You see, like a lot of players, I haven't played Starcraft regularly in maybe a year or so, and maybe this is just anecdotal, but personally I've noticed quite a few wanting to start playing again recently. Back in January I played in a tournament at UCSD called Winter Gamefest, which I planned to blog about as part of returning to actively playing Starcraft, but neither happened. Now that I'm planning to start playing again, I thought I'd type this up anyway.
Starcraft 2 is not what it once was. This was something of a disappointing realization as I attended WGF 2014. In WGF 2012, SC2 had been in a large "ballroom" in UCSD's Price Center, with computers all-around, a large projector showing the brackets, and sponsors of some sort doing free giveaways to get on that hot e-Sports train. I practiced for weeks beforehand, until I could actually macro most of my builds to reasonable success to at least the 10 or 15 minute mark in practice games, and I got crushed in the group stage. They were round-robin eight-man groups, and mine had two byes, but everyone in my group except me and one other was masters or above. I beat my fellow platinum player, but couldn't pick a game off of anyone else, and so my tournament ended.
I missed WGF 2013, but was still excited enough for 2014 to pracitce for a week or so in advance – enough that I still remembered my basic mechanics and roughly what my strategies had been last time I played the game. This time the Starcraft portion of the event was in the corner at a few tables in the fighting game room, with metal dividers separating us from the part of the room with all the people, sponsors, etc. Coming in my confidence in match-ups were: TvZ, pretty good (when you're playing against players better than you, you want something unorthodox like my old TvZ Hatch Block build to catch someone off-guard); TvT, fine enough (usually based around really high hellion counts and extremely quick vehicle upgrades); and TvP, completely lost (I never did figure out how to do much besides the old WoL 1-rax gasless expo).
So I played against a couple Terrans, and disappointingly, all the things I had worried about for how to succeed in TvT didn't matter because I was just getting killed early. Back when I had played regularly I had responses to fast reaper builds, and actually had pretty high winrates against them, but between the nerves and the months of not playing, I couldn't do it. One game I actually had the reaper surrounded by SCVs and accidentally attacked my own CC to let it out. The TvPs all went to early oracle play, and there wasn't a single TvZ for me to at least finally see my hatch block build defended by a really good Zerg. At the end of the day I had lost all of my matches – but there were 4 no-shows in my group, so I advanced.
After my matches I chatted some with another guy at my table, who had a ZvT match coming up against some player who had something to do with ROOT. He was understandably spooked, and lost his first match more to his own nerves than the other player. I watched the game as he played it, and saw the other guy take some early risks to secure a bigger economy (might have been CC first? I'm not sure), then attack with a big barracks army and the guy had missed his macro and scouting so he had only queens to defend.
Now Day will always advise someone in his position to embrace exactly what he had practiced, play the straight macro games he had experience with, and try to get ahold of his nerves. And that's probably solid advice, but I told him this: the guy had clearly taken some risks in the early game on the assumption that he would be intimidated and not attack. So why not attack him early? He took the advice a bit further, picked Habitation Station, and 6-pooled. His opponent proxy 2-raxed, and the result was a really entertaining game where eventually, his lift-off to the gold being assaulted by banelings, Terran tapped out. The man sitting next to me clapped gleefully, and proceeded to 6pool again the next game, where he was met with a double-thick wall-off. He transitioned lamely into a baneling bust which was met with an expansion and sieged tanks.
This in mind I went home to regroup for the double-elimination bracket the next day. I looked at my replays, and noticed one big thing: everybody was all-ining. I hadn't thought of this before, but it made sense; all my opponents were in masters or grandmasters, and they don't want to bother with engaging with me on a strategic level and figuring out how best to beat me. They're way better than me, which means a) they know way more all-ins than me, b) they're likely to be able to come back even if I hold the all-in, and c) it's a Bo3, so they can save themselves some time by only trying very hard when they've lost a game in the set.
This in mind, I started practicing my old TvT builds again, making sure I knew how to defend against reaper aggression, and practiced a couple all-ins of my own. Then I went to ladder for a while, and I kept hitting the same Protoss over and over. This guy was a bizarre species – I wonder how common this is – who played the same all-in every game, on every map. He proxied a stargate, hit with an oracle, then followed up with a 3-gate voidray all-in that could break bunkers remarkably quickly. It took a couple games to realize this actually was his strategy every game, and I must have hit him 8 or 9 times after that. This was a really cool opportunity to practice, and I think I made some decent advances in learning to defend the build, although he still probably won almost every game.
The big realization, though, was that TvP simply wasn't that scary if I knew what was coming. If an oracle -> 3-gate void ray was the build, I could, at least theoretically, defend it. If blink all-in was the build, I could defend it. What was difficult was the uncertainty. I have 6 marines; should they be in my main mineral line? Should they be by the bunker? Should I transfer all my SCVs to my natural just so I can hold both if necessary? Should I rush for turrets, just to get blink all-ined?
So the next day my first opponent is UCSD's TOP. I don't know much about him, although I hear he's pretty good. If I remember correctly, his profile said he'd been GM back in WoL as Terran, but he was still highly ranked and played all three races quite a bit. Unsurprisingly he race-picked Protoss against me, and the first game I fell pretty quickly to oracle pressure. Down 0-1 in the Bo3, I chose Yeonsu.
That might sound crazy, but it fits the logic; as long as I know what all-in my opponent is doing, I can defend. On any other map that's impossible, but on Yeonsu, it's not difficult to know what all-in is coming. I don't need my marines anywhere near my mineral line on Yeonsu, and I do not need to open reaper to scout what's on its way. That in mind, I placed a depot outside my base to anticipate and spot the inevitable blink-in:
When a really good player faces a much worse player, they tend to feel invincible. They notice themselves make a couple mistakes, but these aren't punished, so their risk assessment tends to bias in favor of thinking nothing can go wrong. This was surely the logic behind this runby:
This did not end especially well for him.
Of course, that's just two stalkers, but the mothership core also got very hurt. The result was that when the inevitable attack did come, this happened:
Which quickly turned into this:
You'll probably guess from the emphasis I'm putting on this game that I did, in fact, win (still narrowly despite the huge economic advantage, which is a testament to his strength as a player and my own inability to macro). My point in this is not to criticize him as a player, or present an inflated view of my skill; to be clear, he was by far the superior player, as was made clear in the following game where he played a more standard 2-base stargate play that completely dismantled me.
My point is that the descriptions we give of people being "good" and "bad" players are imaginary constructs. In-game, I'm just a Terran, and he's just a Protoss, and his ladder rank or my months of inactivity aren't there in the game with us. If I play better, I can win. If he makes a mistake, I can punish it. This is the often-forgotten beauty of competitive games: that in the end, it's not really about game balance or number of practice games played or ladder ranking. It's just about playing better at that moment, and if you can find an edge and press it, you can theoretically win against anyone.
In the loser's bracket I hit a lower level Protoss, and pretty much the exact same sequence happened – lose a game to oracles, win defending a blink all-in on Yeonsu, lose another game to oracles. So the somewhat unimpressive summary of my experience is that I lost every game in group stage, advanced on bracket luck, and then dropped two TvP series 2-1 to exit the tournament – although I can take some pride in the fact that in January 2014, my two victories were versus blink all-ins on Yeonsu. More significantly, though, I appreciate the lesson that at least within this competitive gamespace, you really are the only limiting factor on you winning.