For over a year now, the 4 position has become one of the most crucial positions in the pro meta. Heroes and player alike have dominated games and are often hailed as the playmakers of their teams. Alongside this trend of successful 4 position supports, roaming has become more and more important. Roamers dominate the picks and bans of tournaments and are often the target of nerfs in many mini patches. What seems to come easy to so many pro players though, is quite complex and keeps evolving. Let's break down roaming.
Roaming describes movement around the map, mostly during the laning stage, in which one or more heroes move between lanes, as opposed to sticking to a certain lane configuration. Most of the time, roamers are supports who serve no fixed purpose in a dedicated lane, but instead have the purpose of stabilizing whichever lane needs support. That said, often times offlaners have been known to roam early on, especially if their own lane does not work out as planned.
Any hero technically can roam, but there are ideal attributes and qualities a roamer should have, especially dedicated ones. While lane stability doesn’t have to be acquired through aggression and kills, it often is the goal of a roamer to set up for such. Consequently, it is most beneficial for a roamer to have an easy initiation and setup, be it with a stun or slow. The initiation range is important, as roamers want to avoid vision as much as possible. The longer a hero doesn’t show on the map, the more of a threat they become.
Long, non-ultimate initiation spells include Fissure, Snowball, or Rolling Boulder. Because of their range, these spells generally don’t care about terrain, so they can be used from across the river or from behind a treeline. Other disables/setups such as Magic Missile, Burrowstrike, or Lightstrike Array are less desirable, as they have short ranges, can often only be set up with a Smoke of Deceit, and generally require the hero to walk up to the target.
If a long-range initiation was all that was necessary though, then heroes like Earthshaker should’ve been popular for a while now, but initiation is not everything. More often than not, the lane a roamer ganks does not have a potent killer in it. In recent metas, carry-like heroes were popular in the midlane, and heroes like Dragon Knight, Alchemist or [missing hero: outworld-devourer] do not have the greatest kill potential early on. Often times they require a perfect setup or a lot of additional burst damage to net such kills. Heroes like Bounty Hunter or Monkey King rose to popularity and fame because they had good slows and sufficient killing potential early on, on top of their other benefits, such as map control or teamfight capabilities.
Roaming isn’t only about killing or setting up kills, but it’s rather about controlling the lanes and the map. When jungle runes were introduced in 7.00, heroes with high mobility became desirable. Securing as many runes as possible, and thus denying the opponent as many runes as possible, became a very important task for roamers.
Controlling the map and its key locations is one of the most important tasks of a roamer heading into the midgame. This is why heroes like Treant Protector or Clockwerk are currently popular--they provide vision across the map, have high mobility and can set up a kill in combination with another hero. The term “space created” may have become a meme at this point, but it still is a very important macro strategy that roamers most of all employ. Team NP’s pieliedie has proven to be an excellent space creator, especially on heroes like Bounty Hunter. He would go past enemy lines and draw their attention to him, literally forcing them back from lanes or objectives and thus creating space.
Since map control is largely tied to the vision available, it should be the roamers’ job to plant wards in the mid game, granted they are a hero with high mobility. There’s an inherent difference between how a Crystal Maiden can move around the map and how a Treant Protector moves. Deep wards behind tier 2 towers can spot Smoke gank attempts or any rotation between base, lanes and jungle.
Even in the laning stage, deep wards behind the tower can be crucial. While they serve the same purpose, i.e. spotting gank attempts or rotations, they are also less likely to be expected/dewarded and provide the option to potentially kill a courier. This may seem gimmicky, but in the recent Summit 7 grand finals, a total of 10 couriers were killed across 3 games.
As alluded to earlier, not every hero capable of roaming is a good pick at any time. As the meta develops, teams look for different qualities in roamers. Towards the end of 6.88, roamers needed to be tanky, to trade efficiently with whoever they were looking to bully, be it the opposing support or mid laner, which made heroes like Ogre Magi or Slardar popular. In 7.00, roamers needed the ability to transition from roaming to teamfighting, ideally with big, AoE ultimates, i.e. heroes like Monkey King or Earth Spirit. Right now, roamers need to be able to provide lots of map control, while simultaneously posing a threat to the enemy, mostly through high killing potential, which is why heroes like Clockwerk, Nyx Assassin or Night Stalker have become popular. Additionally, these three roamers have the added benefit of being “flex-picks”, meaning they can be picked early in the draft, as they can be both an offlaner or a 4 position support.
The reason there are so many different types and shapes of roaming and why the sought after qualities of roamers keep changing is quite simple: they all have their own strengths and weaknesses, like any strategy. The classic form of roaming would likely describe a hero dedicated to killing, or at the very least attempting to, an enemy during the laning stage. Unfortunately for these types of roamers, a failed gank attempt is quite the networth loss, as a hero who is dedicated to killing doesn’t have many backup plans. Heroes like Bounty Hunter or Riki don’t have any innate farming capabilities that let them catch up in case their laning stages have gone bad. They would need a dedicated lane with farm and xp to do so.
Similarly, there are some roamers who rely on items to transition smoothly into the midgame. Earthshaker may be a classic roamer, but it is undeniable that without a Blink Dagger, his midgame impact is rather lackluster.
The current roaming style doesn’t force heroes to commit and allows them to be more flexible. More often than not, roamers in the current meta will get early experience on a lane before they attempt to gank, and then they’ll fall back to soaking xp again.
On top of all these different types of roaming, there’s also dual roaming. This strategy used to be popular and is slowly regaining in popularity. As mentioned above, certain heroes need a Smoke of Deceit to set up a gank and even then their damage output or crowd control is limited. To mitigate that issue, supports can roam in pairs to ensure a kill. In 2013, LGD.int used to be popular for their Enchantress + Shadow Demon dual roam combo. Shadow Demon would initiate with his medium range Disruption to set up for a disable through one of Enchantress’ neutral creeps. There is little risk involved in this strategy, as they generally have sufficient damage output, and Enchantress can always fall back into the jungle to farm.
The return of dual roaming has allowed heroes like Sand King to become a top pick (most picked at recent Summit 7 LAN) again. His Burrow Strike has a short range, especially on early levels, and his damage output isn’t the best either, but it’s a sufficient set up for a follow-up disable or nuke.
Dual roaming has a very obvious weakness however: it takes up time from two supports at once, so a failed gank attempt becomes even costlier. It also leaves the two lanes that aren’t ganked rather vulnerable, as they will have no support to zone out the enemy. As a result, it’s only really advisable to dual roam when the other lanes, most importantly the safe lane, can be left alone without a significant trade-off.
Crystal Maiden, despite her low movement speed, is an excellent hero for such dual roaming purposes. Most of the time, she will be absent from the lane and out of vision anyway, as she can jungle quite efficiently to gain a few levels. Her disappearance is thus not as alarming as it would be for other heroes who are constantly babysitting their carries. Frostbite and Crystal Nova are excellent set up spells and her aura supports the other supports who will generally be low on mana. More on why Crystal Maiden has been the queen of pubs for a while now can be found here.
Roaming can be complex, and this complexity is why often times pubs would rather resort to junglers. There’s a lot of communication and synergy required for roaming, but also a certain mentality. A failed gank is not the end of the world, much like a successful gank doesn’t spell doom for the opponents.
Knowing when which kind of roaming style works is key. While the pro meta may set a certain standard, it doesn’t mean that a different style of roaming wouldn’t work right now. Dota strategies have always had a certain “Rock-Paper-Scissors” relationship. One strategy would beat the other, but got beaten by another. Roaming is no different, which is why it’s important to know its basics.