Starcraft II: descending the ladder

, | Game diaries

The Starcarft II ladder is the perfect home for what I’m going to call the casual hardcore gamer. Those of us who have an obsessive competitive streak but are also saddled with bothersome responsibilities like work. And children. Let me tell you, children will wreak havoc on your gaming time. That precious “single sitting” indie game is going to take you two weeks to finish at best. That 40+ hour eastern european RPG is good for a season, if you even manage to finish it. And you can forget about MMOs unless you want a visit from child services.

But Starcraft II? In an hour or so you can play all the daily Starcraft II a normal man can manage.

After the jump, a normal man tries to manage.

The game’s ladder is intense, exhilarating, infuriating and ultimately exhausting. It’s not fun, though, so look elsewhere if that’s your bag. Check any given Starcraft II fan site, and you’ll see countless threads from people who just can’t stomach the 1 vs. 1 ladder anymore. They resort to the chaotic and low stress 4 vs. 4 player games or can’t even manage at all and instead only watch the professionals play.

It’s been 3 months since I’ve been on the Starcraft II ladder. I used to be diamond league, which for someone my age (37; equivalent to 85 in competitive Starcraft years) is somewhat of an achievement. Then the ladder reset and I got bumped down to the platinum league. Some other games came along I wanted to play, I was busy with work, I was watching more games then I was playing, I was making excuses. Yet I keep getting the itch to play, to see if I can get another fleeting feeling of mastery over something so hideously unmanageable as this game.

I’ve decided to kick off this diary by playing cold. No warm ups against the AI. No reading up on recent strategies from the hallowed halls of the forums. Straight into it.

My first game back after three months finds me facing off against another zerg player. My hands immediately go into autopilot through the opening moves of the game, building workers, sending my overlords around the map, and wishing my opponent the requisite ‘gl hf’. ‘Just like riding a bike’ I think the myself. A few minutes later I discover it is not, in fact, much like riding a bike.

Because I am terrified I resort to an aggressive ‘cheese’ strategy. My plan is to go quickly for banelings, the suicide bomber of zerg units. I know a nasty little trick with banelings; rally them directly into your opponents workers in little groups of two, and don’t try to do any micro. While the player panics trying to stop your banelings, you are busy making more and running in a group of zerglings to assassinate his queen. The idea is to overwhelm your opponent’s ability to pay attention. This time, however, I end up overwhelming my own as well. My resources pile up, I fall behind on my queen’s larva injects and don’t have enough larva for units. I get supply blocked. I fall back and build up my economy. I ultimately win the game ten minutes later with a big messy pile of the zerg heavy infantry unit, the roach. It’s not pretty, but it’s a win, and I’ll take it.

My second game I face off against a terran who builds a bunker right under my nose. I overreact and build way too many zerglings to stop it. The combined arms push that kills me 5 minutes later is a foregone conclusion. Mental note: next terran I face gets 7 pooled. Somebody has to pay for that bunker.

By the time I hit the third game I am solidly ‘on tilt’, as the pros say. A poker term originally, it means I’m so flustered I’m playing recklessly. And how! I opt for a timing based strategy called a hydra drop, a strategy which involves an army of high damage, low health hydras loaded into overlords and dropped on the enemy base. It involves a lot of precise micro control and impeccable timing to pull off. It’s not a strategy I’ve tried before, ever, even when I was playing regularly. It works out as well as expected. In the accompanying screenshot you can see my army in full retreat, shortly after failing to take out the nearly dead nexus and pylon powering 5 gateways, and shortly before getting wiped out by that clump of blink stalkers.

A curious sort of tunnel vision takes hold at this point and I start playing as if I’m in a single player game. I go defensive. I stop scouting not because I forget but because I just don’t want to know what might be coming. A continuing string of bad decisions and I’m so far behind I concede in a fit of self loathing.

What a miserable game Starcraft II is. It’s good to be back.

Up next: the smoke and mirrors magic of Blizzard’s ladder system

Peter Ginsberg lives in Maplewood, NJ. He is an independent game developer who makes games for kids and the occasional manchild.