The MIOM ranking season has finally concluded, and for the second year in a row Armada takes the crown as Melee’s premier player. As he was also considered the world’s best in the years of 2011 - 2013, Armada is one of only two or three players who can definitively make a claim to the greatest of all time. The title certainly suits him: Armada has an EVO title, two Genesis titles, a Big House title, three BEAST titles, is the only person in Melee history to threepeat a major tournament series with his Summit victories, and he has a long list of accomplishments besides. He has a positive lifetime record against almost everyone on the planet, with the notable exception of Silentspectre, who defeated Armada in bracket at 2010’s Pound 4.
This loss marks the most significant milestone in the Melee community and Armada’s history, as it was the last loss before a streak which continues to this day. Since that tournament, where Armada also lost to the Netherlands’ Amsah, Armada has lost to only five people in the world. Mango, Hungrybox, Mew2King, PPMD, and Leffen remain to this day the only players capable of clutching an entire set from him, and each have been considered the best player in the world for a period since. In every respect, Armada is the last hurdle a player must overcome to cement themselves in the echelon of the most elite players. He is the most consistent, most unshakeable, most ruthless competitor in Melee history. He is our final boss.
So with a wave of new players hungry for that number one spot, one big question exists for every event he enters: “Will this be the tournament where Armada finally gets upset?” Understand that an ‘upset’ means something different for Armada than it does for the rest of his peers. When we pore over tournament results and see things like Axe beating Leffen, or Mike Haze defeating Mango, these are upsets that generate some buzz. Every top player barring Armada has a loss of that caliber last year, where they were bested by someone widely seen as a tier below them in skill. Hungrybox has his loss to Wizzrobe, M2K has losses to Nintendude and n0ne, Mango has Mike Haze, PPMD was slaughtered in the playoff stage at Battle of the Five Gods, and Leffen has Duck and Axe. Armada’s worst losses of the year? He dropped two sets to Mew2King. To put this in perspective, this means that a loss considered a wild upset was performed by someone who routinely destroys everybody he plays. Mew2King is not on a clearly different tier of skill to Armada, but a loss to him still qualifies as an upset. That speaks volumes about the consistency and level of play we have come to expect from him.
So what exactly is it about Armada that makes him such a roadblock? His winning streak is rivalled only by Ken’s back in the early days, but the quality and difficulty of play has skyrocketed since then and he still maintains an edge. What lessons can be learned from this clear titan of the game? Some might chalk it up to the advantages of his character (which I’ll go over shortly), but his Fox and Peach both show similarities that demonstrate his true skill. I’m going to do a brief overview of Armada, using several of his most notable sets as examples of what he does that all other players could learn from. Let’s dive in.
The Macro Game
There are, of course, hundreds of tiny things Armada does that contribute to his success. Some of them are matchup-dependent, others are more general habits. However, the biggest determining factor in Armada’s success is the dedication and discipline he has regarding his strong macro game. In Melee, interactions on the small-scale (sometimes called ‘the scuffle’) include elements like smash DI’ing hits in certain directions or following up after a meaningful hit. These are elements of the micro game. Armada has these elements (we’ll explore them later), but he also focuses on the bigger picture. When Armada has a stock or a significant percentage lead, he chooses different options than when he’s behind. This is indicative of a strong macro game. For example, take game 1 of this set versus PPMD at Apex 2015.
There are a couple of takeaways from Armada’s 3-stock victory. First, notice how Armada does not pull a turnip until PPMD’s first stock has gone, even though he has several opportunities to do so. This is a micro decision, but one which belies Armada’s true gameplan: he is always trying to get PPMD to approach. There are a couple of different reasons for this. First, in the context of high-level Melee an approach is simply when one player commits to an option with the intention of opening the opponent up for further punishment. However, this commitment necessitates a vulnerability and leaving an opening of one’s own. If the defending player chooses the correct option to counter the approach, they are presented with the ability to deliver a punish of their own. Armada’s light turnip usage is evidence of this; turnips are powerful tools for restricting the lanes that Falco can approach from or escape to, but since the action of pulling a turnip and having a turnip in hand provide openings for the opponent, it is unwise to pull them where openings cannot be spared (that is, when losing).
That is where Armada’s mastery lies. Not necessarily in turnip usage (as their usability differs from matchup to matchup), but in identifying where it is acceptable to leave an opening for the opponent. When Armada has the lead, he is more likely to leave openings for the opponent, yet these openings are exceptionally difficult for the opponent to get anything meaningful out of them. Notice how many times PPMD attempts to aerial Armada or approach with a laser, only to be hit by a quick aerial nair, an up-B out of shield, or to find that Armada has snuck around his attack with a counterattack of his own. Technically speaking, PPMD was able to find openings in those positions however, those openings ended up trading hits (or indeed, outright losing). From the lead, Armada is content to trade hits at worst, and you’ll notice that the only solid openings PPMD really manages to find for the rest of the game are openings where Armada has made a mistake while attempting to punish him. He is more likely to take risks with the lead, but those risks are calculated such that if they are unsuccessful the worst thing that can happen is that the opponent trades with him and the situation is reset to neutral.
Yet his macro mastery also extends to his comeback game, rare as it is to happen. Perhaps he knows better than anyone else that finding meaningful openings is difficult at the highest level, yet when he has to make a comeback he doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to force his way into the opponent’s defenses. A terrific example is game 1, set 2 of Evo 2016’s Grand Finals set versus Hungrybox.
Armada is playing at a deficit for most of this game, and while he possesses similar tactics when playing from behind as he does with the lead, there are also stark differences. Notice that when he’s playing from behind, he reserves any approaches to the least risky commitment that he can. He might run up and jab Hungrybox, but as soon as he sees that Hungrybox has the proper DI to avoid the guaranteed followup, he disengages and runs back to center stage. If Hungrybox approaches or gets a solid hit, Armada disengages immediately and runs back to center stage. Contrast this methodology with that of Mango, whose instincts in these situations are to mix up his approaches until he finds the chink in the metaphorical armor. Armada instead trusts and respects his opponent’s defensive game, and approaches in the safest manner possible every time. You’ll see him wavedash towards Hungrybox with an up-tilt, or to full hop and fade away while throwing out an aerial. These are not tests of Hungrybox’s armor. They are direct tests of Juan Debiedma, a challenge of “how long can you be patient before you feel like you have to approach me?” When he breaks his opponent’s patience and they advance on him, that’s when they run into Armada’s defense and his safe approaches, and the instant they do, Armada capitalizes the openings into kills.
The Micro Game
The gameplan Armada applies to every tournament set he enters would mean very little if he was not able to execute. Commentators and scrubs alike have all made mention of Armada’s gameplan as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, yet no one is able to replicate his success. At the end of the day, Melee is not played with gameplans and broad strategies. Battles are not won in the planning stages, they are won in the trenches and by the individual actions of all the parts which make up the whole. While Armada’s strategic game is top-notch, his tactical game and mastery is what truly makes him the greatest player in the world.
It begins with that defensive game, that unmoving suit of armor that his characters carry on them at all times. He doesn’t get caught off guard, even by the quick and unorthodox options.
His spacing in the neutral allows him to accomplish his goal at precisely the distance where the opening can’t be easily taken advantage of, such as pulling a turnip here.
His recovery choices are well-chosen and perfectly timed, even in the most stressful moments.
His smash DI is arguably unrivalled by anyone in the competitive scene.
There are so many tiny facets of his gameplay that he’s been able to master that one could write a book about them and still have only scratched the surface. The devil is in the details, and Armada has practiced and fine-tuned his details to unfathomable levels.
Yet his defense is only the start. He’s a bit like George R.R. Martin’s character The Mountain, from the popular series Game of Thrones. He is a massive, intimidating force that has the ability to withstand a barrage of smaller attacks, but all it takes is one crucial mistake or opening and the opponent will fall. If Armada did not have such a brutal and consistent punish game, he would simply be another annoyance in bracket, a player who plays slowly and defensively but who doesn’t have the power to make you respect what he can do to you.
He can routinely get zero-to-death punishes on most characters.
And will perform rinse-and-repeat edgeguards until they inevitably fall to their death, and with the occasional stitchface turnip can even get lethal combos on floaty characters like Peach or Puff.
It is a well-known truth of Melee that if you get hit by Armada, you’re going to lose a stock. That’s just all there is to it.
The last element to make up Armada’s mastery of the game, the piece de resistance that brings it all together, is that he isn’t a robot. He adapts, and he reads, and he will make you pay for thinking you have the answers to his tests. When he pushes you into the corner, he’s ready for you to try and fight your way out of it.
If you try escaping from the corner instead of fighting your way out, he’s ready for that too.
And just in case you thought you were going to be “Mr. Cool Guy” and get a quick reversal on him when he least expects it, well…
The point being, many of the things which other players might do once in a blue moon, as a crazy once-in-a-lifetime read or a bold new experiment, Armada does instinctively.
With his micro and macro game so clearly refined and so picture-perfect, it might seem like it’s impossible to beat him. Indeed, for lower-level players it might as well be. Yet last year, Armada finally demonstrated some hairline cracks in his gameplay that leave hope for the year ahead. 2015 was perhaps his strongest year; aside from the 5 players capable of taking sets from him, that year he only lost 13 total serious tournament games to lower-ranked players. Only three people managed to take more than one game from him that year (Ice, Overtriforce, Axe), and of them, only Axe was able to take two games from Armada in the same set. Similar trends exist in 2016; Ice was the only player outside of the top 6 to take him to game 5 in a single set, and he only dropped 18 total tournament games outside of that elite group.
However, the devil is in the details, and when one looks at the details we start to see Armada’s iron grip falling away. Marth is proving to be one of his newest and biggest obstacles; he allowed Mew2King to take two separate sets from him this year, and went last-stock, last-hit with SmashG0d at Evo. He dropped a game to Chudat this year, the first time he’s dropped a game to an Ice Climbers player since he gained recognition in the late 2000s. And while he was able to defeat every spacie player not named Leffen and Mango last year, he also dropped four games to Ice, three to Westballz, and individual games to unranked players like Beat and Crunch. Armada himself has doubted that his streak can continue much longer, admitting that with how good the competition is getting it is only a matter of time before he is upset.
So if you are reading this hungry to be the first one to claim a win over the greatest player of our time, what are the things that these losses tell us? What might we be able to glean from them? First, character selection matters against the lower-ranked players. In the past two years, Armada’s Peach has dropped the most games to Fox players (13 games total), followed by Falco and Sheik (4 games each), followed by Marth (3 games). Beyond this, he dropped only two games to Pikachu and Captain Falcon, a single game to Samus and the Ice Climbers, and his Fox was the only character to lose a game to a Ganondorf player. So if you’re trying to contest the man at the top of the mountain, aim high on the tier list.
The second thing to take in mind is that only two people outside the top 6 have been able to take 2 games from him in a single set in the last two years, both of which were best-of-5 sets. This is a testament to Armada’s strongest asset: his discipline. Armada practices beating up level 1 CPUs until his punishes are frame perfect every time. If you expect to beat him, you’re going to need that same level of consistency. When you notice a technical error in your gameplay, you go back to the lab and grind it out until you have calluses on your fingers and you never drop that technique again. Then you find another one you messed up, and repeat. Your entire toolbox must be polished to perfection against an opponent as consistent as he.
Finally, there is one more major thing to be learned against Armada. You’ve got to know and believe in your heart that you can win. Colbol was on tournament stock against Armada before he SD’d and threw the set away. Lucky too threw away two stocks in 15 seconds due to technical flubs after winning game 2. After their set at Battle of the Five Gods, Plup appeared to lose all hope against him, and the rest of their sets last year were trainwrecks in Armada’s favor. The list of minor victories only to lead to major defeats grows larger each year, and it’s the hardest part to address. You must have a champion’s mindset to beat Armada, you must know in your heart that you have put in the time and effort required to best him, and when you exploit the cracks in his defense you must know in your gut that you earned it and can do it again.
It’s no small wonder that so few have been able to do it. In order to beat the best player in the world, you must not screw anything up, you must be totally consistent, you must play to win, and you must never get in your own head. Were it so easy, everyone would be capable of doing it. It is a testament then, to Armada’s mastery of this game that it has not been done. He is the most consistent, serious competitor the scene has to offer. He alone makes the journey to the top worth the moment at the summit. He is the reason crowds cheer so damn hard to see him lose. It is not out of lack of love or respect for him, far from it. When the crowds are bringing the house down for his opponents, it is because the whole venue knows that in order to bring down Armada, in order to topple the reign of the greatest player of our time, he will demand nothing less from you than absolute perfection.