Starcraft Soapbox: Learning How to Off-Race Protoss Style

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In case you haven’t been paying attention, we’re in the era of Protoss.  Protoss v Protoss Finals, even Semis and Quarters, are a regular occurrence in professional tournaments.  Global StarCraft League commentators Tasteless and Artosis jokingly wished for sixteen Protoss players in the GSL Round of 16 this season. Although Zerg star Soo recently broke through, denying that possibility, there was more than a hint of truth in their jest. Even last night, despite a valiant effort from Polt to deny Protoss hegemony, Liquid Hero took home another victory for the futuristic alien race at the epic IEM tournament in Cologne.

Terran and Zerg fans suffering on the ladder often cite these recurring professional results, crying out imbalance and blaming their own poor win-rate on design flaws in the game. A common Protoss response: “Quit your QQ’ing noob. Don’t like your race? Switch and shut up!”

To be fair, many players who complain don’t have the top tier mechanics necessary for their play to be truly affected by the tweaks of balance that David Kim agonizes over weekly. I’ve never cried ‘imba’ myself.  I know there’s still more for me to improve in my TvP before I blame the game for my defeats. That said, I’ve always been curious to try out a new race. Would it suit my play style better? Would it be more fun? Would I (ahem) win more?  Above all, how hard would it be to switch? Would I be as clueless as I was when I first started? Or would I have transferable skills from my main race that would give me a head start? I decided to find out.

Where to start?

Despite the fact that Blizzard has made it clear that a nerf is in the works, I chose to try Protoss. I know I’m late to the party. Switching now feels a little like buying the last seat on the Titanic, or perhaps investing in a vacation home before the subprime crisis broke. But, even if Protoss is nerfed to the ground, or if the race proves challenging to master, at the very least, I figured, I’d learn a bit more about how to beat it when I returned to Terran.

Starting over can be intimidating. Learning not just new builds, but entire styles of macro and even basic hotkeys, is hard.  I knew I needed help.  FilterSC is a community figure who really helped me get a better understanding of Terran. His videos on fundamentals and playing standard macro games improved my play a great deal. I knew he had a series of videos about Zerg and maybe Protoss too. His channel was the first place I looked.

FilterSC ‘did’ start a series on Protoss, but he didn’t get very far. Unfortunately, the last video he made was a farewell to StarCraft II, lamenting balance problems at the highest levels. He had just switched to Protoss, and in a few weeks he’d far surpassed the MMR that had taken him three years to develop as a Master’s league Terran. And that was just playing longer Macro games; he hadn’t even factored in the vast array of all-ins at Protoss’ disposal. This uneven state of the game apparently demoralized the hell out of him and he quit.

I was sad that Filter had stopped playing the game, and disappointed that there wasn’t more on his channel that could help me in my Protoss ambitions. At the same time, I was intrigued by those all-ins. As guilty as I felt for my switch to the dark side, I wanted access to all the power that came with it. But was I willing to become a cheesy player for the sake of easy victory?  Moreover, if I documented those powerful all-ins in this column, wouldn’t I be making things even harder for Terran and Zerg?  I mulled it over as I continued my research.

The Heart of the Swarm videos FilterSC made on Protoss are very basic, outlining a simple practice drill for taking down the Elite AI. The goal is to produce only Probes and Zealots, and he sets achievable benchmarks by which you can measure your progress.  I followed his drills three or four times and found that, apart from sometimes forgetting the new hotkey for workers and being pretty clumsy with the chronoboost, I was able to get the hang of macroing against the AI pretty quickly.

If you’re completely new to Protoss, or if you’re a new player learning how to macro, it’s definitely worth checking out Filter’s videos. They help you get into the swing of efficiently producing large numbers of units. However, I knew that if I ventured out onto the ladder with mass Zealot, I’d get murdered. I needed real builds.

Choices, choices…

My first thought was to learn a powerful all-in for each matchup. This seemed like an easy path to victory that I could practice quickly and easily on ladder, while harnessing some of the advantages of Protoss that inspire so much complaint. It offered the promise of easy wins.  I also thought it would give me a chance to work on my micro and develop a different aspect of my game.

The more I considered that plan, the less appealing it seemed. I’d never been a cheesy player. While all-ins have an important place in the competitive game, I never understood those guys who practiced a single cheesy build, day in day out, on ladder. It seemed like a narrow approach to StarCraft II, abandoning its potential for deep multilayered strategy in favor of a dice roll.

Win or lose, I decided I was going to learn to play a safe, macro-focused style of Protoss. I felt that this would help deepen my understanding of the race and the game.  I searched for a standard and versatile build that I could use across all three matchups, like Terran’s ubiquitous Reaper Expand.

The builds

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I quickly learned that such a thing doesn’t really exist for Protoss. While the 1 Gate Fast Expand (1 Gate FE) is a popular safe economic build verses Terran, the Forge Fast Expand is the build of choice vs. Zerg (FFE) because of the ability of cannons to fend off early lings. PvP is very volatile and favors early aggression and micro.  While I still feel most out of my depth in that match up, I opted for a 3 Gate Blink build that seemed safe but offered the opportunity to either be aggressive or to expand depending on the situation.

As the understanding dawned that I would have to learn three entirely new matchups (even PvT was unfamiliar, despite my having played the other side countless times), I started to realize this was not a light undertaking. There was no way I was just going to be able to do some FilterSC drills and then hit the ladder. This was going to take practice. Lots of it.

Refusing to be discouraged, I started with PvT and practiced the 1 Gate FE listed here against the AI.

9 – Pylon

13 – Gateway

15 – 1st Assimilator

16 – Pylon

18 – @100% Gateway, start Cybernetics Core

19 – Zealot and Pylon

23 – @100% Cybernetics Core, start 1st Stalker and Warpgate Research

28 – @100 Gas, start Mothership Core

@400 Mins, start Nexus

I tried to hit the benchmarks of having 1 Zealot, 1 Stalker, a Mothership Core and 24 Probes by the time I started my Nexus at around 4:40.

It’s a standard opener and you can transition into pretty much anything afterwards.  And that’s where the real problems started. I fumbled my way through the build a few times and started to hit those markers, but I quickly realized I had no idea where to go from there. I tried to build as much stuff as I could using basic fundamentals, trying hard to spend all my money and not get supply blocked.

I built tons of Stalkers. I even managed to get a Twilight Council down to research Blink and I performed a clumsy all-in at around eighteen minutes. In another game, I built multiple Colossi and marched across the map to laser my opponent’s marines to dust. It was really, really fun. I got to try out the toys, but the game could have been over twice by the time I moved out.  Every move I made was awkward and slow, and if I’d been up against a human player, I’d be dead. I had a long, long way to go before I’d be anywhere near competitive.

Takeaways

Gateway

I was reminded about how much I know and take for granted about my main race.  I don’t just know the Reaper Expand by heart, but many other openings as well as a number of different follow-ups for each matchup. But it’s not just the builds, its also an internalized understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each unit, of their synergies and optimal compositions. I know how to micro them. I know how many of them I need to take a fight.  These are all things that I knew without knowing I knew them.

The second lesson, which is really the flip side of the first, was that even though I might be able to grapple with the basic mechanics of Protoss, I really knew nothing about the race. I understand how Warpgates work, but I have no understanding of the rhythms of their use, no internal timer that keeps track of the cooldowns. While I know how to make the Stalkers blink, I have no feeling for how close I need to be to a cliff to make sure the entire group makes it up to the high ground.  While I understand what chronoboost does, I more or less have to improvise its use.

Confronting that lack of knowledge in game is unsettling, but exciting. There’s a feeling of experimentation that comes with even the most basic troop movement or engagement. And while I see a lot of humiliating defeats in my future, the game feels fresher than it has in a long time.  If you’re looking for a way to inject new life into this game, then I encourage you to try another race. Maybe even follow along with this column and try Protoss with me. I can’t say it will be easy, but it will be fun.

Next week, I’ll be practicing my chosen builds for the other two match-ups, then taking my ineptitude onto the Korean ladder working my way up from Bronze. It’s called throwing yourself in at the deep end and I invite you to witness my humiliation.

About James Windeler

James first played games on his older brother’s cassette-loaded ZX Spectrum. He’s a StarCraft II aficionado and writer. He wishes his macro was better.