APM: Strategy versus Action

APM: “Actions-per-Minute”  – the measurement of the average number of key presses or clicks that are executed by a player every minute over the course of an RTS match.

Real time strategy games are an interesting mix of tactics, strategy, and intensive micromanagement. All three of these factors are present in the best players, but require very diverse skill sets to master.

Strategy requires an intimate knowledge of the game’s mechanics. The strategist understands the strengths and weaknesses of his forces and his enemy’s and exploits that knowledge to build counter units. The strategist understands that sometimes less is more – teching with a minimal force while his opponent expands or masses early tier units can seem risky or disadvantageous in the short term but presents opportunities later in the game that the strategist foresees.

Tactics are the short term strategies employed to take advantage of terrain or exploit the properties of particular units. The tactician has intimate knowledge of the map and how to use it; they will understand the value of cliffs, raised chokes, smoke, and other idiosyncrasies of the map. They will use this and their knowledge of units’ abilities, strengths, and weaknesses to fight their opponent efficiently; preserving their units while maximizing destruction.

Where then do the micromanagement and the action components come into play? Micromanagement is the art of taking smart strategy and good tactics and actually pulling them off. Starcraft II isn’t chess. You don’t always have time to consider your moves, and your opponent certainly isn’t going to wait for you. You need to execute your strategy as quickly as possible. Having quick reflexes and a high density of actions per minute will allow you to control your forces, and your economy without ever falling behind or losing track of things you should be doing.

Even among the RTS elite, APM can vary wildly. Jaedong, the best Zerg player in the world currently, has an APM that hovers around 400 even on long games. That is almost 7 distinct actions per second. Think about that. This is not to say that having APM that high is necessary for success, but in the hands of a master player that is in complete control of all dimensions of their game it is intimidating.

Starcraft II Replays have a built in APM monitoring tool.

Quality versus Quantity

Having high APM is not always indicative of strong play. I’ve got a friend who is a long time Starcraft player. He’s a good player, but his play is extremely frenetic. I’ve seen him right click seven times or more to move a single unit from one point to another. High APM? Yes. Efficient? Hell no.

The most important thing for new players is to remember is that the only part of “APM” that matters is the “A”. Your actions must be efficient; there are many pro-gamers with lower APM – around 250, and extremely high level ladder players with 150 or less.  Less advanced players should definitely try to up their APM, but it should be methodical and directed.

Even among professionals APM numbers vary wildly.

First of all focus on strategy. Every Starcraft II player must have a general idea of “openers” versus all three races. By this I mean that you need to have a build order in mind that you will use without any knowledge of what they are building or planning. Burn your openers into your mind until you can execute them in your sleep. Next learn what counters what. If you have to spend time thinking about how you are going to respond to your opponents’ plans then you are wasting precious time, and actions. Once you have this level of skill then move on to tactics.

Understanding how your units can be used to confuse or exploit the AI of your opponent, or to frustrate and thwart the player them self is the next step. Dancing Roaches or Stalkers in hit and run attacks against Zealots or Zerglings can take some intensive micromanagement and the faster and cleaner you can execute it the more effective you will be.

When you can do this then add additional complexity into your play. Stage offensives or defend yourself while expanding, while building additional units and upgrades and scouting your opponent. All these things require an increasing number of actions in the same amount of time.

The moral of the story here is that when it comes to your APM don’t sweat it! Work on the basics of your strategy and tactics and as you become more comfortable with your play speed it up, add in additional moves that will help you, and spend additional time harassing your opponent to upset their rhythm. That is the real strength of high APM – the ability to gain an advantage on your opponent by overwhelming them with volume of activity while still pursuing a strategy that is as strong as theirs or stronger.

Take it to heart!

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Last Updated: Mar 29, 2016