31 Days of Warcraft III Strategy

I played this game online in the past, but stopped after losing every battle for several days straight. The single-player campaign was enough to get me familiar with the units, but it was clear that I didn't have the skills to compete -- nor the inclination to build those skills. I set the game aside and got busy with other things, and several years went by, but one day I was surprised to discover that the urge to play it had returned.

Since I'm older now, I can't do a marathon immersive gaming session like the ones I did years ago, but I can still get a few good chunks of time here and there. I want to see what I've missed, and I probably also want to prove to myself that I'm still up to the challenge. Could I really become a competent player, or is the new generation of games and gamers just too much for me to handle?

This is a log of the tactics I learned, and the skills I developed. There are also some extra combat summaries that I culled from this page for the sake of brevity.

Day 1

First step: Refresh my memory of the game by playing against the computer in single-player mode. The race I preferred in the past was the Night Elves, and I decided to stick with that. I went a few rounds with the Undead, restoring saved games to try out different tactics.

One of the fears I had in past games was that I would accidentally hit my own units with a spell in the heat of battle. Today I noticed that if I click an aggressive spell on a friendly unit, the click isn't accepted, and I get the message, "unable to target own units". Different than what I remember from Starcraft, and quite handy.

Next step: Log on to Battle.net. Of course my old account was long gone, but my username wasn't taken, so I just recreated it. I was in no shape to go head-to-head so I decided to look at the 'non-standard' games section.

There are some advanced maps out there, and a bunch of variations on similar themes.

Day 2

Group keys are good. You need at least one for each hero of course, but the true strength of group keys is in subdividing your army. The minimum needed is one key for melee troops, and one key for ranged units. You need at least this much of a split because your melee and ranged units need to fight differently in order to be the most effective.

The melee group is best directed by telling it to attack "at a place" where enemy units are standing. Each member of the group will march in that direction and start wailing on the first unit they bump into. If you told the group to attack just one unit out of five, they would waste most of their time trying to surround that one unit, blundering into each other and changing direction while the opposing army pokes them in the ribs. Not good. So, your melee units should not be picky about what they attack.

Ranged units are the opposite, however. They can all target one enemy without interfering with each other ... for the most part. If you gang them up on one unit, and that unit is killed, you've just shifted the balance of power in your favor. By contrast, telling ranged units to attack "at a place" would leave enemy units standing longer than they might otherwise. Instead of slowly injuring three enemies, it's best to knock down one immediately. So your ranged units need to attack in sequence, not in parallel. Hence the other group key.

Unlike Starcraft, where as the Zerg you might use every grouping key on the keyboard just to move your army around, you can pass entire games with a maxed out army and only use four group keys for units. Sometimes just two -- one melee, and one ranged.

Group keys have another use as well, which is very handy. You can assign buildings to group keys. You can also assign multiple buildings of the same type to one group key, and have them build units all at once. If you always assign certain buildings to certain group keys, you'll always be able to produce new units exactly when you can afford them.

You can also set the 'rally point' of buildings en-masse, by selecting all the buildings and right-clicking on a target -- which can be a fellow unit, instead of just a point on the map. If you set the 'rally point' to always be your number one hero, for example, your units will always go to where your hero is, and automatically follow him/her around.

(Note that, in earlier versions of Warcraft III, a unit set to 'follow' would not engage in an attack. It would just stand there in combat like a statue. In the latest patched version, units set to 'follow' will begin attacking if the unit they're following decides to attack. This change eliminates a huge downside to using 'follow'.)

Here's the setup I'm comfortable with right now:

Key 1 - melee units, including melee hero
Key 2 - ranged units, including ranged hero

Key 3 - Chimaera, or secondary ranged units with third hero
Key 4 - Hippogryphs
Key 5 - Druids of the Talon
Key 6 - Faerie Dragons

Key 7 - Chimaera roosts
Key 8 - Ancients of Wind
Key 9 - Ancients of Lore (Tier 2 units)
Key 0 - Ancients of War (Tier 1 units)

I assign the keys as the structures are planted, and always set them to rally to the melee hero.

On Battle.net:

I've noticed that many players use a short list of common abbreviations when speaking to one another:

gg - Said when a player is about to sign off, or sometimes after a player has done something surprisingly effective. It's either "good game", or "good gaming".
gl hf - Sometimes said at the beginning of a game. It stands for "Good Luck and Have Fun", but it's apparently going out of style - half the time it's mocked by other players. One especially cynical player replied "gf hl", then explained that it meant, "Get Fucked. I Hope you Lose."

The level of social maturity amongst players is on a tight bell-curve centered around the age of 14, and seems to be completely independent of skill level. You can fight a level 1 player who says, "How's the weather where you're at?" and "What ho! Mind your ballistas, yea verily!" Then you can have a level 25 player wander into a team game and scream "HAHAHAAAmy fleet OWNZ your n00bs asses! u all suck!" A brilliant strategist, yes. Also, a turd.

I dove right into the 1v1 games, losing to anything and everything, regardless of level. I got beaten the worst by the Orcs. After many defeats I want back to the single-player game against the computer, and tested out 'faerie fire', to see if I was missing anything. I attacked a few units and noted the difference with or without the 'debuff' (as these detrimental spells are called). A reduction of armor by 4 is apparently a non-trivial change.

Day 3

I won a couple of games, but these were drowned in a sea of defeats. The Night Elf players were consistently handing me my hat. I saved a few replays, and discovered that every Night Elf opponent did two things in common.

  1. They played defensively and often hid at home until they had a large army, then creeped all at once.
  2. They almost always chose the 'Demon Hunter' hero. In fact, I have only faced a fellow Warden in battle once, and at the time she was the secondary hero.

Aside from that, their skills were all in timing - they never entered a battle they weren't certain to win. Several times, my whole army was toast, down to the last man, and my opponent still ran home and rebuilt a full army before coming back with ballistas to finish the job.

I also learned today that scrolls of 'town portal' pick up a lot of units -- much more than the status display can show. Your entire army can always be transported. Also, to activate them faster, you can click near a town hall on the mini-map instead of finding it in your main view. Very helpful for usage in the heat of battle.

Today I also encountered an amazing Human army. A mass human spellcaster group - few aggressive units, then a pile of healers, spellbreakers, and sorcerers, always backed up by spellcasting heros who hang out in back. This force immobilizes your units, weakens them, takes away their mana, steals their enchantments, and constantly heals the few soldiers you manage attack. Meanwhile, blizzards and fire explosions erupt in your ranks.

I found a raging debate in several forums over how to best counter this army. The general agreement was to go heavy on bears, first because they get very close to the front line making fire and ice storm spells less useful, and second because they can cast roar, which is area-effect. That means it adds a dozen 'buffs' to units surrounding the bear, keeping the spellbreakers busy stealing enchantments. If the bears roar enough, all their mana is gone, meaning they do not suffer a 'mana burn' effect.

I really need to get the hang of ballistas. They can really aggravate an entrenched player, and are also helpful in combat, but I almost never build them. Gotta fix that.

Free for all games (FFA):

Tried my hand at a few of these, and lost of course. So far it looks like there are three basic rules for success:

  1. Expand immediately
  2. Tech up rapidly
  3. Build fortifications to scare away your neighbors, at least temporarily

If you don't follow these rules, at least one player will get tougher than you, faster. That player will mow you down while you're picking at the others.

The orcs are my biggest enemy, I think. The combination of Tauren and Batriders screws me up big time. The tauren stomp the ground up, while the batriders take out anything in the air by exploding in fiery suicide. There's got to be some way to counter this.

Day 4

To keep myself amused while scanning for a game to start, I've taken to joining a Battle.net chat room at random. It's just like the IRC of old - freaks and morons, all shouting at once in 1337sp34k. You can identify the Macintosh players because they use the ALT-symbols more freely in their 1337. This dull roar is punctuated by guild announcements from bots - pasting the same message into the chat room over and over again, pleading for residents to come join channel so-and-so to be part of guild such-and-such.

Your typical chat session.

1v1 Games:

Watched a replay of a Night Elf who trounced me - he started with the Keeper of the Grove and produced a horde of Archers. It reminded me that there are strong tactics and weak tactics, but ultimately there is no perfect build order or strategy that will never lose. In terms of unit types and technology I was ahead of this player, but at the time he chose to strike, my forces were overwhelmed.

His mass-archer strategy had a downside though, which I saw in the replay: He had to hang out at home accumulating massive amounts of wood, which called for a lot of wisps. I actually had four archers and my hero on the map before he had anything but his hero, and I could have seriously damaged him, even pinned him at home and won, if I'd been aggressive enough.

I think the relevant lesson here is, if your build order is strong at certain points, you need to exploit that time period, hopefully by harassing the other player.

FFA Games:

Had my first encounter with 'That Damn Windwalking Orc' today.

The Orc Blademaster hero has an ability called Windwalking. If he turns it on, he becomes invisible, and also able to walk through other units. He remains invisible until he attacks something.

A Blademaster heading for your base.

So, an unscrupulous Orc player will choose this hero, and send him straight out to look for your enemy camp. When he gets near he'll turn on Windwalking, march around any early defenses, and start chopping up your defenseless peons, grunts, or wisps. You'll come running back to base and lob a few arrows at him, at which point he'll turn on Windwalking and disappear again. He'll do this over and over until his mana runs out - and you won't be sure if he's gone home, or if he's hanging around waiting for you to leave.

Beating up on your wisps. The scum!

It's extremely annoying.

Other things I learned in FFA today:

Day 5

1v1 Games:

Surveillance is key:

Back when I played Starcraft, I was able to dominate the game because I constantly spied on everyone else, and could choose when to enter any conflict. With the Zerg, I sent Zerglings patrolling to all corners of the map, acting as expendable scouts. With the Protoss, I produced Observers and tried to watch all the expansion points and major byways.

Now as the Night Elves, I make heavy use of Sentinels, and eventually the Owl Scout. Placing Sentinels around the map as often as possible has already saved my bacon countless times.

Mouse slowness:

I've got to rely less on mousing down to the buttons. Today I began training myself to hit 'd' key when I wanted the Warden's poisoned dagger spell, instead of mousing down to the button every time.

A strange tactic:

A few minutes into a game, I saw a bunch of Peons walk up to my base. The Human player then started building lumber mills around my base, shutting me in. Then he began building towers around the outside. His plan was to confine me, then shoot me full of holes and win the game immediately. A surprising and innovative strategy.

Peons, wearing their 'militia' gear, headed for my base.

I uprooted my Ancient of War so it could walk over and bash at one of the mills, but the Human Peons just started repairing it. I thought I would be toast, until I realized that the Warden could choose the 'Blink' ability as her first spell. I summoned her, selected the spell, and teleported outside the barricade.

A whirlwind of unwelcome construction.

I chopped at his Peons enough to prevent the guard towers from being completed, and in the meantime made a handful of Archers. Together they killed enough Peons to halt the tower production. The Human player must have been discouraged, because he quit the game shortly afterwards.

Harassing those nasty Peons. Go away! Yarrrgh!

A Free-For-All game:

One wacky Elf player had his base chewed up, then was left alone by the othes. He rebuilt, then uprooted all his trees and had them eat pathways into the forest. With his base squirreled away, he then produced a load of catapults, and flicked projectiles at anyone who wandered in looking for him.

It was like an amusement park. The other players spared him long enough to see the buildings, then abandoned him and started attacking each other. He took the opportunity to drain a nearby goldmine, and built a large fleet with the proceeds. With everyone else exhausted from fighting, he mopped up the map and won the game, taunting us the whole way.

Team games:

These are very different from FFA or 1v1.

If the enemy wanders into your base with superior firepower, it is actually acceptable to let them kick the entire thing to the ground. You just run to a companion base and rebuild there, then sneak back to the goldmine when the enemy team's attention wanders elsewhere. You also have to produce units very quickly and harass like hell, especially on large maps, because any player who hides in a corner long enough will tech up to a high level and build a victory fleet, then mop up all your buildings.

It seems like the key to winning these games in the long haul is to starve the opponent for gold, by hitting mines over and over again so they waste resources rebuilding.

Day 6

I've started creepjacking regularly. This is the tactic of sneaking up on your enemy while he is engaged in fighting the monsters built into the map, catching your foe in a crossfire. He usually gets so screwed up he has to teleport home. It's probably happening more because I'm out on the map creeping more often, and because I'm being more consistent with putting up the Sentinel owls.

I've also learned the basics of micromanagement while creeping. Usually the monsters will focus their ire at one particular unit, which you can lead safely out of battle. Beyond a certain distance, the monsters will switch their attention to another unit. If you keep switching on them, you can defeat very tough melee critters without suffering a casualty.

The trick is to watch the status display of your grouped units, and double-click on the one that's being beat on the most. Send it running away, and turn your attention back to combat. The creep will refocus, and even if you assign another command to your group, the damaged unit will now be on the edge of combat instead of the middle. If it's your hero getting damaged too much, you're better off running him/her all the way home and re-making your group, because the hero has a tendency to run into the center of combat no matter where he/she is.

Keeping units from dying is what makes a pro player - each one of those is a walking investment, and you can't afford to be at anything less than top strength at any time. Also, in contrast to the other races, the night elf base units remain useful at later stages because they can be enhanced repeatedly.

A couple times after stomping an army now, I've had the opponent just quit the game rather than continuing. It seems once you get above a certain level, you start to recognize when you're doomed. It always comes as a surprise - I never expect an opponent to quit unless I have just shredded his army and am actually standing in the middle of his base halfway through knocking it down.

I've got to stop using the 'a' key to explicitly sign an attack, but instead use right-click. That way if I accidentally click on my own unit in battle, my army will just be assigned to 'follow' it, instead of clubbing it unconscious.

FFA Players:

What finally boots people out of their fortified bases is that they hit 100 food and can't bulk up anymore. In fact, 25 minutes into a game it's no longer advisable to leave home with anything less.

At that point, you're hoarding money for future re-creations of your army, once it gets slaughtered in combat. Then the important point becomes infrastructure, so you learn to lay out your base for mass production. (At least two of everything.) Then, once you've maxed out and are accumulating cash, you might consider building an entire replica of your base somewhere else so that you can defend one with an army spawned by the other. There's always lots to do.

A good yardstick I've noticed in measuring your minute-by-minute performance: Until you hit 100 food, you should always be flat broke. Otherwise, someone out there has a better army than yours.

Day 7

I racked my brain for ways to counter the human 'all magic user' tactic, and realized that the answer might be obvious - use the faerie dragons to damage the casters.

I did some inconclusive experiments with them in a vs. computer match. They were hard to position properly because of their slow movement speed and small size. They tended to get lost in the chaos of a battle, and when I did activate them, the spellcasters were often out of range.

On the other hand, I was pleased to discover that even the healing spell cast by the undead's floating idol was subject to blasts of lightning from the dragon, and that the more dragons I threw in, the more lightning they were able to dish out.

Trying this tactic in a FFA game didn't work, because the human player I was facing was very skilled at moving his spellcasters out of the fight the second he saw the dragons activate. If I could get better control over them, I could throw them in against lesser skilled players, but the dragons are not the definite solution against the human spellcaster horde.

I also experimented with command-queueing, trying to get four ravens to cast cyclone on successive units, but the results were disappointing because they cast the spell so fast that the units tended to land all at once, granting only a short reprieve against a large land army. I'm still hopeful that it will counteract the orc land-horde tactic, though.

Command-queueing worked much better when I tried it with the ranged units - shift-clicking on sequential targets made a little flag icon appear over each one, and as soon as the first one fell, they all changed their focus very handily. In a FFA game it was tough to keep track of what to target, but in a series of 1v1 games it gave me a serious combat advantage, since I was able to group-target with my ranged units and control my hero at the same time, instead of trading off.

It worked well until I began going up against fellow Night Elves. Then I realized one of the factors in my continuous defea: They always ramp up to second-teir units as quickly as they can, playing defensively until then. The money they save by not investing in smaller units allows their second-teir army to be larger than mine, and I inevitably fall after a couple of skirmishes.

I got yelled at today by one orc player for consistently destroying his expansions. He failed to notice the Sentinel owls I had placed above each mine, and after his third base fell he began yelling "FUCK U NOOB ['newbie', or amateur player] ONLY NOOB PLAYERS USE NE [night elves] GET SOME SKILS RETARD". I replied "uh huh". Then he charged my base, and when I ate his army he quit the game.

On to the FFA games again.

One player used the common tactic of making a pile of orc bat-riders, and then going from base to base destroying only the central buildings, seriously handicapping his competitors. Another player replied, "I used to see that tactic a lot when I played a year ago. Then I left this game for World of Warcraft, and all my skills went down the drain."

People get real chatty in FFA, talking about their jobs and other hobbies, and expert players sometimes leave defeated bases partially intact so that their owners can continue as spectators, or get the full replay for later study.

Today's big game: Two night elves, two undead. The second NE was an amateur player who got booted quickly. The undead fought for the middle of the map, and I walked in a few times and spoiled the fight. Teal got the worse of it, and actually quit the game out of frustration because my unit control was so effective. Meanwhile purple built up an odd army - half beetles, half banshees - and they ate up the map with a level 10 Panderan Brewmaster in the front. I have no idea how that guy got to such a high level. He ate my whole base, but I spawned mines everywhere and nearly rebuilt a big enough army to fight him again before being knocked out.

Today's lesson: Bears are much more useful in bear form. Morphing them doesn't cost much mana, so it's good to keep them in bear form by default unless you're out of combat and you need healing.

Day 8

FFA Games

I focused exclusively on FFA games today, and realized that, as one player put it, winning in FFA is mostly a matter of luck. Assuming everyone is equally skilled, your starting position on the map relative to your enemies is the primary factor in your success. You can only push those odds so far, by selectively engaging in combat, before you're starved for resources and have to do something rash.

I actually won several times today, and each time was obvious luck. The first time the other players were attacking each other, leaving me alone to mine the bottom of the map, and the second time the player who might have killed me was suddenly disconnected after a novice player smacked his town hall with a victory fleet.

Luck went against me more often, though. One game was all Night Elf, and my expansion base got ransacked by one foe at the exact same time as another rolled in with his pack of Chimaera to eat my home base. Next game, I built up exactly the wrong kind of army to go against an Orc player and was summarily crushed. After that came a round where two of the four players quit almost immediately, and the third hid at home until he could airlift a load of tanks into my base, demolishing it before I could respond.

The luck factor in FFA makes the game less enjoyable for me - there's no amount of skill I can accumulate that will overcome a bad position on the map, so my mind is less engaged as it is in a 1v1 situation. On the other hand, FFA players are the most friendly, amusing, and merciful of any game type. I could see myself playing this type non-competitively, just to socialize.

Day 9

Decided to go heavy on the Druid of the Claw units, since I've all but ignored them in the past. They're not very useful until the game is well underway, because you need to be Tier 3 before the upgrade that turns them into bears is available.

FFA Games

"Pulling a tank job": The Human tactic of creating a squad of tanks, then sending it - usually unescorted - down to an enemy base and taking out as many buildings as possible before the squad is destroyed. A low blow that can severely cripple an opponent if timed right.
"Blood in the water": What a Free-For-All player smells, when he sees two opponents take heavy losses fighting each other. He pounces on the surviving army with his own undamaged force, then goes looking for a base to destroy.

The lesson here is, I should be aware that other players will respond based on the army I've shown them. If I have mainly a ground army (the type I favor in FFA games), I should come back at them with an air force the next time I rebuild it.

Day 10

1v1 Games

FFA Games

Various losses, nothing else to report - it's clear that there are a few pieces of the tactical puzzle that I'm still missing. The Orc bloodlusted horde and the Human magic-user horde are especially vexing. I'm also not making use of Chimaeras at all, and only touching the units from the Ancient of Wind. I suspect that those units will be the key to my improvement.

Day 11

FFA Games

1v1 Games

Day 12

FFA Games

And that's when I realized the FFA "golden rule": Stay out of trouble.

Day 13

FFA Games

When I attacked the Human player, I was acting on the desire to eliminate my neighbor before he eliminated my expansions, or at least scare him inside his base so I would be left alone. I felt I had no choice but to strike this guy first, and hard. If I hadn't been next to him on the map, it wouldn't have been necessary. The conflict resulting from that bad luck doomed us both to lose the technology race.

The lesson learned here is: Even among semi-literate gamer geeks, diplomacy is still a factor.
That and, I still have a lot to learn about the Night Elves.

Though it was a victory, I still made several obvious mistakes:

Day 14

FFA Games

I watched the replay and observed the following:

I'm still not sure why the battle went so strongly in my favor, but it convinced me to go heavy on Archers the next time I met a Human player.

A proud Human army reduced to corpses and vengeful spirits.

I did a whole lot of experimenting in single-player mode today, trying to get into fights with the Humans in a controlled environment, but for some reason the computer would never go beyond Tier 1. No matter how much of the map I gave it, how I pounded it, how long I waited - it would never upgrade to a Castle, and never made any units besides Riflemen and Footmen, and one hero, sometimes two. It was very frustrating.

Day 15

FFA Games

Day 16

1v1 Games

Hrmmm. Half wins, half losses. Definite improvement, but I've still got a lot to learn.

Day 17

FFA Games

Things I should have done differently:

When I saw that the NE player was running an a heavy melee-unit army, I should have immediately used my cash reserves to make an air force the second my army was toasted. The switchup would have been enough to win the game.

When I noticed that the NE player was camping outside his expansions and adding lots of towers to them, I should have used a small scout group to ping at them, triggering his use of a portal scroll to protect them. A single ballista would have done the job. Then after he'd used the portal and gone far away from his home base, I could have dodged in and ransacked it. People rarely split their armies, and this idea should be used to one's advantage.

Day 18

FFA Games

All three players were poor challengers. According to the replay, they didn't act to preserve their units when creeping, they didn't micromanage well in battle, and they kept over-producing one kind of unit. The hapless NE player produced almost nothing but Chimaera, even though the tactic failed four times in a row.

Day 19

FFA Games

Day 20

FFA Games

Day 21

FFA Games

Day 22

FFA Games

The golden rule is immutable: FFA games are won by the person who stays out of trouble. Here's another example:

Day 23

The magical uses of waypoints and command-queueing:

Day 24-26

I've played several days of FFA games, but not documented them. I haven't learned anything new, except to see interesting variations of the tavern-bought heros combined with specialized armies.

I've also seen a sharp increase in the number of FFA wins - easy or otherwise - including a three-game winning streak, which seems crazy. That means I beat out nine players in a row. If I had to guess at the reasons behind the increase, I'd say that I'm learning which battles to avoid, and which battles to pursue. You always have a choice, unless someone walks directly into your home base - and that happens rarely.

So, I find that if you want the broadest range of choices, you need to have the strongest army on the map at any one time. Some players strategize for a weak beginning, some forget or are unable to upgrade. My usual approach is to make a large early army that can fold into an advanced army when the time comes.

Here's a breakdown:

This procedure was what carried me through the winning streak, so it's definitely worthwhile. It doesn't seem very innovative or surprising, but it is consistently strong, and that's what I'm after.

I've been learning dozens of little things as well, which are hard to describe without demonstrating them. Procedures for moving your army around on the map and positioning it, different times and places for setting waypoints, different attack procedures based on the kind of army you meet, different proportions of units to make in response to the enemy's own army... Good times and bad times to attack an enemy expansion, spawn an expansion of your own, or feign either one in order to distract a player...

A lot of it is good old psychology. There are times when a players' next move becomes obvious, because it's exactly what you would do. One of my favorite tricks is to walk right up to an enemy base and kick at an insignificant building just long enough to convince the player to teleport home. If you make a clean getaway, then they've wasted the scroll, which costs 350 gold - and they may even forget to buy another after they chase you away. It's the equivalent of ringing a doorbell of some cranky neighbor's house, and seeing the occupant run out after you with his pants down.

Day 27

I downloaded the replay of the Night Elf vs. Undead battle between the two top contenders for the last tournament, and watched it. I was surprised to discover that the Elf player made several egregious choices that doomed him almost immediately. The Undead player teched up and started producing an all-gargoyle army, and the instant the Elf player saw it he should have started producing buttloads of Archers.

Instead he blundered along with his original plan, and created an army of Dryads. Of course their lack of armor brought their rapid death, and he lost the game after a few painful clashes.

One surprising thing I did see, however, was that he summoned a pile of 'Skeleton Archers' to help defend himself when the Undead player creepjacked him. Seeing this made me realize that there's a lot I have to learn about the items and stores, and how to use them in combat. So today I played a few vs-computer games and investigated the items thoroughly.

What I found was pretty disappointing. There were two items I knew about and used already - the Orb of Poison and, of course, the Scroll of Town Portal. The rest were either healing potions of varying degree, or doodads that granted minor advantages.

Night Elf store items of note:

  1. Moonstone: Creates a 30 second artificial night. I've never used this myself, but seen other Night Elf players activate it when entering a battle. Presumably they do it to enable 'Shadow Melding', so they can immediately hide any units that get too damaged. Perhaps they also exploit the enhanced vision range of their units when pursuing or fleeing.

    The problem I have with Shadow Meld is that if you hide in a battle, the enemy still knows you're there. You're effectively trapped for as long as the player hangs around. Shadow Meld is useful in other ways - crafty reconnaissance for example - but those uses generally require more than 30 seconds.

  2. Dust of Appearance: Since it contains two charges, not just one, it's a bargain when faced with that Damn Windwalking Blademaster. Of course, the shop needs to be built if this item is going to be available. I don't usually build the Ancient of Wonders until late in the game. Perhaps I should change that?

  3. Anti-Magic Potion: At 100 gold for 15 seconds, this might be useful to avoid hero-nuking attempts from Undead players. 15 seconds is plenty of time for a competitor's attention to shift elsewhere.

I also checked out the items available at the neutral shop. The Dust of Appearance is there, so if I find myself near a shop in the early game, I can still reveal a Damn Windwalker even if I haven't built the Ancient of Wonders. The only other item that stands out is the Scroll of Protection, granting a temporary armor increase. I've seen Human players use this to push up their already high armor bonuses.

Day 28

Today I browsed through the entire Battle.net strategy guide. Most of it was review for me, but a few questions came up that I'd like to find answers for.

Of primary interest was the Keeper of the Grove's "Entangling Roots" spell. In recent games I've tried to use Starfall only to have my hero interrupted by a counter-spell, cast by an enemy hero. I would like to have the same ability, and as the Night Elves, my choices are between the Keeper of the Talon's "Cyclone" spell, and the Keeper of the Grove's "Entangling Roots". (Having only two choices is very irritating. The other three races have four each.)

I played several FFA-style versus-computer games, using the cheat codes to speed things up, and chose the Keeper of the Grove as a first hero. I found that Entangling Roots is a handy spell, even when creeping, but the Keeper really doesn't belong on the front lines, mixed in with the melee troops. That means I shouldn't have him set to group key 1, which causes him to run around clustered with my melee units. My second hero is always the Preistess of the Moon, as the perfect compliment to the ranged troops, so my alternative is to place the Keeper on group key 3 from the start. That gets a little complicated when trying to manage a small army. The Priestess is very much a set-and-forget kind of hero, but to use Entangling Roots effectively the Keeper must be easy to access.

Late in the game, when the Keeper was leveled up, I got to use 'Healing Rains', which rapidly heals and repairs units in an area around the Keeper even in the thick of combat. I was surprised to find that the spell has a very fast cooldown rate. (I even cast it twice in one combat round.) Thanks to that spell, I fought several battles against full armies and didn't lose a single unit. And even more amazing, all my units were at full health afterwards. Quite magical.

Healing Rains is also useful between battles and at home when the Moon Wells are dry, because of that fast cooldown rate. I don't have to worry about keeping the spell ready, like I do with Starfall.

I also discovered something else in the vs-computer games. None of the heros in the tavern have what could be considered an 'area-effect' enhancement, like the Thorns Aura or the Trueshot Aura. The closest match is the Pit Lord's "Howl" attack, which affects an area of hostile units. In any of the tavern-buyable heros, there are no other spells that activate instantly as an area-effect without aiming, yet also affect units individually. (The possible exception is the 'Tornado' spell from the Sea Witch, but that spell doesn't take effect instantly. The tornado has to prowl around first, and besides, it can be interrupted.)

The only reason I noticed this is because I was thinking to myself, "Wouldn't it be nice if all three of my heros had area-effect enhancements, boosting the power of my whole army?" When I was using the Keeper of the Grove, I noticed how much of a difference his 'Thorns Aura' made. Frankly, I'm amazed I survived without it.

I did some vs-computer playing with the Pit Lord as a first hero, and discovered that he makes a pretty decent one. 'Howl' also becomes a very useful spell if he leads into combat with the melee group - he gets exposed to the most enemies that way, and if he can last beyond the first seconds of the assault, the ranged attackers can shift the balance of power. (Perhaps this is where those anti-magic potions come in?) Howl has a limited range, but a 50% damage reduction on, for example, a buttload of Tauren, is one heck of a bonus. It instantly counteracts 'Bloodlust'.

Day 29

I played a handful of Battle.net games today, choosing the Pit Lord as a first character. It's a tricky business because you have to sneak out to the Pub in the middle of the map to get access to the guy.

Results were mixed, though generally positive. I won two out of five FFA rounds. I was shocked to discover a fellow Night Elf player using the Panderan Brewmaster, followed up with the Pit Lord. Looks like I'm not the only one who noticed his ability.

So far, with the Keeper of the Grove on point-duty as the third hero, I've never been able to get him experienced enough to cast Healing Rains. Thorns Aura has been proving very effective, however.

In several battles I've wished that I could manipulate the heros individually, to enhance the effect of their channeling-type spells, without manipulating the group they belong to (melee or ranged). It's enough to make me consider changing my group-key configuration. Should I assign the three heros to 1, 2, and 3, and move melee and ranged to 4 and 5? Will they still maintain formation when moving? (It's important that the Priestess of the Moon and Keeper of the Grove hang near the back.)

If I do this, I'd want the melee hero to be on group key 1. But what if I want to summon the Priestess or Keeper first, so they can level up quicker? Is that a good idea? Will I end up assigning my first hero to key 2?

This group key changeup seemed like a good idea, until I put it into practice in a few vs-computer games. Assigning melee, ranged, and hero to different keys right at the beginning of the game makes moving a pain in the ass, and it can't really be optimized by using 'follow' either, since that puts the melee units too far in the front, and prevents them from assuming a correct formation when they stop marching.

End of day Battle.net FFA ranking: 254th

Day 30

Today I varied my hero-summoning order, looking for clues to the best approach. I discovered that the melee-style hero claims more experience than the ranged hero just because it's usually the closest to the center of combat. So, even if I summon a ranged hero first, then summon a melee-hero second, the melee hero quickly catches up in levels. Furthermore, creep-gained experience is less wasted, since a level 5 hero isn't standing nearby to uselessly absorb the experience. At least, it seems that way - I still can't tell if a level 5 hero actually claims experience points that would go to lesser heros, or if that experience automatically shifts.

The most important moves I made in that last game were about deciding who and when to hit. Attacking the strongest player when he is at his weakest is the best policy, but the hard part is figuring out when that is. For a long time I lived in fear of the yellow player, who'd been bragging about his rank on Battle.net - but blue took him out easily. That immediately told me that blue was the toughest, an opinion further reinforced when I got a good look at red's army and saw that he was over-producing Bears.

Red was probably trying for the tactic of running in and destroying an enemy's infrastructure despite a superior air force, which would have worked well for him if he didn't have cash-flow problems. Even a few trees around a base are enough to delay an attacker so that you can teleport in if you want to - and may even be enough to scare an attacker away. Red only fortified one expansion - and that one time, I was delayed in destroying the Tree of Life, and he got to teleport in. Unfortunately he was pulling out of another battle to do so, which was a bad idea. Later in the game I would let the blue player just gobble up two expansions of mine because I wasn't ready to meet him yet. That decision easily saved my life.

I played almost a dozen more games today, and won more often than I lost. I always used the Pit Lord, Keeper of the Grove, and Priestess of the Moon, and I never summoned the Pit Lord first. When I lost, it was always to the Orcs. Either the good players are thinning out because of the emminent ladder reset, or my ordering of heros is paying off, or I'm just getting lucky. I used to think that I couldn't survive without using the Warden as a first hero -- she was the only character I felt I knew thoroughly. Turns out most of those skills work for all the melee characters.

I also used to be convinced that I had to summon a strong melee hero first, otherwise I would be at a disadvantage early in the game, and be subject to hero-killings. So far that hasn't been the case. I've been out creeping very heavily with the Keeper of the Grove, and been left well alone by other players. A few times when the game was underway, I was rushed at home, and cast Entangling Roots on the Orc Blademaster. Not only did I prevent him from Windwalking, but the second time I actually caught him long enough to kill him. Shortly after, that Orc player quit the game.

On that subject, I really need to do something about the Orcs. I've withstood Human, Undead, and even fellow Night Elf armies, though I suspect the Human armies in question were very badly managed. I never beat the Orc armies though. Bloodlusted Tauren under the influence of Spirit Link just cannot be overcome by a complementary Night Elf melee force, and they are always followed up with Batriders, which explode and kick the shit out of any air force I respond with. If I mix it up by producing Chimaera along with my Bears and Giants, I have no way of stopping the Batriders. If I shift Bears and Giants to Chimaera and keep the Archers, the Tauren stomp over and chew the Archers up, along with my Heros. And of course, Wolf Riders throw nets all over the Chimaera anyway.

My attempts to counteract Bloodlust with Dryads have been disappointing - the Dryads have to work their way into combat, and since they're unarmored they quickly turn into flying gore. Same with using the Keepers of the Talon - if I try to fly them in, they get stabbed by spear throwers, or burned to death by Batriders. If I try to walk them in, they never make it.

Looking over the unit stats, it looks like the solution must involve Chimaera somehow. Tauren have heavy armor, which takes extra damage from the Chimaera's magic attack. Since they're melee units they tend to cluster together, making them prone to the Chimaera's splash damage. With nearly equivalent resource costs, and at 5 food each, I can produce one Chimaera for every Tauren I'm up against. The big question is, how do I protect them?

I'm inclined to try a combo of evenly balanced Crows and Hippogryphs, with heavy Chimaera. This is almost completely opposite the army I spend most of my game building, which sucks a lot.

End of day Battle.net FFA ranking: 178th

Day 31

I got to try that combo today, against an Orc player, and the results were miserable. He'd bought Orbs of Lightning for both of his melee heros, and between them and a handful of spear-throwers, he was able to destroy ten Chimaera in less than 40 seconds. Total losses to him: One shaman.

The Blademaster's lightning bolt fires so fast that he is actually able to permanently freeze a Chimaera in place and electrocute it to death, at no danger to himself. Since he's naturally magic resistant, the other Chimaera barely make a dent in him, even if they're focus-firing the whole time.

After assaulting him with that group I spent my remaining cash on the conventional mixed army I usually produce, though I was only able to create half of one before I went bankrupt. That actually managed to kill his entire army except for two of his heros, and he immediately bought the third hero back at the Tavern and went on a victory lap into my base.

End of day Battle.net FFA ranking: 151st


I went on to play the game for another fifteen days, on a rush to accumulate wins and dominate the FFA ladder. I only managed a ranking of 63rd before I went on vacation. After a week away from the console, my addiction was broken. Shortly afterwards the ladder was reset and my accomplishments were erased. Oh well.

That final 15 days yielded meager knowledge - I had largely stopped scrutinizing my rounds and was banking on what I knew, sticking with the Priestess - Keeper - Pit Lord setup. I did learn some interesting things though:

  1. Don't charge people at home if there is anything else on the map you can hit instead. Their expansions are their lifeblood. Even if you've crippled their army and are desperate to move in for the kill, turn aside and bash their expansions instead. A decimated army can be re-purchased quickly, but an empty bank account is a game-changer.
  2. If you're facing a human wizard and he hits level 6, you have only a very limited amount of time before he begins to sucker-punch you with hit-and-run teleports. He will retool his army with mortars and tanks and blast your buildings out from under you. This army is weak in a head-on fight, however, and he will rely on teleporting away as soon as your army arrives. With that in mind, remember this: Entangling roots is an interrupt, it is near-instant, and it works form a great distance. You can actually entangle the wizard as he is trying to teleport, after the spell begins, and stop it from happening. Entangling roots also has a shorter cooldown and a lower cost than teleport, so you can do this perpetually, until his damned army is gone.
  3. This same human player will usually attempt to teleport directly into the heart of your base to do the most damage. To do this he needs to get a unit he controls in there. He will either turn a small unit invisible and send it over to the base, or he will buy a "decoy unit" from his shop and send that hobbling over instead. Your own army will not notice the decoy, with one weird exception that is probably a bug: Your Druids of Talon will cast faerie-fire on it whever it's in range. If you see them cast faerie-fire on some apparently innocuous frog or chicken, blast the sucker.
  4. The flying human hammer-thrower is non-tracking. If you make a targeted unit run you can avoid almost all of the damage, except for a fringe of the splash. Due to this, they are not competetive with Chimaera, whose attack is unavoidable.
  5. FFA is about watching the map. Any place you're not watching is a place the enemy will soon own. Since no one can follow this advice completely, you can guess your enemy's moves and blind spots on a per-map basis, by watching replays. An excellent example of this is the 1v1 Temple map, which has two gold mines in the corners accessible via land - most people forget they exist, because they're too concerned about the mines in the other player spots.

At this point I highly recommend you continue by reading the epilogue. When I revisited Warcraft III the next year, to play more Free-For-All rounds, I began to make use of a unit I'd been ignoring previously: Mountain Giants. That changed everything. I blasted my way up to rank 12, in a relatively short time, before turning away from the game again.