The balance discussion recently has placed the focus on TvP and PvZ for good reasons, but little attention has been given to the good state of TvZ. I will discuss the healthy metagame of the TvZ match up in this article (mainly from the perspective of Terran).
The community is never shy of letting their opinion known when a match up is considered imbalance, but the same people do not give a fair share of credit when the balance is good. The current win rate is 52% vs. 48% in Terran’s favor, which is as good as it can get practically most of the time. The purpose of this post is not to discuss the balance of the match up in terms of win rate, but to look at how healthy the metagame of the match up is. People often use quantitative evidence to reinforce the argument for balance issue (reasonably so), but the dynamic of the metagame is unintentionally considered as something independent to balance. David Kim once implied in an interview (I couldn’t find the link) that the game balance designer’s job is not simply to ensure the win rate of both sides to be of 50% or close, and s/he should ensure the interaction is interesting. Thus, I want to discuss the “health” and not the quantitative balance of the TvZ, and more specifically, how both sides have good options and counter plays that can be enjoyable.
Starcraft is more comparable to snooker than to bowling in terms of its PvP nature of how a player’s choice directly affects the other player’s. Thus, everything in Starcraft has to be evaluated in relative to the opponent. The same logic can be applied to the type of options selected by the player, and the same choice can put a player in different relative positions based on opponent’s choice. There is this rock-paper-scissors thing in Starcraft, and that is, attack > economy > defence > attack. The key is how each position can be applied in a relative sense (a topic that I have included in The Elementary Series). Let’s use a simple one Barracks Reaper expand for example in TvZ, and by default it is more of an “economy” than a “attack” or a “defence”. If the Zerg player uses a one base all-in, which is obviously an “attack” and that beats “economy”, the Terran player has to shift its role from “economy” to “defence” in order to win the rock-paper-scissors. Assuming the Terran always come out behind of the trade because of the initial “attack > economy” and this happens a lot, it is only normal that Terran will start changing to builds that are “defence” to beat the “attack”. This then turns into a metagame with Zerg using “economy” builds to beat Terran’s “defence”.
When a race beats another by using more or less the same option, the other race has to find a counter. In my opinion, this cycle of finding a counter in options is what many people mean when they say “figuring things out”. While it is interesting and healthy that both sides constantly figuring things out to beat each other as time goes by, there is almost always a forerunner in options. That is, players do not always mix in a wide range of builds, because there is usually one or two builds that define the metagame.
To my surprise, I have observed both Terran and Zerg have used a wide range of builds recently, and there is no real forerunner in options (at least for the time being). I will have a quick summary of the metagame since the early Legacy of the Void days, before I get into the options we see now.
Legacy of the Void before 2017
Beta and late December 2015
The early metagame was revolving around Zerg’s then new toy: Ravagers. Terran found it difficult to play against Roach and Ravager’s “attack” builds as they often used then-updated “economy” builds from Heart of the Swarm. Along with the mix of invulnerable Nydus Worm, Zerg’s powerful “attack” options only resulted in Terran picking “defence” builds, for example, defensive Tank and Banshee build.
This “defence > attack” situation then promoted Zerg to use “economy” options to get ahead against Terran’s “defence” options. This was also when the famous 2-1-1 5:00 timing build was designed to beat Zerg’s “economy” options. I have discussed how this 2-1-1 build affects the metagame when I first wrote about it, and I ended it by saying “it is a great addition to the metagame.” This also showed that I implicitly did not think the build would turn out to be the build of the metagame, and I ended up writing four articles on the build. After Zerg had experimented different ways to deal with it, the metagame settled down with Zerg neutralising the timing and both sides came out even. Of course, the multiple Barracks Reaper build was a popular option, but it still took the back seat of the metagame. Along the way, there were some interesting innovative builds, for example, TY’s sky Terran, but none really got adopted by the majority of the population.
A sign of the stagnate metagame was Terran skipping Scv scout, as Zerg were using Hatchery-Gas-Pool standard build every game. This assumption resulted in Zerg mixing in different openings to get ahead. A simple example is Spawning Pool before Hatchery that sneaks two Zerglings to Terran’s side of the map, and uses them to kill the Scv that is building the Command Centre. Terran would send the Reaper back immediately once the Reaper saw the Hatchery timing at the natural was later than normal as it suggested that Zerg was pulling this delay Command Centre trick. Later, between December 2016 and January 2017, Zerg further made use of this to go for a three Hatchery before Spawning Pool build by building the first Hatchery at the third and the second Hatchery at the natural. The Reaper would scout the late Hatchery at the natural, and went back to defend against the two Zerglings instead of killing Drones against a “pool-less” Zerg. Clearly, Zerg get ahead from this exchange, and it is this mixture of openings that start a new TvZ metagame now.
Zerg are using Gas-Pool-Hatchery opening a lot more common now than they used to two months ago. Although the opportunity to sneak two Zerglings to delay the Command Centre is always there, it is the actual builds used from this opening that is of interest. The two vods below are recent examples of Roach builds from a Gas-Pool-Hatchery opening.
In the two vods above, both Terran players did not go for the 2-1-1 build, but I want to point out that this Roach Ravager build is strong against it. Although I intentionally select the newest vods to demonstrate the current metagame, I will link the IEM Gyeonggi vod between ByuN and Dark as an example of how this build interacts with 2-1-1 below. It is important to note that a Gas-Pool-Hatchery opening does not necessarily mean it is a Roach Ravager attack, as it can also be a more standard build with Zergling speed (recent example 1 and 2).
The discussion so far may get you thinking that 2-1-1 may be cycled out of the metagame, and that is not the case. It is still an important build in Terran’s arsenal now, and some players also improvise on the execution to enhance its effectiveness. In the vod below, aLive split up the first two Medivacs to attack two different locations.
What non-2-1-1 builds are Terran using then? Generally speaking, Terran have been revisiting some of the old builds. For example, Reactor Hellion into quick three Command Centres that was extremely popular in the early Heart of the Swarm days. This was not the first time we have seen this build in Legacy of the Void as INnoVation had used it a year ago when Legacy of the Void was still fresh. He again used this build in three of his four GSL Ro32 games (he advanced with a total score of 4-0), see the three vods below.
I want to point out that the above quick 3CC build should not be mixed up with a 1-1-1 variant 3CC build. The defining difference is how quick the third Command Centre is with the quick 3CC build as silly as it may sound, it starts before the Factory and second Command Centre complete. This can only be done if you do not take a second Refinery when the Factory is building, and those 1-1-1 variant builds usually have a second Refinery. By 1-1-1 variant builds, I am referring to the use of a flexible set up of having one Reactor and one Tech Lab with the standard 1-1-1 on two bases, and you have many options from there. I will just select some vods to show how flexible it can be. The first vod below uses Hellion Liberator, the second uses Hellion drop, the third uses Widow Mine drop, the fourth uses Hellion Viking with early Stim, and the fifth uses Hellion Banshee.
In the vods above, you can tell that Zerg make a conscious effort to send an Overlord with speed to scout, and the add-on placement is a big telling sign of the choices Terran made. On the other hand, it is obvious that Terran try to push the Overlord away and switch up the add-ons to catch opponent by surprise. The mind game can also be more subtle, for example in the fifth vod, Ryung cancelled the Banshee for Viking and continue with cloak research, then get a delayed Banshee after that.
Another obvious trend is the come back of Reactor Hellion. I often mention in the TvZ articles of the early Legacy of the Void days that Reactor Hellions have moved from being a “staple” to being a “good choice”. That was because the metagame was dominated by Roach and Ravager in the early game, so the Hellion opening was replaced by bio-oriented builds like 2-1-1 and multiple Barracks Reaper. You can argue the metagame has gone a full circle that Reactor Hellion is an option again.
The Terran options I discussed so far are mainly “economy” or “defence” by default, and there are also “attack” options used in the recent games. The vods below are some examples of that, the first uses a Hellbat timing and the second uses a multiple Barracks Reaper.
The metagame is so healthy that other forgotten options like Reactor Hellion into two base 3-1-1 timing has resurfaced recently. It is considered the norm to put down the third Command Centre before converging back to a 3-1-1 set up in TvZ, and this build defies this norm for a timing attack. It was popular for a period of time in Heart of the Swarm, and there was also a Hellbat version later. Below vod is an example of such build used recently, and I want to be critical of Cure’s choice to go for 1-1-1 before putting down the second and third Barracks for this build. As discussed earlier, you can put down a third Command Centre before the Factory and second Command Centre are done, so you can put down two more Barracks in the same time frame. The Starport is rather meaningless until you produce two Medivacs with Reactor to line it up with Stim research, and the two earlier Barracks definitely make the timing a lot stronger. As you can see in the vod, the Starport made a Viking, and then it basically idled there.
In the above vod, Leenock was using a two base Mutalisk build, which is refreshing in the metagame. It was popular for a period of time last year, but I think Queen’s buffed anti-air range may have overlapped with part of this build’s strength. Below vod is another example. This shows that both Zerg and Terran have a good range of options.
It is not often that we see a healthy metagame with both sides have a range of builds in their arsenal. More importantly, they are all playable against each other in such a way that there will not be a true build order lost, and it is just build order disadvantage at best. Overall, Terran’s builds are moving away from bio-oriented to be more tech-oriented, as we can see from the resurgence of 1-1-1 variants. However, based on experience last year, a “flexible middle of no where” build is a sign that a new innovative strong build will immediately become the metagame defining build as we have seen with the 2-1-1.