Disclaimer: I am a mid-Master-level Zerg player, and I originally wrote this bit for my little sister, who has inherited my gaming rig along with [hopefully] the Starcraft bug (pun intended...) Over the course of my journey, I've learned a great deal and have been fortunate enough to compete against many great players who have enriched my understanding of the game and deepened my skill level. Knowing how many aspiring Zerg players there are, I figured it might be a good idea to share it. I must warn you: this post is seriously long (5,000+ words), and that it may be too rudimentary for players towards the upper end of the spectrum, but I sincerely hope it may be of some use to you, and look forward to hearing everyone's feedback. Play well!
Mastering Zerg Mechanics
Note: The following techniques can be looked upon as the basic requirements to achieve Master-level rank. It’s important to understand that Master League is only the beginning of high level play. As such, these requirements may appear to be overwhelming, but as Spanishiwa once said: “The way to get really good is to incorporate one thing at a time and focus on it until it becomes second nature, then add the next thing.” (paraphrased) Therefore, picking skill-level-appropriate actions to focus on and integrate into your play and mastering them is the way to eventually acquire all of these mechanics.
Fundamentals: Overmind Psychology
Each race has its strengths and weaknesses. Understanding the basics of your race psychology is a great way to familiarize yourself with its inherent strengths and abilities, at least in theory. Embracing these concepts will allow you to maximize the effectiveness of your race, as the overall race mechanic very much plays into this style. To play like a Zerg, you must first learn to think like a Zerg.
The most important thing to understand about playing Zerg is that it is primarily a reactive race. This means your goal is always to develop its full potential in response to the choices made by your opponent, while building up and biding for map control, a stronger economy, and superior numbers and map presence. There is a simple reason for this: all other races can produce fighting units and workers at the same time, while Zerg relies on its hatcheries to spawn larvae and then use those larvae to produce game-appropriate forces in real time with great efficiency.
When droning, Zerg’s ability to make units is compromised. If producing units, the economy suffers and slows subsequent expansion. Therefore, Zerg relies on map awareness and scouting to determine when it’s safe to drone and when all resources must go towards producing a standing army as quickly as possible. In this way, every unit made early on that is NOT a drone is therefore an indirect setback to the in-game future of the swarm.
It’s no coincidence that Zerg gets the best map-control tools in the game: Speedlings, Overlords, and Creep, or that a Zerg given free reign will always max out at 200 supply substantially faster than the other races. (Terran and Protoss know this, and will pressure you to slow your rate of growth by forcing you to produce units. It’s because they know that if left unchecked you will soon become too much to deal with!)
Your success as a Zerg player therefore depends on being able to absorb any potential damage and persevere in following your development trajectory (see below).
Note: Reactionary does NOT necessarily mean defensive or passive. The greatest Zerg players (Jaedong, Life, Stephano) are quick to exploit an opponent’s weakness with a timely attack, however, any such attack is still built upon the knowledge of what your opponent is doing and where his weaknesses are, which is achieved in part through game sense (at the highest level), and in part through scouting and the resulting decision making.
The Three E’s of Zerg Psychology
The Overmind’s 3 primal instincts should always be to:
- Evolve. Make informed decisions as to which direction to take with your development (which tech to unlock/pursue and in what order, and how to maximize your upgrades), as well as knowing what the appropriate unit counter is.
- Expand. Simply put, to continue to grow your presence and economy until you take the entire map. The Zerg’s goal is to grow exponentially and consume all available resources. “Take the map bro!”
- Engulf. This means become so powerful that you eventually overtake your opponent with sheer force and volume. You should SMASH an attacking force with a swarm of appropriate unit counter.
A good Terran friend of mine conveyed this well when he said “A good Zerg is hard to kill, but a great Zerg is endless.” This “endless” Zerg quality will eventually wear down and consume an opponent who failed to inflict sufficient economic damage.
Note: If you wish to dictate the pace of the game, have a multitude of tech choices and harassment options, play from solid fortified positions, and “take it to him”, consider a different race option.
Fundamentals: The True Cost of a Drone
It’s no accident that one of LiquidTLO’s handles is GameOfDrones. Aside from being exceedingly clever, it perfectly sums up the essence of Zerg play, which is all about the drone. Droning enough and at the right time is the single game mechanic that separates high-level (Diamond and above) play from low-level play (Platinum and below).
If I was to ask you how much a drone costs, what would you say? 50 minerals? Yes and no. The correct answer is exponential. A drone mines anywhere between 39-45 minerals per minute (depending on mineral patch proximity and overall saturation). Therefore, an early-game drone that has kept mining for 10 minutes is worth a whopping 440-500 minerals! That’s one bloody expensive drone!
The reason this is important to understand is because the opportunity cost of every drone that you fail to make early on is equal to the amount of minerals that drone would have mined had he been alive. Failing to make enough early-game drones is the biggest thing that will keep you confined to the lower leagues. When learning how to play, it’s OK to over produce drones and die to an attack because you failed to make enough units in time (even though you had 3k minerals). Perfect macro will come with time. What won’t come is the mineral income you would have had if you had achieved minimal baseline saturation (roughly 40 drones on 2 base) by roughly 7 minutes into the game. That lost mineral economy will snowball into a huge economic deficit by the mid-game and put you behind. So, at least in the beginning, try to lose because you over-droned rather than because you didn’t make enough of drones.
The Zerg Macro Mechanic
- Know exactly what supply = 40 drones. This is the zerg baseline of survival. As already mentioned, failing to achieve 40 drones as early as humanly possible spells disastrous economic consequences in the mid-game. Example: 3 queens + 4 sets of lings = 10 supply. Therefore, 40 drones = 50 supply (52 to be safe). Always strive to achieve this supply by 7 minutes. In-game test: If you made 4 queens and 12 lings, but half the lings died in a fight, and your overall supply reads 44, what supply do you need to achieve for baseline survival saturation?
- Overlord timings are 9 (10 if doing extractor trick), 15, 24, 31, and 40x2 (assuming a sacrificial scout). After that, each inject should be immediately followed by the same # of overlords as hatcheries injected (more rationale for this later).
- Replace every drone used to construct a building with 2 drones before constructing the next building. This is not necessarily a must but better than the alternative. Exceptions are: double evo, double gas, or static defense at time of pressure when making units is mandatory. I cannot tell you the number of games I lost because I over-built static defense (indirect economic damage) and then made units to feel safe, which left my mid-game economy in shambles!
- When Macroing, watch for the moment when suddenly the larva bar reads full. That means the injects have popped, and consequently it is time to: a) use them immediately to prevent larvae block (when hatches hold more than 3 and stop producing trickle larvae) b) inject again, and c) produce overlords.
- Pick ONE inject method and stick to it: such as the backspace method, cam position hotkeys, or minimap (not recommended). Using more than one method is a bad idea, as it will slow you down unnecessarily and disrupt your Production Cycle (see below);
- Define and master what is commonly referred to as a Production Cycle or an Inject Cycle. This is akin to a full, start-to-finish Zerg breath. An inject cycle takes crucial actions required for macroing effectively and groups them together, to train muscle memory and pace the game. An effective example used by EGJD is:
- Queue Overlords x # of hatcheries injected (IE 3 hatcheries injected = 3 overlords);
- pre-rally overlord eggs to desired position on mini-map;
- double-tap dedicated creep queen key and drop tumor;
- spread nearby tumors;
- double-tap dedicated scout key and queue up scouting route (can be done with forward lings or main army as well).
Done properly, this takes 10 seconds or less and achieves ALL of the baseline macro objectives, complete with scouting info of opponent’s tech/army comp and what counter is needed, and, most importantly whether you are safe to make drones or need to be making units. Convenient, since the larva will pop in about another 10 seconds and the overlords will spawn in perfect time for you to use up that supply with either units or drones and re-start the Production Cycle.
- ABC: Always be creeping!
- Familiarize yourself and always strive to follow The Zerg Developmental Trajectory, which is a fancy way of saying what Zerg needs to do (and in what order) to realize its full potential in the late game. The timing and order of this trajectory will change slightly depending on what’s happening in-game, but the broad strokes will always remain the same, in every game and every match up.
- Learn how to macro-bind your units to their respective control groups. This is done by CNTRL+clicking the eggs (de-selects the larva, leaving only the eggs selected), and hitting Shift+# where # is the hotkey of the appropriate control group. Example: When spawning zerglings to be grouped to Cntrl group 2, you select larva, hold down Z, the cntrl+click the eggs to de-select larvae, then hit Shift+2. This pre-assigns un-spawned units to join the specified control group before they even hatch, greatly speeding up production, regrouping, and eliminating almost all need for rallies.
The Zerg Developmental Trajectory
Understanding the Tiers:
Every unit at the lower tiers is needed only to help get you to a unit in the higher tiers. This is a good theoretical rule of thumb to follow. Your goal should always be to progress through the tiers (see below), so getting stuck on low-level, un-upgraded units longer than absolutely necessary should be avoided. There are exceptions to this rule (such as when you need to re-max quickly on T2, or include Speedlings with your Ultra army, for example. However, in this case the Speedlings should already be 3/3 with Adrenal glands, and as such, are no longer a true Tier 1 unit.)
The Zerg Tech tree becomes progressively accessible with subsequent hatch mutations. IE
- Hatchery tech = T1
Lair Tech = T2
Hive Tech = T3
There are also intermediary tiers here, such as Roach (tier 1.5, as it is armored and requires an additional structure at Hatch tech to produce) and Viper (As it requires no Spire, only Hive to produce. Please note that this last point is widely debated and not set in stone. Liquipedia has an entry on this here: Liquipedia Definitions. While they do refer to a Viper as Tier 3, it requires no Tier 3 structures. I'd like to stress that the actual definition of the Tier is not as important as knowing where in the tech tree your desired tech lies and how to get there in the most efficient way possible.)
It should be the goal of every Zerg player to progress through the Tiers in the quickest and most efficient way possible, thereby unlocking the entire tech tree by the late-mid-game, allowing the proper utilization of the race’s inherent production strengths and immediate reactive counters to opponent’s tech. That’s not to say you will need every unit in every game, merely to illustrate that Zerg is strongest when the entire tech tree is available for utilization. Therefore, there will indeed be games when the entire tech tree needs to be open, and the only question is which order it needs to happen in.
The Trajectory Itself:
(Please note that this is written in broad-strokes with regard to the general progression the race follows from early-to-late game. It is intended to illustrate to lower-level players the way the race's strength can best be unleashed and what to strive for as their skill and level of mechanical self-management begins to grow. Obviously if you are highly skilled you will find your own ways of adopting the trajectory to your unique style and needs in-game.)
- Get to +/- 40 drones ASAP. This is not a whim. AkrhRH, GM and my favorite coach taught me this first.
- Scout your opponent at about 7 minutes or roughly 50 supply with a fly-in (not always necessary in ZvZ);
- Get the Evo chamber down immediately after achieving 2-base saturation, double Evo if your early-game econ is strong and fast, single if it feels weak or compromised via pressure/attack, etc.
- Take additional gas. Know how much gas you will need for what. Example: Defend an early toss push with roaches—2 gas. Offensive roach production: 3 gas. Defensive 1-base baneling play, 1 gas (2 drones), offensive 1-base baneling play: 1 gas, 3 drones. Mass hydra to defend vs phoenix or voidray: 4 gas. Mass muta: 4 gas plus pre-gas third for immediate 6 gas. Look these up on TL or ask higher ranked players for advice on gas timing and never get too much gas too soon (refer to the true cost of a drone). For the purposes of this post, we will say that you will be powering double-evo for melee and armor attacks against Terran. Therefore, your build may look something like this: 2 evo, 2 drones, gas(G)2, drone (rally on G2 = 1/3), G3, drone (rally G2 = 2/3 ), G4, drone (rally G2 = 3/3), three drones (rally G3), three drones (rally G4). Always take your gasses like this unless it’s an emergency. Zerg is the only race with the ability to train new workers onto gas, and this works out perfectly as your drones will hatch and rally just as the gas becomes available, keeping your mineral saturation consistent and allowing the mineral drones to remain dedicated to mining. Obviously, this mechanic is debatable. Do what feels right. I've found that taking/saturating one gas at a time in rapid succession is the most natural way to grow my gas Econ, so experiment with what works best for you.
- Upon gas saturation, we start the double upgrades. If starting a single upgrade, I would opt for Armor (affects all units, including drones and queens). Drop 2nd Evo when the armor is 3/4 of the way done, resume double upgrades (depending on game sense). Make no mistake; upgrades are literally the end-all. (Theory: Zerg units are inherently cost inefficient and rely instead on their mobility and rapid production. The major things deciding whether your will be cost-efficient are: 1) MACRO, 2) UPGRADES, and 3) in-game decision of whether to engage, and if so, how and when. Exceptions: upgrades are delayed if immediately under attack, and all costs must be spent on units (unless poor macro, and you already have evos and 1000+ minerals and gas, in which case screw it, go ahead and upgrade.)
- Take a third*, replace drone, macro hatch, replace drone, then:
- Make some safety Tier 1 units after taking a third and use them for aggressive scouting/prodding the opponent to determine his confidence level and army composition.
- Upon starting upgrades, tech to Lair. Upon starting Lair, position and bind the soon-to-be Overseer to the most advantageous vantage point from where he will be able to scout the remaining tech.
- @Lair tech, make your tech choice and determine if additional gas is needed at the third base to power this tech. (Mutas = yes, 6 gas asap, pre-saturate before the hatch comes up in most cases. Infestor-heavy play = 6 gas. Hydras = 5 gas, mass roach off 3 base = 4 gas, etc etc.
- Start 2/2 upgrades immediately upon finishing 1/1 and start the infestation pit if not already started. Remember this: 2/2 = a great time for Infestation Pit. The reason for this is you will need Infestation Pit to tech to Hive (which you need for Tier 3 units and upgrades) and the time to get Inf. P + Hive is roughly the same as it takes for 2/2 to finish. Therefore, ideal perfect-world macro = 1/1, lair, 2/2, infestation pit, hive, 3/3 and max by the time 3/3 is finished.
*Third timing will vary slightly depending on matchup and game status. Most of all, it depends on your economy. If baseline saturation (+/- 40 drones) is achieved, the macro mechanic will let you know by itself when you’re ready to take a third, as you will not be able to spend your minerals in a single inject cycle off 2 base. Unless saving for specific things like upgrades or units, this is the optimal time to take a 3rd base, followed by a macro hatchery (diamond or above; use discretion. Platinum and under, I would advise to always get a macro hatch as you will often miss multiple inject cycles in a row but will still need the extra larvae a macro hatch provides. The best place to put macro hatchery is in the natural, which tanks damage in the event of a push or all-in, and even if destroyed allows 2-base mining to continue
- Always drone scout on 10, in every matchup except ZvZ (unless on a 2-player map, in which case scouting to prevent all-in until you’re comfortable holding them with drones may be a good idea). I don’t recommend listening to people who say drone scouting is unnecessary on certain maps, etc., until your game sense develops enough to rely solely on your intuition. Drone scouting reduces chances of losing to proxy cheese by nearly 100%. It improves your APM and game awareness, annoys/delays your opponent, and most importantly, achieves immediate map control.
- Always use a dedicated hotkey for scouting. Mine was ~ (tilde). I bind this to early scouter drone, then to the first overlord closest to my opponent’s base to fly in around 40 supply or 7 minutes. Vs Toss, Look for pylon placement (this is where the future tech is going to be!). Whatever the hotkey, use that and ONLY that hotkey for scouting and ONLY for scouting. Why? Because in this way, scouting will become second nature and will never have to be remembered again.
- Upon scouting into opponent’s base at 7 min, reposition/rebind the next overlord to become an Overseer scout.
- Morph overseer scout IMMEDIATELY upon Lair tech and queue his path (if vs Toss, scout past the Pylons scouted earlier as this is likely where the new tech will appear). Queuing saves time and ensures that he will go in, likely get shot, and alert you to what he saw so you don’t have to remember to come back to him as he’s morphing.
- Always spawn-rally overlords to every mineral cluster on the map, starting with the space around your base and then the closest minerals to your base. The exceptions are: original 1st ovie (far scout), 10 ovie (natural, then third, and 15 ovie (scouts edge of main for drop or air).
- Always drop creep on your opponent’s third, and put lings in the mineral line at his 4th+5th.
- In any game, any match up, always and forever fight for control of the towers and post a forward ling. The FWD ling is different from the closest tower in that it goes immediately outside your opponent’s base and stays there to alert you to his moving out/expansion timing. Always replace FWD lings immediately upon being killed. (An effective way of doing this is to select your control group with lings, right click on the location you want them to go, the SHIFT+click on one ling, pull the group back by clicking away on the minimap, and hit Cntrl+# to re-set the control group without the ling in it. Done with practice, all of this takes less than a second.
- Bind a creep queen to her separate hotkey. Use that and ONLY that hotkey for creep and ONLY for creep, and do it at a given time in your inject cycle (IE, for example, immediately after spawn-rallying ovies after inject). In this way, creep will become second nature and will never be skipped or forgotten - because it can’t, since it has become like breathing.
- Don’t neglect PRESSURE as a means of scouting. If you have units that are not immediately defending, they should be actively poking and prodding to elicit a response. This response from your opponent will reveal his composition and confidence level (IE - he will either run, or chase, and that will allow you to know if you should make units or drones. Chasing you? Make units. Running? Make drones. This tug of war is the appropriate way to use your units, NEVER allow un-used units to be inactive, sitting in your base. (The exception here per Shuffleblade in comments is when drop/warp prism play necessitates a small contingency of units in-base for defense purposes. Technically, though, we would not consider those units to be inactive as they are purposefully defending a drop.)
Soft VS Hard Pressure
Soft pressure is an implied threat. Terran sieging up at the edge of your creep is an example of this. It’s a threat that, if left un-addressed, will sooner or later turn into hard-pressure.
Hard Pressure is anything that has the potential to inflict actual and immediate damage. Going off the example above, that same sieged up Terran scanning and pushing in with a few marines to start killing your creep tumors is the beginning of hard pressure. Drops are another example.
The reason these distinctions are important is because you as a Zerg player must master the art of soft-pressuring your opponent. Aside from being one of the best ways of buying time and scouting, it will often provoke your opponent into escalating into hard pressure before he is ready/fully regrouped. This works to your advantage because again, you’re able to re-max so much faster, particularly when you have the defender’s advantage.
Mastering the In-Battle Production Mechanic:
This is a major overlooked factor by most players in Diamond or under. As previously discussed, the hidden power of the Zerg race is in its production capacity and mobility. What does this mean though? It means 2 primary things:
Production capacity allows well-macro’d Zerg to produce units faster than any other race in the game (although beware: late-game imba-toss with 20 chrono-boosted gateways will give it a run for its money :D j/k). This means your ability to remax is unparalleled.
Mobility allows newly spawned units to join the fight faster than any other race (again, with the possible exception of proxy-pylon warp-ins. I believe it was Day9 who [correctly] asserted that, more often than not, Zerg doesn’t win the game with the first army, it wins the game with the 2nd and 3rd army that join the first on the battlefield even before it dies.
The primary way of achieving this unique race mechanic is to learn to differentiate between which engagements you need to micro and which engagements should be left alone for sake of MACRO PRODUCTION (most of them). The biggest Noobie mistake I see is watching the primary army fight while allowing the minerals (and precious time) to pile up, and only going back to production when it’s “safe”. A useful side note here is this one:
Understanding the "RT" in RTS
“But Train, I need to control my army. If I let that control slip, I’ll lose it and lose the game.”
Not so, my young Padawans. The reality of real-time strategy play is that most people will be utterly clueless of the real-time aspect and what it really means. Real-time, for the purposes of this post, means precisely at the time that it is needed.
Here’s some epic nerd wisdom for you in that regard~
“A Wizard is never late. Nor is he early… He arrives precisely when he means to!” (bahah, sorry)
That “never late nor early” is the appropriate way to understand “real-time”.
In terms of re-macro production, you have a very narrow window to make units safely, and that is immediately upon the beginning of the engagement. I say “safely” because any later, and it’s to your detriment. Only this window will allow those newly spawned units to join the engagement before it’s over. Any later than that and they are almost guaranteed to arrive late to the party.
The proper macro mechanic of Zerg production is to prepare for the engagement, inject all your hatcheries before the fight begins if possible, buy as much time as possible by going around and cutting off reinforcements, pre-splitting your units prior to an engagement, and then, once engaged, immediately producing units and re-injecting your hatcheries, in the early moments of the fight if possible, but definitely IN-BATTLE and not after.
(Note: Once again, how you know you must inject is your select-larva command brings up a large number of fresh larva. This means the hatches have popped and are ready to be injected again.)
Done properly, this can be observed in-replay as an opponent’s supply dropping at the onset of the fight, while the Zerg supply stays the same or even climbs (!) during the engagement. This allows those units to reinforce the main army immediately upon spawning.
If you smashed your opponent’s army and have units remaining AND units in the way, this is the time to go for an immediate counter. Note: immediate means RIGHT NOW. Not when your new units spawn, not when you’ve taken the next step in tech (though by all means, flex that APM!), not in 10 seconds. "Now" means GO! Do not stop, do not slow your roll, convert your immediate advantage into hard pressure and make your opponent pay!
The Rules of Engagement
- Never fight up a ramp, there is nothing to gain and everything to lose. Ramps are narrow, and Zerg thrives on open spaces and effective surrounds. The ramp negates these possibilities while greatly exaggerating the effectiveness of forcefields, fungals, and splash damage from tanks, widow mines, and seeker missiles, etc, due to excessive unit clumping. Treat each ramp as a death trap, and always, whenever possible, scout with one unit before ascending with the whole group.
- Engage on creep whenever possible. Creep gives you vision of your opponent’s position, greatly improves Zerg mobility, and acts as a psychological deterrent - ask any [good] Terran if he feels like sending his clump of marines deep into the creep without a scan… Going onto creep signifies a big commitment from your opponent, and requires an equal commitment from you.
- Take a note from [those pesky] Terrans - pre-split your units. Spreading out clumped units reduces the effects of splash damage, allows them to get closer and attack more evenly (especially important with large, bulky units like roaches), and increases the chances of a full surround. Whenever possible, attack from multiple angles. The worst thing you can do is “a-move” into your opponent's army from only one direction. This should only be done when you know you’ve got the superior numbers to overrun him, and best not done even then.
- Exploit your mobility, go around! One noob mistake is to fall back with your entire army to the natural and “build up” when you know your opponent is coming. This is fatal. I call it “the shrunken zerg syndrome” and it results in a particular type of agony when you lose games to pushes that you know your position could have held with ease and been macro’d out of. Sound familiar? Have no shame, we’ve all suffered through them, so I want to address how to deal with that once and for all. The answer is simple: GO AROUND! By cutting off your opponent’s main army from home, you simultaneously accomplish several important objectives:
- You are no longer playing “shrunken zerg”, which instantly elevates your status as a player to at least Platinum level, at least in terms of your engagement mechanics.
- You cut off your opponent’s army from his base, threatening that run-by and thereby creating soft pressure.
- You risk entrapping his reinforcements which have been caught out on the map without the support of the main fighting force (this is particularly important vs Terran, who relies on rallies to reinforce his forward position).
Ever slept or jumped on a water bed? If you’ve never had the pleasure, allow me to summarize it for you: it always goes out from under you to where you aren’t. Think of the Zerg race as a liquid mass that ebbs and flows just like the water bed. This principle, in conjunction with proper production timing (see Understanding RT in RTS) is the single most-important rule of engagement. Whenever possible, go where your opponent isn’t and threaten him, creating uncertainty and forcing him to turn back and defend, thereby giving you time.
Note: If you fail to macro (that is: produce and appropriately macro-bind your units back at home) while you are running around the map, your efforts will be in vain and may end in ***(
For the lower leagues:
Get good at recognizing when you’re about to get owned. If you herp-derped (affectionate term coined by Destiny, referring to A-moving blindly into a superior force) all your roaches into a Protoss immortal death ball, got FF’d and split in half and the forward half of your army killed off, by all means pull back and regroup. Don’t give him the rest of your units for free! Whenever there’s a question of whether you can take a good fight, pull back and let your reinforcements join the fight. Remember, you’ve got the best production and mobility in the game, so use them to your advantage. Half an army can become a whole army in a few seconds (regroup) or stay half an army if you let it die and the dwindling reinforcements run into the meat-grinder. The majority of lower-league engagement mistakes come from not differentiating between the fights you should take and the fights you should pass on.
(Likewise, always check your opponent's upgrades before committing to an engagement. If they are better, pull back unless you know you have enough. There is no extra credit for heroics.)
PS - if you adopt the rule of always buying time for your reinforcements whenever possible, you will automatically correct more than half of poor engages that would have otherwise been made in haste.
It’s about freaking time! (aka playing the long-game)
If I was to ask you what your single most critical objective as Zerg is, what would you say? If you said “to win”., realize that answer is self-apparent and therefore not constructive.
If you said “to macro”, you’re getting warmer.
If you said “to macro and max before my opponent does”, you’re awfully close to what I’m looking for but haven’t quite hit the nail on the head.
The best universal answer to this question is: to buy more time. Time for what? For all of the above!
Recognize that beyond early-game cheese and lower-league skill discrepancies, every game you play is likely to be very evenly matched, or, in the case that you’re still improving rapidly, your opponent might be slightly better (props to Blizzard for the ingenious MMR system).
Therefore, as you progress, you are less and less likely to win the game with one big engagement, which happens primarily in the lower leagues. As you work your way up to mid-diamond and above, your opponent’s macro and resilience will improve dramatically, as should yours.
Therefore, the Zerg should always and whenever possible be playing the long-game.
This means absorbing whatever pressure you can to buy yourself time to continue to macro, produce units, spread creep, gain map control, climb the tech tree, gain upgrades, unlock higher-tiered units and allow for your bank to a) convert into a maxed out army of the proper composition as soon as possible, and then b) build up as quickly as possible for your future re-max.
Remember the 3 Es:
All of these things require the one hidden and most critical resource: time!
The semi-beginning player should resist the urge to end the game early. Until you’ve gotten so good at scouting and game sense that you know exactly what your opponent has to defend with, you are likely to become overextended and lose the game.
Miscellaneous Master-level Mechanics
- Baneling landmines: setting up baneling landmines by:
Right-click desired location + Shift + R (default hotkey for burrow), unclick desired number of banleings from the control group by holding down shift and clicking on the group window, right-click away from that location to get the remainder of the units to pull back (the unclicked units will go and burrow at said location independently), then reset the control group of new units (to so as to exclude the un-clicked units from the control group and not have them obey the next move command for the control group, which would thereby erase the burrow command.) This takes practice, but with time will become so easy you can set up baneling landmines in multiple locations on the minimap in seconds.
CREEP SPREAD: This mechanic is huge. Learning the approximate timing of creep spread and re-initiating tumors with every inject cycle represents a quantum leap in the skill level of a Zerg player. The best players in the current meta don't stop at one extra creep queen. If you observe players like Snute, Jaedong, and Scarlett, you will notice that queens are continued to be produced off of 2 base and sent out to hang out at the edge of creep in every direction. The first tumor is always laid outside of the natural, prioritizing creep spread in the direction to the third and outward over creep spread between the main and natural (also very good). Creep queens are grouped together and continue re-initiating tumors even after engagements have taken place and some of the creep has been cleared off. Incidentally, queens are great early game fighting units and can ward off early pressure, tank in a defensive hold, and transfuse weakened structures (and each other). Achieving the consistency of producing extra queens early and keeping them alive and active will instantly elevate your map control and mid-game potential, and is worth investing in during practice.
Forcefield Baiting - practice timing so as to force Protoss to expend forcefields early. Do this by looking like you're going to engage, then backing off at the last second. If you lose a unit or two it’s ok - the time you buy for continued production will most likely be worth many units. (Hint: do this by hanging out near his base when he moves out, not when he’s already knocking on your door!)
Separate hotkey baneling move command - group banelings separately from lings and move them (not a-move) past the clusters of marines or lings or zealots. As they get killed, their splash damage will affect the surrounding units. This will also prevent them all from herp-derping on 1 unit and costing you the game. :D
Static reinforcement (dropping walls of static when your minerals skyrocket) - Recognizing when your minerals have piled up and spending them on dropping static (or opening up supply by making a large number of overlords) on insecure locations. (Remember to always replace those drones!)
Drop mechanics - learn to drop! Aside from burrow, it is the only tech in the Zerg arsenal that cannot be scouted while researching. Therefore, it’s a great surprise attack which can also be used to fake your opponent by flying in with empty overlords (once you’ve showed drop)
Note: move-command overlords and hit “d”, then click forward overlord, click “d”, then click next forward overlord, etc. Using this d-click d-click method, you can shift-queue the ovies to move out of danger and let them get out of dodge on their own, leaving you free to micro the units dropped off and—more importantly—macro back at home to remax your lost units as quickly as possible.
Contaminate (name changed? The Overseer ability...) - keep the scouting overseer alive and corrupt critical structures such as upgrade buildings or robotics bays/starports. This translates into tremendous time-winning potential as the game progresses.
Corruption (name changed? The Corruptor ability...) - when fighting with corruptors, always corrupt high-priority target units such as Colossus or Mothership cores, medivacs, ravens, Thors, etc. This increases the damage by 20%, the equivalent of instantly getting +3 air attack!
Upgrade before unit - always start a specified unit upgrade prior to making the units themselves, unless immediate unit production is required. Examples: Ling speed before making lings, roach speed before making roaches, +1 air attack/armor before Mutas or corruptors, pathogen glands before Infestors (start making when upgrade is 30 seconds in to ensure they spawn with the extra energy). Possible exception: enduring locust upgrade. Rationale: the 200 gas required for it is a whole 2 swarm hosts (4 locusts/volley). Since they take a long time to build, and are quite slow, it’s better to build a rudimentary group of Hosts first (let’s say 6-8) and then start the upgrade, since by the time they spawn, rally over, burrow, produce the locusts, and the locusts reach their first target, you will have had plenty of time to begin the endurance upgrade.
Burrow expand/expand deny - Good players will often spawn-rally a drone to their 4th/5th/etc long before the expansion timing comes around. They will burrow 2-3 ahead of time, ensuring that an instant expo timing is available when called for. The same mechanic can be used to deny expansions (burrowed lings in place of expo). Never under estimate how bloody infuriating it is for your opponent! I recommend binding a special key for the expansion drone egg (the drone that's destined to expand). I use Capslock for this purpose, which allows me to grab the drone (double tap) and expand quickly without clicking on the minimap.
Remember, at the high-level of play these are all intuitive basics which will come naturally with time. The most important thing to have is the psychology of continuous incremental improvement, not being discouraged by losses and consistently analyzing loss replays to learn from your mistakes.
May these tools help you better learn the game and keep PWNING noobs on your way to Grandmaster League!