There seems to be a tendency of over-scrutinising and over-comparing build orders when they aren’t that different, yet some important implication differences are overlooked. This post is about my opinion on this issue.
Opening versus build order
Let’s start with the question, what is build order? How is it different from opening?
It is basically a notation of what to build at what time. It can be compared to chess notation, except you only record one player since Starcraft is not a turn-based game. The way I differentiate build order and opening is that an opening is part of a build order. To put it simply, opening is the starting part of a build order.
The reason I prefer to conceptually separate build order and opening is due to the building block nature of Terran mechanics. You can mix and match different blocks and call it a “new build order”. The opening is essentially the first “block”. For example, in TvP, a Command Centre first into three Barracks versus Reaper expand into three Barracks. Both builds will move towards the same build order convergent point of having two Command Centre and three Barracks, but one starts with a Command Centre first while the other opens with a Reaper. Strictly speaking, the build order is different, but it’s the opening that is different if you want to be precise. Therefore, it is important to know every opening and it allows you to read and learn build order much quicker. If you tell me the opening and the key build order convergent point (e.g., three Barracks), I can do the build just like that without looking at a build order.
Differences in implications
Clearly, the two openings mentioned above have different pros and cons, and the differences generally do not affect your game plan. The opening choice can be due to metagame. For example, in TvP, let say Protoss always go for one Gateway Mothership Core expand into Robotic Facility, and hence, a Reaper opening does get much value from the scouting information. Thus, it is wise to go for a Command Centre first to get an economical edge by forgoing the scouting value from the Reaper. Next, you can just do the same thing, if you like three Barracks standard play, you can do it with either opening. This explains why proplayers vary their openings depending on map size, but everything else just seems so normal and similar.
However, sometimes people over-simplify certain build order differences by taking a mental short cut, or perhaps it is just a lack of understanding in general. Going back to the same TvP example, a three Barracks convergent point can result in different build orders with truly different implications. You can go for a standard variation by teching up after you started stim upgrade, or you can go for multiple upgrade and hit a 9:00 timing with a big bio ball. The difference between these two three Barracks variations is much bigger than the Command Centre versus Reaper expand in terms of build order implications. Interestingly though, these two three Barracks variations are often mixed up and are just called 3rax in general. Conversely, the differences in openings that lead up to the same three Barracks variation with two different openings are often overstated.
Of course, sometimes the minor opening differences can have implication to the build order you do. I shall use my last post about defensive Banshee in TvZ as a starting point to get my argument across. The build is about getting an early third Command Centre with Hellion and Banshee. As mentioned in that post, you can do that with any opening, but some openings just line up the build order smoother in terms of resources.
Reaction and adjustment
Next, I will touch on something that is probably on your mind right now, how do reactionary move interact with build orders? Starcraft is much more dynamic than simply executing your own preplanned build order, and we are likely to make adjustments according to the information we gather in a game. Consequently, it’s important to have a good understanding of convergent points (read my previous articles on this topic: part 1 and part 2).
The reason I brought this seemingly intuitive topic up is that it is crucial to differentiate whether certain things done are in accordance to the build order or they are reactions and adjustments. Some are relatively obvious, like cutting unit production for a quick third Command Centre after you have scouted that opponent is going for an economical build. But some are less obvious and can even be argued to be a build order. For example, I have discussed about how Maru went for mass Widow Mine drop in response to a Stargate.
This game garnered lots of attention in its own right for novelty, strategic and entertainment reasons, and people are asking about the build order. My first post on the current Widow Mine drop has been cited frequently in conjunction to this game, and some of the things mentioned are not exactly accurate. This is because Maru was arguably switching from one build to another in the middle of the game. Although both builds are Widow Mine drops, their build orders and implications are quite different.
Strategic versus opening differences
So far I have been differentiating build order differences in terms of strictly notation (opening differences) and implications beyond build order itself. There are also midgame build order differences that are related to opening or strategic reasons. A good strategic midgame build order difference is whether to put down the 4th and 5th Barracks or the 3rd Command Centre after you have reached the two base TvP convergent point with three Barracks and Starport for bio and Medivac. Clearly, notation wise, they are different build orders, but the difference is mainly on the subsequent strategic and tactical approach. The earlier Barracks gives you more units to be aggressive for the certain time frame, while the earlier third Command Centre gives you a stronger economy heading into the midgame. Of course, there is much more depth to this than what one usually takes at face value, but sometimes the sequence of these buildings is simply down to the opening and not so much of a strategic decision.
The classic three Command Centre build that INnoVation loves in TvZ at the beginning of Heart of the Swarm is the perfect example for this. It goes by having reactor Hellions and three Command Centre, with stim researching. The next part of the build is to put down two Barracks and two Engineering Bay, and transit into bio production. It seems to me that people read too much into whether the two Barracks or the two Engineering Bay are placed down first. “He’s getting greedy by putting the Engineering Bay down before the Barracks for the earlier upgrade”. The argument that I want to put forward is that the sequence of these buildings is down to the opening you used for this three Command Centre build. If you go for a double Reaper expand, it is better to put down the Barracks before Engineering Bay. On the other hand, if you go for a Command Centre first, it is better to put down the Engineering Bay before the Barracks. This is because of the bio production transition at that time. The standard and arguably the best way to transit into bio production is to lift the Factory up and build a Reactor on it, then build two Barracks with one on the Reactor that the Factory was using and the other next to the Factory (swap onto the Reactor after that). Let say you go for a standard six Hellion production, you will do the Factory lifting and putting down the Barracks after the 3rd pair of Hellions are out. The difference between a double Reaper and a Command Centre opening is that you have more mineral to put down two buildings before the 3rd pair of Hellions are done when you go for Command Centre first. Thus, you can afford to put down the two Engineering Bay down before you build the two Barracks for the bio transition that I just mentioned, so you will not bank up the mineral. In contrast, if you open up with double Reaper, you don’t have that extra mineral, so the transition is smoother by putting the Barracks down first. Therefore, this build order difference is down to the opening difference and not strategic choice.
There are other build order variations that are meant to mix things up. I will use my last post about defensive Banshee in TvZ as an example again. The build is about getting an early third Command Centre with Hellion and Banshee, so the build involves getting three Command Centre and 1-1-1.
The discussed defensive Banshee build gets one Banshee without cloak and one Viking, while other aggressive variations can have a delayed cloak research and continue Hellion production like the vod below.
In fact, you can play around with the resources you have by shuffling the Armory and cloak upgrade. You can put down an Armory for a delayed Hellbat Cloaked Banshee attack (delayed because of the early third Command Centre), or you can skip cloak and just get Armory for Hellbat Banshee attack. The opportunity cost is always how much you delay the bio transition. The 100 gas invested in Armory and/or cloak can otherwise spent on stim upgrade.
This Banshee three Command Centre has become one of the main metagame builds, and hence, it is no surprise that Zerg are catching up. Zerg will sacrifice an Overlord to scout the third Command Centre and the Starport, and they will know you are likely to be doing this build. In response to this metagame thinking, it is normal to mix things up and for the Medivac, Marine and Hellion attack.
This switches the role of Terran from being defensive to become aggressive. It is hard to have the resource to get an Armory to line up with the Medivac because you only have one gas. Anyway, just to be comprehensive, here is another build that allows you to go for a Hellbat, Marine and Medivac attack.
As shown in the two vods above, this is not a three Command Centre build, but it is an refined version of the 7:00 Hellion, Marine and Medivac attack. You basically do the exact same thing, but you add a second Refinery for the Armory. If you don’t get the second Refinery, you do not have the gas to put down the Armory early enough to line up with the timing that your Medivac reaches the opponent side of the map. Look at the vod below, FanTaSy only took one gas, and the attack commenced before Armory has completed.
All in all, some of these builds are truly different (two base Hellbat Medivac attack versus three base defensive Banshee), while some are simply just variations (Continue Hellion and Banshee productions). More importantly, some of these minor differences can have important tactical implications.
This post requires a certain degree of general understanding of build order to digest. The main point I want to get across is that build order differences go beyond just notation, and sometimes the key implication differences are overlooked. Often, I see build order posts on forums and sites that discuss and compare builds without touching on what the important distinctions are. Overall, this is my take on some of the things to consider when discussing build orders.