Big House 6 recently came and went, blessing us with a slew of new games and sets to review. Mango managed to win this installment, and with that win, analysis of top player’s impressive and innovative gameplay brings the importance of aerial drifts and how to properly use them to the forefront of technical Melee discussion.
What is an Aerial Drift?
Simply put, aerial drifts are slight movement inputs in the air. This is a central technique in spacing aerials and avoiding enemy follow ups after being launched. You can see great examples aerial drifts in action in videos of Hungrybox sets, as top Jigglypuff players have been focusing on aerial drift techniques for a long time. This is largely due to the fact that it's at the very core of the Jigglypuff’s aerial-centric playstyle, Jigglypuff drifts back during each of the back airs thrown out, keeping Jigglypuff safely distances from other characters. It is a very defensive application for Aerial Drifting.
Why is Aerial Drifting so Often Overlooked?
Unfortunately, when it comes to characters that aren’t Jigglypuff, aerial drifts seem to get lumped in with other techniques like DI and SDI instead of getting a focus of it’s own. This sort of neglect by less experienced players is part of what separates high-level play from what you will generally see at your local venues.
Melee has a relatively high skill cap, and when compared to other fighting games, the list of techniques involved in every match looks rather intimidating. When players begin to practice advanced techniques, aerial drifting is generally overlooked due to the fact that it requires no learning as far as physical movement is concerned, but rather learning new habits. But this lack of technicality in aerial drifting, doesn’t make it less important, in fact, it’s a key component of spacing, baiting, evading, and comboing your opponent.
Proper Use of Aerial Drift
Aerial drifting makes up a small portion of a larger set of techniques called spacing. For more information on the importance of spacing and positioning in Melee, you can check out a great article by Peek&Co’s own AlexPuffStuff here.
One of the beautiful things about Melee is the amount of options that are available to players at any given time during a match. And one of the things that separates good players from great players is the ability to utilize those options to gain advantage or to limit the options of your opponent. Consider this simple example, a Marth is using fair on an opponent’s shield. It’s probably second nature to most players at this point, but generally the Marth will aerial drift backwards to avoid responses by the opponent. Depending on the character this slight change in trajectory will put Marth out of range of a shield grab or shine/tilt out of shield. This will also give the Marth enough space to react to other follow-ups such as dash attacks, smash attacks, or jump-cancelled grabs/smashes.
You can see this technique being used to a great extent in the Grand Finals sets of Big House 6. In game three, Armada uses aerial drifts while recovering high as Peach to safely snap to ledge while avoiding different edgeguard attempts by Mango. He does this by mixing in forward and back inputs along with fast falls when Mango whiffs a potential edge guard and is stuck in landing lag.
For an example of an offensive use of this tool, in the first game of Grand Finals we see Mango take a very risky approach by drifting in with a back-air as fox. If Mango missed this hit, he could have been punished. But since the back air landed, he was able to hit Armada’s Peach with the weak hitbox of back air, comboing it into an up-tilt.
Incorporating Aerial Drift into Your Play
By mixing fall speeds with directional inputs we can divide aerial drifts into four separate categories:
Forward aerial drift
Backwards aerial drift
Forward fast-fall aerial drift
Backwards fast fall aerial drift
The changes in timing and direction of aerial drifts make them very similar to dash-dancing by providing a variance that makes your movement harder to predict or follow. To practice these inputs, start incorporating each of these techniques into common melee tools like SHFFL-ing, approaching, and retreating. Once you feel comfortable utilizing each of these categories, try to use more than one in a single situation. By combining these techniques and bringing them together you can begin using aerial drift techniques to extend combos, mix-up approach options, and recover in a more safe manner.
For you visual learners out there, SSBM Tutorials has a great, in-depth video, that analyzes Mango’s use of aerial drift as Marth. You can find that video below.