By: Mizenhauer

Welcome back to Disasterpiece Theater! In our previous episode, we recalled the brief but odious peak of OP Liberators in early Legacy of the Void.

Today, we’re charting new territory. It’s not a unit, nor player, or even strategy that’s the subject of our ire. It’s a map.

The GSL Best-of-Seven: The Pinnacle of StarCraft II, Except When It’s Not

When it comes to StarCraft II, GSL best-of-7 series are just about the best it can get. Be it the semifinals or grand finals, players are provided a week to prepare—time spent scrutinizing their opponent’s gameplay and sculpting their approach for the marathon ahead. And, while the stakes are as high as can be from the jump, the tension and drama are elevated further should the series reach game seven.

With emotions running high, it’s easy to forget that there’s often a deadly trap buried beneath game seven, ready to snap the legs off fandom that’s ready to run wild: the worst map in the pool. Seven games means bans are dispensed with and the full gamut of maps must be played, and it’s often the least desirable map that’s left until the very end.

It’s easy to recall high-profile instances where a map put its stamp on a decisive game seven. At the end of the 2015 Code S Season 1 finals, Life took advantage of Iron Fortress and its four starting positions to open with a super-fast Spawning Pool. He miraculously avoided PartinG’s scouting Probe and hopped his way to a Code S championship (VOD). Solar employed the same trick a few years later to win 2016’s SSL Season 2 (given the 11 days of preparation time, we can say it’s GSL-style). Playing on Frost, another four player map, he caught Dark off-guard with a one base all-in of his own (VOD).

Iron Fortress and Frost are otherwise reasonably solid maps, with starting point variance being the primary reason for their poor reputation. But if those two maps produced terrible games when the lights shone the brightest, then what would game seven look like on a map that’s truly irredeemable?

Urban Planning Gone Wrong: Red City

That brings us to the ‘star’ of today’s episode: Red City. A map so profoundly bad, so aggressively hostile, that it could only have been created as divine punishment or a monkey’s paw wish. This four player map was used in only a single season of GSL/WCS, and for good reason.

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The map’s fatal flaw was the maze of narrow expansion choke points that gave it an enormous defenders advantage. The long and narrow passages made movement clumsy, and bringing units to bear in a fight was a monumental struggle. The defending player could easily redeploy defending units across their first three expansions, while the attacking player had to back up to the middle of the map (or waste time destroying rock formations) to change their angle of attack. It was a labyrinth of false choices: whatever path you chose, you were doomed to face enemy defenders in a tight choke.

Naturally, this led to a lot of empty movement, with players spending more time futilely looking for an opening than actually fighting. And, if readers should have learned anything from the series, it’s that if a map disincentivizes combat, I automatically hate it.

Given these properties and the meta during the first year of Heart of the Swarm, the map ended up having a huge Zerg imbalance. Liquipedia match stats show that Zerg was more than 60:40 favored against both Protoss and Terran, which puts it in company with maps such as Blood Boil and Korhal Floating Islands where two match-ups were so heavily skewed.

In its single season in Code S, Red City was selected only 14 times to become the least played map. In contrast, the most played map of Daybreak was played 38 times. The racial imbalance on Red City was even more pronounced in Code S, with Zerg going a combined 9-2 against the other factions.

For good measure, we asked mapmaker Superouman of Cloud Kingdom and Golden Wall fame to expound on the subject.

Red City is one of the most skewed maps of all time when it comes to defender’s advantage. Attacking through any of the three paths into the defenders first three bases is a disaster waiting to happen. The most direct attack route into the natural is a tight corridor from which your opponent can create a concave while also slinging down shots from a nearby highground. Alternatively, you can back up to the middle of the map (an absurdly long walk) and then try to rush through a lowground area which, once more, allows the defender an easy concave and the high-ground advantage. Trying to attack the third is a Morton’s Fork if there ever was one. Either you charge blindly up a ramp or through another tight space, neither of which are any better than the two aforementioned attack paths. All that, plus the fact that the defender can reach each choke in far less time than their opponent and prepare for an attack makes it grossly favor the defending player.

The Match: sOs vs Soulkey – Red City

With that said let’s shift our focus to the game, which actually started off innocently enough for a ZvP circa 2013: Soulkey went for a three hatch before pool, while sOs opted for a Forge fast expand.

Neither player was interested in early-game action, leading the game to play out passively for a few minutes. sOs stayed on two bases, getting a couple of Phoenixes before preparing for a large Gateway units + Colossus timing. Now, this was a standard enough build at the time. This variety of timing attack, with two Colossus, one or two immortals, a flock of phoenix and Gateway units hit well before the Zerg could get Vipers. Even with the map working against him, sOs seemed to think a well-executed version of this attack could be enough to tip the scales in his favor.

Soulkey, meanwhile, was left to Drone to his heart’s delight. By the time sOs’ first Phoenix emerged and cleared away an errant Overlord, Soulkey already had over 50 workers with a half dozen more in production.

At around the ten minute mark (about seven minutes in LotV time), sOs finally decided to move out and see if he could land a decisive blow. Soulkey, however, had already reached his desired Drone count and was pumping out an endless tide of Hydras, Lings, and Roaches.

The arrival of sOs’ second Colossus signaled the charge. In true pre-LotV style, he had a considerable number of Sentries in his army mix, as there were no Ravagers to counter Force Fields at the time (I’d deign to label it refreshing, at least for a game). However, sOs’ initial Force Fields were subpar and failed to provide him with any significant advantage. The fight morphed into a prolonged skirmish in which sOs attempted to pick off Soulkey’s units without straying too far into the choke ahead of him.

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No amount of Forcefields is making this work.

After around two minutes with both sides accomplishing little, sOs realized time was not on his side and decided to go for broke. He charged his troops through the choke and into the Zerg concave, forcing an all-out battle between the two main armies. Despite his positional disadvantage, sOs came close to cracking the Zerg defenses, even forcing Soulkey to pull Drones to fight. However, the arrival of Corruptors turned the tide against sOs, and he was forced to retreat after the towering siege engines fell.

Both players emerged from the engagement badly bruised. sOs was still on two bases, a predicament which would spell death in LotV. However, in Heart of the Swarm, he still had the time and resources to construct another powerful army before circumstances demanded he take a third. As for Soulkey, he had lost a meaningful chunk of Drones while rebuffing sOs. In no situation to take a fourth base anytime soon, he had no choice but to once more saturate three bases and keep the Lair-tech units coming. Basically, both players’ best option was to sit back, build up, and prepare for round two.

A few minutes later, sOs decided he had enough units to try and go on the offensive again. When you account for Soulkey’s poor Creep spread and the fairly close distance between the two players, the game would have been in danger of ending on many other maps.

Not so on Red City! Unconvinced that another attack down the same narrow path would succeed, sOs decided to try another angle of attack. Unfortunately for sOs, none of the other paths were any better (some even significantly worse due to low-ground disadvantage). He spent nearly an entire minute clearing up a series of destructible rocks, which meant Soulkey was up nearly 20 supply by the time he laid down his mining pick at the Zerg third. And for all that effort, he was still going to have to squeeze his troops through a narrow choke into an awaiting Zerg concave.

To sOs’ credit, he found a way to seriously threaten Soulkey once more. There was a moment, an instance of danger that lingered for an uncomfortably long time, where it seemed sOs had forced Soulkey to flee with his Drones and sacrifice his third. However, once sOs’ key Force Fields eventually faded, he was forced to retreat once more. Thwarted at the Zerg third, sOs backed up and started the long march towards one of the other two attack routes.

However, as has been amply described, maneuvering on this map is a largely futile exercise. sOs’ rotation towards Soulkey’s natural was quashed the moment he arrived, with Soulkey already having a concave so long it could almost defend the natural and third at the same.

Okay, time to try again. sOs returned back to the third base, and once again, he came close to dealing serious damage. Now, sOs has to take some of the blame here, even though he had been fighting uphill (sometimes literally) due to the map. He forced himself within firing range of the Hatchery again, and he could have easily sacrificed some units to focus-fire it down for good. However, due to poor judgment or poor micro, sOs failed to land the killing blow before being repulsed.

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This is getting a tad absurd if you ask me.

This last round of failed attacks left sOs to loiter around at the edge of creep with 135 supply and no third base, whereas Soulkey had maxed out. At this point, sOs decided he had no choice but to finally take a third base. While his first attempt was canceled due to his mispositioned army, sOs eventually planted a Nexus and turned the tables of his Zerg opponent. A game-ending counterattack might have been possible on another map, but Soulkey was less than enthused at the prospect of jamming his army through Red City’s chokes (With Force Fields on the opposing end, no less). So, instead, he decided to occupy himself by taking a fourth and fifth base and fending off a bit of Zealot harassment.

It was only a momentary lull, however, as sOs was ready to move out again once he was up to around 170 supply and had two Colossus. The game opened up for an instant as the two players met in the middle of the map where there were far fewer encumbrances. It was actually quite refreshing to watch how easily sOs chased down the Zerg units on a more friendly stretch of land. However, rather than look for a good surround on the open plane, Soulkey retreated back to his third base.

sOs gave chase, but soon realized Soulkey’s flight was not out of fear. Instead, he had looked to pull the Protoss army out of position while a Roach run-by entered the Protoss natural unhindered. If the strike had come a half-minute later sOs might have been able to repel the assault with his Mothership Core, but as things stood, there was nothing to prevent Soulkey from gutting sOs’ economy and production. Rather than try to salvage the situation at home, sOs decided his only option was to stay fully committed to offense, despite how fruitless that approach had proved thus far.

Soulkey, knowing that sOs would not be able to produce another meaningful unit from there on out, sacrificed his third base while setting up his still-mining natural expansion as a death trap for the Protoss army to funnel into.

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Why? Just, Why?

The choke that sOs has to jam his chonky stalkers through is laughable and has no place on any map in any iteration of the StarCraft franchise. It’s a sick joke, just one of many features on the map that you never noticed until it really matters. And, when they do matter, you’re left shaking your head in disgust at the sheer idiocy of it all.

sOs’ only chance was to use the range advantage of his Colossus to dislodge Soulkey from the choke and allow his army to fight in a reasonable formation. Straightforward in theory, it was much more complicated in practice. Soulkey had Corruptors to take potshots at the Colossus, and with the narrow choke allowing only a few Stalkers to provide cover, sOs had little margin for error in his movements. As armies skittered, stomped, and slithered from side to side, sOs’ position grew increasingly bleak. Every inch earned was lost just as quickly as Soulkey’s brood regrouped and drove sOs away. The tug of war continued, with time on the side of the slow mining Soulkey. Once Infestors were added to Soulkey’s composition, sOs’ relatively fragile army was in greater danger than ever before.

Ultimately, sOs came to terms with the futility of the situation. We don’t have the player-cam view to confirm if he was scowling or letting out some exasperated sigh, but there was a clear feeling of resignation to his retreat. His army backed off to clean up Soulkey’s fourth, an empty base with no strategic value. sOs had no idea what to do. And what do we do when we have no idea what to do? We do something, because something is better than nothing.

After further waffling, sOs finally decided the game had to end one way or another and targeted Soulkey’s newest expansion. This base was the ‘optional’ third base Soulkey had previously declined to take, and lay within the maze complex of Red City. While this base offered a slightly wider entryway than the others, it was more than counteracted by being at the bottom of a low-ground ramp.

sOs tried to push uphill, dropping Time Warps which forced Soulkey to temporarily retreat. This effort was thwarted, however, as Fungal Growths pinned his army in place, preventing him from gaining much advantage from the Mothership Core’s aid. By the time sOs charged up onto the high ground, the big green circles had faded and Soulkey was ready to fight.

The wider choke turned out to be an illusory advantage, with the high ground terrain giving Soulkey an enormous arc from which he could concentrate his firepower. Colossus popped like balloons and Gateway units exploded in a hail of shrapnel. sOs was finished. His economy and tech were long gone, and now so was his army. He GG’d out, sending Soulkey to his first Code S final.

Soulkey and sOs got to experience Red City at its worst. I’m not just talking about the doomed attacks and positional nightmares. I’m talking about something otherworldly. Something sinister. Red City is not just just a digital landscape cooked up on someone’s computer. It is a prison. A purgatory where sOs never deals meaningful damage and Soulkey is unable to gain ground outside of his first three bases. It is a nightmarish landscape where the lines between offense and defense blur. Where a pacifying reddish tint lingers in silence as those who wage war upon its surface rotate between the same three choke points for all eternity.

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