It's time for another How To Basic compendium! This time featuring the Undead. In this guide I will go over all the unit and hero choices and try to give you an idea of the overall gameplay and strategy of the race in all matchups.
So get ready for a wall of text as we scratch the surface of this race consisting of walking corpses, disembodied spirits, damned mortal men and insidious extra-dimensional entities!
With patch 1.30, Acolytes got quite a few buffs. Their movement speed, health points, health regeneration and armor were all increased(!) So much so that Blizzard decided to tone down the movement speed a bit. This improves their potential for scouting and makes them less vulnerable to harass. Prior to 1.30, Human's main way of stalling Undead was to attack Acolytes with Footmen and Archmage. If you lost a couple of Acolytes while teching, it would cost you dearly. It could even be flat out game-losing, as you would have to either suffer a huge economic loss or cancel your tech to reproduce Acolytes. A frustrating way to lose. With 1.30 this is rarely the case, however. The increased bulkiness and movement speed has made is very hard to Human to harass, as long as you micro somewhat properly and get a Nerubian tower when you see him approaching.
Ghouls are the Undead's basic warrior. For their cost, they have a high damage-output per second (DpS). Especially on tier 3 when you can get the Ghoul Frenzy upgrade. Ghouls are, however, not very durable, so more often than not, Undead don't use them as fighting units, but rather just get a few to gather lumber. Against Night Elf, Ghoul openings have been meta - and to some extend still is - to punish their oftentimes greedy openers.
As for how many you want to have gathering lumber throughout the game, you should normally aim for 3-4 depending on how many attack/armor upgrades you expect to be getting throughout the game. Games against Night Elf usually revolves around economy and gets drawn out, so here I recommend 4. Against Human or Undead, games will usually be decided by a timing attack (whether Riflemen/Caster or Destroyer push), so here you should't expect to have much time to get many upgrades anyway, ergo 3 Ghouls should be sufficient.
Boy, do Undead love their Crypt Fiends. They are a core component of the Undead army in all matchups. Simply a great unit to get some good DpS and at the same time they work as anti-air with their Web ability. They have high damage and a long cooldown (aka good burst). Therefore, when they are being attacked during a fight, you benefit a lot from kiting them back. What I mean by this is, that you should fire off a wave of attacks, then pull back a bit, fire off another wave, pull back, etc..
In competitive play, Gargoyles are a rare sight. Sometimes you see a single Gargoyle to counter an annoying Zeppelin, but that's about it. Against ground units, they simply don't do enough damage compared to how fast they die.
Back in the day it was actually common to use them against Night Elf, but the map pool has changed to be less favourable for them, and with Night Elf players having learned to deal with them better they've fallen short. On ladder you can definitely make it work, though! Read more about the strategy here.
Abominations are Undead's big fat meat-shield. They don't bring a lot to the table compared to other tier 2 front line units like Raiders, Druids of the Claw and Spell Breakers. But even so, having a front line that can soak up tons of damage is oftentimes useful. If you, for instance, are playing against mass Riflemen or Dryads, Abominations put in some serious work.
Meat Wagons are arguably the weakest siege weapon in the game. In "normal" gameplay they don't really have a use, but if your opponent is massing towers in his base, then Meat Wagons definitely work well to tear his defenses down.
Generally speaking, it's just nice to have a siege weapon at your disposal.
Obsidian Statues are the Undead's main source for sustain. Slowly and steadily, they boost your army's mana and health points. On their own, they don't put up much of a fight, so try to keep them safe in your back line so they opponent can't get to them.
Destroyers are the crème de la crème of the Undead army. Earlier, I mentioned that they are necessary due to them offering dispell through Devour Magic. While this is true, their purpose stretches far beyond that. Their base stats aren't that amazing at first glance, but since they are immune to negative spells and are flying, they can be very tough to deal with.
When they have mana they amplify their attack with Orb of Annihilation, which increases their damage by 15 and deals splash damage around the target. They start with 0 mana so make sure to use Absorb Mana on Obsidian Statues before morphing them. Destroyers lose mana over time, so make sure not to waste too much of it by Absorbing Mana too early.
Necromancers are the most iconic unit of Undead in terms of flavour and are loved by many - especially newcomers. In terms of viability, the unit is rather lacking, though. There are so many reasons why, that an entire article could easily be written just about the unit. For now I'll keep it short and just give a few pointers. They are very mana demanding, are extremely vulnerable to dispell and have no immediate impact.
I mentioned that Undead have alternative lock-down tools that don't get used. Cripple is one of these. In a vacuum, the spell is honestly pretty good. It weakens a unit heavily for a very long time. But even in a perfect world where you obtain Master trained Necromancers, the spell will just get dispelled immediately for half the mana cost.
I'm using a lot of text to beat a 'dead' horse, I know. One thing I cannot deny is, that it is a fun unit to play around with. Getting an Unholy Frenzied Lich to machine gun down your opponents or to have a massive skeleton army feels great!
I often refer to Banshees as the sprinkles on an already well-rounded army. Ice cream is good on it's own, but to make it optimal you need that delicious licorice topping. That's Banshees to me. They are played in 3 matchups for two different reasons.
Against Orcs, Curse is great. More specifically against Blademaster, who is their main source of DpS. If you can mitigate his damage output with 33%, then it's a big help.
Against Undead and Human, Banshees are used for their Anti-magic Shell as protection from spells like Blizzard. Storm Bolt, Holy Light and Frost Nova.
Shade is one of the absolute best scouts in the game and scouting is extremely important. That automatically makes Shade a good unit. In shorter games you'll, however, be sated with just using Skeletons for scouting as Shade is not an urgent priority.
Read much more about scouting in this guide.
Frost Wyrms are big, scary-looking dragons that also pack a serious punch and offer a lock-down effect. They are, however, also very expensive and take a long time to obtain. As this is something you can rarely afford, the unit is used in specific circumstances only. In competitive play we only really see them against Night Elf when they get several Druid of the Claw as they get dismantled by Frost Wyrms.
Death Knight is, by far, the most commonly seen Hero for Undead. This is due to two of his abilities; Death Coil and Unholy Aura. Death Coil allows you to both heal your own units, kill off enemy units and steal creeps. This kind of versatility can oftentimes be underrated.
Unholy Aura is one of the best auras in the game, and it especially compliments Undead well. Due to the lacking sustain of Undead, having a Hero that chips in with some regeneration goes a long way. The movement speed works well with Ghoul openers as it makes it more easy to surround enemy units. Remember how we talked about Crypt Fiends kiting backwards in fights? Unholy Aura helps them travel farther in the cooldown time of their auto attacks. It may seem like a rather minute thing, and it arguably is, but these small things do add up.
The Ultimate of Death Knight, Animate Dead, is rather anti-climactic. So much so, that you normally just want to pick Unholy Aura level 3 instead of it.
Lich is mostly used as the second hero to accommodate Death Knight. The Lich is a ranged hero with a low cooldown, and he can be protected well with Death Coil and Frost Armor, so he can get off many attacks during the course of a fight. Therefore, you should make sure to have Orb of Corruption equipped on Lich for maximum utilization.
Sometimes we also see Lich as a first pick against Undead. This strategy aims to create an early advantage. Either by surrounding the enemy hero or Crypt Fiends with Frost Nova and Ghouls, or by harassing the enemy's acolytes.
When Dread Lord is played as a first hero you can draw parallels to playing Lich first. Using Sleep and Ghoul surround you can get some juicy targets. Here you will have a strong early game, so try to benefit from it by either making an expansion yourself or by delaying the enemy's tech. Though it being a pretty cool strategy, we don't see it in competitive play. The reason being that good micro counters Sleep surround, so you'll have a hard time defeating a skilled opponent. That being said, if played in a ladder game against an unexpecting opponent, you can punish him severely.
Dread Lord is also used as a third hero against Orc as an alternative to Dark Ranger and Pit Lord. The purpose is to use Sleep in order to shut down Blademaster a bit. Sometimes you'll see Blademaster dive alone into the back of your army alone to get hits off on Obsidian Statues or Lich. If you can Sleep him while he does so, the enemy will have a hard time cancelling the spell, and the Blademaster will be kept out of the fight for some time.
Crypt Lord is not a very good hero, and finding a place for him is hard. But all heroes have situations where they work well. Crypt Lord finds his place against Human tier 2 Riflemen push with casters. As they won't have any front line that you need to pass, you'll be able to set up some great Impales that pausesthe enemy DpS for some time, giving your Abominations time to get in attacking distance of the Riflemen.
Explaining exactly why Crypt Lord isn't considered a good hero and only has such niche purposes, is a bit complicated and would take some time to explain in-depth. Therefore, I'll save that topic for another time.
This matchup is all about timing attacks. Either from you or from the Human player. If he is trying to fast expand you should make sure to harass him heavily to delay him as much as possible. Meanwhile, you want to reach tier 3 as fast as you can. Remember that Guard Towers are heavy armoured, so Destroyers, with their magic damage, will do a great job against pushing them down.
If the Human instead plays Riflemen on one base, it is you who should be wary of an attack. Your plan in the early game is still to harass. Simply because he can creep much more efficiently than you with Militia, Water Elemental and Footmen, you want to interrupt that rather than giving him free reign. Once he starts getting Riflemen and gets the Mountain King, he'll be stronger than you for some time. Here you should play on your back-foot and try to snatch some safe creep camps for yourself. When you've achieved your desired army, you should be able to turn the tables again and overpower him.
This matchup relies heavily on your heroes, so in order to give them the best chances of winning you the game, you want to put emphasis on creeping them to high levels. In this matchup you also want to get a mix of Crypt Fiends, Obsidian Statues and Destroyers, but unlike against Human, go can afford having a bit slower tech in exchange of more Crypt Fiends. Topping off your endgame army with Banshees is a great way of lowering the Orc's damage output a lot.
The Orc will oftentimes look to make a sneaky an expansion (especially if they play Far Seer first), so it's vital that you put effort into scouting with your Skeleton Warriors from Rod of Necromancy. If you can cancel an expansion under construction, you'll both delay him substantially and cost him very important resources.
vs Night Elf
This matchup, especially, is won by good micro in battles. Keeping the Destroyers away from Dryad range while dispelling, kiting Crypt Fiends against Bears, attacking Dryads with Ghouls, all the while paying attention to your own heroes' position. In big fights you'll feel like you are juggling way too many balls at once. This is both the beauty of playing Undead as well as the bane of many players.
A Ghoul opening can definitely work against Night Elf and was the most common in before 1.30. Getting Death Knight with Unholy Aura first and invading the enemy's territory, harassing workers and Archers as well as surrounding the Demon Hunter is a solid strategy.
With the current popularity of Keeper of the Grove, I am more hesitant to recommend this opening. It can definitely still work, but with Entangle you can quickly find yourself losing a lot of Ghoul without any real compensation. A good alternative is to play the Fiend Tech (TeD) opening that gives you a faster tech, in exchange of a bit weaker early game.
The latter opening is centered around aggression and killing Acolytes to delay the opponents tech and economy. To avoid suffering major losses, your opponent will have to micro well, and even then he might very well lose quite a bit. With the buffs to Acolytes, this strategy has gotten a bit more difficult to pull off, but I personally enjoy it thoroughly, so I encourage you to at least try it!
The other mentioned opening is playing Fast Fiends. As Crypt Fiends scale better into the late game compared to Ghouls, you can benefit a lot from pumping them out from the very beginning of the game. With this strategy you'll be more inclined to chill and creep to get ahead in levels and slowly take control of the game.
With both strategies, you usually end up with the same tri-hero combination of Lich, Death Knight and Dark Ranger. Dark Ranger is a desired hero every time you, with silence, can prevent the enemy from healing. In this matchup you can prevent Death Coils and thus securing yourself important kills on Crypt Fiends, Abominations and Destroyers - or even a hero!
As I've mentioned, Undead has several highly viable opening build orders. Build orders are a bit hard to explain properly with text, so I'll refer to this playlist of videos that the ReZZeL has created. The Fast Expansion build is a bit far fetched, but other three definitely have solid merits.
Full playlist here
Knowing the spawn position of Critters is quite relevant for Undead as you'll be using their corpses with Rod of Necromancy. Reddit user /u/thekidsaremad made a Imgur album with some of the most popular maps, showing where critters spawn.
Even though you've endured a massive amount of text throughout this compendium, there's loads more to be covered regarding creep routes, exact army compositions and microing. These are things that are very hard to explain because they vary a lot. Both with different maps and different play styles form the opponent.
My best advice to you (besides playing a bunch of games yourself) is to binge-watch replays of various Undead players to try understanding when and why they play like they do.
Good luck on your dark journey beyond the shores of Styx!