Warcraft III Four vs. Four Random Team is the most profound influence on my philosophy and approach to this wonderful medium.  (And thinking about that, shit, no wonder I suck at video games.)

So how does that happen?  Every once in a while, news outlets champion the brave employers who want recruits with World of Warcraft guild management experience, on the premise that those players have real-world leadership skills.  Laff.  If that’s the case, I’m qualified to be the fucking president.  Everyone in a World of Warcraft guild wants to be on the same page.  The typical Warcraft III “Random Team” game is the digital equivalent of cat-herding, exposing people to the worst of the human species, to the worst of teamwork, and it has made me a better, more patient human being.  No joke.  Now you’re probably wondering how Warcraft III is different than League of Legends, or DotA 2, or Call of Duty, or the new casual scrub shit flavor of the month.  How is Warcraft III different than any other versus multiplayer game?  Through a confluence of design decisions and the game’s peculiar longevity, there’s never quite been anything like the Warcraft III community.  These noble savages attained infamy during the game’s heyday, but they were never up to standards with the Counter-Strike community, since last I checked, Warcraft III players weren’t stabbing each other to death outside of PC bangs.

But a long time has passed, and the general public has forgotten about these games.  Well, kind of.  A decade removed from the 2002 release of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, the game (as played through the expansion pack The Frozen Throne) has become an aberration within the real-time strategy genre.  With the genre going through a commercial downturn, the classic titles are now host to small but passionate audiences, seeking and creating their own online portals for use with their favorite games. The popular real-time strategy games well removed from their launch date have developed punishing levels of play, as centralized through third-party services and fan sites: StarCraft has ICCUP, Supreme Commander has Forged Alliance Forever, Age of Empires II and Age of Mythology have GameRanger, and the Command and Conquer series has XWIS.  While professional Warcraft III attained recognition for its high degree of play, Warcraft III has lived a much different story than its rivals.  Much different.

Much like Total Annihilation and StarCraft, Warcraft III developed a reputation for the quality of its third-party content.  Ironically, the longevity of Warcraft III as played on Battle.net can be attributed to Defense of the Ancients, the custom map that began the commercial cannibalization of real-time strategy games.  These days, people buy Warcraft III so they can play Defense of the Ancients and other custom maps.  Eventually, they get bored with those “games”, and need to do something else with their purchase.  That “something else” becomes “search Four vs.  Four”, which has helped maintain a steady flow of players into the large team game modes.  (As early as 2004, Clan TDA’s system of checks and balances required all of the players participating in their Defense of the Ancients matches to have a twenty-five-win icon on the Warcraft III ladder, and it’s easiest to pick up those wins in the game mode where your poor play becomes the smallest liability.)

But it’s not merely the economics and circumstance of Warcraft III.  In spite of the fact that I absolutely adore the game, it is a terrible teaching tool for establishing the beginner concepts of successful real-time strategy play.  But if you know anything about Blizzard real-time strategy games, none of it should be surprising, since the ones following Warcraft II have as much in common with fighting games as traditional strategy games.  (It’s dem twitch action, son.)  Certainly, sound strategy is necessary for success in Warcraft III.  But at lower levels of play, the flexibility of the tactics and the low lethality of units do absolutely nothing to hammer home any strategy concepts.  In most real-time strategy games, being heavily outnumbered is usually a death sentence.  Because success and failure in Warcraft III operates on a deep and flexible tactical curve and the game model is built on the premise that no unit is expendable, the best players are capable of holding back and defeating multiple armies on their own.  (Thanks to the many strategies focused on rapid and immediate damage output as used for “sniping” heroes and other units, it has long been a running joke that Warcraft III is actually a first-person shooter.)

Oh, and as we all know, unit and building management in Warcraft III is fairly basic stuff.  I’m not going to dispute this.  At the strategic level, it’s one of the simplest games in the genre.  In addition, the game flow of Warcraft III does not demand constant management of supply and production lines like a StarCraft or an Age of Empires.  (“I thought you said this game was good?” Relax.  I just want to make the challenge of writing a glowing review more interesting.)  While Warcraft III can demand some serious mouse speed, that mouse speed comes in spurts.  So, other things can be done during that downtime.  Almost inevitably, that “thing” is “talk shit”.  In most real-time strategy games, raw hatred is reserved for the beginning and end of matches.  Well, the party never ends in Warcraft III!  Some of these players are just jerks and assholes, and Battle.net has no shortage of backstabbers, teamkillers, jerks, assholes, whatever.  (And I won’t lie: I used to be one of those huge assholes.)  But there’s a lot that we can learn from the players that translate their thoughts into text.  Place that hatred in the context of a large-scale team gametype, the team gametype where DotA tranisents go to die, and it’s easy to understand why Four vs. Four Random Team is my favorite gametype in Warcraft III.

While I think that Warcraft III is passably entertaining as a contest between two individuals, there are plenty of real-time strategy games which do one-versus-one game modes better.  And within Blizzard’s own universe, StarCraft: Brood War runs away with that crown.  Warcraft III simply lacks the scope necessary to shine in the smaller gametypes.  I have long championed that the game should have been designed around larger maps and a higher supply cap.  But, much like Command and Conquer: Generals, the early transition to 3D graphics forced real-time strategy developers to hold back the scale of their games.  And since the Humans are nearly unstoppable on larger maps, “competitive play” in Warcraft III champions smaller battlegrounds with scarce resources.  For this reason, I believe that Warcraft III shines in its team game modes, where strategies vary wildly depending on the team sizes, the level of play, and the layout of the map.  (And for those of you who think I’m dismissing the Free-For-All mode, I’m not.  Warcraft III does that game mode as well as any game in its genre and features some great diplomacy, since it has mechanics that actually force players to be aggressive in a free-for-all format, rather than sit on your available resources and wait for someone else to make a mistake.  But I still can’t stand it.  Sorry.)

It’s a running gag that Four vs.  Four Random Team is actually the One vs. Seven gametype, and that’s how most competent players approach it.  However, I differ from most of them.  Most skilled players take this as their cue to play the game as an extension of the solo gametype, using their tactical skill and choice of high-damage units (Wyverns, Fiends, Wyrms, Chimaeras) to completely overwhelm weaker players.  Even if I had the skill to do this on a universal basis, I would consider it a disinteresting way to play the game.  And it’s a way of playing the game which does not work against the best players, even within the Random Team game modes and their smaller pool of skilled players.  I choose the more interesting route: I play the game like a perverted version of Civilization.  I just pretend that the other seven players are the most poorly run nations in the history of mankind, and attempt to manipulate them (through both the chat box and game mechanics) to the ends which give me the best chance of winning.  You have to make calculations based on skill level, demeanor, chemistry, location, and unit composition.  And you have to make these calculations for yourself, your allies, and your teammates.  In other words, I play it like a strategy game.

But in a way, I have to do that.  I’ve been playing real-time strategy games for almost twenty years, but my reflexes and execution are largely below the average within my skill level.  (This is consistent with my skill set for video games in general.  Anyone who has watched me try to play fighting games or shoot ’em ups should not be surprised by anything I am saying.)  I would hardly consider any part of my playstyle overwhelming.  So what the hell am I good at?  My strengths as a video game player are two-fold: The ability to process raw information (see: puzzle and rhythm games) and a degree of creative, out-of-the-box decision-making.  The result is that I am what you could call an “adaptive” player.  Where “adoptive” players gain their advantage by taking established strategy and tactics and then mastering them, “adaptive” players are the ones that usually discovered them in the first place, always trying to gain an advantage by doing things that the adoptive players aren’t expecting.  (Credit goes to Kintak for providing those terms.)  If the game looks like the conventional round of Warcraft III, with players settling engagements at the tactical level, I’m probably going to get my ass kicked.  So I settle for ulterior options: Finding ways to deflect attention, placing a heavy emphasis on recon, and relying on any options I can use to prevent conventional engagements.  (For those of you who have been playing Warcraft III for a long time, this may sound a lot like “Protocol”, the infamous philosophy of play which relied on aggressive hit-and-run tactics and economic expansion, all in the pursuit of an overwhelming late-game economic advantage that could not be overcome with tactics.  Let’s just say that my style of play is quite a bit more subtle.)

As you can imagine, my experience with Warcraft III and my particular playstyle are genuinely different than most people who play the game.  So, I have two reasons for writing this guide.  While I am far from the greatest real-time strategy player that has ever lived, I haven’t seen a lot of players explore the same ground that I have.  Certainly not in Warcraft III.  I think that Warcraft III gets a bad rap for being a “game that requires no strategy”.  No, Warcraft III is not Total Annihilation.  It wasn’t designed to be.  But it’s still a fundamentally competent strategy game and most people discount that.  I feel utterly confident that if some of my tactics, strategies, and concepts were applied within Warcraft III and other real-time strategy games, they would be exceptionally effective in higher tiers of play.  That may be an extremely cocky thing to say, but I stand by it.  I just don’t have the reflexes, execution, skill, intelligence, or good looks to perform those skills.  (Spent too much time playing Warcraft III.  That’s why.)  So if your gag reflex is that “you’re playing against the scum of the Earth!”, save it for another day.  Ultimately, I feel that I have nothing to gain by hiding or protecting this information, and it’s probably better if I showcase, explain, and demonstrate these skills in print form, and take credit for doing these things before someone else does.

It’s also important to learn from the way that players react to these strategies and tactics.  The abundance of opportunity for chat makes this very, very easy.  So let me stress: Do not think of this as a strategy guide for playing Warcraft III.  Think of this as a primer for the psychology and understanding of all video games.  Versus multiplayer games are as much about psychology as they are about tactics and execution.  The lessons shared in this series of entries can be applied to any game, any genre, any mindset, any skill level.  Where more talented players may be able to coast on their natural ability, I’ve always had to place my own capabilities under further scrutiny and introspection in order to grab that extra inch.  (There’s a reason that the best athletes usually don’t make the best coaches.)  Not everyone can be the best in the world, and sometimes, the lessons learned from players in your range can be just as valuable as the lessons being created at the top of the mountain.

So certainly, I do not consider my writing a validation of my experience with video games.  But I believe my experience with this particular game is unique, it is interesting, and it is worth sharing to others.  And I would like to do this before it becomes difficult or impossible to find Four vs. Four Random Team games.  As played on Battle.net, the Arranged Team gametypes and the Free-For-All modes are mostly vacant at this point.  I imagine it’s the same on Garena and whatever other tunneling services are being used to play Warcraft III, where ninety percent of the users are playing Defense of the Ancients, anyway.  And where Warcraft III was once host to roughly 50,000 concurrent users on Battle.net on any given night, Blizzard has outright disabled the /users command that allowed you to see how many people were online.  (That may not seem like a lot of people, but this was before the days where Steam had millions of concurrent users, where League of Legends had a million-plus playing that dreadful, dreadful game at any one time.)  So, it’s safe to say that, nearly nine years after I first heard someone declare that Warcraft III is dying, that Warcraft III is obviously dying.

Over the next couple of months, I will provide the written equivalent of the Warcraft III Let’s Play, exploring interesting games and situations as they occur, explaining my thought process for playing the game, laughing at stupid people as they say stupid things, and tying these thoughts back to my general philosophy of game criticism.  (And as a bonus, I’m not lucky enough to make my living creating Let’s Play videos, which means I am not a fucking idiot and can provide something useful to you.)  But enough formality.  Time to herd some cats.

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