On Ability Interplay - A Guide To Understanding Hero Abilities

In a teamfight in HotS, all the information is on the table - how will you use your abilities to their greatest effect?


Hey everyone, Konduit here. Today I want to go over a classic MOBA concept, one which I'm deeply fascinated by and which never ceases to surprise and amaze me with its elegance: ability interplay.

Before we get into the thick of things, I'd like to acknowledge Marshall Sutcliffe and Luis Scott Vargas, whose discussions on the Limited Resources Podcast (on Magic: The Gathering) about having a plan, reasoning out your plays before making them, thinking about what the opponent is thinking, and other general Magic strategy from various episodes helped develop my thoughts on HotS and writing parts of this article.

What we'll be discussing today is the question of how your abilities and your opponent's abilities interact with each other. More broadly, this same analysis applies between your skills and the entire enemy team's, your skills and your own team's skills, and so on and so forth. How do you maximize synergy and impact with your own team's abilities and play around/minimize the impact of your opponent's abilities?

All of these interactions - many of which will manifest, sometimes multiple times over the course of the match - are what I call ability interplay. It may seem like a 'level 1' kind of thing, just a basic concept; but this is a fundamental, bread and butter game understanding 'test' that comes up match in and match out in Heroes of the Storm, requiring a great deal of focus, concentration, and quick thinking to apply in practice at a high level.

And more than anything else, what I want to emphasize today is to build the habit of thinking ahead and predicting the ability interplay that's forthcoming. Don't play on autopilot, i.e. simply focusing on what's just in front of you! Preparation and foresight are the keys to manifesting a strategic advantage. Without further ado, let's get into it!

The Unfortunate (But Curious) Case of Pyroblast vs. Medivh

Some months ago, I was in a match playing Kael'thas. Level 10 rolled around and I selected Pyroblast with glee, already imagining the glorious takedowns I would be scoring for my team. I quickly remembered, to my dismay, that the enemy Medivh could trivially cancel out almost the entirety of Pyroblast's effectiveness with Force of Will...a basic ability on a 5 second cooldown. This is a rather extreme case, but the ability interplay between my Pyroblast and Medivh did not favor me. On the surface (and certainly beneath the surface as well) the lesson here is to think about the enemy team's capabilities and make a better ultimate choice!

My Pyroblast vs. Medivh's Force of Will. Well, this matchup might be tough.

But, this anecdote has a few more lessons to teach. I realized that I could not use Pyro if Medivh's Force of Will was off cooldown...so, I thought about using it when it was on cooldown. I decided that I would fire off a Pyroblast when I saw Medvih use the ability; but, Pyroblast's travel time is long, and with backwards movement on the target's part it can be extended sometimes past 5 seconds depending on my initial position relative to the target! This was a tough proposition as well, and if I remember correctly I got burned by this exact scenario (seeing Medivh use Force of Will, I fired off Pyro, but the ability was back up by the time my projectile landed). But, later in the match, I believe I did manage to get a successful Pyroblast off (if unintentionally) - I think I Pyro'ed someone nearly point-blank. Medivh either wasn't in range for Force of Will (a great way to play around a counter is to stay out of range it, haha!), or it was on cooldown. I had - in some way - played around Force of Will and got off a Pyroblast. In hindsight, that was a small victory I could take with me.

Reflecting back on things, what this tells me is that even when confronted with ostensibly the strictest of counters, there are still specific situations in which you can be successful - and with a thorough understanding of the ability interplay, you can engineer these situations to appear. Now I would definitely not recommend taking Pyroblast vs. Medivh (I never say never, but it would take some exceptionally weird circumstances do so, and even then it probably still would be debatable!), but I tell you this example to show the importance of understanding ability interplay.

For example, one strategy to get a Pyroblast to connect is to force Medivh to use FoW by having a teammate use a high-impact ability, and then use your Pyroblast on the nearest target (such that the travel time of the projectile is less than 5 seconds). How do your abilities match up with your opponents'? How do you maximize your own skills' effectiveness while playing around the strengths of the enemy team's, and playing alongside your allies'? These are things you need to be thinking about.

There Is No Hidden Information

One of the things I find really cool about HotS (and MOBAs in general) is that there's little to no 'hidden' information with regards to hero capabilities. Not much at all is concealed - you have access to what heroes are on your team and the enemy team, as well as all of their abilities. You can check out talent builds of everyone in the game at any time. There are some exceptions to this of course, but more or less, all the information needed to win the match is in the match itself...

In a sense, you can almost think about HotS as though it was a variation on chess - there's no 'secret' as to what each of the pieces (i.e. characters in the game) can do. The rook moves in a certain way, the knight moves in a certain pattern, and so forth - everyone has access to this knowledge before the match even starts. Given all this info, it is not just possible, but in fact a reliably reproducable practice to construct a mental model of how the forthcoming 1v1s, skirmishes, teamfights, etc. might play out...and what your role will be in them.

Two Common Interactions to Take to Heart

1. Skillshots vs. Mobility Skills. Let's say you're playing Valla, and are making a retreat from the enemy Stitches. Thinking ahead about what Stitches can do to threaten you (remember, be vigilant and aware of what everyone can do), you're expecting a hook to come out. The right play here, most of the time, is to wait for the hook to launch and then promptly vault away somewhat perpendicularly to the hook's trajectory. Given a sufficient distance between you and Stitches (i.e. sufficient time for you to react), the Stitches hook can essentially never hit you.

The two most common pitfalls in this situation are to not be thinking about the possibility of a hook/having it blindside you; if you're not on the lookout for it, getting hooked is much more likely. The second pitfall lies in using Vault too early/improperly - for example, Vaulting away to create distance, but still leaving you in range of the hook. The first situation is indicative of not staying aware/thinking about other things/lax game sense, while the second is a snafu in applying the knowledge of the proper ability interplay.

This is a very flashy example, where the skillshot is so high-impact that it's certainly worth expending a mobility skill to dodge it (this is of course not always necessary, or even recommended), but the principle carries over to many other situations as well, even something as simple as running away while you're at low health and attempting to dodge a Chromie Sandblast. Consider deeply the interplay between your defensive abilities in relation to your opponent's offensive abilities.

2. Interrupting Channeled Abilities With Crowd Control. Playing against Gul'Dan teaches you the importance of this sort of interaction. There have been many occasions where I, along with another teammate or two, have confronted Gul'Dan and had the fight completely turned around on us by getting Drain Life'd for the full duration...because we had expended our relevant CC abilities too early in the chase.

Again, this goes back to the 'no hidden information' principle; you know that Gul'Dan has Drain Life, and you know that when threatened/cornered he's going to start to channel the ability to put out damage and stay alive. Keeping these things in mind, if you're unable to easily take him down if he's using Drain Life, it's usually the right move to hold on to an interrupt ability (silence, stun, displacement, etc.) to disrupt his channel. Nazeebo's Ravenous Spirit and ETC's Mosh Pit share the same consideration - the list goes on and on. If your opponent has an important channeled ability, plan ahead as to how you're going to interrupt it and save the relevant abilities accordingly!

A quick anecdote: A couple days ago, I was watching a HotS stream. On stream, a teamfight was ongoing, with an ETC and Hanzo on opposing sides. The fight played out, with neither character using their ultimates for a long time. ETC could not use Mosh Pit because Hanzo could interrupt it with Dragon Arrow, and Hanzo could not use Dragon Arrow, holding it as his team's only form of a reliable interrupt to prevent his team get Mosh'ed (at least, the streamer's chat and I imagined this was their thought process). Eventually, Hanzo used Dragon Arrrow, and ETC was free to get off an uninterrupted Mosh Pit.

This is a classic case of ability interplay on display.

Shouldering the Burden of Knowledge

In order to be well-versed in the various hero interactions and the breadth and depth of ability interplay, you've got to know all the heroes' abilities! For those learning the game, the best way is likely to simply play HotS and read up on the heroes as you go along. In order to obtain the knowledge of the various hero ability interactions and recognize/apply them quickly, it takes time and experience. If you don't know how a hero's mechanics work, don't hesitate in looking up the character's kit!

Regarding memorizing the multitude of talents and builds for each hero, they are good to know...but even I myself don't know them all. You'll definitely pick up on the major ones as you go along (for example, Diablo's threat level skyrockets at level 16 when he gets access to Domination, which allows the Shadow Charge -> Overpower -> Shadow Charge sequence), but the beauty of the talent design in Heroes of the Storm is that, for the most part, each talent affects how the character is played, but still preserves the general feeling and principles when playing against the hero. My advice is to not worry so much about going through and memorizing all the talents; just keep an observant eye out during your games and you'll pick them up as you play.

Interplay Goes Beyond the 1v1

Thus far, we've covered situations that largely revolve around just 2 players - one on the enemy team and one on your team. The true depth in the game surfaces when considering the interactions between several players at once, including your own team's internal interactions and cross-team with your enemy's. There's a lot of things to think about, but below I've listed a few considerations you should have when coming into the match:

- Figure out how you're going to coordinate CC with your team when ganking/engaging upon an enemy. Who should lead with their CC ability first? Let's say you have a Xul on your team, and you're playing Muradin. Provided that Xul is in range to use Bone Prison, the best play is usually to wait for his root to take hold, then follow up with Storm Bolt as the root is ending - this ensures that you'll get the maximum amount of CC duration, and more importantly, ensures that your Storm Bolt will hit. Another option would be to try and hit Storm Bolt before Bone Prison activates, but you're risking a) missing the skillshot, and b) overlapping CC duration with Xul, only for the potential gain of being able to attack your target a bit sooner. Xul's Bone Prison is a great CC ability to lead with, allowing for easy and reliable followup - in many cases, it is a good play to sequence your CC after Xul's.

As a side note, especially with regards to these CC chain sequencing considerations, I would highly recommend quickly checking with your team as to who's going to use which ability first. Communicate with your team!

Varian's Taunt is an excellent way to begin a CC chain - it's a targeted, guaranteed way to set up other abilities that are tougher to land.

- Look to maximize synergy to powerful effect. Oftentimes, two abilities put together are greater than the sum of their parts. Pairing Genji's Dragonblade along with Uther's Divine Shield is a devastating combo/synergy that will often put the enemy into disarray. Pick up on these outstanding synergies and employ them whenever possible.

- Respecting the enemy's engage potential is critical. Take your time and identify the means by which your opponents can initiate on your team, and respect those means if you're not looking for a fight or have key defensive abilities on cooldown. A great example of this interaction is when the enemy Diablo and Muradin are looking to dive in and initiate a fight, but your Falstad's Mighty Gust is on cooldown.

Mighty Gust is your core disengage/reset ability against the other team's engage, an answer to their initiation. If Mighty Gust isn't up, your team is vulnerable to a hard engage; it's often wise to play further back and give the enemy team space until the ability is off cooldown.

Interplay Goes Beyond Just Abilities

So, we've established the importance of understanding the different interactions in the context of a fight. But, I want to note and emphasize that sometimes interplay involves playing around an opponent's abilities without any ability usage on your part. Positioning, zone control, and communication with your teammates about your plan is important. For example, just recently I realized that Alarak can be quite powerful when defending an immortal on Battle of Eternity - you can shift opponents using Telekinesis and shove them into the immortal's stun circles that pop up every now and then. It's actually a pretty clever play that can have absolutely devastating results. This same tactic can be employed when pushing with an allied boss on maps like Haunted Mines - the bosses will periodically spawn 'root' circles that Alarak can direct enemies into.

In order to play around this and other interactions, you first have to be aware of the interaction; sometimes, the best way to learn is through experience, i.e. getting bopped by Alarak once or twice in this manner. But once you're aware of the interaction, you can play around it - give Alarak a wider berth and respect the possibility of being pushed into the immortal's stun circles when you see they're appearing.

The Butcher is widely known to be weak to blinds...but a singular blind skill on the enemy team is not game over if you're playing as The Butcher. The key is to expect that the blind is coming, and be ready to disengage the moment it hits such that you're aren't taking free damage by staying in the thick of the fight. Once the blind expires, look to reengage.

The final example I'll give here involves playing around Abathur's Symbiote/hat. When considering whether you can take a 1v1/duel against an opponent, keep in mind and respect the possibility of Abathur's global support changing the combat math. If you can't beat the opponent with Abathur's hat present, then avoid taking the fight (though it might be one that you would otherwise freely engage in). Beyond ability interplay, this involves a not only deep, but aware and vigilant game understanding - it's very easy to forget about Abathur's global support.

From Minute -3, Start Thinking About These Interactions

As I mentioned above, there's basically no hidden information here - you have access to what all the heroes can do. Demonstrating a proper understanding of ability interplay all comes down to thinking ahead and keeping the important considerations in mind as you play. One way that can help this endeavor is to start thinking about these interactions from hero select. In solo queue, sometimes draft picks aren't very coordinated, but you should be thinking about how your hero's abilities interact your team's heroes and the enemy team's. As you progress into the loading screen, continue noting these synergies and considerations.

Here's another memorable example of ability interplay for me: The Butcher vs. Dehaka. As The Butcher, if you're looking to place Butcher's Brand on a target in a teamfight, you cannot place it on Dehaka unless Dehaka has used Burrow. Placing it on Dehaka otherwise will result in him burrowing, leaving you incredibly fragile without a target to attack and lifesteal off of, and essentially wasting the Butcher's Brand. Now this isn't to say that you shouldn't Butcher's Brand Dehaka...only that you must wait until after he's expended the Burrow cooldown to get value from the Brand. Think back to the Pyroblast v. Medivh example: Pyroblast becomes harder to successfully get off, but you can still play around Force of Will to some extent (by firing a close range Pyro once you've seen Medivh use FoW).

Use your time in hero select/the loading screen (and for that matter, the time in first few 'idle' minutes of the actual game) to conceptualize and build an understanding of how your team composition works and what your ability interplay will look like. What are your team's strengths and weaknesses? How should you play the map, not only in the general sense, but also as the game progresses forward in length? How do teamfights play out?

Against Stukov, try and avoid fights in narrow corridors - Lurking Arm can have devastating results if you're forced to fight on top of it.

If you're in a solo lane, analyze how your abilities interact with your opponent's and figure out what's important in the matchup. How do you win? How does the opponent win? Does either party win? I've played Kael'thas into Maelthael in the solo lane before, and my objective there was to just soak, waveclear, and avoid dying as much as I could! Then, how do things change as the game progresses into the midgame? With regards to teamfighting, or just multi-hero ability interactions, it's critical to understand BOTH team's dynamics. How do your team's abilities interact with each other? Do you have any powerful (or subtlely powerful) combos? What about the enemy team?

I've been completely caught off guard before by the combo of Chromie's Temporal Loop + Nazeebo's Zombie wall at the Loop's origin point - it's a guaranteed lockdown. Figure out what needs to happen such that you can set up these synergies to manifest at the right time, and how to shut down the enemy team from demonstrating their own heroes' synergy. For example, in the case of Temporal Loop + Zombie Wall, if a teammate is about to be subjected to the combo, be prepared to immediately use abilities to break down the Zombie Wall as soon as it comes up.

By starting to think about these interactions early, you'll be better equipped to properly engage in them when they come up. And with time, experience, and practice, you'll be able to quickly distill the information you get in the loading screen down to what you personally most need to focus on, with your prior experience subconsciously registering things you've seen before. For example, you may have played with the characters on your team so much that you already have an understanding of how to synchronize/coordinate your crowd control to optimal effect with them, and don't have to devote as much time to consciously remembering the interactions.

On Ability Interplay

There are many heroes and hero talents that really put the importance of ability interplay at the forefront. Take for example Morales's Level 7 Talents, Physical Therapy and Vanadium Plating:

Physical Therapy - Safeguard removes all Slows from its target. When a Slow is removed this way, reduce the cooldown of Safeguard by 4 seconds.

Vanadium Plating - While an ally affected by Safeguard is Stunned, Safeguard grants an additional 25 Armor and its duration is paused.

Both talents strongly reward you for understanding what capabilities the enemy team has and timing your Safeguard to best counter them. I think these sorts of talents are pretty awesome (and usually quite powerful when employed in the right situations), lead to great gameplay, and build strong habits. These really exemplify the significance (and awesomeness) of properly using your own abilities in relation to your opponents.

I've often wondered whether these kinds of interactions are classified under "macro" or "micro"; it's tough to say, as it's kind of a combination of both domains, but I feel it's more under macro and general game understanding. I like to call it, the "macro behind micro," and "the micro of macro." Ok, so maybe the terminology still needs some work. Anyway, thinking about ability interplay is absolutely crucial to succeeding in-game.

And having deep familiarity with your hero helps, because then you're not taking up too much time figuring out your own abilities, trying to line them up, or worrying about your own output. If you're comfortable on the hero you're playing, instead you can focus more on what the opponent is doing and the opponent's output.

And once again, don't play on autopilot! Don't tunnel vision! These are the enemies of tight play. Keep your wits about you and keep a cool head, and you'll be able to read the lines of play for any potential skirmish.

That's all for today, I hope you enjoyed the article. If you'd like to discuss anything HotS, have comments/feedback on this article, or just want to say hi, feel free to tweet me @k0nduit and I'll get back to you.

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On Ability Interplay - A Guide To Understanding Hero Abilities
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