The Importance of Strategic Depth in the Early Game
When LotV was released, it ushered in an era of great change. Gone were many of the things once viewed as detrimental to the game, such as a slower economy, which many thought encouraged 3 base turtling. They were replaced by a host of perceived improvements meant to foster faster, more dynamic and exciting gameplay for both players and spectators. Mech was a high profile victim of this change, as well as the mutalisk. The strength of early harassment options like the reaper and adept was increased to the point that the game became inordinately influenced by them. In recent times, the ability for Protoss to safely tech and expand has led to an increase in carrier usage - a composition lacking in interactivity. These are noteworthy metagame shifts but far from the most influential change LotV brought. The changes in starting worker count and mineral patches was a massive one. They completely altered how the game is played and what builds are viable. Besides encouraging earlier third bases and all further expansions, LotV removed a number of builds which served Starcraft well in the past.
Few people complained when the 6 pool and similarly aggressive builds were removed. The impact of its loss was far reaching, though. Even a year later the community struggles to attribute the decrease in viable builds to something which was heralded as such a positive. If nothing else the 6 pool was a vital element of strategic depth, something essential to Starcraft 2.
Section 1: Strategic Depth and How StarCraft 2 is Bettered By It
Every build in Starcraft is a compromise. Want to play a long game? Three hatchery before pool fits the bill. Want to stunt your economy slightly, but ensure your safety versus early attacks? Pool before hatch will make you impervious against aggression but put you behind against greedier openings.
No single build covers every situation and that’s part of the beauty of Starcraft 2. Build orders exist on a spectrum, the top end of which is characterized by the most economically greedy. Command center first, nexus first, and three hatchery before pool all have the express purpose of entering the midgame with the greatest economic advantage possible. They in turn are held in check by the opposite end of the spectrum, aggressive 1 base builds.
6-10 pools, the most extreme versions of proxy gateway(s), 11/11 rax and cannon rushes were unintentionally eliminated as a part of the LotV overhaul. Though replaced by other proxy builds and early strategies, the most frequently utilized being 12 pools in ZvZ, these builds do not carry the same threat due to the fact that players can get to stable footing much easier in LotV. The economic changes made greedy builds more conservative since there simply is not as much to gain from taking 3 hatches before pool.
While the aforementioned HotS strategies were nearly unscoutable, early timings like 3 rax reaper are detectable by traditional scouting. For example, in Game 6 of the WCS Grand Finals, Dark’s overlord arrived in time to scout all three of ByuN’s barracks while 2 of them were in production.
Another thing to note is the timings of these builds. Although proxy factories and robotics facilities are more common in LotV than they were in previous expansions, they arrive at a much later point in the game than 11/11 or even the nearly extinct proxy 4 gate. They have a place, but they do not counter economic greed as well as lower tech proxies or early pools.
Most importantly, these builds were incredibly effective. Executed properly, they had a respectable win rate against players who did not take measures to prepare themselves. They were not as fringe as equivalent builds are in the current incarnation of Starcraft. These builds were the glue that held the metagame together and although it has not completely vanished, said bond has weakened. This type of one base play made eschewing one’s defenses punishable by death.
Unfortunately these builds were removed with the introduction of LotV. They were a part of a larger change which had an unanticipated effect. Blizzard’s grand vision for the expansion limited the pool of build orders and homogenized openers by making economic greed overly viable.
Section 2: How Things Have Changed
These were the builds used in every game of GSL 2015 Season 3 (the final GSL of the HotS era) and GSL 2016 Season 2. “Build Archetypes” refers to things like command center first, 3 hatch before pool or stargate. An example of “build deviations” would be if a Protoss made oracles or phoenixes, or if a Terran included cyclones into their composition. Things such as medivacs, zergling speed or stalkers are not included in build deviations as they are present in an overwhelming number of compositions.
In TvT and PvP there was an increase in the number of deviations from HotS to LotV. This can be attributed to the introduction of new units (cyclone and adept respectively) which saw heavy usage in the early stages of the game. These new units offered little to no strategic depth, however, as they naturally fit into the existing matchup dynamics.
TvZ saw the most dramatic shift of any matchup. Due to faster mineral income and the increased strength of the reaper, the build spectrum shrunk massively. CC first disappeared almost entirely with the release of LotV, going from 18 appearances to 2. Reaper expands were also prevalent in HotS (11 instances) and there were 4 proxy builds. That number increased in LotV where reaper expands accounted for 80% of all builds.
In response Zerg were forced to narrow their openings. In HotS Zergs had the option (among several) to safely get a Spire before or after their third. This became incredibly difficult in LotV. 2 base spire all but disappeared in the new expansion. Zergs were forced to go hatch/gas/pool 77% of the time in order to defend terran aggression while generating a sufficient economy. Spending crucial money on these expensive units made it so Zergs were unable to tech as they had in HotS.
Nexus first builds all but disappeared in PvZ and PvT. In HotS PvZ, Protoss opened with nexus first 18 times, gate expands 11 and forge first 5 times. In LotV PvZ, Protoss opened with gate expand 22 of the 25 games played. Due to the emphasis on expansion and the tools available to other races, Protoss were forced to play this particular style 88% of the time.
Overall there was a decrease in the ratio of games played to build deviations. In addition, the most aggressive and greedy builds didn’t just occur less frequently – they became more conservative. With higher income rates from the beginning, players could establish their naturals with greater ease through what used to be considered “middle of the road” builds.
Section 3: But At What Cost?
LotV removed opportunities to make meaningful decisions in the early game. In HotS players had more options to begin with which led to more divergent tech paths later on. Colossi were always heavily used in PvT, but the routes by which players reach that tech varied heavily in HotS. They could make a robo before or after their third, accompanying it with a twilight for blink or dark templars, as well as opening with a stargate. When the gateway expand became empowered by the changes in LotV, there became no reason to do anything else. The risk/reward of build selection that was integral in HotS was replaced as the starting number of workers rose to 12. Where benefits could once be construed from opening nexus first or tech before expand, the safety and economic boost offered by the gate expand in LotV made those options unnecessary. The blink/warp prism tech path most commonly used in LotV was spawned from this development. This has changed as of late with players favoring phoenix/adept builds, but the same principle remains. Gate expand is still the most efficient way to reach the Protoss tech of choice.
The type of early builds mentioned earlier held everything in place. Viewed in a negative light by most of the community, they deviate from what is perceived as normal or optimal: by nature they are risks based on incomplete information. Additionally, they often cannot be countered in a conventional manner. Opponents must MacGyver patchwork solutions with whatever they have available. As a result, they’ve acquired the stigma of being last resort options for ‘bad’ players. While all of these are true to a certain extent, the fact that they cannot be dealt with in standard ways forces players to account for them in every game. Their openers need to adjust as long as the threat of 8 pool or proxy 2 rax is present.
The threat of unleashing one of these builds needs to be a constant thought in both players’ minds if they want to claim victory. The fact that they exist changes the risk/reward dynamic of the map pool. It is a big risk to go Nexus first on a 2 player map against Zerg simply because fast pool is available. What might otherwise be the default choice become a calculated decision.
As scenarios stemming from these early builds unfold, the consequences are magnified to the extreme. When working with limited resources single events have a much greater effect; an error that might be innocuous later on can singlehandedly spell defeat in the first 3 minutes. The sort of exchanges that occur in these situations test a player’s awareness and general understanding. Just as a base trade can highlight quick critical thinking, a 6 pool can do the same.
Well timed cheese is tinged with a certain romanticism. Like the real thing, it can be simple yet potent. Be it Maru battering INnoVation into submission on Heavy Rain or MVP clawing the GSL Finals away from the seemingly invincible Squirtle, early game rushes are part of our heritage as StarCraft fans. They are perfect examples of the glory that can arise when players force these strategies on to their opponent. Who could forget how sOs demolished herO’s confidence again and again with proxy gates? These moments stick with us, sometimes defining players for their entire careers.
Games such as Classic vs soO on Frost or Has vs Jaedong on Polar Night are also forever etched in our memories.
There are times when the risk is miscalculated. Zest’s cannon rush on Frost to open the GSL Finals against soO, INnoVation's 2 rax after Soulkey began his infamous comeback...cheese offers infinite chances for ridicule too. Regardless of whether they succeed, these builds serve a purpose. They diversify the pool of potential builds and create a broader experience where superior, more versatile players can thrive.
These builds can shift the momentum of an entire match.They can throw an opponent off in a way a mid game timing or prolonged victory never could. In the 2015 Starleague season 3 final between ByuL and herO, the latter relied on 2 base immortal builds to win the first 2 games. ByuL changed the tenor of the series in Game 3, directly countering his opponent with an early pool. He used both end of the build spectrum in this series, opening with 8 pool and 3 hatch before pool—a versatility unavailable in the current metagame. Maru vs Rain in the OSL final also followed this template. Maru was down 2-0 after losing in the late game as well as to a sharp timing attack. Needing a way to claw back into the series he opted for a proxy 2 rax, which caught Rain off guard and kickstarted his comeback. Builds like these can resonate through an entire series.
One of the particularly noteworthy features in LotV was overwhelmingly powerful economic harass. Due to the new economy, early damage became influential in a way it never was in LotV. Early adept pressure, marine drops, liberators, banshees and oracle could effectively end games with ease. In HotS players had an easier time recovering, but in LotV, where the speed at which economies grew was accelerated, this early damage was completely devastating.
The longer LotV exists, the more players will utilize aggressive builds despite them having diminished since HotS. Simultaneously, the inertia generated by the economic changes is extremely strong. The stagnancy in the metagame will not change simply because players want it to. As long as players have access to stable economic builds and early units that can force defensive postures from their opponents, the breadth of builds will remain small.
Section 4: A Problem Even Overgrowth Can’t Solve
Even a year after the introduction of LotV, the breadth of builds is still far narrower than it was in HotS. Despite players having made adjustments and gained a better understanding of the new expansion, the new economic model has not yet shown a capability to foster the varied play seen towards the end of HotS. The 6 pool and its compatriots had an important role in that varied play. Their loss, combined with other factors mentioned earlier are the primary reason why the number of builds decreased from HotS to LotV. This created games that eerily mimicked one another.
As builds and strategies blended together into one unspectacular mass, the number of eye-catching games decreased. Similar scenarios played out ad nauseum as players were given no choice but to play the same stale styles over and over again. Instead of the varied builds used in HotS, games became dictated by difficult-to-counter economic harassment stemming from a few builds. It was not just players who were robbed of a robust gaming experience. It was the fans who never witnessed the exciting gameplay which had been promised when LotV replaced HotS.
Editor: CosmicSpiral, munch, Olli