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November 29, 2017

The popularity of Nova Terra

The popularity of Nova Terra

Nova is one of the most popular co-op commanders. But why is that so? There are more reasons to it than being a beauty in a tight ghost suit. Let's go through the reason and see if we can learn something.

Low skill floor

If you are a casual player or new to the co-op mode, Nova is a great commander for you. Players are free to focus all their attention on the army. That is in stark contrast to Raynor's relatively demanding macromanagment.

Simplified macro mechanics
These let players focus on their army without the need to often go back to the base. They also help with the initial expanding, saturating and building up infrastructure. Major changes to the macromanagment are:

  • Automated Refineries
  • No supply depots
  • Simplified production
    • Cooldown based and instant
    • No rally
    • Only three production structures

While starcraft veterans don't mind keeping up a constant worker production, building supply depots, putting workers into gases and managing their army production, for newer and casual players it's a substantial barrier keeping them from enjoying the game. These changes help immensely and make Nova's macromanagment the least complicated out of all commanders.

Reliable and easy to get detection
Getting detection and keeping it alive is a chore for many commanders. The path to mobile detection for commanders like Vorazun or Stukov is long. And once they get the detection, they still have to micromanage it carefully. Nova has one cheap and quick upgrade, granting her reliable and constant detection - making life easier for all players. I have no doubt that if Kerrigan was designed today, she would have detection on her hero unit too.

Tough units
Nova units are very tough and when combined with Ravens and Defensive Drones, they don't die very often. One less thing to worry about.

Hero unit
A hero unit guarantees early game presence, and makes transitioning into midgame smoother. Nova's hero unit is not as powerful as Kerrigan's, but she gets the job done. That is especially true against enemy compositions susceptible to her Hellfire shotgun.

Fluid composition

One of the effects of the cooldown limited production is that the army will be inherently diverse. What's more, if there is a good pool of units to choose from, which there is, players can easily adjust their unit composition against enemy threats and tailor it to the map's needs. With instant production and no need for supply depots, this can happen quickly and without hurdles. Nova's design takes advantage of large amount of work done on the Nova Covert Ops mission pack, and created a pool of very fun and distinct units.

Another effect of the cooldown limited production is that each unit can feel strong and be borderline overpowered. Even a unit that would be otherwise imbalanced might not cause an issue, because players can't take advantage of this by mass producing that unit. Balancing this system is considerably easier because of that.

Overall this "Fluid composition" makes it that each unit can feel strong and distinct.

Other reasons

High skill ceiling
While Nova is great for new and casual players, there is a lot to do if you have spare APM. Nova herself can be microed to the heart's content, and Ravens Type-II are a great APM sink. Not to mention every Raid Liberator, Covert Banshee, Heavy Siege Tank and Spec Ops Ghost should be controlled for the maximum efficiency.

Fast Respawn
It's a great mechanic, and players are never kept at disadvantage for long thanks to it.

Setting up defenses
Ravens Type-II, Heavy Siege Tanks and Raid Liberators give Nova the ability set up strong defenses and prepare for enemies. This makes Nova capable and fun in both offensive and defensive situations.

Character history
Before the commander was released, Nova was already a popular character. She was in both Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm campaigns. There are two novels focused on her - Nova and Spectres (Starcraft: Ghost #1 and #2) and the graphic novel Starcraft: Ghost Academy. Nova was meant to be the main protagonist of the game Starcraft: Ghost , but it was eventually canceled. In the end Nova got at least her own mission pack - Nova Covert Ops.

Overall this makes for a very enjoyable commander that is accessible to players of all skill levels.


Nevertheless, no commander can be perfect and the best for everyone. All commanders excel at certain things and fall short in others. Both strengths and weaknesses define commanders' identity and make them unique. So why isn't Nova my favorite commander?

  • Her mobility is somewhat limited even with her Tactical Airlift. Its cooldown long, and she simply can't keep up with Zagara's fast units, Kerrigan's Omega Worms, Fenix's Recall or mass air play.
  • As a long-time starcraft player, I have hard time enjoying a commander without (almost) any macromanagment.
  • The cooldown limited production has its downsides too. It makes vastly different unit compositions and playstyles impossible. I'm forced to combine units and there aren't many other options to differentiate the play. This is accentuated further by lacking static defense.
Other comments on her design or balance:
  • Tac Nuke Strike and Holo Decoy are somewhat redundant and not as fun as they could be. Currently, it's easy to forget about them, while doing all the other fun things that are possible with Nova.
  • I imagine the Stance Dance upgrade was meant for a more strategic use of suits, in which they eventually succeeded with Fenix. But it doesn't work that well with Nova. Close to zero cooldown on the stance change would give more freedom, which could be used to switch between stances and their independent abilities on cooldown (think of reloading in Doom 2016). That could make engagements more dynamic and fun.
  • Static defense is rather weak. But it might be an intended feature defining her as a commander.

Wrap up

I would like this post to highlight how well Nova's design works. When I'm trying to make something, whether it's a map or a commander, I often find myself entangled in difficulties, while I'm trying to give players as many options as possible. I strive so that any unit combination comes naturally and through synergy, instead of being forced by other mechanics (cooldown limited production, hard limit on units, Significant Others-like perks,  H&H-like resource balance, etc.). But I have to admit these tools are powerful and using them is often worth it. That is especially true for co-op commanders where depth isn't as much of an issue.

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