TvP: Figuring Out the Puzzle

Many asked me what I think about TvP, and I sort of tiptoed around the debate most of the time. But some recently have convinced me to write something up to facilitate discussion and hopefully push the match up for the better.

I don’t want to simply assert my stand on the state of balance. Instead, I want to frame this article to articulate how I approach the match up as an average player with the goal to maximise my win rate (and enjoyment). If I do X and it doesn’t go well, I analyse and come up with an alternative that I perceive would give me the better chance of winning than X. Let’s start with the most common approach, and then improve on it.

The standard as baseline

In most TvP games, there are two stages of the game that are defined by the timing when Terran have Stim and Medivac with bio. The time frame before this is the early game, and the time frame after it is the mid game (and later). This is not selected at random, but rather based on the shift of goals for both sides upon Terran have Stim and Medivac with bio (read more here).

What do both sides normally do in the early game? Terran go for one Barracks expand (with a Reaper), while Protoss go for one Gateway expand. The recent patch, which increases Adept’s build time from Gateway by 3 seconds, has stabilised the match up to allow both sides to expand normally. There are usually some mini skirmishes early on if Protoss decide to be aggressive with their early Gateway units, but this is a scenario that usually does not have a strong impact on the overall strategy both sides have. Terran can go for 1-1-1 or other variations that allow them to converge to a 3-1-1 set up for Stim and Medivac with bio. As for Protoss, they would choose a tech choice (i.e., Twilight Council, Robotic Facility, or Stargate), then put down another two more Gateways before expanding. Of course, Protoss have the option to expand first before putting down the two Gateways.

The mid game starts when Terran move out after they have Stim and Medivac with bio. At this time, Terran put down a third Command Centre, whereas Protoss are mining at the third. Let’s not get into the thinking that this is unfair for the time being, but simply accept it as if this is like Zerg taking an earlier third than other races. Terran would attack the third Nexus as Terran have the power spike with Stim and Medivac, which is something Terran have invested in from the start. Protoss have enough to defend, and it usually ends up with a trade that I would consider not in favour of Terran or close to even.

Protoss would have notable worker lead over Terran, and Terran have just started mining at the third. Terran have Mules, so I personally am not sure if both sides are reasonably comparable in mining rate. Worth noting, however, evidence appears to suggest Protoss indeed have an economy advantage over Terran. Terran cannot attack for the time being, because the army count has just reset from the big trade at the third Nexus. This is a state that I as a Terran player would want to avoid, because it is not in my favour. So what can I do differently?

Finding options

Analysing the baseline state

Terran are powering up on two bases for the move out with Stim and Medivac power spike, but Protoss have enough to at least neutralise this with three mining bases. There are two interpretations:

  • Terran’s power spike timing is not optimised.
  • Protoss align their resources better upon that timing.

The 3-1-1 Stim and Medivac timing is tested and proven for a long time, so I believe there is little room for optimisation that is going turn the table around. Sure, you can make changes like Command Centre first and then three Barracks, and that gives you the biggest force possible for the 3-1-1 move out. This has obvious downsides, such as you probably lose to two Gateway opening, and you are playing blind from the beginning. Let say, the gamble works in such a way that Protoss let you be, the other issue is that Protoss can take the third quicker too as a reaction. The eventual situation is likely to be comparable to the baseline with one Barracks expand. Considering the downside, this does not seem viable.

Protoss with three bases matching Terran’s power spike at this time frame is not new in Legacy of the Void. We previously have seen Adept and Phoenix being used to shut down this kind of mid game timing. Protoss align their resources well by taking an early third and have a power spike with mass Gateway units (i.e., Adept). While mass Adept and Phoenix form a powerful mid game composition, they do not scale well. Thus, Terran’s best option against this is to not move out as per normal in mid game, and then attack with a more powerful army to take down the then less effective Adept and Phoenix composition. However, the army that Protoss use to hold the third Nexus now mainly consists of Zealot, Stalker, and Colossus, which are units that Protoss would have for later stage of the game anyway. It seems reasonable to then suggest that Terran might have given Protoss too much room to grow while they power up for a two base power spike. The empirical evidence on the disparity of mineral mining rate appears to be consistent with this conjecture.

This logically leads to the question; what can Terran do to slow Protoss down?

Early game options

You can slow Protoss down by:

  • Killing Probes; or
  • Forcing defensive investment.

To do either of this, you have to attack or at least fake it. Pros have tried different harassment options, and there is a consensus that the return on investment is not worth it. These options include conventional Widow Mine drop, mass Widow Mine drop, Cloak Banshee, and Liberator. These options do not require Terran to throw everything they have at Protoss, while they macro up for the Stim and Medivac goal. Hellion drop is an option if you want to “all-in” harass to trade your units for workers. The result is binary whereby you either kill double digit Probes (i.e., good trade) or simply get shut down flat (i.e., even more behind). Such high risk high reward option is unlikely to become a main stream option, as Protoss would dedicate their play to counter it if it becomes popular. Furthermore, high level players mentioned that the reduced Warp Gate research time in previous patch makes it easier for Protoss to defend against Hellion drop.

How about proxy? I have written about proxy in TvP extensively, and you can read about its origin, rationale and implications, and counter. Long story short, proxy maximises the plausible variations of attacks that Terran can throw at Protoss by creating information gap in Protoss’ mind. This is hugely built on the notion that Reactor Cyclone is a plausible variation, which requires immediate and dedicated reaction from Protoss. Hence, the redesign of the Cyclone in the patch at the end of 2018 essentially killed this strategy. Therefore, as of current knowledge, slowing Protoss down early on does not appear to be the right path.

Adjustment to power spike

Going back to the two interpretations of the baseline, if the 3-1-1 power spike cannot realistically be improved for what it is, then it is likely that Protoss figure out how to align their resources well to match Terran’s power spike with Stim and Medivac. One reasoning is that Protoss got away by taking an early third, and this gives Protoss the economy advantage to produce enough and match with Terran’s timing attack. Logically, taking a base comes with the opportunity cost of units, which suggests there is a window that Protoss could be vulnerable.

Unsurprisingly, the pros caught up on this, and they started to do early timing push. I have written about early timing push already, so I won’t go into depth here. The result is dependent on the micro battle obviously, but more notably, how well Terran hide the intention to execute an early timing. Below vods are some recent examples.

Not attacking

The above options are assuming Terran are the one who have to attack, so how about we turn it on its head and not attack? This is exactly what top pros like TY, Maru, and INnoVation are doing right now! They do the same baseline with a 3-1-1 then expand. However, instead of attacking with the bio force with Stim and Medivac, they simply use them to apply pressure on the map. One issue is that Terran have research deficit, so they cannot be out on the map to fight against a better army. Further, Terran have to worry that Protoss would hit a timing with their superior upgrade. What can Terran do?

A reasonable answer is to make use of defender advantage to circumvent the upgrade disadvantage if Protoss were to attack. Again, this is exactly what the pros are doing. They are investing heavily in Siege Tank and Liberator, which are the two best defensive units to hold a location. They also stay active on the map by getting the best out of the mobility of the bio and Medivac. There is no specific goal in this strategy, as it simply goes to the late game and tries to defeat Protoss in the extreme late game situation. Below are some recent examples.

The other way to circumvent the upgrade disadvantage is hit a timing before Protoss have 2-2. This usually involves Scv pull and double Starport for Viking to gun down the Colossus. Yes, it is the infamous all-in. Below is an example.

I also challenged the assumption of going for the standard 3-1-1 as the baseline. How about taking an early third before going for 3-1-1? It obviously has its risk. But what if Terran can get away with it? My conclusion is that it is likely to polarise the above two options of not attacking when you’ve a delayed 3-1-1 power spike with an early third. You have a better economy to be defensive, and you enlarge the scale of the all-in battle with Scv pull. Overall, it does not seem like it is an enlightening path.

Evaluating the options

Let me list out the feasible options I have mentioned so far:

  • Hellion drop
  • Early timing
  • Mid game all-in
  • Defensive late game

I am not confident with the defensive late game strategy, and I also don’t think it is the option that can give me the best chance of winning. This leaves me with the other three, and I pick one of the three according to map and situation. There is a common feature with these three options. The result is binary.

  • Hellion drop: I either kill enough Probes to put myself ahead, or I’m very behind.
  • Early timing: This is a semi all-in, which I usually either win or lose on the spot.
  • Mid game all-in: Again, I either win or lose on the spot.

Is TvP imbalance? If you look only at win rate, I will just say I’ve a 60% win rate. If you look at balance as a perception of enjoyment, it is my least enjoyed match up (but my best match up).

Interestingly, I have a 33% win rate for TvZ, but I enjoy it the most. There are several reasons for it. First, contrary to the TvP situation, I have options that can slow Zerg down. Zerg is the best race when they’re left alone, so Terran and Protoss are required to do things that slow Zerg down early on. Slowing the Zerg down does not require me to directly kill Drones, as I can simply force Zerg to make units. Controlling creep is also another way of slowing Zerg down. Second, there is a good degree of variance in the outcome for the actions that both my opponent and I take. Related to the first point, how well I slow Zerg down depends on how well I execute certain harassment (or attack), and the opposite is true for Zerg. The outcome is not binary, as it can be like I killed 2 versus 5 Drones by risking my Hellions temporarily. Advantages accumulate. Third, players can disengage in battle. Zerg can poke forward and decide not to engage once they see Tank shots. Terran can hit and run with small drops, which is something hard to do against Blink Stalkers. You either don’t drop against Protoss, or you drop at least four Medivac of units. You probably then just trade the units you dropped, as it is too risky pick up. Also, Zealots with charge can hardly disengage when Protoss decide to take a sizable battle. All these contribute to the perception that TvP engagement is binary, which is not enjoyable in my opinion. Fourth, both Terran and Zerg have a wide range of builds, and there are many compositions to choose from.

Ending words

Unless there is truly an innovation to the match up, I doubt we can diverge away from the above framework too much. Is the match up imbalance? That depends on your definition of balance.

Just to sum it up. Protoss have advantages in economy and upgrade in the mid game, but Terran do not have good options to slow Protoss down early on. Terran’s options are to all-in, or take it to the late game by being very defensive.

I am not sure how much the latest patch of nerfing Protoss’ research timing is going to improve the existing issues. One thing for sure is that, I am going to keep doing the three things I’m doing, unless I see a better option.


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14 thoughts on “TvP: Figuring Out the Puzzle

  1. If anything recent balance change incentivize all-ins by providing slightly wider window for it. The most bizarre thing about this fix however is the fact that patch in attempt to fix one match up will most definitely impact PvZ (as it affects every single unit of the race) which I don’t see as Protoss fav at all. And the air upgrade time change is Thor range buff level of nerfs.

    As for income difference, I think that part of the issue is how much Vespene gas does Terran need (reaper 50/50, all the addons and 100 gas for tech advancements while does not need it at all till Cyber about to finish). Also I don’t think that people realize how much of a big deal is Mothership Core removal specifically for the economy. Protoss used to spend 100/100 (could be a tech building) to build it, and probe production is a bit slowed down (about 2 probes worth of time).

    Other than that I have nothing to add or comment on, the article is -to no surprise- very well written and all of the points seem reasonable to me, thanks Max.

    1. Good point about the gas requirement early on. I think the Mothership Core change is very positive overall, as Shield Battery is better designed. Being able to get ahead slightly is ok when you give room for racial asymmetry. But what I don’t like is that the one who has the economy advantage is also the one poking at the opponent on the other end. A good way to make the match up more dynamic is to give Terran some options to equalise the early game deficit.

  2. Liberator was such a sad patch to Terran’s problems. I would at least like to see its siege mechanic removed and replaced with a very slow moving forward firing air-to-ground mode. This simple fix would go a long way to improving the fun of the match up imho.

    Not to mention it would improve Terran late-game viability where Terran is expected to click orders of magnitude more times than Protoss to maneuver around, then *hope* the Protoss makes a mistake, while Protoss simply moves a single mass around and occasionally clicks to storm (meanwhile they have set-it-and-forget-it harassment and defense options and perfect knowledge with observers/oracles).

    Overall I agree that Terran options are all binary or unreasonable making for a very unhealthy match up. My most enjoyable games TvP are when the Protoss is actually very skillful and making his own moves left and right – the problem is that they are by no means required (or motivated) to do so at any point.

    I believe liberators were just a brute-force sad patch to even out statistical win rates without actually addressing any problems. (Can’t get more binary than a unit that just sets up, hopes to do damage and waits to die..)

    1. Liberator 2 shot Stalker is too strong imo, so it seems fair to nerf it. The current Liberator situation is that Terran go late game with mass range Liberator, and Protoss’ answer is Tempest. This then evolves into a dance: Liberator < Tempest < Viking < High Templar

  3. I think the defensive late game, and adjacent concepts, are the path forward.

    One thing I’ve been I think Toss players would have a lot of trouble with would be coming out to the middle of the map, maybe a bit closer to the Toss side, and…then…stopping.

    Build some bunkers and turrets. A sensor tower. Maybe some rax.

    This accomplishes nothing by itself, of course. But it makes drop distances shorter, gives Protoss less room to maneuver, and keeps most of your army positioned well. Sturdy, cheap, multidirectional bunkers help cover the weaknesses of libs/other siege units.

    There are all sorts of ways to screw it up, obviously, but so far they all seem manageable to me.

    Just thinking out loud.

    1. Protoss aren’t worried you know where they are. They even put down Shield Battery right at where you know they are, and then they use Tempest from that location.

  4. So something I want to know, would giving a buff to the orbital command (ie: reduced build time) help TvP at all? As a Protoss I do not like the current Forge nerfs which will greatly impact PvZ, and with how terrible Protoss options are vs a properly controlled lategame Z I’d rather they give Terran something than nerf my race.

    1. Human are more sensitive to nerf than buff. But buffing Terran also affect TvZ. Zerg are abusing Nydus, so it’s unclear if Terran need help in TvZ. I think giving Terran better harassment tool is the way to go, because it changes the dynamic of the match up and it requires players to compete in executing harassment versus defending harassment.

  5. i think they should restrict chronoboost on nexus, or just simply rework chronoboost to become make a %% discount for protoss unit rather than manipulate production time..

    It should solve tvp problem IMO.

  6. Great write up, very clear, thank you for your perspective.
    However there are 2 statements I would challenge
    1: “One issue is that Terran have research deficit, so they cannot be out on the map to fight against a better army” Post stim I would not assume or simplify it to the Protoss army being automatically better, if anything id say Terrans army is better. Also with stim and medivacs I think Terran can be out on the map, if Protoss were to send army too far from their base they are very weak to drops/base race.
    2: “Protoss have advantages in economy and upgrade in the mid game”
    You linked a reddit thread that showed in IEM over 73 games on average in 11 minutes Protoss mined 18,000 Minerals while Terran mined 17,800 (gas was 5k – 4.7k) that seems like a small advantage when you consider aysmetrical balance. Terran marine costing 50 minerals deals more DPS than a stalker costing 125/50.
    Marine DPS 9.8, With Stim 14.7. Stalker DPS 9.7 vs Armoured 13.4.
    Also Terran should have an advantage in economy once they reach ~60+ SCVs as MULES do not take up supply while probes do. Protoss eat into their army supply too much going over 80 probes, so even if they had an economic advantage it couldn’t last for long.. Terran can mine more than protoss while using less supply to do it.

    TvP & PvT are my favourite matchups, I have over 10k games played and by far my favourite matchups are and always have been TvP & PvT to watch or to play (I play random race). The huge flaw I see in it is base race/threat of base race and how that limits skill expression from protoss until they have the infrastructure & army to deal with it. Leading them to want to go to late game as that is when they have the army, storms, DT tech, cannons and enough warpgates to deal with it.
    The main flaw I see from the community is how 7 years (2011-2018) of marine/medivac leading to mostly positive winrates vs Protoss have led to Terrans not even trying to transition beyond it even though Terran late game (adding in: Ghost, Liberator, BC etc) is strong. We are only 1 year into MMM not giving winrates over 50%. How long passed before Bisu re-invented PvZ?
    There are 2 possible solutions as I see it:
    A) Rely on the community to adjust to MMM not working without a transition and learn to transition to late game and handle late game Terran army in TvP.
    B) Make Terrans late game army in TvP easier to manage so Terran players won’t feel like its too hard for them. Imo it may be too early for that when you consider how Protoss have been using storms, forcefields, blink, col, tempests for many years and disruptors now too, Just to deal with Marine/Medivac pretty much.

    The Protoss player in PvT has vastly more room for skill expression in the late game than they do when base race is still a threat due to how favoured Terran are in a base race scenario (due to Flying buildings, repair, army mobility)
    I think games being decided by low skill expression un-interactive base races is undesirable and getting past that/threat of it, to enable the full arsenal of both races (apart from adepts for P, apart from reapers? TY makes thors ) would be the best thing for the match-up.
    To clarify. Dts can be used pre splash but the gas investment makes it all in as if you do not do huge damage with the DT surprise, the Marine blob will win the game for terran as protoss can not cost effectively deal with Marine blob + medivacs without splash/upgrades and the gas wasn’t there for splash post DT shrine. Same goes for Stargate units or anything that isn’t splash damage. Marines make protoss allin or spalsh damage, binary. Going Col forces protoss to be defensive until they can afford to move out without being allin on not being base raced. That is late game, turtle. Pre late game army/infrastructure everything protoss does has to lead to either allin pre critical mass marine blob or splash/units synergistic with splash source.
    Once in the late game Protoss is set up to deal with base race and now all Protoss units have a place in PvT apart from adepts (their only function is pre late game allins) (and maybe void rays, if Terrans got BCs maybe protoss would get them). All Terran units should have a role in the late game too apart from reapers [Be it through community improving or game change].
    In the late game both races can use defenders advantage to make the game be decided by many instances of skill expression and both races have tools to take small and big fights, or even use attrition. Both have high skill expression armies and tools for harassment. Its the highlight of SC2 imo.
    However since the games release Terran players for the vast majority of TvP have made Marines, Marauders, Medivacs and have not tried to transition beyond that. Maru & TY have transitioned beyond it to include ghosts, liberators & even battlecrusiers with much success but the vast majority of Terrans on ladder do not as they have had 7 years of mostly positive winrate without needing to (Aliguliac graph).
    In those 7 years (2011-2018) Protoss have had to manage more complex armies with bigger unit variety and more spells including more expensive higher tech units in order to be able to compete with the generically strong high dps Marine/Marauder/Medivac.
    Now it seems Terran would be most successful by following in Protoss footsteps by making compositions with higher unit variety, more spells and higher tech units. Maru and TY have shown this to work and if anything Terrans late game is stronger than Protosses going by their results.
    As I said, I would be ok with Blizz making army management in the late game easier, as I see it SC2 is too much defined by punishing players for being too slow to do something they knew they should do and not enough by the smart things player can come up with doing.
    Thanks for reading and again, thanks for covering the topic.

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