Relearning technique is perhaps the hardest thing to do in any field. These are the fundamental skills that allow you to do even the most basic of tasks. As a musician I know how hard it can be to overcome bad habits and retool poorly learned technique. I have also switched hotkey setups many times throughout my 8 years in Starcraft. I used different hotkeys during Broodwar, 3 hotkeys for all of WoL, I added 4 location hotkeys at the end of WoL and finally all 10 control groups and 8 locations at the start of HotS. Obviously the switch from Broodwar to Wings of Liberty was slightly different since many mechanical aspects of the game changed. Still, it takes times to get used to how to play when you have spent so long with an alternative setup. At the end of WoL I decided 3 hotkeys weren’t enough if I wanted to take Starcraft seriously. It took me just over two weeks to begin to feel comfortable with my location hotkeys. I had a similar time period to re-adjust when I moved my nexus from 1 to 5.
I will not pretend that I have the scientifically accurate answer of how to learn a new setup but this is what I do to ease the process. However, I do study music at university and many of the ideas that come from efficiently learning music I have applied to Starcraft to great effect. It is my belief that as gamers we natural have extremely poor skills for learning. We just click “play-again” over and over and expect the improvements to come. Focused practice on things as small as the keystrokes to produce an immortal is the most time efficient way to re-program you mind and assimilate knowledge. If you feel that your setup is not efficient you should switch. Don’t let reasons like, “my hand won’t move up to the F keys” discourage you from changing. A change like this can be the thing that moves your game to the next level.
Until its learned don’t go back!
Once you decide to switch, it is important to follow through with a certain time period before deciding if the new setup is better or worse than the last one. You cheat yourself out of good setups if you decide after one or two days that it is not working for you.
Relearning fingerings in music is very similar to this. One of the best harpists in the world told my friend that it takes a week for a new fingering to be learnt. One week is not a universal time either; evaluate the time period based on how quickly you feel like you learn and how long you will be playing each day. I would suggest using one week as an absolute minimum though (assuming you play a lot). Another tip the harpist gave my friend was practice your new “setup” first thing in the morning and then just before you go to bed.
Until you achieve proficiency with the new setup do not use your old setup. By doing this you confuse your mind and do not give yourself the best chance to learn the new setup. While it can seem boring, spend that week, two weeks, three weeks playing vs AI and avoiding ladder. If you want to play ladder, play it with the new setup and do not expect yourself to produce results. If you don’t believe me when I say, “practice vs AI” consider this: Would a musician practice his music on stage during the dress rehearsal? or concert?
Once comfort is achieved, objectively evaluate the new setup; is it providing you with more ease and control in the game? If so, GREAT! If not, discard the new setup and return to the old. I assure you, a few weeks away from your old setup will not be enough to destroy the muscle memory you have developed over the months prior.
Effective Practice vs Laddering
To learn a new setup well you need to eliminate stress from the equation. It will be almost impossible for you to react well if you are trying to do it under duress. You want to learn all of the motions your hand will need to do as carefully and perfectly as possible. If you learn inefficiencies in these motions you will get stuck in bad habits. Habit habits could form while you button mash with the unfamiliar setup during stressful moments in a game where you previous setup re-asserts itself. In a stressful situation if I need my mothership core to recall my brain will jump my hand to 4R however my new setup needs 3R. By making this small mistake I would be training my hand to have an inefficient motion each time before recalling. Bad habits are not only dangerous because of how they impair your accuracy, they could cloud your judgement regarding the efficiency of your new setup. You could turn you back on a superior setup simply because you’ve learned the new setup poorly. Consequently it is important to avoid developing bad habits right from the start.
I suggest first learning each motion that is new to you at the keyboard without Starcraft. Unplug your keyboard and run through “scales” by asking yourself to build an immortal, or phoenix. You should start with your hand in its neutral position and then move to execute each action. Then try moving your hand from its army positioning to the same action. By doing this you can look at the keyboard and develop good muscle memory by first using your eyes. Then as you gain proficiency, close your eyes and see if you can still execute perfectly. A nice tool to use when practicing without your eyes is unit tester. Simply make a probe and start the tester, build your production facilities and hotkey them. Then you can build all the units you want by using your new hotkeys and the results of the actions will be produced immediately.
My neutral position is: Index on 5 for gateway, middle finger on 4 for nexus, ring finger on e for probe, pink on s for stalker, thumb on space for my ramp.)
During this process it is key to take note when things feel awkward, uncomfortable or cause you hand to tire quickly. I am not talking about when you feel weird moving up to the F keys. I am talking about when your hand makes a very uncomfortable stretch and the muscles have to work very hard etc. If you notice these things consider reworking your setup now. It is better to perfect your setup and then to learn it well. If you see something that sets off warning signs right away it is most likely not going to get better as you practice. Small discomfort at the start can quickly turn into pain and overuse injuries. You could read this and say, “but this contradicts the first point of not going back till its learnt.” Not true, you want to learn the new setup, but you want it to be as close to perfect as possible. Somethings will just instantly send off warning signs when you begin executing them. Here are some examples:
1) I rebound Centre Camera on Unit to Shift+F so that I could Shift+F+Space to set locations for my forges. However, what I overlooked was that then I could not Shift+B+F to build multiple forges at once without centring my camera on the probe. Because of this I instantly changed centre camera on unit back to Control+F.
2) Another example is how I wanted Stargate to be on 7 and share the same setup unit build commands as the robo just displaced one key over. I designed this setup to create an intuitive mirror so that my hands could execute the same comfortable keystrokes. I found instantly that my hand was jumping well but sometimes grazing by keys while it jumped. I had to give up my wrists pivot point to make the jump. On top of these things Control+7 is a huge stretch for my hand and it has always be inaccurate and uncomfortable. So I asked myself the question: “Could this be done better another way?” The answer was yes and so I changed the setup immediately.
3) My final example is how I changed my carrier’s build key. I noticed as I would queue void rays that accidentally I would occasionally build a carrier. We see this in pro games ALL the time. This was because of the proximity of C to V and so I simply moved the Carrier key to a specific location that was out of the way enough to avoid misclicks. (This was from my previous setup.)
I hope this makes you want to improve your mechanics. It’s really worth it in the end. While the work can be dull, the best things in life take incredible amounts of work. If you want to play amazing on the piano you are going to spend hundreds of hours playing monotonous scales, or if you want to be an amazing tennis player you’re going to focus on eating healthy and working on overall fitness. If you want to just play the game for fun then do that but I personally think Starcraft is too beautiful to not take seriously.