This is part 2 of our 6 part in-depth series devoted to exploring Smash's neutral game.
Part 1: Intro/Options and Positioning
Part 2: Endgame First (You are here)
Part 3: Two Types of Approaches
Part 4: Relative Frame Advantage
Part 5: Reads
Part 6: MangoPuff - Profiting from Risk
Part 2: Endgame First
“I always urge players to study composed problems and endgames.” - Pal Benko, word title candidate
“After a bad opening, there is hope for the middle game. After a bad middle game, there is hope for the endgame. But once you are in the endgame, the moment of truth has arrived.” - Edmar Mednis, international grandmaster
"In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before anything else; for whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middle game and the opening must be studied in relation to the endgame." - José Raúl Capablanca, world chess champion 1921-1927
Many chess grandmasters maintain that new players should study the endgame before moving on to openings or middlegame. In the following paragraphs I hope to illustrate their meaning and how it might inform a better structured learning of the Melee neutral game.
In Chess, the endgame is the natural goal. When playing chess our primary objective is to systematically mate the opponent’s king. It follows that we should examine the simplest and most common situations from which this is possible, namely, how to checkmate everytime it is possible with only a few pieces on the board. We don’t want to drop opportunities for an easy victory due to ignorance of clear-cut and completely solvable situations. This idea is simple enough.
In the case of chess and of melee, the endgame emphasizes fundamental principles by reducing the complexity of the gamestate to the extreme. This is exactly why the endgame is clear-cut and solvable in the first place. With only a few pieces left and the end so close, the potential of every piece is very important and very explicit. Thus, in addition to consistent victories, study of the endgame instructs us in no uncertain terms as to the individual strengths and weaknesses of individual pieces and positions when the stakes are highest.
Because mistakes in the endgame are brutally unforgiving, it provides clear and unmistakable feedback on our learning and execution. If we draw or lose from a winning position then we haven’t demonstrated competency. Take as an easy example Pawn+King vs King. Because Queen+King is winning, any position where the king can protect the pawn until it is promoted to queen is also winning. However, without a full understanding as to why the position wins, we could blunder and allow for a draw before the promotion. In these simplified scenarios, a lapse in execution corresponds exactly with a lapse in understanding.
All of this should sound extremely familiar to a Melee player. In a nearly exact parallel, edgeguards and extreme stage control simplifies the game-state. The number of options available to the opponent goes from overwhelming to totally containable. In many scenarios, a character trapped deep in the corner should rarely if ever survive without taking a hefty risk. What’s more, by removing the option to dash away from confrontation we can clearly demonstrate the essential strengths and weaknesses of both characters. A mastery of this extreme position translates directly to skill at center stage. It is the simplest way to systematically reveal the principles of a matchup. While it is true that on the short-term a novice studying openings will outperform one studying endgames, he will fall further and further behind as the endgame-minded student perfects his execution and knowledge of the principles defined by the individual pieces, and expands inward from guaranteed winning conditions to the positions that will bring them about. The same is true for a Melee player. The endgame provides a clear and familiar positional goal. Just as King+Pawn is winning because the pawn can be promoted to queen, any center stage position that can be converted into an edgeguard is also winning.
In our community there is an implicit understanding that you should learn the fundamentals of the game, then work toward specifics. This is backwards.
If we had to define fundamentals we would say something like “patterns or principles that persist over many situations.” While fundamentals are extremely important, they can also be flighty. In such a complex game there are always exceptions. It takes intimate knowledge of specifics both to make use of the patterns and to recognize their exceptions.
So what does all of this mean for our leaning-process? If we choose to follow the advice of the grandmasters and carefully analyze how to cover options from specific, endgame positions, we will:
a) have better understanding and execution in that situation.
b) recognize over time the underlying patterns that unite situations as well as their differences.
c) learn and use these fundamental patterns much faster.
In this way we have defined a pragmatic method of using specific situations to unearth fundamentals in a way that is not only immediately useful but that comes straight from logic of the game itself.
In the next article we will look at how how human reaction time factors into the neutral game, specifically in aggressive approaches. Look forward to it.