This article spawned out of a lengthy conversation with the one of the most successful players of Phase 2 - Mouz.Morrow. Morrow has a deep understanding of the game and an unparalleled knowledge of how units interact in each matchup. Many of the ideas here were originally brought up by Morrow and thus deserves a lot of the credit for this article. So thank you Morrow, and I hope you continue to contribute to the SC2 community long after the retail release!
Let’s be honest, over the course of the Beta the majority of TeamLiquid’s articles on SC2 have been critical of what Blizzard has done with the game. Indeed, we often drew parallels between SC2 and BW to demonstrate the points we were trying to establish. Many of the newer folk remarked that SC2 is a new game, and that we should expect different things and that drawing parallels to Brood War was just TeamLiquid being too immersed in the past and blinded to the potential of SC2. What I’m going to discuss here does not rely at all on what happened in Brood War in the least. This is an article purely about Starcraft 2 using Starcraft 2 units, Starcraft 2 concepts and Starcraft 2 gameplay. Despite this, the points made will coincide precisely with what has been brought up before by other authors. In particular, you should brush up on Saracen's latest article to get a good grasp on the viewing potential of Starcraft 2 at the moment. By the end of this, I hope you’ll agree with the points raised here and hence the points we have tried to make throughout the Beta. In particular I hope Blizzard listens, so that the game will be as good as it can possibly be for release.
The original concept for the "Void Seeker" - the precursor to the Void Ray
Source: Blizzard Entertainment
Easy to Learn, Hard to Master
When first revealed to the world, it was clear that the Void Ray was not an ordinary unit. The concept was simple, a unit whose damage output increased the longer it stayed focused on a target. Blizzard remarked that the Void Ray would be a unit that players would have to focus fire on early to remove from battle before it’s laser charged to full power and wrecked havoc on your army. From this concept, they claimed the game would require a lot of skill to master. Perhaps that claim was stretching things just a little bit, but the Void Ray has emerged as a unit with incredible depth and potential the likes of which is currently unparalleled in Starcraft 2.
It didn’t take long for Protoss to establish that the Void Ray was an exceptionally good air unit. Initially it found use against Zerg, since one uncharged Void Ray beats a Queen one on one. Zerg users raged at the enormous power that this unit had, but quickly realised that if you build more Queens dealing with Void Rays isn't so bad. Then it found use against Terrans since many were using Marauder heavy builds. Similarly, Terrans raged hard at the incredible power that the Void Ray wielded. Then they discovered that Marines effectively counter Void Rays in smaller numbers and that Vikings are also really good against them. Later the Void Ray had its range nerfed, and that nerf brought a massive decline in the Void Rays popularity.
I strongly believe Protoss players have given up on them too easily, but it's not hard to understand why they've become an unpopular option. The Void Ray is an incredibly expensive unit and is a glass cannon (by that I mean it can do enormous damage, but is very fragile). Further, the Void Ray is slow, has poor acceleration and requires constant attention since one slip up means you lose them. For most Protoss users, they just simply are not worth the trouble because they are too hard to use effectively.
But wait, did I just say they are too hard to use effectively? Does this mean that there is more depth to this game than BW elitists would have you believe?! It most certainly does.
A master is able to greatly annoy his opponent with Void Rays
The Void Ray is a unit which can become an exceptional unit in the hands of a master. A master is able to poke and prod at the Terran with his Void Rays and never let the him settle down, constantly harassing him until he is ready to move out himself. A master is able to harass the Zerg, abusing the lack of mobility of the Zerg’s Queens and later is able to restrict the Zergs map control by killing overlords and hidden expansions. A master is able to charge his Void Rays and keep them charged while wreaking havoc against his opponent.
The Void Ray embodies the Blizzard design philosophy in every respect – easy to learn, difficult to master. Such a simple concept behind this unit has created a rich dynamic that allows amazing players to clearly differentiate themselves from your average Diamond league player. Isn’t this the very thing we were worried would be missing from SC2?
The things I have cited so far are simply examples I’ve seen from both my own play and the play of others, like White-Ra. But the Void Ray is an even richer unit than we believe, with a vast amount of untapped potential. No one has mastered this it yet, and I don’t believe anyone will be able to for a long time to come.
Towards the end of the beta, FaZe discovered some truly remarkable aspects about the Void Ray. You can read up on the original thread here. FaZe discovered the concept of fazing, something which arises from the unique way the Void Rays deal damage. Since the Void Ray has no cool down on it’s attack, you are able to rapidly switch targets continuously and kill two units as quickly as you can kill one. The technique is best demonstrated through an example. Here are two videos demonstrating the technique
Initially, this trick only worked for the first level of attack. Blizzard thankfully realised that this trick adds enormous depth to the Void Ray and patched it so that the second and third levels can also use the fazing technique. This technique is excellent since it not only adds another way for a good player to separate himself from a lesser skilled player, but it also means a player has to decide between fazing and charging since by fazing you will be unable to charge the laser. Since charging is critical against some units (like the Queen for instance), this adds a really interesting dimension to Void Ray harass.
An obvious aspect of the Void Ray is that once charged, it’s ridiculously powerful. So Protoss players quickly began thinking up ways to get their Void Rays charged before going in to harass. One technique which is possible when the start positions have a close aerial distance is called charge juggling. The idea is to charge the Void Rays on one of your buildings, such as an assimilator, then as they move over to your opponents base you periodically make your Void Rays attack each other to keep them charged. This is an incredibly skilful technique as it requires precision timing, else you will do too much damage to your Void Rays, and requires amazing multitask to not fall behind in production. Charge Juggling can also possibly be used when Void Rays are going to enter battle – possibly juggling using a Hallucination to minimise damage against your own units. I once saw HuK trying to do this trick to harass a Terran, and well, he failed pretty miserably and remarked that he isn’t Korean. We all know HuK is one of the top Protoss, and if he is unable to do this trick, then clearly the skill gap is far from being reached.
Charge juggling is one way to charge your Void Rays before harass, but there are unexplored alternative ways as well. Things such as building a phoenix to sacrifice for charge before going into harass, researching hallucination and charging on a hallucination before going in to harass – these are all things which allow Void Rays to harass significantly better than being uncharged. With skilful control, two charged Void Rays can easily end the game right then and there. A true master of the Void Ray will be able to defend using Void Rays as well. He will see the attack coming, charge his Void Rays up on a Gateway, and when the Terran/Zerg attack comes the charged Void Rays will be able to rip through the attack. This is theoretically simple, but getting the timing right and executing the defence well obviously takes enormous skill.
After discussing the potential of Void Rays with Morrow one evening, I decided to test out one of the concepts he suggested – building a Phoenix to sacrifice for Charge then use some of the techniques above to wreck havoc in the Terran main. What was the result? See for yourself:
Note: best watched in HD
Note: best watched in HD
Some important points to take out of this: my control isn’t even good, it isn’t hard to envision what a better Protoss like White-Ra would be able to do with this. This further demonstrates how Void Rays are an excellent way to demonstrate skill. Marines defeat Void Rays when they are not charged fairly easily, however when they are charged and with proper use of fazing, Void Rays don't just defeat marines. They dominate them. Further, combine fazing with a charged Void Ray on an SCV line and you have some damned effective worker harassment right there. Also, upon further consideration, simply building a proxy pylon would be far more effective than sacrificing a phoenix! Lastly, during this rather poor display of micro, my macro completely slipped – better players will be able to do both simultaneously and this is yet another way to show off skill.
Alas, it is very tempting to jump straight in and yell “OMG THIS NEEDS TO BE NERFED”. But that would be foolish. Morrow correctly points out that while Void Rays in the right hands are capable of enormous damage, with similar skill a good Terran player will be able to defend Void Rays. I’ve already shown you that fazing against Marines is a winning combination, but the Terran can split his marines up (i.e. fan them out) and that makes fazing really difficult to pull off. In this way, Terrans can more easily defend against Void Rays. Splitting your marines up, however, is a difficult thing since units in SC2 naturally clump together. I’m sure there are other techniques Terrans can apply to defend against Void Ray harass as well, but I’m no Terran player!
With proper defence, Void Rays just have to go home
The “wow” Factor
What we have here is an incredibly interesting dynamic building. Both sides of Void Ray harass in PvT are completely playable. The Terran has tricks and techniques at his disposal to neutralise the harass while the Protoss has tricks and techniques to make his harass more effective. The winner of the harass is completely determined by skill – and hence we have a genuine “wow” moment in SC2.
What is a “wow” moment? Morrow defines it as a unit, spell, ability, manoeuvre – whatever – whose effectiveness is completely determined by the skill of the player. The dynamic that Void Ray openings create in PvT qualifies as a “wow” moment since you can be absolutely blown away by how amazing a Protoss controls his Void Rays and equally you can be absolutely blown away by how well a Terran defends. Since you are unable to replicate this yourself, it makes you go “wow” and respect the player for his fearsome skills.
These “wow” moments are precisely the thing that draw in viewers and win players fans. TLO is only so popular today because he is able to execute crazy strategies and put himself into “wow” moments because of it. Think back to his epic game against Nazgul where his use of Nukes was mind blowing – that is precisely a “wow” moment. Starcraft 2 can only benefit from having more of these exciting moments in the game.
Unfortunately, the Void Ray is the only real “wow” moment possible currently in Starcraft 2. And given the recent range nerf and the decline in popularity because of the nerf, it’s possible that Void Ray openings will be completely forgotten all together and Starcraft 2 will lose out because of it. There are a few units which have the “wow” potential which currently aren't seeing use in Starcraft 2 or simple are not being used enough at the moment. The Raven's Seeker Missile is an example of a “wow” spell since it takes skill to aim it and skill to dodge it. The Colossus has some “wow” potential since it is a glass cannon, although it's potential is far more limited than a unit like the Void Ray. The Nuke is clearly a “wow” spell, but doesn't see use at the moment. Blink is an excellent example, but Stalkers are frail so ability is currently underused (outside of blinking into mains). Neural Paraite is quite clearly a “wow” spell and is the closest we have to the Void Ray at the moment. Neural Parasite turns the Infestor into a key unit in battle and that creates the “wow” factor.
It is easy to say that we've only had the Beta for 5 months and the game has not matured and hence we shouldn't worry. But this is simply not the case. It is easy to identify “wow” potential in units, as I just did, and it easy to understand the principles behind why they have “wow” potential. They are abilities and units whose strength is determined by the control of both players in the game - not just one. Applying this simple criteria, we are easily able to determine which units have that “wow” factor. Morrow and I strongly believe that there are a number of commonly used units and abilities that have the potential to generate “wow” moments with a few minor tweaks. By expanding these concepts to more commonly used units we are able to create a higher skill cap (through making the result of battles more dependent on control as opposed to unit composition) and increase the entertainment factor in Starcraft 2 matches.
This isn’t a balance discussion, this is a design discussion. And the design of a unit/spell is far more fundamental to the entertainment of viewers than how it is balanced. However, it is important not to have every unit creating “wow” moments, there needs to be some standard stuff as well. Typically one would expect that the more powerful an ability/unit is, the more control it should require from both sides. Maintaining a good balance between “wow” and standard is difficult, but I have every faith that Blizzard will pull through.
The awesome power of Fungal Growth annihilates a Terran army
First off, the Infestor is an example of a unit with amazing “wow” potential. Neural Parasite, as it stands, is a “wow” moment spell – it makes the infestor a prime target in battle and whomever has the most skill will be able to get the best of that situation. That’s excellent! However, fungal growth is not “wow” material in it’s current form. The reason is because it is cast instantly, and for this reason there isn’t anything the Terran can do except take the damage. To turn the Funal Growth into a “wow” spell simply add a cast time to the spell. Give it a nice animation and viola! You have a “wow” moment.
Adding cast time to the spell means that the Terran has an opportunity to react to the fungal growth – he can run and avoid it or he can try and snipe the Infestor before the spell has been cast. Equally, the Zerg player needs to be able to cast his fungal growths well and needs to anticipate where the Terran army is going to be when the spell is cast. This tiny adjustment adds so much to the excitement factor since you don’t know how well these fungal growths are going to come out, and since you will be able to see the casting animation the commentator will be able to hype up the move and turn it into a real “wow” moment. Not only does it add excitement, but it further builds the skill gradient without screwing with the balance at any level of play.
A timely EMP cripples the Protoss army
A very similar change to the way EMP works can also enhance the viewing experience. At the moment, EMP is virtually instant. If you pause it at the right time you can see a little tiny EMP missile, but the rate at which is travels means that no Protoss player will ever be able to dodge an EMP missile. As with fungal growth, EMP lacks a dynamic between players since at the moment it is just a point and click spell. Simply slowing down how fast the EMP missile travels so that it is feasible for a Protoss to dodge it (without good control) would turn EMP into a “wow” spell. It means there is a viable control based counter for the Protoss player while adding more skill to using the EMP ability. But there are other ways EMP could be tweaked as well.
The Guardian Shield ability fits the criteria of a “wow” spell, however it’s damage reduction at the moment is not significant enough for it to truly make the sentry a target in battle. Suppose that Guardian Shields were tweaked to block out EMPs. This would give Protoss have a viable way to negate the EMP through good control without changing the speed of the missile. For instance, if your sentries are all grouped together you won’t be able to cover your army effectively and EMPs will do major damage to the parts that aren't covered. Thus spreading your Sentries well will be critical in battle. This isn’t one sided control either, as the Terrans would be trying to remove the Sentries from battle and quickly laying down 3-4 EMP over the no longer shielded Protoss army. This turns the Sentry into a “wow” unit in the process and creates a really interesting dynamic in PvT.
Storm is one of the most powerful abilities in the game
There are other ways to create “wow” moments without adding delays and travel time to spells, and indeed for the High Templar that is necessary. Currently, Storm is no where near the “wow” spell that it could be. Unlike Fungal Growth or EMP, units are able to move out of the storm to avoid damage. The problem is, more often that not you don’t want to move your units out of the storm. The reason is simple, for Terrans there is little incentive to move since Marines die so quickly under storm it is practically impossible to save them. Marauders are too tough and with Medivacs are not going to die from a storm. Obviously avoiding a storm is still beneficial, but there is still a lack of incentive to move once the storm is cast. Similarly against Zerg, Zerglings die too quickly, Roaches are tough and immobile so why both running at all?
The key to making Storm a “wow” spell is balancing the damage output against unit health. There needs to be a unit that the Zerg or Terran have that dies if left under a storm, yet can easily move out of the storm and not die. So there needs to be a health component and a speed component to the unit. This is a little harder to implement than the other changes, but carefully balancing unit speed, health and storm damage so that there are units that Zerg/Terran need to micro out of storm drastically increases the richness of the game. It gives the Zerg/Terran an incentive to move out of the storm and equally means that the Protoss needs to place his storms well. In this way, you will be amazed through the perfect Storming/Storm dodging that the very best will be able to execute. This dynamic will turn Storm into spell which captivates audiences for years to come.
It should be noted that this dynamic already partially exists in the game. While on creep, Hydralisks fit the description I laid out above. They have sufficient speed to move out of the Storm yet leaving them in the Storm will cripple them. Obviously, this doesn't extend to when they are not on creep. Nevertheless, Terran completely lack this at the moment and hence tweaking things so that they do have this dynamic will only enrich PvT.
The baneling strikes fear into a Terran player's heart
The baneling is a unit that I feel Blizzard almost got right. The really unfortunate thing is that they made it so that the baneling always explodes and does damage. That way the viewer already knows what to expect and he knows that if the banelings get close then they’re going to do damage. Simply adjusting the baneling so that it deals less damage when killed changes this completely. It creates the tension and gives the other player a legitimate chance to minimise damage through good control. It means that the baneling becomes a unit whose effectiveness is determined by how skilled you are, as opposed to a unit you just right click into a battle and forget about.
The Force Field is a versatile spell capable of giving the Protoss a small edge in battle
Let's quickly go over some units and abilities which currently do not have “wow” potential and do not need it. The Force Field is an example of one sided micro – as in it’s strength is solely determined by how well you use it. Your opponent is completely helpless to defend against it, but that’s fine. This still creates a skill gradient amongst Protoss players and the other races have one sided micro abilities as well. Stim Packs are an example for Terran for instance – you’d be foolish to allow the other racers to counter Stim Packs (other than with other one sided micro abilities like Force Field) and using stim properly is a critical part of becoming a good Terran player.
The rationale behind these two abilities not needing “wow” potential is that they do not have such a profound influence on battle. Force Fielding well will give you an edge, but it will be a slight edge - not like a Fungal Growth which paralyses your units and deals 36 damage, that's a battle changing ability. By generalising this concept we can see other units/abilities which do not need “wow” potential - Point Defence Drone, Roach Burrow, Spreading your Creep well, Banshee harass etc. These elements need to be in the game, and should never be “wow” moment material to maintain the balance between “wow” and standard.
Time is running out
SC2 retail is about to hit the shelves and Blizzard really has done an amazing job at creating a game which is so well balanced and just so damn fun to play. The standard Blizzard philosophy “easy to learn, hard to master” has led to the creation of units with amazing potential. The Void Ray is a unit which is perfect in it’s design. Its effectiveness is solely determined by the skill of the controller and the skill of the defender. This dynamic is begging to be expanded to other units, and with a few minor tweaks a number of units can become units who generate “wow” moments. Not only does this increase the enjoyment for the viewer, but it also raises the skill cap and creates a richer game in the process.
The ideas presented here are just ideas. They are ideas that we feel have the right design philosophy behind them, but they are not restrictive in any way. The changes we suggested are designed to motivate players to micro and encourage control based counters to units as opposed to unit based counters. To beat a dead horse, if we look at the Void Ray one last time; while a Turret does counter a Void Ray really well, spreading three marines out so that fazing is difficult is a better counter since it is more flexible. These are the kinds of counters that should be expanded to more units, such as the baneling, and hence create more “wow” moments in the process. There are a multitude of different approaches Blizzard can take, we just hope they start exploring them really soon.
Blizzard gives us the tools to work with, and though it is up to us to discover and use these tools to their fullest potential, we can't do anything if the tools we receive are second rate. The analysis presented on the design of certain units and abilities identifies what makes a successful and entertaining unit. We can't lay about for 4-5 years only to wait find out that the units identified here were faulty all along. They must be perfect right at release to ensure Starcraft 2 is a universally successful game. Right now, we see real and tangible ways that the game can be improved without messing with the balance of the game at any level. So really, is there a single reason why we shouldn't try to improve it?
In the end, things will only change if you make a noise. Throughout TeamLiquid’s critique of the Beta we have desperately tried to demonstrate that “wow” moments are a good thing for the game. This article has shown you that some of these moments already exist in the game, and that with a few tweaks we can have “wow” moments across all matchups. Here at TL we want the game to be as good as it can possibly be, and with these changes, we believe it will live up to everyone’s expectations. We can only cause change if you make a noise, and we really do not have much time left.
So TeamLiquid, will you?
Many thanks to Morrow, once again, for all his assistance in formulating the ideas for this post. Also big thanks to my practice partners: nujgnoy, Infinity21, Saracen, Monokeros and Corinthos who played many many games against my Void Ray openings and were a large part in formulating the initial ideas for this post. Special mention to nujgnoy for being my test subject for the Phoenix-sac! And lastly, thank you for reading!
This post also commemorates my 20,000th post on TeamLiquid and 6000th PM sent. Here's to 20k more!