” and adjust how I draft than limit my available options to just people who play the mages and Valla.
When you’re playing competitive HOTS, don’t try to out-think yourself in the draft. If you don’t have an Abathur player, don’t pick him. Ban him if he’s so great on this map, or focus your time on developing strategies that counter Abathur with your comfort picks. Obviously you’ll always need to have coverage of some of the “OP” heroes, but do so in a way that fits your team. In short, don’t try to copy what you see in the pro scene blindly. Ask why that team comp fit that team; why was Snitch on the Greymane in this instance, why Glaurung was the Zeratul this time instead of Goku, etc. Don’t focus so hard on the role, think about the player and their hero pool/playstyle. If someone else had been on that hero, how would the composition have needed to change?
To throw a last minute discussion in at the end, this realization has made me completely convinced that it is time for HOTS to have three bans per team. Heck, I would advocate for four per team if we could speed up the timers so the draft didn’t drag on forever. Currently you are obligated to draft in such a way that you use your early picks as denial for the enemy team. I think the game will advance farther if we can simply remove more problematic heroes, use a ban or two to target a player without shoehorning our picks, and open up each team to draft according to their playstyle.