StarCraft 2 Heart of the Swarm Beta: Can Balance Be Found?

Since its public release, the closed beta to StarCraft 2′s first expansion, Heart of the Swarm, has seen six balance updates that have introduced sweeping changes to the game on an almost weekly basis. While each of the new units have undergone some form of tweaking, a couple continue to be modified so heavily that some players believe Blizzard doesn’t have a firm handle on where it wants to go with HotS.

The greatest amount of debate centers on three new units and one unit composition: the Oracle, the Mothership, the Widow Mine, and the Deathball. How has Blizzard been handling these issues, and is there hope for HotS to emerge as a fun, balanced game?

The Oracle

A flying spellcaster intended to be a harassment unit, the Protoss Oracle has been tinkered with every single update, and Blizzard revealed that major changes are coming to it in the next update as well. Apart from playing with its cost, speed, and health, Blizzard can’t seem to figure out what to do with the Oracle, having introduced and subsequently removed two of its spells and about to remove two more: the controversial Entomb ability, and the (might I say) useless Void Siphon ability.

Entomb is an ability that can be cast on a mineral line, encasing the minerals in force fields that prevent them from being mined until either the spell’s duration expires or the force fields are destroyed. While this was a completely new way to harass an enemy’s base, many players complained that it simply wasn’t… well, interesting. Or fun. Or entertaining to a viewer. The Protoss player simply had to remember to cast Entomb in the enemy’s mineral line every three minutes or so, with little other thought or strategy to put into it.

In the next update, Blizzard is finally axing Entomb after trying to make it work for weeks, as well as Void Siphon, the ability that no one ever cared about or liked. These two powers will be replaced with Pulsar Beam and Time Warp, which show promise.

Pulsar Beam will increase the Oracle’s harassing potential by dealing 20 damage per second to an enemy structure, while Time Warp captures the spirit of Entomb — a spell that delays mining without dealing damage — by creating an area of effect that slows enemy ground units’ movement speed by 50%. Unlike Entomb, however, Time Warp can see other creative uses on the battlefield: giving Zealots time to catch up to Marines, giving your army time to retreat, or increasing the effectiveness of Psionic Storms.

Whether Blizzard ultimately axes these new powers as well is yet to be determined, but there’s no doubt that we’ll continue to see the Oracle tinkered with for the next few updates.

The Widow Mine

Another unit that has been modified each update, the Terran Widow Mine is an area control unit that burrows into the ground and periodically fires missiles at approaching enemies. These missiles automatically target enemy ground, air, and cloaked units.

Throughout the first four balance updates, Blizzard was trying to make the Widow Mine more effective, which has culminated in its present state — a state that caused quite an initial uproar. The Mine’s ability to target air and cloaked units means quick deaths for Protoss Observers, and both Zerg and Protoss were given earlier detection options seemingly to balance the game around this one unit.

While the Mine does lose its effectiveness in the mid- and late-game, the prevalent opinion in the community when these latest changes were made was that Blizzard would nerf the Mine’s early-game effectiveness, and soon. However, Widow Mine outrage has decreased as of late, which may be an indication that players are learning to cope with this new unit.

The Mothership Core

The Protoss Mothership Core is an early-game flying spellcaster that can eventually be upgraded into a Mothership. Its main role in the Protoss army is base defense and support, with two spells that support those functions, respectively: Purify and Mass Recall.

Purify temporarily grants a Nexus detection and a long-range attack, allowing the Protoss to fight off early aggression, while Mass Recall teleports units back to the Mothership Core’s location, allowing a Protoss player to be aggressive without worrying about losing his whole army.

Blizzard has been playing with the exact mechanics of these spells over the course of the past five updates, and most recently removed the Core’s third spell, Energize, which would recharge a unit or structure to its maximum energy. While Blizzard’s rationale was that the main use of this power was to recharge the Oracle so that it can cast Entomb more often, many players felt robbed of the opportunity to use the power in more flexibly ways, such as recharging a Nexus to Chrono Boost out more Probes, or recharging a High Templar mid-combat to cast another Psionic Storm.

Given the massive changes to the Oracle, it would not surprise me to see Energize return. In either case, Blizzard will likely continue to dial in the Core’s numbers over the next couple of updates: speed, cost, health, etc.

The Deathball

No, this isn’t some new unit you haven’t heard of. I’m referring to the gameplay style whereby players accumulate a critical mass of units clumped together in a single army and simply storm the battlefield, destroying everything with little tactically interesting decisions to make.

Many players feel Blizzard has yet to adequately address Deathballs and would like to see both more effective ways of dealing with them as well as alternatives to amassing them. The prevailing opinion is that stronger positional units for better space control would be the ideal solution — giving each race options that render deathballs a suboptimal tactic.

Currently, if your opponent has a maxed out army size, the only option left to you is to confront him with a maxed out army as well — assuming you’re both skilled players and have balanced unit compositions. If you break off a small piece of your army to try to control a part of the map, then your enemy need only run into your now smaller army and destroy it.

Unfortunately, nothing presently suggests that the changes Blizzard has been making will do anything to ultimately resolve the Deathball situation, though it does seem like they are trying, albeit ineffectively. The beta is still young, however.

Many players are concerned about the future of SC2 given what we’re seeing in the HotS beta, but I believe that as long as Blizzard doesn’t rush the expansion out the door and lets the beta last as long as it needs to in order to ensure a balanced and fun experience, HotS will be a success.

I applaud Blizzard for being open-minded enough to keep making big changes throughout this beta period, because it shows that they aren’t married to their concepts and are perfectly willing to axe content altogether if the players are unsatisfied with it.

SC2: Wings of Liberty is a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors; HotS is Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock. There are new units that need balancing, but a balance can be found.

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