A guide to learning Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm

Over the last two years I have played quite a lot of Starcraft. I’ve gone from being completely new to the game up to Gold in 1v1 and Platinum in 2v2.Along the way I’ve levelled all three races up to max and tried almost every strategy and tactic in the book. Clearly I’m still not a master in any way – I’m still learning a lot every time I play. That being said I’ve made enough mistakes and wasted enough time on things that I think I can give some advice on common problems and some of the best ways to learn.


1. Setting up your PC
2. Watching and Learning
3. Picking a race
4. Macro
5. Micro
6. Unit compositions


1. Setting up your PC


Setting up your PC is vital to making an environment where you can play – and learn – effectively. When I started out I was playing while sitting on a bed, using a TV as my monitor. None of this was ideal but sometimes your living situation dictates where you need to game. The important thing is to get in a comfy chair/position where you won’t need to move around and to make sure your mouse is on a stable flat surface. For every half-second you spend shifting your seat or your mouse is unresponsive for whatever reason, terrible things could happen. You also need to make sure you are far away enough from your TV or monitor that you can easily see the whole screen at once, particularly the lower left corner. Keeping some focus on your minimap is essential and if you’re sitting close to a big TV, this is going to be a problem.

In terms of settings there are different schools of thought. I personally play with everything on ultra because the game can look so nice. Often when you watch streams you’ll see that everything is ugly as sin. That’s not because those streamers have terrible PCs, it’s because when you go to tournaments you have no idea what hardware you’ll be playing on. If you are used to Ultra settings and you turn up and can only play on very low you’re going to be thrown off your game because it looks dramatically different at lower settings. If you practise with everything on low at least you can always switch PCs to that. Some people argue that it makes cloaked units (dark templars, banshees etc) easier to see as well. If you’re not expecting to go to any tournaments, it’s entirely up to you, if they are your aim you might want to turn everything down. Regardless of your preferred quality make sure that you are running the game at 60fps. Some movements and decisions need to made in split-second timings and keeping the game fluid is going to be important to you.

Lastly if you’re going to be playing for extended periods (we strongly recommend taking breaks every couple of hours) make sure your monitor/TV isn’t set too bright. You need to be alert and focused while playing Starcraft and if you have the brightness or contrast up too high (or backlight on LED screens) you’re going to get eye fatigue and start missing things or potentially damage your vision. Look after your eyes – they’re probably the only ones you’ll ever have. If eye fatigue is a problem for you it might be worth checking out the Gunnar glasses. I know they seem gimmicky but when we reviewed them we were surprised to see that they actually do have some kind of effect and it could solve a problem for you.

2. Watching and Learning


Thankfully there are loads of different ways to watch other Starcraft players. We use Twitch.tv a lot and at any time of day you’ll finder streamers and often tournaments. It can be really useful to watch tournaments such as WCS due to the commentary which will often explain to you why certain things are happening. It’s also possible (and potentially even more useful) to download replays right into the Starcraft 2 client from sites such as Team Liquid and GGTracker. While watching replays in the client you can see the game from different players’ points of view and slow down or speed up the game at different parts, as well as seeing statistics like Actions Per Minute (APM) or their resources lost. When you’re starting out it can be a great way to learn build orders as at any given time the first two minutes or so of a game are often quite similar and managing to pull off those starting sequences effectively will help you no end.

It is worth noting that you need to be careful when basing your play off professionals as they will use strategies that simply won’t work for you at first. For instance many Terran players will use a single bunker when playing against Zerg. They’ll get rushed by speedlings and be able to hold them off effectively while you’ll try to do exactly the same thing and get destroyed. This is because all the other skills that Terran player has will help them to overcome that threat effectively while saving a few hundred minerals by not walling off. Unless your scouting, micro and game sense is as good as theirs, you need to spend those minerals on some supply depots or an extra bunker to wall off. Similarly high-level players will be able to make pushes work with a handful of units due to their excellent control and ability to multitask while taking fights without losing any units. Until your micro is that good it’s simply not going be easy enough to imitate.

Lots of channels on Twitch will be dedicated to teaching people how to play and you can find hundreds of Youtube videos that explain everything in a lot of detail. It’s worth watching those big tournaments and expert streamers for entertainment and to get some ideas, but you can’t just copy what they do and expect to win.

Once you do have some games under your belt, make sure you watch replays of games you both win and lose. If you’ve won it’s always interesting to watch back and see if you could have won even quicker, or if something you thought you did well turned out just to be dumb luck. In a recent 2v2 game with Le Petit Dodo we thought we’d held off an attack amazingly and managed to counterattack and take them down. When watching the replay we realised one of the opponents had long periods where they weren’t building anything and they had only expanded to extra bases when the fighting was already lost. If we’d tried the same tactics against a competent player we never would have won using the same strategy so it was good to realise how lucky we’d been.

When you are watching your replays back look for large scale mistakes that you’re making and where you’re losing pace. Do you expand early enough? Does your army size take too long to get going? Are you spreading creep? Are you remembering to upgrade? Are you scouting at the right times? Try to identify one of these issues and then in the next few games focus entirely on that. Keep going until you avoid that mistake naturally and then move on to something else. If you try to take on too many changes at once you won’t learn to do any of them well and you won’t be able to work out exactly that’s causing an issue.

3. Picking a Race


You might not hear this on Reddit very often but Blizzard do a very good job of balancing all of the races. Never pick your main race based on whichever one is apparently ‘OP’ (overpowered) at any given time, a single patch can change it in an instant. It’s also not a good idea to go for Random until you’re confident with the game as each race plays so differently it’ll take you much longer to earn any of them well. Instead have a play against the AI, watch some streams and then try to make an informed choice. If you don’t gel with one, just move on to another until you find something that seems manageable to you. From my perspective these are the main differences between the races.


Terrans play the most like old-style Command and Conquer. There’s a heavy emphasis on logistics with base building and transporting units being incredibly important. Once a Terran’s production gets going it’s incredibly hard to stop so it can be extremely satisfying to have streams of units marching across the map. Unfortunately Terrans do lack any exceptionally strong single units, with Ghosts’ nuclear weapons and Battle Cruisers rarely being particularly useful. If you enjoy planning out bases and maximising production Terran might be a good place to start and they also have some tools like scans and mules that can make sure you avoid common irritating problems.


I currently play Zerg and they focus on map control and an unmatched ability to repopulate their units once they get going. Zerg can cope better than the other races with losing units so if your micro isn’t great they might be a good place to look. Zerg do have a wide variety of options available to them at any given time and have some interesting spellcasting units that allow them to control areas with abducts, blinding clouds, fungals and burrowing. Zerg are also the easiest race to get an early fighting force so if you’re worried about getting rushed, Zerg find it much easier to defend than some of the others. Unfortunately they can be frustrating as once you lose map control, the end-game can become very difficult unless you’re able to use the more complicated units very effectively. There’s quite a lot to remember as you play Zerg with creep spread, larva injects and a need for constant expansion.


Protoss revolve around few but highly powerful units. They are exceptionally tech-based and many of their units fulfil the ‘glass cannon’ archetype, fulfilling a single role exceptionally well but having some real weaknesses that can be easily exploited. Because of the power of Protoss armies and their ability to be effective even off two bases, Protoss can be an intimidating enemy. Learning unit roles and counters is vital when playing as a Protoss and you need to learn to scout effectively or your expensive army might end up being completely useless. Once Protoss gets going it can be seemingly unstoppable and the term ‘Protoss Death Ball’ is frequently heard in tournaments. Protoss excel in longer games and are potentially the most challenging to play due to nearly every unit have castable abilities that must be used in order to be effective.

4. Macro


Macro means the large-scale management of your army and production and for a new players it is the main thing you want to be getting right. You need to be able to expand quickly and get an army up ready before you are attacked. If you can master the art of Macro you’ll win many fights by simply destroying your enemy when they push an attack, and then being able to respond before they can replenish. The key elements of macro are drone/probe/SCV production, expansion, supply management and production capabilities. You want to always be making mining units until you have 16 on minerals for each base and 6 on gas. Once one base is maxed you should be expanding if it is safe to do so, maybe earlier for Zerg. You need to make sure you always have enough supply to create another handful of units and finally you need enough production to make use of all of your income. Any minerals or gas sitting in the bank is completely wasted so you should be aiming to spend absolutely everything unless you are saving up for a particular reason. 1000 minerals could be 20 units that could be harassing an enemy base on preventing an expansion or it could be a set of defences to protect your newest expansion against stealthed units. When watching replays if you ever have a huge bank, are capped at supply or your income is below everyone else’s, try to fix this as a priority.

5. Micro


Micro is less important early on but when you watch streamers you will see a lot of attention paid to it. Basically micro is the ability to control units in such a way that you maximise the damage they inflict while minimising what they sustain. This requires an intimate knowledge of ranges and damage values that you can find all over the internet (remember it changes with every patch so make sure you’re reading a current source). In essence you will want to be able to make sure that you don’t just send your whole army to attack as one big blob. You need to assign hotkeys to different groups of units (hold ctrl and press a number, then hold shift and press a number to add units to that group) and then control them in groups. Make sure your longer-range units are behind those with more armour, keep your flying units away from AA, be ready to use abilities with the press of a button. When you have good micro you can learn to ‘kite’ your opponents by moving yours back, attacking and then repeating over and over again. This stops melee or short-range enemies from being able to get a single shot off. This tricks means Phoenixes can take down swarms of mutalisks without any damage, marines can destroy zealots, zerglings and banelings and Stalkers can become almost invincible once they have blink. In Bronze and Silver leagues just worry about Macro for now, but above that Micro skills are going to start winning you wars.

6. Unit Compositions


Another key element of Starcraft 2 is unit composition. It’s all too tempting to find a powerful unit you like and then just create an army made solely of that. Unfortunately that’s a recipe for disaster. Unprotected Collossi can be taken down by Speedlings, Mutas can be eliminated by marines, even carriers, thors and ultralisks can be rendered useless if they don’t have support.

Try to get into a habit of combining strong armoured tanky units (Zealots, Marauders, Roaches) with damage dealing ranged units (Stalkers, Marines, Hydralisks), some kind of crowd-control caster (Sentries, Ravens, Infestors), detection (Observers, still Ravens, Overseers) and maybe some AoE (Colossi, Siege Tanks, Banelings). Of course depending on what your opponent has opted for you might be able to exploit a weakness. If they have no AA (they’ve gone for mass Roach/Zealot) you can go with Banshees, Mutas or Void Rays. If they’ve gone for all armoured units you can focus on units like Immortals that have a bonus against armour. There’s hundreds of interesting interactions between units in Starcraft 2 and gaining experience in what works against what is part of the fun of learning the game. You do need to remember to pay attention to it though.


Most of all, just remember to have fun with the game. It’s easy to burn out when you’re learning a new competitive game and Starcraft can be as frustrating as any other. Battle.net attempts to match you in such a way that you’re winning 50% of the time, so you should be expecting to lose half of your games. If you can see those as learning experiences, you’ll only ever get better.


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