Co-op - General Feedback
In response to the recent co-op mission update from Blizzard, I’d like to offer my own feedback to co-op as a whole. Though there is a plethora of feedback about co-op, I find a lot of it is either from lower level players who don’t play commanders to a high enough level or from players who lack game design experience. This is very understandable because, after all, co-op is the casual side of StarCraft and very few top-level players that I know of take it very seriously at all.
For some background, I was a top 50 NA GM player in WoL and a pro-Hearthstone player for Liquid in the early days of the game. I’ve assisted in the design and balance of many custom Blizzard arcade games throughout the years including Tides of Blood(WC3), Castle Flight(WC3), Footmen Frenzy(WC3), and Desert Strike(SC2). I founded TL Strategy, a branch of TLnet that specializes in strategy-related articles for StarCraft. And I run a StarCraft co-op Discord for fun. The following is my general thoughts about the game:
Commander Power Levels
Since mutations came out almost a year ago, I’ve been tracking commander power levels for each mutation. You can read the criteria I use to rank here. I believe this is the best way to rank commanders, because standard brutal missions are so trivial for any commander. Though it’s still a subjective ranking, I believe my ranking is the best indicator of commander power levels that exists for mutations played at the highest level.
The google sheet is a bit difficult to understand, but the important output is laid out above; you just have to trust that there is a method to this madness. From these results, there are a few things that immediately stick out to me. The first is that there’s a fairly large difference in score between the better commanders and the worst commanders, indicating that the difference in power level is quite large.
What sticks out to me even more is that three of the four DLC commanders reign at the top of the ranking. I understand that the new commanders have to be powerful in order for them to be appealing to buy, but the old guard needs some love too. I’ll point out some standouts:
Ever since the Emergency Recall nerf, Vorazun has been struggling with keeping her DT armies alive in difficult mutations. Unfortunately, DTs are still generally her best option in many scenarios. Some buffs I’d like to be considered for Vorazun include bringing Emergency Recall cooldown to 3 minutes and buffing many of her other units.
Zagara is a curious case since she’s absurdly strong for lower level players in regular missions. However, she consistently struggles with mutations due to the suicidal nature of her units. Most mutations involve killing more difficult enemies or functioning with limitations. Unfortunately for Zagara, she tends to peter out near the end, because unlike the other commanders, she can’t preserve her army.
I’d like to see late-game Zagara buffed in some way, though it’s difficult to find an elegant solution. Maybe she gets new upgrades unlocked at 20 minutes into the game? Maybe her suicide units gradually improve over time?
Of all the commanders, Artanis seems to have the least cool identity, the most one-dimensional playstyle. All the other commanders have much more unique mechanics, especially mechanics that make them stand apart from each other. (Raynor's old mules, Kerrigan's Omega Worms and strong Heroic unit, Swann's Laser Drill and powerful Herc/Tank combo, Vorazun's unique Spear of Adun and stealth, Karax's Spear and defense, Abathur's biomass, Alarak’s Ascendants, Nova’s Elite Squad, Stukov’s ever-spawning army) However, Artanis simply makes a-move armies and attempts to march across the map. If I had to pinpoint the crux of the issue, it'd be that even at the highest level, there's just not much to micro in fights with Artanis. Artanis' Guardian Shell mostly removes the need for micro; his Spear of Adun's abilities are also boring and at the same time, don’t synergize with anything else he has in particular.
Speaking of Guardian Shell, pre-nerf, it used to be the best ability in the game, but it defined him too much. Every time I wanted to know if Artanis would be good at a mutation, I simply asked myself how good Guardian Shell would be in that particular mission. The thought process pretty much ended there. He could build many diverse armies, but at the end of the day, he was going to build a deathball and a-move it.
Does this look familiar?
Ever since Guardian Shell was nerfed from a 1 minute cooldown to a 4 minute cooldown, Artanis’ power level has dropped dramatically. And although I think the nerf was good for design reasons, Artanis did not receive corresponding buffs to maintain his power level. Artanis’ units are simply weak when compared to the competition and I’d like to see some buffs across the board.
Diversity Within Commanders
A lot of commanders currently feel extremely one-dimensional in terms of their gameplay and unit choices. That is, for many commanders, there exists only a single clearly superior way to play them. This is usually because one of their unit compositions clearly overshadows their other choices. An easy solution is to buff the weaker choices:
- Zagara Corruptor: This is the only unit in the game that could be considered weaker than its ladder counterpart. It doesn’t fit into Zagara’s theme at all and probably needs some type of researchable upgrade in order to be viable. (Or give Zagara the Mutalisk).
- Kerrigan Mutalisk: This unit is too fragile and costs way too much gas. Hydralisks are simply superior in almost every situation. (Or give Kerrigan the Corruptor).
- Kerrigan Broodlord: The power level of this unit is extremely low for a tier 3 unit and it can’t compete with Ultralisks.
- Swann Cyclone: Cyclones are really cool, but they currently cost way too much gas to compete with a Tank or Goliath based army in most cases.
- Swann Hellbat: Buff this unit slightly so Cyclone/Hellbat compositions can be better!
- Swann Wraith: Another really weak unit that just feels out of place.
- Stukov Infested Liberator: Yet another subpar unit that is overshadowed by Infested Bunkers. Unfortunately, Diamondbacks and Siege Tanks still share a similar problem.
- Karax Colossi: These are almost never worth the cost due to other options being better and overlapping with the Spear of Adun.
- Alarak Warp Prism: I understand the thinking behind this unit, but it just doesn’t work. Lower level players don’t have the control to reinforce with this unit. Higher level players would rather follow their armies with a probe to forward warp units in addition to utilizing offensive Photon Overcharge.
- Nova Banshee: These are probably decent units, but they’re completely overshadowed by Nova’s Siege Tanks.
- Alarak Slayer/Vanguard/Wrathwalker: These units are all pretty good, but they’re all completely overshadowed by Ascendants. Alarak’s Robo units also all happen to be less exciting, more a-move units, compared to Ascendants, which is a problem in itself.
- Abathur Ravagers/Swarm Hosts: Again, these are good units, but overshadowed by Abathur’s other options.
- Vorazun Centurion/Stalker/Dark Archon/Oracle/Void Ray: Dark Archons and Void Rays are both useful in certain situations on certain mutations, but 90% of the time, especially in regular missions, Corsair/DT is the way to go. Vorazun’s other units, in particular Centurions and Stalkers, are simply underpowered compared to Corsair/DT.
The 13 Enemy Compositions
For those of you who don’t know, there are 13 possible types of waves that can spawn on any given mission. You can find the list of waves here.
I believe that when the designers came up with each of the 13 compositions, they intended for players to “scout” the enemy composition and react accordingly. However, there are a few reasons this doesn’t work as well as intended in practice.
The biggest reason is the lack of viable options each commander is offered (as previously mentioned). Often times, there’s a one-size fits all composition for each commander, and as a result, unit countering isn’t especially encouraged. If there is a decision, that decision usually boils down to “Is the enemy composition one of these four air compositions or not?” The few good counterexamples that aren’t simple anti-air vs anti-ground choices include:
- Artanis does have many viable options and can change his composition based on enemy composition and individual mission.
- Raynor should adjust his bio composition based on the enemy composition (More Marines, Marauders, or Firebats).
- Raynor has to control better against the Zerg Swarm composition, which features Banelings and Vipers.
- The heavy-Immortal compositions force Karax to shield his Cannons.
Otherwise, most commanders can follow the simple formula of their best unit composition (Ascendants for Alarak, Ultra/Hydralisk for Kerrigan, Corsair/DT for Vorazun, etc…).
I believe another reason why this is the case is that unit compositions simply aren’t different enough from each other. Most of the ground compositions blend into each other, because they’re designed to be well-rounded armies. For example, Tier 7 Zerg ground is currently Ultralisk, Infestor, Ravager, Hydralisk, Roach. Why can’t it be more Ultralisk and Hydralisk heavy so players actually have to work harder to counter those specific units?
In a way, this would add difficulty to the game without actually increasing the power level of the waves. In addition, it would add to the replayability of co-op, making each game feel different from the last.
Enemy Air Compositions
Another problem I previously alluded to is the stark difference between the ground and air enemy compositions. Of these 13 possibly enemy compositions, The two Skytoss compositions, the SkyTerran compositions, and the ShadowTech composition are the four air compositions that stand out.
For many of the commanders, air compositions are a huge weakness. Abathur is the only commander that arguably deals better with air than with ground (Devourers are that good). Karax and Alarak both deal with air and ground relatively well. Every other commander is better versus ground than they are versus air waves. I believe this is problematic for a few reasons.
From a design standpoint, I don’t think enemy air compositions should just be inherently better than enemy ground compositions across the board. I believe commanders should each have their individual strengths and weaknesses against different enemy compositions, but I find it boring if all the commanders share a weakness as binary as air/not air.
When I start out a mission with most commanders and I see the enemy composition is air, I know immediately that I’m going to have a harder time no matter which air composition it is, and that’s not a good feeling to have. I’m confident that if Blizzard look through their records, winrates against these four air compositions would be noticeably lower than those of most of the ground compositions.
Another issue I have with air compositions is that a few commanders struggle with air no matter what enemy composition it is. This applies to a lot of commanders, but it’s especially noticeable with Kerrigan. For many of the mutation challenges, Kerrigan can breeze through the challenge against a ground composition, but she needs to be hard carried if played against an air composition. Hydralisks and Queens just often don’t cut it against mass air armies and Mutalisks are usually too costly. I understand that commanders should have weaknesses, but air units should not be as crippling a weakness as they are for Kerrigan.
Balancing For Various Skill Levels
One final thing that I think the design team should consider is that certain commanders are better at different skill levels. Raynor and Swann are two of the best examples. Raynor is probably the worst commander in the game if you don’t know that you can mass Orbital Commands, but in my rankings, he ranks as one of the best. Similarly, all top players agree that HERC/Tank is the best way to play Swann, but I’ve never seen it being used in a public game before. (Not coincidently, Swann is often regarded as one of the weakest commanders in forums.) In contrast, it’s much harder to differentiate yourself as a Zagara player.
This is one of my more minor points, but I think there can be some takeaways here. For example, one simple solution is to add commander-specific tips for beginners on the loading screen. On the other side of the coin, buffs could be made to Zagara to increase her skill-cap.
Finally, I’d like to put it all together by referencing the original Blizzard post, specifically this comment about Abathur.
“We agree that Abathur is a slow ramp commander and his early game can determine whether he can build enough momentum to become an unstoppable force. We’re currently looking at some buffs we can do to help his early game but not affect the end game too much. These changes aren’t set in stone but we’re looking at the following: Ravager Corrosive Bile, Queen anti air range, Brutalisk weapon upgrades, and Toxic Nests.”
Abathur does ramp slowly at two key points. In the early game, it’s all about getting 100 biomass on your first Roach/Brutalisk. I feel like this is an objective that most beginners miss completely, instead distributing their biomass equally among all their units. After this first Brutalisk, it’s mostly smooth sailing from there. However, correct Toxic Next placement is key and incorrect placement can be very punishing and frustrating for newer players.
In the mid-game, after you’ve achieved your first Brutalisk, it’s about teching to the right unit composition, usually Vipers if you’re against ground and Devourers if you’re against air. I almost never face any problems once I reach this stage, but I can imagine less-efficient players would. Basically, you’d have to identify the enemy composition and then have a streamlined build to counter it. Yet again, this is a fairly skill-intensive process that I don’t expect 99.9% of co-op players to have down.
Then there’s the issue of some compositions such as Ravagers being strictly inferior to his other options. I don’t see how a Ravager buff would actually be helpful for Abathur’s early game, but it would certainly give him additional options and expand his game.
A lot of Abathur’s early-game struggles can be mitigated by player skill, but in this case, it’s probably best to cater to the lower level players of co-op’s core audience. Now, if you want to talk about commanders that have real ramping problems, we can talk about Swann, but that’s a story for another time.