Attribution in Starcraft


Recently, I’ve lost interest in Hearthstone. Partly because I finally have access to Starcraft again, but mainly it’s because the game is not enjoyable anymore. This leads me to evaluate my own thinking (meta-cognition), and my train of thoughts moves to Starcraft. This is about seeing Starcraft from a different perspective through attribution.


I am not a fan of games that uncontrollable factors have too much implications on the outcome, so obviously I’m no fan of poker. I prefer chess. I’m sure people are aware that Hearthstone has much randomness and luck involved. At the same time, there is a certain degree of skill required. However, given the relative low skill ceiling, it’s hard to differentiate the best players from the good players. Of course, you can argue that when you play numerous games, the statistics will show. Sure, I do not deny that, but it also means that there is a dilemma in the positioning of the game. At one end, it’s fun for casual. The game is really well done for what it sets off to accomplish. Ironically, at the other end, its success also leads the community to “esport-lise” it. In my opinion, it does not have the depth to fulfill the competitiveness aspect of an esports game. (At least not yet)

What about those in the middle? Those who bother to go a little bit further than just have fun, and research on the game to gain an edge over the opponent. They are in an awkward position, since most of these players may not have the time to grind the games to offset the luck factors and show case their relative skills. I think I fall in this category.

To put it in another way, once you’ve reached a certain understanding of Hearthstone, the luck factor affects the game too much that the marginal difference in skill does not matter. This is quite frustrating for me. In order for me to “make sense out of the game”, I’ve to either shift myself down to be a casual or up to really keep playing many games. The game doesn’t feel rewarding psychologically. When I win, I don’t feel that I’m better than the opponent. Vice versa.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Hearthstone is all luck and no skill. It is just that I don’t enjoy playing it because it is not rewarding for me given the above reasons.

Controllable and uncontrollable factors

I guess this is the part that I’m different from many people. Most people like to play games that involve controllable and uncontrollable factors, because that will give them room to attribute the victory or defeat accordingly. (In case you do not know, I’m a PhD student in marketing (consumer psychology), so these things always lead me to relate back to academic related content.) First of all, people approach pleasure and avoid pain. In this context, people want the pleasure of victory, and avoid the pain of defeat. At the same time, people need to retain sense of self by making themselves feel good about themselves. Therefore, putting these together, people attribute victory to controllable factors and defeat to uncontrollable factors. For example, “I won because I executed the build well” and “I lost because my teammates made mistakes”.

This fundamental psychological aspect of self makes games like Hearthstone and League of Legends more popular to general public. These games provide more room for attributions to either controllable or uncontrollable factors. This is also one of the key reasons why chess is never a social game in general. It hurts people. Same reason why people do not [want to] believe in meritocracy. It hurts most of the time, because there is usually only one winner (or at least the minority).

Luck is always being pointed at during the attribution process. “I lose because of luck”. I am going to put forward my view on the concept, “luck”, through argument based on logic. defines luck as

the force that seems to operate for good or ill in a person’s life,
as in shaping circumstances, events,or opportunities

Based on this, it means that there is valence in luck. That is, there is good luck or bad luck. Going back to what I mentioned about controllable and uncontrollable factors, luck is uncontrollable, obviously. To put this in the context of gaming, luck should then be referred to things that can not be within control of the involved competing parties.

Luck in Starcraft

Is there luck in Starcraft? Or, in other other words, are there factors not within the control of the competing parties?

Think about this for a while.

Ok, let’s exclude hardware or internet issues.

Spawning location is the only thing that is not controllable. Then, why people don’t attribute spawning location for the results (at least extremely rare)? Spawning location actually matters more than many think it does. For instance, it is harder to rally push on cross spawn in a four players map.

Now, trace back to what I said about attributing defeats to things, which the players cannot control. What do Starcraft players attribute their defeat to? Most of the time it is the race. Recently, there is a controversial piece on Team Liquid regarding how inferior Terran is compared to Zerg and Protoss. Although the tone of the writers may seem more biased than necessary, his arguments are well sounded. In fact, there are many key facts brought up that really warrant attention. With that being said, racial balance does not equate to uncontrollable factors.

Balance is the most talked about thing in any competitive game. In Starcraft, balance is often about the races. Race A is imbalance, Race B is overpowered, Race C does not need skill etc… Indeed, the racial balance is important in an asymmetrical game like Starcraft. But the thing is that we play the game, not the race.

We play the game, not the race.

Yes, that’s the one line you need to know. The choice of the race I use is completely within my control. If I pick the weakest race, and I lose. It is not the race that lost. It is me who lost.

“But the game is imbalance!”

Whether there is a good balance among the races is a different question altogether, it is about the fact that you lose because your opponent did better than you based on the controllable factors. If you lose a TvP and think that Terran is inferior to Protoss, then pick Protoss. How many can walk the walk like Scarlett?

Next time when you lose a Starcraft game, remember that it’s you who lost and not the race. This is something that I always remind myself, albeit it is hard to keep cool after several frustrating games. If you think that it is too painful for you, then maybe Starcraft is not for you.


10 thoughts on “Attribution in Starcraft

  1. I have to agree that laddering is not fun and rewarding in Hearthstone – it is just too much of a grind. However, the competitive aspect of an eSports is very much intact in Hearthstone; players are being differentiated by their skills, hence you see the same players topping at various Hearthstone tournaments. This is largely due to the 3 Classes Bo5 tournament rule limiting the variance. In fact there’s plenty of top ranking SEA competitive Hearthstone players that are not in Legend simply due to the lack of time to grind; 150+ games in a month is a lot of games to play.

    I feel that there is a misconception that Luck and Skill are opposites. That is to say more Luck does not necessary equates to less Skill. You can have two games that are of the equal skill requirement, but with different luck variance. The problem in Hearthstone is not so much of luck but that the classes match-up and build of the deck far outweighs the gameplay; you could make all the sub-optimal moves but still win simply because your deck has the better match-up against the other deck. However, this is where the skill of reading the metagame and deck building comes into play. Unfortunately this skill set is being eclipsed by the current ladder system.

    tl;dr: Hearthstone laddering sucks, but it’s definitely competitive. Cheers! ;)

    1. It is not so much about luck and skill being opposites or even mutually exclusive. Rather, it is their relative impact on the outcome. That is, how much is being controlled by the players and how much is not. It is not logically possible to have the equal skill requirement with different luck variance, and yet the skill requirement of both games to have the same degree of effects on the outcome. You can conceptualise it as a percentage. Let say, chess is 100% skill + 0% luck. Starcraft is 99% skill + 1 % luck, for example. In short, it is the relative impact of skill and luck.

      1. That makes much more sense when comparing to the outcome. Ironically it is much more likely for a novice to win a grandmaster at Chess than Starcraft. The mechanical skill is so demanding that luck barely factors.

  2. Sorry for my english.

    I like your blog a lot, you make a great job for terran.
    But i think in TvP for the moment protoss have a big advantage if you consider the change between WOL and HOTS and the job of blizzard it’s to diminish that.

    It’s not a question of play the game and not the race. If you play the game terran will disapear and the interest of the game will diniminsh. Change race it’s impossible for all people. In all strategy game balance it’s the game!!! I played chess a lot, if you start the game without 1 pong you chance to loose the game it’s realy big because you opponent will base all the game on this lack.

    In reality David Kim are in trouble because found a solution for this problem it’s realy hard. How can you say this correction it’s realy the good one. To found terran have to play a lot, loose a lot to help Blizzard to analysed. In research it’s usualy the same problem, You test a lot before to found the solution and suprinsigly the solution it’s not something you can found with logic. Starcraft it’s a complexe system.

    1. I can understand where you are coming from, and I agree that Terran is slightly below par. However, the key thing I want to push out in this post is that winning in Starcraft is independent to the racial balance. Of course, that is based on my argument of controllable versus uncontrollable factors.

      1. the problem is you can’t hâve this argumentation when you have a imbalance between race in the game. SC2 have to be équilibrage in the 9 matchup. The skill of the player have not to be used for compensate weakneds of a race. but for win. if i have an handicap during a sport game and i loose it perhaps the handicap it just too big. i wrote on my phone…

  3. Very nice read Max!

    The main reason why I got into competitive Starcraft was that you could always figure out what went wrong. I was fascinated with the replay system. And it just occured to me that you could always figure out your mistakes.
    The more you play the more you get the attitude that you already know what went wrong and you don’t go ahead and check the replay.I observe myself doing this. But our perception is often not right and checking the replay would often present a whole different conclusion.

    In episode 100 Saun (Day9) Plott said something that really stuck in my head. He said in order to become a really strong player one must focus on scouting and crisp build order execution. You shouldn’t rely on your oponent not scouting or your build blind countering but in your abilities to execute your build better and reacting better than your oponent.

    It often feels unfair to me how many easy wins zergs and protosses can get against my standard terran build, But when I get into that toxic mindset I remind myself of that Day9 quote and go back to crisp build execution and scouting.

    1. My personal problem is definitely my unit control and execution. I do agree with you though in terms of opponent doing things to counter standard build. Terran has little tricks that can keep opponent from guessing, and that is basically the lack of options.

  4. This post is exactly what I have been telling imba QQ-ers: No one put a gun on your head to play your race. So if you think your race is underpowered and still choose to play it, then stop whining about it. It is your CHOICE.

    Personally I kept jumping races to the OP ones (Terran in WoL, Zerg in Queen Patch era, Protoss in Hots and now back to Terran).

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s