By October 25, 2010

500 One Versus One Games of StarCraft II

I wrote about StarCraft II earlier this August. Since then, I’ve played the single player campaign and about two dozen multi-player co-operative games with my friends. That was a lot of fun, but the core of my playing has been one versus one (1v1).

This weekend I played my 500th game. Here are my thoughts:

Power to the Protoss

The vast, vast majority of my 1v1 games have been played as Protoss. I don’t know what it is about them that “clicks” with me so much. The really good players play “random,” which means that they might be any of the three races. Zerg are very flexible and can surge instantly; terran’s “bio ball” of marines, marauders, and medics are tough to beat even late in the game. However, for some reason the Protoss just come naturally to me.

Observations about online play

All legal games have to go through, Blizzard’s online matchmaking system. This helps to combat piracy and cheating, although there are people that employ maphacks and other cheats. Maphacks allow players to see parts of the maps they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see, which is a huge advantage.

Anyway, all games go through Aside from the occasional multi-user dungeon (MUD), I have been playing games online since Quake in 1997. Even back then people had the tendency to shit-talk. After all, the Internet is mostly anonymous, so it can bring out the worst in people. Transition from Quake to a very long period of MMOs and online first person shooters like Call of Duty and I’ve heard and read just about every insult possible.

It’s amusing how brave people can be behind a keyboard.

An interesting thing about my experience with StarCraft II is the low frequency of asshats. “gl hf” (good luck, have fun) is a common greeting for StarCraft, and it is customary for each player to type “gg (good game) at the end, even if they lose.

There are exceptions, of course. I like to type “enjoy the game,” which has garnered some interesting responses including “go fuck yourself.” Fortunately, StarCraft II has an easy way to report these players. Filing a complaint also puts them on your ignore list, so they can’t send you any messages inside of or outside of a match. I wonder if that also blocks them from playing you again. Hrm.

The best is when a nice discussion happens at the end of the game. I would definitely prefer to win all of my games, but if I am going to lose I hope it’s to someone who played well. I like learning something, either from a chat during or after a game, or by watching the replay.

So far I’ve only been in a replay with a commentary once: a Zerg vs Protoss game I played against “Malikicowtipper” earlier this October:

I lost, but it was fun. Basically he flew some air units to my base right as I engaged with my ground forces at his base. We chatted for a bit, and I learned something.

Matchmaking has a built-in matchmaking algorithm. This is a big improvement over the original StarCraft, where things basically broke down like this:

  • 33% of the time I would curb stomp my opponent
  • 33% of the time I would get curb stomped by my opponent
  • 22% of the time one of the players would time out and the game would come to a boring finish (remember, we were playing on dial-up modems back then an 56k was fast)
  • 11% of the time there’d be a good back and forth match aims to put every play at a .500 win-to-loss average. I’m pretty good proof that the algorithm works. I originally placed bronze (the bottom of the skill rankings). Based on my experience in the beta period, I quickly climbed to gold based on using “cheese” strategies like the proton cannon rush and “proxy gateway” by building my armies right outside of my opponent’s base. I managed to sneak my way into platinum, and then the matchmaking system caught up with me — as well as the skill of my opponents.

You see, as time went on, more and more players played more and more games. The matchmaking algorithm put me against players with similar win-loss records. The biggest difference was that most of the players I faced concentrated on getting better at playing Starcraft II instead of learning how to cannon rush or proxy gateway better. I got knocked down to gold, and it was a very long time before I re-learned how to play.

Requirements for Slightly Competitive Play

I’m currently ranked #2 in my platinum division. My win-loss ratio is literally a half dozen games in the positive side. At any given time I might score three victories in a row, or four defeats. I’m pretty streaky that way. However, most of my games are very close at this point given my skill level. I don’t imagine I’ll be playing for money any time soon (yes, there are several professional StarCraft and StarCraft II leagues where the payout is pretty high), but here are a few things that I had to do to be slightly competitive at StarCraft II:

  • Watch your own replays, especially when you lose. I found that I was continually being out-rushed by certain Protoss players. It turns out that they eschewed the typical gateway to cybernetics core opening and went three or even four gateways to churn out tons of zealots. I watched the replay a few times, copied down his build order, and fine-tuned it for my playing style. It is very effective on certain maps, and I would have never known about it if it were not for the replay feature.
  • Watch pro-level replays, even if you never intend to go pro. I particularly like the commentaries by Day[9], even though they are usually pretty long. He makes learning about StarCraft II non-threatening thanks to his demeanor and interspersing advice with sometimes totally off-topic anecdotes. Anyway, until you learn to play better, it is helpful to watch how others play better.
  • Have a mental checklist of things to do. The most basic thing on the checklist is “build peons.” That means the little worker dudes that collect resources for you. Next thing on the list is making sure that you have enough “food” to train more units. Then make sure you’re making units from every possible building. Watch your resources — when they are too high, either expand, go up the tech tree, or something else. Go through this checklist at intervals. For me it’s about thirty seconds unless I get distracted. Which is often.
  • StarCraft II is a game of economy more than anything else. Yes, it’s important to have the right combination of units, expand at the right time, the right upgrades, and the micro-manage combat in certain situations, but more important than all of these things is to mine a shit ton of minerals and gas.
  • Use hotkeys. It is possible to play StarCraft II using just the mouse and clicking on stuff, but you will be too slow to be even marginally competitive. You have to not only learn the standard hotkeys (like E for probe if you’re Protoss) but also getting into a rhythm of setting your own control group hotkeys. For example, I hotkey all of my gateway buildings to the 5 key, and I can just hit “5-z-z-s” to make two zealots and a stalker from three gateways. Similarly, knowing that “w” is the warpgate key is important once you’ve researched the upgrade.
  • Know when to use the right strategy for the right map. Some maps are really small, and lend themselves to rushing. Some maps are larger, and so it’s best to expand early. I have a problem on mid-sized maps, as it’s hard to know when it’s best to expand vs build up a large army.
  • Learn to anticipate your enemy’s build based on what their base looks like. Whether it’s an early game scout, a mid-game stealth recon mission, or an assault on a base, it’s important to be able to instantly look at the number and types of buildings to determine what your opponent is doing.

None of those tips are earth-shattering, but in my experience it’s better to have a grip on that stuff first than to be able to micro-manage your units really well or knowing exactly what unit counters what unit, etc. Sometimes a flood of crappy units can best a well-configured, well upgraded perfect army of fewer units. Let’s not get into the goofy way that StarCraft II handles “high ground.”

The future

I really enjoy playing StarCraft II 1v1 games. They can be short enough (7 – 10 minutes) that I can play many in a night, or sometimes they drag out to the 30 – 40 minute mark and I can play one or two an evening. I am nervous about being promoted to the diamond league. Diamond is currently the highest league of play, at least until Blizzard makes the Master and Grand Master leagues. Diamond is going to demand a whole level of better play, and I don’t know if I have the time or inclination to study and practice that much to succeed.

Remember when I said I like to learn from my games, no matter if I win or lose? I prefer to learn and win at the same time. 🙂 Diamond may be a rough school of hard knocks.

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