With Heart of the Swarm out, I’d love to bring back The Art of Thor. StarCraft gameplay remains a high-level technical skill, believe it or not, especially if one wants to play against other people with any sort of competency. That sort of mental calisthenics has all sorts of ancillary benefits, moreso than what’s provided by most shooters or RPGs or adventure games.
The problems include time for watching replays & dailies, developing strategies, practicing against the AI, and getting back onto the ladder. I’m not sure if my schedule can support that right now. But at least I can go through the campaign once I shell out for this newest expansion.
Okay. I have no idea if this is actually going to work.
I haven’t played StarCraft 2 in weeks, mostly because I’ve been taking it too seriously. It’ s one thing to want to improve one’s performance and quite another when it overshadows having fun in a game or making time for other distractions. I simply don’t have enough free time to devote to both improving StarCraft 2 and being a writer.
What I would like to do, then, is compile The Art of Thor into one place and make it available for public consumption. Maybe a downloadable PDF, maybe a cheap e-book, something.
I’m nowhere near an expert on the game, nor will I ever claim to be. But I’d like to think that the advice I’ve given has been helpful to some, if not entertaining. I could be wrong, of course.
What do you think? Can The Art of Thor work as a standalone guide to the StarCraft 2 newbie, or is it best left in the past?
He who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven.
StarCraft 2 encourages aggressive play. It’s why we see so many infantry rushes. But your foot soldiers are not the only weapons at your disposal if you want to bring the battle to a swift end. Not every player will agree, but the mid to upper echelons of the tech tree hold some very powerful tools – air units.
Air power quickly came to dominate the battlefield in the 20th century, and the battlefields of StarCraft 2 are not terribly different. Producing units that fly not only provides vital and rapid intelligence but often opens up options that might not normally be available with earlier technologies and forces. While every race has the means to carry out drop play, that is a subject for another post, as there are some general aspects of that tactic that apply to all races. In this article I wanted to discuss specific units from each race that can cause a major swing in momentum.
Zerg – The Mutalisk
One of the first mutations available to a Zerg player that spawns a Spire is that of the dreaded Mutalisk. It’s a versatile and relatively inexpensive flyer with good range, splash damage and the capability to target both air and ground units. As in the first StarCraft, even a small flight of Mutalisks can form the spine of a fearsome airborne Zerg swarm.
When accompianied by Zerglings or Banelings they are particularly resilient to return fire from the ground. They’re effective at harrassment and assaults on the enemy mineral line. Also worth considering is the fact that every moment your opponent spends chasing your Mutalisks or building anti-air defenses is one less moment they’re spending building units to attack you directly or counter a mixed ground assault. These are all uses for Mutalisk to consider as your Spire emerges from the creep.
Protoss – The Void Ray
Like all Protoss units the Void Ray is a lovely construct of sweeping curves and glimmering crystals. It is not, however, terribly fast and is somewhat fragile when it comes under focused enemy fire. This is balanced with its cost, its range of vision and the fact that the longer its beam is active, the more effective it becomes. At their apex they burn through buildings with frightening speed. Like the juggernaut, a well-managed flotilla of Void Rays may take a few moments to gather momentum, but once they do they are very hard to stop.
It is important, then, to ensure the Void Rays get where they’re going unmolested. Scouting routes, distracting the enemy’s units and feinting at their base entrance all increase the longevity of your flying glass cannons. Ideally, your opponent should not know that a dozen Void Rays are reducing their buildings to slag until the moment they turn their beams on the base. I’ve heard of some players who turn their Void Rays on each other just before making their assault. They switch targets at the right moment, of course, before destroying their own units, but this is something of an advanced technique. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know much about it – I play Terran.
Terran – The Banshee
Bashees, unlike Mutalisks and Void Rays, cannot attack air units. Like Void Rays, they’re somewhat fragile. Like Mutalisks, they’re relatively inexpensive. However, what sets them apart from the other racial air units we’ve discussed is a seperate technology that must be researched: the Cloaking Device.
Invisible to all but detectors, Banshees with active cloaks are every bit as effective at harassment and mineral line assault as Mutalisks. They also shine in support of an infantry or tank advance, where they can surgically remove problematic units while the ground units soak up damage and push forward. As with Mutalisks, they can cause an opponent to scramble in building detectors or air defenses, allowing you to rapidly respond with a follow-up attack or a quick change in tactics.
Of course, all three races are vulnerable to early attack if they go for air tech early in the game. Base defense and proper build execution are crucial. However, if you can hold off initial rushes and keep your economy flowing, the power and versatility of these relatively basic air units may surprise you.
Ghosts are the sort of units made for this type of attack. Art by Shiramune
Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.
The very genre of StarCraft 2 lends it and the study of its nuances to tactical reasoning. It’s called a real-time strategy game for a reason. If no actual strategy was involved, it’d be a real-time blowing-crap-up simulator. And while lots of stuff blows up but good in your average StarCraft 2 match, most of those explosions are due to at least one of the players involved implementing some form of strategy.
Therefore, when you’re preparing to attack the enemy, your actual aim becomes to undermine their strategy with yours. There are multiple ways to do this, and I’m going to discuss three in particular, all of which could be subjects in and of themselves in terms of proper execution. And when I figure out exactly how to pull these off well, I’ll be sure to let you know.
Being caught out of position has been the downfall of many a military operation. With a little intelligence and preparation, you can predict the route the enemy is going to take and prepare a force to deal with them in transit. You may try to flank them from one or both sides, wait until they pass to rake their formation or harass them at multiple points. But the biggest damage you’re doing is actually psychological.
Provided you were careful with the disposition and placement of your forces, your opponent will not have seen the ambush coming. They thought they had a clean route right to your front door. They might have already been thinking ahead to the order in which they were going to burn your base’s buildings down. And then lo and behold, their forces are under attack. It’s a plan that can deprive a key push of momentum, buy you time to build up your own forces or simply a way to keep your opponent off-balance.
Similar to ambushes, a feint sets up your opponent’s expectations and then knocks them down with authority. An example would be using close-range or melee units to harass the defenses or resources of the enemy, pulling them back when their counterattack begins and bringing the enemy into range of the more powerful artillery you had lurking just out of range, hidden by the fog of war. If your force survives you can continue pushing into the enemy position, and even if it doesn’t your opponent must now rethink their units and deployment to compensate for this new information.
Beyond the mere exchange of fire, however, a canny player can work a feint from a different perspective. For example, a Terran player is likely to begin building Marines. If the Terrans’ opponents are the Protoss, and a few waves of Marines or Marauders break on the Protoss defenses but do a little more damage with each push, the Protoss player may opt to build Colossi to compensate. However, the Terran player has actually developed his air power and when the ‘death ball’ approaches, the Protoss player faces a squadron of cloaked Banshees that use the Marines & Marauders as backup units.
This is just one example, and I’m certain you can think of others.
Ultimately, all of the strategy, tactics and unit composition of any plan hinges on one thing: having enough resources to pull it off. From the start of the match any player worth their salt is sending workers to collect minerals, harvest gas and expand the means of production. They are dilligent, tireless and essential to building bigger, more impressive units.
They’re also quite vulnerable to attack.
A potent strike on the mineral line of an opponent can slow or cripple their efforts. In some cases your opponent will quit entirely (especially if they believe they’ve been cheesed). Early harassment, steathed units or a focused push can absolutely gut their economy. Not only do you deprive them of the resources those gatherers were collecting, they must also expend time and resources to build more. You can use this opportunity to surge ahead in general army count or push higher into your tech tree.
With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy.* Should the army forestall you in occupying a pass, do not go after him if the pass is fully garrisoned, but only if it is weakly garrisoned.
It can be difficult to learn the ins and outs of every map without quite a bit of time spent out of game or ranked matches looking up every nuance of each one. I’m certainly not going to suggest you do that. Instead, I’d like to touch on some general suggestions and observations when it comes to terrain.
A lot of build orders call for you to send a worker to scout. You may see the pros doing it too. The truth is, other than giving you the initial position of the enemy, this potential loss of an early gatherer does not provide more vital intelligence, as to what your opponent is currently building or when their attack is coming. Likewise, unless they invest in some other means of observing you, they won’t have that intelligence either. Most of these terrain suggestions will provide you with some means to gather that intelligence, and possibly exploit the advantages some of your units provide.
The Higher Ground
StarCraft 2 maps are not flat surfaces. Plateaus, cliffs and ridges run throughout the battlefield. Many historical military engagements have proven that significant advantage exists in positions upon higher ground. In the case of StarCraft 2, if nothing else, you have the capability to look down into a trench or pathway and see where the enemy is going and in what numbers – at least until you’re spotted and they turn your brave scout into a bloody smear.
The high ground provides opportunities beyond mere observation. Certain units – seige tanks and colossi for example – lay down their fire in an indirect fashion, spreading destruction over a wide area. Doing so from a higher position limits the amount of retribution that can be brought against that position. Such planning can stall or possibly even stop an incoming attack, buying you more time to mount your counter-offensive.
The Path Less Traveled
In most cases, a player with some skill will quickly outgrow their initial placement and need to expand. There are some builds that can take you entirely to success on one base, but sooner or later you’re going to run out of minerals. Expansions solve the potential problem of economic shortfall, but these positions are more exposed to entry, especially from unexpected angles.
Destructible rocks, reeds, smoke and other aspects of the environment will make these approaches less obvious. However, opening these approaches provide some interesting opportunities. Most of them lead almost directly into the mineral line of the expansion. Fast units, such as hellions, speedlings/banelines and blink stalkers, can exploit this placement, bring some damage into the workers behind the expansion, and bug out before your opponent can retaliate. It doesn’t work for every map or every strategy, but with the right timing and units it can be devastating.
Most maps put the players in a position with a ramp that can be walled off and provides some natural defense. Other terrain features can limit the approaches of an opposing force into your bases. As many historical battles can teach us, with the right positioning and preparation, a small force can hold off a much larger one while taking minimal casualties.
Other than the immediate benefit of deterring your opponent, preparing and keeping choke points also allows one the opportunity to build in relative peace. Many players, faced with a daunting defensive position, will throw ever-growing waves of similar forces against it. While they will break through eventually, a canny player will exploit this to build a rapid response and sortie out when the next wave hits.
Of course, if either player goes for air superiority and the other is unprepared, terrain becomes something of a moot point. But that’s a consideration for another time.
* Because then, as Tu Yu observes, “the initiative will lie with us, and by making sudden and unexpected attacks we shall have the enemy at our mercy.”