StarCraft II Game Director Dustin Browder, Battle.net Project Director Greg Canessa, Game Balance Designer David Kim, and Associate Game Balance Designer Matt Cooper took to the Development Stage on the first day of BlizzCon to share unique insights and expertise with newer players seeking to improve their StarCraft II gameplay during the Secrets of the Masters panel early Friday afternoon.
Leagues & Ladders
One of the most basic elements of competitive StarCraft II gameplay is the league and ladder system, since it determines how you are ranked and what kind of opponents you're likely to face. The Battle.net matchmaker is an adaptive system, which means that the more a player plays, the better the system gets to 'know' his or her skill level, with the ultimate goal being for each player to be paired with opponents of equal skill so they win around half of their games. The matchmaker tracks wins and losses and creates a hidden skill rating for a player over time (which is actually a rolling average composed of several different numbers). It can't see how you won a match, so it doesn't know if you won with a cannon rush, or as the result of a lengthy, well-executed strategy. How much your rating changes after a win or loss is determined by how your skill rating stacked up against your opponent prior to the start of the match. On that note, a given player's skill rating is tracked separately for 1v1 and team games, but is not tracked separately by race. While a player's skill rating changes over time, it remains intact from season to season, even if other stats are wiped. A player is initially assigned to a ladder and a division of 100 players based on the results of the placement matches played when first venturing into multiplayer, and that assignment will change over time based on overall performance. Wins and losses will change a player's hidden skill rating as well as a visible public rating, and it is that visible rating number (not the raw win-loss record) which determines their position within the division. The goal, of course, is to ascend to the top of your division and graduate to higher leagues as you become a better player. There are 5 leagues (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond), and all StarCraft II players in a region are split into these leagues by 20% increments. So, Diamond league players represent the top 20% of players in their region.
Just as units are constantly being monitored and adjusted for balance, the leagues and ladders system has also been steadily tweaked and improved since StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty launched, and that process will continue. Several adjustments have been made over time to improve the quality and speed of 1v1 matchmaking, as well as to improve matchmaking in team games. Players who perform exceptionally well can expect to see promotions to higher leagues more quickly. Meanwhile, other adjustments are being made to improve the ladder experience for players just getting into competitive gameplay.
There are also some pretty exciting changes coming to Battle.net in the future that have been based on our players' feedback and our own research. Season 2 is coming, and it will bring with it a ladder wipe, but at the same time, each player's profile will be upgraded with new UI elements, including awesome new artwork which denotes a player's rank within their division, as well as a record of performance in prior seasons, improved detail pages that are more colorful and rewarding for top players, featured replays, and many more. Matchmaking rating will be preserved, so a single placement match will be all that it takes to find your place on the ladder once again. On top of all these new features, two new leagues will be introduced to highlight the top players in each region: the Master League, which places roughly the top 5% of Diamond players in their own league, and the Grandmaster League, a very special, elite league which is comprised of the top 200 players in each gameplay region, which will be visible to other players
Improve Your Game
Many players seem to believe that in-born talent is the primary factor regarding whether a player has the potential to go pro in StarCraft II -- that either you've got the nerves that let you get to 300 APM (actions per minute) or you don't. While talent does play a role, no one emerges from the womb ready to own face at StarCraft II. The truth of the matter is that pro players work, and they work hard to become the best of the best. Most pros play 12+ hours a day, both on the ladder as well as in custom game scrimmages against teammates and associates. Pros also spend a lot of time studying the game when they aren't playing. They analyze their own replays, as well as the replays from other professionals from league games, custom games, and tournaments to formulate strategies, identify weaknesses, and find ways to improve. Most pros also focus their efforts intently on playing a single race, getting to know it inside and out, upside down and backwards, so play always feels second nature. The most important thing to keep in mind is that, even if you aren't a great StarCraft II player now, you can become a great StarCraft II player with practice, study, and commitment. A few pros lent their insights to panel attendees via quotes, and they reflect the kind of attitude that it takes to be a champion:
"Don't stress over losses. Use them to learn your faults. No pain no gain." - Select
"First of all be a fan of the game and enjoy it, then make sure to be 100% committed or you will fail, and last watch day9!" - Huk
"If you're not attacking you're probably losing" - QXC
"Practice a hell of a lot, watch replays of the top players and check out their strategies, and in most cases copy them :). After that refining your play mainly consists of watching your own games -- and ironing out the faults." -Demuslim
The panelists took some time to share insights on each of these points. Keep your head in the game -- wins and losses don't matter as long as you're learning; after all, the matchmaker is working at its best if you're losing half of your games to equally skilled opponents. Psychology is a huge factor in StarCraft II, and if you let yourself get psyched out by a loss, it can cost you games. If you enjoy StarCraft II, then you'll be dedicated to playing, and having fun is vital! Getting better at the game means putting on your thinking cap; don't discount what you can learn from members of the StarCraft II community, such as day9 and others, who provide commentary for the game and take the time to deeply analyze StarCraft II's mechanics and game theory. The insights these members of the community have can go a long way toward you take your game to a new level. Stay aggressive -- it's easy to develop tunnel vision and lose track of what your opponent is doing. Don't get complacent in your own little world, stay on top of them, harass them, and don't let them get into a groove. Sometimes defense is the right way to go, but if you can force your opponent to react to you, and keep reacting, then you've taken control of the game. Finally, find strategies that work, but it's important to keep reaching -- winning is good, but reaching new plateaus as a player is better, and hopefully, more satisfying.
Know Your Limits
Of course the vast majority of StarCraft II players aren't pros. While pro advice is valuable and watching their replays is an excellent way to learn tactics, strategies, build orders, and maps, that doesn't always mean that what the pros are doing (or not doing) is best for you! Watching the replays of pro-gamers is useful if you want to get better, but so is knowing your limits as a player. Some choices seen in pro replays may rely on the kind of skill and execution that's out of bounds for the average player, and so may not be the right approach for someone who isn't at a pro's level of ability. Conversely, don't be afraid to try new strategies, including strategies that would never fly on the pro level. For example, hidden expansions almost never pay off in pro games, but your league game might be a whole different story. Your opponent may not have the multi-tasking skills to deal with your harassment, keep his own economy going, and scout every expo on the map at the same time, so you might be able to turn a tactic like that to your advantage. Don't limit yourself, try new things, and use what works at your gameplay level and against the kind of opponents that you face on the ladder.
One way that a lot of newer players falter in StarCraft II is how they handle their economy. It's easy to get distracted by building new combat units and teching up. At a certain point, you might get involved in combat and stop making workers or get involved with other tasks. A number one tip for new players: never stop producing builders! Stay ahead of your unit cap, but hotkey your base and when one worker finishes, build another and keep building them -- the income they provide can make the difference between success and failure. You don't even have to have amazing micromanagement skills if your economy (macro) is great -- you might be able to overwhelm an opponent with sheer numbers.
Vespene gas is another source of confusion. When should a refinery be built? How many refineries? How many workers to commit to gas production, and when? It can seem almost random, and the choices to be made in the early moments of a match regarding how much gas to collect, and how many workers to commit can be significant. It's definitely not random, though, and it's best to have a plan, run a build order, and figure out how much gas you're going to need and when you'll need it. Is it a small map with short rush distances, and you plan to overwhelm your opponent with a ton of zerglings with some roaches on backup? You probably don't need to max out two extractors, since one might give you just enough gas to achieve your goals, and you'll want a lot of minerals. On the other hand, a protoss player might want to push a stalker and colossus build. That takes a lot of gas, so maxing out two assimilators fairly early on might be the right way to stay ahead of the curve and keep unit production and tech improvements on track. Of course, if you find that you frequently have a surplus of gas and a deficit of minerals, then it could be that scaling back your early gas production a bit is the right way to go. What's important is making choices that back your overall strategy. Of course, these are the early moments of the game; as you move into mid-game, there's every reason to make sure that you're well supplied with gas, hopefully including income from an expansion or two.
Don't be a miser. Another common mistake from less experienced players is that they don't spend their minerals and gas! Being rich is bad -- minerals in the bank mean units that aren't on the field! Spend those resources, and spend them all the time. Are you attacking? Hotkey your unit-producing structures and keep manufacturing units. Those units you're building now can help secure your victory, or stave off defeat if your opponent counterattacks!
Another vital part of StarCraft II that players struggle with at first is expanding. When is the right time to expand? Where should you expand to? A good rule of thumb to follow is that if you've got a good enough army to protect your expansion, then it's reasonably safe to go for it. You can also expand during a successful attack, but it's usually not a good idea to expand undefended, because you become very vulnerable. Where you should expand, and how swiftly, is dictated by the map you're playing on and the kind of army you've got on the field. Sometimes the decision is easy, and some maps include close, easily defended natural expansions. Do you have a highly mobile force though? Perhaps expanding rapidly, and further away is an option, whereas a slower moving army might want to 'turtle up' on a few expos that are close together and feature useful chokes or exploitable terrain.
Scale it up! Once you do expand, don't keep the same number of unit producing structures. Unit producing structures are pretty cheap, and always good to have around. Best of all, they let you use your newfound riches to build a larger army faster. A good rule of thumb in a situation like this is to double up. If four gateways was good with your starting location, then 8 to 10 is better once you've got your expansion going.
Map knowledge is an extremely important aspect of StarCraft II gameplay, and one that is often overlooked by players still learning the ropes. There are a few basic things to look for when you take into account your strategy and what to expect from an opponent on a given map. Is it a small map with short rush distances? You might want to adjust your strategy to take that into account. Even if you aren't planning on rushing yourself, it's the sort of strategy you can expect from your opponent on a map like that. On the other hand, some maps, such as Scrap Station, have long ground travel times, but very short distances between bases by air. It's wise to anticipate an air attacks or drops on a map like that, or take advantage of the short air distance in your own build. Also, every map has choke points. Where are the chokes on the map? Most players are familiar with the chokes close to the starting positions,but it's useful to learn and take advantage of the chokes that exist elsewhere on the map. In some cases, controlling the right choke point can yield massive map control and opportunities to expand, such as the central choke on Lost Temple. Learning them and using them to your advantage, or avoiding engagements near them if your units are vulnerable at a choke, is key. Finally, where's the natural expansion on the map? Is it close, and easy to defend? Is it hard to cover and vulnerable to attack? How do cliffs and chokes factor in? What about other expansions on the map? This information plays a critical role regarding if, when, and how you'll expand in a given match.
One of the most compelling and fun, yet hardest to master elements of StarCraft II is combat strategy and micromanagement. Micromanagement is the fine control which lets you get the absolute most out of your units. While a player's skill in maneuvering units on the small scale can decide a battle, it's equally important to know the terrain and how it affects a matchup. Terrain can dramatically and powerfully alter the balance of power between opposing forces. A good example is the role that choke points play. Take, for example, a small group of zealots and a group of marines of equal value. If the zealots catch the marines out in the open, they'll make short work of them. On the other hand, the marines' gauss rifles offer them a range advantage, so even units not on the front line can still attack. Defending the zealot attack from a choke will turn the tables and give the marines a victory. Even backing up against a handy wall or cliff can prevent an enemy from flanking you or getting a 'surround' and cutting your units to ribbons.
Flanking is another tactic to learn and put into one's arsenal, though it's most useful with fast moving melee units or burrowed zerg. Take a large group of zerglings facing off against a group of marines that they've caught out in the open. All is well, right? The zerglings manage to surround the marines and start going to work, but it takes them time to get into position, and by then the marines are already firing away. A well timed stim, and the zerglings lose the engagement, leaving a few marines to wipe zerg parts off of their armor and gloat. On the other hand, split the very same group of zerglings into three, get a faster surround on the marines -- and even with stim used at the same time, the zerglings come out on top, making mincemeat out of the marines.
Things get fancier when individual unit micro starts coming into play. For example, two opposing forces of protoss stalkers, evenly matched, face each other in battle. If every unit is attacking, one side or the other may come out just slightly ahead. If one group of stalkers is carefully microed -- blinking damaged units to the back of the line and focusing fire on one foe at a time, one group can eliminate the other without taking any casualties at all!
Needless to say, developing unit micromanagement skills is vital to becoming a better StarCraft II player, but there are times when investing too much micromanagement might win you a battle, but cause you to lose the war. As always, tunnel vision is the enemy. While you were busy microing your units to victory against a small enemy force, your opponent might be mopping up the last of your workers halfway across the map. It's important to gauge when and how much to invest in microing your units. Sometimes the right way to go is to attack move your army at a target, then get busy building your economy and more units.
Finally, getting to know counters is important. There are hard counters (units which have massive advantages against others) and soft counters (units which situationally or in sufficient numbers might counter another) in StarCraft II. Once you know what the enemy has, it's usually a good idea to build the right units to counter what they've got, right? That's almost always the case, but there are exceptions. First, there are a few 'true' hard counters. There's not much that a marauder can do against a void ray attacking from the air, for example. Not all counters are absolute, nor are they supposed to be. Some counters can be broken by good micro. A group of marines is normally a hard counter to a couple of banshees, but a skilled player can take advantage of the banshees' superior range and mobility to stay just out of range as the marines advance, and 'kite' them to death. The same is true of other counters, so making do with what you have and learning how to use micro and terrain can turn a losing situation around.