Opinion on the Annual Balance Update 2019

The annual balance update 2019 was announced two days ago. I’m disappointed at the overarching theme and general direction of the balance patch proposal.

General theme

Previous annual updates tend to be more adventurous with design revamp and major balance changes, but the changes announced this year seem less drastic in comparison. The magnitude of changes should not be used to judge the quality of the balance proposal. The most elegant changes are often those with minimal adjustment, and you can read some examples in this article. The latest changes, however, suggest Blizzard is pleased with the existing state of balance in general.

I believe the existing state deserves a more drastic revamp. One of the main reasons for a big revamp after Blizzcon is to reshuffle the cards, so the game remains fresh to the players. The fact that people are pointing out the games looking similar to each other suggests a balance revamp is welcomed. The same dominating strategies should then be rotated out naturally. With the current set of changes, we may see the same strategies used in the new patch.

The other theme of the changes is Blizzard’s approach to reduce “inactive stalemate”, whereby both players simply have a gentleman’s agreement to not engage with their armies. The vod below is an example of such stalemate. It is without a doubt frustrating for players and boring for spectators. Blizzard’s answer to this issue is to reduce the range of the long range units (e.g., Broodlord). Their approach seems reasonable to me.

Specific changes

The changes to Adept are inconsistent with the design philosophy and previous changes. First, the change does not address a well defined problem. Blizzard suggest that, since Terran has better EMP with the new upgrade, Adept can be buff in the mid-to-late game stage. Adept is not used in the mid game in TvP now, because Zealot and Stalker are better. Adept’s mid-to-late game power in TvP is not a exactly problem. Second, the changes are unlikely to provide the intended results. Are these changes good enough to make Adept a better choice than other Gateway units? I doubt so, at least not before Zealot and Stalker got nerf enough. Third, the changes are attempting give Adept a new role in the later stage of the game. Adept was so good in 2016 and 2017 that it sort of replaced Zealots and Stalkers in their respective roles. Blizzard made several great changes in the annual revamp in 2017 to ensure the Gateway units do not overlap each other in their roles (for reference). Adept now has a clear role in the early game, why change that now?

The changes to Zealot seem heavy handed. I agree with the identified problem that Protoss can hold the third base too well in TvP (for reference). Charge upgrade indeed is a power spike at the time when Terran push the third Nexus with Stim and Medivacs. This is evident from the recent changes in TvP builds that Terran get Widow Mines instead of Siege Tanks for the push (an example of a recent build using Widow Mine; you can compare it with an older build using Siege Tank). Thus, nerfing the Charge upgrade makes sense. The proposed changes, however, are not as elegant as they can be. A straightforward change is to simply reduce the damage on impact (e.g., +4 instead of +8). Creating a new upgrade for the impact damage rather than reducing the impact damage itself suggests that Blizzard believes the latter maybe too risky for Protoss late game. This assumption is debatable, as many have pointed out the additional impact damage is a bit too strong for a long time. Assuming the current +8 impact damage must remain unchanged, having an upgrade that only unlocks when another upgrade is completed can be confusing for some players. The additional new Adept upgrade definitely does not help in simplifying things. Going back to the point that Zealot and Stalker should be nerf for the Adept changes to make sense, I suppose Protoss players would rather spend the resource on the Zealot upgrade than the Adept one. Hence, I think the Adept changes are out of place.

The changes to Nydus Worm are unnecessarily complicated. Unlike Adept, Nydus Worm clearly needs tuning. The biggest issue is Zerg players building multiple Nydus Worms inside opponent’s base. It feels unstoppable at times. In fact, you don’t even need to plant them in the opponent’s base to make it look broken. Look at how Serral used Nydus Worm against TY in the game below. Putting a 14 seconds cooldown on Nydus Worm addresses this problem well. But do we need nerf Nydus Worm and shift its power to Hive tech with a new upgrade? I don’t think so.

Not everything is bad though. Changes to Void Ray are necessary, as it is probably the least used unit. Void Ray does not have a clear role now, so pushing it to a new role is a good move. With that being said, Blizzard simply state that the new upgrade can “push the unit into a potentially new role”, but they do not mention what role they are aiming for. Given that PvZ late game is in a bad place, perhaps giving Void Ray a more refined role in the late game against Zerg can be a fruitful direction.

The changes to Infestor are interesting. I was confused at first; is that a buff or a nerf? Apparently, others are just as confused as I am, as the community is divided about the changes. Ambiguous changes are ideal for a unit that is underused but not for one that is considered overpower.

Ironically, Viking got an outright stats buff instead of having a new upgrade. Many new changes are implemented by adding a new upgrade to postpone the power spike. The buff to Viking’s health should be added as an upgrade on the Fusion Core (perhaps can be compensated with additional health). This is because, as Blizzard themselves admit, the direct health buff can be a concern in the early and mid game. A late game upgrade addresses this potential problem.

Changes I want to see

I wanted to see five changes in the annual update.

  1. Redesign Void Ray to fit a new role in the late game PvZ.
  2. Nerf Infestor.
  3. Adjust Raven’s Interference Matrix.
  4. Redesign Ghost’s snipe ability.
  5. Minor buff to Terran economy in the early game.

Happy to see Blizzard did the first three. I already discussed the first two in this post, so I won’t elaborate. I had written extensively why Raven’s Interference Matrix is too strong in TvT early game; you can read it here.

Ghost’s snipe ability was used and redesigned for TvZ late game. The Steady Targeting (i.e., snipe) was designed to be the answer against late game Zerg units, but this ability is rarely used. Ironically, Terran use Ghost’s nuke and not snipe in TvZ late game. I hope Blizzard can do something about this iconic ability.

TvP balance is one of most heated topics this year. Based on my observation, the community appears to agree that the root of the problem is the economy asymmetry early on. Protoss can get a much quicker third, and Terran do not have a good answer. Blizzard had made several changes to address this issue indirectly (e.g., Stim buff), but they did not address the fundamental economy issue. Without giving too much away, I know that Blizzard is aware of this, and there is concern about the risk of making economy changes. I was advocating a low risk change to the Command Centre to allow Scv to be built when the Command Centre is upgrading (for reference). Two Scvs can then be produced when an Orbital Command is upgrading. This boost in economy is accountable as we have certainty about the upgrade time, Scv production time, and worker mining rate. Importantly, it does not negatively affect the late game when Terran build multiple Command Centres, because Terran will not be building workers at that point of time. I believe this is worth testing.

Overall, I’m disappointed with the proposed changes. The current state of the game can benefit from more adventurous changes. Some changes either do not make sense or are poorly executed. The changes gave me an impression that they are done by a different team. Anyway, these changes are not final, and I hope Blizzard can take feedback on board and put forward a better list of changes soon.

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