The Evolution of StarCraft Armies - Early Game Zerg

In recent history, Blizzard RTS games have been marked by three distinct stages: the early game, mid game, and the late game. The StarCraft series is no exception.

In recent history, Blizzard RTS games have been marked by three distinct stages: the early game, mid game, and the late game. The StarCraft series is no exception. Brood War was defined by the myriad of early game strategies that could be employed. Most of these strategies were centered around the interactions between tier one units; zealots, zerglings, terran marines & medics, and dragoons, and the creative use of defensive structures.

Defensive structures in StarCraft II are far less effective than in the original StarCraft; players must now rely heavily on their skills with managing units. This change defines all stages of the game, but is particularly crucial early on where players use weaker tier one units that have traditionally been weak versus defensive structures.

StarCraft II has added several new units into the mix that have completely redefined the early game. We'll take a closer look at these new units and how they're used in the first of a three part series on the evolution of StarCraft armies, starting with what's new for Zerg in the early game.

New Zerg Units

  • Queen: The zerg queen has been redesigned to be a mobile structure sort of unit. The queen is incredibly fast on creep, attacks both air and ground units, and has a variety of abilities like the ability to spawn additional larvae from hatcheries that make it indispensable in the zerg base.

  • Baneling: The infested terran of original StarCraft never got quite enough use. Banelings serve the role that zerg players always wished the infesteds could. This unit is a suicide bomber that is 'evolved' from a zergling (similar to how lurkers in StarCraft were evolved from hydralisks). It is weak and not particularly fast (there is a speed upgrade available), however it can burrow and can be used to set up effective ambushes.

    It also serves the function of a choke-breaker type unit. This is something that zerg lacked in StarCraft; the ability to effectively assault narrow choke points. Banelings allow the zerg player to blow a hole in their opponents’ defenses, allowing their other ground forces to pour into the enemy base.

  • Roach: An agile, ranged attacker -- incredibly deadly and effective against nearly all tier one units; particularly zealots. StarCraft II Game Director Dustin Browder says "the Roach was created to be an early game assault unit. We also wanted a unit that could maintain constant contact with the enemy. Not just through speed but through sheer durability."

    Roaches turn the early game versus both terran and protoss upside down. Whereas in StarCraft zerg's only defense against protoss and terran was overwhelming numbers of zerglings, now zerg can go on the offensive early micromanaging roaches to deadly effect against the less mobile zealots or stand toe to toe against terran's ranged forces. Roaches also regenerate health at an incredible rate while burrowed adding to their effectiveness. Roaches attack ground units only.

Zerg Early Game Tactics

I admit that I primarily play zerg, because it's my favorite and has been since the original StarCraft. I like their versatility and reliance on units instead of structures. Playing zerg in StarCraft was a constant struggle against the UI, but boy did that ever change. With control groups that allow you to handle massive numbers of units at once, smart structures that allow you to set separate rally points for drones and attack units, and the versatility added by the queen that gives zerg massive production on demand via additional larvae, it's like comparing a go-kart to a Ferrari.

Zerg strategy also feels completely different. Roaches are a killer unit; they are fast, inexpensive, and incredibly powerful. They also scale very well as the game goes on.

  • Zerg vs. Protoss - In StarCraft, zerg versus protoss was a constant struggle where it always seemed like the protoss had a hard counter for whatever you could produce. Things have changed, although this matchup plays similar in a few ways; early expansions versus protoss are still the norm, particularly on maps where the protoss player has large travel distance to your base (you need as much time as possible to defend your expansion). Zerglings vs zealots still feels like superman vs a preschooler. The similarities end there, however.

    Spine crawlers, like other defensive structures, are pale shadows of their StarCraft counterparts. These are enough to defend your minerals against light harassment from units like reapers, but are not going to hold off an army. This is where roaches come into play. With no upgrades on either side, it is entirely possible for roaches to take on an equal number of zealots and kill them all without losing a single roach if they are micro'd skillfully. Roaches are also extremely strong against stalkers. A single roach can practically stand toe to toe against a stalker, and they cost nearly half as much. It is extremely hard to go wrong with roaches against protoss. Their only weakness is that they cannot attack air, but zerg will usually transition into mutalisks at tier two, which coincidentally synergize extremely well with roaches!

  • Zerg vs. Zerg - Zerg mirror matches are tricky. You have a lot of options, and practically anything can work. Banelings, zerglings, roaches, early expansions, and fast teching are all viable strategies. In the strategic sense, the matchup is very similar to StarCraft - you must constantly scout your opponent and build units that counter theirs. Roaches counter zerglings, but zerglings and banelings can easily decimate a roach army. Fast tech to mutalisks can beat all three of these if your opponent is not prepared with anti-air. There is no cookie cutter strategy that will win you this matchup, you must outplay your opponent strategically or get lucky and guess correctly.

  • Zerg vs. Terran - Terran is currently being looked at as possibly being in need of buffs, they really don't have a lot of answers for zerg. Without medics, their early army of marines and marauders is easily dealt with by roaches or banelings. Their choke also does not offer the protection that it once did; it is entirely possible to blow up a terran's blocked choke point using banelings and invade with zerglings before they even have the opportunity to produce siege tanks. A favorite strategy of mine is to expand early, then pressure with roaches and eventually upgrade them to mobile burrow. Terrans will often leave a supply depot buried to allow their units to exit the base. This is an opportunity to sneak a large force of burrowed roaches into their base where you can harass their scvs, destroy their detection capability, or simply micro your units using burrow to exploit their vast hit point regeneration.

    All of these options leave you open to produce massive amounts of mutalisks at tier two, which are very difficult for terrans to counter.

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