The thing about drafting
The thing about drafting is that it’s very very difficult. There are dozens of relevant considerations for any drafter to think about for each and every pick or ban.
Did I have a plan going into the draft? Which hero do I need for that plan to work? Did my opponent have a plan going into the draft? Which hero do they need for that plan to work? Which heroes would counter my plan? Which heroes would counter theirs?
Of the heroes I want, which one are they least likely to ban or pick themselves? Which hero would my draft not work without? Which hero would their draft not work without? Which hero are they least likely to expect? Is there a chance they could throw a curveball? What are the possible roles of their picks so far and how does that affect my draft? Do I want to disguise my picks? Do I want my picks to be clear so my opponent is pressured to react?
Should I be proactive or reactive this draft? Is my opponent proactive or reactive? Which faction am I on? Do I want to make sure I’ve got heroes that can take Roshan quickly? Do I want to make sure I have heroes that can push towers quickly? Do I want to make sure I have hard disables? Do I want to make sure I have heroes that can push out waves quickly to control the map? Is my focus going to be the laning stage? Teamfighting? Late game? Should I pick a hero specifically for breaching or defending high ground?
Which roles do I want to pick later in the draft? Does it depend on my opponent? Which heroes are my players most comfortable with? Which heroes have I picked so far? Which heroes have they picked so far? Should I be more focused on the heroes picked so far or the heroes still to be picked? Will we be able to handle their roamer? Is there an opportunity to get away with a greedy pick? Is my next pick primarily determined by the hero itself or by potential synergy with other heroes?
The thing about drafting is that at any stage in the draft any of these questions could plausibly be relevant and could plausibly influence a drafter’s decision-making. And these are just a few of the considerations. There are many many more.
So when you’re watching or casting or analysing a game and a drafter makes a move you find surprising, it’s probably best to try figure out what kind of thinking went into that pick rather than selecting your own favourite drafting criterion and evaluating the pick against that.
‘Why would they first pick that hero? Nobody is going to ban it!’ is a pretty flimsy analysis. It might, for example, be a good pick to force a reaction from the enemy or hide your plans or maybe it’s the vital component of your strategy. The same applies to something like ‘that is a bad pick because it’s already countered by X pick in the enemy’s draft’. Depending on your overall approach to the game, specific counters could play out very differently. Usually a Storm Spirit is difficult to beat without good disables. But another way to counter it is by grouping up and taking objectives before it can farm key items.
And so on. The comments above do raise relevant considerations and of course there’s times where they should be the dominant consideration and the drafter’s choice really is a mistake. But the process is complex and nuanced and to understand a drafter’s decision you need to be generous in your analysis and try figure out their mindset at that moment.
Obviously, there is no drafter who is ever considering all of the relevant considerations when making a pick. And there are numerous different overall approaches to drafting. The clearest dichotomy is between drafting proactively or reactively. Of course these approaches exist on a spectrum but most teams will fall closer to one side than the other. In the current metagame reactive drafting is a lot more popular. A lot of teams don’t like showing their carry before the enemy team shows their offlaner and vice versa. A lot of teams don’t like showing their mid before the enemy team shows theirs. And so on.
One advantage of drafting proactively (usually strategies that are largely prepared) is that you will have more experience with your draft than your opponent with theirs. They are also forced to react to you, giving you first move advantage. Furthermore, having a prepared idea means your team is guaranteed to be on the same page about what each player’s role is and how the draft is meant to come together to ultimately win the game.
One requirement for drafting this way is enough confidence in your ideas that you believe you can win even with an informational asymmetry. Good examples of a heavily proactive approach are OG, TI5 CDEC and the current Fnatic team.
An advantage of drafting reactively is that in theory you can have the optimal pick or ban in every single instance. In practice this is extremely difficult but in the ideal world you’re going to outdraft your opponent in every single game. Another advantage is that your draft itself is unlikely to be hard countered in any way.
One requirement for drafting this way is to have extremely adaptable players who are able to play almost any hero and almost any playstyle. Good examples of a heavily reactive approach are 2014 DK, ppd’s EG and 2016 Wings.
Proactive vs reactive is one of many ways to slice up your approach to drafting. And within any given approach, there’s still going to be countless factors to consider before each pick. Even if you’ve prepared your entire draft in advance, you’re still going to have to decide what order to pick heroes in. Should you pick the least replaceable hero first or the one that gives away the least information? Should you ban things that you think will be very hard to beat but your opponents don’t usually pick or things that will only be a little hard to beat but that they pick very regularly?
Drafting isn’t just about ‘figuring out the meta’. In fact for teams wanting to be the very best, it’s often about crafting one. Most of what we refer to as metagame is not dictated by the game itself in any direct way. There are times when something is so strong that it forces itself into a metagame but most of the time metagame depends in equal part on the game itself and on subjective preferences and trends.
Someone tries something in a few pubs and it feels good. They bring it to a professional match. It works there too. Other teams copy it. Very quickly it’s considered ‘in the meta’. It wasn’t last week, and the game hasn’t changed. Usually what has changed is what teams are wanting to do. Yes, that often means someone figured something out about the game. But whether or not the meta at any given time reflects some kind of idealised ‘best possible metagame’ is an entirely different question. Sometimes metagames are even cyclical, each consecutive meta simply following as a response to the previous one.
And even if you think you have a great understanding of a given metagame, you’re still always constrained by what your team is good at doing or comfortable doing. And you still get to decide if you want to ‘play the meta’ or counter it.
Ultimately, drafting is probably the most complex part of a game which is magnificently complex in pretty much every respect. Games can be won or lost in the draft and when that happens it’s always a combination of factors that leads to it. Outdrafts are never going to be simple. Sure, you might summarize an outdraft by saying one team had X hero and the other team just didn’t have a way to deal with it. But how the draft got to that position is going to depend on several things. And usually more than one mistake will have to be made.
The vast majority of professional players have a strong preference not to draft and these kinds of pressures are the reason for that.
I know this article is probably quite dry but I hope that those who read it will take the time to reflect about the intricacies of drafting and next time you’re analysing a draft try to really get into the mindset of a drafter when attempting to deconstruct their picks.