Since its release in 1999, Counter-Strike has always had a reputation for being hard to start playing. Anyone who plays it will have a story for you about how badly they got thrashed when they first started out, and countless new players have been scared off by CS’ steep learning curve over the last decade and a half.
1. Practice, practice, practice - As mentioned above, Counter-Strike is not an easy game. You will not get good at it overnight. The only real way to get better is to play it, and play it a lot. The rest of this list will give you ways to get better faster - to optimize the time you spend with the game - but there’s no advice in the world that will make you good at CS without putting in the hours. It’s not uncommon to see people in any given server who have 1000+ hours of in-game time. I’ve put in 481 hours (and counting), and I’m still thoroughly mediocre.
2. Have your settings in order - When you’re first starting to play, figure out what sort of video, audio and control settings work for you. There’s no specific settings that are “correct,” so you’ll have to find out what works best with your personal preferences and your current hardware. Make sure you’re getting at least 64 frames per second, because that’s the “tick rate” of CS:GO’s official matchmaking servers (ie. 64 times per second is how frequently your client communicates with the server.)
3. Play deathmatch - Deathmatch is a game mode where there’s no objectives, no rounds, and no worrying about money. It’s the purest distillation of CS’s gunplay, and since there’s no downtime after you die like there is in a real match, it’s the quickest way to learn how all the different guns work. It won’t teach you team tactics or how to play objectives, so you should play other game modes as well, but it’s certainly a good way to start learning the recoil patterns and other behaviours of the game’s various firearms.
4. Play aim maps - This training method is a bit old-school, and you don’t see as many people doing it anymore, but I still find it a useful way to practice your rifle aim. Aim maps are maps built specifically in a way that forces you to have precise aim; for example, many of them will have walls that go up to the neck of the opposing players, forcing to shoot at their heads. Since rifle headshots are such a powerful tool in CS matches, this is a good thing to learn early and practice often.
5. Watch pro streams - There’s several professional CS:GO players who regularly stream their practice matches on Twitch. You can learn a lot from just watching how they play, how they communicate with their team, etc. Not everyone does this, and some folks will argue that you’d be better off spending this time just playing the game more, but I know it’s helped me out a lot. A healthy mix of playing and watching has done wonders for my CS game. Here’s a handy list of CS:GO pros who stream - check a few out and find someone who you like watching.
A few times a year, there’s also major CS:GO tournaments, which are extra useful to watch as a new player, as the matches are generally commentated by people who are very familiar with the finer points of CS strategy.
At this point, just doing the things above, you should be well on your way to being a decent CS player. You should be able to get into some low-level ranked matches and hold your own. With enough practice, you’ll start climbing your way up the ranking system, and you’ll need to learn some more advanced stuff once you start getting out of the lowest ranks. Here’s some stuff that will help you continue improving.
6. Play with people better than you - The advantage of doing this in basically any competitive game cannot be overstated. If you play with and against people significantly better than you, you will lose badly, but you will learn quickly. Surrounding yourself with skilled players is a surefire way to pick up the high-level game quickly, even if it does suck for awhile when you’re getting crushed in match after match.
7. Focus on the important weapons - The higher level matches you’re playing, the more you’ll start seeing the same guns being used over and over again. There’s not much debate over which weapons are the most useful in the average CS match: you’ll need to learn to frag effectively with the AK-47 (when on the terrorist side), the M4A4 or M4A1-S (when on the CT side), and the AWP if you want to play that role (most five-man teams will only have one AWPer). It’s worthwhile to get decent at some of the cheaper guns as well, but the vast majority of the time you will be using one of the above-mentioned rifles once you get into the more advanced ranks.
8. Lower your mouse sensitivity - This might sound like a weird one, but you’re almost certainly playing with a higher mouse sensitivity than you should be. Most pros use around 400 dpi for their mouse sensitivity, with the in-game sensitivity slider set to around 2.0. You don’t have to copy them exactly, but something close to there is certainly preferable. It will feel weird when you first turn it down. Power through it. Your aim will improve immensely in the long run.
9. Learn your map callouts - Every spot of every competitive map will have names that the community uses to tells you over voice comms that an enemy is there. Usually these are obtuse terms that won’t mean anything unless you know them already - things like “generator” or “jungle” or “catwalk”. It will take time to learn all the different callouts for all the different maps, but this information is crucial for communicating with your team. Start here, and pick up the rest by listening to your team and asking for clarification when they call something unfamiliar.
10. Learn how the CS economy works - One of the main things that makes CS strategically interesting is how money works. At the end of every round, win or lose, you’ll get some money; the winners, of course, get substantially more money. Making sure that everyone on your team has enough money to be properly equipped at the beginning of each round is a crucial part of succeeding in competitive matches, and sometimes that means saving all your money and trying to fight the enemy with pistols for a round, so that the next round everyone has money to gear up properly. Don’t be the guy who buys during the round when everyone else is saving!
11. Learn your smokes and flashes - Most CS:GO maps have a few really useful spots to drop a smoke grenade or flashbang. Often, these spots will require you to bounce the grenade off a wall, or perform some other trick to place the detonation precisely. There’s a ton of videos that will show you these spots, and show exactly how to throw your smoke grenade to get it to land there. Here’s a video showing the important smoke and flash spots for de_dust2, CS:GO’s most popular map. A quick Youtube search will find you similar videos for all the competitive maps. Once you know some of these, start up an offline practice match and start throwing some grenades around.
12. Learn when and when not to reload - If you’ve got a decent number of bullets left in your magazine and think an enemy is close, don’t start reloading and get caught with your pants down. Reloading takes time, and you should only do it when you think you’re safe from enemy fire. If you run out of bullets in a firefight, switching to your pistol is going to be much quicker than trying to reload mid-fight.
13. Learn to be patient on CT side - One thing you will see time and time again in low-rank matches is impatient counter-terrorists. When playing as the CT side (assuming you’re playing a defusal map, which is the predominant competitive game mode), your job is to hold down the bomb sites and not let the terrorists plant the bomb. If you’re pushing up past the bomb sites and hunting around for terrorists, a smart terrorist team will simply wait you out and kill you when you push. Don’t do it. And learn how to punish people for doing it when you’re on terrorist side.
14. Pay attention to your role in the team - Team composition is important. Make sure you’re looking around and seeing what your team is up to before you buy a gun. If someone has an AWP already, you generally don’t need a second one (there are exceptions to this, which you will learn, but play it safe). If a teammate has no money and you have enough for multiple guns, buy two and drop one for them. As mentioned above, if your team is broke, don’t buy out of sync with them - wait for them to save for a round and then buy with them. It’s a team game, play accordingly.
15. Don’t rage! - This one’s probably obvious to a lot of people, but CS can be a challenging and frustrating game when you’re losing. Getting frustrated is only going to make you play worse, so try and keep a level head. And if you can’t do that, at least don’t broadcast your frustration over voice comms. No one wants to hear about how bullshit their teammate thinks this game is in the middle of a round.
Hopefully, you can use this advice to make your way into the world of Counter-Strike in a relatively smooth fashion. Once you’re in far enough to be winning matches consistently, further improvement will come naturally, since you’ll be having fun. Getting over the initial hump of unfamiliarity is by far the hardest part of CS - get in there and start climbing.
By Mitch Bowman