While an iconic unit in Protoss lore, the Carrier’s place in game balance has often been brought into question. With Carriers playing a major factor in latest Community Feedback, I thought it would be a good time to explore the unit’s design.
The Carrier is the Protoss Capital Ship. It’s the most expensive non-unique unit in the Protoss arsenal and boasts one of the longest build times in the game. For its massive investment however, it isn’t a unit that can force an enemy to retreat on its own. Because of the cost and time involved in their production, losing even a single unit can be a massive setback. As such, a single Carrier, or even a few Carriers, are actually very vulnerable.
At critical mass however, Carriers become a near unstoppable force. If the Protoss reaches a mass of eight Carriers, most games are considered closed. It takes a lot of time to get there, and during that period the Protoss is left vulnerable. But if Protoss can get there, the game is over.
Discussions on the state of the Carrier have varied. Early adjustments focused on simply raising Interceptor costs. Testing indicated, however, that raising interceptor costs did nothing to change the core issues in ZvP where Carriers are most oppressive. And as we knew from the start of Legacy of the Void, there is a certain point where increasing Interceptor costs too much just results in Protoss unwilling to attempt Carrier strategies altogether.
Others focus on the Carrier itself. If the Carrier’s damage were lowered, Protoss would need to produce more units to reach critical mass. As a result, this lengthens the window of opportunity the opposing player has to break the Protoss defense.
But most seem to agree that the nature of the Carrier strategy itself is the larger issue.
The heavy cost of Carrier production means that once production has started, the Protoss is locked in. If the Protoss can’t protect their Carrier production, the heavy investment will put the opposing player into an advantage the Protoss won’t recover from. Adversely, once the Protoss starts Carrier production, the opposing player is immediately put on a timer. They will have a set window in which to take advantage of the Protoss’ vulnerability before their Carrier production reaches a critical mass and ends the game. Failing to notice that Carrier production has started will decide the game. Noticing Carrier production has started too late is another mistake that can cost you the game.
If you notice early, you’ll have a window to work with. But one way or another, the game will be decided by the Protoss’ Carriers. Either the opponent will be able to capitalize on the heavy investment or the timer expires and the Carriers end the game.
This “Doom” count impact Carriers have on the game is often considered the biggest problem with the unit’s design. As a result, many recent discussions have looked into bringing the Carrier more in-line with standard units with regard to its damage and production time.
A common idea is that the Carrier would be a healthier, more balanced unit if its damage or supply cost were to be nerfed, but its production time adjusted to a more reasonable level. Nerfing the units damage and supply cost will actually have very similar results. Both in the end would serve to ramp up final supply cost before Protoss reaches the breaking point.
The issue here, once again, is the same however, and arguably provides the worst possible outcome. Smoothening the Carrier’s power curve at the end doesn’t change the fact that Carriers will eventually reach the breaking point. Instead, cutting the production time may actually make the process just that much easier.
Of course just increasing the supply cost or cutting the Carrier’s damage output just raises questions of its own.
In the case of the former, would increasing the supply cost actually stop the core issue at all? And if it does, would Carrier strategies just get abandoned all-together? In the case of the latter, cutting the damage would just mean more Carriers need to be produced before getting to critical mass. It increases the window in which the opponent has to act, which most would agree is a healthy change. As such, the question becomes, at what point is the window long enough?
Another key argument looks at Protoss design itself. There are suggestions that the Mothership Core alone makes turtle strategies too powerful for Protoss. As a result, while the Protoss are meant to be vulnerable during the Carrier production period, they’re actually not vulnerable at all.
While I don’t actually believe this myself, these are the conversations that need to happen before we can reach a finality on the Carriers’ design.
The Road Ahead
At the end of the day, the Carrier isn’t a complex unit. There is only so much that can be done without overhauling or replacing the unit entirely. We can make nerfs, but the result on the metagame will always be a delay on the critical mass timer.
As per its design, the Carrier will remain doom count unit. When its unable to fill this role, that’s usually the point when Carriers just disappear from the meta entirely. Its strength is its curse. Its own paradox. As such, the road we have ahead is figuring out how the timer works. And perhaps more importantly, what units need to be adjusted to better capitalize on the window of opportunity.
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