Cover image by zXk3
Mind over Mechanics - The Art and Science of Starcraft
TeamLiquid: Final Edits
One of the beauties of Starcraft is that it is a game that is open to change, and constant evolution. Players change, styles change, and the meta-game is in constant flux. As various writers have noted over the past few months, the arrival of people like Jaedong and Flash on the scene forever altered the way we looked at the pro scene.
While Koreans were always a step above the foreign community in terms of strategy, tactics and gameplay in general, Jaedong and Flash just took it to a whole new level. Years of competitive ladder play, and a killer amateur scene had pushed standards higher and higher, and the new breed of pro gamers was mirroring the difference.
As Rage pointed out in his TLFE classic Mind Games, often it's “preparation, confidence and decision-making that makes one player win over the other”. In modern Starcraft, build orders are the order of the day (pun totally intended), with countering them well being the key to winning. No longer can a player just waltz into a series, and walk all over his opponent with pure class.
Class, which many moons ago meant style, panache and punch, now means preparation, mechanics, and a lot of practice. This is not to say that the likes of Boxer and Nada didn't practice – they did, and their multiple titles stand testament to the hours they put in the training room. The practice referred to here is the repetitive, if somewhat detached execution and re-execution of a build until it becomes familiar, habitual, and finally, instinctual.
Familiarity, as we all know, is good. If you know a build well, everything falls in to place. From Flash's TvZ mech, to Fantasy's revolutionary Valkyries, smart build orders have been the cause for many a win in recent years. However, as the ladder players out there will be able to tell us, a great build is useless unless it is executed flawlessly. Fortunately, the new calibre of pro gamer is able to do just that.
Which calibre you ask?
Why, the mechaniacs (my coinage), of course. What? The mechanically sound maniacs who seem to rip through everyone in their path. Obviously, I'm talking about Lee Jaedong and Lee Young Ho, and how untouchable they look when they're on top of their game.
Jaedong and Flash, co-owners of Mechaniacs Ltd.
So, are the mechaniacs untouchable?
Looking back on recent progaming history, it would be hard to argue otherwise. Then again, I'm going to do just that. While I do concede that the pro scene has proven to be very favourable for mechanical players in recent times, my hypothesis is that the insane mechanics that Flash and Jaedong pioneered are slowly becoming normalised, and that the gamers who gain the edge in the coming months will be those who cultivate another important aspect of play.
Looking back on OSL history, one can theorise that the Daum OSL was the last in which the old, non mechanical style of play dominated. In a beautiful final, GGPlay and Iris showed us exactly what Starcraft of old looked like. Coming back from an impossible 0 – 2 to take the series, GGPlay proved that the game was still very much about attitude.
The months roll on, and we begin to see some new kids on the block. The first, and therefore arguably the harbinger of doom, is none other than Jaedong. The Legend Killer, the Heir to the Zerg Throne left vacant by Savior, Lee Jaedong took the pro scene by storm. Showing incredible muta micro and mind blowing defiler use, he was quickly hailed as the next big thing in Starcraft, and rightly so. His walk to the throne was swift, and brutal, losing only 3 games each in both the EVER2007 OSL and the GOMTV MSL S4.
Next, we have Lee Young Ho, the KTF wonder kind, who in the space of a season, moved from being cheese master to Little Monster. Showing incredible macro, game sense, and above all, speed and accuracy, Flash ripped through the Bacchus OSL, going 11 – 4 in the series, and leaving even Jaedong in the dust. Mechanics, it turns out, can be beaten by mechanics, something which fOrGG must have been reminding himself of constantly as he squared off against and beat the The Legend Killer in the Arena MSL 2008.
By this time, the mechaniacs were fairly well established, and their Protoss incarnation, Best, had stepped into the limelight. Sporting a Dark Protoss style, this SKT1 macro machine tore through the likes of Nada, Stork, Much and Luxury to reach the finals of the EVER2008 OSL. Kingdom's apprentice, the expectations were high for him to walk the Royal Road. July, the pundits said, though being unstoppable in his prime, was far from his peak, and was no match for Best's current form. Best was tipped to win, and win handsomely at that.
Best, who was tipped to be the best thing out of Aiur since Nal_rA.
Unfortunately for him, it was here that he macroed himself into the wall that was Park Sung Joon. In a rather one sided beatdown, the Zerg veteran started off with a 5pool and ended with an epic ultraling run over. July was in control from start to finish, and even departed from his usual hungry Zerg play to give the audience a treat via the five base smack down mentioned earlier. It was a finals in which experience clearly trumped speed and accuracy. It was, in every sense of the word, mind over mechanics. Best got silver, July got the golden mouse.
Was the tide turning? Only time would tell.
Enter the Incruit 2008 OSL, and the rise of another mechaniac, this time from the Terran camp. Fantasy, by all accounts, is one of the most mechanically perfect players on the scene today. With well practiced builds, and flawless execution, he dispatched Nada, Mind, and GGPlay on his way to the finals, showing complete dominance versus the latter, and pioneering a new Valkyrie based mech build that would be hailed as a TvZ revolution.
And then he met Stork. From his fierce proxy gate opening into probe harras, to his beautifully executed DT drop, Stork showed complete control in the two opening games. While definitely a strong player, Stork showed more than mechanics in these two games. Harassing, containing, sniping, Song Byung Goo was everywhere. The map was his, the game was his, and Fantasy was always on the back foot. There was, of course, a resurgence in the next few games, in which the SKT1 Terran came back to almost take the series. Almost.
In Game 5, Stork returned to his original form and controlled the game from start to finish. As Fantasy typed out, there was no question as to who was the better player. Stork had just successfully beaten one of the most impressive Terrans of the season.
The tide rolls in.
As Plexa has pointed out, “post Savior Starcraft” (A State of Starcraft) is an arena in which “every game is a mental struggle for superiority”, a facet that came into play in both the EVER 2008 OSL and the Incruit 2008 OSL, where July and Stork respectively opened with aggressive, in-your-face builds that immediately put their less experienced opponents on the back foot.
”My belief in best of 5 series is not skill but your mind. That is why I 5-pooled in my first game.” - July, in his EVER 2008 OSL Winner Interview
In Game 1 of the Incruit 2008 OSL Finals, Stork, with everything on the line, decided to bring his probes into play.
What did Stork and July have that Best and Fantasy didn't? Was it experience? Could be. It's obvious however, that it was a psychological advantage, gained not only by their time in the pro gaming scene, but also by their attitude to the game. While the two SKT1 youngsters seem to approach Starcraft from a highly technical point of view that focuses on speed and accuracy, Stork and July are remnants of the old school, who relied on another factor, a facet of the game that cannot be so easily dissected - attitude.
As Stork showed in his epic Semi Final timing push against Best, even the best (again, pun intended) build orders can be mauled by ingenuity, quick thinking, and split second decision making – none of which can be practiced. This was not mechanics. It was mind.
Stork, entering The Zone.
Fantasy, wondering what just happened.
July, after five pooling against the same Protoss, carried that psychological advantage with him through till the last game, where he departed from his usual style of play and walked all over his opponent using five bases. This was not mechanics. It was mind.
In the end, it was just a walk in the park for both of them.
While heightened mechanics have certainly changed the way pro SC is played, my contention is that this trend will soon wane, especially as older players adapt to the technically proficient new comers. The mechanical revolution is nearing its end, and the future is going to revolve around the players that can put mind over matter. You can teach macro, you can teach micro, but you can't teach attitude.
This, in essence, is where Starcraft can be separated as an Art and a Science. Mechanics, speed, accuracy, these are the scientific elements of the game – they can be measured precisely, and executed with great precision. They form the base of the game at the higher levels. No player, no matter how skilled he or she is, is gonna be able to perform with the professionals if he or she doesn't have his basic technicalities down. In short, courage hopefuls need to macro it up if they want to get anywhere.
Having said that, what really separates the best from the rest is the Art of Starcraft, that unmistakable visual poetry that the likes of Boxer display. Unlike mechanics, this flair, this attitude, this oomph cannot be practiced. Watching Lim Yo Hwan lock down multiple carriers, or EMP and nuke a Nexus is akin to watching a great artist at work. There is not just technical proficiency in his strokes, there is also beauty, and grace, and dominance – the assurance that The Emperor knows what he is doing, and that nothing, and no one can stop him. Very few players hit this plane in games these days, but when they do, time really does stand still.
Sure, hours of practice do pay off, as seen by the OSL titles held by Flash and Jaedong. However, sometimes, you just gotta make like Stork's DTs on their way into Fantasy's main, and wing it. With Proleague five days a week, and three simultaneous individual leagues, we all get to see a lot of Starcraft. Some games are exciting, some are boring, but in general, the pro scene is pretty entertaining.
Then again, sometimes, for a game or two, we get to see a player step up and do the unexpected, the unorthodox, the unbelievable. Time stands still, and you just stare open mouthed as four mines hit each other and die, and listen intently as two Dark Templar high five themselves in a shuttle that seems to own the very sky itself. That, right there, is the Art, the mind, the attitude that separates the maestros from the mechaniacs, and is what will define the game in the months to come.