I Broke Through My Starcraft Skill Ceiling
How I used performance psychology to up my game
There’s a lot that I could say about my love for Starcraft II. But for the purpose of this article, I’ll let the words of a particularly cruel opponent sum things up for me:
“how can u play so much and still suck this bad”
It was an unfortunately valid observation. Despite all of the time and effort I put into getting better at Starcraft II, I had hit a hard skill ceiling a little over a year after the game’s launch. All I wanted was to break into the Diamond League — which was the top ranked 1v1 league at the time (Masters, Grandmasters, and 3–2–1 sub-leagues would come later on). But no matter how hard I tried, no matter how many games I played or how many pros I tried to emulate, I just couldn’t get there.
I stopped playing in 2014 or so, and despite my deep love for Starcraft II I was pretty successful at ignoring it. Legacy of the Void, the game’s second and final expansion, launched and I barely noticed. The game went free-to-play, widening the player base significantly, yet I stayed away. Blizzard introduced new game modes as well as changes intended to unlock the creativity of player-mapmakers, but I had other things going on.
It wasn’t until spring of 2020, in the run-up to Starcraft II’s ten-year anniversary, that I decided to try once more to get into Diamond League. But this time, things were different.
I was older. Wiser…? Well, definitely crankier. And what’s more, I had a plan.
And as a result, about two months after starting again, I was greeted by the following splashscreen after a series of well-won games:
I finally made it. But this isn’t a vanity article. After all, I’m now good enough at the game to recognize just how bad at it I still am.
Instead, I’m here to share knowledge. To show readers the resources I used in order to break through a personal skill ceiling I’d thought was impenetrable. Because although there aren’t that many people who are looking to get better at Starcraft II, the foundational principles of knowledge acquisition, skill improvement, achievement, and expertise are applicable to many other situations and disciplines.
I know this because I stole these principles from researchers of and experts in those other disciplines. So even if you’re not looking to get better at Starcraft II, there might be some other area of your life that can benefit from the following steps I took to get to Diamond League.
Research how people practice, improve, and become experts
My repeated Googling of “how to get better at Starcraft” ultimately led me to what is now one of my chief areas of interest: expertise and performance psychology, or more specifically, the acquisition and improvement of skills in beginner, intermediate, and expert performers.
Over the past few years, I’ve read a good dozen books about skill acquisition, habit improvement, and expert performance such as Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Ultralearning by Scott Young, The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, Atomic Habits by James Clear, and the root of all expertise studies, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by K. Anders Ericsson. Each of these authors approached self-improvement in a way that was distinct, yet often entwined in the foundational principles as described by Ericsson and others — and it was specifically Ericsson’s principles of purposeful practice and deliberate practice that made the greatest impact on my improvement.
There are a billion Medium articles about deliberate practice, so I’m not going to spend time here recounting the full definition. However, the rest of the items below were definitely shaped by Ericsson’s research — and I strongly — STRONGLY — advise that anyone who is serious about any sort of skill improvement read Peak, as it contains the foundations of what you need to know to get better at literally anything you can think of.
So the “research” that I conducted was not just how to win at Starcraft — it was how to improve, efficiently and decisively at anything that I wanted to put my focus and efforts towards.
Build a solid mental framework of how the game works
One of the things that Ericsson investigates in Peak is how experts build and maintain the mental frameworks underlying their expertise — a cohesive system of understanding not only the concrete knowledge of each subskill of performance, but also an overarching structure that describes how those skills function together in order to produce expert-level execution.
I knew a lot about Starcraft II. But what I knew didn’t really fit together well in my head — rather than serving as a unified understanding of the game, all of this knowledge was fragmented and separated, associated with each other only by the common thread of being “information about Starcraft”.
In order to build a better mental framework, I did two things. First, when watching replays and evaluating my games, I started treating the game more like a story than a collection of associated events. I tried to get a feel for and understanding of the “flow” of the game in addition to identifying individual mistakes or successes. I tried to follow the downstream effects of certain decisions, both good and bad, for both myself and my opponent, and hold in my head the butterfly-effect-like chain of events from the moment the game started to the second the postgame splashscreen appeared.
This helped a lot. But the second thing I did that really allowed me to build a stronger mental framework of the game was finding a mentor.
Find the right expert to learn from
Another thing that Ericsson stresses as part of the deliberate practice process is finding a mentor — a coach or someone similar — to guide your progress. An effective mentor designs the drills and regimens that develop key subskills of effective performance, they provide feedback on mistakes and successes in real-time (which is crucial to efficient and effective skill improvement), and they help to build that all-important mental framework that binds together individual skills into a cohesive approach to the performance as a whole.
Finding a mentor in the classic sense was going to be difficult for me. First of all, it’s very difficult to train for Starcraft in the same way one might train for chess, or playing the violin, or basketball, as the game doesn’t lend itself well to being broken down into slices for individual skill practice. Secondly, the people I knew who played Starcraft were too close to my level to be effective mentors. Thirdly, I didn’t have the time to build relationships via the game’s chat channels or on Starcraft II forums in order to find a high-level player willing to take me under their wing. And finally, I couldn’t justify paying actual money for a gaming coach.
Fortunately, there are some very skillful and kind souls in the Starcraft community who have made it their mission to help others get better at the game — largely for free.
On my most recent attempts at improvement, I found somebody whose approach I really clicked with. ViBE, a Grandmaster in all three Starcraft II races, has a YouTube series called “Bronze to GM” in which he teaches players how to play the game from a solid, fundamental level, starting with a very simple strategy and adding more and more complexity as the player-learner moves up through the various leagues.
There was something about ViBE’s approach in these videos coupled with the way that he talked about the approach that helped me reach an understanding of Starcraft II that I hadn’t had before. And although I didn’t have the benefit of tailor-made drills or real-time feedback that a more traditional mentor supplies, through his series I was able to build that all-important mental framework that guided my improvement and helped me to become a better player.
Change “win” conditions
Early on, I was utterly consumed with the Starcraft II’s Victory splashscreen. In fact, I was so concerned with getting that ‘W’ that I would even get excited when it looked like an opponent had network issues (sixty seconds of no ping resulted in an automatic win for the person still connected).
The rational part of my mind knew that such victories were hollow — a person’s WiFi dying doesn’t qualify as a “win” outside the confines of the Starcraft II laddering system — but the emotional part of my brain told me that each opponent disconnect (which was more frequent in the early days of the game) was one step closer to reaching Diamond.
However, I had changed rather drastically since those early days. Not only did the prospect of an opponent’s network disconnect no longer excite me, the Victory screen itself wasn’t always a cause for celebration.
In order to improve, I had started ignoring — as much as I could, anyway — the results of the post-game splashscreens. Instead, I focused on certain in-game markers and conditions, specific results of my actions and approach, and used those to determine whether I had “won” or “lost”.
For instance — there is a constraint in the early to mid-game called “supply” that determines how large your army can be at a given time. Each unit has a supply cost, and if the sum of these costs is equal to or greater than your supply cap, you can’t build more units. You can increase this supply cap by constructing certain buildings or units, based on which race you play.
Supply is another resource, like the minerals and gas you collect, that determines how quickly you can build your army, and it’s very common for players even in the higher leagues to neglect it, become “supply blocked”, and have to wait for supply building/unit construction to finish before building their army further. In the early to mid game, supply blocking can be devastating, and can give an opponent who’s been closely watching their supply an edge that allows for a resounding win through the middlegame.
I was frequently allowing myself to be supply-blocked, and it was heavily affecting my win rate. So I changed my internal win condition for games to be “don’t get supply blocked”. So even if I saw a Defeat splash screen at the end of the game, if I didn’t get supply blocked, I told myself I had “won”. And if I saw a Victory screen, but I did get supply blocked, I “lost”.
I started adding more and more win/lose conditions that were separate from the reported outcome of the game. Have a certain army size by a certain time. Create a new base by a certain time. Know where the enemy army was before moving out or committing to an attack. By focusing on these individual elements of improvement, all while building them on top of the mental framework/pipeline structure I had been developing, I saw actual, real improvement in how I was playing.
For me, focusing on improving the in-game skills that are necessary for victory rather than victory itself led to better play. And better play is what ultimately led to more wins.
Don’t try to stay calm — try to stay focused
“Stay calm” and “don’t be nervous” are two of the worst pieces of advice of all time. Like Dostoyevsky said:
“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
By telling yourself not to be something or not to think about something, you must constantly remind yourself of the thing you’re not supposed to be or not supposed to think about. This pretty much guarantees that you will be that thing or think about that thing — because there’s nothing else going on in your mind!
So telling yourself to “stay calm” in the middle of an intense Starcraft match is pretty much useless — especially if you’re overly concerned with the outcome of the game. As Charles Duhigg points out in The Power of Habit:
The Colts started the game strong, but before the first half ended, they began falling apart. Players were afraid of making mistakes or so eager to get past the final Super Bowl hurdle that they lost track of where they were supposed to be focusing. They stopped relying on their habits and started thinking too much.
I was getting way too amped up while playing, and I was far too concerned with winning or losing to play effectively. Fortunately, I had Dostoyevsky and Duhigg to help me shed the bad effects of adrenaline and start playing better.
Telling myself not to worry about winning or losing was the same as telling myself not to think about a polar bear. So instead of thinking about what not to think about, I gave myself something to think about — a running checklist of things going on in the game to pay attention to. I put the checklist on a loop inside of my head, sometimes even speaking it out loud as I played, and doubled down on it during the more intense parts of the match in order to ensure my mind had something to focus on to the exclusion of concerns over winning or losing.
Not to brag, but this practice turned me into a bit of a stone-cold player. Adrenaline was no longer a thing. In-game panic during high pressure moments just…stopped happening. And the more I focused on reciting that checklist, the more I was actually able to act on the checklist. By mastering my focus, I moved past nerves and closer towards my end goal.
Two months after returning to Starcraft II in late Spring of 2020, I finally broke through to the Diamond League. The game had changed a lot over ten years — but then again, so had I. I learned how to improve at almost any skill, thanks to author-mentors like Young, Duhigg, Waitzkin, Foer, and of course, Ericsson. I’d figured out how to find the right teacher and the right approach to help me to build effective mental frameworks. I’d learned how to change my win conditions in order to ensure that I was actually improving at the game as a whole rather than chasing a Victory splashscreen. And I’d learned how to stay calm in high-pressure situations — whether that excitement was born from a fear of loss or a hope for a win.
I didn’t play for too much longer after getting my Diamond promotion. I was still seeing learning and improvement on my part — nothing that was rocketing me up to Masters League, but enough to think I could have moved up the 3/2/1 tiers of the Diamond League at a decent pace. But there was one other thing that I had learned in the ten years since the game began, and that was only reinforced as I worked this final time to break through the Platinum-Diamond barrier:
Time is precious
I didn’t appreciate how much free time I had when I was young, single, and had no real responsibilities. Similarly, I didn’t appreciate how much free time I still had when I was young, in a relationship, and had only minor responsibilities.
Having children definitely showed me the value of free time. So did having to spend time outside of work and family pursuing actions — such as earning a Masters degree, or self-studying statistics, or practicing computer programming — in order to boost my career to help build a better life for my family.
I loved playing Starcraft II — very, very much. Clearly. But to get better at it, for me, requires the total focus of the relatively little free time I have to pursue it. Meanwhile, a lot of other things that are also important to me — such as writing, learning the guitar, or creating my own computer games — are forced to the wayside. My desire to excel in those areas — using some of the same skills that helped me to break through my Starcraft skill ceiling — forces a necessary parsimony on the time resources that I do have.
So I’ve uninstalled the game once again — this time, I think, for good. There are too many other things that I want and need to pursue — and plus, the gaming zeitgeist has moved on. The Starcraft II dev team has been pared down rather significantly, the game is in a maintenance period rather than a growth one, and even despite the boost in numbers that resulted from the game going free-to-play back in 2017, the culture has largely moved away from Starcraft II and towards battle royale games (Fortnite), MOBAs (League of Legends, DotA 2), and other Blizzard properties (Overwatch, Hearthstone).
I don’t know if there will be another game in my life that so captured my attention and efforts the way that Starcraft II did. At this point, I would be surprised if there was — not because newer games are trash, but because I’m a different person, and Starcraft II is at least a little bit responsible for that. Without the intense competition afforded by its 1v1 leagues, I don’t know if I would have discovered the authors on expertise and skill acquisition that I did. Those writings have changed my life in a multitude of ways — and it’s all because I wanted to get better at controlling digital armies in a vibrant, highly competitive atmosphere.
In the end, I guess this isn’t just an article about how to improve at an almost 11-year-old real-time strategy game. It’s also a tribute to the game itself, and a “thank you” for the better, more focused life that it pushed me towards. So here’s to ten-plus years of Starcraft II — a tribute, a “thank you”, and a hope that no similarly intense 1v1 RTS game comes out because it would basically destroy my life. 😁