Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
How to Not Suck at Starcraft II Posted on Tuesday, July 27 2010 @ 07:43:27 Eastern
If you play PC games, you likely have just bought or are planning to buy Starcraft II. Congratulations! Over the next few days you will undoubtedly enjoy an epic single-player campaign featuring beautifully rendered future spacemen in fierce battle with several honorable and/or unsettlingly moist aliens. You may also delve into ranked online play on Blizzard's Battle.net ladder, where you will likely be manhandled in a series of five-minute matches in which you are verbally abused by your opponent (“ Of course I'm a 'n00b,' this came out yesterday!!”) and ordered to leave the game. You may even have a moment of apprehension in which you realize you suck at Starcraft. It's OK though, we all do. Some of us just suck less.
The fact is that Battle.net, like the whole of the internet, is a cruel and merciless place. With the launch of SC2 many are presumably diving in for the first time or returning after a long hiatus only to be horrified at how much they apparently suck at videogames. Though the days downloadable “insta-kill” hacks are long gone, B.net can still be a daunting place for a sweet and innocent little newcomer. As both a stalwart veteran of the RTS genre and someone who has ruined his Tuesday playing SC2 online all night, I thought I might do the world a service by providing a quick primer for Starcraft II's online component. In order to suck less and occasionally win a game online, you need to follow these two simple though often overlooked guiding principles:
A) Play fast
If you can build a bigger, stronger army than your opponent in less time, your army will probably win. If you can make your units stop doing dumb stuff faster than your opponent, again you'll probably win.
B) Play smart
Remember the “S” in RTS stands for Strategy, so use your brain. No matter how fast a player is with one particular strategy, there is always an answer to counter it. If your opponent builds a huge army of melee-only ground units, you can steamroll them with a small handful of fliers. If you can recognize what your opponent is doing and counter their strategy, you'll probably win.
Unfortunately, “be fast and smart” isn't the most practical advice, so here are some tips to actually help you become faster and smarter:
How to play fast:
Know how to get started
If you have a good idea of what kind of preliminary army works for you, you can spend your time building that army instead of scratching your chin considering your options. Remember your opponent is constantly building, so to stand a chance you need to also.
Never let your stuff stand still. Your army and base should always be doing work. Even if you're not ready to attack, you can scout the map to gain valuable intel or make annoying little guerrilla attacks to distract your opponent. While your units are off doing their work, remember you need to keep your base working on building up your army. Keep in mind that if you have a lot of resources in the bank you do not earn interest, and you're also missing out on the units you could have made with those resources. Managing an army and a base at the same time is tricky, but the next two points can make it a lot easier...
When you have a building, unit or group of units selected, you can mouseover the selected unit's available actions (like move, attack, hold position, etc.) and see the hotkey shortcuts for each of those actions (“m” on the keyboard, “a”, “h”, etc.). Using the keyboard is much faster than moving your mouse and clicking those little action boxes, and faster actions give your army the potential to inflict more damage while taking less.
Use control groups
Control groups give you fast access to sets of units or buildings so that you can select them quickly and cleanly without clicking on them. To set a control group, select the units you want to place in the group, and then press ctrl + 1. From then on whenever you hit the “1” key, you will select that same group of units. You can set groups to any of the number keys 1-9. There may be maximum of units to any one group, so in big armies it's best to separate units by function-- i.e. with one group of melee and another of ranged attackers.
How to play smart:
Know how to “answer”
This common sense principle is the golden rule of any RTS: Know what to build to “answer” or nullify your opponent's strategy. When you're about to get zergling-rushed, get some bunkers. When your base is getting harassed by cloaked air units, build some anti-aircraft towers. Some answers are obvious (like the afforementioned anti-aircraft towers), while others are a bit more unexpected. If your awesome hydralisk army gets steamrolled, look at your opponent's army and remember how to counter mass hydralisks. Eventually you'll get to know what to do in just about every situation, at which point you will be an unstoppable force for awesome.
Conscientiously (but quickly!) choose what to attack and kill
By holding the alt key, you can make the game display life bars for all units on the field, including enemies. If you're in battle and you notice an enemy unit is near death, focus your attack on that particular unit and take him out of the fight. By removing that unit, you decrease the enemy's total firepower while yours remains the same. This means that the faster you can take individual enemy units out, the faster the tide of battle will turn in your favor. Focusing fire works best with ranged units that don't need to move around to change targets.
It's also important to keep in mind that focus fire goes both ways, so if you notice one of your units is about to die, run it out of range for a moment to let enemies attacking him acquire new targets before bringing him back in. Focus-fire is the backbone of good micro-management, and it's also where battles can really get tricky. For example, if a decent enemy player notices you focusing on a unit, he will run it around in circles forcing your army to stop attacking and give chase while his enemy army continues attacking. If something like this happens, choose a new target. Also remember that if you want your units to select their own targets, you can just hit “a” and left click somewhere on the field behind your enemies. Whatever you do, remember to keep your units attacking unless it's time to retreat.
Fight winning battles
Even with pretend videogame soldiers, there is a time to retreat. This should be obvious, but it's the one rule that is broken the most in an RTS. If you're going to lose a battle and you can salvage some of your units, get them out so they can be useful later, probably after you build a more appropriate answer to your opponent's army.
On the flip side, it is amazing how often you can coax your opponent into a losing battle. For example, let's say you have static defense (towers) near your base. While your army may not be able to defeat the enemy army head-on, towers are generally much stronger than mobile units. Small, annoying attacks will cause enemy units to pursue their attacker, so if your opponent isn't paying attention you can coax an enemy army right into the gauntlet of your static defense. As a side-note, I can't recommend building static defense enough. It's relatively cheap for the amount of damage it can do, and since so many players rely on rush tactics, you will rarely be sorry to have built it.
Don't be a dick
This is another tough one. You will be berated in many situations, but you just suck even more if you sink down to the level of an internet troll. Even if you're ranked in the top 100 players, you will still get called a noob (and much worse) in online games, that's just the internet. If you're feeling like you might cry, you can silence your opponent by checking "block player" box in the chat log, which is one of the menus at the very top of the screen (apparently the /squelch command doesn't work in SC2). Sometimes it's best to silence your opponent pre-emptively so that they can't even get a word in. Just add it to your build order.
A lot of the above points are obvious, and some of them are easier said than done, but looking back on the last 14 years of playing RTS games I probably would have sucked a lot less a lot faster if someone had told me some of these things right from the get-go. If you happen to have stumbled upon this (and then continued stumbling all the way to the end), and whether you're a noob or an RTS veteran, I hope this little ditty will help lessen your frustrations.