When looking at a professional match of StarCraft II at a high level, games typically lean toward either an early, aggressive strategy or a longer, economic struggle. In games where early aggression is the order of the day, it’s possible to see these players employ an infamous “cheese” strategy. This mostly refers to all-in tactics that are devastating for the opponent if they succeed, but equally devastating for the instigator if they fail. We asked Kevin “Qxc” Riley, Mikolaj “Elazer” Ogonowski, and Sean “Probe” Kempen their thoughts on cheese, when they use it, and how they get the necessary value when they do go all in.
"Cheese is generally defined as a specific build that doesn't have a broader application. It's a large risk, because if predicted or scouted in time, they tend to fall flat. The biggest factor when deciding to cheese is the player you're up against, followed very closely by the map. Obviously, matchup matters, but there are always viable cheese builds in every matchup. The most important thing to understand with cheese builds is this: StarCraft is an incredibly complicated game. So complicated that there is always a counter-build. What that means is if a player has perfect information of their opponent's build, they can always create a build that gives them an advantage."
"Make no mistake, a cheese build doesn't need to be militarily aggressive, but it is almost always an aggressive play of some kind. Sometimes that means going a fast third base, which is a sort of economic cheese. At high levels of play, the ability to deny scouting and control the tempo of the game is also an important factor. You can transition from one cheese into a tech path or another build order while controlling your opponent's moves and making it hard for them to scout. When playing against certain players, you'll definitely hedge toward them doing something weird. That means avoiding economic cheese, making sure to scout every game, and favoring safer builds. Each cheese is different and requires a specific response. That's kind of the defining feature of cheese. If it could be broadly countered, it wouldn't be cheese, but rather just aggressive standard play."
"I like to play something different in each game, or at least not repeat myself more than twice during one series. Before a match, I watch some of my opponent’s recent games and try to plan what would be a good strategy against what he usually does. Obviously, maps play a huge role into what you can and cannot do. When you get a map as big as Neon Violet, you know a cheese like a Queen and Zergling drop won’t work as well as on a map like Battle on the Boardwalk, just because of the distance. Something like Nydus Worm or proxy Hatchery would work very similarly, though. So when I come into match like this, I usually have my repertoire of strategies prepared and just plan what order and on which maps I am going to play them."
"Also map score and the way the series is going pays quite a huge role at the top level. When you are up 2-0 in a best-of-five, you know you can start playing extremely greedy just because your opponent is on their last life and has no room to take a risk. Or when you win a very long macro game in the first game, maybe it's time to go with the momentum and go for the fastest cheap-win strategy you can think of. I am quite sure if you watch top-level StarCraft II, this is what you are going to see all the time."
"My general playstyle is to play longer macro games with lots of timings thrown in to gain advantages as the game moves forward. Against people worse than me, this works really well because I will often gain many advantages and just win eventually with a bigger army. However, against strong opponents, my mindset will change slightly to go a bit more all-in and win the game as quickly as possible, not allowing them to get back into it later. Also, if I don't want to play on a particular map, usually a cheeky Protoss cheese or all-in will be strong there, so that impacts my decision-making."
In the next installment of Opening Moves, we'll take a look at how our pros set up their tower defense.