Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Surviving Starcraft II: Part 1

It’s been quite a while since I’ve talked about how to play a game instead of bitching about some issue or another. Due to popular demand (and the number of beta keys going out these days) I’ll give you the survivor’s guide to Starcraft II multi-player. Now, I’m by no means a really good player and if you are already decent at Starcraft II you probably won’t get anything out of this post. This is aimed at those of you who haven’t touched the game yet or are hanging out in the copper and bronze leagues of the game. I will touch on a few basic concepts today and, if people like it, bring you part 2 with more concepts another day. Please feel free to comment if you like or dislike this or want a specific issue addressed in a follow-up. But now, five ways to not die in your first Starcraft II multi-player matches.

Understand the Mechanics

“Oh, they can do that?” is never a good comment to make. When you start playing on Battle.net, make sure you at least understand the basic functionalities of the game itself and the three races. In beta, at least make a custom game with each race against the very easy AI and try out the various units that they have. You don’t have to memorize every little tidbit just yet, but if you are surprised by basic moves that your opponents are doing, it is quite likely that you will lose.

When the game comes out at the end of July you can of course learn those facts from the single player missions before jumping into multi-player, but that might actually be a bad idea. Many things will work differently in single-player than they do in multi-player and you might just learn bad habits. The best time to start learning the game is therefore now, because the beta only allows multi-player anyway. If you don’t have a beta-key yet or wish to do some more preparation before fighting real enemies, try watching some videos. TotalBiscuit has some very nice ones up on YouTube that aim to show new players how the game is played. Both his “I Suck at Starcraft 2” and “Shoutcraft” series are excellent in that regard.

A little less newbie friendly, but very good, are the videos by Husky and HDStarcraft. These guys cover a variety of games, both their own ones and games by professional gamers. If you want to really go into detail, check out Day[9]’s videos these are absolutely fantastic, but go into quite some detail and can be quite demanding in their use of Starcraft II slang.

Remember your place

Many people watch some videos like the ones I linked above and then try to mirror what the professional (as in “really good” not necessarily “paid for playing”)  players are doing.  While learning from the pros is good, you have to remember that neither you nor your opponent are professionals. A very common mistake is to copy a strategy from a video that requires a very high level of attention to detail and then simply being unable to deliver that. An example of this would be the Terran Reaper harass, which involves building a few Reaper units very early on and sending them into the opponents base to disrupt their economy and base building. While this is very strong when properly executed, there are actually multiple traps you can fall into as a new player. For one, you might just not be fast enough in constructing your base so that the Reapers arrive when the opponent already has adequate defenses. Reapers are quite weak at fighting other units (in general) and your opponent could just kill your Reapers and then you because you spent all that time and resources building Reapers.

Two other issues are both related to your ability to control many actions on the map at once. When you send out those Reapers you ideally want to control each one separately while at the same time continuing to build up your base. If you control your Reapers well but neglect your base, you are destroying your own economy as well as that of the opponent. If you focus too much on your base, your opponent will have an easy time killing your Reapers and again leaving you at a disadvantage. There are many builds like these that are really strong when properly executed but will just falter in the hands of a new player. Instead what you should do (and what I’m still doing most of the time) is to focus on something less fragile. Just build a solid army and a solid economy and beat your opponent with that. You can always add on the funky details when you feel secure enough in your ability to control your units.

But not only you are a new player, likely your opponents will be too. That may give you a few free wins when they screw up and you are playing solid, but it can also be very dangerous when you read too much into their actions. At the high level of play you can often tell exactly what your opponent is planning to do by seeing one or two buildings going up. When a high level player gets lots of vespine gas early, that’s a sign. If they don’t get any, that’s also a sign. Alas, newer players are less predictable in that regard. If you see them getting double gas early, that doesn’t have to mean anything. Maybe they just don’t know that they don’t need it yet.

In general, learn from the videos of those good players, but don’t expect everyone to play like them.

Scout, scout, then scout again

Knowing what your opponent is doing is absolutely crucial in Starcraft II. Players who don’t adapt their strategies to what their opponents are doing are pretty much doomed from the start. It is very common to send a worker out early on to find your opponent’s base and check out what they are going for, but that usually gets repelled once your enemy gets any combat units. Many players send this initial scout because they saw it in some video, but don’t learn much from it and never scout again. Don’t be that guy. Try to keep your worker in your enemy’s base as long as you can, running around every corner that could possibly hide buildings and then don’t be too cheap to poke your head in again at a later time. If your enemy doesn’t close the ramp to his base, you might be able to sneak a second worker in there once his main army begins moving, or you might be able to use flying units or the Terran Scanner Sweep ability to regularly check up on what the enemy is doing.

Always very useful and much neglected by lower tier players are the Xel’Naga Watchtowers which grant a huge bit of sight across the map whenever you park a friendly unit nearby. On most maps these are placed in such a way that they are overlooking critical spots on the map – especially good to observe enemy troop movements. With just a single cheap unit at such a tower you can often spot exactly when your enemy is moving out and what force he is using to do so. Enemies can use these towers as well, of course, so it rarely hurts to send a small army to towers you don’t control in order to take out their observing units. Similarly, shooting down enemy scouts near your bases is very helpful. Zerg enjoy placing Overlords up on cliffs to check up on you, while Protoss players have the cloaked Observer. Take these out whenever you can and you will see your win percentage shoot up.

When scouting an enemy’s base, it is important that you are actually able to use the information you are getting. Don’t just send your 12th worker in and run it back out again, but make sure to check for specific indicators instead. If you see many unit production facilities (Barracks or Gateways mostly) going up early on you will have to prepare to fight of a large early attack. If you see them going for higher technology buildings instead (Factory,Robotics facility, Spire, Hydra Den, etc.) you can be quite sure that you won’t get overrun early. The latter gives you the option of either pushing for an early attack yourself while they foolishly spend resources on technology, or tech up yourself. You could also drop down an early second base (called an expansion) to get a quick economic advantage.

Without proper scouting, going for quick technology or an early expansion pretty much spells your doom if your opponent is any good – exceptions apply but shall not be part of this beginner’s guide. Scouting will also help you determine whether your opponent is trying any unusual tactic (cheese, see below) so that you can properly defend against that. An example would be if you scout your Terran opponent’s base and there isn’t a Barracks to be seen yet. Terran Barracks should go up at the 12th worker at the absolutely latest point, so if you can’t find one after that you know that either your opponent is really bad (in which case you should win) or that they built what is called a “proxy” Barracks. A proxy is a building that’s built outside the player’s base, usually close to the enemy so that any units produced there can get into the opponent’s base faster than normally. If you suspect such a proxy, make sure you get appropriate defenses up as soon as possible, try to find the stray buildings so you can take them out when you have time, and be prepared to use your workers to defend your base if necessary.

Don’t cheese

As mentioned above, “cheese” is an unorthodox strategy that usually relies on hidden information to surprise your opponent with something they don’t have an answer to yet. Characteristically, cheese is usually easily countered when scouted early enough. Protoss cheese usually comes in the form of proxy Gateways that pump out a ton of Zealots before you are ready to defend, or a Pylon hidden in your base that can be used to warp in units behind your defenses a little later in the game. Terran cheese almost always includes a fast Barracks, often a proxy as well, and then straight up attacks with Reapers or Marines. Some Terrans, especially at the lower levels, also like to build a Bunker right in your base that is then filled with units as fast as they can. This is usually easily countered by attacking his builder SCV with your workers. Zergs finally can attack you really early on with a couple of Zerglings by skipping worker production almost completely in favour of a Spawning Pool and then Zerglings until you die. This is both very easy to scout and to defend against, but you need to be prepared that this can happen. There are other forms of cheese that you will encounter, these are just the most common ones that you should be prepared for.

Cheese quite often wins games against not-so-good players simply because they don’t know how to properly defend against it or even forget to scout it altogether. I would highly recommend not to play with cheese in your early matches, however. First of all, cheesing doesn’t teach you how to play the game. If you win all of your early games with cheese because your opponents are not prepared, you will hit a brick wall once you fight better opponents and won’t have learned anything about the real game. Secondly, winning a lot early means that you will be placed in a very high level league, and that can be absolutely frustrating for newer players. In your five placement matches you mostly meet newer players, but depending on how many of those you win you will be put in a league. If you cheese five new players out of those placement games you will land in the platinum league and absolutely be trounced by your opponents. Don’t do that.

At the lower levels it is way more important to learn the game than to win. You can always win later on when you know how to play, but going for the cheap wins doesn’t help you at all.

Know your counters

Starcraft II is a game of many units with a variety of strengths and weaknesses and it is very important to know which units are good against which. The in-game help menu offers you some advice on which units to use to counter which other units and that is a good start, even though it’s not complete (or even always correct.) There are very few real hard counters in the game, and those that do exist are usually easy to spot. The Banshee for example is an air-to-ground strike aircraft that can kill pretty much any amount of ground-to-ground units like Zealots or Immortals but itself is completely helpless against air-to-air fighters like the Viking or the Phoenix. More subtle but maybe even more important are the soft counters that are in the game. Marauders for example deal extra damage against Roaches and have a lot of health. Roaches on the other hand deal little damage to marauders and their main advantage, having a lot of health as well, is quite nicely countered with the extra damage that those Marauders deal. Marauders also have double the range of Roaches and can get an upgrade to slow their targets. All of this together makes them an excellent counter to roaches – but if the enemy has significantly more Roaches than you do Marauders, you will still be toast.

Beyond the in-game help, these counters are best learned from playing and watching videos – there are far too many combinations in the game for me to talk about them all here. Some of them are even quite complicated and depend on many factors. Hellions are a great counter to Zerglings, for example, but only if controlled correctly. Marines are also decent against Zerglings but will die horribly when those metamorphose into Banelings, and Vikings are designed as an anti-air unit but actually aren’t a good counter to the cheap Zerg Mutalisk.

That’s enough for today. Please, please let me know if you want further posts like this one or not because I’m really unsure as to how useful they actually are.

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