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I Played Zerg
I played almost exclusively Zerg at Blizzcon. I'd estimate I played fifty games as Zerg and then about ten as Protoss trying to beat certain Zerg builds. Instead of getting a limited understanding of a lot of different units and races, I decided to focus on one race and one mechanic: the Zerg Queen's Inject Larvae ability
Note: It's officially called "Spawn Mutant Larvae" but I like the imagery of a syringe injecting steroids into a hatchery. That's basically what the queen does -- make Zerg macro seem like its on crack.
Why I Only Talk About Tier One
The TL Staff that played SC2 extensively at Blizzcon aren't experts at this game once it advances past tier one tech. Nobody is an expert at this stage in the game's development. We were not even 100% sure of what unit counters what unit. Focusing on tier one interaction is easier. There are fewer complex units and timings to sort through. I only had two days. We threw out all sorts of fast tech builds because we weren't sure if they were viable against rushes. We spent most of the time rushing each other. I did this because I don't want to make an observation about a unit I don't understand. For example, we all thought Ultralisks were too good on Day 1, and on Day 2 a Blizzard employee told us Marauders absolutely destroyed Ultras. I don't want to say something like "Ultras are too strong" without being fully informed about it.
Of course we knew in general that an Ultralisk can kill 10 marines by itself. But it's impossible to say an Ultralisk is overpowered against marines without understanding the dynamics of tier one TvZ. After all, StarCraft is a game about economy. Tiny advantages early on in the game can lead to huge swings later on. So the more important question for SC2 players is not about specific unit statistics and damage outputs, but rather whether tier one interaction between races is balanced.
Thus, this article will mostly cover why Zerg is so strong early game and how P and T must react to 1-hatch Queen -- currently the most powerful Zerg build.
Before we get into my thoughts on Larvae Injection, I'll just say a few words on Micro. Yes, the units are fast. Zerglings are speedy little things. But compared to BW, control is so much easier with Zerg. Surrounds are easy. Movement is easy. Hit and run is easy. The infinite unit selection and smarter AI really helped Zerg the most -- it's so, so easy to use mass groups of Zerglings now, especially in the field against lots of units.
That said, don't be afraid of the human player not being decisive in battles. Who wins the battle, especially with combinations of ranged units, is still decided largely by the human player. The smoother unit AI does make melee battles easier for newbies, but its still largely dependent on how you as a player control your units. However, the late game advantage of being able to control a 100 Zergling group really is quite huge (at least compared to SC).
I can't really speak about Terran or Protoss, other than that storm was incredibly hard to cast against fast moving units because it doesn't execute instantly. Against Zatic's mutas I must have lost 4+ Templars without even landing a storm (often dying before the animation finished). If you land one it deals a ton of damage, but its like a guessing game, I have to predict where he'll fly 1+ second in advance. It seemed near impossible to hit his muta flock, and Zatic is no Jaedong.
I'm sure all of you know how MBS and macro work in SC2. You can select multiple buildings and hit a hotkey multiple times to make units. For example, with Protoss I'd select five gates, hit "Z" five times, and that'd make five zealots, distributed in the five gates. With Zerg you select your hatches, hit "S" to select all the larvae, and press "H" 10 times to make 10 hydralisks. Easy.
Each of the three races has an ability that is supposed to make macro more complex (or at least add more actions for the player to do). Protoss have a pylon that costs 200 minerals that can cast a spell that increases mining efficiency. Terran can build something that can call down a super-SCV that returns more minerals per mining trip. Zerg has the Queen, a unit that can make a hatchery periodically spawn four extra larvae.
The Zerg Queen and Larvae Injection
First, let's get to know the Queen better.
- It costs 150 minerals and 2 supply and can be made from any hatchery (requires Spawning Pool), and doesn't use a larvae
- It has a ranged attack which is relatively weak, but can easily kill scouting workers.
- It can hit air, but its not a very strong anti-air unit by itself
- It moves fast on creep and extremely slow off creep
- It has abilities other than larvae inject. It can heal stuff and make creep. To be honest I didn't use these abilities at all.
- For 25 energy, it adds 4 extra larvae to your hatchery. These four larvae come out together after 25 seconds. Then you use the Queen's ability again.
The macro abilities for all three races do add additional tasks for the player. You have to manually go and perform them. But since Blizzard made their timing very convenient, each ability can be used consecutively. For instance, the Protoss Obelisk effect wears off just in time for it to be cast again. This makes larvae inject very, very easy to use. You see the larvae pop out, you inject with the Queen again. You will do this all game. Perhaps if Blizzard made the cost and duration of the macro abilities mismatch, it'd be harder to use. Right now its basically like sending your workers to mine, except a different ability. If its easy for me, it'll be like nothing for progamers.
For P and T there's some player choice -- you can choose to get an Obelisk or Mule later. The mineral cost for those things is significant. But for Zerg, you basically MUST get a Queen asap. There's no real other choice -- the Queen is that good. It would be worth it just for the larvae even if it didn't attack. But it has a ranged attack, so it is valuable in ZvZ (can kill scouting Overlord) and allows you to kill scouting workers more easily. This is a nice bonus, but 90% of its value is in the larvae it can make.
Why Larvae Inject Is Crazy Good
Basically, for 150 minerals, you get more than a hatchery's worth of extra larvae. That means off one hatchery, for 150 minerals and 2 supply, you can simulate a 2.5 hatchery production. Larvae inject is really easy to use and I had no problems remembering to do it every time. I had two fully saturated bases making hydras, and I only needed 2 hatcheries to keep up. Two hatches + 2 Queens = roughly 5 BW hatches. Yes, that's scary.
What's really strong about Larvae Inject is that its infinitely more flexible than the T and P macro abilities. I can use it to make drones or lings. Couple that with the better chase AI and ranged Queen attack, the enemy scout almost always dies before they can see what my extra 4 larvae spawn. That means I often have 6+ larvae available to make either speedlings or drones, and the opponent has no clue which I'm going to make. It often becomes that guessing game we are all too familiar with in BW -- is the Zerg rushing me? Except this time you have even less scouting worker information.
Larvae injection leads to more drones than P or T can make. I remember Chill and I just built workers for the first few minutes of the game (he went 14cc and I went 2 hatch + Queen) and the supply count was 60-40 in my favor.
Remember in BW when a Zerg would sacrifice eco for a large early army, win a battle, then make a round of drones? You can do the same thing in SC2 but its 7 larvae instead of 3. That means that everything is compounded. Zerg can choose to have an insanely strong early game army or choose to make a ridiculous number of drones or a combination of the two. That means if you lose a battle early with P or T against Zerg, expect to lose. There's no coming back -- either there are 14 lings hatching to finish you or the Zerg has another saturated base up already.
Why Did Blizzard Think Zerg Was Weak?
People kept saying how Blizzard thought Zerg was the weakest race. Either they didn't look at Larvae Inject very carefully or they didn't play against many 1-hatch builds, because 1-hatch speedling and 1-hatch hydra are ridiculously powerful. Like laughably powerful. I won most of my early games as Z against other TL players simply by abusing the Queen, mostly to my opponent saying stuff like "WTF LOL" when being attacked. Keep in mind these are not all-in builds like they would be in BW. Failed attack and low drone count does not equal death like it did in BW -- you will have enough defense and larvae to recover economically.
I remember talking to Chill about first impressions, and he said he thought Zerg sucked. He obviously didn't know how abusive larvae inject could be (most people didn't). So we played a Bo3 with money riding on each game, and he predictably died to 1-hatch allins, first ZvZ and then ZvT. It wasn't even close. If BW is your reference point, you just don't expect that many units that early. He quickly switched over to the "Zerg is insanely good" camp afterwards.
In fact, every staff member, after playing against a larvae inject abusing Zerg (usually me) felt Zerg was the strongest of all the three races -- the exact opposite of what the Blizzard employees supposedly thought.
How Does Larvae Inject Change The Matchups?
In general, 1-hatch Queen powered Zergling rushes are incredibly scary and easy to die to. If you move out too early, you're going to die. Unfortunately, because your scouting worker dies so fast, you have no idea as a T or P what the Z is doing. He could have 30 Zerglings or 2 Zerglings. You really don't know, and you can't scout it with a worker. The safest thing to do would be to produce a ball of units or get to tech that isn't afraid of a lot of Zerglings. The problem with this strategy obviously is if the Zerg chooses to power drones instead. Early on, the T and P players must play cautious and defensive -- you don't know what the larvae are being used for.
The biggest change is that Zerg no longer needs more bases. It doesn't even need two hatcheries. You can fight toe to toe with T and P off one saturated base and one hatchery with a Queen. Those early minerals normally spent on a second hatch go right into drones or units.
Zerg vs Zerg
Its basically the same as regular old Brood War. Of course the supply timings are all different because workers return 5 minerals instead of 8, and gas mining rate is obviously changed, but you basically go 1-hatch pool, gas, and get a Queen right away. Since your ovies can die to the Queen you don't have full scouting information like in BW. Its very, very hard to do anything other than mass Zergling. A two hatch or non-Queen build is suicidal, you'll be overrun instantly.
I've heard people say Roach > Ling > Hydra > Roach, but frankly games never last that long. They are decided at the Zergling stage of the game. The standard build is 13-pool, which is 10 drones (your supply cap is 10 off one hatchery+ovie) and then 3 more drones and a pool. Usually you get ling speed right away too, and a Queen right after the pool finishes. Once the Queen finishes and you inject larvae for the first time, you'll have 3 larvae + a few more + the 4 that the Queen made. That's a lot of potential Zerglings. If you continue to make only Zerglings off one hatchery, you are producing them at the BW equivalent of 2.5 hatcheries. Except off one hatch and at an earlier timing. It sounds unfair, but in ZvZ at least your opponent can do it too.
The defender really has an advantage because the Queen can be used to help your Zergling group, but if you manage to snipe his Queen early on, you are usually very ahead. After securing an early game advantage, you usually can make whatever higher tech unit you want to finish it.
What about T or P Fast Expand?
FE doesn't work because the Zerg can make so many Zerglings or Hydras off 1-hatch, it becomes a guessing game as to how many defensive structures to build. Again, scouting is harder because of improved chase AI and the Queen.
There are some funny stories of players trying to FE and then having a hilariously lopsided idea of how many units the Zerg was attempting to break with off 1-hatch. I don't know whether this is just weird, ingrained BW timing (2-3 cannons --> Nexus --> more cannons if needed for PvZ FE) or if its just impossible to FE. I'm leaning towards "impossible to FE" on maps with non-ramp naturals. Its just so easy as Z to hide your unit count and bust the front.
For instance, the first game Zatic FE'd PvZ, he had 3 cannons and 2 Zealots and was starting his core and warping more cannons when I attacked with 20+ Hydralisks. It's very, very easy to hydra break. That's why FE is bad.
Zerg vs Terran
12-hatch (13-hatch in SC2) really is too risky here, especially since 2-hatch isn't better production than 1-hatch+Queen anyway. It's not worth it to expose yourself to a rush risk. Two hatches isn't better than one, because the second hatch isn't worth 300 if you don't get a queen with it. I'd rather just make drones off my first hatch (since you have more larvae to use). If you get a Queen with your second hatch, you have way too much larvae for that stage of the game. Thus, every build was 1-hatch queen -- its the most flexible and you don't have idle larvae.
Zerglings early on aren't very good because Terran can wall very easily. But the threat of Zerglings will keep the T's marines in his base. The build I used was a 1-hatch hydra, which turned out to be ridiculously strong. Because Zerglings with speed are so good in the open terrain early on, the T can't really move out until they have a unit other than the Marine. By that time you will have Hydralisks. A lot of hydralisks. Even if they move out early with Marines, you can have Hydras in time to stop it, especially with the Queen to help defend.
Larvae inject allows you to reach the drone count necessary to support 1H + 1Q (~2.5 hatch production in BW) insanely early. You then just continuously inject and pump hydras. Most maps have a back door, so you either break that down or crush the first Terran attack and expand. It's kind of stupid how easy it is, especially when the hydras are faster than marines.
Yes, Hydras are bad against siege tanks. They are really, really bad against them. Games that go to late game are invariably won by massing a lot of tanks (which look really cool by the way). But the 1-hatch Hydra attack comes so insanely early that it really doesn't matter how fast the Terran techs. If he doesn't build a lot of marines and defense, he's going to die to 1-hatch Hydra (especially on maps with backdoor paths).
After dying the 10th straight time to 1-hatch hydra, we TL Staff were at a crossroads. We could go and test how the other Zerg units worked, or we could try to figure out how to beat the ridiculousness that was 1-hatch Queen Zerg. We chose the second option, and played a ton of games TvZ and PvZ against larvae injection abuse.
I know intrigue did the SC2 version of vulture into wraith, and many people tried mass marines and medivac, but I don't think we found a solid answer to what beats 1-hatch Hydra TvZ. You simply could not tech fast enough with T and at the same time hold such an attack. And you need those tech units to beat large groups of Hydras. We were stumped. When 1-hatch hydra can beat 3 or 4-rax marines... it might be time to concede larvae inject is too strong.
Zerg vs Protoss
The Zerg can go 2-hatch here if it wants to be super abusive, but its not necessary. 1-hatch Queen is more than enough to make drones or units early on. Zealot rushing doesn't work because the Queen can help defend, and rallying two gates to the Zerg base is just wasting money and delaying your tech. If you commit to a Zealot rush early, the Z will simply produce enough lings to kill your Zealots then make a billion drones because there's no more threat of attack. Even if the Zealot rush does a ton of damage, as long as the Zealots die and the Zerg stabilizes defensively (keeping the Queen alive), recovering drone count is easy and fast with the extra larvae.
But that does not mean you can skimp on zealots, because you need them to live and more importantly to force the Z to not spend all his larvae on drones. Larvae inject allows the Z to drone up far quicker than you'd expect, and you have to keep him at least conscious of a possible rush. Because of this, Zerg can expand much faster than the Protoss because the P cannot FE and handle hydras in time. Zealots are weak by themselves against Hydras, but Stalkers can fight them relatively evenly. The problem is you never have enough money to make enough Stalkers, expand, and tech at the same time. Storm and Colossus easily kill hydras, but you rarely ever reach that tech level without being severly behind in eco.
In PvZ, You simply don't have enough gas. You have two gas in your main, but the mining rate is quite reduced. You need gas for Stalkers, for your Citadel, for your Archives, and for your Templars and Storm research. Or you need gas for your Robo and the 300/200 Colossus. By the time you have enough of those units to safely move out and kill a Hydra group, the Zerg has expanded all over the map and saturated every base.
Usually this happens:
- 1. You make a lot of defensive stuff to expand or tech to anti hydraling units (Templars, Colossus, etc). The Zerg sees this, makes exclusively drones and expands. Larvae Inject allows him to achieve a ridiculous economy at exponentially fast rates. He has better upgrades, basically infinite larvae, and you get run over by whatever unit he decides to mass.
- 2. You make a lot of low tech attacking units to force the Zerg to make defense. Maybe he misjudges how much you have, and you win with a rush. If he's smart though, he makes just enough lings or hydras to defend, and your tech and expo are extremely late and he runs you over.
If you were to compare the three macro abilities, Larvae Inject is clearly far better than the Mule or the Obelisk. Far, far better. But is it too strong? I think so -- but I'm not sure. We only tested the game for two days, mainly trying to find holes in early game Zerg 1-hatch play. We didn't find many. Could Blizzard have completely overlooked how strong this ability is? If Korean Pros with far better mechanics than us were to use it, they'd never miss an inject timing and have even cleaner and more flexible Zerg macro. Maybe we were just playing T or P wrong. Maybe the maps were not balanced. Maybe the Zerg player was just better -- though I really doubt I'm any better than any TL Staff there.
Does Blizzard need to nerf it? Or is it one of those things that the players will have to self-balance? We'll see. On the second day towards the end of play, we felt we made some real progress PvZ against 1-hatch Queen. It still felt like you were climbing a mountain against Zerg though. If the this version stays as it is, you'll see just about every Zerg go 1-hatch Queen into some sort of low tech attack. Either that or fake it and make a million drones. Get ready for some coin flipping!
After Blizzcon 2009, I can safely say that because of Larvae Injection, the Zerg Queen was the single most important unit in StarCraft 2.