TvT: Is Cyclone Evil?

Cyclone defines TvT early game. But is Cyclone healthy for the match up?

Background

In Heart of the Swarm, TvT is the match up where Terran have much freedom to do whatever they want in the early game. You can make almost any unit you like (with just a few exceptions), because each unit can be useful in its own way. The flexibility and seemingly lack of structure make this match up hard to grasp for lower league players.

However, in Legacy of the Void, there is a clear “best” option in the early game. In 2016, Tankivac was so superior in the early game that players do not opt for any other option. Now, Cyclone has become the commanding unit in TvT early game after its redesign in patch 3.8. No unit can reasonably compete with Cyclone in the the early game head on.

Unit design

Blizzard redesigned Cyclone in patch 3.8 for it to have a completely different role to what it had before.  This is the explanation for the redesign proposal back in August 2016:

We are planning to explore a complete redesign of the Cyclone to make it a core unit with a powerful anti-armored attack against ground units. The unit will remain fragile for its cost, but will have a fast movement speed. This way, the Cyclone can combo well with the Hellion early-on in order to defend additional bases or to keep the opponent contained while playing a more aggressive style.

Put it simply, the redesign aimed to turn Cyclone into a fragile mobile unit that has a high damage output. The redesign is heavily influenced by Blizzard’s intention to make mech stronger in the early game. To be fair, the new Cyclone created a new way of playing mech in TvZ. However, the unit’s actual strengths and weaknesses do not appear to work as intended in the context of TvT early game. Cyclone is less mobile than Hellion and Reaper, and it is arguably the least fragile Terran unit in the early game. In practice, Cyclone is a powerful high damage output unit that is reasonably mobile.

Cyclone was further improved in patch 4.0. Its basic stats remain the same, but its anti-air lock-on ability was buffed slightly.

Influence in early game

Patch 3.8

Before patch 3.8, there were two main builds in TvT (exclude proxy Reaper):

After patch 3.8, these two builds were improved by including the new Cyclone:

Let’s start by discussing the double gas aggressive build (2B). This opening gets two Refineries early on, and produces a Cyclone at the earliest time possible. This early Cyclone along with the two Reapers could deal game ending damage if the opponent was not prepared for it. If the opponent is using the then most commonly used Reaper expand 1-1-1 (1A), s/he would only have a Reaper, a Hellion, and a pair of Marines. Two Reapers and a Cyclone would easily win the battle. Even if you sort of hold against the Reapers and Cyclone, you do not have enough against the follow up Banshee. This aggressive build (2B) basically pushed for a revolution in TvT early game.

To counter this early timing, players adapted by building a Cyclone of their own when they go for a conventional Reaper expand (1B). The 2B build has an earlier Factory than the 1B build, so naturally 2B has an earlier Cyclone than 1B. The earlier Cyclone of 2B takes time to travel to the opponent’s base, and the Cyclone of 1B would be out by the time the timing hits. The two vods below show how the timing of the two builds line up against each other.

 

The adjustment to produce an early Cyclone (1B) to match the opponent’s (2B) has important implications. The player using 1B does not put down the Starport immediately after the Factory, because the resource is spent on the Cyclone instead. That is, the player does not go for a 1-1-1 in favor of an earlier Cyclone. This choice shakes up the fundamental understanding of TvT early game! The timing of the Starport used to dictate the flow of the match up, as the player who had the earlier Starport has the priority to be the offender. The player who had the later Starport did not have a choice and has to be the defender automatically. Hence, not putting down the Starport immediately after the Factory is a huge cost. This adjustment highlights the power of Cyclone in TvT early game. In fact, I had written another article to discuss how Cyclone had changed how we should perceive the relative role in TvT early game.

Patch 4.0

While Cyclone was without a doubt impactful in the first year after the redesign, it continues to revolutionalise the match up in the second year after patch 4.0. We see mass Cyclone after patch 4.0, whereby Cyclones are being produced from a Reactor Factory. Terran players simply produce multiple Cyclones and hit a timing early on, and the timing requires the other player to either match up by producing more Cyclones or invest defensively in Bunkers. The two vods below show how difficult it is to hold against four Cyclones at 4:30.

But what exactly was the change in patch 4.0 that drove this shift in metagame? This is the detailed change to Cyclone in 4.0:

  • First four shots will fire quickly for the Cyclone’s Lock On ability.
  • New upgrade “Rapid Fire Launchers”
    • Research from Factory Tech Lab
    • Cost: 150 Minerals / 150 Vespene Gas / 79 seconds.
    • Increases the attack speed of the first 12 shots of the Cyclone’s Lock On ability

In my opinion, the changes have little to do with the phenomenon of mass Cyclone in TvT. Sure, Cyclone’s anti-air is sort of improved, but how do the changes explain players a-moving four to six Cyclones to opponent’s natural? One might argue that while the attack per se does not involve Cyclone’s anti-air ability, its improved anti-air allows players to invest in more Cyclones instead of Vikings. However, I do not think that the “slightly” improved in the lock-on ability turns Cyclone from non-mass-able to mass-able. I attribute the phenomenon to the natural evolution of metagame and the incremental improvement of player understanding.

The latest trend in TvT is to go for mass Cyclone then get an early third Command Centre behind it. Terran basically only produce from the Reactor Factory in the early game (after the initial Reaper[s]), and this is sufficient in holding most attacks with an early third Command Centre. Moreover, this suggests Cyclone can fill multiple roles in the early game. Cyclone can hold head on ground attacks and use its lock-on to defend against Banshee and Liberator. See the two vods below for some recent examples.

The early third Command Centre does not only highlight Cyclone’s strength and its ability to fill multiple roles, but it also indicates the immense influence of Cyclone in the early-to-mid game transition phase. This leads to the next point.

Bio versus mech transition

Despite its power in the early game, Cyclone does not scale well as time pasts. Regardless of whether you want to transition to bio or mech, you do not want to produce more Cyclones beyond the early-to-mid game stage. Due to this feature, the transition from mass Cyclone to mech is smoother than to bio. There are two main reasons for that. First, Cyclone fits better with Hellion than with Marine in the transition phase. By the time Stim is ready, Cyclone’s value in the early game has deteriorated. Second, constant Cyclone production directly results in a significantly smaller bio force when Terran want to move out with Stim. Hence, a bio player does not want to produce Cyclone unless it is necessary.

Given that the answer to mass Cyclone is to either match with your own Cyclone or invest in early Bunkers and defensive Siege Tanks, a bio player tends to pick the latter option. This then creates a scenario whereby the bio player has to play defensively against mass Cyclone, and the mech player would have map control. The bio player would also invest in an air unit (i.e., Cloak Banshee, Liberator, or Medivac with Cyclone and Marine) for harassment while s/he sits home with the rest of the army. This is not ideal for the bio player because this disadvantage position indirectly weakens its initial push with Stim and Medivac.

What happens when the bio player chooses the other option by mass producing Cyclones (stop at 4 to 6)? The build order becomes awkward. Let’s use build 1B as an example. You put down the Starport, and then keep producing Cyclone. If you just keep producing Cyclone from the Factory without add-on, it is not going to match up well against the other player that produces Cyclone with Reactor. Then, you have to turtle with your Cyclone and Marines, because your lower Cyclone count does not allow you to send the Cyclones out on the map. Having multiple Cyclone production cycles lowers the Siege Tank count you have in the mid game significantly. Alternatively, if you swap the Factory onto the Reactor, it is awkward to produce from the Starport. You do not need the Starport for Viking when you already have that many Cyclones. If you make offensive options like Medivac or Liberator, your Cyclones are better of to be more aggressive tactically. Then, you will need to produce more to match up with opponent’s Cyclone count, and this makes it even harder to transition out of Cyclone production. During this time, you will put down two more Barracks when you can afford them to move to the 3-1-1 convergent point, and you move out with Marine, Tank, and Medivac when Stim is done. The Cyclone production with Reactor Factory reduces the number of Marines and Tanks you have built up by the time Stim is ready. As a result, you cannot accomplish anything notable in that supposedly power spike for bio.

Accordingly, the current understanding is to forgo the standard transition to put down two more Barracks and upgrade Stim. Instead, you reshuffle the building order in which you move to the 3-1-1 convergent point by putting down the third Command Centre before the two additional Barracks. This is because, since you cannot effectively utilise the normal power spike with bio, you can delay it in favor of an earlier third Command Centre. The rationale behind this sequence is very comparable to what I had discussed in my recent TvP Cloak Banshee article. Also, like I had said, mass Cyclone and Starport do not complement each other well, so the recent mass Cyclone into bio builds go straight into third Command Centre without getting a Starport (see the two vods above).

Concern with Cyclone

So, is Cyclone evil?

For the last six months (post patch 4.0), Terran players are not too keen of the mass Cyclone trend in TvT. Almost every TvT discussion on /r/allthingsterran touches on the influence of Cyclone:

  • Six months ago: “recently it seems to be nothing but “player with more cyclones wins”. That is soooo lame.”
  • Four months ago: “You either die to cyclones, or live long enough to see yourself become one”
  • Three months ago: “The cyclone meta is complete shit ruined TVT for me”
  • Two months ago: “You are basically forced to go cyclones right now.”
  • One month ago: “Cyclones are very powerful in both – early pressure OR defense of early pressure – either on the ground or in the sky”

The influence of Cyclone reminds me of Hellbat in the early Heart of the Swarm days. Back then, Hellbat drop was the TvT build, and any other build was inferior. The best counter against Hellbat drop was to use Hellbat drop yourself. Blizzard also pointed out that it is difficult to differentiate players’ skill when Hellbat drops performed by players of different skill level looked identical. This resulted in a nerf to Hellbat in 2013. The current Cyclone is comparable to the old Hellbat in terms of being the top production choice, and its relatively ease to execute also does not align well with the general design philosophy. Of course, Cyclone is less extreme than the old Hellbat, but this comparison is definitely worth pointing out.

I think Cyclone is a necessary evil in the match up. Without it, mech is hands down inferior to bio in TvT. Now, bio is generally favored over mech, but mech is still a very viable option. Blizzard have been actively pushing for the viability of mech for a long time, and I think the current state of bio versus mech is close to the realistic ideal state. The recent GSL series between TY and GuMiho demonstrated that bio and mech are playable in TvT (see vod below).

However, while the bio versus mech situation appears to be in a nice spot, the early game metagame can be improved. It is more enjoyable to see Reaper and Hellion battle it out than a simple a-move Cyclone army. I do not think Cyclone itself is an issue because it fits a unique role in the early game. But mass Cyclone limits other options in the early game and the early-to-mid transition period too much. Increasing Cyclone’s supply from 3 to 4 would be a nice touch to improve the current mass Cyclone situation. This change increases the cost of mass Cyclone in a subtle way, but it does not discourage mass Cyclone completely.  The increase of one supply should not have a notable effect on producing Cyclone in low quantity. This change also should not affect TvP and TvZ, because mass Cyclone is not an issue in the other two match ups. Sure, mass Cyclone has been used in TvP (see below vod for a recent example) and TvZ, but it is merely an option. In contrast, mass Cyclone is not just an option in TvT, it is the option.

Here you go. This is my case for a minor nerf to a Terran unit to improve the TvT match up. Yes, your whiny Terran is proposing a nerf to Terran.


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3 thoughts on “TvT: Is Cyclone Evil?

  1. Another great post by Max aka Terrancraft, we really don’t deserve atm this kind of quality you provide. There is just the young Maru trying to handle the most complicate race If you ask people who don’t follow the pro scene so closely.

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