On Punishing Cooldown Usage and Target Priority

As a skirmish progresses, your opponents will present moments of vulnerabilty - it's your job to capitalize on those opportunties!


Greetings! k0nduit here, and today I've got an article for you on the art of Punishing Cooldown Usage and how it relates to general target priority theory and focus fire in teamfights. Closely related to Ability Interplay (A broad concept which I've written about here, check it out if you're interested), punishing cooldown usage is a key component of securing advantages and teamfight victories. Contrary to the phrase itself, to punish cooldown usage doesn't necessarily mean that your opponent has made an ostentatious misplay that should be punished. In fact, it may have even been the correct play for your opponent to use the ability in question. But, every ability usage comes with a tradeoff: putting that skill on cooldown. And therein lies a window of opportunity that, for some skills (particularly defensive cooldowns), it would behoove you to take advantage of! Without further ado, let's jump right into it.

From a macro/game understanding perspective, punishing cooldown usage (PCU) is a significant factor when it comes to target selection in fights/deciding which target to prioritize and focus fire. Target priority is a nuanced subject in and of itself, and PCU is only one factor when it comes to deciding which of your opponents to burst down.

A Brief Refresher on Target Priority and General Teamfighting Play Patterns

First, here's my general perspective on a target priority list based on character archetype:

1. Damage Dealers

2. Healers

3. Tanks/Frontliners

As for general play patterns, that's a little bit more complex. In an ideal world where the enemy team is cleanly lined up in a row and you can calmly contemplate, take a sip of tea, and decide who to focus, you should pick the enemy team's primary DPS. In reality, you're not always going to be in position to hit the enemy team's DPS, so who should you focus? This varies depending on what role you're playing - frontliners may tussle with the enemy frontliners or apply pressure to the enemy backline, while ranged damage dealers will usually start the fight hitting whoever is closest, all the while looking to hit the enemy backline when the opportunity presents itself.

The above list might seem a bit obvious but understanding the reasoning behind this general target priority workflow is important and will help when discussing some of the concepts to come.

The reason I have damage dealers at #1 (again, in the general case - there many deviations in practice, which we'll get into shortly) is that damage dealers threaten your team - i.e. with kill pressure - while the latter two roles mitigate your team's output. Without sufficient damage and kill pressure, all the utility, CC, and healing in the world that your opponents have will only serve to slow down your own team's damage dealers from cleaning up the fight. On the other hand, if the enemy team has lost a utility component but still has a damage dealer available, there's still threat potential and kill pressure that you have to watch out for. There are of course several exceptions to this depending on the battlefield context, the heroes present, etc. Some healers you usually have to kill before you're able to take down damage dealers (Mocus Forales, anyone?), and some damage dealers are very durable/have escape options which make focusing them down, at least initially, somewhat hard (e.g. Tracer). In general though, the guideline the target priority list is advocating is that you should - when given the opportunity - look to take out the enemy team's threats over the enemy team's mitigation.

But, there's something that often trumps that guideline...

Look to Immediately Focus Fire Vulnerable Targets

If there's an opportunity to create a numbers advantage in a teamfight, you should almost always take it. Go for the easy quick kill if one is presented, as quickly creating a 5v4 is massive advantage basically no matter who you kill - tank, support, or damage dealer. Of course, the way you want to play the fight afterwards will change depending on which of those roles you take down... but any which way you look at it, your team will often have a huge advantage in the ensuing 5v4.

Here's the thing to keep in mind. Vulnerability/ease of elimination is a competing interest with the target priority list above. Don't get tunneled on taking out the enemy DPS when there's an easy kill on an opposing tank presented!

There are a couple major factors that make an enemy hero vulnerable: positioning and the absence of defensive options. What I want to focus on in today's article is primarily the latter, but positioning is always a factor in every scenario - you should always be thinking about it.

This is why you often see supports focused down - they're often quite squishy and have comparatively few defensive options. In other words, they're often naturally vulnerable!

Finally, focusing vulnerable targets is something you need to keep in mind at every point and during every situation in the match - it's not a principle limited to 5v5 teamfights! For example, maybe you see Genji use Swift Strike to clear a minion wave while you're on the way to soak the lane; now you've got a 12 second window - where Genji is lacking his most powerful escape option - to collapse on him and be aggressive. Look to punish cooldown usage; in some situations, not doing so would be a missed opportunity for a play! Or a misplay, even. Always keep an eye out for the expenditure of defensive skills, even in earlygame skirmishes - if you know that your opponent is out of defensive options, don't be afraid to commit for a kill if the coast is clear.

It's important to have a deep understanding of the capabilities of your hero and the enemy hero, as this knowledge will key you in to both the fact that the opponent even is vulnerable, and that you have the capacity to secure a takedown. I've seen situations where people go extremely far into enemy lines in order to secure a kill, diving forts and whatnot; while at first glance this may look 'reckless' or 'greedy', if the player is aware of the limits of his or her hero and the capabilities of the enemy hero who is getting chased, it's actually a reliable, and correct play to make. For example, against a relatively immobile hero like Kael'thas, Garrosh can pop his level 4 talent Indomitable, walk underneath Kael'thas's fort (after landing a Groundbreaker, so Kael'thas is slowed) and flip him backwards without fear. While diving a fort is in most situations an ill-advised maneuver, Garrosh knows that he can safely approach Kael'thas and make a play, as Kael'thas (or for that matter, any hero who has expended their mobiltiy skills) cannot get away from an unstoppable hero running at him. Because the Garrosh player understands the ability interplay, the call to dive was neither reckless nor greedy: rather, it was simply a heads-up play.

Punishing Cooldown Usage - The Key to Taking Out Tanks and Genjis Alike

If you've tuned into HotS streams where the players are using voice chat, or have heard coordinated comms from a team, you know that teamfight callouts about who to focus are loud and impactful. Some phrases in particular that you might've heard are as follows:




You get the picture. In hindsight, actually typing out these phrases makes them look a little comical. But believe me, in the context of a teamfight, they sound a lot cooler.

Anyway, those are the kinds of cooldowns that you should look to take advantage of if they're expended. ETC's Powerslide, Muradin's Dwarf Toss, and Genji's Swift Strike are all significant mobility/defensive skills that, when on cooldown, leave the hero vulnerable (compared to when they're off cooldown). Here are a few more examples:

- Medivh's Portal

- Tyrael's Eldruin's Might

- Anub'arak's Burrow Charge

- Valla's Vault

- Johanna's Iron Skin

- Tassadar's Dimensional Shift

As I mentioned, the cooldowns that make certain characters vulnerable when used are generally mobility/defensive skills. Ultimates sometimes count as well (including ones that can be used on allies, like Uther's Divine Shield - which is a defensive option that can affect another hero that has already expended all of his/her defensive skills!).

Another important point to take note of is that many of these cooldowns have both offensive and defensive applicability. ETC can use his Powerslide to initiate, but he won't have it to get out for a while if he runs into trouble; the same is true for Tyrael's Eldruin's Might, and Anub'arak in particular is notorious for his squishiness/lack of defensive options if a Burrow Charge goes wrong. There are two lessons to take from this, both of which apply to general defensive skills, but are in particular notable for heroes that have these sorts of skills that are commonly used offensively and defensively:

- Opponents playing these heroes will be very careful not to use their defensive options needlessly or engage without ensuring that they get value from the ability. For example, you'll often see Muradin players hold on to their jump until they really need it (either to guarantee a kill or as an escape), instead choosing to start a fight just by taking an aggressive flanking position, saving Dwarf Toss in the back pocket for when it's needed.

- You must pay careful attention to the usage of these abilities when they do come out. It's imperative that you quickly recognize when they've been expended, and also develop a knowledge of each ability's cooldown timer to know how long you have to pressure the now-vulnerable target (if you want to).

What I really want to drive home is the following thought process:

1. Everyone (whether it be support, tank, or damage dealer), when his or her defensive cooldowns have been expended, is a potentially valid focus target.

2. When an important defensive skill has been expended (e.g. Muradin has used Dwarf Toss), alarm bells should go off in your head!

3. Quickly (and this comes with experience and practice) decide whether you should commit the time and resources to focus down that target, over whoever you would otherwise want to focus.

One of my goals with this article is to dispel the idea that some heroes shouldn't, or "can't" be focused down. Tanks can be focused down first - when the opportunity presents itself - and characters like Genji can be focused down - when the opportunity presents itself! What I want to bequeath to you today is the mentality to be actively looking for those opportunities and the ability to quickly recognize when those opportunities arise.

As I mentioned above, some of these 'defensive' cooldowns are often used offensively, like ETC's Powerslide. If ETC slides in, look to punish his cooldown usage by getting in free damage on him and maybe even converting that into a kill. Outside of Face Melt, ETC can only attempt to walk out of the fight once slide has been used - take advantage of this window of vulnerability to get in free damage (if hitting ETC is the best thing you should be doing).

Additionally, don't be under the impression that the only way you can punish cooldown usage is if your opponents make a misplay. Your opponents will make the play that they think is best, but that may still give you the opportunity to punish them. The quintessential example here is if Muradin jumps into your team in order to secure a kill on a low-health ally. Certainly, the fight has become a 4v5 in the enemy's favor but, now the enemy tank is in quite a vulnerable position in the middle of your team with no mobility skill to bail him out. You can take advantage of this cooldown usage and potentially answer back with a kill!

As an aside, this principle is in general why teamfights are not always decided when one team gets the first kill. In the process of securing that takedown, cooldowns were likely expended, sometimes positioning is compromised, and the opposing team often has the chance to quickly answer back (sometimes teamfights are 'split' with mini-fights occurring away from each other where kills are traded, but that's another matter). The answer kills usually happen quickly though, because if they don't, then the enemy team's cooldowns will have refreshed and the window of vulnerability will have closed again, for the time being.

Now, all that being said, misplays are still a thing - they happen at every skill level. It's your responsibility to take advantage of them!

A Nuanced, and Sometimes Difficult Decision: Do We Commit to Focusing a Target?

There's a danger in making the call to focus a durable target like a tank or a slippery target like a high-mobility assassin: you may commit lots of resources (cooldowns, time, and HP - as the enemy team is damaging you all the while), not getting the kill, when you could have better applied those resources elsewhere. There's a potentially huge opportunity cost. The nightmare scenario is that you take too long trying to take out the tank - who ends up getting away at low health - while the enemy DPS cleans your team up. Or, you can actually secure the kill, but still get wiped because there was another target that was more important and that you needed to focus.

Garrosh - due to his trait, Armor Up - is notoriously difficult to take down at low health. Be careful not to get baited into overcommitting!

It's important to understand though, that it's not that focusing the tank or whatnot is incorrect. Rather, the decision to do so at that time was incorrect. In this scenario, maybe the enemy was not as vulnerable as you thought or you overestimated your own team's kill potential.

Target selection and focus fire can be difficult to get right. Speaking frankly, it can sometimes be very hard to tell whether you'll be able to burst down a target in an adequate timeframe. There are so many factors to consider: the enemy team's cooldowns, the availability of your allies' cooldowns, the positioning/chase potential of your team, etc. With experience, you'll get better and better at being able to judge these sorts of things, but even still sometimes things can go wrong and your kill target can end up getting away with just a sliver of health, having absorbed several of your team's ultimates, and will simply be healed up to reengage in a short while. Make a note of what you could've done differently, shake it off, and play on!

Another important principle to note is that sometimes you will focus a target, knowing that you will not be able to finish him/her because of the presence of a defensive cooldown - which you want to force them to use (for example, forcing a defensive Divine Shield, then reengaging). Teamfights will often not end so quickly; be prepared to take a bit of a longer approach, focusing a target, forcing a cooldown to be used, selecting another target to be focused, and then maybe re-focusing on the original target soon later.

In general, look to pressure the enemy team's threats (usually the damage dealers), but keep an eye out for targets that make themselves vulnerable.

A Small Note On Playing Against Genji, Tracer, Et. Al

While Genji has many defensive options, he is by no means unkillable. Keep track of his cooldowns, and pounce at the right moment.

For all the hate Genji gets (and Tracer, and others of similar status), I actually, for the most part, rather enjoy playing against him. This is because playing against Genji teaches you important lessons about tracking enemy cooldowns and punishing cooldown usage. When you and your team slog through all of his defensive cooldowns, recognize that he's vulnerable, give chase and collapse on him, and finally secure the kill, it is oh so satisfying.

Plan ahead - think about all the tools your opponents have at their disposal and how you can work around them.

And Finally, on Shotcalling and Coordination

Target Priority is very dynamic due to oftentimes rapidly changing battlefield conditions. Everyone's positioning in particular is always shifting, and different focus targets will present themselves from even second to second; sometimes it will be as simple as hitting whoever's closest and most threatening and easiest to kill, but sometimes the target priority will be a particularly vulnerable enemy hero who's a bit further away. Calling out targets (whether in a full on 5v5 teamfight or just a small skirmish) is extremely important in order to coordinate focus fire and make use of the opportunities that a burned mobility skill provides. The correct play (which may be to focus fire down the enemy team's tank) will often require the cooperation of every member of your team, and not securing a kill (when you could've with full focus fire) is hard blow. Comms are of course great ("MURA NO JUMP"), and pings are a great substitute if you don't use comms. Whichever medium you use, communicate with your team and enact your gameplan as a group.

My goal with this article is not to say, "Always focus the tank when a mobility skill is used!" HotS is a game with tons of depth and intricacy, and a generalization like that just doesn't hold up - every decision is so situational, so contextual. What I want to convey today is that you should always (whether it be during teamfights, laning, or random skirmishes) be keeping an eye out for important ability usage, as that can bump certain enemies up your target priority list. Don't be intimidated by a large health pool, or the perception that a particular hero is hard to catch - think and act based on what you know, rather than your initial feeling. If you know that an opponent has no escapes left, and that your team has the damage to secure a kill, consider going for it!

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.

Until next time!

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On Punishing Cooldown Usage and Target Priority
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