Starting Items

Picking out starting items in Dota 2 can be deceptively simple. Although you generally can’t go too wrong, proper itemization can sometimes be the sole factor in winning or losing your lane. In this article we’ll take a look at various concepts that might affect your starting and early game items.

Do note that not all of these concepts will apply to you every game. Many of these concepts depend on various game-specific details, such as hero selection, your hero’s role, and each player’s playstyle.

It’s also important to note that these concepts can also depend on your skill level. A more skilled player might be able to get away with buying less regen because they are better at dodging spells or manipulating creep waves. A less skilled player might start with a quelling blade to compensate for being unable to consistently last hit. So, consider your own skill level when making itemization decisions (and remember to reevaluate yourself every once in a while as you improve).

General Concepts

Predict Your Lane

One of the most important aspects to picking good starting items is knowing who your lane opponents will be. During the picking phase and before the game starts, start thinking about who you might expect to lane against. Communicate with your team so that you which of your teammates, if any, will be laning with you.

Knowing who you’ll be up against lets you envision how the laning phase might unfold. If you expect to take a lot of gradual harass damage, such as from right clicks, you might prefer to have tangos over salves. If your opponent spams a lot of spells, such as Zeus, Batrider, or Bristleback, you want to consider picking up a magic stick at the start or very early into the game.

Consider Item Build Ups

Oftentimes you’ll have a general idea of the early game items you want to build on your hero. Maybe you expect to build a magic wand, a ring of basilius, or an urn. When appropriate, tailor your starting items according to the items you expect to build. Also factor in which items you can buy or complete at the side shop.

This means that you might want to start the game with iron branches or a circlet if you expect to build a magic wand. You might want to start out with a ring of protection if you expect to build a ring of basilius (especially because then you can complete it at the side shop). You might want to start out with one or two gauntlets of strength if you’re a strength hero that plans to build an urn.

You can also tailor your starting items based on what you expect not to build. You could start with tangos, a circlet, and two branches on Tinker, but you’re probably not going to build a magic wand anyway. Instead, you could opt for a null talisman for even more stats, at the cost of a slower bottle.

Instead of starting with two stout shields on Axe, you could instead start with a stout shield and a ring of protection, which you’d later build into tranquil boots.

Prioritize Items

Adjust your early game items to what’s happening in your lane. If you’re playing Anti-Mage and taking a lot of harass, you might want to get a ring of health as soon as possible. However, if you’re against a mana dependent hero, you might want to get boots to better harass and drain their mana.

Generally, there are three things to balance when you are deciding how to prioritize:

  • Get items provide enough regen, armor, or other defensive capabilities to do well in your lane.
  • Get boots in order to stay alive in dangerous lanes or to more effectively harass/kill in dominant lanes.
  • Get enough damage to be able to farm effectively in your lane.

Buy A Courier

Hopefully this is obvious, but ensuring that your team has a courier is one of the most important things you need to do at the start of every game. This task is typically given to a support so that the core heroes can get their items more quickly. However, if you find your team lacking a courier, it’s almost certainly better to buy one yourself rather than go through the laning phase without a courier.

Damage and Regen

Anticipating Damage

The first idea here is simple: you’re going to take damage in lane. Unless you have an immensely favorable matchup or play extremely passively and defensively, this is inevitable. Start trying to anticipate the damage you’ll take.

There are a lot of ways for you to take damage:

  • The dynamics of your lane could naturally cause you to take a lot of harassment. This could happen if you’re a melee farmer laning against a ranged hero, or if you’re an offlaner trying to squeeze in a few last hits.
  • Your lane opponent might use a lot of AoE nukes to get last hits and to harass you. Many heroes fall under this category (especially mid heroes), including heroes such as Shadow Fiend, Dragon Knight, and Zeus.
  • You might expect to tank creeps or towers. Perhaps you have an aggressive lane that has a relatively easy time getting kills, even under towers. Or, you might need to tank some creep hits in order to control equilibrium or just to get some last hits under your tower.

Mitigating Damage

The next idea is also pretty simple: you don’t want to take damage! The two main ways that you can mitigate damage are to either heal up after taking damage or to reduce/dodge incoming sources of damage.

Different sources of damage need to be dealt with in different ways. Here are some examples:

  • Right click harassment tends to be small but persistent, gradually wearing you down. As such, tangos are generally a good way to deal with harass. You can avoid taking some harassment with good positioning and/or good creep wave control. You can reduce harassment damage by getting a source of damage block or by increasing your armor. All of this also applies to taking creep damage.
  • AoE nukes can usually be dodged, if you expect them and play around them. Any source of regen is good to keep you reasonably healthy and out of kill range against nukes. Be aware that you will run out of your regen quite rapidly if you get hit by too many nukes, so it’s important to learn to dodge them or to bring/get more regen.
  • Some heroes have a skill that helps them mitigate damage. Examples of this include Timbersaw’s Reactive Armor, Tidehunter’s Kraken Shell, and Puck’s Phase Shift. Effective usage of these skills means that you can either play more riskily or use less regen for laning.

In terms of itemizing, there are a few takeaways:

  • The more damage you expect to take, the more regen you will need. Typically, this means tangos, salves, and/or bottles.
  • You can reduce damage from attacks by getting damage block or additional armor. On melee heroes, this will usually mean getting a stout shield, especially if you anticipate tanking some creeps under your tower. On ranged heroes, this will usually mean getting a ring of protection. Sometimes you might want both — such as if you are a melee hero that intends to build either tranquil boots or a ring of basilius.
  • Your sources of regen are more effective if you also have damage block or armor. This is because the amount of effective HP that your regen heals you for increases, even though the amount of actual HP that you are healed stays the same.

Trading Regen

We’ve established that you and your lane opponent are going to both damage one another. You both also have ways to cope with that damage, of which one is to heal up with regen. So, what happens when someone runs out of regen?

The idea behind trading regen is that you want to force your lane opponents to use up all of their regen before you use up all of yours. This is because you have to adapt your play when you have no regen. You have to make a decision: play more passively or have a greater risk of getting killed. You want to avoid this situation for yourself while trying to force your opponent to run out of their regen.

There are a variety of factors that affect who will run out of regen first. They can be quite complex, including factors such as lane matchups, damage, and armor. Getting the most out of your lane often requires a deep understanding of the game that takes time to develop. However, regardless of how well you understand your lane, if you are able to anticipate that it will be a difficult lane then you can compensate by buying additional regen.

iceiceice tends to go for a lot of regen on his Tidehunter. Here, he started with two packs of tangos, a mango, and a salve, then picked up a magic stick as well.

Also note that in this case, regen doesn’t always mean HP regen. Some hereos rely on a spell to help them escape from dangerous situations. If your opponent doesn’t have enough mana to cast that spell, they might be in the same position as if they had no HP regen. Examples of these heroes include Faceless Void (Time Walk), Puck (Illusory Orb), and Juggernaut (Blade Fury).

Mana Management

For some heroes, like Huskar, mana doesn’t matter very much during the early game. Other heroes, like Dark Seer, turn into glorified creeps if they have no mana. It’s important to ensure that your hero has enough mana to be useful. There are many ways to obtain mana during the early game, other than returning to fountain:

  • Clarities are a cheap, cost effective way of getting mana. They’re a good item for refilling mana without going back to fountain, particularly if you won’t need mana in a pinch. They’re also a nice way for supports to get a bit more done before returning to fountain.
  • Mangoes are more expensive consumables, but provide mana in a pinch.
  • Magic stick or magic wand charges can provide a sizable chunk of mana immediately.
  • Sage’s mask and its derivative items provide a good way to get passive mana regen.
    Core heroes will generally go for the basilius/aquila route; it gives them damage, armor, and restores their mana over the extended periods of time when they are farming.
    Soul ring is more common on supports because they’re more likely to cast spells often, need mana in a pinch, and usually can’t afford to wait for their mana to slowly regenerate over time. Furthermore, intelligence supports will end up favoring the 50% regen from soul ring over the flat regen from the basi ring.
    Urn of shadows and medallion of courage help alleviate mana problems, but usually aren’t built for that explicit purpose as their active effects are much more useful.
    Do note that the mana regen from the sage’s mask alone is just as good as the (passive) regen from soul ring, urn, or medallion.
  • Arcane boots are fantastic for mana as they increase your mana pool, restore your mana, and restore your teammates’ mana. However they come with a cost in that you aren’t building another pair of potentially more useful boots. Because of this, arcane boots tend to be less useful on core heroes and more useful on supports.

Bottles

Lastly, bottles provide an excellent source of regen if they are used effectively. Effective usage of bottles relies on refilling them often, typically by picking up runes. Because of this, bottles are usually picked up by heroes that expect to be moving around the map enough during the early game that they can regularly refill their bottle. As such, the most common bottle carriers are mids and offlaners. Still, active supports or even safe lane carries can occasionally find a bottle pickup to be useful.

Stats

Stats, or attributes, provide a variety of bonuses for your hero, which you can read about here. It’s important to know what these bonuses are in order to understand why getting stats might be useful. In particular, the most important aspects of attributes in the early game are:

  • Every point of strength increases your max HP by 19.
  • Every point of intelligence increases your max mana by 13.
  • Every point in your main attribute increases your damage by 1.

Given these aspects, it won’t be too much of a surprise to see why you might buy stat items in the early game.

Increase Survivability

This point is straightforward — the more HP you have, the more likely it is that you’ll survive. The 19 HP that you get from +1 strength might not seem like much, but it can mean the difference between surviving a gank or dying. You’ll also usually have more than just +1 strength; +3 strength gives you 57 HP, which could let you take 1–3 extra hits.

Increase Mana Pool

Naturally, every hero wants an increased mana pool. However, having stats is particularly important for heroes with very restrictive mana pools.

As an example, consider Wraith King. At level 1, he has 18 intelligence for a total of 234 mana. After casting Wraithfire Blast (14o mana), he needs 46 more mana before being able to cast it again. Based on his base mana regen (no clarities, etc.), this would take a little over a minute to regenerate. If another skirmish breaks out during that minute, he’ll be pretty useless.

Now, suppose you buy two iron branches, bringing your intelligence up to 20. This means that you have 260 mana to work with. After casting, it takes 25 seconds to regenerate the 20 mana you need. Although it’s still a bit long, you’ll probably have enough mana to cast Wraithfire Blast whenever the next fight occurs.

Going one step further, what if you get +3 intelligence? You would then need to regenerate 7 mana, which takes just over 8 seconds. Coincidentally, Wraithfire Blast’s cooldown is 8 seconds. This means you can fire two stuns in a row!

Wraith King will just barely be able to cast two stuns in a row, thanks to his +3 stats (he currently has 139 mana out of the 140 needed).

Finally, note that +3 intelligence is the “threshhold” for Wraith King. Additional points of intelligence do continue to increase his mana pool, but they don’t actually enable him to throw more stuns (until you have a lot more intelligence). At this point, it would be more effective to buy a clarity instead of additional stats.

Increase Damage

Getting stats to increase your damage is important if you are in a farming core role, especially if you are playing mid. Additional damage is nice for being able to harass your opponent. However, its main value is to allow you to last hit better than your opponent — if you have more damage than your opponent, you will be able to kill or deny a creep before they can.

As a side note, stats aren’t the only way to increase your damage. You can buy items that directly increase your damage. However, when comparing raw damage to stats, the stats option tends to provide more benefits as it will also increase your HP and mana for close to the same price. (The typical starting item for raw damage is blades of attack, which gives +9 damage. Buying a bracer/null talisman/wraith band gives you +6 to your main stat and +3 damage, for a total of 9 damage as well. But the stat item makes you tankier and gives you more mana to work with.) Note that items that give damage and additional bonuses can be more valuable than stats; a ring of basilius gives +6 damage along with armor and mana regen, making it a common pickup during the early game.

Quelling blade gives melee farmers quite a bit of damage when they are hitting creeps. During the laning phase, this translates to easier last hits. However, it’s usually not a great starting item unless you are confident that you will have an easy lane. That’s because you generally need to sacrifice regen or some kind of defensive item to purchase the quelling blade. Your quelling blade is next to useless if you end up against an aggressive or harass-heavy lane where you can’t approach the creep wave. Because of this, it’s often better to bring extra regen to lane instead. You can always pick up a quelling blade at the side shop later.

Wards

As you probably already know, there are two types of wards: observer wards and sentry wards. Observers provide normal vision around the area that they are place while sentry wards provide true sight around the area that they’re placed. Going over all the possible ways to use early game wards would be a bit out of the scope of this article, but we’ll briefly take a look at the basics of ward usage.

Provide Vision

As mentioned, observer wards are primarily used to obtain vision of areas of the map. At the beginning of the game, you tend to want vision of the same spots: runes or the area near your lane.

Rune wards are straightforward. Vision in or near your lane can be used in a lot of different scenarios, including:

  • An offlaner can use vision to make sure he doesn’t get backstabbed by the enemy supports.
  • The safe lane can use a ward to keep tabs on where the offlaner is.
  • Your mid could use a ward to spot incoming Mirana arrows and Pudge hooks.
  • Your team could use vision to have proper position when playing against an enemy trilane, or any dangerous lane.

Detect Invisible Heroes

Giving an invis hero free reign over a lane can be a recipe for disaster. Many invisible heroes can be easily zoned, as long as you have detection for them.

Note that, for laning, sentry wards tend to be better than dust of appearance. Since the laning phase is fairly static, you know that your sentry placement will provide relevant true sight for 4 minutes, whereas dust only gives true sight for 12 seconds (and has a minute long cooldown). Moreover, sentries are particularly suited for spotting heroes that approach with invis, as opposed to dust which is suited for spotting heroes that escape with invis.

Blocking Neutral Camps

All neutral camps can be blocked from spawning if there is something in the camp at spawn time. This means that you can block neutral camps with your hero, summons, couriers, and more relevantly, wards. The reason you would block a neutral camp (often your opponent’s) is to prevent them from utilizing that camp to gain an advantage.

The camps most often blocked are the pull camps near each team’s safe lane. These camps are important because they allow the opposing team to control lane equilibrium and give the supports a source of gold and experience during laning.

Of course, you can block any camp that you deem fit. It’s not unusual to block off large portions of the opposing jungle if your opponent has an efficient or potent jungler, such as Chen or Enigma.

Counterwarding

Clearly, effective use of wards can be very useful. So, denying your opponent these benefits will also be useful.

The act and purpose of counterwarding are simple to explain. Place a sentry near an enemy ward, allowing your team to see and destroy that ward. This then denies your opponent all the benefits that that ward provided.

There are two smaller points to be aware of. First, when counterwarding to unblock a neutral camp, be sure that your sentry itself doesn’t block the camp. If you’re unsure of the camp spawn boundaries, learn them!

Second, counterwarding in the early game can be expensive, especially if you don’t find a ward. Remember to pay attention to your opponents in order to spot where they are likely to have placed their wards (or if they placed them at all).

Smoke of Deceit

Aware opponents will notice you moving through their vision; smoke of deceit allows you to get in position without being seen. It’s particularly useful if you anticipate roaming and ganking at some point.

Smokes are typically utilized by supports, as they are the ones who usually move around and gank in the early game. Furthermore, it’s obvious if a core hero is missing because they’re no longer in lane. Supports however, are often not as visible because they are doing tasks such as pulling, stacking, or checking runes. Because of this, supports can more effectively use smokes to pull off successful ganks.

Move Speed

Move speed is probably one of the few concepts in Dota that is grasped intuitively. If you move faster, you can get to a destination quicker. If you move faster than an enemy hero, you will be able to chase or outrun them. Move speed seems straightforward, but there are some nuances that we’ll look at in this section.

Map Traversal

As mentioned, an obvious benefit of move speed is that you can walk around the map faster. It follows that having boots allows you to get more things done around the map:

  • You can squeeze in some harass and stack a camp.
  • You can get an extra last hit or two and still make it in time to grab a rune.
  • You can roam and gank other lanes more quickly.
  • It takes you less time to return to lane or to respond to your opponent’s rotations.

Boots vs No Boots

The above concepts have probably been pretty boring because they are obvious. However, there is a correlated concept that is incredibly important and easily overlooked: significant difference in move speeds between you and your opponent provide windows of opportunity.

In particular, having boots while your opponent doesn’t opens up a lot of opportunities to harass, zone, and get kills. You can squeeze in a lot more harass since your opponent can’t run away from you as quickly. Your opponent can’t come as close to you because they know you can travel faster and hit them. Some offlaners even opt to start with boots to be more mobile and to be harder to kill. And if your opponent is careless or wastes their escape mechanism, you can just chase them and right click them to death.

Even if your particularly hero or lane matchup makes it difficult to effectively do any one of these three things, there is still a good cause for getting boots: if your opponent gets their boots before you do, they get the window of opportunity instead of you! That window lasts until you pick up your boots. It might not seem like much, but in some scenarios a skilled player can easily crush you in lane solely because they have boots and you do not.

These points are especially important for supports. Strong support players secure the early game for their team by ganking or zoning their lane as well as roaming to gank other lanes. This can be done much more effectively and successfully when the support has boots, as boots could make the difference between being able to land a disable and letting your opponent go free.

At this distance, Wraith King can always close the gap and land his stun against Sven if he has a boots advantage.

Furthermore, it’s hard to play a support against an opponent who already has boots. Supports already have trouble obtaining gold in the early game. Cores will get farm as long as they can kill their lane creeps, but supports don’t have this luxury. Worse still, they can be set behind even further by blocked pulls, failed ganks, and deaths. Each of these things further prolongs your opponent’s window of opportunity and limits your early game impact.

For these reasons, getting boots as soon as possible should be an extremely high priority on supports. The mistake that players make is not that they don’t buy boots, but that they delay buying their boots for too long. As a support, after your starting items, there are almost no items that you should buy before getting boots. Oftentimes you should get a flying courier before boots. Situationally you might buy a TP scroll, magic stick, or detection. Players who make this kind of mistake tend to do so because:

  • They spend an extra 50–265 gold to complete a magic wand when they just wanted the regen from a magic stick.
  • They buy an excessive amount of stats, particularly in their starting items. A null talisman costs 470 gold, whereas most supports could make do with two iron branches for 100 gold.
  • They buy items that they don’t need, such as a stout shield.
  • They buy item components that are useful, but could be delayed. Starting with a ring of protection that will be built into tranquil boots is a fine idea for cores, but it delays your much needed boots by 200 gold for supports.

Hero Specific Windows

Some (very few) heroes have particularly strong windows of opportunity if they have a boots advantage. This is often because they have a skill that is exceptionally strong if the opponent cannot escape from it. On these heroes, starting with boots allows you to get kills or dominate your lane, especially if your opponent makes a mistake.

Razor is one of the strong examples of this kind of hero, given a 1v1 lane. Starting with boots on Razor allows you to get longer Static Links, and therefore ruin your opponent’s ability to get last hits. In fact, boots-first Razor is so powerful that it can be worth starting with your own pair of boots if you expect to solo lane against Razor.

Final Notes

Hopefully this article has gotten you to take a deeper look at the considerations you make when purchasing starting and early game items. Unfortunately, a lot of these decisions will rely on your understanding of the laning phase as well as on your understanding of your lane matchup, both of which are things that come from experience. Although you’ll eventually end up settling on starting items that you prefer to rely on from game to game, I hope that this article will help you understand when to change your starting items or vary your early game item progression.


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