On "Empathy" in HotS - Thinking from the Opponent's Perspective

Every game of HotS has two teams. Developing strong game sense involves understanding BOTH teams' plans!


Greetings! k0nduit here, and today I've got an article for you on a powerful concept for your HotS gameplay; it's one of my personal favorite aspects of strategy games and one that can be a real game-changer if you can consistently put it into practice. Let's talk about Empathy, i.e. Thinking From Your Opponent's Perspective.

Card games perhaps offer the most manifest examples on the importance of thinking from your opponent's perspective. If you've ever played Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone (after playing and practing the former is when I really started thinking about this concept), you know how it important it is to be thinking about what your opponent is planning to do. You need to be considering what they have on the board, the deck that they're running, what that deck's gameplan is, what they could be/are likely to be holding in hand based on how they've played the game so far, and so on.

While "empathy" is an often-discussed major strategy concept taught in games like MtG, I think (it could just be my own perception, though) it's a bit less emphasized in games like HotS, but rest assured, it's just as critical to get in the habit of practicing empathy in your HotS matches.

Remember that in every game, there are two teams. Building a proper gameplan (both macro-wise and in micro-teamfight execution) comes not only from understanding what your team's best play is, but also the enemy team's best play - as well as how those plays interact, overlap, and clash. Without further ado, let's get into it!

Becoming a Fierce Player Requires Being Empathetic!

On the Limited Resources Podcast for MtG (you can find the specific discussion in this episode, at 23:30), co-host Luis Scott-Vargas - aka LSV - once described 3 levels of play, which roughly are as follows:

1. Playing your cards whenever you're able to play them. (This is how beginners usually start playing)

2. Forming a gameplan about your cards/deck, and enacting that plan in order to win.

3. Thinking about what the opponent's gameplan is, how it might interact with your own, and figuring out how to disrupt their plan while advancing yours (the highest level of play).

One day while I was doing some brainstorming about HotS, it ocurred to me that these same 'planes of thinking' have a great deal of application in Heroes of the Storm. Here's how I would modify LSV's above structure for HotS:

1. Taking in-game actions without clear reasoning behind them; i.e., playing on autopilot!

2. Forming a gameplan about what your team should be doing on the map at particular decision points and determining what's your best route to a win.

3. Considering what the enemy team wants to do/should be doing at particular decision points, and determining how and where you can react to and mess with your opponents' plan while advancing your own.

The first point is one that I've mentioned in my previous articles in HotS, and a critical trap that you must always police yourself from falling into. You've got to always be thinking about what your next play should be - don't take in-game actions without a purpose! The second item on the list I've covered a bit previously in my article "What's the Gameplan" (check it out to learn more about developing in-game macro plans with your team); but as we'll see, part of forming the best gameplan you can involves understanding what the opponent is planning as well - which is point #3.

As you reach higher and higher levels of play, I would even go so far as to say that not playing on autopilot involves thinking from your opponent's perspective. It's really not something you can forget to do! If you're not considering where your opponents are on the map, what they might be up to, and what their best play is, you can get completely blindsided and punished.

In the Limited Resources Podcast segment I linked above, Marshall and LSV mention that a big level-up in Magic: The Gathering is realizing that your opponents are also thinking, rational beings that have agency and are building their own gameplans. This might seem obvious in both MtG and HotS... but I think it's often the case that we get so caught up in our own gameplay that we don't pay nearly enough attention to what our opponents are doing. Getting good at MtG - and HotS - involves realizing that your opponents are trying to make the best moves possible (whether that be in teamfighting, macro, etc.), and being able to 'throw a wrench' in their plays and not cooperate with their gameplan, as LSV says.

Empathetic Play: An Example-Driven Breakdown

Below you'll find some general commentary on empathy, as well as common examples of situations where applying empathy can yield great dividends for your gameplay. As you'll notice, these are considerations and plannings that you can apply game-in and game-out! Let's get into it:

Case Studies in Lategame Macro Decision-Making (featuring Empathy)

Reading backdoor attempts is one of the most manifest applications of empathy. When you have a keep (or multiple keeps) down, you must always be on the lookout for a backdoor attempt, as the enemy team has a clear win condition now: just run it down a lane with an open keep. The key here is not naively assuming that your opponents will meet you on even grounds for a late-game teamfight at the map objective. A common gameplan in this spot is for them to leave one person at the map objective, stalling Hearthstone backs, and have the other four members run to your core through the fog of war. If you're not prepped for this, the game might be over! In the late-game, or whenever you have keeps down, always be thinking about whether it's beneficial for your opponent to go for a backdoor. If there's a chance of a backdoor, you can have 1-2 members of your team go to the objective, while the rest 'float' in a middle point of the map to quickly teleport back to base if needed. If the enemy team shows at the objective, then you can have the 'floating' members join you at the objective.

In a similar vein, consider the following situation. Let's say you're ahead and are about to fight over the map objective (for example the Shrine, on Infernal Shrines). It's lvl 20 to lvl 19 in your favor, and the enemy team is just barely 19, with no chance to get 20 during the shrine phase. However, you've got a keep down in a side lane. You better believe the enemy team is going to heavily, heavily consider going for a core attempt in order to avoid the extremely difficult 19 v 20 fight. Don't naively assume your opponent will kindly cooperate with your gameplan of fighting 5v5 over a shrine while being down lvl 20 talents! Think about what the opponent's best play is. Sometimes it may be just taking that fight and hoping for the best. Other times, they might try something else. Stay vigilant!

Finally, there's one last situation in the same domain I want to talk about. Several maps have a boss, or 'boss-like' objective, that serve as great win conditions in the late-game. Let's say you've just secured a boss on Cursed Hollow in the late-game, and it's going to walk up straight through an empty lane to the enemy's core. You're on your 'victory march', so to say. What's the enemy team thinking here? Opponents who are playing to win know that the boss is indefensible if it hits the core and they're trying to defend against it 5v5.

As such, they know that they have to: 1) Quickly go for a backdoor attempt as discussed above, or 2) must look for a teamfight PAST the boss, as it's walking into their base, and hope to wipe or severely cripple your team, winning the teamfight such that you can no longer push with the boss and they can clear it. In these situations, if you are caught off-guard not expecting them to initiate on you or fall to a coordinated backdoor attempt (having your hearthstones stalled while the rest of the team attacks the core), you can very quickly have the tables turned on you!

Empathy can often be best applied by thinking to yourself, "How do we lose this game? What needs to go wrong such that the enemy team can get an advantage or a chance to come back?" These are extremely nuanced questions that serve as an impetus for you to begin considering the map you're on, the current game state, and what kind of fights the enemy team excels at and what kind of fights your team excels at.

Understanding Each Team Composition is Critical to Practicing Accurate Empathy

Empathy starts even in the early laning phase, even in the first 2-3 minutes of the game. What is your team trying to accomplish in the early-game? What is the enemy team trying to accomplish? What does each team excel at? Let's imagine you're playing on Dragon Shire, and the enemy team has a Genji/Tracer/Zeratul, etc. You better believe your opponents will look to gank/pressure the solo lane with their mobile roamer! You need to have your top laner play safe if the opponent's roamer isn't on the map. Going even further, you can 'float' a member up there to look for a 2v2 if that matchup favors you. This is a great example of forming a gameplan to throw a wrench in your opponent's gameplan! The possibility of a top lane gank should always be on your mind, and your team needs to take special care to call this out.

While it's quite useful for playing around things, empathy has a great deal of 'offensive' application as well. For example, take a game on Cursed Hollow where your opponents have a strong merc camp hero like Greymane. You know implicitly that Greymane wants to go around and do camps. Using this knowledge, you can predict where the opponents might be and harass them as they're trying to do a merc camp. Predictability in gameplans is often a prime opportunity to orchestrate a coordinated attempt at throwing a wrench in those gameplans. Everything starts early though - you need to plan ahead if you're going for an invade. In this manner, knowing the enemy's gameplan and your capability to make a play (maybe you have heroes who are strong at invading and controlling a merc camp), you must adjust your own positioning ahead of time such that you have the members needed.

As we've been discussing, understanding team comps is often the core of understanding the opponent's gameplan. The opponent's team composition informs you what they in general are good at and weak at - take your time to really process and understand this, even in the loading screen. Build a mental model of what kind of style composition your opponents will have as the game progresses. Analyzing team compositions and what they can do at particular game states is critical when it comes to playing at a high level. To give a couple more examples, fighting against a team with a Diablo in a tight choke point is going to be rough - he'll have almost effortless wall-stuns, in addition to a Lightning Breath that will be very difficult to avoid. When the enemy team has a Hanzo, you must always keep in mind the potential for a quick boss burn. Don't commit too many members to another side of the map without vision of the boss area/Hanzo himself. In short, pay attention to the enemy's composition, figure out where they excel and where their weaknesses lie, and use that knowledge to inform your own gameplan.

On Depth of Empathy: Respect Your Opponents as Rational Agents, and Give Them Credit That They'll See They Can Make a Play!

One point I want to mention is that sometimes one can practice empathy and think from your opponent's perspective, but react in an insufficient manner. Let's say you're in the late-game, and are farming the last bit of XP to get lvl 20. You send a teammate with good waveclear to go soak a big wave on the other side of the map, and during this time your team understands that they need to play safe so that the enemy doesn't engage onto you 5v4. However, you underestimate just how hard your opponents will go in order to get that 5v4 teamfight: Maiev blinks in and rips a Containment Disk that clips your team's tank, and boom, now you're forced into a teamfight. In this situation, while you definitely understood that playing safe while a teammate is showing on another side of the map is the thing to do, you didn't give enough respect to the enemy's ability to look for a teamfight, nor engage potential! This type of thing has happened to me personally, and the takeaway from these kinds of misplays is to really be thinking from the opponent's perspective and imagine yourself in their shoes. In hindsight, if I were on the enemy team and I saw that the opponents were very split, I would absolutely be making the call to go super-ham if there's even the slightest chance for a decent teamfight! Depth of empathy here is key!

Maiev is potent at forcing teamfights. Both of her Heroic Abilities can function as engage tools that opponents must respect!

Carrying on from the above example a bit, it's important to realize that by showing on the minimap, you're giving the enemy team information. LSV mentions this sort of concept in the podcast linked above: while you're trying to read your opponent for information, the opponent is also reading you. In the same vein, while you're observing the minimap for the opponent's whereabouts, the opponent is also observing you. Be careful to not give information away that you don't want the opponent to know. But on the other hand, you can 'fake' the enemy out by giving them 'false' information (such as feigning a rotation to one lane, while instead going to another) to gain an advantage!

Things can get really deep in terms of playing around what the opponent might do. Your opponent may realize that you're considering what they're doing, and so some mind games may ensue with faking each other out on the map! When both teams are employing empathy (in all of its applications), games get really interesting!

In the context of MtG, LSV mentions you should in general give your opponent credit that they're playing with a plan in mind when they're making a move, rather than thinking they're making a misplay (this is most relevant when there's hidden information, like the fog of war. In many teamfights though, all the cards will be on the table and you can evaluate what 'should' be happening). The concern with this is that, if you're always giving your opponent credit and playing around them, then sometimes they'll get away with something that you could've punished. This is completely valid, but LSV makes the point that if you're playing against an opponent who doesn't have a plan and is making misplays, while you might lose a little bit of equity and give up some ground if you unnecessarily play around them, you're overall likely to be favored in the long-term against an opponent who has demonstrated that they are weaker than you.

I believe this same principle holds true in Heroes of the Storm. At the start, give your opponents proper respect and credit; only when it's truly proven that they're not as formidable opponents can you relax your guard a little and press advantages in places you otherwise wouldn't. A common example of this is when you see a opponent overextended in a lane while the rest of his/her team is MIA; the opponent is likely baiting, so it would probably be a risky move to go for a pick. If he/she was simply alone and overextended, you missed out on an opportunity, but there will likely be more down the line if it truly was a misplay. In general, it's always beneficial to respect your opponent's decision-making when considering incomplete/hidden information.

Beware the hooks, Spongebob!

One more note on depth of empathy! A great example of this concept involves playing around Stitches' hooks, particularly in the late-game. Typically, compositions with Stitches will be actively looking for a hook in order to get a pick/engage a teamfight - which will also likely give a large edge in the ensuing fight due to the massive displacement of the hook (and of course Gorge or Putrid Bile followup). And so, every 16 seconds, Stitches will be looking for a hook to get a pick. When playing against Stitches, everyone knows to try and avoid getting hooked; but, ask yourself, are you really giving the threat of a hook enough respect? The enemy team is putting several of their eggs in the Stitches hook basket, and they are favored to win if the hook lands.

Moreover, 'dodging' a hook is much easier said than done, particularly when the hook comes from the fog of war, over a wall, or both of these things even. In this kind of high-pressure situation where one skillshot has a massive impact on the game, you must play around your opponent's gameplan and look to deny as many opportunities of getting hooked as reasonably possible. Stay behind structures, position well out of range of Stitches if you know his general location on the map, stay behind minions, and move away from the open area when the minions are almost cleared. Only step forward if you're actively looking to fight and don't mind getting hooked too much. Remember that the enemy team is thinking, "We are looking for a hook, we are looking for a hook, we are looking for a hook" x20!

Empathetic Play: A Few Closing Points

Impending talent tiers are prime examples of the importance of empathy. When you're about to hit 16, and the opponent is only on 13, it's in your best interest to avoid a teamfight until you get that talent advantage. Conversely, you've got to play around the opponent's gameplan of looking for a teamfight while they're still on an even talent tier.

Thinking from your opponent's perspective isn't limited to team-wide macro. Empathy is important to employ at every point in the game, whether it be analyzing a 1v1 duel, a 2v2 skirmish, early-game rotation paths, etc.

One of my favorite examples of empathy is when it comes to countering an opponent's macro play by forseeing it. Let's return to Infernal Shrines once more, and imagine a scenario where you're ahead 16-14 or some such. Up a big talent tier, you're heavily favored to win the upcoming shrine phase, which is just starting. What's your opponent to do in this situation? In my mind, they basically have two options: they can take the shrine fight down a talent tier, or they can do a 'trade push" and push another lane/take down some structures while your team is busy at the objective. Ideally, you would probably want the 16-14 fight, as you'd favored to mop them up. However, it's critical that you think from their perspective and realize that a trade push is quite likely. If the shrine is spawning in the top lane, send just one person (ideally someone with quick shrine clear) to step on the shrine, while the rest of your team moves to wherever your opponents are trade pushing to defend the fort. In this way, you get the shrine, and deny as much value as possible from the opponents' trade push. Committing all five members of your team to the shrine is playing into your opponent's gameplan!

A Subtle, But High-Impact Skill to Practice

So there you have it - we now know how critical it is to be considering what your opponents are up to. But it's not necessarily the case that you have to identify and dismantle their plan at all costs before it happens (e.g. just because you know they're at a merc camp, doesn't mean you must contest it!). Rather, the power of empathy in most situations will simply involve being aware of the opponent's plan - so that you aren't blindsided - and playing around it effectively.

For instance, let's imagine the possibility of getting invaded at your merc camp. Employing empathy basically entails considering if doing the merc camp is safe. You should consider what heroes the enemy team has - can they easily traverse to the camp and contest it with highly mobile heroes? Where are your opponents on the map - are they all in lane, or are they MIA? The latter question's answer can change as you're working on the merc camp. Be sure to keep a watchful eye out and back out/call for your teammate's protection if things look sketchy. Using empathy here results in simply being prepared for a potential invade and not assuming you won't be disrupted!

In essence, empathy's application will often yield subtle changes in your preparation, enhanced foresight of potentially catastrophic plays your opponents can make (that you can now avoid), and grant you the ability to play around your opponent's plan if you do end up clashing - all edges that often won't have an easily perceived/massive game impact (though, sometimes they will). However, understand that the impact will be in what was prevented. Empathy will help prevent those disaster scenarios from occurring!

Finally, actively thinking from your opponent's perspective will make your responses to the enemy team's movements quicker. Anyone can tell you that a quick and decisive shotcall is so much more effective than one made after even just 5 seconds of deliberation - those seconds of delay can make all the difference. If you're not thinking about what the opponent might do beforehand, then you will be slow to react and the opponent can get some value while you're organizing your response. It's not just about responding appropriately - it's about responding appropriately quickly! Thinking about what to do if X or Y happens is how you achieve those quick responses.

Empathy is an incredibly powerful skill in Heroes of the Storm. It's important to form your own gameplan, but it's just as important to figure out what the enemy team is thinking. Use this knowledge to alter/adjust/empower your own gameplan and disrupt the opponents'.

As you play HotS, take the time to practice empathy. It is a skill that needs to be built up over time. You won't be able to apply it consistently and effectively immediately! Ask questions when you don't see enemies on the map, ask questions about what the enemy's plan is before an objective (are they going to concede the objective and trade push? Are they going to fight us?), etc. During every lull in gameplay (e.g. walking back to the map from base), try and figure out what's going on in the current game state. What's your gameplan? And of course, what are your opponents up to? What's the best move here?

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 "Empathy" in HotS - Thinking from the Opponent's Perspective
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