You may wonder, every once in a while: How do I get great at StarCraft II? I cannot answer that question. But I can at least tell you how to be decent at it.
I’ve been getting back into Blizzard’s seminal real-time strategy game recently, having played it on-and-off for the past eight years. While I haven’t recovered my peak 2010 skills, when I was playing in the Diamond league and watching Day9 Daily videos every morning before work, I have shaken off some of the rust and made my way to Platinum with both Terran and Protoss. (Platinum is just below Diamond, but above Gold, Silver, and Bronze.)
With enough practice, anyone can become decent at StarCraft II. Unlike most other esports, competitive StarCraft II doesn’t require a team, which means you don’t have to share any of the glory (or frustration). A game usually takes around 15-20 minutes, and there’s no downtime. It’s never taken me more than 20 seconds to find a new match. Also, Blizzard just made StarCraft II free-to-play, so the only thing stopping you from getting decent at the game is time.
If you do have that time, and you’re willing to put in the effort, here are some key tips I’ve accumulated over the years.
Learn all the units
This might seem obvious, but it’s not. Even if you’ve dabbled in StarCraft II, you might not be familiar with all of the new units and upgrades that Blizzard has added over the past eight years. If you stopped playing in 2014, don’t get caught off guard by a Viper or Disruptor. If you took a break in 2016, don’t try to load a sieged Siege Tank into one of your Medivacs.
If you’re totally new to StarCraft II, start off with the single-player campaign and play some rounds of multiplayer against AI opponents until you’ve mastered all of the basics. Before you can make any sort of progress on the ladder, you need to know how to counter a Roach army and you need to memorize the nuances of MULE dropping and Chrono Boosts. Play some unranked matches with all three races, just to get a feel for their tech trees and unit compositions. It’s up to you whether you want to get decent at all three or just stick with one, but you need to be able to recognize every unit in the game.
Watch lots of videos
The best way to learn how to play StarCraft II is to watch other people play it. You can learn a lot from pro matches, although the nomenclature for professional tournaments can be confusing. Team Liquid is a great site for keeping up with this stuff, thanks to their weekly roundup of news and matches. For starters, try this Team Liquid thread rounding up some of the best games of 2017.
Sean “Day9” Plott has stopped playing StarCraft II (RIP), which is too bad, because his “Day9 Daily” videos were the greatest resource for anyone who wanted to get decent at the game. They’re still good resources, but because they were made in 2010 and 2011, they’re full of outdated information. For a more recent take, check out the player Pig.
Memorize a few basic build orders
At the beginning of every StarCraft II match, you’ll have some key goals. You’ll want to get your economy started, you’ll want to build the foundations of your army, and you’ll want to expand to the resource patch right outside of your main base (this is called your natural). To do all this efficiently, follow a specific build order.
A typical Terran build order might look like this:
14 - Supply Depot
15 - Barracks (once done, send this SCV to scout your opponent’s base)
15 - Refinery
16 - Reaper (send to opponent’s base to harass his or her workers a bit)
16 - Orbital Command
19 - Command Center
20 - Barracks
21 - Barracks
22 - Supply Depot
23 - Bunker
The numbers on the left refer to your current unit supply count, with the assumption being that you’re pumping out workers the entire time in addition to these buildings and units. When you enter the game, start building SCVs. Once you’ve finished two of them, send one to build a Supply Depot near the entrance to your base. Then a Barracks. And so on, and so on.
Your build order can and should be flexible. Don’t be afraid to change things up if your opponent decides to go all in, or tries to build Photon Cannons in your base. It’s just useful to have a blueprint for where you’re heading.
Spend all your money
This might be the most important thing you can do in StarCraft II. If you are spending all of your money, the chances of you winning are significantly higher. If you’ve got more than 1,000 minerals in your bank, you’re doing something wrong (unless your army is already maxed out).
I was recently playing a Terran vs. Terran match against someone who kept getting the best of me. At one point his tanks caught my Marines out of position; another time, he successfully took out my harassing Liberators and Medivacs without losing a single worker. Despite these setbacks, I somehow wound up with a larger army than him, and I wound up winning. When I watched the replay later, I figured out why—my macro was better than his. It didn’t matter that I was losing the micro battle, failing to react properly during a few individual skirmishes, because I was better at spending money and ensuring that my production facilities were ALWAYS pumping out units.
This is not simple to pull off. When you’re focusing on scouting, harassing, or attacking your opponent, it’s easy to lose track of your Starports and Factories, or forget to upgrade. But if you want to get decent at StarCraft II, you have to spend all your money. Losing a few battles won’t hurt nearly as badly if you have a stream of fresh units trickling in.
In order to ensure you’re spending all your money, you’ll need to produce units without having to waste time zooming back and forth between your army and your base. The solution is a magical tool called the hotkey. Pressing CTRL and a number will assign any selected unit or building to that number. Pressing SHIFT and a number will ADD any unit or building to that number. This is essential. You can’t be decent at StarCraft II without hotkeys. Every building and unit also has built-in hotkeys that are very easy to learn. You can train SCVs with S, for example. So if your Command Center is set to 1, you need to get into the rhythm of hitting 1S every few seconds, to ensure you have a constant stream of workers.
I usually have my main armies set to 2 and 3 while my production buildings are set to 4 (Barracks), 5 (Factory), and 6 (Starport), but your mileage may vary. Just pick whichever hotkeys you’d like. The more you play, the better rhythm you’ll find. More than anything, StarCraft II is about muscle memory—if you’ve trained yourself to be building workers, army units, and upgrades constantly, you’ll wind up being decent at the game before you even realize it.
Scout, scout, scout
The next step in your quest for StarCraft II decency is learning what your opponent is doing. By this point you know how to counter units, so now it’s important to understand which of those units are coming, and when they’re going to show up. A single cloaked Banshee can decimate your entire base before you know it’s there, unless you had an observer in position to see your opponent’s Starport (with Tech Lab) so you could build Photon Cannons in preparation. Each race has its own best strategies for scouting, and once you’ve gotten the rhythm of your macro down, learn how to properly anticipate your opponent’s moves.
Expand while you attack
Here’s a good rule of thumb that I’ve picked up over the years: The best time to make third and fourth expansions is while you’re sending out an army. Your opponent will be too busy scrambling and defending, and won’t even think to harass your new bases, which gives you time to set up your economy and a few defense structures. Don’t be afraid to look away from battle for a second or two, to move workers around or build some new structures. Having a good economy, not perfect micro, is what will make you decent at StarCraft II. (The best players in the world, of course, can do all of these things at once. You are probably not one of them. Sorry.)
Watch your replays
StarCraft II is nice enough to let you go back and watch any match you’ve played, and you should really take up that offer. The best way to get decent at the game is to identify and eliminate your weaknesses, and the best way to do that is to watch your own games, even if it is painful to realize you accidentally left a siege tank sitting at the bottom of the map the whole damn time when you just needed to hold off that one group of Zealots, goddamnit.
Finally, stay calm
I recently played a match as Protoss against a particularly aggressive Terran player who caught me off guard with a big army of Marines just as I was getting up my second base. Instead of freaking out as he took out a bunch of my workers, I turtled up and calmly started making an army, setting up a chokepoint with Stalkers so he couldn’t get into my main. By staying focused and trying to salvage the situation, I won the game.
The biggest mistake you can make in StarCraft II is freaking out when something goes wrong. Things will always go wrong. You’ll always lose a few workers to your opponent’s harassment, and you’ll always lose a couple of battles that make you think that the game is over. Sometimes it is. If you take a deep breath, you stick with your macro, and you adjust to whatever challenges come your way, you might even be decent enough to come back and win.