PvZ Balance and the Test Patch

StarCraft 2 /r/starcraft /u/Bockelypse 209 comments

I was planning to write up something like this sooner or later but with the recently released Balance Patch Notes now seems like as good a time as any. I'll start off with a bit of a trip down memory lane to shed some light on how we got to where we currently are then give my thoughts on how the current issues can be addressed before finally comparing that to the recent Bluepost and making a proposal of my own.

We'll start off about 2 years back, which judging by chatter on this sub is approximately the last time PvZ wasn't some degree of Zerg favored.

Section 1: Memory Lane

Patch 4.1.4 (Jan 2018): Stalker damage was reverted from a previous change that made Stalkers too strong. No problems here.

Patch 4.2.1 (Mar 2018): Dropperlord tech moved from Evo Chamber to Lair. This was a well received change that addressed the prevalence of Zergling elevator play early in the game. No problems here.

Patch 4.7.1 (Nov 2018): This patch had a ton of changes to the balance of PvZ. Queen Transfuse got a nerf, making it less powerful when repeatedly cast on the same unit. Nexus Recall got a change that would later be acknowledged as a buff. The most important two changes however were Carriers lost Graviton Catipult, gained a small amount of health, build interceptors much slower, but themselves build faster and Nydus worms got cheaper. While the balance implications of the Nydus changes would take some time to become apparent, the nerfs to the Carrier, although somewhat mitigated by a sidegrade to the Tempest, tipped the balance of PvZ late game distinctly towards Zerg.

Patch 4.8.2 (Jan 2019): On the heels of Protoss dominance in PvT, especially in the midgame, Protoss upgrade times got nerfed across the board. More importantly, Nydus load/unload times were halved in this patch. This began a wave of new Nydus strategies several of which could easily be considered abuse, notable among them Swarmhost/Nydus pressure styles.

Patch 4.10.1 (Aug 2019): After a wave of Protoss success with a wide array of Immortal-based PvZ allins and timings, which spawned some quality memes about the strength of two Immortals and a Warp Prism, Warp Prism cost was nerfed by 50 minerals and its pickup range was decreased from 6 to 5. In the same vein, the cost of Overlord Speed was cut in half to allow for better Zerg scouting. These changes were made slightly less relevant as Zergs figured the pushes out and they quickly fell back out of the meta. Meanwhile, Broodlord/Infestor was on the rise at this point, which spurred the Infested Terran damage nerf that this patch also brought. However, even in combination with a small buff to Interceptor build time, Protoss still couldn't meaningfully compete with Zerg in the late game and often resorted to strong timings and allins in the mid game to take wins.

Patch 4.11.0 (Nov 2019): After much community outcry and months of Zerg dominance, Broodlord leash range got a nerf and Infested Terrans were straight up removed from the game. While the latter effectively killed the Broodlord/Infestor composition in PvZ, Skytoss remained weak enough at the highest levels that PvZ was still rarely taken to the late game. Nydus load/unload speed buffs were reverted as well, which put a damper on many of the more aggressive Nydus allin strategies. The final big change here was the nominal PvT change in the form of a Charge sidegrade, trading out Charge damage for a pair of fresh Nikes. There has been plenty of debate about the efficacy of the change in leveling the playing field in PvT (it seems to have worked), but we'll discuss the impacts on PvZ in the next section.

Section 2: Where are we now?

So now, after 2 years of balance patches we find ourselves in a position of widely-recognized imbalance in PvZ. Late game continues to be some degree of Zerg favored without the Carrier or a replacement as a strong backbone for the Skytoss composition. The nerf to Zealot Charge damage has left Protoss struggling to combat Roach/Ravager compositions in the midgame and the efficiency of mass Baneling makes Protoss deathball pushes ill advised at best.

We see pro players adapting to this, most notably Zest and his Adept printer, but also other players with a gamut of Adept, DT, and even Stalker timing attacks, supported by a Warp Prism. It's worth noting that while these strategies are keeping Protoss technically afloat in the pro scene, we continue to see results like the recent 33% PvZ winrate at SAHSC and players like Trap and Zest struggling to win ESL cups that feature none of the top Zerg players of any region.

Section 3: My thoughts on the matter

As I write this, PvT and TvZ appear to be balanced, although the metas continue to develop. This means any balance changes I would propose would be to units and in ways that won't impact the non-PvZ matchups too much. To this end, I think the recently released balance notes are really missing the mark as they present bigger buffs to Terran in TvZ than to Protoss in PvZ. (Note: I like the Queen range nerf, it's a patch overdue, and the Feedback range buff is neat.)

The health nerf to Banelings I think will be especially brutal, since it doesn't change how Protoss units kill Banelings (still 4 storm ticks, still 1 Archon shot) but decreases the number of Marine/Marauder shots needed to kill a speed Baneling by 1. As well, graded splash damage like Siege Tanks will be more effective at softening speed Banelings, which is less relevant to Protoss, with its more uniform splash damage.

The change of armor tag on Creep Tumors to Light is interesting, since it does give Adepts more power to deny early Creep. However, once Zergling speed is done, the Adepts are still forced off the map, allowing Creep to spread. In contrast, Hellions will be able to deny early Creep and continue to clear it more efficiently than they already do. As a side note, after some preliminary testing, Oracles are still not good at Creep clearing on the test patch. Overall, this change helps Protoss, but it probably helps Terran more.

The current test patch also fails to address the inability of Protoss to come out onto the map in the midgame against Roach/Ravager compositions and the overall weakness of the Skytoss composition. To address these issues, there are a few changes that I would like to see:

Give Ravagers the Armored tag. Right now, Ravagers don't have an armor type tag. The way Protoss is designed, nearly all Protoss dps is specific to armor type. This makes Ravagers unusually tanky against Protoss. Despite having 25 less health than Roaches with the same base armor, Ravagers require 5 Immortal shots to kill as opposed to the 3 for a Roach. The Armored tag evens those kill points. I think this would give Protoss more play on the map in the midgame, which is one of the biggest issues in the matchup currently. It's possible that the extra Immortal dps against Ravagers still wouldn't make up for the lost Charge damage. In that case, the cooldown of Corrosive Bile could be increased, but changing both at once seems too aggressive.

Increase Baneling supply cost by 0.5. Full disclosure, this wasn't my idea. I mercilessly scalped it off of some much cleverer Redditor some time back. Nonetheless, this is one of the most elegant balance ideas I've seen. In the early-mid game, this nerf only makes a small difference. Unlike the current Baneling nerf, this allows the Baneling to retain its power as a defensive tool against early bio pushes in ZvT. It does, however, make it much more difficult to mass up enough Banelings to roll into and one shot an entire Protoss ground army in the late game.

Decrease Swarm Host Locust duration and increase Spawn Locust cooldown. In spite of the best efforts of seemingly every top Zerg player to demonstrate just how broken and abusive Swarm Host/Nydus was at the end of 2019, the strategy remained pretty much untouched coming into the latest season. Game 2 of Dark vs Trap at Super Tournament showed that the strategy is still at the very least, pretty dang strong. It's pretty clear that the putative counter to Swarm Hosts, killing them on cooldown, simply doesn't work often enough. Swarm Hosts are a key piece of the Zerg answer to Mech however, so simply handing down a big nerf to damage is wrong. Since Mech armies often kill Locusts before they expire anyway and are infrequently trying to counter-push Swarm Hosts, widening the opening for Protoss armies to get damage done against Swarm Hosts between waves seems at surface level to be a good PvZ specific nerf.

TL;DR: It's been a rough 2 years of balance changes for Protoss in PvZ, the current balance test patch doesn't particularly address the core issues, and how have we not touched Swarm Host/Nydus strategies yet?

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