How to play RTS games competitively - for newbies

All right, newbie, listen up! I’m going to whip your ass into shape and make you a lean, mean, RTS machine. If you’ve read my guide on getting better at games, you’ll know I’m all about improving skills to get more fun out of gaming, and now I’m here to cover the most intimidating genre out there. Even if you don’t have an interest in getting insane with your RTS abilities, you’ll still find some nuggets of goodness to chew over in your mind and apply to a more relaxed style. If you’re brave and open-minded enough to try your hand at the most intense competitive gaming out there, strap yourself in, because we’re going into brain-and-finger hyperdrive.

Above: StarCraft II is here, and it’s the perfect time to jump into the competition with the most newbie-friendly ladder system yet 

This guide is designed for the traditional RTS where you make workers, gather resources, and build a base. Still, many of the categories covered can help with less traditional RTS games. This is all stuff you can learn from practice – you don’t need 400 APM (Actions Per Minute), since many of us aren’t physically capable of it – but you will need to commit to getting faster than you are.

Remember, the best way to improve is to not try to do all of these things at once. In fact, what you should do is take each area I cover and attempt to only improve that one area at a time. Play some games where that is the only thing you are attempting to get right. Let everything other than that one aspect fall to the wayside. Once you’ve built that aspect up to where it’s a part of your automatic unconscious, move to the next section and focus on that. Later on, when you feel you’ve gotten pretty decent at all elements of play, go back and look at where you are weakest and then spend some time greasing that rusty part of the machine.

The following sections are in the order I believe you should follow while training.

Speed is your most valuable resource

RTSes, on their face, appear to be relaxing, leisurely games. They are not. If you absolutely want to be relaxed, you can still use other parts of this guide to enrich your enjoyment, but don’t expect to win against anyone but the lowest-level players. All RTSes are about speed, first and foremost. This does not mean that they are mindless clickfests. You need fast fingers and a fast mind – but speed of thought is most important, because anyone can randomly click super fast – your brain makes those actions meaningful.

Above: Even in games like Heroes of Newerth, which lacks traditional base building and resources, speed is critical. Fast clicks and fast thinking allow you to perform precise maneuvers and perfectly-timed sniping with spells

In every RTS, time is the most valuable resource. Before you even think about gold, or minerals, or lumber, start thinking about time as a resource you’re continuously losing. Every instant you’re not doing something you’re digging further into a hole. If your opponent is faster than you, he’s higher up in the hole. It doesn’t matter how clever you are, or how carefully your base defenses or army composition are if you’re slower than your opponent. Again, this doesn’t mean that speed trumps intelligence in RTS games. What it means is that speed is the foundation, the backbone of competitive play. All the good players are fast, and then they are smartly applying strategies and tactics at blinding speed. As an analogy, think of a fighting game. It doesn’t matter if you know the perfect time to use a fireball – if you can’t successfully perform the fireball, your tactics are futile.

Let’s take another example, from an RTS: building placement. If you’ve ever watched a pro playing an RTS, you may have noticed that his buildings are placed in a specific way – for instance, he may use houses to block off the entrance to his base. What you may not know is that he doesn’t spend seconds moving the little foundation of the house to get it just right – he places each house in a quarter of a second based upon memorization and reflexes. He knows where it’s going beforehand. The importance of this detail is that, because speed is your most valuable resource, you can’t afford to spend two seconds deciding where to place a building – it’s better to place it imperfectly right away than to wait and do nothing, because remember: you’re digging into that hole while you’re deciding. Building placement is important, but first and foremost, if you’re going to teach your brain how to play RTS competitively, you need to think “Do it fast before doing it correctly.” Doing it correctly comes later, once you’ve trained up your speed and it’s something you don’t have to focus on.

Above: You don’t have to be THIS fast. These guys are among the fastest in the world, so don’t expect to ever be this fast. It does, however give you an idea of how fast an RTS can be

The first foundation of becoming faster is to learn hotkeys. Don’t worry about memorizing every single hotkey at first – it’s unnecessary and boring. The essential two hotkeys to first learn are: selecting your command center (or town hall – we’ll use command center as generic for your main building) and building a worker. Some games have a specific hotkey for selecting your command center, while others allow you to add it to a control group. Control groups are the next thing you need to learn – most RTSes enact them as follows: select your chosen units or buildings, then hit ctrl + # (the # denoting whatever number you want to assign the group to). Then, just hitting the number later on will select that group no matter where it is, and double-tapping that number will jump your camera to it. So you’ll want to get used to assigning your command center to an easily accessible number (I use 4), and get used to hitting that key regularly and then hitting the “build worker” hotkey. This is important because you need to…

Always be building workers

We’re going to emphasize this as Tyler Durden would: Always be building workers. Always be building workers. This should be your mantra before attempting anything else in this guide. Note that speed is a component of this, because in order for you to always be building workers, you need to be fast in everything you do so that your command center is never idle. Never. If you can’t get anything else perfect in this guide, get this one thing perfect. It will make the most difference in your game. Let’s take a second to look at why this is.

Workers gather resources, which is obvious. What may not be obvious is that the longer a worker gathers resources, the more valuable it becomes. Think of the investment: let’s say a worker in StarCraft costs 50 minerals. If you build this worker late in the game, it will gather 1000 minerals before the game is decided. If you built that worker as your first worker, it will gather 5000 minerals, for the same cost of 50 minerals. So the earlier every single worker is built, the more valuable it is, which means every moment that your command center isn’t building workers is a moment where those potential gathered resources are lost.

Above: See how the command center has a worker training inside it. You should ALWAYS see this

The only time you should stop building workers is when you’ve reached the maximum efficiency level – for instance, in StarCraft II, putting more than three workers on a resource patch is a waste, so once every resource patch in your base is manned by three workers, you can stop building them. If you’re unsure, watch a replay of a pro player and see how many workers he builds before stopping. Still, if you’re going to make an error, it’s way better to build too many worker than not enough. So remember: Always be building workers.


protip wEiRd


  • grappler51 - September 12, 2010 12:28 a.m.

    I've never done much multiplayer RTS, mostly I just stick to the single player, though I might try some after reading this. I kind of like the slower pace of RTS's compared to other games though, so maybe I'm playing them wrong.
  • CHR1SZ7 - May 10, 2014 8:26 a.m.

    I finally got round to completing the last 2 campaigns on age of empires rise of rome and thought I'd have a go at multiplayer. Of course, I made the mistake of thinking that because I'd finished all the campaigns I must be quite good. I have since been repeatedly thrashed because I don't really know how to expand properly. I haven't got the hang of checking for resources while waiting for workers to build, and then assigning them to build a granary or whatever as soon as they arrive. Hopefully the advice here will help (as at the moment I'm guilty of all the noob fails written here!)
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  • NearNRiver - September 9, 2010 11:20 p.m.

    Really really good article, very well written and informative, and interesting to read. Nice job! PS: Editor in me taking over, in the third to last paragraph, "new" is used instead of "knew"
  • Lionzest7 - September 9, 2010 1:45 p.m.

    missing the biggest one, build a lot of SH!T. All this stuff and micro matters little once the game goes on for any length of time. Also missing scouting... Which is also big too, since your opponent could be doing whatever and you get rolled.
  • enlargedhousecats - September 9, 2010 7:10 a.m.

    @buffalobillybob: spawn more overloards
  • mahabat - September 9, 2010 3:01 a.m.

    germanmafia ensemble is done so probably not speaking of ensemble i played Halo wars just tonight actually and am struggling cause it doesn't follow normal rts rules plus i got to the stupid super scarab, if you played the game you know what i mean and cannot stop my freakin units from driving directly into the laser of death. stupid level
  • BadCompanyBrik - September 8, 2010 11:54 p.m.

    "And unlike real parties, in RTS parties it's always fashionable to arrive early." <3 That's what I get in team games: BRIK! WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU?
  • GamesRadarMichaelGrimm - September 8, 2010 11:13 p.m.

    @xenon The last paragraph might be of interest to you.
  • McSpermie - September 8, 2010 11:07 p.m.

    Very useful, I read your last article regarding getting better at games. Good stuff and something you should continue doing. Nice job :)
  • civver - September 8, 2010 11:05 p.m.

    Seems like too much work for me, but hey, if you find it fun, then more power to you. Still some pretty good advice. I once thought that a large pool of resources was a good thing. Oh how wrong I was.
  • rybell - September 8, 2010 11:02 p.m.

    I've always been a fan of rts games, especially the starcraft series so these tips should definitely come in handy. my only other problem is that although i love competitive games, after an online game or 2 with a stranger, it starts to get too stressful. then i usually end up playing comps for awhile. I've come to the point where in sc2 i can beat an insane ai no problem, but im still stuck in the high bronze leagues online
  • SwampRock - September 8, 2010 10:22 p.m.

    I knew most of this already, but it'll definitely help such as the scouting thing, I never found that really too important but my friends do it all the time, and they're pro, so looks like it's time to practice.
  • groovy3000 - September 8, 2010 9:41 p.m.

    cool article. i've never really played rts' competitively but i might try some of these hints.
  • xenon - September 8, 2010 9:35 p.m.

    It's amusing how people always find ways to take the fun out of fun activities.
  • EnragedTortoise1 - September 8, 2010 9:23 p.m.

    No matter what I do, I still suck at RTS's. but maybe that's because the last one I played was C+C3 on PS3. -_-
  • Amnesiac - September 8, 2010 8:58 p.m.

    As a budding RTS player, this will come in handy, I'm sure. Aside: I really would not call Heroes of Newerth and its like (DotA, LoL) RTS's, though they were born from the RTS mold.
  • oz997 - September 8, 2010 8:35 p.m.

    No matter how many guides I read, I can't get past my OCD, meaning I spend minutes obsessing over tiny details then promptly get my arse handed to me.
  • buffalobilliebob - September 8, 2010 8:27 p.m.

    ^ Per minute*
  • buffalobilliebob - September 8, 2010 8:26 p.m.

    Koreans 400 actions per second. Bow down to your overlords

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