‘Arena of Valor’ Beginner’s Guide: The Basics of a MOBA

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Tencent’s Arena of Valor (Free) has been “soft launched" in North America for a couple weeks now, and while I gave it in our in our launch day review, I’d score it even higher than that if I could today. It effectively is League of Legends, which is one of my favorite games of all time… So, of course, I’ve fallen madly in love with Arena of Valor, as it’s LoL, but I don’t need my PC to play it. The problem with these games, and Arena of Valor is no different, is that doing well in them involves less of a learning curve and more … smashing your head against a learning wall. MOBAs are incredibly skill intensive games, which is why people get so unbelievably sucked into them, but getting to that point can involve a lot of frustration as you die over and over and over. So, we’ll be publishing a series of Arena of Valor guides starting at the absolute basics and (hopefully) culminating in total MOBA newbies seeing some level of success climbing the ranked ladder.

Table of Contents

What is a MOBA?

Starting at the absolute beginning, a MOBA is a multiplayer online battle arena. The genre kicked off with a custom StarCraft Map called “Aeon of Strife" which was pretty innovative at the time as instead of commanding an army of units, players competed with a single hero unit. MOBAs surged in popularity when the Warcraft III map “Defense of the Ancients" (or DotA) was released in the early 2000’s. It didn’t take long for DotA to become a international phenomenon, and the success of DotA spawned countless other MOBAs over the years from League of Legends to Heroes of the Storm, and loads of other similar titles released by publishers around the globe. Arena of Valor is the latest (and in my opinion) greatest entry in the genre, and the accessibility of mobile has resulted in a massive surge of new people experiencing a MOBA for the first time.

While there are many variations and different game modes, the core of most MOBAs is team-based five on five battles that take place on a map with three lanes and a jungle. The top and bottom lanes frame the outside of the map while the middle lane is the shortest and runs directly across the center. Each lane has six towers, three for each team, and at specific intervals your base spawns non-player controlled characters typically referred to as “minions" down these lanes. Winning involves pushing with your minions down a lane, destroying all the enemy towers, and eventually attacking the enemy base. Of course… It rarely ever goes that smoothly.

Heroes have unique abilities, each of which have their own associated cool-downs and (typically) mana costs. In Arena of Valor, your hero has a passive ability which is always in use, two active abilities, and an ultimate ability that unlocks at level four. As you level up, you gain skill points to improve these abilities and while you always want to put a point in your ultimate when you can, deciding which of your primary abilities to level up first is entirely situational and depends on which you think will be more useful in the early game. Abilities can be enhanced with items, and your ability selection as well as which items you build is referred to as your “build."

Hero Types

Typically speaking, the key to victory in a MOBA is a well-rounded team. In Arena of Valor heroes are put into six different categories, with most able to fill multiple roles depending on how players choose to utilize them. These are what they’re specifically called in Arena of Valor, but most/all MOBAs categorize their heroes in a similar way:

  • Tank – These are your beefy heroes with loads of hit points. Typically when you play as a tank, you’ll be buying defensive items which add even more hit points along with armor, and magic resist. As a tank, your job is to stand in the front lines, soak up as much damage as you can, and “peel" enemies off weaker members of your team. “Peeling" involves paying attention to who is attacking another teammate and using abilities on them to interrupt that attack or redirect it to you. Most tanks have abilities that can stun, grab, taunt, or do other things to interrupt attacking enemies.
  • Warrior – Typically less beefy than tanks, warriors serve a somewhat similar role except they trade the survivability of tanks to be able to do more damage. Usually warrior abilities are all close range melee attacks, and in a team fight you’ll be up-close and personal swinging your weapon around. Playing a warrior well involves knowing when to disengage from fights so you don’t die, and how to balance item purchases between survivability and damage dealing. You need survivability as you don’t do damage while dead, and you need damage items as otherwise you’re just a less effective tank.
  • Assassin – In the melee world, assassins are on the complete opposite end of the survivability spectrum compared to tanks. When playing an assassin, you basically have one job: Jump in, kill an enemy, and get out before you get killed yourself. (This is often referred to as “ganking.") Assassins have abilities which prioritize both damage dealing and mobility, as you rarely build any survivability so if you can’t kill an enemy and get out, chances are, you’ll the one that will be getting killed.
  • Mage – The mage is a broad category, as characters vary wildly in play style but all have one thing in common: They focus on building ability power to increase damage, and their damage is done via magical attacks. Mages are important to have on your team because if the enemy team is building lots of items that increase armor, your magical spells completely disregard that. Mages also typically have very powerful ultimate abilities that do loads of area effect damage. The down side of mages is they’re referred to as “squishies" because they die so easily. Mages rarely build many defensive items, and have low base hitpoints, making them easy targets for assassins.
  • Marksman – Also known as the ADC (or attack damage carry), a marksman is a pure ranged damage dealer. You build attack damage, improve your critical strike chance, and most of your damage comes from ranged auto-attacks. In an ideal team fight, you’ll be in the back-lines attacking whoever is in range while staying far enough out of the fight that your tank is able to protect you so you can keep a constant flow of damage towards the enemy team. Similar to mages, marksmen rarely build defensive items, so you will die quickly if you encounter basically any other damage-dealing class and aren’t able to escape.
  • Support – Last, and by no means least, is support. Like mages, this is a pretty broad category but really just means you’re playing a character that primarily assists your team. Usually supports have disruptive abilities that can snare, grab, stun, or otherwise “crowd control" the enemy team so your team can take them out. Also, supports will often have abilities which heal or shield your teammates.

Typical Team Composition

While it’s a good idea to have each player on a team playing a different hero subtype from the above list, what’s more important is that each hero has abilities that complements the rest of the team. So, if you’ve got two tanks but one focuses more on crowd control abilities and another does magic damage, it’s not that bad to have two of them. That goes for the rest of the classes as well, as when you get into a team fight situation, assuming everything else is equal, typically its the team who has the widest variety of unique abilities that pulls ahead.

From a raw damage perspective, it might seem like a good idea to stack a team with nothing but marksmen, but all the enemy team will need to do is buy armor items and your attacks will be completely negated. By having a mixture of magical and physical damage dealers, it’s very difficult for the enemy team to avoid both damage types. This is just one of many examples as to why a well-rounded team is important.

Typically, what I usually do is select my hero last, and choose whatever we’re missing. Arena of Valor actually gives you a hint window on the bottom right side of the screen during hero select that tells you what your team could use. This is a great guideline for what to play. This is called “filling" in the MOBA vernacular, and in my experience, is the best way to win games.

Usually you’ll want a tank or beefy warrior, an assassin, a mage, a marksman, and a support. The fascinating part about MOBAs is that many different classes can fulfill those roles via making up for any inherent shortcomings with specific items. For instance, something I’ve seen kicked around is the idea of playing Mganga as a tank. Mganga typically is a very squishy mage, but you can build all defensive items and fill the roles of both a tank and a support. This sort of flexibility is what makes MOBAs so ridiculously complex, but once you understand everything all the heroes can do (which really just comes from playing loads of games) it becomes super difficult to put down.

Last Hitting and Gold Generation

I’ve mentioned buying items a number of times now, as items are the primary way of increasing the effectiveness of your character. You buy items with gold, and gold generation is super important in MOBAs. While in lane, most of your gold will come from killing minions. If you’re nearby when a minion dies you get a small amount of gold, but if you get the killing blow on a minion, you get a bonus. This is referred to as “last hitting." Individually these bonuses don’t seem that important, but if you can keep last hitting throughout the game, and you can prevent the enemy player in your same lane from last hitting, you will be significantly more powerful as more gold equals more items. Last hitting requires a decent amount of skill, so don’t sweat it early on if you’re missing a bunch of them.

Another way to get gold is by going into the area between lanes, which is referred to as the “jungle." In the jungle, monsters, which in MOBA-speak are called “creeps" spawn at specific intervals. Killing these rewards gold and experience, but you don’t want to get too greedy on taking jungle creeps because if you have a jungler (more on that later) they are dependent on these monster spawns themselves.

Last, but not least, killing enemy players rewards both gold and experience as well. Depending on the situation, like if you get the first kill of the game (“first blood") or kill an enemy that is doing really well (“shut down") you will get more gold than usual. Also, the more often and the quicker an enemy is killed the less gold they reward, although it’s still substantial at any stage of the game. MOBAs are all about gathering as much gold and experience for your team as you can while depriving the enemy team as much as possible.

It’s because of this that the most important thing you can do in a MOBA is not die. Rarely is there a situation where your death is a good thing, as you are feeding the enemy team gold and experience. (Which is why dying over and over is called “feeding.") Running away when you’re in danger of dying and teleporting back to the base to heal is almost always the right call over giving the enemy team a kill.

Typical Team Positioning

When you first start playing, you’ll be matched up with people who are similarly new to the game, which means team positioning will be all over the place. One thing that’s a little confusing about Arena of Valor if you’ve played other MOBAs is that you will always play on the blue side of the map, meaning, your base will always be in the bottom left. So there isn’t a traditional “top" and “bottom" lane, because the map flips depending on what side you’re actually on. If this seems confusing because you’re super new to the genre, don’t worry about it a ton yet.

The “top" lane is the lane closest to the Dark Slayer, which is indicated on the mini map via a purple monster face icon. The “bottom" lane is closest to the Abyssal Dragon, which is the somewhat similar large orange mini-map icon. Once things settle out and you start playing with people who are beginning to figure out what’s happening, the basic positions of your team is as follows, and again, this is a super flexible thing like everything else in a MOBA.

  • Top (Dark Slayer) Lane – Tanks, warriors, and similarly beefy characters who can survive on their own typically live in the top lane. You’re farthest from your teammates, and usually have the least team support when other people come into your lane to attempt to gank you. In theory, you should have enough armor, hit points, and everything else to be able to run back to your tower safely. Once some towers start falling and everyone moves on from the laning phase to the team fight phase of the game you’re expected to be front and center of every fight.
  • Jungler – As a jungler, you don’t kill minions in lanes for gold and experience and instead wander around your jungle killing creeps. Your primary responsibility is ganking lanes and providing support to lanes that are being camped by more than two members of the enemy team. Also, you’re expected to help any lanes that are losing. Overall, I find jungling to be the most stressful position as if someone dies, you get blamed for not being there. If an enemy doesn’t die, you get blamed for not being there to gank. That being said, a quality jungler that can have a presence over the entire map can easily carry a game to victory. Junglers can really be any of the above hero category, but you usually want to play a hero that has some ability that helps you run into a lane and kill someone. That can be a grab to bring them to you, a quick gap closer to get in range of them, a long-range stun, or anything similar.
  • Middle Lane – Usually this is where your mage will go. This is the optimal lane for mages because they typically get the most power by leveling up their abilities, so by being in a lane by themselves they aren’t sharing experience with any other hero on the team and can level up quickly. Additionally, since mages are usually very squishy, it makes sense to put them in the lane that is the shortest so they can get back to their tower the easiest if they’re getting ganked. As a mage in the middle lane, you’re also expected to roam to either the top or bottom lanes as needed to provide support if it looks like there’s a fight brewing.
  • Bottom (Abyssal Dragon) Lane Marksman – In the bottom lane you usually want your marksman and a supporting character. As a marksman, your job is to harass the enemy players in the bottom lane to bully them out of range to get experience from creeps that die and to prevent the enemy team from last hitting. Your goal is to rack up as much gold from last hitting as possible to buy items to become stronger than the enemy marksman. Pay attention to the map, as when your jungler or middle lane teammates come down you’re expected to have the lane in a situation where you can majorly capitalize on them being there to wipe out the enemy bottom lane and push down the tower. Once the laning phase is over, you join your team and stay in the back, dealing as much damage as possible.
  • Bottom (Abyssal Dragon) Lane Support – Last, but by no means least, is the supporting hero that runs along side the marksman. Your entire job is to protect your marksman and make sure they can get as big as possible. You also want to focus on harassing the enemy team to keep them away from minions so your marksman can kill minions (this is referred to as “farming"). Additionally, the reason you’re down bottom is so when you have the opportunity you can rotate up to the dragon with your marksman and kill it to award extra gold and experience to the whole team. During team fights you provide heals and crowd control so the rest of the team can shred the enemies and push for a victory.

MOBAs Have Guidelines, Not Rules

Everything I’ve laid out in this super-high level overview of the basics of a MOBA are really just guidelines. The truly captivating part of the genre is that you can really play it in a billion different ways to respond to the evolving meta game that every MOBA has. For example, in League of Legends there was a while where it was in fashion to run three characters in the top lane at the start of the game to immediately push down the enemy tower. It worked, but left the bottom lane super exposed. Opposing teams figured this out, and exploited the advantage this inadvertently gave them by having most of your team on the other side of the map.

Similarly, if you’re playing a mage that totally counters the enemy hero in the top lane, there’s nothing wrong with organizing a lane swap so you can take advantage of that weakness. It’s just important to keep playing, not get discouraged, and use every loss as an opportunity to learn something about the game. For example, maybe you suffered a humiliating defeat, but saw a really clever combo of abilities put together by the enemy team. Remember that, and use it yourself.

It’s very, very easy to get tilted and start blaming your team when things go south, but if you treat every game as a new opportunity to learn and get better, you never really lose. (I know this advice is hard to follow when your team spends 20 minutes doing dumb things and basically handing the game to the enemies, but still!)

Next Up…

In our next Arena of Valor guide, we’ll look into different item types and how to build your hero to maximum effectiveness. The cool part about how much depth this game has is… There’s really no shortage of stuff to write about. Stay tuned!

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