1. Wall your base:
It doesn’t have to be stone walls and it can include your buildings (houses, blacksmith, etc) but 9 times out of 10 you should be walling up your base.
I don’t mean to say that your walls need to be rushed up – DO NOT go to the effort of walling up before 12 villagers. Instead, try for around 19 population when you palisade.
You shouldn’t use multiple villagers unless you are closer to clicking up to feudal, as it can hurt your economy. Most players who first play ranked Age of Empires 2 are used to playing against the AI or against friends who boom up and attack in Imperial Age.
In the competitive field, this means that you will often have scouts or other feudal age military lurking in your base, ready to snipe off villagers of yours. Walling means it can be easier to kill those pesky scouts when they are in your economy as well, as they have less places to run!
2. Learn to make military before castle age:
Newer players entering the competitive field in Age of Empires 2 often get quite a shock. It is as if they think that the enemy and themselves have an unspoken agreement that they will each advance up the ages, make a huge army in Imperial, or even castle, and attack. This is quite often not the case.
Often, competitive games are like tennis – One person makes scouts, the opponent counters that with spearmen. In response, the original player makes archers or skirmishers, in which case the opponent makes skirmishers or scouts themselves. For a complete guide to what unit counters what unit, check out this table.
Too often then not, when you do not make military to defend, you are leaving yourself wide open for your villagers to be killed, even if you have walled your base effectively.
When you lose villagers, it affects your economy, your ability to age up and either boom, access better units or technologies earlier.
To put it in perspective, a typical feudal archer rush might reach your base at about 30 population roughly. If you then lose three villagers, assuming that your enemy has the same villager count and there are no economy civilization bonuses at play, your economy is 10% worse off than your enemy. This snowballs in the long run! That could be 200 food faster for the opponent meaning a 30 second difference in Castle Age, resulting in faster Town-Center’s and therefore a faster and bigger economic boom.
3. Build Orders are your friend:
In Age of Empires, players create villagers and set them to resources to fund their military and the growth of their empire. There are an infinite number of variances a player can make in the early age when deciding when a villager goes to what resource or builds buildings.
A build order restricts that variance; it allows a player to use a time-proven structure to when to send villagers to resources or to build particular buildings, when to research certain technologies and when to create military, depending on the purpose of the build order. Little quirks, like knowing that adding 6 villagers to sheep at the beginning of the game allows for a continual production of extra villagers, or that it takes roughly 4 gold miners to fund consistent archer production from one range will revolutionize the way you play. I encourage learning a few build orders, one in which you fast castle, and one in which you rush so that you may practice these in various maps until you master them, and then learning other build orders, including build orders made for certain civilizations (Mongol 18 population scout rush, Khmer instant Fast Castle after feudal without having built extra villagers for example.) A mod of an interactive build order made by Cicero is available on the mods page in Definitive Edition, and can be downloaded if using Voobly or HD.
4. Learn your counters:
Unit counters are important and can make all the difference whether you are playing a friendly game with your friends or competitively. There are many various resources which gave basic overviews of unit counters. The Art of War tutorial “Land Battle” provides a good beginner guide.
Alternatively, check out my counter guide.
5. Learn your hotkeys:
If we examine the difference between a low and intermediate ranked players, one thing which distinguishes them is the speed that the intermediate player plays the game. This speed is not just because they are more capable, but that they have hotkeys that they are familiar with. Learn your hotkeys, start with two keys you are practicing, and familiarize, then find another two once you’re familiar. If you prefer, you may change your hotkeys, but my thoughts are that it is best to first learn them, then change hotkeys to what you think are important, as it builds the habit, and if the change does not work for you, you can default that key to what it was originally.
If you want more advice on the subject, check out my article.
6. Commit to a strategy, then react to what your opponent is producing:
This can be absolutely damning when you do not react, or you do not commit! Say you fast castled and made 20 crossbows only to find your enemy already has a defensive mangonel or skirmishers at their base. By backing out of that rush, you have lost the time it took for your villagers to build the archery ranges, the resources from the archers and the crossbow tech, and likely fletching and bodkin arrow. Instead consider transitions, or merely fielding a few of the counter units.
A good example is with the previous crossbows against the skirmishers. It is much better to instead of letting your units die, and transitioning from there, or bringing them back to your base and never using them again, to try possibly adding a single mangonel or 2 or 3 knights. The same applies with a scout into skirmisher transition – This does not mean you lose your scouts carelessly! Instead you are just wise about the engagements you take, so that you can use the scouts to raid the economy when the opponent does not have a formidable counter.
7. Find a practice partner:
The Age of Empires community is fairly friendly for the most part, it can be easy to make a friend. Consider finding someone who is of a similar skill-level as yourself, as then your games will be competitive and one party will not lose interest. Arabia Huns mirror match ups are a great way to practice the game due to their flexibility of options and the fluidity of being able to transition into those options. Once you play a few ranked games, always giving the respectful glhf (good luck have fun) at the beginning, and gg (good game) at the end, you will find some people do not mind being chatty about the game. If that game was not completely one-sided, and you can analyse the game with them, see if you can add them as a steam friend and play with them more regularly.
8. Know the Civilizations and their meta:
Knowing what makes the civilization you are playing strong is one thing that will assist you in your gameplay, but knowing the opponents civilization will also help you predict what is a likely outcome. This reason is why I am against boxing yourself to one civilization after you first pick up the rhythm of the game is, although it allows you to learn that civilization inside out, it does not help you know the strengths of the opponents civilization – in that way, you have to react and tech-switch when their units are on the map, which if you are not aware is a possibility, can be done late, often too late.
9. Know when to not play meta:
Say you are playing as the Japanese against a Mayan player on Arabia. You know that the meta for Japanese is Men at Arms, but know also that the meta for Mayans is feudal archers typically on this map. As a result, and because you are aware that Japanese have a number of strengths including a good early game economy and bloodlines, you instead choose to make a 20 population scout rush. As a result, you take your opponent by surprise by not playing meta, and you also are not playing into a unit that will be countered by the opponent’s meta play.