In the StarCraft fictional universe, the human-like Terrans battle against the high-tech Protoss and the insect-like Zerg races in tightly balanced combat. The three races are perfect foils for one another. In the fiction, each race has its moment in the sun, winning some days, losing others.
But in 2014, the battles in StarCraft 2’s professional scene haven’t been balanced. They’ve been routs.
So far in 2014, Protoss players have won virtually every tournament: IEM Sao Paolo, Asus ROG Winter, IEM Cologne, the IEM World Championships, and most importantly the GSL Season 1 in South Korea, a tournament where five out of the top eight competitors played Protoss.
Beyond that, a week ago we saw Team MVP Protoss player Kim “Billowy” Doh Kyung pull off a rare all-kill, single-handedly defeating the other team in four matches in a row.
Even in late 2013 we saw Protoss players win some of the game’s biggest international tournaments, including WCS Season 3 finals, the WCS Global Finals, IEM Singapore, and IEM Cologne.
What’s going on here? Is StarCraft 2 disastrously imbalanced? Or is there something else?
We asked the pros to find out.
It’s all in the maps
At the center of the success of the Protoss race is the Mothership Core, an early-game unit that has become the beating heart of many Protoss strategies. It’s a flying support unit that can do just about everything. With it, the Protoss player can be safe against early attacks with an ability called Photon Overcharge. This turns their headquarters into a giant cannon that shoots any nearby enemy. Even as they keep their own base protected, they can launch their own early attacks thanks to the Mass Recall ability, which allows the Protoss player to almost instantly retreat and teleport home if things get dicey.
But even with all of these advantages, the recent Protoss domination isn’t necessarily an issue of balance. According to the pros we talked to, the maps themselves play to one of Protoss’ biggest strengths against Terran players: Blink.
A Blink play is essentially a big, early attack. It relies on obtaining the Blink upgrade, which allows the Protoss’ stalker units to teleport a short distance. This is extremely powerful because it allows the Protoss army to bypass the Terran’s stationary defenses and get directly inside their base. If the Terran isn’t highly prepared, it can be enough to end the game.
“The maps for WCS are very stale and outdated and Blizzard needs to be more aggressive with the map design,” said Marc-Olivier “Desrow” Prioux, a Canadian professional Protoss player.
Brandon ‘puCK’ Qual, an American professional Protoss player, also blames the maps. I asked if he could point to one in particular. He said I was asking the wrong question.
“It’s more like… which maps can’t you point out. Every map except for two of them are fairly good for Blink,” Qual said.
This strategy has been around since the dawn of StarCraft 2, but now because the maps favor it so heavily we’re seeing a big resurgence. Because of that, even when Protoss players aren’t going for a Blink attack, the Terran still has to respect that it might happen simply because they’ll die to it if they’re unprepared. The stress of that potentially massive attack, as Qual noted, can cause players to make more mistakes or focus on short-term defense to the detriment of the long-term strategy.
“I really think it’s the maps for [Protoss versus Terran], but at the same time I also feel like Terrans are playing worse,” Qual said. “Maybe it’s because they’re really stressed about Blink all-ins, and they’re not used to playing the late game.”
This psychological pressure helps explain why the Protoss domination is largely focused on Terran opponents, with the advantage being smaller against Zergs.
No, it’s not imbalanced
There’s more to this parade of Protoss champions besides the maps and the race’s advantages.
“The best Terrans and Zergs playing in Proleague are not traveling as much,” Qual said. “Rogue and Soulkey for Zerg, and Maru, Flash, and TY for Terran.”
In other words, the domination of Protoss in global tournaments may be as simple as this: There are more South Korean Protoss players in those tournaments, and South Korea completely dominates professional StarCraft play.
It looked a little odd when the GSL—the singles counterpart to Proleague’s team-based play—Round of 8 featured a whopping five Protoss players, but it’s not that ridiculous when you consider that the tournament began with 16 out of 32 players as Protoss. The best Terran players simply weren’t there (only three qualified for the tournament.)
The pro players we talked to did confirm a slight advantage for Protoss players over Terran players. But they emphasized this is nothing to be alarmed about.
And Blizzard has noticed. In February, it released a balance patch which did two key things: It reduced the distance the Mothership Core can see, and it increased the damage the Terran Widow Mines do against Protoss shields. The former reduces the Protoss’ ability to scout effectively in the early game, and the latter gives Terran a new tool, the Window Mine, for dealing with all sorts of Protoss attacks.
“Even though Protoss was slightly stronger than Terran mostly due to the maps and the Mothership Core, things should go back to normal,” Desrow said about the balance patch. “The balance in Protoss versus Terran is hard to predict right now.”
“It’s too early to tell, but the Widow Mine is really spicing the match up. The win rate for [Protoss versus Terran] is 48 percent after only a month so we’ll have to wait and see.”
We haven’t seen the results in pro games just yet, but Blizzard’s patch does seem to be working. Desrow noted that high level analysis shows that the Protoss vs Terran matchup is looking very balanced lately.
“I think Terran is actually in a good spot right now,” said ROOT Gaming’s Protoss Chad ‘Minigun’ Jones. “If you remove the maps where blink is overpowered I think the matchup may even slightly favor terran.
As for how this will pan out in the long run, we’ll have to wait and see. But things are finally starting to look a little more balanced.