This is part four of a continuing series detailing the casual player’s attempt to traverse the steep barrier to entry of competitive multiplayer real-time strategy in Starcraft II. Previous posts here: 1, 2, 3
I guess it serves me right to talk it up about “sitting pretty” in Silver league and how I was outplaying these higher-league players. Shortly after writing my last post, I fell into a pretty bad rut, losing what felt like 8 or 9 games in a row. I was obviously extremely discouraged. Maybe I jinxed everything, but after I had just talked about the importance of expansions, I started going up against macro-minded players with early expansions and larger, sustainable armies.
I’m not entirely sure about what prompted the change. Maybe I’ve just reached the stage of the game where the casual players have finished the campaign and had their kicks with multiplayer and have moved on to something else. I used to be one of those people before all of this. I still sometimes wish I had done what I had done during many games past, embracing my ignorance of the genre’s deeper elements and consoling myself with, “Oh, I could’ve gotten good if I just stuck with the game.” Is that really true? I’ve been determined to find out. When a multiplayer game reaches that point in its lifecycle, where only the dedicated remain playing, it becomes increasingly hard to keep up and stay competitive. The fact that such a phase exists emphasizes the importance of diving into a multiplayer game as soon as possible. If you start playing it too late in its lifecycle, the less skillful players will have left, and the dedicated, hardcore players will have only gotten better. I hate to say it, but if you’re a casual player looking to get into the multiplayer part of a game, waiting a month to start will absolutely make it very hard for you. The obstacles won’t be insurmountable by any means, but be prepared to lose a lot more than if you had started on the day of the game’s launch. I can’t say for sure that Starcraft II has reached that point yet, but I can say that the active players on my friends list have certainly dwindled by a significant amount.
In any case, a lot of the players I’m facing are good. It seems now that my days of coasting by on an extra expansion are over. I’ve got to work hard for those macro wins. I not only have to take my expansions, but I have to keep pressure on my opponents’ expansions and maintain aggression throughout the game, all while steadily maintaining good macro. I have to field those humongous armies and face the opponent’s equally humongous army and figure out how to win in the end. As most people (at least newbies) would attest, a maxed Zerg army will generally lose against a maxed army from any other race. I’m currently still residing in Silver league, but I managed to come back from my terrible losing streak to maintain a respectable +12 W/L record (at 90-78), finally reaching rank 1 in my division and retaining a commanding point lead. But ultimately, those league points don’t matter much, and I’m having a hard time really gauging my actual level of skill. I read an entire forum thread regarding the need for better transparency in the matchmaking system, so people can tell how well they’re actually doing.
While my losing streak really hit my ego hard, I think it’s important for all newer players to realize that becoming a better player is not necessarily going to culminate in a better W/L record. While I felt like I had regressed after losing so many games, I eventually came to my senses. The matchmaking system was designed to try its best to keep you at a 50% W/L record. It’s very likely that Battle.net decided to pair me up against even better players because I was getting better myself. I think that that was evident, considering the solid macro-styles of play I encountered. I actually played a Protoss that did an effective proxy cannon contain without going all-in. He actually expanded while I transitioned to Roaches, which was the perfect thing to do, as opposed to the newbies that simply cannon rushed with no macro support.
I read a post a while ago from Majestros (AKA Maj) of SonicHurricane.com and tool-assisted combo video fame. He talked about five milestones of fighting game mastery. Interestingly enough, I read it and immediately drew parallels between that article’s points and what I would consider to be similar milestones in learning RTS:
- Special moves: in fighting games, knowing how to do special moves is a matter of knowing the fundamentals of execution. In an RTS, this amounts to learning your controls – hotkeys, control groups, rallying, shift-queuing, etc. This also extends to knowing your tech tree and unit requirements, so when you feel like you need to build a particular unit, you know how to go about doing so.
- Defense: as I mentioned when I first started writing about Starcraft II, as a beginner in beginner leagues, you’re bound to run into every cheese build imaginable. Knowing how to defend against these simple, all-in strategies is one of the first things you have to learn to be competitive. If you can never get past this milestone, you’ll be just like the guy that never learns to block the standard beginner attack pattern of jump-in-sweep, as Maj uses as an example. If you can’t defend against stupidity, you’ll get frustrated and quite before ever getting into the meat of the game.
- Combos: I also mentioned this in my first Starcraft II post. Builds and build orders are very much like the “combos” of RTS. You learn them and commit them to muscle memory. Learning the various build orders and when they can/should be used is really the start of learning how to play competitively. Everything before is just fundamentals.
- Footsies: In fighting games, footsies are where advanced play really starts to kick in. Footsies serve a lot of purposes. They can act as a preventative measure to shut down slow, powerful moves. They’re used to poke and squeeze in that extra bit of damage when neither of you have a clear opportunity for a combo. It’s hard to make a direct correlation to something in the RTS genre, but I imagine RTS “footsies” to be a mixture of unit compositions and harassment. Adding certain units to your army can preemptively “shut down” certain tech paths for your opponent. For instance, if I get Mutalisks (and my inevitable Overseer), chances are a Terran opponent will abandon any hope of trying to do Banshee harass. Harassment, of course, is the closest thing you’ll find to “footsies” in an RTS. Knowing how to perform multi-front drops, blink Stalker harass, Nydus mobility abuse, etc. – those are all high-level strategies of whittling away at your opponent bit by bit, without going for that “huge damage” from a massive army pounding at his front door.
- Fireballs: Fireballs control space. Controlling space in an RTS is probably one of the highest-level concepts one can possibly learn. To do so requires intimate knowledge of the map being played as well as race matchups, unit properties, and all sorts of other factors. The reason that this final milestone is so difficult to master is because space is such a nebulous, “analog” concept. Learning attack ranges, cutting off attack paths, positioning buildings for maximum effectiveness – it’s almost as if you have to “eyeball” those things. You only really get better at that with experience.
Given this kind of breakdown, I’d say I’m somewhere between milestones 3 and 4. I haven’t really learned by heart very many (or very long) build orders aside from a couple of basic ones. I’ve decided to just hone those few before overwhelming myself with too many other build orders. I’m also just starting to figure out how to keep constant aggression on an opponent and harass them to the point where they don’t get the chance to build an enormous ball of units to steamroll me.
But I’m also at the point in my game where I’ve got enough experience to just start “messing around” with units and unit compositions. Day talked about challenging assumptions in one of his recent dailys. One such assumption I feel is prevalent in lower-level Zerg play is the underestimation of Banelings. Zerg tier 1 generally consists of mass Speedlings and/or Roaches. Banelings, at least as far as I was concerned, was for ZvT Baneling-busts, and that was about it. Why? Because they have to die to be useful! If you let up on your micro in the slightest, you can kiss your Banelings (and probably your game) goodbye.
Well, at one point, after being thoroughly discouraged by recent losses, I played against a somewhat rude Terran on Desert Oasis. Taking my expansion and teching to Lair, I quickly got my Overseer and scouted his base just as he was putting up about 4 or 5 reactors on his barracks. I’ve lost miserably to mass-Marine strategies, and I had had enough of it. Feeling like I couldn’t really do worse than I have during in other mass-Marine games, I thought to myself, Ef it – Banelings! While I was at it, I researched burrow, which is something I rarely see in Zerg games. My Overlords were positioned over the two attack paths on the map. As he pushed out with his bio-ball, my exploding Overlord alerted me to which side he was approaching from. I just took a handful of Banelings – maybe 6 or 7, burrowed them in front of a ramp along the attack route, and waited. Sure enough, his cocky army marched forward, and right as they were on top of the Banelings, I unburrowed and killed about 40+ supply worth of units in the blink of an eye. I literally laughed out loud – my wife chastised me for almost waking up my son, who was sleeping peacefully at the time. My remaining mass of Speedlings cleaned up the two or three units left alive, after which I flooded into his main base and devastated his economy. He decided to draw the game out, having taken an island expansion, but I won the game in the end. I was so ecstatic that I even made this animated gif:
That moment of victory really opened my eyes to new strategic possibilities and the virtue of challenging one’s own assumptions and habits. I’ve since been experimenting a lot more with Zergling-Baneling openings and have found that I like the strategy quite a bit for a number of reasons. First of all, converting a Zergling into a Baneling does not require larva, so you can effectively bolster your army while continuing to make drones. Secondly, the ratio of Zerglings and Banelings is easy to adjust against a lot of common army compositions, like Marine-Marauder and Zealot-Stalker.
And when I threw in the relatively overlooked burrow tech to my experimentation, I actually started having a lot of fun with strategic burrowing and unit placement. I managed to take down two Colossi with a gob of Zerglings just by burrowing them and waiting until they were standing on top of my army before attacking. I also played one game in which I base-traded with a Protoss, and he had a relatively large army coming to clean up one of my two remaining bases. I had to hold that base – if I couldn’t it, was GG for me. The guy had High Templars with Psi Storm, Immortals, Zealots, and Stalkers. I had a handful of Mutalisks and as many Zerglings and Banelings as I could muster, burrowed right in front of my base, where he would be approaching it. When the attack came, I unburrowed right underneath him, moved my Mutalisks into position, closed my eyes, listened to the squishy sound of Banelings exploding, and hoped to God I’d survive, despite the odds against me. When I opened my eyes again, lo and behold, much of my army was still alive! I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened, but I haven’t doubted the usefulness of Banelings in the ZvP matchup since. I went on to win the game by massing Mutalisks and out macroing while he turtled with Photon Cannons and Void Rays.
You know what I realize now, looking back at what I’ve just written? I’m actually enjoying ladder games. It doesn’t feel like that same obligatory exercise that I felt that it was in my last post. You might have noticed that I played 70 more games since my last post. 70! It’s because I’m enjoying it! I’m playing on those late nights, and I’ve been finding myself wanting just one more game. Sure, I still lose to stupid things, and sure, my experimental strategies have led to miserable failure just as many times as they’ve led to success, but I feel like I can handle myself now. I don’t need to rely on strict build orders, and I don’t so much play in fear anymore. I can stay calm during those early rushes. I can be confident in knowing when I get that mid-game lead and how I can ride it to victory. When I hear commentary and analysis by better players, I find myself nodding in agreement.
If anything, I think I’m well over the enormous wall that faces the casual RTS player looking to play multiplayer competitively. I’m by no means a pro. I never intended to be. I mean, I’m still in Silver League, after all. I did set a goal out for myself earlier – get to Gold League. But you know what? Screw that. I don’t need to have that Gold League label to realize that I’ve improved and that I’ve finally come to understand the depth and the appeal of competitive RTS. I’ve done what I’ve set out to do, Gold League acknowledgment be damned. I think back on all the games I’ve played over the past month-and-a-half (getting close to 200 now), and I’m seeing a lot of shining moments. Rest assured – if I’ve managed to go from being an RTS moron to where I am now, then there’s definitely hope for all of you out there that want to push yourselves and join the fray. Just do it! It’s immensely rewarding, and you will learn to appreciate the genre in a way that you never have before.