This is part 1 of our 6 part in-depth series devoted to exploring Smash's neutral game.
Part 1: Intro/Options and Positioning (You are here)
Part 2: Endgame First
Part 3: Two Types of Approaches
Part 4: Relative Frame Advantage
Part 5: Reads
Part 6: MangoPuff - Profiting From Risk (Coming Soon)
Part 1: Position is King
When talking about melee, players distinguish between two phases of play; the neutral game and the punish game. At its simplest, the neutral game is getting an advantage and the punish game is making the most of it.
To introduce the punish game’s place, we have only to talk about combo videos. Melee players love combo videos. In fact, the popularizing of competitive melee was in large part due to the DBR series of combo videos.
These videos were for many players a first glimpse into the sheer potential of the game. The combos were as diverse as the players and characters on display. We get a mental rush recognizing that combos are as simple, as complex, as beautiful or as devastating as your imagination. They flaunt the creativity, ingenuity, and technical mastery of the players and showcase some of the most exciting moments on record.
In contrast, the notion of a “neutral video” is strange and unintuitive. I am personally unaware of even any attempts to make one. For many viewers, the creativity, ingenuity, and technical mastery displayed in the neutral game is too subtle to recognize in real time. While this is partially due to the ambiguity of movement as opposed to moves, it is also due to a poorly developed vocabulary. It is a shame and a disservice to neglect Melee’s second half. Throughout this series of articles we will be looking at characteristics and models to help demystify the neutral game.
Melee’s special emphasis on positioning comes from its win conditions. In smash titles, KOs are scored not by depleting the opponent’s health but by knocking them off of the stage/into the blastzone. I’ve often heard them referred to as glorified king of the hill games. In this way, you can interpret all play interactions as somehow vying for space or position, even if indirectly.
Interpreting decisions as means to a positional end is the first step in demystifying the neutral game.
The logic of Melee’s gameplay emphasizes positions more than option vs option. You can think of option vs option as rock paper scissors. If my opponent chooses to shoot rock, I want to shoot paper. This kind of decision-making definitely exists in melee in the form of mixups and footsies. These will be expanded on in a later entry but for the moment it is important to recognize that because Melee is so situational, option vs option is never as simple as it first appears. Rock Paper Scissors events are frequently beatable with good timing or by avoiding them altogether. On the other hand, because stocks are lost via position relative to the stage even during a combo, the value of a position permeates every facet of the game.
Options take a certain amount of time and space. Let’s consider for example Fox’s nair. In order to SHFFL strong nair, Fox needs a certain amount of space to dash, reach the apex of his jump, then descend with nair. Because we see it so often, Fox’s advancing SHFFL nair is one of the most recognizable units of distance in the game. Read that back again. Fox’s SHFFL nair is not just a move, it’s a unit of distance. A character standing outside of SHFFL nair range is safe from an immediate attack. Standing inside of that range is dangerous. To a certain extent, the range is synonymous with the move itself. When Fox reaches that position and jumps, we interpret it as a SHFFL. This is to say that in practice, we often don’t need to react to the move itself, we are actually reacting to the range that enables it. Spacing is giving yourself exactly enough time and space to react to Fox’s jump in order to avoid the nair before it is even out. As the Fox player, if we want to nair our opponent we first have to confirm that they don’t have the time or space to avoid the nair. We can do this by waiting until they commit to lag, but the more reliable and rewarding method is to take a center position to remove their ability to dash away without putting themselves in a corner. Because it has an immediate effect on the risk and reward of any move, considering the relative position is just as important as considering the option itself. This is a core concept.
Every interaction in Melee is arrived at by two players’ positioning. Every position, every hit, and every stock loss is a collaboration. By identifying patterns and principles in decision-making pre-hit, we can come to a fuller understanding and appreciation of the game.
In the next article we will discuss the parallels between chess and melee endgames and how extreme positions can be used to highlight and to learn fundamentals.