Whatever mods and custom games existed for StarCraft, whatever options there were for laddering, the professional scene has always reinforced StarCraft 2's identity as a one-on-one real-time strategy game. StarCraft, in its purest sense, was the game you saw between the likes of Bomber and Scarlett, INnoVatioN and TaeJa. It is a beautiful game, but it is also one that can be very hard to learn and practice because it was so demanding.
Legacy of the Void's Archon Mode is an attempt to redefine StarCraft 2 without betraying that core one-on-one game that so many of its fans love. It's a team game now, but according the pros who have competed in Red Bull's Battle Grounds Archon tournament, it's still authentically StarCraft.
One Team, One Base, One Game
It's kind of odd that team versions of StarCraft never really caught on in competitive play. Despite the fact that two-on-two games were popular on ladder when the Wings of Liberty first came out, they were never part of the competitive landscape in a significant way.
"I personally thought 2v2 should have been part of team leagues, even Proleague in Korea," said Chris "HuK" Loranger. "But nobody really took the steps to making it happen. I think Archon Mode is way more likely to succeed compared to 2v2."
Kevin "qxc" Riley, who will be competing at the Battle Grounds playoffs later this month, thinks he knows what the problem was with the team games of old.
"[In] a typical 2v2, you are doing [units compositions] that don't have any relevance to 1v1," he explained. "Like, in 4v4, everyone stays on one base and you make Hellions and I make Zerglings and that's all we do for the entire game. That's not anywhere close to a 1v1."
And that's a problem because StarCraft 2 is built around that one-on-one experience. It's fundamental to the balance of the game and the design of the units. It's fun to play around with super-armies that combine the best of the different races, but it's not really StarCraft as it's meant to be played. Nor will it bring you closer to that ideal, because nothing you do resembles what you would do in a normal game.
Archon Mode changes that because, for all intents and purposes, it is 1v1 StarCraft. You just happen to be playing with an extra set of hands working alongside yours.
"In Archon Mode," qxc continued, "it's like, okay, we're going bio-Tank against another Terran who's going bio-Tank. We're using all the same units, we're using the exact same game. You've just got more stuff you can do. If somebody only played Archon Mode, they would probably be missing some of the skills for 1v1. But the better you get at archon mode, the closer you it gets to tapping into all of your skills."
Better With Friends
Archon Mode isn't just a slightly more approachable version of StarCraft 2. It's also tests some skills and attributes that traditional 1v1 StarCraft has ignored, qxc said.
"Both me and [my Archon teammate] Beastyqt enjoy other games, and Archon Mode stretches you in ways that StarCraft 2 does not normally stretch you. Communication, teamwork, coordinating… none of these things really exist in SC2. But they do exist in Heroes of the Storm and League of Legends, both games I've put a pretty significant amount of time into playing just for fun."
There's also a lot to be said for knowing it's not all up to you.
"The biggest thing is that it's not as stressful," HuK said. "When you're playing 1v1, because it's so reliant on you, when you screw up, it's your fault. Having someone else there, it's just a lot less stress. You know that you're in it together, and it's a shared responsibility now.
"It's like in high school and you have a group project.," he continued. "You're hoping that you're going to have good group members, but you're probably less stressed when it's a group project than when it's just you and it's a long essay that you have to write."
But having a good partner is key. "Its definitely a nice change from just playing solo all the time," said Sasha "Scarlett" Hostyn. "So yeah, I enjoy it. But it's gotta be with someone who gets you."
Whether Archon Mode has a future in the competitive scene after Legacy of the Void comes out is an open question. Will it endure among pros? Qxc isn't sure.
"I think it's going to gain some traction. But it's hard to say exactly how far that's going to go," he said. "it allows for some really dynamic and crazy gameplay. It's really fun to imagine the observers trying to keep up with two literally separate engagements that are happening out on the map. There's probably a place for it out in the competitive scene, but I don't know if it will be a big one."
On the other hand, if Archon Mode continues to create dramatic matches like we've already seen through the Red Bull Battle Grounds qualifiers, it may develop a fanbase that demands more of it. There's one more qualifier this Friday at 12 PM Pacific, and then Archon Mode gets its most rigorous test yet: the playoffs at the Red Bull studio in Santa Monica.