StarCraft: A beginner's guide

The focus of this page is on winning against other human players on Battlenet. I am also assuming you are playing Brood War which is better balanced than the original and has more interesting units with which to play.

Get the general idea

You should play enough to know the build tree of your race as well as others. If you don't know how to build a particular unit and don't know the utility of a particular unit, you are going to get burned by it sooner or later.

In ideal games between evenly matched players given even mineral consumption, the game should come down to who makes the most efficient use of their resources. The winner should be the player that lost the least minerals in their units lost in battle.

In popular maps like Big Game Hunters or in maps where the number of players is less than the number of players that the map was designed for (such as a 2 player one on one in The Lost Temple) it comes down to who can build units the fastest.

In most games, however, the skill levels are not equal, and (sneaky) tactics of the moment will tend to dictate the actual outcome of a game. Learning the utility and strengths and weakness of each unit will be crucial.


Like most resource-build army-things mostly equal kind of games, you wont get very far by simply sending your armies into one on one battles with the enemy. All things equal such battles will end up being a draw. As with any ordinary military tactics, you usually want to over power your enemy by attacking stategic weaknesses with strength, and delaying the attacks from your opponents strength.

What this means in StarCraft is that you want to build up big armies, and attack your opponent's smaller armies, and weakly defended buildings. A common strategy to this end is the drop. Where an overlord, dropship or shuttle is used to deliver your army to an approach angle to your enemies base which they have not strongly defended. Similarly, though, if your enemy has more than one base, it is usually best to attack the weakest first.

Among beginners, a common problem is that they don't know how to build at top speed. So a skilled player can simply railroad a weaker player by building an small army at top speed and sending them to attack the opponent's base before they have build up an adequate army/defence of their own.

So an essential skill is the ability to build quickly. This is achieved by making sure you have the fastest possible resource collecting stream as well as building in units and buildings simultaneously with each other. Here are a few rules of thumb that should be follow roughly in order:

  1. If you have less than 1.5 peons (probe/scv/drone) per mineral patch, then you must build more peons.
  2. If your gas stream is not continuous then send more peons to collect gas. There should be one peon waiting to collect gas before the one in the gas collector returns to the base with the gathered gas (so the closer your base is to the gas, the fewer peons -- as few as, and typically, four -- are required to extract a continuous stream from the gas geyser.)
  3. Do not horde minerals, if you have lots of minerals (more than 500 or 1000) then build towards making a more powerful army or bolster your defence. Be sure to be constantly upgrading your existing and intended army units. Think of upgrades as having a multiplicative effect on all your units.
  4. Don't forget to build unit limiters (overlord/pylon/supply depot). Always try to lead in unit limiter building so that you are building your army continuously.
  5. If none of your army generating buildings are idle and you have the resources, then build another army generating building.
  6. Upgrade your army. For most units, it is most beneficial to upgrade one level of their defence, before offence (so they live longer while they are attacking or defending) however in the long run you need to max out on all defence and offensive upgrades.
  7. As soon as you are building smoothly, and you have enough excess minerals, expand to a new mineral patch. Depending on your strategic tastes or situation, you may wish to expand speculatively (i.e., without sending an army to defend it) in the hopes that your opponent does not notice the expansion, or you might send your army to defend the mineral patch area first before expanding. The benefit of building speculatively is that you collect minerals sooner and need not divide your army among several bases, however it is risky. A more conservative approach is to always build at adjacent resource mines/geyesers and build defences before or at the same time as your new base, as well as sending a sufficient army there. This takes more time and resources, and therefore, in of itself carries with it some long term risk.
  8. If you are still building your tech tree, it is better to let the StarCraft AI handle any battles that you might be in rather than micro-managing them. Since growth in StarCraft is explosive at the beginning, you will gain more from tech you build now than the few units you save by wasting time accurately playing out minor battles.

There are certainly exceptions to the above rules. Different maps will dictate that you modify your strategies accordingly.

In addition to these basic rules, the beginner needs to be aware of how to perform many actions at once. Queueing up commands with the shift key is essential. For protoss and terran, your peons (scv/probe) should return back to gathering minerals or gas after commanded to create a building automatically by virtue of queued commands. Setting rally points are essential for organizing your troops later in the game, but at the beginning of the game (when you are spending time waiting for peons to build), they are effective for sending your peons to the mineral patches at the very instant they are created. These saved fractions of a second do accumulate and thus it is worth it to redefine your rally point to a new mineral patch after each peon is created at the beginning of the game.

The beginner must also become accustomed to the keyboard short cuts. Navigating the menus with your mouse while you are in the middle of a battle or other micromanagement is an unacceptable waste of time. Learn the short to building peons (terran: ss, zerg: sd, protoss: p) as well as making your common buildings (protoss probe: bp - pylon, bc - canon; zerg drone: bc - build creep, bh - build hatchery; terran scv: bb - build barracks, bu - build bunker) and common units. Look at the highlighted character in the menus to see what each key does. Press a to send a selected army to attack (to attack a sequence of points just hold down shift and queue the attack pattern up!) Also remember that audio queued events can be zoomed in on immediately by pressing the space bar.

A common mistake for protoss and terran players is to load up the unit queues in each of the buildings as much as possible at the beginning of the game. At the beginning of the game, when you have relatively little money, and little to micro-manage, you should instead queue up two units at each building and increase the queue as each unit is built. This is essentially "cash management". Doing this will leave you with more minerals on hand to build more buildings while not slowing down your unit build rate. Ordinarily the goal is to put those minerals towards making more buildings that will in turn let you make more units at once (it is better building 2 units in each of 5 unit generating buildings than 5 units in 2 unit generating buildings). Once this micro-management starts becoming overwhelming, use the full building queues (5) to maintain maximum build rate.

In Big Game Hunters (or a two player match on a four player map) as a rule of thumb, protoss should build towards having about 4 nexus', zerg should expand to 9 hatcheries, and terran should build towards about 3(?) command centers. The protoss are a special case, since its possible for them to be building multiple races at once (Dark archon can mind control friendly or enemy peons for other races and start building thier race as well.) A protoss player should, of course, also be trying to build 9 hatcheries and 3(?) command centers as well (if your brain doesn't explode from handling that much stuff at once.)

Then you should be building towards a situation where you can pump out units and constantly sustain a near 200 unit-slot limit while you are doing battle with your enemy. With the protoss, you should build about 8 gateways, or a similar number of telportation ports, and make sure the build buffers are always full. (These are late game suggestions that don't apply to the beginning of the game.)

Building units quickly

Building units quickly is different for zerg than for the other races. For zerg, you need to build lots of hatcheries. You know you are being inefficient if any hatchery has three larva that are not mutating to units. The reason is that the speed of building units will be limited by the number of available larva, and once your hatchery has three larva it will stop building more larva. Taken to the logical conclusion, what this means is you should be building units evenly over all your hatcheries, rather than building units out of your hatcheries one at a time. This applies mostly to the beginning of the game when you are trying to build drones to collect more minerals to build more hatcheries. Once you are really building later and in the middle of the game, you should either be at your 200 unit limit, or should not have 3 idle larva anywhere.

For protoss and terran, the army builders (barracks/gateway and spaceport/teleportation port) have a build queue. It is temping to simply fill these queues, and let the build process take care of itself, however this is not a good idea at the beginning of the game. Instead you should build lots of ground army builders (gateway/barracks) and build evenly in each. In this way, more of your mineral resources are dedicated to units that are about to be built, rather than on units that you wont see for a long time down the road. In this way you are pushing for simultaneous building rather than sequential building. You units will pop out faster relative to the minerals put into building them. Later on, your mineral production and the number of army builders should make this amount micro-management prohibitive. At this point you should switch to simply filling the queues of your numerous army builders.

Standard armies

You should learn the standard armies for each race, just to give you a baseline for the minimum you should expect from an opponent. If you are a beginner, you should start just by building these armies, to get a feel for them.

Standard armies (offence motivated)
  1. Dragoons, dragoons, and more dragoons. Dragoons can attack both air and ground, are fairly tough, and in enough numbers can slice through standard ground defences (cannons, sunken colonies, bunkers+tanks.)
  2. Carriers (6 or more). Like the dragoons they can attack both air and ground. They are *very* tough, and requires micro-management of the part of the defence to effectively hurt them.
Most effective protoss armies will be supplemented by a few reavers (to provide a lot of extra effective ground attack and defence), and observers (to spot lurkers, wraiths, and dark templars.)
  1. Zerglings, lots, and lots of zerglings. You should wait until they are fully upgraded (at spawning pool and technology bays) before attacking with them. They offer no air attack or defence, however the goal is to make an enormous swarm of them. They are their own decoys and scouts. They can take down buildings and armies in short order.
  2. Hydralisks, lots of them. Hydralisks are like dragoons (they are about as strong, relative to cost, as well.) Their primary advantage over dragoons is that they can fit through thinner passages so they can bypass decoy buildings more easily, and invade the enemy's base more easily.
  3. A group of Guardians (8 or so). Rips up the ground units of an unprepared opponent. Usually supplemented by mutalisks and devourers to protect them from air attacks.
Most effective zerg armies now include a group of lurker units. They can stop armies at a choke point, keep zealots and dark templars away, and take down buildings. Overlords are required to spot dark templars, wraiths and lurkers.
  1. Marines and medics. With the advent of the medic unit, marines are now very tough customers. Marines can effectively enter a fight stimmed without the health sacrifice. Effective defence requires micro-management.
  2. Marines (and medics) with Tanks. Tanks by themselves are too vulnerable (peons can kill them, when they are sieged), so a front line of marines slows the enemy down enough to allow the seiged tanks to be maximally effective.
Most effective terran armies include a science vessel to wipe out annoying guardians, take out a protoss army's shields and detect dark templars, wraiths, and lurkers.

Despite claims or theories to the contrary there are no unbeatable armies. There are no unfair units. Every attack has a counter attack that can beat it. You need to build up experience to learn how to beat any given individual attack. If you find a certain kind of attack difficult to deal with, adopt that attack yourself and see how others deal with it.

However creating a successful defense or counter attack to any impending attack requires reconnaisance to know what your enemy is up to. Also remember that an experienced opponent will also be trying to observe what you are up to.

The Rush

A lot of players are perturbed by some of the highly skilled players who will build an army as quickly as possible and send them straight at them. Just as they are starting to build up their tech, they are met with 4 zealots, or 6 zerglings versus no appreciable defence whatsoever.

These players typically complain or request a "no rush" time period at the beginning. But there is no enforcability in battlenet, and more to the point, its part of the game. The right response to a rush is: have a defence.

There are suitable defences for all variations of the superfast rushes (a handful of offensive units built at the very start of the game and sent to attack).

Suggested defences for the superfast rush.
Protoss Build 2 probes, then 1 pylon ...
  • then a gateway, a probe, a gateway, then probes and zealots as fast as possible. Direct your zealots to your choke points. This should handle any one player rush.
  • then a forge, a probe, a gateway, then two cannons in your base then probes and zealots as fast as possible. Direct your zealots to a distance away from your cannons so that the attacker is hit by them both at once. This can handle a two on one superfast rush.
Zerg Build two drones, then three sunken colonies surrounding your base. This should hold off one or two player superfast rushes.
Terran Build two SCVs, then a barracks, then a bunker near your base, then a second barracks, then a second bunker, then marines as fast as possible (as well as supply depots as necessary. Send the marines to the bunkers of course.

Slow rushes.
  • A handful of dark templars. If the opponent has not adequately guarded themselves from invisible units, you can quickly take down the enemy main base without being noticed until its too late.
  • Drop of reavers into enemy base. Defeating reavers requires a tough army, and stopping the shuttle with anti-air building is not going to happen in the early game.
  • A group 12 or more zealots. Self explanatory. Can take down inadequate defences.
  • A group of Lurkers. If the opponent has not adequately guarded themselves from invisible units, you can quickly take down the enemy main base and his/her drones without being noticed until its too late.
  • A handful of mutalisks, to take out enemy peons. If the opponent has no anti-air defence, this can set back the opponent's build which will mean they will fall behind in the tech tree.
  • A small group of wraiths. If the opponent has not adequately guarded themselves from invisible or air units, you can quickly take out enemy peons.
  • Drop seige tanks (or marines) in enemy base.
Updated 08/17/06
Copyright © 1999, 2006 Paul Hsieh All Rights Reserved. This html page may be freely distributed or mirrored so long as the source contents are not modified.

Paul Hsieh's Home Page Mail Paul Hsieh