18th Dec, 2014By Softmints7 minutes

In Part 1, we looked at the history behind ToB, examined some of its map features, and started looking at the motivations for its hero design. But it's worth noting that over time, both the game and community were evolving: exploring the consequences of various mechanics, and experimenting with different design directions.

This part of the review will discuss some of the mechanics which were more closely entwined with the formation of ToB's meta.

Hero Combat

ToB was among the first maps to add scripted hero skills. While many abilities were clever data edits of existing Warcraft abilities (notably, the "boat"), newly triggered skills like Sashi's leap and Maiden's Pluck Yew were trickier to land, and began raising the bar when it came to execution. To compensate, players began relying on both each-other, and team assets like the Sorceress' invisibility to set up kills.

The two Alliance killers, known for roaming as a pair. Sashi brings the stun, Leto brings the pain.

Even the most dedicated killing roles would have a tough time securing a kill on their own, and even while working with an ally who can provide supporting disables or damage, the process is rarely quick. Heroes tend to fall either when significantly outnumbered during a gank, or when "pinned" in place by the necessity of defending a crucial objective, as it's often better to die buying time or weakening enemy troops, than to let your opponents land the finishing blow on a building.

Picture of the plain, peach-coloured GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card from Monopoly, with 'Double shot anti-magic espresso' printed on itThere's another layer of complexity to consider in hero combat. Among the game's items are limited-use consumables, including two of particular note: the anti-magic potion, and the wand of negation.

Drinking an anti-magic potion surrounds your hero with a green bubble that blocks all incoming spells for 20 seconds, on a 30 second cooldown. The wand of negation functions as a counter: it damages summons and removes all buffs in a target area, including the buff which provides spell immunity.

In a typical combat scenario, several heroes will aim to initiate on and focus down one enemy hero. The victim will try to time drinking their anti-magic potion such that it blocks at least some of the incoming spells, but not so hastily that it gets negated before the spells land. Wands of negation can also be used defensively to remove some disables on allies.

The flashes of purple are wands of negation, used both pre-emptively to guarantee the stun, and then to land follow-up nukes.

In the below clip, there is no way for Sashi to use a dispel during his leap, so Scion walks free. If Sashi had an ally nearby, there would be at least a chance to land a dispel in time to negate the potion.

Scion blocks the stun with a timely Anti-Magic Potion.

A point of interest is that several heroes have channelled ultimates with both huge area of effect, and durations ranging from 20-30 seconds. Most can comfortably cover an entire outpost, and while their damage per second might be modest, they can devastate structures if allowed to run their course.

This allows these heroes to force a reaction from the enemy. Even though many of ToB's features emphasise teamwork, ultimates like this allow individual players the agency to make a difference on their own too.

ToB's unique culture of shared control also plays an occasional role in hero combat. Not in the form of controlling allied heroes (which would be poor etiquette), but in the controlling of summons.

For example, Scythian Maiden has a powerful permanent summon, which she can lend to one of her allies on a different lane, to help them harass and assert lane control.

A large blue tauren hero faces a shimmering blue wizard on-lane. A tiger moves to attack the wizard, and has Warcraft III's special "shared control" selection circle beneath it
El Toro microing a friendly summon.

Pooling Gold

Another teamwork opportunity in Tides of Blood is the ability for players to send gold to each-other, known as Pooling. This process is instant and enabled by default in Warcraft III for online multiplayer, but most AoS maps leave the option disabled. Why?

The usual problem is item balance. In a hypothetical AoS map, the difference between level 1 hero with, and without starting items is relatively small. It's a disadvantage, but it's bearable. However, a hero with their entire team's resources and powerful items intended for the late game, is almost guaranteed to crush their lane, get kills, and snowball out of control.

This is quickly realised to be an optimal strategy, both teams are forced to do it, and by then only two players are having fun.

But in ToB, pooling manages to be a positive contributor to the game! The problem of a single player spiralling out of control is avoided by having most late-game items provide percentage-based bonuses which aren't really useful or decisive in the early-game, and hence make poor investments.

That's not to say pooling for items doesn't happen: but when it does, it will almost always be to accomplish goals which benefit the team. Securing a critical Blink dagger for Pirate to help with team fights, or pooling for an early Tome of Experience so Maiden can start the game at level 3, and hence lend a level 2 summon to her ally, are examples.

Pooling is necessary to help spread the cost of team assets like zeppelins and sorceresses, but there's another major gold sink which keeps teams under pressure to spend the bare minimum on luxuries like items and consumables.

That gold sink is the Spawn Towers: special buildings that can be constructed beside an allied Keep to increase the number of troops it spawns each wave. Each Keep can support a maximum of 4 towers, and it costs well into the thousands to get there.

There are three spawn tower types available: a Knight tower, a Mage tower, and a Mortar tower: with names corresponding to the unit type they produce. In practice, the towers that players build are a roughly even mix of the three; the strategy is in where and when they get built.

The inner Keeps are less vulnerable to attack, so there's less chance of losing one's investment, while the outer Keeps are much more crucial objectives and demand the reinforcements.

A stone Keep in one team's base has four tall elven-themed towers behind it, while a large wave of troops including mortar teams and knights disembarks the Keep for combat
A maxed out Keep with four spawn towers.

For the outer keeps, it's worth mentioning that the outposts have an asymmetric matchup: one team's large outpost is on a lane against the other team's small outpost. So there are several possible configurations of spawn towers, such as a high-stakes situation where both teams pressure each other's small outpost, or if both place towers on the same lane, the team with the larger outpost will have an easier time defending.

When and where aside, the spawn towers need to get built. They're too strong to ignore, and they require the economic muscle of an entire team to fund. The extra four troops each wave will eventually overpower any other tactic, meaning that pooling is essential to survival, and excessively selfish use of gold, such as on personal items, will lead to ruin.

Gameplay

ToB was frequently played by the general public, but where it really shined was in pre-arranged inhouse matches, where players knew what they were doing. Typically a game would start by pausing to discuss heroes, and then every player would offer shared control to their allies.

The major early-game objectives were accumulating gold, and attempting to deny experience. Not in the "killing your own troops" way, but rather by pushing the lane into the enemy towers, because troops killed by a tower grant no experience. Melee and ranged mercenaries were a useful investment for increasing a hero's pushing power.

It's not often that single-target abilities are used on troops, but this is no mistake!

Ranged troops have higher dps than their melee counterparts. In the clip above, Warden is focusing down an enemy archer first, because it pushes the lane unfavourably towards her own towers. But this is risky: it puts her at the back of the wave, further from the safety of her towers. Playing safer is an option, but would allow the alliance to push faster, losing her experience in the long run.

The balance of risk and reward here is appropriate, and results from good tuning of the numbers on the troops, rather than some external force.

Transitioning into the mid-game, damaging or destroying the enemy outposts was the highest priority, and the mid-lanes would become relatively vacant, except when the opportunity to damage towers arose. Around this time, the first spawn towers would start to appear.

The prevailing strategy was for teams to hoard gold until they had accumulated enough to build four spawn towers beside one of their outer lane Keeps at once. This tactic, known as a Tower Drop, gave a sudden and substantial troop advantage on that lane, hopefully razing some enemy defences, and allowing heroes to apply constant pressure on the outpost, making construction of any defensive spawn towers more difficult.

If both teams were good though, soon all four outer outposts would have maxed Keeps. It wouldn't be strange to see extended stalemates at this point in the game, since the choke points along the lane between the outposts meant that area damage heroes could hold enemy troops at bay, and the close proximity of healing fountains in each outpost made laning safe and sustainable.

Still, the high stakes of losing an outpost meant that at least 5-6 heroes would be on each lane, trying to push or defend, and zeppelins would frequently rotate heroes between opposite ends of the map as needed, or swoop in to save heroes close to dying. Heroes are broadly encouraged to spam abilities rather than conserve them, since casting more is the only real way to raise your dps. Given the generally low kill potential from most abilities in the game, dps is something most heroes sorely lack.

As the game went on, the mid lanes would eventually get their own Keeps maxed out with spawn towers, and the focus would shift to the Magic Vaults. Isolated and with limited defences, they were a prime target for sneak attacks and harassment. Even if an attempt didn't manage to break the vault, it might be enough of a distraction to snag a defensive tower or two from an enemy outpost.

Eventually, through tactical outmanoeuvring or sheer endurance, one team would take enough objectives to secure a lead. However, a losing team could hold on for a long time if they wanted to, so games often ended by mutual agreement rather than the victory condition.

Closing Thoughts

The icon for Disciple of the Moon, one of the more iconic ToB heroesI want to take a moment to mention shared control again, because it's an unthinkable departure from modern moba communities. Players voluntarily sharing everything they had, was the norm.

For those who played often, it became a culture in which players easily became friends and formed communities: an oasis in the world of online gaming. But this was no accident: it happened because the game fostered it.

ToB's mechanics actively and tangibly reward players for opting in. Whether that's the mobility from zeppelins, the vastly improved combat effectiveness with teamwork, or the potential of a spawn tower advantage, co-operation was not only optimal for the team, but optimal for the individual.

Transitioning a player's desire to win, into a desire to co-operate, is a really good move. When you have players who want to opt in to their team, to opt in to a shared mindset and goals, it's no surprise when you end up with a strong community.

That's not to say Tides of Blood was a perfect game. It was ahead of its time in many ways, but still had a lot of issues like stalemates and balance to work through.  Mechanics like spawn towers had potential which went untouched.

Nothing that couldn't be addressed in the long run, but unfortunately ToB's run was cut short. After about a year, development slipped from active status, into inactive, and never quite recovered.

Despite its achievements and an enduring legacy within Warcraft, Tides of Blood's story has come to a quiet end. One can only wonder how things might have been different if development had continued, and ToB's ethos and community became the foundations for the genre's wider success. I think it's safe to say we would be living in a very different world of lane-pushing games.