I’ve been playing real-time strategy games for a little over twenty years, emphasizing competitive play for most of that duration. A constant during my time with the genre has been arguments over balance: which race is best, which race is weakest, what the developers need to change in order to “fix” the competitive meta. This was true in Age of Empires, it was true in Dawn of War, and it’s certainly true now in StarCraft II.
Over the years I have become convinced that complaining about balance – nay, even discussing balance – is unhelpful for improvement at RTS. I believe it holds you back from developing into the best possible player that you can be.
The first issue is the way balance discussions frame the results of any particular game. The implication of a balance complaint is that said balance issue had a material effect on the outcome of a game – if it didn’t, there wouldn’t be any point in bringing it up. The implication behind that is that the balance issue was a major factor in a game, perhaps even the deciding factor – because again, if you actively considered ten other larger concerns that caused a player to win or lose, you wouldn’t spend much time talking about concern number eleven.
That’s a big problem! One of the keys to personal improvement is identifying the biggest holes in your play and deliberately improving them. It’s difficult to do that if you distract yourself by pretending the more pressing concern is whether Nydus should cost fifty more minerals – it’s impractical to prioritize a secondary concern over a primary concern when improving your play.
This is why I’ve never bought into the idea that balance whining is just something people do on the side, to vent their frustrations but otherwise not taking it too seriously. The issue isn’t how seriously you think balance is holding you back – the issue is that complaining about it in the first place shows you’re already distracted by it. Why would you be frustrated about balance if it’s the tenth most important reason you lost a game?
But wait! Maybe balance was the biggest factor in your loss. So what if that’s the case? You don’t control the balance of the game. The problem again here is with framing; you are effectively giving away your agency because the thing you’re focusing on is out of your control. Unless you channel your complaints into something productive – like a professional player writing high quality balance feedback for the developers – the degree to which balance affects your experience is immaterial to what you should be doing to improve your play.
A second concern I have with balance discussions is the way they skew your interpretation of how the game works. In general, I believe it’s healthiest to take a “beginner’s mind” approach to understanding the competitive meta. Many aspects of StarCraft are unintuitive and it’s easy to misunderstand how the game works. Furthermore, how things play out in any given ladder game or professional match are not always an indication of how the game works – sometimes they’re just a reflection of those particular players at that particular point in the meta.
Balance complaints make you vulnerable to reaching a conclusion about the game and reverse-engineering why that conclusion makes sense. It’s too easy to watch a professional game and focus on what’s visible – flashy micro or tricky aggressive builds – instead of fully understanding all the important details of what’s happening.
My favorite example of this is PvZ in late 2019. Compare Rogue’s series against Trap and Stats near the end of this past summer, at GSL Season 3 and GSL Super Tournament 2. The Trap series made Nydus look broken, while the Stats series made it seems like Protoss can shut it down quite easily. Rogue’s late-game against Trap looked unbeatable, but so did Stats’ Mothership / Carrier deathball. Rogue made Trap look like he was on a timer against Brood Lord / Infestor, but Rogue’s heavy aggression against Stats made it look like Zerg was on a timer against the golden armada.
A surface-level analysis of these games will produce diametrically opposite conclusions about the state of balance, even though they occurred right around the same time. The reality is that there’s a lot more going on under the surface than the obvious, attention-grabbing plays. Rogue forgetting baneling speed in Game 4 against Stats was the difference between a reasonable timing attack and just straight-up losing to a superior unit composition. Trap mismicroing his army in the final game of his series cost him what likely should have been a convincing win.
Stats cannon rushed in two of his games!
If you’re a Protoss or Zerg player trying to study these matches, focusing on balance is only going to be a distraction – despite PvZ in 2019 arguably being the most clear-cut example of balance affecting competitive play in Legacy’s history. There’s a tendency with balance complaints to try to tie things up into a tidy, straight-forward argument; but jumping to that approach before you understand the details is dangerous. Once you establish a mental model of how something works, there’s a tendency to build on it, even if your original assumptions were incorrect. And that will continue to hamper your development more and more as you pile onto that original miscalculation.
So here’s my take: if you want to be the best RTS player you can be, don’t worry about balance. Focus on what’s within your control, and accept the rest as it comes. I strongly believe this is the best way to maximize your potential in this genre.
Thanks for reading! I write about StarCraft and Age of Empires. I’d love it if you followed me on Twitter and Facebook to catch all of my content, and if you subscribed to my game-design focused YouTube channel. One of these days I’ll stream regularly, so be sure to give me a follow on Twitch as well. All the best and see you next time!