The Horrible, Horrible School of Starcraft II Part 3

Hey guys! It’s been awhile. In Singapore where I currently reside, we just experienced one of the worst haze conditions ever known to mankind (nah, it’s just to us spoiled Singaporeans who have always had clean air XD), but thankfully the air’s been clear for the past 2 weeks now!

Here’s the long awaited part 3 of the Horrible School series. But before we go, this is how the Learning Cycle currently looks like:

Static stage -> Frustration Stage -> Success stage -> ?? -> ?? -> ??

We’ve been visited with limited success at the Static Stage, we’ve practiced our asses off at the Frustration Stage, and we were rewarded with ladder points/tons of victories at the Success Stage. So let’s move on to the next stage…

Failure Stage:

Yes, unfortunately this happens after awhile. You get bumped up the ladder, or even move up the leagues, and the games (surprise, surprise) get harder. But that’s exactly how life works, doesn’t it? We grow up, and we can choose when and how we eat the pizza, and what time to go to sleep, but soon enough we have to work for the pizza and we can’t work if we sleep in all the time. So with practice comes freedom, and with freedom comes responsibility to rein in the freedom. The one rule of almost all games and life itself is that it gets more challenging as it goes on. Each field we conquer opens up our kingdom to greater fields that need conquering. Although we now have greater ability to deal with threats and obstacles, and hence we now have greater freedom, we still need to improve day by day by day, step by step by step. One the only way to do that is to learn to deal with failure effectively. Non-Starcraft players can skip the next 2 paragraphs with no detriment to their understanding of this section.

I first got out of Bronze League after mastering the infamous Terran Hellbat drop. Basically, you open up with 1-1-1 (rax, factory, starport) and expand, before building an armory. The armory will enable you to produce Hellbats from the factory, and you send it together with the first medivac that you build. You go to the back of his base, drop the Hellbats, and burn down his economy, literally. At Bronze League level, most players are unable to respond without sustaining great losses. Either they counter your drop, and fail to properly keep up the macro and base building, or they try to do both at the same time, and lose too many workers in the attempt. I find that the moment I pull it off, the game would be decided in my favour there and then. Soon enough of course, I got bumped up to Silver League, where I found myself at the top 8 among my fellow Silvers in my group (there are about a hundred players in each group, and tons of groups per League).

So, just like before, I would attempt to pull of the super-effective Hellbat drop. But then the game started to change. Players started to scout properly, and some even reacted by building defensive buildings near their mineral line. As soon as I flew my medivac over, spores, missiles, or photon blasts would blow my ship up even before it could drop a single Hellbat. They would then follow up by rushing the front of my base, and since I had not much of an army there (recall, I expanded early, and rushed tech), I would usually lose the expansion, and before I knew it, the entire game as well. I thought to myself, what is going on? Why did my hyper-effective build now fail to succeed at all? At first it was insanely frustrating, but I decided that I just needed to stay calm, and analyze my game as I have before. After sitting still for awhile (albeit in a funk), I then realized that I needed to scout as well (duh!) to see if a Hellbat drop was a viable strategy. I forced myself to develop new strategies that could incorporate both the drop, and other forms of aggression as well should this method not work due to the other player’s build.

For the rest of us who don’t play Starcraft, it doesn’t matter, the rules are the same. When you go higher in whatever pursuit, the game changes and gets more complex. You are required to sit down and examine the situation, which often calls for a follow-up action on your part in some form or another. Take learning the piano for instance. First you learn how to play with one hand, during which you try to master the melody. At first you stumble over your own fingers, and even miss a couple of notes here and there. Slowly and surely however, your skill improves, and you can play the entire melody without fail. But then you realize that just as this level of freedom is achieved, the song sounds empty. It needs accompaniment, it needs a sense of fullness for it to sound good. That’s whem you figure that to keep up, you must teach your left hand how to play to. So you learn to play accompanying chords that complement the melody, giving the song a richer sound. It takes awhile, because you must first understand the theory of how music harmony works. And then after you figure the notes to play, you need to practice it. And after mastering the left hand, you need to put the two together to play the song in full. There is no end to the climb! But the same pattern emerges: every time you succeed, a harder challenge arises where you may fail. You would then need to control your emotions and really analyze what you are doing correctly and what you are doing wrongly. For example, after you finally master a song, you listen other people’s cover of the same song, and realize that yours just doesn’t cut it. The Failure Stage rears its ugly head again, but instead of giving up and beating yourself up for being less exemplary, you stay calm, analyze the difference between his playing and yours, and then make the changes. Could it be that your left hand is drowning out the melody? Is your melody too complex, or too simple? Are you playing the chords correctly? Staying calm instead of emotionalizing too much can help you analyze things, and patient analysis followed up with correction is the only answer to failure. Only then you can move on to the next level.

A popular saying in chinese is that “failure is the mother of success.” That is why I chose to open this post with the Failure Stage; it often comes right after we succeed, causing us to lose our courage and drive, but if we conquer the failure and learn from it instead, it breeds more and more success. So the key take away here is that two things are the most vital: 1) stay calm 2) analyze. When you do that, you can change your habits and poise yourself for success.

Experimentation Stage:

But then again, don’t think for once that in your first analysis, you will get the right answer to break out of the Failure Stage! Sometimes, the changes we need to make are far too complex for just a simple session of analysis and correction. You might need to go a step further – experiment to see which method works to take you out of the funk. You see, so far the first few stages has the feeling of a “factory”. You find a good solution, and keep working on it until you can do it so efficiently that you don’t even have to pay too much attention to it. You are doing reps in the gym, you are drilling scales on the piano, you are optimizing your Starcraft II build order. You are trying to assimilate the physical skills necessary to make your theory work out in reality.In this experimentation stage, we put the factory mode on hold. For this little while at least, we are not longer concerned about productivity and getting it right. In fact, we are looking to get things wrong more often so that we’ll finally get the right answer! This is the stage where we temporarily throw away our benchmarking, and our hyper-drive, and our mad perseverance. At this stage, we grab a cup of coffee (or tea), lean back against a cozy chair, and watch a bunch of videos. When I got finally promoted to Silver League top 8, I knew that I had to learn new strategies. More than that, I had to understand what strategies the other races were using against me. This is where Day [9] comes in, this is where Apollo, and Husky, and SCII Liquipedia really tops the cake – there’s nothing else I could do for now but to learn.

And after watching their analysis of various games and various races, and researching strategies on Liquipedia, I decided to try it out for myself vs the AI. Yep. I’m not as courageous as some of you lot are. I like the AI because at lower difficulties, they are fairly predictable, and I can work on my new build without feeling too much pressure. After ironing out the various kinks, I do some unranked matches against real humans, and only then do I finally take it out on ladder to see it works. Any time I’m unhappy with anything, I’d go back to the coffee and the videos, and start from the drawing board. At this stage, failure is an option, time is not of the essence, and creativity trumps productivity.Because when you do finally find that solution to your problem, things start to change dramatically. You learn that your 9 minutes timing rush could be susceptible to a 6 minutes cheese, and you scout accordingly. You learn that your 12 minutes +1 +1 bio-push could be taken down by locked up turtles, who would drop your base while your army is out, and you build the defenses and drop him instead.

Or, you learn that going on a low carb diet is gonna plateau your results pretty fast, and you learn about carb cycling and cheat days. You realize that you can’t hit the same muscle groups every day because they can’t recuperate in time, so you stagger the training.

Or, you find that you can’t progress with your guitar plucking practice because the strings are literally cutting into your finger and your calluses aren’t tough enough yet, so you suck it up and pick up some theory in the mean time. And the next time you try practicing, you find yourself playing entire bars by memory because the theory gave you a way to visualize notes that you never had before.

The experimentation stage is the place where you fail a lot and lose a lot, but it pays off when you finally find the key to that door that’s been blocking your way all this while.

Success Stage 2 and Failure Stage 2:

So when it pays off, the euphoria is almost equivalent to the first time you succeed. You feel as if nothing can really stop you, because the last obstacle that tried to was completely crushed by your ultra-awesome innovative skills when you searched for a solution and found it. More Starcraft coming up!

You scout at 3 minutes, and then again at 5 minutes to see if the other guy is doing a pesky one base all in. Well, he isn’t. You continue building your army, and at the 16 minute mark, you push out safely while expanding to your third. Instead of rushing blindly forth, you throw a scan at his natural, and then seeing that he’s parked some stalkers at the front, you send a double medivac drop at the back to draw his army. It moves backwards, but too slowly, as already a dozen workers fall by the piercing bullets of your marines’ +2 C14 gauss rifles. Before they blink in to kill your medivacs, you load up the 16 men into the transport and fly to his third to check if there’s anything there. There’s no third at where it should be. Your main army moves in and steamrolls through his natural before he finally stops you at his ramp, but the game’s already decided. Your economy and tech is now far more superior and he can never catch up.

Or so you thought. The red flashing square on your mini-map indicates that your main is under attack. By what exactly?! You raced back, and see 10 Void Rays and 2 Carriers easily taking down the 3 missile turrets at the base before finishing off your command centre, tech labs, reactors, and upgrade facilities. Your army pumps a stimpack and runs back to your natural, but already, most of your infrastructure is gone. He warps in 5 more zealots at your third with the proxy pylon that you never spotted, and now you’re left with one functional base that’s half mined out, and no tech at all. Before typing gg and quitting, you throw down 4 scans around the random expansions around the map. It’s impossible that he’s got air when his base has no Stargates at all… and true enough, you spot 2 other expansions busily mining and churning out Voids. He was on 4 base all along.

If you’ve never played Starcraft before, this experience is roughly equivalent to queuing up all day for that collectible item that you were pining for, only to learn when you finally reach the counter that it’s just sold out. Why? What have you done wrong? You’ve already woken up earlier and joined the queue at 5 am, beating half the crowd behind you! You think to yourself that perhaps you should you have stayed up all night in a sleeping bag outside the store like some of those guys.

In Starcraft 2, there is a saying that goes: “don’t blame the build, work on the execution”. This statement doesn’t work in the experimentation stage, but it definitely works now. Have you watched the replays? Were there mistakes you’ve made? Much like Failure Stage 1, you need to 1) stay calm, and 2) analyze. In this particular game, I would say that I’ve been overeager. Clearly, his base had way too little units. There’s no way he’s that bad if I’m matched up against him, because the ranking system isn’t that messed up. So if he didn’t have a third, then what is he really up to? A simple scout could have rectified the problem – I have enough marines to crush his air and I could easily switch to viking production to deal with pesky Void harassing later on. Did it mean that I should completely switch up my build, and go for reactored hellions instead of bio-medivac? Was a bunch of scouting hellions the true solution to preventing this problem? Absolutely not, although it is a viable solution. But then, another way was to use the same build, but react more accurately to what I see – I could have pulled back my army and scout around with medivacs for suspicious activity. Plus, there was a lot more to work on. Why did I only expand at 16 minutes, could I have done it earlier at 14? And why did I push so late, could I have used the same build but harassed slightly earlier to prevent the accumulation of his army? Right now the solution is not so much of experimentation as it is about execution.

And when it comes to execution, there’s no running away from it. We’re back to the Static Stage that we saw in Part 1! We’re going back to benchmarking, self-analysis, and perseverance. We’ve now reached full circle, or as I like to call it, full spiral.

The Full Learning Cycle:

Static -> Frustration -> Success -> Failure -> Experimentation ->Success & Failure Revisited -> Back to the Beginning! (new spiral)At the new spiral, we’re start again at the Static Stage. But we realize that we are actually at a higher level! We are now fairly consistent in making workers, we understand what kind of strategies would triumph against various play styles, and we are more well-versed in different build orders. What needs to be done now is very specific work in the areas that need brushing up. Every time we make it through this cycle, we effectively go up one spiral. And although the spiral never ends, the fact is that we keep getting higher and higher, and better and better. That in itself is an inspiration to keep blazing through the Static and Frustration stages especially. After awhile, our attitude towards success and failure also tends to even out; we realize that a success today does not guarantee a success tomorrow, and more often than not, a failure right now would forge for us a success tomorrow. Finally, our mind never stays stagnant, although contradictorily it becomes more stable! We are now able to even formulate strategies and counters in our minds without consulting so many sources, as we have a lot of material to work with. Because of this level of complexity in our minds, our thinking becomes more stable and less fragmented. We can organize ourselves to work towards solutions that have better pay offs, and we can accept the costs and failures that come with it along the way.While most of this post is spoken in terms of Starcraft 2, it is written with life itself in mind. All of the lessons here can be applied to whatever you choose to endeavour in, and because life is a never ending lesson, we are all welcome to partake in the Learning Cycle/Spiral together, sharpening each other along the way! Who knows, one day you could be somebody else’s Day [9], or FilterSC, or Apollo, or you might even start a Liquipedia of your own calling. It’s never too late to start, and always too early to give up!

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