Saturday, March 19, 2011

Positioning: The Paramount of a Skillful Player

So, you guys remember a few weeks back when I wrote a big huge article about how Movement was the most important aspect of a competitive game?

Today I'm going to talk about something that stems from that: the most important skill of a competitive game. If Movement is the most important aspect, then it's a logical conclusion that Positioning is the most important skill.

(I'm going to go ahead and cut in on anyone who said "Manual dexterity" or "Awareness" are more important. I'll agree on the latter, as Positioning is actually part of awareness, more specifically, a part of situational awareness. But for the purposes of this blog, I'm going to talk about how movement around a map is the most important skill to a competitive game.)

It's fairly obvious based off my previous blog that I believe competitive games should encourage movement. Players should have goals that require them to leave their most powerful positions in order to gain advantages so they may get ahead and still be encouraged to get further ahead. Situations in which a player is encouraged to 'camp with the lead' are typically less competitive (although sometimes more tense) than situations where a player must press his advantage or lose it.

Now, it's time to apply that to the player's actions, rather than the design of the game. This is where Positioning comes into play. By positioning, of course, I mean the placement of a player (or his units) around a map at any given moment.

In StarCraft 2, this could refer to the bases to which you expand, as well as the location you decide to move your army. A unit positioned at a Xel'Naga Watchtower, for instance, is at an advantage over one attempting to move within the vision radius of said watchtower, as the former unit has vision much sooner of the latter and can react accordingly.

Currently, StarCraft 2's most consistent-placing player (with two First Place finishes in the Global StarCraft League in Korea) is oGsMC. MC is notorious for a heavy Sentry-based army composition he wields against his opponents. For those of you reading that play StarCraft 2, you may be thinking "But Sentries don't really deal that much damage." For those of you that don't play StarCraft 2, you're probably lost right now.

It's true, Sentries' attack is essentially tickling someone to death. They deal much, MUCH less damage than any other unit available to Protoss (save for a Probe, Observer, or Warp Prism, which aren't designed to engage in combat). However, the Sentry has one ability that isn't available to any other unit in the game: Force Field.

Force Fields create a (mostly) impassable block over terrain. (I say 'mostly' because certain units such as the Thor and Colossus can walk over the force field to pop it, and Roaches can move while burrowed under it.) For those of you still scratching your head as to why this is's positioning.

Sentries allow you to completely determine the positioning of your opponent's army. If you're at a choke point, you can block it with a force field and only allow a few enemy units up at a time. If you're in a wide open area, but you have multiple sentries (like MC does), you can literally cut an enemy's forces in half by spamming force fields along the concave of his army. With his forces split, that means at least half his army is out of positioning, while yours is all at fighting force. If your opponent is trying to run with a weaker army, you can force field his escape path in order to ensure your army mops up and continues to push.

I personally believe Protoss are overpowered in StarCraft 2 almost entirely on the backs of the Sentry's Force Field ability (although Blink Stalkers are pretty B.S. as well). Those two abilities are the only two non-transport abilities in the entire game that can affect a unit's positioning.

To further support this case -- LiquidHuk (a Canadian/North American player) has recently made it to Code S (meaning, he's a Top 32 StarCraft 2 player in the world). Mechanically, his gameplay is much weaker than his opponents. However like oGsMC, he plays a more Sentry-focused build and positions his force fields well. Plenty of mechanical mistakes can be made up for by proper positioning.

This brings us to the next title I brought up in my blog about movement, League of Legends. I'll keep this one brief, but there are a few main important things regarding positioning in League of Legends.

The first is EXP Range. Minions that die have a certain range in which you must be in order to gain EXP from them (unless you were the one to actually kill the minion...but most skills don't have a long enough range to kill from outside EXP range). This means that during the laning phase, a player or team with a stronger lane can zone an enemy out from this range, while remaining in range to gain the experience from enemy creep that are dying. In essence, they are denying experience to their opponents, and gaining a level advantage.

It's a very basic skill to learn, but it's often only exhibited by skilled players. It is an example of pressing an advantage (a better lane composition) to gain a bigger advantage (a level advantage) by being encouraged to move. Sure, you could sit back and safely farm, but if you can move to threaten an enemy to force the enemy to back off and let you free farm without being able to farm themselves, WHY WOULDN'T YOU?

The next piece regarding positioning in League of Legends is simply the positioning of a team fight. I mentioned in a previous article (see: Composition) that you typically want to target down DPS players before Tanks. Can you see where I'm going with this?

If you said "I should run straight at a DPS player and try to attack him!"

No, shut up, you're wrong.

First: DPS positioning. You should almost always be near the back of your team, but not back far enough that you cannot deal damage, nor back too far that you can easily be flanked. You need to be near to your supports (who can protect you) and near your tank (so you can damage what he disables.)

Support positioning: You should be near your DPS Carries (so you can protect them) but as far away from the enemy as possible (supports often get focused before DPS because of their ability to protect so well.) The exceptions to this rule are the carries who also deal tons of damage or are hybrid tank (like my main, Alistar.)

Tank positioning: This is tricky, and really varies from tank to tank. However, tanks are generally tasked with initiation. This means they have two goals: 1) Be in a position to convince your opponents to attack you first. Generally, good players will "ignore the tank, focus on DPS." So sometimes, even if you run straight at opponents, if your team is nearby, they'll ignore you. 2) Be in a position to immediately threaten the enemy's DPS.

If you attempt to walk directly at the opponents they'll either 1) counter-initiate, and disable your entire team or 2) kite you, dealing long-range damage and retreating from your failed initiation. This generally means a tank's job is to flank in League of Legends (which makes the positioning for the rest of his team kind of tricky, unless they are simply baiting the opponents out of position for the tank to do so).

So tanks have the most complicated job of positioning themselves. How do you come from an angle from which the enemy DPS is exposed, while still being in position to prevent your unguarded allies from being initiated on? Tank players that can answer these questions to themselves are usually those that shine in their role. Anyone can play a tank, but few can play a tank extraordinarily well. And a large part of that comes from the player's positioning.

Finally, there is one Support champion that is generally regarded as hands-down the best support champion in the game, and "a complete counter to Area of Effect clusterfucks."

That champion is Janna. Her ability set allows her to disable enemies from a range (meaning she can be quite far away from enemies and allies and still disable to protect those in danger). It also allows her entire team to move faster, as well as her to move even faster than that. She can shield an ally who gets out of position in order to mitigate the damage they take. And finally, she has one ability that out-shines almost any other in the game.

It's called Monsoon. Once every two minutes, a Janna player can press his or her R button and in an area around them knock back any enemy champion. The direction the champion flies depends on where they were standing in regards to Janna. This can be used to knock away chasing enemies, split up entire enemy forces, get a pesky enemy off one of your squishy teammates, or knock an enemy back toward your towers and your team. It can single-handedly affect the positioning of all five enemy players. And all she has to do is be semi-kinda-sorta near you for you to be affected by it.

Janna is in a state right now of being banned in nearly all high-elo games, due in no small part to her ability to say FUCK YOU to the necessity of intelligent positioning, whether it be hers, or that of her opponents.

And now, on to Halo. Since I'm sure most of you reading this play Halo, and probably don't care about those first two games. But I include them, because they help to make a point (and you're probably subconsciously thinking about how to apply some of those examples up above to Halo, even if you don't realize you're doing it.)

Some of the important facets of positioning in Halo are pretty obvious, even at face value.

You want to move to places that have power weapons, because duh power weapons are powerful. If you don't understand that, you probably have nothing to gain from reading this blog.

You want to move side to side to attempt to avoid bullets in a fire fight. We call this strafing. While this is micromanagement of positioning, and more reliant on manual dexterity, it still can mitigate a lot of potential damage. A player with an excellent and unpredictable strafe will typically win the majority of their one on one battles against an opponent with a weaker strafe.

You want to move to a high ground. High ground offers some immediately obvious advantages. Most of you probably jumped straight to: you can see more of the map from up high, which means you have more potential targets to shoot at. (Caveat: this also means more people can see you, which means more potential assailants upon you. If they have a weapon with range to fight you...which, given DMR starts, means they DO have a weapon with range to fight you...then they will probably shoot you if you are a threat.)

The largest advantage of high ground is something that people use often without consciously realizing they're doing it. It's natural cover. If you're fighting someone on the ground below you, less of your body is showing (since you fire from your upper body, rather than your toes.) This means the opponent has less surface area upon which they can hit you. It also means that you can remove yourself from an opponent's vision by moving backwards.

If you are to do this, the opponent not only loses track of where you will assault from next (assuming you strafe just outside of their vision), but it also means they have only one way to regain vision of you easily: jump. Jumping makes them more visible, and forced into a predictable strafe. This will allow you to more easily land your shots upon them.

Because of high ground's positional advantage, a lot of (well-designed, competitive) maps will stray away from placing power weapons in high positions. This is a good thing, because it requires players to make positional trade-offs in order to gain their advantages.

Some of you are probably saying "Hey Audley, what about MLG's Snipe 3 on Guardian?" Well Point 1) It was a more balanced location than Snipe 1, since both teams could reach it with fairly even contestation, Point 2) it was a relic from the map Guardian was inspired by (Lockout), and Point 3) Snipe 3 is one of the most vulnerable locations on the map, due to its ability to catch grenades so well. Attempting to Snipe from up there was a death trap unless your opponents were already forced low. Stop arguing with me, Hypothetical Reader.

So if you can't get a power weapon from a high ground position, or said high ground position is too dangerous to fight from...what are you supposed to do?

First off, you have to put yourself in a position to get the power weapon in the first place. Generally, these are in positions where players will have to fight for them.

Remember when I was talking about League of Legends earlier? (No? You skipped it? Scroll back up and read that section, trust me.) Well, if you were to rush straight to a DPS Champion, which I said was a bad thing to do, you'd probably die to his entire team very quickly (focus fire hurts). The same goes for rushing straight to a power weapon (when it's placed well).

A player who mindlessly runs straight in to, say, Rocket spawn on Pit from MLG in Halo 3, or straight to Laser on Standoff in Halo 3, or straight to rockets on Boardwalk in Reach is generally going to die, quickly. These are in positions that either pass through choke points (Pit/Boardwalk Rockets) or are in areas of wide-opened sight lines (Standoff Laser) that all make it easy to kill someone who attempts to rush straight there.

I've mentioned the word "choke point" a couple of times now over the course of this article. The first was with regards to Force Fields from Sentries blocking choke points. Just now, I mentioned passing through choke points in order to reach a power weapon.
Choke points are dangerous places. They have very little room for lateral movement. You can either go forward, through them, or go back and leave them alone. If you decide to go through them, you are limiting your options for movement (and thusly your options for positioning).

If your opponents are attempting to haplessly advance through a choke point, there's one tool in your pocket that can halt that idea in its tracks. Well, hopefully you have at least one handy. You spawn with two of them. Say it with me now, class, Pistol cli--okay, I'm kidding. Grenades.

Grenades in the Halo games are often misinterpreted as tools for killing. In Reach, this is even more the case as the grenades feel very powerful. However, if you observe extremely high level play in the Halo games, you'll find that more often than not, grenades are not used as a weapon. They are used more as a Swiss Army Knife. It's not often you use a Swiss Army Knife to gut open a guy (although it is an option). You bust out the can-opener attachment and have yourself some Campbell's Soup. Eff yeah. Campbell's Soup.

Audley, what the devil are you talking about, Campbell's Soup? I thought you were talking about Grenades. While I admit the analogy was a bit odd, Grenades from skilled players are used most often to do a task without damage as a requisite consequence.

Sentry Force Fields can do it. Strong laning champions can do it in League of Legends. It's called Zoning.

Zoning is a way of forceably controlling your opponent's positioning. Typically, if players observe a threat to their well-being, they move away from it (or avoid passing into it.) So, for example, if you were attempting to rush through a choke point to get to a Rocket Launcher, and a grenade lands just barely ahead of you, you are given two options. You can suck it up and take the damage, leaving yourself very susceptible to a quick clean-up shot to kill you, or you can back off and let the grenade explode harmlessly.

Except even if the grenade doesn't deal damage, it still wasn't harmless. Like a Sentry force field that prevented you from pushing up the ramp into the enemy base, or like a Garen hiding in the bush to scare you out of experience range in lane in League of Legends, the grenade has zoned you out of your goal. You're delayed during the fuse time of the grenade, which means a few more seconds an enemy may move into position to battle you. Controlling your opponent's movements is one of the single greatest positioning-related skills you can begin to master.

If an opponent is running away, and you know where they are going to go, which is the better choice: attempting to shoot at them, while they're evading/sprinting/strafing away, or throwing a grenade just beyond where they are currently, forcing them to either die to the grenade, or stop and face certain death anyway?

The latter is the safer option. If you take the former choice, and the opponent manages to find cover or escape around a corner, you've missed out on a kill.

Another situation where a grenade can be effective without dealing any damage -- when enemies are attempting to reinforce their teammates. If their avenues to do so are limited, you can limit them further by placing a grenade along the path they would be most likely to take. If an overaggressive enemy over-extends onto your side in blatantly obvious bad positioning, throw a grenade where you believe his teammates will come from, THEN engage the stranded enemy. Chances are, that aggressive player is a Tank, and he's simply trying to get your attention long enough for his teammates to deal the damage to you. Cutting off those allies' reinforcement routes will also reduce the chances of his gambit being a success.

Halo: Combat Evolved gave grenades yet another positioning-related power that is not exercised nearly as prominently in the more recent titles. You could grenade weapons and even power-ups away from their spawn. This meant two things: 1) You could knock a risky weapon out of a risky position and 2) You could anticipate where a power-up would land from a grenade and knock it out of the generally expected position.

While we can still grenade weapons out of position in Reach, it's not nearly as effective as it was in the original Halo. It leaves me a little bit sad.

Another obvious positioning-related bit of information:
You want to move with your team.

This does not mean you want to bunch up together in a Flying V formation and run across the map. While humorous to see and be a part of, it's stupid and impractical.

More specificially, you want to move in a manner that allows you to help your team without being susceptible to splash damage.

Take Rat's Nest on Halo 3 for example. If you wanted to invade an opponent's Kitchen, it would be a poor idea to send four people across the bridge at the same time. A few grenades, a rocket, or a clip of Brute Shot would deal enough damage for someone to claim an Overkill. Instead, you'd want to try to engage from multiple entrances. Maybe one person across the bridge, one through the turret door, and two from the bottom floor (uh oh, no height advantage!) This would allow you all to help one another (the two coming from down low would likely have sightlines on anyone visible to the person coming from bridge, save for people directly above the bridge door, while the person coming from turret would be able to help the person coming across bridge with anyone actually at the bridge door).

A Sniper doesn't really want to move forward with his team, but he wants to put himself in a position that allows him to shoot what his team needs him to shoot the most. In Halo 3 (again with the Halo 3 references, Audley, what gives?) this was most prominent on Valhalla. If your team did not have hill control, the Sniper's biggest concern didn't need to be the enemies on the hill itself. Typically, a Waterfall Sniper needed to worry about the opponents at Turret (they controlled the choke point known as Water Cave). A Beach Sniper needed to worry about the opponents on the Pelican (they controlled the choke point known as Territory 4). Once the enemies possessing the ability to slay your choke point pushers were slain, you could begin to take a foothold back and potentially regain control of the hill. Teams that were unable to retake hill control were often unable to do so because of their Sniper's positioning.

In Halo Reach, one of the most common tactics on smaller maps outside of situations where it's not available, is to group up with Armor Lock. When you engage an enemy at a choke point, one player goes through first, getting the enemy's attention (and dealing a little damage). He or she then armor locks, and the next player (or two) come through, cleaning up the kills in the next room. This is an example of players moving as a team, as well as practicing the Tank / DPS roles (tank gets focus, gets enemy to burn ammo/grenades, then DPS come in to clean up).

On Hemorrhage in Halo Reach, attempting to assault an enemy Wraith is a daunting task. While a large part of that is the sheer power of the Wraith, one may find that an organized team is also protecting their Wraith with the very agile, anti-vehicular menace known as the Revenant. The Revenant moves in a manner to guard the Wraith from assaulting Warthogs, Ghosts, and enemy Revenants. And guess what? The Wraith stays alive for a long period of time, thanks to the Support (yes, capitalized) from the Revenant.

Being aware of your teammates' movements is a staple for positioning yourself. If you end up herp-a-derp zerging closely behind an ally, chances are the both of you will end up dead. If you both go for the same power weapon at the same time, that's less presence your team has on the map at any given time.

And that brings me to my next point, zone control.

At any given time, you want to have as much map presence as you possibly can, without leaving any of your team isolated.

The more holes you have in your cupboard, the more likely a mouse will feed. Likewise, the more holes you leave in your team's defenses, the more likely a player may sneak past and get behind your team.

An isolated teammate is a teammate you're asking to have killed. (Or if the case was self-isolation, the teammates is asking to be killed.) An uncontested zone is a zone you're asking to have taken.

We'll go back to Valhalla from Halo 3 again. That's right, gang, more Halo 3 references. If you did not control Pelican, your enemy took Pelican. And that meant they had a foothold from which to retake the hill. If you did not control Turret, your enemy could control turret. And that meant a foothold from which to retake the hill. Uncontested zones being given up led to loss of hill control.

On The Pit, in a 4v4 setting, this was a mess, and a large part of why I had a strong distaste for the map in Slayer variants. There were essentially four lanes across the map: Long Hall, Green Hall, Bridge/Sword, and OS. In 4v4, this meant you had two options: Leave every lane with an isolated player to control it or heavy push one lane and risk the enemy taking another lane.

In close games of Slayer, because of these choices, it typically led to the third option: "Sit around out of view for two or three minutes until the next power weapon spawns, then do what you can to get it." Although these games were tense when the score was near tied, it led to some of the most boring spectator experiences I've ever had from MLG.

In Halo Reach, this lesson is probably best taught on the Noble map, Tempest. I see two mistakes made rather often even in organized play on the map.

The first mistake is with regards to uncontested zones or isolated players. For some reason, players like to gravitate toward the Long Sword side of the map (and disregard the fact that the map is functionally the same on the opposite side). This often allows deviant players to slip past into the enemy's base via the river, or push down the sole defender of the side and continue advancing. Sorry Gandalf, but this time I SHALL PASS.

The second mistake I see made is with regards to the form of pushing I see employed upon the map.

I'm going to ask you readers to ponder for a moment, what is the strongest shape an army can take?

To anyone that said Flying V!!! No, shut up, you're wrong. Unless you mean a backwards V, then you're at least close. But that would be a Flying Lambda. I'll give you a hint: I mentioned the word earlier in the article. Up there in the StarCraft section.

Concave. You ideally want to be Concave around your opponents. It constricts opponents' movement options the most and allows you the most strength in your zoning and reinforcement.

Oftentimes, players try to push the enemy turret before attempting to secure their flanks. And this is where they are mistaken.

It's much easier to assist your allies who are pushing the enemy caves or man-cannon from your turret than it is to do so from the enemy turret. The sight lines are more open.

Additionally, it's much easier for your allies in those positions to assist YOU once you begin to push than it would have been if they were still around your mancannon or shotugn. If they are pushed up to semi-surround your opponents, then they are not only limiting your opponents' retreat options, but chances are they also have sight-lines into the side of the enemies, allowing a much easier team shot opportunity.

Once you have secured a concave around the perimeter of your opponents' base, it's much easier to collapse that perimeter where it's necessary in order to completely control your enemies.

Attempting to pressure your opponents in this manner also prevents those gaps through which those pesky aforementioned "mice" may sneak into your base, leaving your team from being forced into a situation of uncontested zones or isolated players, which happens much more often when teams attempt to push in a much more expanded Flying V that sometimes tends to happen on Tempest.

Once you've mastered moving with your team in a manner that prevents you from being caught alone, prevents your allies from being caught alone, allows you to secure power weapons, prevents your enemies from moving to reinforce, and prevents enemies from escaping, you've begun to master what it takes to position yourself properly to be a superb Halo player.

While intelligent positioning (and zoning) do not make you a master of the game, they can often serve as buffers from other weaknesses, such as poor accuracy or lack of communication. And that is why Positioning is (one of) the most important skill(s) in competitive gaming.

When you Master positioning, you not only control your own destiny, but often you control your opponent's.

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