Order in the game!
Sun 7th Oct 2012 - 5:40pm: Starcraft II
A game of Starcraft II starts out innocently enough. You have six units, and all they’re good for is mining minerals. Simple stuff. Eventually, you produce a handful of units and things become just a tiny bit more complicated. Instead of only workers, you also have a dozen Marines, all produced off of two Barracks. They’re running around the map, peeking up ramps and shooting the occasional Zergling, but it’s not like they require much babysitting.
At some point over the next five to ten minutes, everything goes to hell. Now you have fifteen Barracks and 60 SCVs and if those Marines sit still for anything more than ten seconds unsupervised, you know there are banelings ready to blow them to pieces.
Starcraft II is a game of multitasking, and the trick to winning a late-game battle isn’t just great control, but keeping your units and buildings in order.
Have you ever lost a game, gg’d, then scratched your head in disbelief?
“I don’t get it,” you say to yourself. “I could have sworn my army was big enough to handle that.”
Then you look at the replay and see the reason you lost wasn’t because your army was too small, but because you did something stupid with it? Maybe you left all your tanks at home while you tried to attack, or failed to notice when half of your army decided it was going to chase after that one Zergling . . . through the incoming fire of a dozen Broodlords?
"What happened to that Infestor trap I set?"
"Oh . . . right."
It happens to the best of us, and while there’s no way to prevent it 100% of the time, there are proven methods to keep order on the battlefield.
If you are one of those brave souls who doesn’t use hotkeys, then congratulations. I have no earthly idea how you do it. Starcraft without hotkeys is like playing the guitar without hands. I guess it’s physically possible, but it’s an awful lot of trouble.
The natural follow-up question is “what do I hotkey?” and the answer is “everything”. Units, production structures, even upgrade structures (assuming you’re going for those upgrades) qualify. Hotkeying all your worker units usually isn’t necessary, but if you send one or two of them out onto the field with your army then giving those workers a hotkey is a good idea. Nothing is quite as aggravating as losing track of your probe when you're trying to build a forward Pyon.
Hotkey everything. Do it twice if you think it'll help.
Remember that it’s not enough just to have your army in hotkeys, but to have it in useful hotkeys. Zerglings and Mutalisks compliment each other as an army, but you don’t want to put them all in the same hotkey. Those two units will move around the map separately for large portions of the game, so keeping them together isn't helpful.
Roaches and Infestors, on the other hand, will usually move together, but are microed differently in battle. Since they require wildly different commands during a fight, keeping them in separate hotkeys will save you from worlds of trouble.
Control-Hotkey and Shift-Hotkey
As an addendum to the hotkey section, I should mention that there are two ways to hotkey units, Ctrl+Number, or Shift+Number. Control is the most common method. Everything you’ve selected is now the numbered hotkey. Extremely straightforward. If there were previously other units in the hotkey, they are supplanted by the new ones.
Using shift for hotkeys is just as useful, but not everyone knows how it works. By hitting shift and the number on your keyboard, everything you have selected is added to that hotkey. If you have 6 Marines in group 1, then press Shift+1 with 6 Marauders selected, your final group is twelve bio units.
The Control and Shift dynamic works the same way with buildings, buildings in production, units, Zerg eggs, and units that are warping in. Adding units and buildings to a hotkey the moment they start constructing is a real life-saver for me. If I have to wait, I forget things.
There are a million and one ways to screw up your rally points, but most of them happen when you start right clicking and don’t realize you have buildings selected.
Rallies are easy to place and easier to screw up. Even the Pros get it wrong.
Warp-ins and egg-specific rallies mean that Protoss and Zerg have it a bit easier than Terran in this department, but rally points are a part of all three races, so you should probably know what you’re doing.
The most natural rally point for your army is at your most defensive position. Usually, this is at a choke point or a place with easy access to all of your bases. When you only have two bases, rallying around the ramp just outside your natural is normally enough, but as you get more bases you might have to move farther out onto the battlefield to find a good position for defence. Defensive rallying means that even if your army is off on the other side of the map, your reinforcements are in position to mount some kind of defense against a counter attack.
If your army is forced to stay in one position, you normally want to rally just behind the bulk of your forces. Rallying everything into the middle of your army will sometimes work, but I’ve lost games because I rallied my Infestors, Colossi, or Ravens too close to the front of my army, where they were promptly destroyed the moment my enemy attacked.
Ideally, your army proper will be moving around the map. If it’s a slow army, maybe it’s steadily advancing. If it’s a fast army, maybe it’s darting back and forth across the middle of the map, looking to catch an enemy unawares. In either case, your rally points will change as your army moves.
I’ve seen players try to re-rally their reinforcements every time they move their army, and it seems like a good idea at first. If you keep up with the rallies, then your army stays whole and at max strength without forcing you to wait while large chunks of your army catch up. And maybe if you had pro-level control you could pull it off. But you don't.
What’s far more common when I try to constantly shift rally points is losing units. They sit in some forgotten corner of the map--or even worse--move blindly through an area that my enemy has now fortified. Either way, they’re not helping me.
You'll see the Pros do this all the time. It's helpful, but risky.
If I want to make sure my reinforcements are walking directly up to my army, I'll sometimes make my rally point a unit. This works well when I’m reinforcing squads of Mutalisks and Phoenixes since these units give you a great deal of map control and move quickly. If you control the map, the chances of these sorts of speedy units getting killed en route to their goal is practically zero.
The only downside to this method comes if your rally unit dies. Then all buildings rallied to the unit reset their rally points. For this reason, always opt for rally units with the highest survivability.
I’ll be the first to admit that I misuse rally points. When the game looks like it’s over and I want my next round of Marines to walk right into my opponent’s base, I’ll rally my barracks there. It’s easy and I’m lazy. That doesn't mean it's smart. Rarely are the things I do considered smart.
Look at your minimap whenever possible. It’s the only way to get a view of the entire field of battle simultaneously, and checking it constantly means you can see your units moving out of position before it becomes an issue.
Even though this is excellent advice (granted to me by players much better than myself), I’ll be the first to admit that it is one of the more difficult aspects of Starcraft II.
All shall be revealed . . .
In theory, it’s easy enough. Watch the minimap for signs of things going awry. If done correctly, your friends will think you’ve developed ESP. You’ll be able to see enemies before they have a chance to engage, and you’ll magically know when drops are coming (because they flew right past your Overlord).
In practice, however, looking at the minimap takes your attention away from your macro and micro, even if only for a split second. I remember what it’s like to play Starcraft as a beginner, and the idea that I had any spare moments to do something that isn’t build an army is laughable.
But keep playing, and try watching the minimap whenever you can. That won’t be very often at first, but as your hands get faster and your brain acclimates to the pace of the game, you’ll already be checking the minimap out of habit, and then you will have at your disposal one of the most important techniques to maintaining order in the heat of battle.
Good luck, and may your Marines never be caught unaware.