I think that Gateway units can be very, very deadly. It's just a matter of when. Stalkers with blink are very powerful and Zealots with charge are very dangerous as well.
This quote from SC2's lead designer came in response to requests from players to re-design Protoss from the ground up to make gateway units less dependent on high-tech support to trade evenly with their low-tech Terran and Zerg counterparts. It seems that Blizzard's position is that gateway units are already strong enough, and that gameplay can be improved without launching into the sorts of difficult fundamental redesigns that players have requested. In this article, I'll explore the cost-efficiency of gateway units, how the Protoss army functions at various points in the game, and the gameplay impacts of the Protoss design mechanics for the other races.
To begin, I'd like to directly address Dustin's statement that gateway units can be "very, very deadly." Here's what survives if you smash equal cost forces of 29 fully upgraded chareglots into 50 marines and 2 medivacs.
Yep, even without kiting, the zealots merely dent the marine ball. And for humor’s sake, here's what equal cost forces of roaches vs stalkers and immortals looks like.
Even with blink micro against a-moved roaches, the fight isn't close. Simply put, Protoss's basic units are much weaker for cost than the basic units for Zerg and Terran.
So how does Protoss win games in WoL? The answer is a combination of forcefied use, Protoss-favored maps, and tech units. The basic Protoss gameplan is to survive with forcefields unitl colossi or storm come out, build up enough gateway mass to protect your tech units, and then move onto the map. If there are too few tech units, the gateway core is overwhelmed by their more efficient Terran and Zerg counterparts. If there are too few gateway units, the tech units will be picked off and the Protoss force will be stomped even harder.
How does this pattern impact gameplay more broadly? Most obviously, Protoss plays as a turtly race that wants to defend efficiently until they can force one big fight with all their forces. Hence, the familiar sight of the “Protoss deathball” with every unit Protoss has built all game packed together under one guardian shield. Nobody likes the deathball, but there are more fundamental gameplay problems that arise from Protoss’s weak T1.
Perhaps the worst problem is that weak gateway units force convergence in map design to the point that every tournament-quality map plays more or less the same for the first 15 minutes. In order to play a competitive macro game, Protoss needs a tight choke leading into their natural so that they can defend with just a couple sentries, and in PvZ, Protoss also needs to be able to defend their natural and third bases simultaneously with forcefields. The result is that every modern map has a freebie natural expansion and a closed off third base tucked right next to the natural. Entombed Valley is the poster-child for this layout, but you see the same features on Cloud Kingdom, Ohana, Metropolis, and Condemned Ridge. Maps that deviate from this layout (think Korhal Compound or Dual Sight) don’t allow Protoss to take a third on remotely even economic terms, and force Protoss to play 1-base and 2-base all-ins.
This map convergence not only produces stale play where a single build can be fitted to every single map, but because competitive maps must allow 3 bases to be defended by forcefields, every race gets three easily defended bases. Optimal mining income can be achieved on three bases, so players are not forced to expose themselves to attack until 15 or 20 minutes into the game. The result is a monotonous, boring beginning to the vast majority of games. Players and spectators hate “No Rush 15,” but the Protoss-mandated map features too often force it.
The last major point I want to touch on is the binary battles that result from the combination of weak gateway units, strong tech units and forcefields. Remember how lopsided the chargelot vs marine battle at the top of this article was? It turns out that if you add just one storm to that fight, the chargelots win while taking almost no losses. Without a storm, the marines win with almost no losses; with a storm, the zealots win with almost no losses. Similar effects happen with colossi and forcefields in many other situations against both Terran and Zerg, and I think it’s safe to say that they are the #1 cause of smashed keyboards in the SC2 community.
These binary battles are almost always game-deciding, and they feel profoundly unfair to both sides of the fight. Protoss players hate that they instantly lose if their HT are EMP’d or if their forcefields are a half-second too late, allowing roaches to get in range. Terran players hate that they instantly lose because they EMP’d a half-second too late or because they didn’t discover Protoss’s hidden colossus transition. And Zerg players hate that they literally can’t fight back if Protoss hits perfect forcefields during an immortal-sentry all-in. Protoss simultaneously feels unbeatably strong and unwinnably weak.
As for what to do about these issues, I fear that the required changes may be too significant and risky for Blizzard to undertake. Nonetheless, I hope they’re willing to be bold and consider altering the balance of strength between core gateway units, tech units and forcefields. Gameplay is stale and frustrating for all three races, and players would greatly appreciate it if Blizzard would at least take a crack at the underlying problems. My suggestions for a starting point would be to:
-slightly increase marine and hydralisk collision radius to reduce the AoE damage they take from colossi and storms
-nerf or remove forcefield
-buff zealots and stalkers relative to marines, marauders, roaches and zerglings (may require a direct roach nerf)
I don’t think the changes would be as game-warping as one might fear. Already, Protoss players are gravitating away from sentries in PvT building only enough to survive a stim timing before their tech comes online. And in PvZ, sentries are only built as a counter to roaches. If Protoss players could deal with roaches any other way, they’d happily invest those resources elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the changes would allow more open maps with more opportunities to harass and attack earlier in the game. Additionally, Protoss would finally be able to split their forces, and you wouldn’t see as many deathballs. And best of all, the battles wouldn’t be so damn binary. Stronger zealots might narrowly lose to stimmed marines. And because storms would deal less AoE damage to marines, the battle supplemented by a storm would also be less lopsided in favor of the zealots.