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How to play RTS games competitively - for newbies

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Monitor your resources and spend them

The first important thing to master is to be always building workers. The second is to efficiently spend the resources those workers gather. The second biggest mistake a newbie makes is to think that seeing 3000 gold in the HUD is a good thing. You actually want the opposite. As much as possible, don’t let your resources accumulate. Think about it in economics: money sitting in your bank is money not working for you. If you allow resources to accumulate and your opponent doesn’t, that means he’ll have a bigger army than you until you spend your resources, so if he attacks you, you’ll lose the game. Not spending resources is probably the number one reason mediocre players lose games.

Typically, you’ll want to spend your resources so frequently that you’re constantly getting the message “Need more X resource” when trying to buy something. You want to be as close to zero as possible most of the time. The exception is when you’re waiting for some new buildings to finish or a new tech level to complete so that you can instantly spend resources on newly available units or buildings. Different RTSes will have reasons when you can allow resources to build up, but before you bother with that, err on the side of spending resources “too much.” It’s almost always better to spend resources.

Note that this includes preventing yourself from getting “housed,” which is a term for when you haven’t properly watched your population increasing and haven’t built a house/supply building early enough, and then you can’t build new units until a new house is built. Notice that this is important because getting housed will stop you from always building workers.

Early in your training, don’t be afraid to queue the training of units because it’s better to spend resources than not, but as you advance, try to not queue units whenever possible. Resources held up in a queue are resources you can’t spend right now. For instance, let’s say you queue up three soldiers in your barracks. Next, you try to build a house, but you don’t have enough resources. By tying up the resources in units that aren’t being built at that moment, they are wasted and interrupt the fluidity of your machine – you want to be constantly directing resources to whatever is most important at that moment.


Above: This guy has 3000 minerals in his bank, which is bad. He also has only one factory and one barracks. Building multiple copies of unit-producing buildings will allow you to spend your resources faster 

Sometimes, you’ll have to queue units, like when you’re in the middle of a battle and you need to focus on keeping your fighting units alive. At that point, it’s safer to just queue some units at your base and get back to managing the fight, because you won’t have time to keep going back and building more units while fighting. This is also a point that newbies lose games over – you need to keep spending your resources even while you’re in battle. Use control groups and hotkeys on your military buildings to build units without looking away from the battle. It’s typically more important to be building new units than to make sure the units you have in combat are alive – after a battle, whoever has been building troops continuously will have an advantage, even if they lost more units during the battle.

Don’t just buy everything you can - especially not upgrades. Newbies tend to just buy every upgrade they see, which is a waste. If you think you may need to change strategies, you won’t want to spend resources on upgrades that won’t benefit your later units. Upgrades’ value is also relative to the size of the army and the length of the game (upgrades aren’t as important in smaller-army RTS games like Warcraft III). Upgrades aren’t meant as a required benefit – they’re meant as an option, and determining when and if to buy them is the difference between a smart player and a thoughtless one.

Also consider the values of units and towers: units are typically the most valuable because they can move. This is hugely important. A common newbie mistake is to build too many towers – spending resources on immobile defenses allows your opponent to move around and take control of the map.


Learn build orders

So, first you attempt to do everything quickly. Then you train yourself to always be building workers. Then you practice spending your resources efficiently. Build orders will bring these three elements together. What’s a build order? It’s a detailed list of what things you are going to build, which you decide upon before a game even starts. When I mean detailed, I mean a list of literally every single thing you build, including every individual worker. The process of creating and learning build orders could be either fun or tedious to you, but if you want to compete, they are necessary. You can’t just say “I’m going to tech early to ranged units and push my opponent’s main base.” You need to break that down to the discrete steps because the correct build order will allow you to perform that strategy at the optimum time. If you just sort of build a few workers here and there, tech when it “feels right” and push when your force “looks big enough” and then you face an opponent who knows his build orders, you’re going to arrive late to the party. And unlike real parties, in RTS parties it’s always fashionable to arrive early.


Above: Just one example of a good Warcraft III build order

I’m going to reveal something incredibly nerdy about myself. In order to compete in Warcraft III, I watched replays of pro players, copied down their build orders, and then printed them out on paper that I stood up in front of me between my keyboard and the monitor. With the exact build orders in front of me, I proceeded to learn them and practice their timing. I don’t have a particularly good memory for these sorts of things, so I used them as cheat sheets when I played. They were useful because they would remind me of the timings of strategies - for instance, I had a note that told me to consider attacking my opponent right when my build order led me to the second tier, because typically that’s when everyone gets to tier 2, and attacking then can be advantageous because you can destroy tier 2 buildings before your opponent can finish building them, thus delaying your opponent’s access to powerful tier 2 units.

Now’s where you might be wondering, “What if my build order turns out to be wrong for what my opponent is doing?” Well, duh, build orders aren’t meant to be set in stone. They’re most important in the early game, but if you scout your opponent and see he’s building the counter to your planned army, it’s time to switch things up. In fact, build orders get messed up in many games because your opponent isn’t just going to let you do what you want unmolested. If you’re planning a mid-game attack and you get rushed, you need to improvise some defenses, but with your build order handy in your mind or on paper, you can still pick it up where you need to.

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20 comments

  • 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.
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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
  • Phazon117 - September 8, 2010 8:22 p.m.

    Ohh, thanks, I'll probably need this.

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