Stimpack Is A Good Upgrade + Aligulac Balance Report Thoughts

Hey folks,

I’m brownbear. Today I’ll be responding to the latest StarCraft II community update.

The Community Update

First let’s start with the stimpack buff. The developers justify this change by stating it could help address the issue of Terran being unable to punish a fast Protoss third. They cite three benefits:

  • Creating new openers that Protoss will have to account for.
  • Allowing Terran to more seamlessly transition from tech-based openings to a Bio-based mid-game.
  • And perhaps most importantly: reducing the window in which the upgrade can be sniped.

I don’t think this addresses the core problem in the match-up. From my perspective, going as far back as the Maru proxies of early 2018, the problem with TvP is that Protoss is just slightly ahead by default. Several factors go into this. One is the sheer number of buffs Protoss has received over the years: better chrono boost, better gateway units, turret tracking on collossi, faster warp gate, cheaper zealot legs, cheaper blink, cheaper robotics facilities, better recall, and quality of life updates to observers and high templar. The introduction of the shield battery was a good change, but it also worked to indirectly nerf banshee openers. The nerf to widow mines – making them visible after detonation – also nullified the widow mine drop opening, and generally made widow mines much less useful against Protoss until Digging Claws could be researched.

The result is that Protoss are free to do what they want in the early-to-mid-game in TvP. This allows them to take an early third and pressure relentlessly at the front. It’s noteworthy that many Terran builds now default to building a safety bunker in front of their natural, before they’ve even scouted anything. This puts Terran even further behind.

To me the more direct, safe, and comprehensive solution to these issues would be to address them at their root and slightly dial back the Protoss economy. I disagree with Max from TerranCraft that this is extremely risky – a safe approach would be to slightly dial back chronoboost. The effects of this are fairly predictable. It would also nullify the need to nerf the warp prism, which I think goes too far in hurting Protoss in PvZ. If the developers want to create new openers that Protoss will have to account for, they should also consider reverting the widow mine nerf. It never did what it claimed to do and the developers partially walked it back anyway.

To put this another way: it would be better to slightly nerf Protoss at the root of the problem instead of over-nerfing them in PvZ and introducing a wild card change to stimpack.

I’d like to further add that I don’t agree with the principle of the stimpack buff. Changes of this magnitude shouldn’t go into a mid-year balance patch. Maybe I belong to the now out-dated David Kim school of thought, but I believe in the idea that careers are on the line when balance patches go out. Stimpack is the quintessential Terran bio-upgrade; buffing its research time by 21 seconds in the middle of a professional season doesn’t feel right. I get the comparison to the warpgate buff but that was done at the very beginning of the season, not close to the end. Why take a risk like this less than 4 months prior to Blizzcon? I share Max’s concern that 100 seconds has become something of a magic number to Blizzard: it makes me wonder whether this number is the result of some kind of rigorous testing.

Overall I like the fact that Blizzard is willing to listen to the community and try things out. It’s nice to see a detailed explanation for the changes and it’s nice to see a discussion of design philosophy. But in this case, with respect to two big changes – buffing stimpack and nerfing the warp prism – I just don’t agree that it’s the right approach.

The final thing I wanted to mention is that I was surprised this post didn’t talk about the map pool. Protoss is generally affected more by a far-away third base than either of Terran or Zerg. This could be another tool for tweaking the balance and it’d be worthwhile for the developers to consider using it – at the very least, consider what the map pool at Blizzcon will be prior to cutting a balance patch.

Aligulac

While I’m writing about StarCraft I’d like to talk about the Aligulac balance report. I decided to dig into this data to see how reliable a predictor it is of balance changes. To do this I tried to correlate impactful balance changes with racial win rates. If, for example, Protoss was nerfed significantly against Terran, you would expect the PvT win-rate to be substantially higher than 50% before the patch went through.

This turns out to be inconsistent. For example, 3-rax reaper was a substantially overpowered build in Terran vs. Zerg. It was nerfed in March of 2017 and again in July of 2017. But the TvZ win-rate in February and March was 48.69% and 47.80% respectively, and 47.43% and 47.21% in May and June respectively.

Similarly, the Adept was infamously imbalanced against Terran in early Legacy of the Void. This was patched out in January of 2017; but the Protoss win-rate against Terran was only 50.42% in December and 52.62% in January. It’s more than 50%, but it’s not indicative of a balance problem, even though the match-up was fundamentally broken at the time. Even today, Aligulac rates PvT at 50.96% in June of 2019 and 49.00% in May: based on that data we shouldn’t do any patch at all.

This isn’t always true; for example Aligulac indicated PvT was near 55% prior to the major marauder buff in 2018. But it’s not consistent enough to be useful. It doesn’t help that it sometimes comes across as a bit random. Consider for example the 41.58% win-rate in PvT in January of 2017 that jumped up to 53.77% just three months later. I don’t think a single widow mine nerf (less splash damage to shields) explains a 12% difference.

I think there are several reasons for this. One is just plain old small sample sizes in the face of frequent balance and map pool changes. Another is that Aligulac doesn’t discriminate at all on builds. It’s commonly the case that certain builds are overpowered but others are not. People sometimes assume that professionals always do the strongest builds all of the time, but this isn’t typically true. 3-rax reaper is a good counter-example: it took years for everyone to start doing it consistently.

Another issue is that Aligulac doesn’t discriminate on maps. It’s pretty common for certain maps to favor certain races in particular match-ups. Catallena favored Terran in TvP, while Apotheosis favored Zerg in ZvT. Aligulac doesn’t help with this: it lacks the samples to predict individual maps reliably, and it also doesn’t provide any indication as to why the win rates are what they are.

None of this is to say that the balance report is useless: it’s just also not particularly useful either. There are too many caveats and asterisks and edge cases you have to consider when you look at the data before you can start drawing conclusions. It’s too vulnerable to confirmation bias and selective cherry-picking. If StarCraft II featured a more static map pool, fewer balance and content updates, and a more consistent worldwide tournament format I’m sure the data would be more useful. We’re just not at that point in this game’s lifecycle.

Alrighty that’s everything I had for today. Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, I’d love it if you followed me on Twitter and Facebook and checked out my game-design focused YouTube and Twitch channels. Also I’d strongly recommend you check out TerranCraft; it’s a fantastic website that I cited a few times in this article. All the best and see you next time.

References:

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